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Respiratory diseases in degus

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Respiratory diseases affect many rodents, especially chinchillas and guinea pigs. The degus, a member of the same family, is much less affected. Negatives tend to develop respiratory problems when they suffer from dental pathologies, notably malocclusions and elodontomas.

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The different respiratory diseases of the degus

Dental pathologies, the leading cause of respiratory disease

Data on respiratory disease in O. degus remain limited. Generally speaking, respiratory disease is of very little concern to degus. Out of 300 consultations, only 5.6% were related to respiratory symptoms1). The majority of these respiratory problems were either related to dental malocclusions2 3, or to elodontomas4 (cancerous masses). Respiratory problems isolated from all other causes are very rare in this species (0.6% of consultations).

Tooth overgrowth with nasal cavity occlusion in the degus.

Nasal cavity occlusions

Nasal airway obstructions can lead to serious respiratory problems. They may be caused by excessive tooth growth, a cancerous mass or a foreign body that has become lodged. Occlusions may also occur after a fall or physical shock1).

Other types of respiratory disease

There are a few cases of rhinitis and bacteria that cause respiratory problems, such as S. aureus, Streptococcus pneumoniae or K. pneumoniae. These bacteria can cause respiratory illnesses in degus. However, these are rare cases, and the octodon seems to be relatively immune to this type of bacterial infection5.

Finally, certain allergies can cause severe respiratory problems in animals. In such cases, it is essential to find the offending allergen quickly, so as to eliminate it from the environment if possible.

Symptoms

Respiratory diseases are fairly easy to detect, and their symptoms are generally quite obvious5

  • Respiratory distress: the degus is visibly struggling to breathe, which takes a lot of effort. The degus is generally amorphous and shows forced breathing, with more pronounced lifting of the thorax. He may also start breathing through his mouth.
  • Nasal discharge/cold: a nasal discharge, often transparent, may be visible on the nose of the degus. Depending on its severity, it may obstruct the airways and the degus may frantically clean its nose. Nasal discharge can also occur as a result of shock or an intestinal problem, causing saliva to be regurgitated via the snout.
  • Mouth breathing: breathing through the mouth is a sign of a serious respiratory problem. It is linked to obstruction of the nasal airways.
  • Noise/whistling: when the degus breathes, it may produce a whistling or “crumpled paper” sound on exhalation or inhalation.
  • Apathy: the degus may be totally amorphous, often with a below-normal temperature and refusing to move or eat.
  • Hypoxemia: lower-than-normal oxygen saturation (>92%) is a sign of cell oxygenation problems.
  • Eye/ear problems: the eyes and ears may present problems such as abnormal discharge.

Diagnosis

The degus should be treated as soon as possible 6, as soon as the first symptoms appear. In most cases, octodon respiratory disease is linked to dental problems2. If this is the case, early diagnosis can help avoid unnecessary suffering for the animal, as well as adapting diet and treatment as quickly as possible to prevent recurrence7.

Sonde d'oxymètre de pouls œsophagien utilisée dans la bouche d'un cobaye anesthésié
Esophageal pulse oximeter probe used in the mouth of an anesthetized guinea pig

To diagnose the type of respiratory problem the degus is suffering from, the veterinarian needs to explore all available avenues. This includes auscultation of the octodon, as well as haematological, microbiological and even histopathological analyses 5. Fibroscopies are very useful in detecting malocclusions or poor tooth growth. For example, when consulting a veterinary surgeon about a lung problem, it’s a good idea to ask your vet to perform an X-ray and fibroscopy of the octodon’s teeth8.

Treatment

Treatments can be varied6 5 and must first and foremost target both the pathology and the effects. So, if the degus has breathing problems or a cold linked to a dental problem, the teeth AND the respiratory problem should be treated.

Each treatment depends on the choice and preference of the veterinarian, but there are many solutions. In this article, we will deal ONLY with possible solutions for the treatment of respiratory problems. Treatments for pathologies that can cause respiratory problems will be dealt with in related articles.
L'apport d'oxygène est un outil thérapeutique important chez les animaux hypoxémiques. La méthode d'apport d'oxygène par flux peut fournir jusqu'à 55 % d'enrichissement en oxygène de l'air ambiant.
Oxygen delivery is an important therapeutic tool in hypoxemic animals. The flow-through oxygen delivery method can provide up to 55% oxygen enrichment of ambient air.

Oxygen supplementation: in the most severe cases, the degus can be put on oxygen, particularly in the case of hypoxemia, to re-establish good saturation. A mask is sometimes used, but often the animal is placed in a box into which oxygen is fed.

Anxiolytics: some vets recommend their use to calm animals, especially when they are put on oxygen. The stress and panic caused by difficulty in breathing can worsen the degus’s condition.

Antibiotics: when the infection is of bacterial origin, antibiotic treatment is essential. Biological samples may be taken before and during treatment, to check their efficacy.

Corticosteroids: their use in humans is controversial, but studies suggest that they can reduce the mortality rate of pneumonia. Rarely used in rodents, corticosteroids are thought to limit the inflammatory response to pneumonia. However, it should be noted that they can have the side-effect of causing hyperglycemia, which should be avoided in rodents with a predisposition to diabetes, such as the degus.

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatories: these can be used by veterinarians as a complement to other treatments, to limit inflammation and reduce potential pain.

Bronchodilators: these drugs limit the contraction of bronchial muscles. These drugs are only indicated in very specific pathologies, and must be used with caution. They are associated with cardiac problems, as well as the aggravation of certain types of illness.

Mucolytics: these drugs are used to thin mucus and thus facilitate breathing. However, their use remains controversial due to potential allergic reactions. They should be used with great caution.

Antihistamines: these help limit the effects of allergies. To date, their use on rodents has been very limited, due to a lack of information on their allergic pathologies. In addition to the treatment, the allergen that triggers the degus’s reaction needs to be researched, so that it can be removed from the environment.

Diuretics: this treatment is very specific and is used in cases of cardiogenic pulmonary edema or pleural effusion. The diagnosis must be made with certainty before treatment is started. It should be avoided in cases of degus dehydration.

Nebulization: this is a physiological saline solution breathed in by aerosols, to help eliminate fluids in the nose in particular. This solution can be considered as a complement to other treatments.

Nasal cleansing: this involves instilling a saline liquid into the nostrils of the degus to help clear the airways. However, this can be a complex procedure, as the animal needs to be handled with care.

Sources

  1. Diseases in pet degus: a retrospective study in 300 animals[][]
  2. Impact of pelleted diets with different mineral compositions on the crown size of mandibular cheek teeth and mandibular relative density in degus (Octodon degus)[][]
  3. Impact of a high-phosphorus diet on the sonographic and CT appearance of kidneys in degus, and possible concurrence with dental problems[]
  4. Elodontoma in a Degu (Octodon degus)[]
  5. Respiratory Diseases in Guinea Pigs, Chinchillas and Degus[][][][]
  6. The Laboratory Rabbit, Guinea Pig, Hamster, and Other Rodents[][]
  7. Nutrition and behavior of degus (Octodon degus)[]
  8. Anatomy and Disorders of the Oral Cavity of Chinchillas and Degus[]

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