Litter is an important part of the Octodon degus’ habitat. Indeed, it covers the floor of the cage and prevents the animal from walking in its excrement all day long. Litter is also a way for degus to keep themselves busy, by laying out the bottom of the cage, by nibbling or digging on it. The choice of litter is important, as it directly affects the health of the octodon. Some litters are too dusty, while others can cause skin problems. Degus naturally line their burrows with dry grass and twigs to make cosy nests. They therefore prefer “soft” floors, which they can arrange as they wish.
The purpose of the litter
Litter plays several roles within the home. The first is hygienic. It prevents the concentration of urine by absorbing it. The abundance of bacteria due to the presence of excrement can cause many health problems. Degus are particularly susceptible to pododermatitis and tail infections. The accumulation of urine, which softens the tissue of the paw pads, together with bedding that is sometimes too hard and creates wounds, leads to these infections1. Other litter materials, such as perlite, dry out the skin. Finally, the dustiest ones will cause respiratory infections in mice and rats2.
If the litter is hygienic, it plays an important role in the well-being of degus! This choice is far from being trivial, as it has long-term impacts on the physical and mental performance of the animals34. Indeed, it allows the degu sometimes to dig, or to build nests. It is not uncommon to see them snooping around during the day, looking for seeds that have fallen out of their bowls. All this helps to keep the octodon busy in its daily tasks. A litter box where it is possible to rummage is more interesting than one that is only hygienic.
In general, natural, non-dusty, long-fibre materials should be preferred. Rats and mice show a clear preference for long-fibre bedding in order to dig and make burrows2.
Litter and cleaning
A pet’s cage should be cleaned regularly to prevent the build-up of bacteria. The different litters have an impact on the bacteria present, without one of them standing out, with a more important bactericidal effect5. Properly cleaning the cage of your rodents is essential for the good health of both octodons and humans. In addition to creating the perfect environment for bacteria, urine releases ammonia, an irritating substance. Some litters absorb moisture much better than others. Ventilating the litter also allows moisture to evaporate more quickly. In general, the cage should be cleaned weekly. For animals that have access to large amounts of bedding, especially for digging, cleaning can be more spaced out. However, the condition of the cage and nests should be checked weekly and any damp items removed.
Most litter is compostable, so it can be reused rather than thrown away. Every week, remove all the litter and clean the entire box with soap and water. The different floors should also be cleaned. We recommend the use of non-toxic (pure) black soap6. It is effective for cleaning and is not harmful to humans or octodons. For dirty areas, baking soda and white vinegar can be used. The foaming effect of the mixture will allow the encrusted dirt to come out. Finally, white vinegar is also a very good deodorant for the cage. However, it is not a substitute for soap, as it has no washing properties.
Choosing the litter
There are many different types of litter available for purchase, both online and in pet shops. Amongst this wide choice, some are more interesting than others, notably in terms of the rate of absorption of humidity, or odour. Others, on the other hand, are less interesting or even toxic.
Linen litter is an ideal choice for degus. Flax is naturally untreated, as it is a plant that attracts few insects and grows very densely. So, in addition to offering long fibres, it is safe. Linen bedding absorbs moisture very well and allows good odour removal. Finally, it allows the reproduction of natural behaviours, such as nest building 2. It can be allergenic to some humans, so it should be tested before daily use.
Like linen, flax litter is a perfect choice for degus. It does not require any pesticide treatment, so there is no exposure to harmful substances. It is made of dense, long fibres and absorbs both moisture and odours. It therefore allows for the construction of nests and burrows in good conditions for octodons2. It can be allergenic to some humans, so it should be tested before daily use. Hemp mats are convenient for covering floors, but should be used with caution, as they can cause digestive problems (obstruction) if eaten. This depends on the behaviour of your pets.
Cotton bedding is slowly becoming established on the market. It is particularly interesting because of its very good moisture absorption and is recommended in cases of pododermatitis1. It is one of the most moisture-absorbing beddings and therefore has almost zero gaseous ammonia levels. It is, however, less easy for octodons to shape, without preventing them from nesting with it. It is also very soft on their paws.
Paper pulp litter
Like cotton, it is a non-toxic and highly absorbent litter. The paper pulp retains odours well. However, degus may not be able to dig burrows in it, although they will like to be able to put it in their nests.
Plant-based cat litter
Plant-based cat litter is a good alternative for animals; it is highly absorbent and removes wet spots very quickly, by clumping. However, it is not ideal for use as a cat litter. Depending on its shape, it can be quite hard, even aggressive, for the animals’ paws. In addition, the clumped parts of the litter are no longer absorbent when wet. This can create dirty areas. It should be used if the animals do not have access to litter in their cage, as some ferret models do not allow the animals to have litter under their paws.
Miscanthus litter is used for hair, for example. It absorbs urine well and consists of long fibres, which rodents prefer.
Straw pellet litter
As with vegetable litter, this is suitable if the animals do not walk directly on it. However, it has an average absorption rate and often smells bad quickly.
It should not be ingested, as it can cause intestinal problems.
Birch tree or beech litter
Although it is not toxic, birch or beech litter reacts badly to moisture. Urine is not retained and odours are not neutralised. On a daily basis, this litter does not keep the cage clean.
The use of straw in its stalk form is not recommended for degus. Indeed, due to its lack of absorption of urine, it shows high levels of ammonia concentration. Moreover, some animals feed on it, even when soiled, which presents a health risk. It is not very hygienic and does not prevent odours.
Hay, like straw, should not be used as bedding. It is natural for degus to consume it throughout the day. Consuming soiled hay is directly detrimental to the health of the rodents. Hay does not retain moisture, and rots quickly, giving off unpleasant odours quickly.
Mineral cat litter
Mineral cat litter should not be used. While it is effective as a litter, it is dangerous to ingest. Mineral litter is not edible and can cause intestinal obstruction, which can lead to the death of degus.
Wood chip litter
Although wood shavings bedding is not in fact toxic(Evaluation of perlite, wood shavings and corncobs for bedding material in rats)) for rodents, it is not recommended. Because of its high dust content, it is irritating to the animals’ lungs2 as well as to their skin7. In addition, it does not retain moisture from urine very well.
Red cedar litter
Unlike other woodchip litter, red cedar litter is toxic8 to most animals. This type of litter should be avoided for degus.
Finally, no matter what type of litter is used, the use of synthetic fragrances is bad for the degus’ health. Indeed, these substances are often irritating for the lungs. Moreover, degus are able to distinguish between natural and artificial odours9 and tend to avoid the latter.
Some brands offer “overlitters”. These products are not suitable for use as a litter, but can be used as an occasional enrichment to provide stimuli for your animals. It is also possible to make up your own overlitter, without toxic elements.
Translation by Matthieu Selles.
- Influence of different types of bedding material on the prevalence of pododermatitis in rabbits[↩][↩]
- Preferences of mice and rats for types of bedding material[↩][↩][↩][↩][↩]
- The effects of bedding materials on learning and memory performance and texture preference in rats[↩]
- Properties of conventional and alternative bedding materials for dairy cattle[↩]
- Bacterial Counts Associated with Recycled Newspaper Bedding[↩]
- Discovering Black Soap: A Survey on the Attitudes and Practices of Black Soap Users[↩]
- Effect of Pine Wood Shavings, Rice Hulls and River Bed Sand on Broiler Productivity When Used as a Litter Sources[↩]
- High rat pup mortality attributed to the use of cedar-wood[↩]
- Early Olfactory Environment Influences Social Behaviour in Adult Octodon degus[↩]