Degu Diet and Feeding

What do degus eat? This section provides a comprehensive overview on what you should (and should not) feed your degus.

>FEED<

Many people believe degus are hard to keep as they have special, complex dietary needs. This is simply not true, in fact, degus' diets are very simple. An article on this can be found here. Their only special need is that you must avoid giving your degus sugar regularly.


Your degus main feed (also termed 'hard feed') should be in the form of either a dried mix or pellets. It is highly recommended that your degus are fed on a good-quality guinea pig food or a degu-specific feed as these contain all the vitamins, minerals and other nutrients your degus need, without containing any harmful substances. The incidence of diabetes and cataracts can be drastically reduced36 by feeding your degu a hard feed that does not contain molasses and is low in sugar36. Molasses is a treacle-like substance commonly added to feeds such as horse feed to make it more palatable. Always check the ingredients list for molasses and other sugar substances (including honey, syrup, glucose and fructose) before giving it to your degus.

As an alternative, some owners feed their degus chinchilla pellets, or a mixture of these with guinea pig food. This is perfectly safe and provides a bit of variety. However, avoid feeding your degus chinchilla mix, as these feeds often contain pieces of dried fruit which is not suitable for your degus to regularly consume.

You must NOT feed degus on rabbit food or mix, as these often contain a coccidiostat compound which is harmful to degus78. Coccidiostat drugs are widely used in the animal feed industry as additives to treat and control coccidiosis infection75, caused by species of Eimeria and Isospora bacteria (coccidia)74. Some anti coccidial drugs used, such as nitroimidazoles, have toxic properties75 and so this (coupled with the fact most rabbit feeds do not contain appropriate vitamin and mineral levels for degus) means you should not feed your degus rabbit food.

Degus have an 85 % digestive capacity for dietary protein32. However, an increase in the amount of dietary protein fed can cause a significant increase in the amount of water degus consume42. For this reason, and to avoid excess strain on the kidneys, it is most important not to give your degus foods high in protein on a regular basis. This is also the reason food mixes for hamsters and gerbils are unsuitable for degus, as they have a high seed (and so fat and protein) content. When choosing a feed, consider carefully the protein and oil levels on the nutrition breakdown, and try to follow our degu food traffic light system- GREEN indicates good levels for your degus, ORANGE moderate levels and RED poor levels (see the specific feeds list below for more information). Remember that degus are unable to adapt to changes in the composition in their feed160, so getting it right is extremely important for their health.

Most mammals are able to make their own vitamin C from dietary glucose and galactose64, with the exception of humans, some primates, birds and guinea pigs. These animals cannot synthesise vitamin C due to a lack of the enzyme L-gulonolactone oxidase in the liver63. Although degus are closely related to guinea pigs, research has suggested that degus may in fact be able to make their own vitamin C176, and do not necessarily need to rely on it in their diet. However, because vitamin C is so important for immune system health, is essential for the structural and functional integrity of androgen dependent (reproductive) organs63, can help prevent cancer, heart disease and cataracts64 and may be linked to enamel colouration in the degu, it is a good idea to provide a dietary source. This can either be through vitamin C added to the hard feed (check the nutritional breakdown, the ingredients may list it as 'ascorbic acid'), or through supplementing with fresh vegetable matter high in vitamin C, such as broccoli, red peppers, parsley and rosehips (further details on feeding fresh veg can be found below). Adding vitamin C drops or powder to drinking water is not advised as it is difficult to regulate the dose your degus get this way- vitamin C must not be overdosed63- and also these degrade quickly in the presence of oxygen65.

Degus, like many other animals, require a calcium:phosphorous ratio of 2:1 in their diet, in order to allow them to absorb calcium efficiently188. An improper calcium:phosphorous ratio (e.g. equal parts), or no added calcium or phosphorous in the diet, causes calcification of the kidneys of the degu188. It also causes dental problems in degus, such as overgrowth of the roots and crowns of molars and incisors188. The correct dietary intake of calcium and phosphorous for degus is indicated to be around 12 g kg-1 calcium and 6 g kg-1 phosphorous188.

An adult degu should ideally be fed 10 g of hard feed once a day to get all the nutrients they need without increasing the risk of obesity and related problems. Hard feed should not be provided freely as your degus will choose to eat this rather than the hay that is so important for maintaining a healthy digestive system and wearing their molar teeth (see hay section below). To make this easy, you can use a 25 ml shot glass to measure, which will hold approximately 10 g of most feeds- remember that any diet changes need to be done slowly, and it is important to weigh your degus regularly to ensure they are maintaining a healthy weight. You should aim to introduce any new feed over the period of one week, starting with a few pieces of new feed mixed in with the old feed on day 1, and gradually increasing the quantity of new feed while decreasing the old feed until your degus are getting only the new feed on day 7. This will help prevent any digestive upset caused by a sudden switch between feeds.

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Below is a list of commonly available commercial feeds for degus; click on the name for further details:

Degu Feed Traffic Light System (explanation)

GREEN- Good levels for degus
Protein = 15 % or less
Fat/oil = 4 % or less
Fibre = 15 % or more

Total sugars = less than 5 %

ORANGE- Moderate levels for degus
Protein = 16-17 %
Fat/oil = 5-6 %
Fibre = 10-14 %

RED- Poor levels for degus
Protein = 18 % or more
Fat/oil = 7 % or more
Fibre = 9 % or less

Total sugars = more than 5 %


IMPORTANT NOTE REGARDING GERTY GUINEA PIG MEUSLI BY SUPREME (Nov 2013)
The nutrition of this feed has recently changed, and due to the changes to the calcium:phosphorous ratio, Degutopia has had to withdraw this feed from the recommended feeds list. Degus require a Ca:P ratio of 2:1, and at the time of writing, Gerty Guinea Pig contains 0.6 g Ca and 0.5 g P per kilo (ratio approaching 1:1). This has important implications for degu health regarding calcium absorption and therefore teeth and bone health. If you are giving this to your degus, we recommend you slowly reintroduce one of the recommended feeds below, and withdraw Gerty Guinea Pig from their diet over the period of a week.

Disclaimer: Feed information accurate at the time of writing, owners are advised to check the ingredients list and nutritional breakdown regularly, as feed manufacturers may alter their formulations without notice.

Recommended by Degutopia XtraVital Degu      
Recommended by Degutopia Degu Nuggets           
Recommended by Degutopia Science Selective Degu   
Recommended by Degutopia Excel Chinchilla     *please note that we are currently trialing this product.
Recommended by Degutopia Degu Care+     *please note that we are currently trialing this product.
 
Degu Nature        
Chinchilla and Degu Pro  
Vita Degu              
Degu Special        
Degu Premium      
Brisky Degu         
Degu Complete    
Degu Menu           
Excel Guinea   

>HAY<

The single most important part of a degu's diet is roughage, provided by hay.

Degu diets should always be supplemented with good quality hay to provide the minimum 18 % dietary fibre recomended69 for caviomorph rodents, although some studies indicate the minimum fibre level for degus is as much as 21 %104 (remember that the dietary fibre level of wild degus is up to 60 %155!). Hay must be constantly available as it allows degus to maintain gut function69 and molar teeth wear. Ideally, hay should be kept off the floor and supplied via a hayrack, but giving it in a food bowl is fine.

There are many varieties of hay to choose from, and various people recommend different varieties. The most suitable for your degus is good quality meadow hay69, or Timothy hay. The hay should be brown, not green in colour (green hay can cause bloating69) and have a fresh, sweet smell. Hay that smells musty or appears pink or white in places must be discarded, as these are signs of mould. To increase the palatability of hay, it is possible to mix a small amount of alfalfa hay with it69. Alfalfa hay should not be fed in large amounts due to its high protein and calcium content69, the harmful effects of which overfeeding can cause need further research69, but in degus the excess protein content can put strain on the kidneys, while the extra calcium can contribute to kidney stone formation. It should be pointed out that alfalfa pellets do not pose the same risk69.

>FRESH VEGETABLES<


Degus should have a certain amount of fresh vegetable matter in their diet36, but restrict fruit as most types of fruit contain sugar36. Fresh veg contains levels of essential amino- and fatty-acids that are an important part of the herbivore diet, and which cannot be easily incorporated into dry feed. Overfeeding of fresh greens, in particular lettuce, cabbage and peas, can cause bloating55, but most vegetable types are safe for degus to eat (a list of degu-safe veg can be found in the guide via the button above). Degus also enjoy fresh herbs, such as basil, mint and parsley. As a rough guide, each degu should get a selection of a few thumbnail sized bits of veg once or twice per week. Fresh fruit should be only given in small amounts once per month, unless your degu is diabetic (in which case no fruit should be provided).

>MEAL TIMING<

Your degus should have set times at which they receive their daily hard feed portion (although access to hay should never be restricted). Remember that, like most 'prey' animals, degus thrive on a stable, regular routine that they can learn to anticipate, and this can be incorporated into their training. You can either give them one 10 g meal daily (in the morning or early evening is best due to their crepuscular rhythm143), or divide this into two 5 g portions twice daily. Remember that your degus should not get too much hard feed, nor too little; If food is scarce, your degus may not be able to extract the right amount of energy and nutrients from the food they do get8. However, research has shown that if food is continually available, degus eat more than normal8 , 36. This could lead to obesity36 if your degus are fed more than they need to eat on a regular basis. Obesity can be extremely stressful for your degu37.

Degus are known to coprophosise. This is the act of defecating and then re-ingesting feces (droppings) that are rich in short-chain fatty acids and microbes104. Degus are thus able to benefit twice from food; firstly by microbial digestion and secondly by re-ingestion of caecal products in the stomach104. Degus produce roughly the same amount of feces in the day as at night8, but during the night degus coprophosise as much as 87 % of the feces produced8. When degus' food is restricted, they will coprophosise more than usual8. This is done to maintain constant digestive function in order to increase the overall efficiency of gut use8.

It's worth pointing out here that wild degus will spend most of their time foraging28, which is mostly due to the poor quality of the food available to them. Pet degus have a very good diet and so are fed less, and although they are more active than wild degus as a consequence of a richer diet28, they still need to forage as this is a natural behaviour to them. This is another reason for feeding hay, but for more tips on promoting foraging behaviour, see the enrichment section. It should be noted that although degus prefer low-fibre foods148 , 155, their diets should have a high fibre content as this is what their digestive systems are adapted for, which keeps them healthy.

>WATER<

Fresh water should always be supplied for your degus through a drinking bottle. Don't worry, your degu's natural curiosity will mean they quickly find out where to get a drink! Research has shown that a captive degu's water needs can be adequately met through either a water dish or a drinking bottle190, but water dishes are much less hygeinic and difficult to keep clean.

Cold tap water is fine to give to your degus as long as it's safe for you to drink. There is a lot of misinformation around about degus being prone to mouth infections, and some 'experts' say to only give hyperchlorinated water. This is simply not true, and can be very dangerous as getting the dosage wrong could kill your degus. Degutopia's advice is to provide untreated water only, unless your degu has a problem in which case your veterinarian will advise you on water treatment. ALWAYS check with a qualified vet before treating your degus' water or food.

A pair of healthy, adult captive degus will drink in the region of 1000 ml per month, although this will vary depending on season, temperature and exercise levels*. For more details see the health page.

As a side note, degus have a relatively low requirement for water42 due to their physiology and anatomy being designed to cope with arid environments9. Although you wouldn't ever be cruel enough to deprive your degus of water, in the wild they can survive without drinking for up to 13 days42.

>TREATS<

Treats mean just that- they are given to your degus as a reward only and not feed in large amounts or on a regular basis. Treats will give your degus a positive emotional experience and are useful for enrichment and training purposes. Following are some treats that your degus will love:

NUTS AND SEEDS- Degus particularly enjoy sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds, as well as natural (unsalted) peanuts and whole hazel or brazil nuts (in the shell). Remember that nuts and seeds have high fat and protein contents, which can cause liver and kidney damage if given in large quantities over time, so be sure to feed them sparingly. Small seeds, such as sunflower and pumpkin seeds, can be given one or two per degu several times per week, with larger nuts such as peanuts being given one per degu once a week at the most. Whole hazel nuts in the shell can be given as a good enrichment exercise and to help incisor tooth wear, but no more than one per degu per month due to the quantity of the nut consumed (once they get into it!).

RYVITA/CRACKERS- Degus go crazy for dry crisp breads such as ryvita, melba toasts and crackers. These are full of fibre for your degus and help maintain tooth wear, but must be fed as a treat only, in small pieces, due to the added salt content.

FRUIT- Yes that's right! Although degus can't be fed regularly on fruit due to its sugar content, research has shown that small amounts of sugar are tolerated normally by degus24b, particularly as fruit sugars (disaccharides such as fructose) take longer to metabolise than monosaccharides (glucose). More details can be found by clicking the 'role of sugar' button at the top of this page. This is good news for your degus as they love the occasional bit of apple (note that apple seeds contain small amounts of cyanide and are therefore toxic to most small animals). Raisins do not make good degu treats as they have a high sugar content, so only give your degus one raisin each per month (or not at all if they are diabetic).

PUFFED RICE- Nutritious and readily eaten, this is ideal for use as a training aid as satiation time is slow and it can be fed in relatively large amounts, useful as a reinforcer for conditioning. Natural puffed rice and puffed wheat can be found in most health food shops, always check that there are no added ingredients.

DRIED HERBS- many pet shops sell bags of dried, mixed herbs and flowers that are very much enjoyed by degus. This sort of dried mix is similar to what degus would eat in the wild, and bags of dried dandelion, marigold, parsley, hazel leaves, rose petals etc. make a great addition to their regular hay and diet.

DRIED VEGETABLES- Small bits of dried veg are usually loved by degus, and although it should not replace the fresh stuff due to the natural degradation of nutrients during the drying process, it can help encourage picky degus to get started on vegetable matter. These also make great treats as the smell seems to drive them wild!

DRIED ROSEHIPS- A favourite for chinchilla owners, degus also enjoy dried rosehips, and they're good for them too due to the vitamin C content! Rosehips may contain some sugars, so feed sparingly (no more than one per degu per week).

FLAKED CORN/MAIZE & FLAKED PEAS- You can buy this from many traditional pet shops that sell loose hard feed by the kilo, some people use them to make their own feed mixes and you'll usually find some of them in commercial feed mixes. They make good treats as you can break them into tiny bits, but don't feed too many as they do have protien and carbohydrate content that contributes to their daily hard feed ration.

ROLLED (PORRIDGE) OATS- Get these with bran where possible. These make a fantastic treat for training and taming work, and for disguising medicine! Most degus love them, and it's great for keeping them in one spot for a while as they have to sit there to eat them (they can't run off with them). Because these are high in carbohydrates, give a pinch of oats per degu per day only.

Please note that any food containing caffeine is toxic and can cause serious harm to animals54. Artificial colours and preservatives can also cause long-term damage by building up in the kidneys54. Please also be aware that you should not give human breakfast cereals to degus, as the sugar content is often higher than degus can cope with, plus many contain added vitamins and minerals suited to humans but not necessarily right for your degus.

>DIGESTION<

How does it work? A degu's intestinal tract has evolved two methods of digestion. These two methods are known as 'autoenzymatic digestion' and 'alloenzymatic digestion'104. Autoenzymatic digestion extracts nutrients from food by using the degu's own digestive enzymes to break down simple dietary compounds such as carbohydrates104. Alloenzymatic digestion extracts nutrients using intestinal microflora to break down complex substances such as cellulose104. Although similar to the human digestive system, the evolution of a highly differentiated large intestine is a widespread phenomenon among caviomorphs104. Since the degu uses a symbiant population of gut bacteria to help break down otherwise indigestible complex carbohydrates, nutrition can be extracted from even the poorest of diets104. The breakdown products of cellulose include volatile fatty acids, carbon dioxide, water and methane104. Degus have evolved to accommodate this specialist population of microflora to help them cope with the low quality and variability of food they find in the wild. In fact, the best possible diet for our pet degus is one that contains little hard feed, but as much hay as our degus want to eat. Wild degus have been given a nutritive class of 216 g of crude fibre per kg of dry matter104. This is a comparatively high fibre content, and verifies the fact we should give our degus frequent access to good quality hay. It has also been suggested that having intestinal microflora may enhance the the vitamin availability to the degu104, and even detoxify plant material to some extent104. Could this indicate that degus do not need supplemental vitamin C as they extract it from intestinal bacteria?