Is the degu naturally diabetic? This is a sentence that you can read very easily on the internet, and yet it is totally false. No, the degu is not naturally diabetic. On the other hand, it has dispositions to develop diabetes, but also cataracts. Very often, the symptoms of the degu’s diabetes are also confused with two other types of pathologies that affect it: hyperinsulinemia and hyperglycemia.
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Predisposition and blood sugar metabolism of the Octodon degus
The Octodon degus has a blood sugar regulation metabolism, that is, the maintenance of an ideal level of glucose (sugar) in the blood. The degu has a lower activity of the hormone insulin, which “regulates” the blood glucose level than the average mammal1. Rodents of the suborder Hystricomorphs, which includes the degus, but also chinchillas and guinea pigs have a particular metabolism. This implies a difference in the way insulin works in these species and thus their ability to absorb glucose. However, they are able to meet glucose regulation needs, but they will need to produce more hormones than other mammals to do so. Within this suborder, the Octodontidae family has the lowest insulin activity2. This is why the degu is more susceptible to the development of diabetes and cataracts than other domestic rodents2.
The role of food
The diet is a key point in the development of pathologies like diabetes and cataract in the degus. The degus is particularly sensitive to carbohydrates (sugars, starches), which can cause these diseases. However, other factors are to be taken into account, such as the age of the degus, its condition, its genetics, etc. To limit the risks related to diabetes and cataracts, it is advisable to propose an adapted food: rich in fiber, low in sugars. To do this, treats must be limited and certain foods banned, such as fruits and vegetables. With a measured diet, an unlimited access to hay, the degus has much less risk to develop cataracts or diabetes. To learn more about this subject, you can consult our section Diet and the article: How to feed my degu.
Pathology related to blood sugar regulation in Octodon degus
Cataract is a very common pathology in degu. It is a “whitening” of the eye, which will appear in the form of a spot and can cover the whole eye2. The degu then loses visual acuity and may become blind. However, this does not affect its quality of life in captivity, it is just necessary to adapt the cage and not to change too regularly the objects of place.
If cataracts are a symptom of diabetes in the degus, it is possible that it develops them without being diabetic. Being particularly sensitive to sugar, an inadequate diet tends to be the cause of the appearance of cataracts3. It is found in 13% of veterinary consultations and especially in older degus, more vulnerable to this pathology4.
The Octodon degus can also develop hyperinsulinemia, that is to say having a too high level of insulin (the hormone that regulates sugar) in the blood. To compensate for its low insulin activity, the degu compensates by increasing its insulin concentration and by slowing down its degradation. It is when fed a diet rich in carbohydrates that the degu can quickly develop this pathology. Hyperinsulinemia frequently triggers the formation of cataracts or even diabetes mellitus if the pancreas is damaged. The symptoms of hyperinsulinemia are often not very visible, but can lead to decreased activity, weight gain and cataracts.
Hyperglycemia can occur in degus due to poor diet, especially if the diet consists of simple sugars. This disease is usually episodic, but can be easily confused with diabetes mellitus. If the pancreas is not damaged, it is only appropriate to change the diet of the degu to regulate the hyperglycemia. However, if hyperglycemia persists, insulin therapy may be considered by the veterinarian.
The symptoms of hyperglycemia are close to the one of diabetes: a decrease of activity, dizziness and difficulties to move, an intense thirst, with more frequent urination, the development of cataracts, …
Diabetes mellitus is a pathology that can be found in degu5, because of its lower insulin activity than other mammals6. If the degu is fed an inadequate diet, it can trigger diabetes. When the degu is affected by diabetes, it means that it can no longer secrete insulin. When degu is affected by diabetes, it means that it can no longer secrete insulin normally and does not regulate the carbohydrates in the blood properly. Then, the carbohydrate level becomes abnormally high and can lead to important health problems: cataract, hepatic steatosis (excess of fat in the liver), disturbances of the regulation of hormones.
Symptoms are diverse in the degu and include obesity, weight loss, anorexia, cataracts, dehydration, increased urine output, profuse thirst and gastrointestinal dysbiosis. To diagnose a degu, the veterinarian must perform a blood test based on persistent hyperglycemia, hypercholesterolemia and glycosuria. Treatment consists of insulin administration and diet adjustment. However, it is important not to confuse hyperglycemia, hyperinsulinemia with diabetes, which accounts for only 4% of veterinary visits.
There is no treatment adapted to the degu on the long term, either for diabetes or for cataracts. It is possible to treat a crisis with insulin, but it can be complicated on such a small rodent. The main treatment will be to review the diet and offer a healthy food, low in sugars and high in fiber.
- O. degus: A Model in Comparative Biology and Biomedicine
- Nutrition and Behavior of Degus (Octodon degus)
- Cataracts Secondary to Spontaneous Diabetes Mellitus
- Diseases in pet degus: a retrospective study in 300 animals
- Ferrets, Rabbits, and Rodents, Clinical Medicine and Surgery
- Cytomegalic Virus-Associated Insulitis in Diabetic Octodon degus