Degus are bottom of the food chain. Being a prey species means that their wild diet mainly consists of shrubs, tubers, leaves, barks, wild grasses and seeds when they can find them. They are efficiently adapted to eat a high fibre, low value diet. By feeding them a diet which is closely related to what they would eat naturally in the wild, you will be satisfying their basic biological and nutritional needs, thus contributing to good health, longevity and happiness.
If you decide to feed a natural diet don’t be surprised if at first your degus refuse your offerings of healthy alternatives, especially if they have only been used to a pellet diet. If they have the option of eating “junk” (pellets with unhealthy additives) or nutritious food then, like children, they will leave the healthy and opt for what they have been used to. Being prey animals they are hard wired to be suspicious of anything new. After all, in the wild their survival depends upon it. With time, patience, consistency and perseverance on your behalf, curiosity often gets the better of them and they do try new foods eventually. All of our degus, including older rescues are all enjoying a natural diet despite eating pellets for a good proportion of their lives previously.
A lot of degus appear to dislike and refuse fresh produce/ plants. This isn’t unusual as most degus are fed a dry diet from birth. Keep in mind that when offering fresh foods, only give them in small amounts to begin with or it can cause diarrhoea. Fresh foods are very beneficial, anything moist or wet has much higher abrasive qualities than dry foods, such as pellets, for wearing teeth and is still very beneficial when fed alongside dry plants. However, there are some degus who will stubbornly refuse any fresh offerings and in this case, you can pick or buy your chosen foods and dry them using a dehydrator that can be bought fairly cheaply from many online outlets.
If you are feeding a commercial pelleted diet to your degus, then any dietary changes must bemade slowly to allow their digestive systems time to adapt. It is a good idea to transition them over gradually by reducing the pellets and adding small amounts of the new individual foods, one at a time. This is a good idea as then you can see what they prefer and what needs further encouragement.
Oxalates are a naturally occurring substance that is found in plants, animals and human beings. Lab studies have shown that foods high in oxalates may interfere with calcium absorption, calcium is very important and should be balanced with Phosphorous accordingly, so please feed foods that contain oxalates less often and in smaller amounts than other greens. Please also be cautious with oxalate foods if your degu has a known or diagnosed kidney or gallbladder problem. We have marked the greens that contain oxalates with a **
Here are some food ideas, fresh or dried that can be fed in abundance on a daily basis except those than contain oxalates, these should be fed less often.
The recommended Calcium:Phosphorous ratio for degus is 2:1. This is extremely important for good bone and dental health. Dental issues in degus are one of the leading causes of death, so feeding a good diet is essential.
Herbs and Plants.
parsley - **
Silver birch leaves
Mulberry bush leaves
Apple tree leaves
Pear tree leaves
Blackberry leaves - astringent so feed in moderation as can cause constipation
Strawberry leaves - astringent so feed in moderation as can cause constipation
Lindon flower leaves
Raspberry leaves - astringent so feed in moderation as can cause constipation
Broad leaf plantain
Echinacea (Purple cone flower) herb leaves
Nettle leaf and stalks
Mallow herb and root
ribwort/long leaf plantain
These should be fed sparingly as they are not necessary for a healthy diet but do add a bit of variety.
Lettuce - Lambs, Romaine, Cos, Sweetheart, green and red leaf.
NO Iceberg as this contains an enzyme that irritates the digestive system and can cause Diahorrea.
Celery including leaves - **
mustard cress - water cress
Cauliflower (leaves only)
Spinach - **
Kale - **
Beet greens -**
High starch foods, including some vegetables can still be full of hidden sugars that are not good, healthy or necessary in a degu diet. If fed long term they will have a highly negative effect on health and may cause illness, obesity and cataracts related of unrelated to diabetes.
*High Starch Vegetables:
Carrots - also high in natural sugar
Sugar snap peas
FRUIT: Our opinion is that degus do not need fruit. Not only is it very high in natural sugars and BLOCKS CALCIUM ABSORPTION, leading to weak and brittle bones. In the long term, feeding degus fruit can greatly heighten the risk of diabetes/cataracts and will make them fat. For the long term health of your degu PLEASE LEAVE FRUIT OUT OF THEIR DIET.
This is by no means a comprehensive list, but all of the above can be fed fresh or dried and we have only included what we feed to our degus with good results. There are many other plants that can be fed to degus on a daily basis but please check with a reliable, creditable source before feeding them. We aim to feed around four or five different plants daily as variety is the key to good health, although three or four different plants are a good start.
Degus should have access to a good quality Timothy hay at all times. Not only does it provide a good source of fibre to keep their guts moving which is essential, but it also satisfies a behavioural need. There are many hays out there to choose from but the cheaper hays are usually older, dusty and yellow in colour with no real nutritional or dental value to them.
Oat hays, oat, wheat and barley hays can also be fed as a treat a few times a week. These are higher in calories and most degus enjoy them but be careful not to feed in abundance or they will favour this over other healthier fibrous hay such as Timothy hay.
***- PLEASE NOTE: Alfalfa hay should only be fed to growing/developing degus below the age of 1 year and in very small quantities because it is VERY high in calcium. This is not recommended in high amounts on a regular basis as it can cause kidney stones and small stones in the urethral tract. It is not necessary to feed alfalfa hay to your older degus if they are getting a balanced diet.
Fresh grass is always a good addition to their diet too. The silicates and abrasiveness of fresh grass is wonderful for teeth wear which is always important in this species, and additionally the Calcium:Phosphorous ratios are also well balanced in timothy hay and natural grass. Dried grass is also a good addition to diet and can be bought cheaply in the form of Justgrass™ or Readigrass™. This is sold as a product for horses but is always good for degus and can be fed in abundance alongside hay.
Diet myths that are recommended by outdated websites.
There are many foods that are routinely fed to degus without any understanding of the long term health effects. There are outdated websites which recommend feeding certain food items which are certainly not part of a suitable and species appropriate diet. In the short term you probably won’t see any detrimental effects, but in the long term feeding these will impact on health. We have had to be aware of this with some of our older rescues as they often arrive with chronic dental problems that were caused by a previous inappropriate diet. Not only do these foods not contain the abrasiveness that is needed for routine oral dental wear, they also have a high impact on the molar root growth because the Calcium:Phosphorous ratios are completely wrong. Amongst other health issues this causes rapid growth of the molar roots, leading to terminal dental disease. There is nothing more heartbreaking than to witness a degu suffering with health problems because of a previously fed, inappropriate diet. Seeing a degu with molar roots that are growing into their eye sockets, nasal passages and brain is something that is truly horrible. Although other causes of molar elongation can because of repetitive inbreeding, this can result in a genetic predisposition to dental disease but feeding a good diet can often delay the onset of dental issues which makes it all the more important to do so.
Below is a list of commonly fed foods/treats that owners believe to be fine for degus, but are not due to them being very high in phosphorus, therefore unbalancing the calcium content of the diet which in the long term can be extremely detrimental to health.
Oats - Cal:Pho -98:115
Puffed rice - Cal:Pho - 08:17.3
Millet - Cal:Pho - 2:57
Shredded wheat/treats containing wheat - Cal:Pho - 12.6:136
There are naturally high sugar foods that are often recommended by older websites/degu groups to feed degus things like beetroot, peas, sweetcorn, carrots, apple, red peppers, parsnips and raisins. These may seem harmless and again, if fed very occasionally, possibly will not have any impact on short term health but why feed these foods when there are other foods that they can learn to enjoy which are much more beneficial to health?
A note about porridge oats: Although degus love them and they may be considered to be a beneficial treat to feed on a temporary basis if a degu is ill they are NOT healthy. Not only are they very fattening, they are also high in carbohydrates and although they release energy/sugars slowly which is suitable for a humans, they are still considered unsuitable.
Please remember that anything high in starch will turn to sugar. So even if the food doesn't appear to be obviously sweet please consider that carbohydrates and starch are metabolised into sugar.
Anything that contains corn has the same effect and is also high in starch and totally unnecessary in a degu diet. Please read and then re-read the ingredients list on all packets of shop bought foods before feeding to your degus.
What we have listed here is by no means a comprehensive list, we have used these as examples to highlight the dietary imbalance of commonly fed foods. Even when fed in very small amounts, whatever is fed is all relative to the size of the animal. What may seem like a small amount to you actually is not in comparison to the size of a degu, and will later impact on health.
Unless you are feeding a natural species appropriate diet, I.E. a diet that contains similar nutrients what degus would eat in the wild, then adding seeds on a regular basis is not recommended. Feeding a pelleted diet AND adding seeds will unbalance the diet and also make them overweight. However, adding seeds to a natural plant based diet gives vital oils and healthy fats, so is a welcome addition.
Feeding an average of four grams of seeds per day, per degu is adequate if they are fed on a natural plant based diet (not pellets) but this can be increased or decreased depending upon the weight of the degu. But If they are not eating enough of the healthy part of the diet then decrease the seeds/treats until they eat more of the healthy foods.
Below is a complied list of suitable seeds to be fed alongside a natural diet:
There is a website in the UK that sells the pre-mixed complete seed mix. Please ask on the Degu Health & Behaviour group on Facebook for website details.
Of course, you can also plant these seeds and put them in window boxes or green houses and feed the plants that grow from them.
Please note that nuts should be fed sparingly as treats only as they are fattening. They are better if fed in the shell as this gives degus a challenge and provides vital behavioural stimulation.
NOTE ABOUT PEANUTS AND PEANUTS IN SHELL (MONKEY NUTS) - These actually aren't nuts at all but a member of the legume family. They are not suitable treats for degus because they contain a trypsin inhibitor which is a substance that inhibits or prevents the pancreas from producing trypsin - an enzyme essential for the absorption of protein by the intestine. Furthermore, the shell can have mould spores on it that cannot be seen which can be fatal to any animal. We prefer to keep away from them when there are many other suitable treats to feed.
Below is a complied list of nuts which are suitable to be fed to degus as treats
Almonds ** contains Oxalates so feed less often
Cashews (unsalted natural) *contains starch* Pecan
Vitamin D supplementation.
Vitamin D is one of a group of a fat soluble vitamins. A fat soluble vitamin means that it is stored in the liver and excreted as the body needs it. Unlike other fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E & K) water soluble vitamins are not stored in the body and are excreted in urine. Vitamin D3 plays a critical role in the bodies use of Calcium and Phosphorous, which in turn, is vital for good dental health. Dental health is critically important in degus. If the dietary Cal:Pho ratios of 2:1 are not provided then terminal dental disease is often the end result. Vitamin D3 works by increasing the amount of Calcium absorbed from the intestine helping to form and maintain bones. It also plays an important role in immune health and controlling cell growth, preventing many different diseases.
If you are feeding a complete degu pellet diet on a DAILY basis: Vitamin D3 supplementation isnot required. Reason being that most, if not all commercial complete degu feeds already contain alleged adequate amounts of Vitamin D3 according to the manufacturers. Overdosing on a fat soluble vitamin IS dangerous.
If you are feeding a half pellet diet, half natural diet: I would personally supplement with half the daily recommended dose of Vitamin D3 which would be roughly twelve and a half (12 1/2) IU. Although I must say that I have never supplemented with degus on a half and half diet so cannot attest to the efficacy of it.
If you are feeding a completely natural plant based diet: Although some plants contain a precursor for Vitamin D3 production, supplementation is still necessary. 25 IU (international units) per day is thought to be the recommended and safe dose for degus. I have checked this with my vet.
Using a UVB lamp for providing Vitamin D3: Providing UV broad spectrum lighting for 10- 12 hours a day to mimic conditions in the wild (the type of bulbs that are used for parrots. NOT REPTILES as these are too strong and can burn) can help their bodies produce vitamin D3 but you should always provide a place in their enclosure where they can escape from the light if they want to. Having light on all areas of the cage can be damaging to their eyes and over time can cause sight problems if exposure is constant.
When providing broad spectrum lighting, vitamin D3 supplementation is still necessary but the thought is that it can be given at half the daily dose that is recommended.
You can put whichever supplement you decide to use on a treat and feed the recommended amount to each degu. It is recommended that you use an oil based supplement as Vitamin D needs fat to be fully absorbable. Feeding 175 IU in one dose we feel is too much in one go but also feeding 25 IU a day is not always convenient, so we give around 87 IU in each treat, per degu, twice a week, once on a Tuesday and once on a Friday as an example.
NOTE: When supplementing please ensure that you use only Vitamin D3 and not D2. The reasons are as follows:
D3 is the most natural and potent form of vitamin D
D3 MAY be less toxic than D2
D2 does not bind well to the receptors in the tissue, is not as bio available and does not circulate in the blood
D3 is more stable on the shelf when compared to D2 and likely to remain active for longer in the product.
D3 is the most effective at raising and maintaining the blood levels.
D3 has been the most utilised form of vitamin D in clinical trials in other mammals including maintaining bone health.
As you can see, feeding a natural plant based diet isn’t as complicated as some people think. The web is full of conflicting information on degu diet and we have tried to make it easy to understand and explain why we feed this way.
If you have any further questions, then please ask on the Degu Health & Behaviour group on Facebook. Please click the degu icon below to link to our group.
If you have any further questions please ask on the Degu Health & Behaviour group on Facebook. Please click here
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