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Degus behavior

The Octodon degus is a gregarious rodent, native to South America and more particularly to Chile. It is a rodent that has a great capacity of vocalization and communicates a lot, like marmots, thanks to its calls. The behavior of the degus can surprise at first sight, but it is essential to know how to “read” its degus, in order to take care of it at best. It is a very active animal, which has mental and physical needs to provide, to avoid behavioral problems.

The Octodon degus is currently considered a wild animal in many countries around the world. It is not (yet) domesticated, and retains much of its natural behavior in captivity. 

Please note that this article was translated with the help of DeepL. If you notice any mistakes, please send us an email at octodons.lesite@gmail.com! Thank you for your help!
Roue octodon

Two degus in a wheel – Photo by Linden Tea

Social group

O. degus is a gregarious rodent with a well-framed social life, with complex interactions and well-developed means of communication. Throughout its life, it will develop social interactions that will shape its character and govern the life of its group. In Chile, the degus lives in burrows composed of 1 to 2 males and up to 4 to 6 females. These burrows gather in large colonies of hundreds of individuals 1, which swarm in some regions.
The degus gets some important advantages from its group: a better surveillance of the territory, more vigilance against predators, nurseries for the young and the pooling of food reserves. This increases the survival expectancy of the group and thus of the individuals and perpetuates the species. Degus also pool their skills, digging and clearing burrows in groups2.

The Octodon degus reproduces naturally 1 to 2 times a year maximum, mainly in spring. From its youngest age, the octodon is raised by the members of its clan, whether or not they are its parents without this changing its daily life 3. Infanticide is very rare in this species, especially in the wild4.

Group of Octodon degus during a nap

Territoriality

Octodon degus in front of its burrow

In the wild, degus live in burrows and organize their social life, foraging and behavior around this territory. They migrate regularly, especially when burrows become overcrowded with litters5.The degus do not seem to have any attachment to their birth territory and may migrate away from their birth territory to find a new clan, or to start a new clan.

The burrow is the central element of the life of these rodents. Thus, the degus spends a large part of its day observing. Like meerkats, it can stand up and “sit down” to observe the surroundings. The whole group participates in this common vigilance, to warn of the least danger as quickly as possible. Moreover, the octodons choose to position their burrows under a vegetal or mineral cover, in order to better secure it6.When an alarm is triggered by one of the decoys, they rush into the burrow or freeze under the vegetation cover in order to go unnoticed. They will begin to resume their activities after a few minutes, once the danger has passed.

Most of the time is spent in the burrows, composed of tunnels and various chambers, circular or oval rooms, from 15 to 30cm in diameter. They have distinct functions, some are denning chambers and others are food stores. In these tunnels, the temperature is around 24°C on average, whatever the season. 

The degus comes out of its burrow when it needs to feed or to stock up, because it does not hibernate. During the warm season, they come out only during the morning and evening, staying most of the day in the cool. During the wet season, the degus changes its life cycle and ventures outside all day long.

Group of degus – Marie Hale

Cries and singing

Photo by Isabelle Wornham – Edith (left) & Dora (right)

The vocalizations of the Octodon are very numerous, between the teeth chattering, the whistles and alarm calls, its “vocabulary” is rich and it has more than ten sounds7 to communicate : Cries and sounds in the Octodon. It uses it to communicate within its burrow or outside, to warn of dangers or to govern its social life.

The degus uses its cry and its vocalizations daily to govern the life of its group: to prevent an attack, to defend its food or to enjoy a moment of tenderness. With humans, like guinea pigs, it is able to make a high-pitched and loud cry to call and ask for attention.

Olfactory communication

Olfactory communication is very important for the degus. Thus, urine marking is very present in the territory of the octodon and in particular on the bathing ground8 9. This allows the degus to recognize each other and to harmonize their smells. Any foreign degus will then be immediately spotted by the group, because it will not carry its smell. Males tend to mark the territory more often than females10.

Behavior & body language of the degus

The degus also uses a very rich body language11 to make himself understood by his fellow creatures. In order to know him better, the owner can observe his degus to understand their meaning and thus better interact with and understand him. Knowing his degus is the key to a relationship between the owner and the animal, based on mutual trust. That’s why observing your pet is important!

Grooming

O. degus grooming each other.

The toilet is important for the degus, it plays an essential role for the good cohesion of the group as well as for its health. The degus can make its toilet by licking and cleaning itself with its paws or by rolling in a sand bath.

Grooming & group

When the degus grooms itself by licking, it takes good care of its coat, by chewing certain parts to clean the fur, by smoothing its vibrissae to release them from any dirt. To clean himself, he often rests on his hind legs, in order to better reach certain parts of his body. This can take a few minutes and allows him to maintain his coat, but also his eyes and ears. He can also scratch with his back legs, and this very quickly. This is a normal behavior as long as it is not compulsive. The fact that the degus scratches regularly is not necessarily a sign of a skin problem.

Occasionally, degus will groom each other, which is a sign of understanding between the two, and helps to strengthen the bond within the clan. The degus can squeak during the toilet, in particular when their congeneric attacks the coat a little violently, with fangs. The mutual grooming can last several minutes and end with a nap, each degus snuggled up against his fellow octodon.

Bathing soil

The bathing ground plays a fundamental role in the behavior and the communication of the degus. Indeed, it is thanks to this last one that it can eliminate the excess of sebum and harmonize its odor with that of the other degus. This is how the degus can recognize olfactory members of its clan from potential intruders. The sand allows in particular to set up introductions of new octodons in a group.

Octodon degus qui se roule dans du sable/de la terre à bain - Wikimedia Commons

Octodon degus rolling in sand/bathing soil – Wikimedia Commons

Degus usually set up their dirt bath near their burrow. In captivity, it is possible to put them next to a hideout or a cabin. The degus will put a few drops of urine in the bath, so that the odors are mixed10. Males tend to mark and clean themselves more often in the sand, to show their territory. It is thanks to the odors of each individual and this mixture that the degus forms a clan and is able to migrate. He will then roll in the ground of the new group to recover their smell and to be integrated within the burrow. Males wash more often to mark the territory and their attitude changes in the company of other males8 9,decreasing their bathing frequency. When the degus share the sandbox, this practice is avoided. This allows them to be “fooled” into thinking that the newcomers are colleagues.

Ideally, only one sandbox per cage should be placed, and left permanently accessible, to allow the degus to reproduce this behavior in the wild. The sand can be sifted to remove potential dirt and grime. Scented sand or the addition of essential oils should be avoided, as octodons are deceived by these scents and will avoid individuals that carry the scent12.

Attitudes of the degus

The degus exhibits many different behaviors that allow it to communicate with its conspecifics. Its positioning, its activity and its way of standing are clues on its state of mind of the moment and better understand it13. A better understanding of the species and its needs allows us to avoid behavioral problems, but also to propose the best possible conditions in captivity.

Social behavior of the degus – Rolf Dietrich Brecher

Mounting

The degus can sometimes “mount” one of its congeners. This is a normal behavior, not related to mating and can be observed in degus of the same sex. The degus may mount a conspecific to play or to support its dominance at a given time14. This can reinforce the hierarchical bonds within the clan. It can also happen during fights, or introduction of new individuals. Finally, degus can also lean on a conspecific to take a comfortable and warm nap.

When mating is not involved, the degus tend to nibble on the neck of their conspecific or to move at the same time, which is not the case when the male inseminates the female.
Octodon degus qui monte un congénère pour dormir

Octodon degus riding a congener to sleep

Observation

The degus is very observant of its environment, which allows it to detect potential predators. This is why it can stay several minutes without moving, on the lookout. It also sometimes stands on its back legs, to better observe something that intrigues it. In the wild, this represents one third of its activity time during the day and depends on the more or less regular presence of predators, as well as on the terrain where the octodons are settled15.

Snout to snout contact / “kissing”

The degus spend a lot of time, when they cross each other, sniffing the muzzle. Often taken for “kisses”, this behavior allows to recognize the crossed individual. This behavior is particularly observed in adults, than with the youngest16.

Fighting

Octodons are territorial animals and may fight frequently, especially in captivity, where they have less space. Fights are normal as long as there are no apparent injuries between the animals. However, if they escalate, the degus must be separated to prevent the behavior. The owner must then find and assess the cause of the fighting, in an attempt to resolve the problem.

Two degus fighting each other

Boxing

Degus can box and paw each other, standing in front of each other. These attacks can be very impressive and are often accompanied by aggressive screaming and growling, even teeth chattering. The degus may also chase each other after fighting and continue to attack each other.

Tail flapping

The degus is capable of violently flicking its tail against the ground in an arcing motion. This can be a sign of an upcoming attack and is often accompanied by a growl if this is the case. The flapping of the tail may be accompanied by a chase from another deer. The degus may also exhibit this behavior in breeding periods. 

Pawing/running

The degus, when it is irritated or wants to defend a position, can give paws, front and back to its fellow creatures who would approach too much. This happens especially when food is at stake. Generally, this behavior remains calm, but if the fellow dog becomes a little too enterprising, it can degenerate into a fight and biting.

Pursuit

Fights between degus – Leo Viëtor

During aggressive behavior or conflicts, it happens that degus launch into chases. Usually accompanied by growling, these can last a few minutes and end up degenerating into boxing or biting. It is important in captivity to avoid having dead ends in the cage, and to prefer hiding places with multiple entrances to allow a better circulation of the degus.

Bite

This is the highest level of aggression in the degus. This behavior can occur when the degus is cornered, scared, or fighting with another pet. The degus’s bites are very powerful and can maim other animals, especially in the ears, mouth and tail. When two degus fight violently, use a separation (cover, cardboard, …) to stop the confrontation, which can generate the death of one of the adversaries. If your degus has bitten you violently, it is important to consult a doctor quickly.

Play behaviors of young degus

Degus in a “nest”

Younger octodons show behaviors likened to “play” in animal species17. This allows them to learn to survive and to reproduce the social interactions within the clan. It is through these experiments that the young degus will understand the language of its species and know how to respond to it14.

The young degus can thus try boxing sessions, while standing on the back legs and trying to make his opponent fall. This allows them to experience fighting and learn how to defend themselves. They can also try other mock fights by facing each other side by side and spinning around, showing their strength.

Running is one of the favorite activities of the little degus14, and they even try antics and other small jumps. The running of young degus is often a bit erratic at first and may resemble a horse’s gallop more than the usual movement of the adult degus. Adult degus sometimes engage in these runs, also jumping on all fours, but on rarer occasions.

Feeding behavior

Foraging is an important behavior in the life of the degus. It constitutes the largest part of its activities when it leaves its burrow, about 46% of its time15. The octodon is naturally more active in the morning and in the evening, its food search corresponding to these peaks of activity. Thus, degus emerge from their burrows and eat as they emerge, preferring to take cover or near a grassy area. When it does not find any more food with its suitability, it will change of him to start again to eat other plants.

In captivity, the degus is often cut off from this food search by the use of the bowl. However, allowing the animal to occupy itself by looking for its food allows to reduce the stress and the behavioral problems. Therefore, we recommend removing all food bowls and hiding the food ration throughout the cage, offering puzzles and other small challenges to reach the food.

Cleanliness & defecation

The degus is not an animal that can be clean, because its digestion is very long and permanent. Whether in the wild or in captivity, it will poop where it is and when it needs to. The only places that remain relatively clean are the food reserves of the burrows and certain feeding points.

Coprophagy

Octodon degus eating its droppings

The degus is a coprophagous animal, which means that it eats its own feces. However, it is not caecotrophic, i.e. it does not need to reingest its droppings to digest them better1. Coprophagy allows the octodon to assimilate essential nutrients, and even to restore its intestinal flora in case of intestinal dysbiosis.

Sexual behavior of the degus

The degus breeds once or twice a year and the females are pregnant for 3 months before giving birth. The sexual behavior of the degus is very codified and complex, just like their social life. To know more about the reproduction of the degus: The reproduction in the degus.

Mating

Baby Octodon degus at the age of 5 days.

Mating often occurs in spring or fall, when the female is ready to be fertilized. When the degus mates, the male climbs on the female to inseminate her. Once mating is complete, the male will make short, repeated calls (Bark), lasting from a few minutes to a few hours. This announces a happy event within 3 months! Generally, the degus will mark the female with urine before mating and may flap its tail or move in a very jerky way11.

Breeding of the young degus

When the birth is near, the female will start to build a nest to welcome the young degus. Once the birth is over, all the octodons of the group will take care of the young together18. Thus, any female will be able to nurse the litter in turn19. As for the male, he will participate in their education by interacting with them and playing, but this behavior will decrease with the growth of the young16. The young degus will start to leave the nest after a few days and will already be able to feed themselves, in addition to the maternal milk. However, they will not be fully weaned until they are 72-75 days old.

Jeunes octodons en train de téter leur mère

Young degus suckling their mother

Handled Octodon degus – Linden Tea

During late gestation and lactation, the female loses a lot of weight and shows a high stress level20.It is essential to provide her with enough food to feed properly.

It is important not to handle young degus before they come by themselves, and always handle them in the presence of the parents. Young octodons are very susceptible to psychological disorders during their development, including hospitalism or depression17

Comportement & interactions octodon – humain

The Octodon degus is a very curious rodent, which can create a real emotional bond with its owner. It can be easily tamed if you are gentle and patient. However, it is not a cuddly toy and can refuse to be cuddled. Also, it is an animal that does not like to be handled or carried too much, especially when it has not been used to it. Many degus recognize their owner and look forward to a little affection! They will even know how to call him if necessary, by producing a short whistle.

The degus is an exciting animal to observe, because it has a very active and complex social life. But it is an active animal, which has specific needs to avoid stereotypical behavior (chewing the bars) or too much stress (self-mutilation). It is the perfect animal for patient and observant people, but it will be less suitable if you want a quiet and very cuddly companion.

Group of degus during a nap

Sources

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