Degus, members of the rodent family, are becoming more common as children's pets, and will reward attention by becoming very tame. They prefer company and should be kept in same-sex pairs or a group of about half a dozen. With care and good diet, their life expectancy can be up to eight years.
Degus need spacious accommodation (made of metal as they love to chew wood), with room for them to exercise and different levels for them to climb. A hay-filled nest box should be provided for sleeping quarters and they should also be given cuttlefish and wooden toys to gnaw on. They should be housed away from direct sunlight, draughts, damp and extremes of temperature.
A varied diet is essential, including pellets, good quality hay and fresh water. Avoid sweet, sugary treats because degus are prone to diabetes mellitus.
Generally, with a good diet and careful hygiene, Degus are healthy animals. However, below are some illnesses to watch out for.
- Ears and eyes: External ear infections can be due to mites, bacteria or yeasts, whereas middle ear infections are usually bacterial. The eyes can be subject to trauma (especially from foreign bodies such as dust or seeds), and can also develop cataracts as a result of diabetes mellitus.
- Fur loss (alopecia): Hair loss can be due to poor diet, stress, hypothyroidism, allergies, mites and ringworm.
- Gastro-intestinal upsets: Loss of appetite can be caused by problems with the mouth and teeth, but can also be due to bowel upsets. Reasons for this include: stress; over-feeding, especially with vegetables; protozoal parasites, and 'bloat'. Occasionally respiratory problems lead to mouth-breathing because the nasal passages are blocked, and degus can then swallow a lot of air, resulting in 'bloat'.
- Mouth problems: Poor hygiene or incorrect diet can lead to oral disease: mouth ulceration, infected gums and overgrown or discoloured teeth.
- Reproductive disorders: Penile prolapse in the male and vaginal bleeding in the female can both occur, requiring urgent veterinary treatment.
- Respiratory disease: Degus can develop pneumonia due to exposure to infectious agents in combination with cold, damp or draughts; and are also prone to 'asthma' if they develop allergies to dust in their environment.
- Trauma of skin, limbs and tail: These can result from fighting, rough handling or self-trauma. Degus can develop 'pododermatitis', an inflammatory condition of the feet due to poor hygiene, friction from mesh flooring, diabetes or a combination of these. They can also shed their tails in order to escape when they feel threatened.