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Guide to introducing new degus

The introduction of new degus into an already formed group or to a single rodent is complex. Indeed, Octodon degus are social animals by nature. In the wild, they live in groups of 1 to 2 males and a few females1. These clans are gathered in a larger area containing many storks. These rarely remain in their original groups and migrate from clan to clan in order to mate2. Naturally territorial, the degus defend their home with ferocity, in violent fights.

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!

Why introduce new degus?

Dessin d'octodons

Illustration by Vurore

In captivity, Chilean degus are often perceived as animals that can live alone. In reality, their social interactions are so complex that the psychological impacts of isolation are not yet known. However, it is known to affect their emotionality, especially when separation occurs repeatedly before weaning3. Other studies show that the organization of degus, such as the influence of their relationships on their reproduction. In a group where social bonds are not important, females will tend to have fewer babies4.

Social bonds are therefore fundamental for this rodent species.

The introduction of degus is a complex task, yet essential for individuals living in isolation. But it doesn’t always work, the risk of ending up with 2 or more cages is real. It is up to the owners of Octodons to take into account all the information in order to make the right choice for their degus. But even two animals having contact through a grid is better than keeping your degus alone. The ideal is to understand the social formation of the degus before adoption and to act accordingly.

The essentials for keeping your degus together

Before making the fateful presentation, it is important to understand the process of introducing degus. Thus, putting together several animals not knowing each other can only turn into a general fight, with sometimes very serious injuries. To avoid these excessive fights, which will not lead to a stable cohabitation, several steps must be followed. But the introduction of degus is long and complex. Before starting with the basics of introducing new rodents, some information is essential.

Safety and injury

The introduction of Octodon degus is not without risks! Indeed, attacks can be very strong. The teeth of rodents can cause damage between individuals and to humans. Leaving your finger behind during an encounter can lead to serious injuries. It is important to wear heavy gloves, or use an object to keep the animals away if necessary. When a fight breaks out, even when separated, degus can remain violent for a few minutes and attack humans! The bites are often deep and painful.

As an example, it happened to us to be bitten by mistake. Tipi, having wanted to grab a nut quickly, took the finger instead. Except that the bite was so deep that it touched the tendon of the second phalanx. The result: a dull and painful inflammation for several days, and the inability to bend the finger for several weeks. It was only after several months that all our abilities returned. After an appointment with the doctor, we avoided the worst, but there was a real risk of surgery. And it was only a mistake on the part of the animal. No one can totally predict the behavior during an encounter. However, the outcome of a bite can have painful long-term consequences.

Duration of the introduction

Groupe d'Octodons degus

Group of Octodons degus

No one can predict how long it will take for your degus to start living together. However, it is a complex process, which requires a correct follow-up of each step. Patience and observation are the key words. According to the sex of the animals, but also their age, the duration of their isolation, it can be more or less long. But count at least a few months, even more than a year, to make dominant males cohabit.

Under no circumstances should the process be rushed. Rodents need time to get to know each other. Each step is important. There is always a risk in passing a phase, especially in having to start all over again. So, it is better to be too patient than not patient enough, in order to be sure that the degus are ready.

Observe and listen

The behavior of the degus will be the first indicator of how the introduction is going. Thus, part of the process is to observe. It is the decrease in violent gestures and the increase in calmer ones that will determine if the negroes are ready to take a step. Grunting, or angry hissing, tail wags are a set of aggressive attitudes. These should decrease over time. It is normal that during the first stages, these attitudes are frequent. The degus are trying to show who is the boss and to enforce a hierarchy. With time, grooming, body proximity, clucking will appear. Even when cohabitation is acquired, fights will remain present. This is normal, as long as the dogs do not seriously injure themselves. Moreover, it is not necessary to intervene in non-violent fights, they allow to establish the hierarchy. Preventing the establishment of the hierarchy can lead to a regression of the understanding between degus.

Neutral territory

The use of a neutral and clear territory will be necessary. During the meeting stage, the ground must be adapted to prevent violent confrontations and stop them if necessary. This area should not be marked by the smell of an animal. A playpen, a small room or even a bathtub can be used for this stage. If the degus are used to go out in this environment, it should be washed properly to avoid residual odors.

Bath clay

The bathing ground is one of the essential points of the introduction. Indeed, it plays a determining role in the social organization of most rodents5. In Octodon degus, sandbaths are set aside near the burrows. These baths allow members of the same clan to recognize each other by smell6. The males deposit some drops of urine in order to harmonize the odors of the individuals. They tend to clean themselves more often than females, for territorial reasons. The latter bathe mainly to standardize their odors and thus increase the coherence of the group7. It is through this natural behavior that the degus migrate from clan to clan. In order to integrate elsewhere, the octodons will roll in their dustbathing area to replace their previous dustbathing.

The use of a single sandbox is recommended. Thus, if males wash more often to mark territory, their attitude changes in the company of other males, decreasing the frequency of their bathing7.When degus share the sandbox, this practice is avoided. This allows them to “fool” their sniffers and pass off newcomers as colleagues.

This natural behavior will be the key to a successful introduction. Indeed, it is with a mixture of these smells that the degus will learn to recognize each other as peers and no longer as enemies. A sandbox that is accessible and large enough to offer attractive baths to the degus. Keeping it clean by sifting or removing soiled bathing soil is also important.

The use of essential oils to “mask” the smell of the animal in the bathing soil is totally inadvisable. Indeed, octodons detect the use of “artificial” scents on their conspecifics, and unless they have been accustomed to these scents since birth, discriminate against those who wear it8. Using these scents therefore tends to create an unwanted avoidance or flight behavior when introducing a new member.

Cage

The cage is the habitat and the territory of the degus. This one must answer its needs in terms of space, but also with its arrangement: wheel, games, nests… These elements are essential to the well-being of his animal. To make an introduction between stutterers requires the use of a cage rather vast for the number of individuals. The more it will be spacious, the more the opportunities of escape for the dominated degus will be various. Unfortunately, most cages on the market are not large enough, the correct alternatives are aviaries or ferret cages.

Stress

Finally, the introduction of Octodon degus is a stressful process. Both for the rodents and the owners. Each individual is different, in their interactions with their peers or with humans. While some degus may be prone to stress, it is best to provide your rodent with one or more companions. A human cannot completely provide for the social needs of his pet. Finally, only the owner can judge the benefits/risks of an introduction.

Taking breaks during the process is not a problem. If the degus have a calm and peaceful demeanor, it is not a bad idea to maintain a stage. The key is to trust your animals, and your own abilities. Every human makes mistakes; if they can have serious consequences, they are normal. Especially if you don’t know yet how to interpret the behavior of the degus very well. To take your time is essential to achieve a good cohabitation.

Two degus, or not two degus, that is the question9

The choice of the ideal partner for your degus is a fundamental question. Indeed, if it is possible, it is advised to select according to the degu or the group already possessed. Because the physiology of the new animal will act directly on the chances of success and especially on the total duration. The introduction process between degus can be very long, but it is possible to optimize this time.

Character

Before considering the choice of the partner, it is advisable to know its degu. Indeed, each rodent has its own character. It is often difficult for owners to judge their pet without reference, but understanding it allows to anticipate its behavior. Some degus are naturally aggressive, for territorial or hormonal reasons. Others, still, are more reserved, and tend to hide. Thus, to propose to a quiet old degus, sometimes blind, a young superactive is not necessarily the best idea. Or to put together two extremely territorial animals. Unfortunately, most of the time, it is not possible to really know the attitude of the adopted deer in advance.

Age

The age of the degus will have an impact on the complexity and duration of the introduction. The cohabitation with youngs just weaned will be simpler, because they will be easily dominated by the older ones. This reduces the number of fights and makes the introduction easier. Thus, choosing youngsters between 6 and 8 weeks of age will accelerate the whole process 10. This speed of introduction is due to the fact that females and males although they recognize their peers11 do not prefer them12and raise all babies indiscriminately13).

Sex

Like age, sex has a significant impact on social bonds. The Octodon lives naturally in simple groups of 1 to 2 males and up to 5 females1.Introducing females to a male will also be easier and faster than between males. However, degus breed quickly, and it is difficult to find people willing to adopt degus. Neutering males is now known by most veterinarians and allows the creation of stable groups. But age is also a factor. Young males, when they reach sexual maturity, want to establish their dominance over the group members. This will lead to fights that may increase in frequency, without becoming too serious. However, for more security, castration is interesting to lower the testosterone level and their aggressiveness.

Finally, pregnant females should be kept separate. Stress due to rough presentations can lead to miscarriage. Also, it is best to wait until the babies are old enough to defend themselves before attempting to cohabit.

Number of individuals

Octodon degus

The larger the group, the greater the danger of instability. Thus, if it is better for degus to live in groups of up to 8 members, it is easier to maintain smaller groups. Duos or trios are then to be preferred. These allow a more “open” hierarchy. Beyond that, the groups may pose several behavioral problems that beginners will not be able to avoid. Finally, having several groups already formed cohabit is not ideal, because the animals will have to get along all together and this will complicate the meeting phases.

Multi-introductions

Some owners, by choice or not, want to try several encounters at the same time. These can take many forms: several degus or one solitary or many solitary. Sometimes several groups can be put together. Basically, the rules apply the same for all, but the introduction will take longer. The process will have to be repeated until all the animals get along with each other. For the introduction of multiple solitary animals, the cage should not be separated into 2 parts, but into several. As many parts as there are individuals, which requires a very spacious cage. These introductions are possible, but must respect the maximum size of a natural social group.

Castration and hormones

Castration is an effective way to prevent excessive aggressiveness in some individuals. But the later it is performed, the less the acquired defensive behaviors will be attenuated. Moreover, it also allows the creation of a male-female social group while avoiding reproduction. Indeed, many owners lose control of the situation, chaining litters without succeeding in placing the animals.

Nowadays, many veterinarians are well trained in castration and small rodent operations. The products used present less and less risks related to general anesthesia. Castrating your degus has become an accessible and interesting veterinary procedure for the well-being of rodents.

Male octodons are also more aggressive during the breeding phases, which start at the end of winter and last until the beginning of summer14. These periods are to be avoided to start an introduction in non-castrated males towards others15.

Conclusion

Thus, many elements come into play to facilitate the process of introduction between degus. To be informed allows to maximize the chances and to avoid sometimes banal mistakes. To constitute a stable group, it is advisable to study all the cards in hand. It is also possible to create groups of the same sex, but the groups of males will generally be a little less constant. This is especially true during “puberty”, when the animals reach hormonal peaks.

To conclude, the ideal is to castrate his males, in order to lower the testosterone level. Then, the adoption of females or young males will facilitate the cohabitation. For females, the addition of a neutered male or young females is also preferable. Finally, expanding an already formed group is not the best option, although it is not impossible. Each presentation is different, and there is no magic formula. While success depends in part on the degus, the owners have an active role throughout the process. In theory, no introduction is impossible, but some can be very long.

Tips

Some tips, based on our observations and experience, can help during the meetings between degus.

Feeding and meetings

In order to keep the degus calm, it is interesting to feed them before the meetings. This avoids some aggressiveness around the treats, and allows to calm the animals. Feeding can be done a few hours or up to a few minutes before the outings. However, the degus must have time to eat.

Choice of treats

Octodon degus all have different tastes. While they will enjoy certain treats, their appetite depends on the individual. When meeting them, give them rewards that they enjoy, but that don’t make them aggressive (for example, most prefer hazelnuts to pumpkin seeds), to avoid fights. Keep the degus separated during the giving of treats at first.

Circadian rhythm 

Diurnal, Chilean storks have a tendency to follow a crepuscular rhythm, with peaks of activity in the morning and evening 16. Depending on the degus, it is interesting to choose the time of the exit. For the old ones, in order not to disturb their natural rest phases, the meetings are to be preferred during the peaks. On the contrary, for the most dynamic degus, the meetings can be organized during calmer phases.

Octodons degus qui jouent

Octodons degus playing

Enrichment and activity

Providing enrichment and outings for the animals throughout the process is essential. This will allow the degus to direct their intent and reduce direct hostility. Putting enrichments on both sides of the gates will reduce the charges in the more belligerent degus. This will make them approach while being cornered and limit their aggression. The more these moments will be, the better it will be for the animals. The goal being cohabitation, teaching them to stay side by side helps them fully in this stage.

Solo escapades also give the degus a chance to exercise and relieve stress. Taking the stray out beforehand can help the more active of them. The neutral zone should be avoided during these outings to prevent intensive marking in these areas.

Duration of encounters

As always, there are many other guides available online. Most of them, although not sourced, offer more or less logical steps to follow. However, a majority of them indicate dating times. However, these figures are not adapted to the introduction process. Indeed, it is the reactions of the two degus that reveal if the meeting goes well or not. If these reactions are positive it is possible to increase little by little the duration of the interactions. But the behavior of rodents can vary from one day to another, as for humans, it is not rare that an animal gets up with the left foot! Recognizing the signs of irritation and stopping the presentations at that moment is essential. Unfortunately, no stopwatch can do this. 

How to introduce Octodon degus

These introduction methods are derived from the work of Degutopia and the Degus International Community forum. However, these sources are not very up to date and new studies on the social behavior of octodons have been published, hence the possible differences with these sites.

Guide to introducing young degus

Young Chilean Negros are the easiest to introduce. They must be weaned and not exceed 8 weeks, where their sexual maturity and adolescence occur. Being a species that shares the breeding of young, adopting them will be natural for the degus. This way, the young degus do not pose an immediate threat to the group or territory.

Equipment needed

A large cage; a medium cage; bathing soil; a neutral area; enrichments; treats; patience.

Step 1

Once the young degus arrive at the home, it is advisable to observe a few days of isolation. This will allow them to get used to their new environment and to check them more closely to avoid diseases. It is also important to get to know them in a quiet environment, in order to determine their character. They must live temporarily in the medium size cage.

Octodon degus dans un hamac

Group of degus

Step 2

Once the youngsters have adapted to their new habitat, the cages should be put together in one room. The introduction should be gentle, with the cages placed side by side, a few centimeters apart to avoid injury. The animals should be able to hear and see each other. This step can be stressful, it is important to choose a quiet room, if possible isolated, to allow the degus to get acquainted peacefully. The behavior of the adult living in the big cage should not be aggressive. In theory, all degus should be curious and start interacting quietly. If feasible, when one degus leaves, the other(s) can be introduced by being held. 

From this point on, only one sandbox should be used. Every day, the sandbox will have to be changed from one cage to another, the degus will have access to it every other day. This will give them time to learn to recognize each other as a group.

Step 4

After a few days, the young degus should feel at home and be less stressed. The cages can be moved closer together as they go along, so that the animals can feel each other. This way, the degus show interest in each other without attacking. They have to wash regularly in the sand since a few days, in order to mix the smells. During this stage, the rhythm depends only on the degus. The goal is to make a first meeting in neutral territory. If they are ready, i.e. calm, interacting from time to time without aggressiveness, the time has come. The sandbox should be removed the day before the first meeting.

On the day, the sandbox must be offered to the young animals before being released in the neutral zone. Then, it’s up to the adult deer to bathe. Their scents should be familiar to each rodent by now. The adult is released, away from the young. It is important to have something to separate the animals in case of emergency, without leaving your fingers. At each approach without aggressiveness, it is essential to reward the degus, by spreading them to avoid attacks related to food. If the introduction goes well, the degus will go sniffing each other. The adult may try to dominate the young, by climbing on them. This behavior is natural and should not be interrupted. The young should allow themselves to do so, even lying on their backs under the adult’s belly as a sign of submission.

As soon as an animal starts to get agitated, it is necessary to stop the encounter. If the first encounter goes well, reward them with treats.

Step 5

Encounters are now a daily occurrence. Also, to improve the introduction process, the degus can be released into each other’s cage. This allows them to deposit their scents in the new territory, to better accept each other. When the behavior between all individuals is calm and natural, step 4 can be implemented.

Step 6

Groupe d'octodon qui dorment

Group of sleeping degus

It’s finally time for the meeting in the big cage! For this penultimate step, it is preferable to do it in the evening, in order to respect the natural rhythm of the degu. Indeed, it is time to test if the degus get along. To mix the smells, it is necessary to transfer a part of the litter and the accessories of the cage of the youngest. As always, before the meeting on neutral ground, the animals must bathe in the sand. This time, after the outdoor presentation, the degus will return to the large cage all together. If after a few minutes everything goes well, it is possible to leave them.

According to the behavior of the degus, it is the moment to choose or not, to go to step 5. If the degus are agitated, the young can be put back in their cage. Then this step must be repeated until the aggressive behavior is calmed down.

Step 7

At this stage, the introduction of the degus is finished. If the animals get along well, they will spend their first night together. This schedule is ideal, as the animals will be sleeping. If the group is starting to form a bond, the rodents should be huddled together. If the degus have not caused any problems during the night, they can remain in the cage during the day, under close supervision. Otherwise, step 6 should be repeated. Finally, the group structure is created and a new group of degus is born! Fights may break out from time to time, this behavior is normal as long as there is no serious injury. 

Guide for the introduction of adult degus

The introduction of adult degus is the most time consuming, as it will require the rodents to accept “foreign” degus, and to go against their territorial behavior. The success will depend in part on the personality of the degus. The more they have been alone, the easier it will be to propose introductions. In general, it is impossible to know in advance if the degus will get along. The best way is to start the process and work your way up. But always keep in mind that an introduction can go wrong.

Materials needed 

A large cage; a medium mesh screen; a fine mesh screen; bath soil; a neutral zone; enrichments; treats; patience.

Step 1

Octodons degus

Groupe d’octodons

The cage should be large enough to hold all the degus. Install the divider to separate the cage in two. This can be done with solid, medium-mesh or even fine-mesh wire mesh to start with. According to Degutopia, horizontal separation is more effective than vertical separation17, however, this is a personal observation. Regardless of the grid used, the degus should be able to see, hear and smell each other, but not hurt each other by attacking. The solitary degus is placed in the upper part of the cage, while the new ones will be in the lower part. The animals must thus learn to know each other without more agitation during a good week. Thus, at the slightest aggressive posture, the introduction of the degus should be postponed until the degus calm down. An increased exchange through the grid is a sign of a defensive attitude. This increases the risk of fighting during introductions. Occasionally, degus take several months to stop this defensive behavior. It is important to be patient.

At any time, if one of the animals is too vehement, it is possible to cover the entire grid with cardboard, or any material that prevents interactions. Sometimes, it is necessary to “cut” the links for a few days, the time for the degus to recover from their emotions, especially after an important fight. Once the octodons have calmed down, the protection can be removed, and the introduction restarted at step 1.

Step 2

Once the first step is over, it’s time to move… the degus! And to use only one sandbox, to harmonize the smells. Indeed, without creating an encounter, the degus will now discover each other’s habitat. For that, it is enough to invert their positions in the cage. This will stimulate them by making them smell the scents of other individuals. And by putting a foot in their territory. Eventually, the degus will begin to understand that they are a group and no longer separate. The Chilean delegates must stay a few days in their new section. The transition to stage 3 will depend, again, on the level of interaction across the grid. If one of the rodents is defensive, tries to bite, or shakes its tail, it is not yet ready. This step can be repeated until the problem behaviors disappear. 

Once the “new” territory has been explored, switch the section degus daily or weekly. Place the sandbox in one of the sections. If the positional changes are not daily, remember to change the section tray. Each degus should be able to wash itself daily. It is important that the tub is shared, to mix the body odors of the Octodon degus. This step must be maintained in addition to the steps to come.

Step 3

This step is essential for the continuation of the operations. It should not be rushed. If one of the degus is not ready, repeat the previous steps until you are sure of its behavior. Indeed, it is time to move to the physical confrontation, but this one will have an important impact on the continuation. If one animal is aggressive, it will leave a “bad impression” on the others.

Remove the sandbox the day before the meeting, so that they can wash in it before the common outing. Take your degus out separately, so they can let off some steam. Place the lone degus in the neutral zone after introducing him to the sandbox. Then place the other octodon, after a swim, in a more secluded area. It is essential to observe the progress of this first encounter, to avoid bloodbaths. Propose quietly treats to the octodon, while keeping them far away to avoid aggressions due to food. The degus should retain a positive image of the experience. If you are afraid, you can stop the outing before they actually touch. It is important to take your time, and be confident during the introduction of degus. 

During the first contacts, the negroes can fight without too much seriousness (boxing, “mounting”). But if it turns into a bloody fight or a chase or a roll, you have to stop the experiment right away. Beware, once again, of bites. If this first contact is aggressive, go back to step 1. If not, after a few minutes, bring them in with treats, and move on to step 4. Be careful, the animals must be separated in the cage.

Step 4

Until further notice, the interactions of the Octodon degus should continue in neutral territory. Gradually increase the time spent outside. At the slightest change in behavior, in a negative way, stop the meetings. Continue for a few days, until the animals show only positive signs (scratching, toileting) and do not fight. Again, take your time! Only proceed to step 5 if everything is going well. If not, it is not impossible to go back to step 3 while the degus calm down.

Step 5

Octodons qui se battent

Fighting degus

The ultimate test has arrived. The time to find out if your degus really get along, or not. In the evening, repeat step 4, then, instead of putting them in their respective sections, put them in the same section. It is now necessary to observe the behavior of the small colony calmly and carefully. If after several tens of minutes, all this little world settles down, it is a good sign. On the contrary, if fights start, you have to go back to step 3, or even 1, depending on the intensity. It is possible that they are very agitated, without being aggressive, in this case, make 10-minute encounters after the exit to neutral ground directly in the same section, until they can rest in groups. Nighttime is the ideal time, away from peak activity, and allows the degus to get to know each other quietly. If the group starts to form, the degus should sleep together, huddled together.

Step 6

Step 5 is crucial, if the night went well, the degus can stay all day. It is important to observe them carefully, to see if they are peacefully occupied. The rodents should then go about their daily tasks, without worrying about attacking the new neighbor. If all goes well, this step can be completed.

Step 7

Now that they are living as a group of degus, it’s time to explore the other section of the cage. It is important to test their behavior in all sections to avoid defensive attitudes. Place all degus in the other section of the cage for one day. After 24 hours, if they have behaved normally, they should be rotated between sections daily. Finally, after a week, it is time for the last step.

Stage 8

With only a few steps to go, it’s time to stay on top of things! The separation is going to be removed, and there is nothing to prevent a regression in group cohesion, even this far. If the separation is removed too early, the whole introduction between the degus will have to be restarted from step 1. This can have disastrous consequences, including violent fights. While the division is removed, the degus can remain in the neutral zone. Do not clean the cage, the odors must be preserved. Also, objects should not be moved, so as not to disturb their environment. The degus should see the cage as a shared territory. Put the octodon back in the cage and observe carefully. At the first sign of defense or aggression, replace the separation and return to the previous step. If the aggression is too violent, go back to the previous steps, depending on the attitude between the animals.

If all goes well, you have succeeded! The social group is formed. Fights may break out from time to time, as long as they are not serious, you should let it go. Creating a new social group and leading an introduction of degus is far from easy. You should be very proud of your success.

Sources

  1. UN NOUVEL ANIMAL DE COMPAGNIE : L’OCTODON, OCTODON DEGUS[][]
  2. Instability Rules Social Groups in the Communal Breeder Rodent Octodon degus[]
  3. Influence of Pre-Weaning Social Isolation on Post-Weaning Emotion Tendency and Mother–Infant Interactions in Infant Octodon Degus[]
  4. Reproductive correlates of social network variation in plurally breeding degus (Octodon degus)[]
  5. A Comparative Study of Sandbathing Behavior in Heteromyid Rodents[]
  6. Dustbathing and intra-sexual communication of social degus, Octodon degus (Rodentia: Octodontidae[]
  7. Male degus, Octodon degus, modify their dustbathing behavior in response to social familiarity of previous dustbathing marks[][]
  8. Early Olfactory Environment Influences Social Behaviour in Adult Octodon degus[]
  9. To be, or not to be[]
  10. Contact-Promoting Behavior, Social Development, and Relationship with Parents in Sibling Juvenile Degus[]
  11. Female degus show high sociality but no preference for familiar peers[]
  12. Degus recognize but do not prefer familiar peers[]
  13. Communal nesting and kinship in degus (Octodon degus[]
  14. Free and total testosterone levels in field males of Octodon degus (Rodentia, Octodontidae): accuracy of the hormonal regulation of behavior[]
  15. Social cues and hormone levels in male Octodon degus (Rodentia): a field test of the Challenge Hypothesis[]
  16. Octodon degus[]
  17. Introducing new degus[]

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