The common degus is a gregarious animal, with complex social rules and a large repertoire of vocalizations. While in the wild it has plenty of space to move around, and the ability to migrate between social groups, in captivity degus often fight. These conflicts take the form of fights of varying intensity, from a simple clatter of teeth to an attack sometimes aimed at killing the opponent. Males tend to be more aggressive than females, but this doesn’t prevent them from living together in a cage. In most cases, animals will try to flee conflict situations to avoid injury and conflict within a group. However, it’s not uncommon to see degus fighting in captivity.
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Recognizing “aggressive” behavior
Before you can manage a conflict between degus, it’s essential to know how to recognize the signs and cries of aggression or defense of the Octodon degus. Degus have an extensive vocal repertoire1, their “language”, which enables them to show signs of annoyance before attacking a fellow octodon. These include :
- Teeth chattering: this is used to announce annoyance between two individuals. Often, this snapping is done to push a degus away, particularly from a food source.
- The “boxing” attack: this is an often rapid combat in which the two adversaries face each other and attack each other with their front legs. The conflict is generally low-intensity and ends when one of the degus loses the fight.
- Tail flapping: tail flapping can express pronounced annoyance, as well as a male’s sexual arousal.
- Grunting: there are two types of grunting: the first, higher-pitched, prevents a fight by pushing the degus away; the second, deeper and more pronounced, is used during a conflict.
- Mounting: in certain cases, one of the degus may want to mount another. This act is often part of a power struggle. If the mounted degus doesn’t want to give in, it can degenerate into a fight.
- Pursuit: this is a relatively peaceful form of conflict, where one of the degus pursues the other to chase or fight.
In these situations, and as long as there are no extreme bites or fights, it’s best to let the animals settle their differences on their own. Interrupting conflicts too often risks aggravating them and making them more frequent. If the degus are fighting too frequently, it’s worth looking into the possible reasons why.
Reasons for fighting
There are many reasons why degus fight. These may be linked to hormonal development, to the search for a partner, or to the protection of resources such as food or toys. To prevent the number and intensity of conflicts, we need to correctly identify the reasons why degus fight.
Octodon degus reach the end of their growth cycle at around 53 weeks2 3, but can be sexually active as early as two months of age. Around 6 to 8 months of age, he may experience a hormonal surge, particularly in males, leading to more frequent fighting. This is perfectly normal and should pass after a few months. Castration may be considered at the end of their growth to limit aggressive behavior.
The male-to-female ratio may also lead males, especially during the breeding season, to engage in more conflict in order to join a group of females and reproduce. Avoid having more males than females in the same cage. The ideal ratio is 1 to 2 males for 5 to 6 females4, as in wild.
The degus needs a large cage, as it is a very active animal5 6. A cage that’s too small will encourage conflict between animals, which can lead to extremely violent fights. It is therefore important to choose a cage adapted to the needs of the Octodon degus.
Toys, wheels and feeding points can be a source of resource protection. One or more degus will prevent other degus from accessing them, even if it means attacking them. As far as games and wheels are concerned, it’s best to have several in the cage, in different places. As for bowls, these are useless and can be replaced by enrichments that will keep the rodents occupied.
Finally, stress can lead to behavioral problems in degus, causing them to fight. This often stems from its habitat or cage location. It’s therefore advisable to offer more enrichment and a habitat adapted to the degus to reduce conflicts.
When and how to intervene
As long as conflicts don’t degenerate into violent bites, it’s best not to intervene in a fight. Animals regulate their own social groups, and sometimes this requires aggressive behavior.
In the event of repeated bites or serious injuries, intervention is called for. This should be extremely rare, and should be carried out under the best possible safety conditions for the owners. Octodon bites are deep and often very painful. To avoid injury, we recommend using an object to separate the degus when necessary, rather than using your hands.
After separation, if the animals calm down immediately, reintroduction can be considered immediately. However, if the aggression is too serious, it may be necessary to move the degus responsible for the conflict to another cage.
When separating, it’s best to place the degus in different cages, in a calm environment and without placing the cages side by side. It’s best to wait until all the animals are comfortable, have something to play with (wheel, enrichment) and have calmed down before considering starting an introduction process. This can be done by following our guide to introducing new degus. In the case of males, castration may also be considered to reduce hormone levels and decrease aggression.
Conflict management in degus requires a thorough understanding of their complex social behavior. By adapting the environment, carefully monitoring signs of aggression and intervening appropriately, it is possible to promote harmonious cohabitation. The safety of both the degus and the people involved must always come first, and it’s advisable to consult a vet or an octodon specialist for personalized advice if fighting problems persist.
- Vocalisations of the Degu Octodon degus, a social caviomorph rodent)
- Male degus, Octodon degus, modify their dustbathing behavior in response to social familiarity of previous dustbathing marks
- Pubertal development of sex differences in circadian function: an animal model
- Instability Rules Social Groups in the Communal Breeder Rodent Octodon degus
- CARA – Degus international community
- Handbook of Exotic Pet Medicine