Understanding a pet’s behaviour is a great way to learn how to interact and play with them in a way they’ll enjoy. It also helps you understand why they do certain things, and how you can best help them to live a happy and healthy life.
Degus are not complicated animals, but they do have many traits specific to their breed, and often reflects a natural pattern of behaviour they would employ in the wild. By taking some time to research how they behave and interact with people, you can provide them a more suitable home.
In the wild degus are classified as semi-fossorial – this means they live above and below ground level. They use underground tunnels and burrows to keep cool during the summer months, and to hide from predators. They will often burrow out several areas so they can keep food stores and have different ways out.
The best you can do to replicate this in their cage is to add a deep layer of substrate. You’ll see your degus digging small pits to sleep in and burying bits of food, it’s fascinating to watch.
In the wild degus use their front legs and teeth to dig through soil, sometimes even using their head to nudge lumps of soil. In large groups they will often help each other too, they are very efficient at moving large amounts of material is a short time – important in the wild when needing to hide quickly. If you have more than one degu in a cage you may see this cooperation taking place.
One of the more interesting things about degus is that they make a wide range of sounds, almost all of which are within the human hearing range. This means we can hear them, and they can hear us just fine. They make vocal noises to warn each other of dangers, initiate social contact, playing calls, and material calls to their young.
You will also observe them making thumping noises with their tails, this is also to make alarm calls and raise attention between one another. If you notice your degu makes a ‘wheep’ type noise and runs for cover try to work out what is causing it. That is the behaviour of a scared animal running for cover, there might be something you’re doing to set that off.
Being diurnal by nature, degus are awake and active during the day and asleep during the night. This can be changed however, if you work nights and sleep during the day degus can adapt to follow suit. So, if you are in a routine of feeding them and night their biological clock will adapt, and they will be awake and ready to eat at the routine time.
They are not fond of hot temperature either, so during the hot summer days you can expect them to be more active early in the morning and late at night when it’s cooler. You can have an effect on this by controlling the temperature in the room they live in.
Degus are known to bite if they feel threatened or stressed by the situation they are in. The good news is, after they have become comfortable in their new home and are familiar with the people and their new surroundings they will not bite without reason.
When going into their cage to handle them try and give them time to come to you. Never chase them around and back them into a corner to pick them up, this will put stress on them and increase the chance of being bitten.
New mothers may also bite, this will be because they are protecting their pups. The only way they know is to bite anything that they think threatens their young. Give them space if they have recently given birth; continue building trust while providing a safe environment for them.
Like any small animal that is able to survive just fine in the wild, degus have shown to have a good level of survival instinct, and show a good degree of intelligence as a result. They can be trained to do certain tricks, such as jumping over obstacles and finding food. But their intelligence is mostly on display when watching them in their own environment setting up a home and managing their resources.
Degus are very social and benefit greatly from having the company of other degus. They will live a lot happier and healthier with others, so it is strongly recommended you have at least two living together.
Together degus will groom, play, and help each other burrow and gather food. It’s interesting watching them work and play together and will bring you many hours of entertainment.
The downside to being such social animals is the fact that they will fight from time to time. They can engage in anything from minor incidents, to full on fighting with the purpose of injuring each other. Neither is to be confused with play fighting, which they will often be involved in too.
You will be able to notice play fighting by the fact that they take turns having a nip at each other and making chattering noises. There will rarely be injuries as a result of play fighting, and the degus will get along just fine when they are not play fighting.
Serious fighting often starts with the degus involved making loud grunting or growling noises and thumping of their tails on the ground. When fighting commences they will bite, scratch and kick each other.
The reason they are fighting is not always obvious, it may be other territory, alpha-dominance, or sexual prowess. If serious injury occurs, or fighting is happening on a regular basis you have no choice but to separate them into different cages.
You may be able to introduce them again after a cool off period, but you will need to monitor the situation very closely. However, more often than not one of them will have to be re-homed permanently.