It is difficult to describe what a degu looks like without making reference to another animal.
In the case of degu’s what animal they look like depends on your point of view. To most people degu’s look like gigantic gerbils and yet to others they look like squirrels. It is true that they are similar in shape and proportions to the gerbil but their face looks like that of a squirrel or a chinchilla. Actually in a way a degu is a small chinchilla, only with less fur and brown fur and smaller.
As of now all degus have brown fur on the top with black mixed in to make it about 60% brown, 40% black. Some degus are lighter and others are darker. Generally the more black fur they have the darker they are and the more brown fur they have the lighter they are. Their chests are a light brown colour and their feet which each have 5 toes are a nice gray-white colour. Their tails are like a rats, but shorter in proportion and with a small amount of fur and a tuft of fur at the tip of it. I have not heard of any cases of colour mutations in degus as of yet.
Their teeth are normally a very bright orange colour, this is normal for both degus and chinchillas and is usually a sign of good health. The reason their teeth are orange, is that the chlorophyll in the greens that they eat reacts with an enzyme in their bodies and produces an orange organic fluid in their saliva. You will notice that when they walk the hold their tails partially up, possibly to keep it from wear or damage or even getting caught.
How big or small are degus is mostly a matter of your point of view. As with their appearance it is difficult to describe their size without making a comparison to another animal. According to the rodent section of the book of mammals, degus have similar proportions and body size to that of the rat. In fact degus are slightly smaller than rats in body length. Degus are much more chubby and round (not fat) than rats are. A degus tail, provided it has not lost the tail as discussed in behaviour is usually about 1/2 to 2/3 the length of their body. Generally; rounder (or fatter depending on your point of view) degus have longer tails proportionally to their bodies and skinnier degus have shorter tails as a proportion of their bodies. If your looking for numbers then normally A full grown adult is about 6″ long with another 6″ in tail with a bit of fluff on the end of the tail.
Degu behaviour is very fascinating. They are intensely hyper sometimes and very tranquil at others. To some it may appear that they never sleep because they always seem to be on the go or ready to leap. They do sleep at night but have short sleep cycles which means that when they do fall asleep they wake up again only about 20 minutes later. While they will get a full nights sleep each night they tend to do it in lots of little bits. Humans also do this but our sleep cycles are much longer. They love to run around and climb and love getting into dark, warm places. Degus are very social with both people and each other. When they see each other they will almost always react in some sort of way. In most cases two male degus will not get along together and will fight. However there are some cases where two males may get along. If two males that are brothers who have been together since birth are kept in the same cage and there are no females within smelling distance then they should get along. Two males from separate litters may also get along also if no females can be seen or smelled etc. However if you do put two males in the same cage and they do fight then separate them as they will fight to the death in almost all cases if they are not stopped. Female degus apparently will get along with each other.
If a degu sees a person it recognizes it may react with a variety of sounds depending on it’s mood. Don’t be surprised if a degu jumps out of it’s cage when it wants out and you have taken the lid off. On the topic of lids a good lid to get is a wire mesh type lid or anything they cannot chew through but will still allow air in. When you have degu’s out it is important to keep a close watch on them at all times. They are very curious and are always exploring their environment. They can run very fast and because of their size it is easy for them to get away and get into things. Because of this you should never let a degu run free out of it’s cage. When you pick them up it is best to let them step into your hand rather then simply grabbing them, grabbing can result in scarring them and you may end up getting bit. Never pick a degu up by the tail or grab the tail, degus have the ability to drop their tails like a lizard if it is grabbed and unlike a lizards tail it doesn’t grow back.
Degus have a wide variety of sounds that they make to one another depending on their mood. If they are in a good mood then they will usually make a warbling sound that sounds alot like a bunch of short high pitched squeaks together at a very fast rate. This sound usually indicates that the degu likes whomever it is making the sound at, whether it be a person or another degu. A male degu will almost always make this sound to a female degu that he wants to mate with when he sees her. If you would like to hear these sounds then go to the sounds page. Another sound that they make is the popular chattering sound. This sound means basically the same thing that it means when a guinea pig or squirrel chatters. A chattering degu is an unhappy degu. They will usually only chatter when they are being teased or if a male sees another male. This sound sounds like a fast version of the sound you get when you tap your top teeth against your bottom teeth. The third sound that degu’s make is a loud squeak like a mouse, rat or squirrel. If they make this sound it usually means that they are very upset or annoyed about something. They will often make this sound to wards another degu if they simply do not want to see that degu. They can also make this sound towards a person if they are doing something and are suddenly grabbed or startled. And finally they may also make this sound if they are grabbed in an unpleasant way. If your degu makes this sound as you go to pick it up do not continue to pick it up in this fashion. A degu that is making this sound to a person as that person is going to pick it up is saying that “I do not want to be handled in that fashion and if you continue to do this to me I will bite you in self defence”. The best way to pick up a degu is to let it crawl into you open hand then to gently lift it up in a secure manor. When two degus are making this sound to each other separate them immediately or they will fight.
A degu will eat just about anything it is given. Unlike North American rodents and guinea pigs degus lack the ability to properly digest sugar. This is not the result of a failed organ but instead an evolutionary thing. In the part of Chile that degus are located there really isn’t very much in the way of fruit, very much like in the prairie’s. As a result of this, degus have evolved a body that cannot digest sugar simply because it is not the kind of thing that they can get in the wild. Never Give your degu’s anything with sugar!
When a degu eats anything with sugar in it and this includes natural sources such as fruit they suffer the same effects as diabetic people do without insulin. Logically you cannot give them insulin so obviously it is best to simply avoid the sugar. The kind of food that is okay to give a degu is food that is meant for the kind of animal that they are. They do like small animal food but the corn and sunflower seeds in it are not good for them.
Sunflower seeds have to much oil and fat. Corn has too much oil. Carrots are good – in a small quantity like a one inch cube per day per degu. Carrots also have a lot of sugar. That is why the yellow vegetable of choice should be Sweet potato.
Breeding degus is quite different from breeding hamsters or other rodents. because degus are very social animals it is best for the purposes of breeding that a male and female be introduced to each other at a young age. But never breed relatives. The younger the male and female are the more likely it is that they will get along. sometimes a female will decide that she does not like a particular male and will attack him and won’t leave him alone. Should this happen separate them and try to re-introduce them. If they still fight then they simply do not like each other and should be kept separate. If they do not fight and get along after a while (keep an eye on them for the first week or two) then they should be able to be good mates. You should keep them together in the cage as they will bond with each other and have the potential to become mates for life. When the female is in heat the male will react in by flickering his tail and warbling at her. On my sounds page you can download a file with several examples of this sound. When they desire to mate they will lick each other faces, and both will likely make this sound. Eventually he will mount her and they will mate. Just a warning that some female degus become moody during estrous and attack and advances by the male, this can be a problem if she tries to hurt him, hopefully she will not and if she does not desire to mate she’ll tell him and it wont happen. If they do fight separate them for a few days, in this case it’s best to use the divided cage method so they can still smell and talk to each other. Degus become sexually mature between 45 days and one year depending upon climate and other factors. Six months is average. Pregnant females are fairly easy to spot about after a few weeks and they get very round and clumsy towards their due date. The gestation period for Degus is 90 days, and litter size varies from one to eight, five being average. Female degus have 4 pairs of teats.
It is best to go easy on your female while she is pregnant to avoid complications. A female degu is very fragile and can abort quite easily. The male will assist in caring for and playing with the babies and he should be left with the female. In some rare circumstances he may attack them, if that happens he needs to be separated from them and her for at least a few weeks.
Baby degus are born well developed. They usually have a full coat of fur and maybe even open eyes at birth. The female will nurse them by lying on top of them. If your degu has a wheel in it’s cage it is best to remove it because sometimes she starts running on it at the same time a young one stands on it and the poor thing goes flying and can get hurt. The babies develop quickly and are usually eating solid food and drinking water within a couple of weeks. It is best though for them to stay with their mom for at least 6 weeks, just in case. When baby degus are about a week old it is okay to handle them. Before you handle them though, make sure that their mother is fully familiar with your “scent”. Getting her familiar does not seem to be to difficult, all you need to do is get her out. If you do get her out during pregnancy as with any animal, take extreme caution and do not “rub” her belly as this can from what I have heard cause a miscarriage. Baby degus seem to enjoy being gently patted and like crawling around people, again as with any infant animal take all necessary precautions and don’t take any risks. hand raised baby degus make excellent pets as they lose all fear of humans and will enjoy being out.