Octodon degus are rodents that are sensitive to behavioral problems. They therefore need a suitable and large enough habitat to feel comfortable. However, it is also essential to offer regular enrichment. Enrichment is the set of actions taken to increase the physical and mental well-being of animals in captivity. This requires the identification of natural behavioral stimuli and their installation in a closed environment1. Many animals develop stereotypic behaviors in captivity. These behaviors are repetitive and functionless. We find in particular the endless wandering, so often seen in zoos. But the rocking, intensive licking, and even self-mutilation are also part of these problems. If zoological parks are now putting in place strategies to avoid stereotyped behaviors in captivity2, it is difficult to find equivalents for our degus.
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Why create enrichments for your degus
Often, enrichments are implemented when behavioral problems are already visible and sometimes become complicated. Degus that tend to bite the bars repeatedly, run around in their wheel, gnaw on the cage parts all the time are probably suffering from stereotyped behavior. But these behaviors cause many complications on a daily basis, in terms of health for the animal, but also in terms of nuisance for its owner. Breaking this vicious circle is a long and complex process, which requires identifying the behavioral problems in the first place.
However, it is possible to set up environmental stimuli before the stereotypies appear or worsen. It is essential to take into account the needs of the Octodon degus in terms of occupation throughout the day. Offering enrichment to your degus is a good way to avoid boredom. Thus, he will also be able to develop his senses, like smell, and his curiosity thanks to these “games”.
Enrichment as a palliative
Finally, the implementation of enrichments should be seen as a stopgap measure, not as a solution. Indeed, preventing stereotypic behavior will tend to make the situation worse. Enrichments are not a cure for stereotypies, but they do mitigate stereotypic forms, in order to provide an escape2. To “cure” this kind of behavior, it is necessary to find the source of the animal’s discomfort. In the degus, the frequent reasons for stereotypic behavior are: the absence of a conspecific, an inadequate cage, or the lack of occupations. As long as the causes of these problems do not change, the animal will not lose its behavioral habits. In conclusion, enrichment is primarily a means of providing an alternative to behavioral problems, not a solution.
Reaction to enrichment
In some cases, the degus may sulk at the enrichments presented. As it is possible that it destroys it in a few seconds. Each animal is different and will therefore have a personal approach to this novelty. Some degus are not very curious, it will take them time to get interested in the proposed enrichments. This is not very serious, sometimes, some animals simply do not react to the stimuli set up. It is then essential not to give up on a failure and to continue to test many games with the degus. Varying the stimuli is essential, in order to arouse its curiosity. The personal preferences of the animals will appear during the tests, and it will be easier to propose enrichments adapted to their character and behavior.
How to create enrichments
Steps to follow
Before asking the question of enrichments, it is essential to follow some rules. These rules will help prevent accidents that can happen to degus with handmade toys. Toys with wires, strings or any other edible element that cause choking or occlusion problems should not be left in the animal’s cage without active supervision. In addition, it is essential that these games be created in a safe manner. Some of the enrichments will require the use of sharp tools, or even larger instruments, such as saws. The handling of these tools must be done under adult supervision, with the necessary protections (gloves, glasses…).
Materials to avoid
Plastic: all plastic items should be banned, as they can cause problems if swallowed. Moreover, in an ecological goal, it is interesting to look for natural and non-polluting materials.
- Cotton, wadding or “nests”: often sold for hamsters, this material can cause asphyxiation or wrap around the legs, cutting off circulation. If the use of fabric is necessary to create enrichment, fleece should be preferred as it does not spin.
- Thin and/or unnatural strings: all strings, cords or other ties that are too thin should be avoided. Indeed, the risks of asphyxiation are too important. Moreover, it is possible that the threads break easily if they are too thin.
- Nails, staples and screws: some projects may contain nails, screws or wood staples. These can be used, but it is important to check regularly that they are not “naked”, with the points uncovered. However, staples should be avoided, as they can be torn out easily.
- Toxic glues: if all glues are not toxic, some of them are. Cyanoacrylate, neoprene, polyurethane and epoxy glues can cause problems. Some of them indicate that they can cause reactions with mandatory mentions on the packaging. It is thus advisable to favour glues without solvent such as MS polymers, acrylics or vinyls (water solvent)3. However, these tend to be less resistant to water. The Cleopatra brand is recommended, because its range is globally non-toxic, based on potato starch and water.
- Scotch tape: Scotch tape is not suitable, as it can be easily ingested.
Paper and cardboard: it is interesting to recover pieces of paper (without solvent) and cardboard. However, it is essential to remove all traces of tape, wire, or other dangerous materials.
- Wood: Wood can be used for many projects. Wood can be in the form of branches or boards. Woods such as certain oaks, walnut trees, pistachio trees, sumac trees, mango trees, cedar trees, and chestnut trees as well as some vines are toxic456. In addition, the use of plywood and melamine boards should be avoided, especially because of glues and phenol in their composition7. Untreated wood is better for the health of your degus and yours.
- Natural materials: many natural materials can be used to create games and enrichments for the degus: twigs, moss, stones, bark, pine cones, tree leaves … It is always interesting to carry a small bag on nature walks and collect some materials!
- Tissues, toilet paper and paper towels : these papers are appreciated by the dègues for the construction of their nest. Uncolored and unbleached papers are to be preferred.
Thus, many enrichments can be created from everyday objects. Thanks to this recovery, less waste ends up in the garbage and it keeps your degus busy. Because as Tyler Gleen says (almost) well8 :
One man’s trash is another degu’s treasure9
- Scientific approaches to enrichment and stereotypies in zoo animals: what’s been done and where should we go next?
- Les stéréotypies des animaux élevés en captivité : étude biologique
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- Les tanins
- Tanins hydrolysable
- Les tanins hydrolysables et condensés : une piste pour la réduction de la production du méthane entérique par les ruminants en mileu tropical
- Emissions de phénol par les panneaux de contreplaqué
- Trash – Tyler Gleen
- Quote origin