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[EN] How to feed my degu?

Food is one of the bases of the health of the degu, because it influences its mental and physical well being. An animal that eats the right food will have fewer health problems, especially dental. Indeed, dental pathologies represent on average 60% of degus veterinary consultations 1. This can be induced by age, genetics, but especially by the diet. It is therefore essential, for the well-being of our companions, to know how to feed our degu. Thanks to varied food and adapted to the needs of the species. This requires several criteria, whether it is the fiber rate, the variety of the food, or the hay.

Wild Octodon degus diet

Octodons degus dans la nature.

Wild Octodon degus.

The degu is a folivorous herbivore, which means that it feeds mainly on foliage. In the wild, it feeds on many plants and bushes, depending on its local environment. As the seasons change, it will select its food according to its protein content2. In general, its diet consists of seeds, bark, stems and leaves. Seeds represent between 20 and 60% of its diet, especially during the dry season3. As one of the most common rodents in Chile, its ecological role is very important for the health of ecosystems. For more information, see our article about degus diet in Chile.

Feeding a degu in captivity: an actual challenge

In captivity, feeding a degu poses several challenges. The first is a balanced diet, close to the physiological needs of the animal. However, we still know little about its real needs. The second is the quantity, which must be adapted. Obesity and overweight pose numerous health problems and are becoming increasingly common. Today, more than half of all pet dogs and cats are at least overweight or obese4. These behaviours are often related to the owner’s search for affection, who gives too much food5. It can also be caused by intense stress. This food-dependent behaviour is also dangerous for rodents6, which have fewer opportunities to move around in captivity7. The degu is particularly susceptible to this, due to its natural vulnerability to diabetes. In addition, feeding is also important from a behavioural point of view. It is about searching for food, spending energy in this search, to be, in a way, “rewarded”. This takes up most of the degus’ day. But in captivity, food is often always under their nose, in a bowl. Finally, and this is the biggest challenge in captivity, is to adopt a food adapted to the dental needs of octodons. Most of the food on the market is not adapted, even dangerous.

Degus needs

The Octodon degus is an animal that is satisfied with little. It eats mainly stems and leaves, which provide it with the nutrients and fibre it needs to survive. In addition, it feeds on seeds for their energy content. It can inhabit many ecosystems, sometimes up to 2000 metres in the Andes Mountains. Its body has adapted to the dryness of the winters and the humidity of the summers.

Quantity

Degus are small rodents, which need to eat throughout the day, with continuous transit. However, in captivity, most of them are overweight. This is due to overfeeding and lack of activity. It is therefore essential to limit the amount of food offered to octodons. Hay will help support the digestive system which is working continuously. The food intake should be limited to 20g/day per octodon.

Fibres

Dessin d'Octodon degus

Illustration by Claire D.

Fibres are very important for degus. In captivity, it is recommended to provide them with food containing a minimum of 15% fibre, but it is preferable to increase this considerably, and to aim for 25 to 30% fibre. Indeed, it allows them to regulate their intestinal transit, but also to assimilate plant nutrients. They prefer fresh leaves, which are richer in nitrogen2. These fibres are also a source of energy for the degus. Thanks to their slow digestion, they provide an essential long-term “fuel”, unlike fast sugars. In captivity, they need a substantial supply of fibre and this is provided by hay, but also by the various plants that can be distributed in the rations. Foods with long fibres also allow them to wear down their teeth8, which grow continuously, as do all rodents. Degus are naturally coprophagous. They ingest their own droppings, almost 40% of them2. This allows them to recover nutrients and fibre from previous digestion. The digestive system of the Octodon degus is specific and requires a high fibre diet.

Insoluble fibre, unlike soluble fibre, does not dissolve in water and is important for good digestive health. Lignin, cellulose and hemicellulose can be found here.
Soluble fibres dissolve in water and become viscous on contact. They include pectins, gums and mucilage. By becoming viscous, they limit the absorption of carbohydrates and can even prevent blood sugar peaks.

Protein

The degu needs a medium protein level. This allows it to maintain its body in good health. Ideally, this level is between 15% and 18%. Proteins play an important role for the good health of the muscles, but also for the good functioning of the body (système immunitaire9, digestion). However, the protein level should not be too high. Indeed, they can cause important health problems10: on the one hand, the excessive consumption of protein can increase the glucose level in the blood, which is dangerous for octodons. On the other hand, over-consumption of protein tends to aggravate or create meteorism problems. This is because protein can make the stomach contents stickier, and with moisture and certain foods, especially legumes, this can create a foam. This foam traps air bubbles from the gases associated with digestion and may not be expelled, or may be difficult to expel, creating abdominal bloating which can be fatal.

Fat

Food also contains fat. It is used to store the energy needed to keep the body running, but it is also important for the body’s good health. Fats contribute to the good health of the cells, to the production of some hormones, etc. To feed your degu correctly, it is advisable to offer it between 3 and 7% of lipids in his meals. In fact, in its natural state, it only finds these fats via seeds, nuts and other foods with a higher fat content.

NSC

Non-structural carbohydrates (NSC) are the fast sugars in the diet. This level is hardly ever indicated on pet food, but is important to get a balanced diet for your degu. NSC is a source of fast energy, which is important, but must be complemented by the fibre content. Thus, over-consumption of foods containing high levels of these carbohydrates could be detrimental to the microbial organisms in the hindgut. This then leads to many diseases11, such as diabetes12, obesity, … Unfortunately, the specific threshold at which the diseases manifest themselves is not known. But degus are susceptible to type 2 diabetes13 and can rapidly develop cataracts14, often within weeks15. Because although the octodon is not naturally diabetic, it produces insulin much more slowly than other species, and while one lapse will not be fatal, it takes a long time before it can produce enough insulin to absorb the next excess. If sugary foods are fed regularly, then it will be unable to regulate the sugar level, and may develop diabetes.
It is therefore essential to limit these sugars (glucose, fructose, maltose, lactose, etc.) by banning foods that contain a lot of them, such as fruit or certain vegetables.

NSC levels are often omitted from industrial foods, but it is possible to calculate them very globally, by removing proteins, fat, ash and fibres. In general, you should aim for a low level of NSC, around 30%.

Octodon degus dans un arbre.

Octodon degus in a tree.

Calcium

Calcium, and its Ca:P ratio is one of the bases of the degus’ health. To feed your degu properly, you have to take into account its needs. Being a rodent, its teeth grow continuously. Unfortunately, this causes many health problems, including malocclusions, which sometimes lead to the death of the animal. This is mainly due to poor nutrition and too little calcium. Calcium allows the teeth to form properly. 60% of veterinary consultations in octodons are related to dental problems and this rate rises to 76% for degus aged 2 years and older1. Most of these malocclusions and odontomas are related to poor tooth growth, which is preventable.

In addition, calcium and the Ca:P ratio also play an essential role in the renal health of O. degus. Indeed, an imbalance in this ratio, with too much phosphorus and too little calcium in the diet, leads to the appearance of severe dental malocclusions and nephrocalcinosis16.

The ideal calcium level is between 1 and 1.2%. It should also be calculated to have a minimum Ca:P ratio of 1.6:1. However, an optimum ratio of 2:1 should be aimed for17. A lower ratio has devastating effects on the teeth of octodons and may lead to the death of the animal16.

Octodon degus enceinte

Brindille, eating a granule.

Phosphorus

Phosphorus is a chemical element found in food. It can have a devastating effect on the dental health of octodons. Most brands do not indicate the phosphorus content of their products, but it is usually too high in relation to the calcium content. The phosphorus level should be calculated in relation to the calcium level to achieve a Ca:P ratio of 2:1. If the feed contains 1% calcium, then the phosphorus level should be around 0.5%.

 

NSC Fibre Protein Fat Calcium Phosphorus Ca:P ratio
30 % ⩾ 25 % 15 % to 18 % 3 % to 7 % 1 % to 1, 2 %  0,5 % 1,6:1 minimum
2:1 recommended

Vitamines

Vitamin C

Contrary to popular belief, there is no evidence of the benefits of adding vitamin C to the diet of the Octodon degus2. Although vitamin C is beneficial to guinea pigs, although they share more or less the same geographical area, their diets differ in several respects. However, it has no negative effects when added to the food in the correct dosage.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is essential for degus. It is synthesised when exposed to the sun. Although wild degus often leave their burrows, in captivity they do not often see the sun directly. Vitamin D is also involved in the proper development of bones and teeth18! The diet of the octodon in captivity is essential for the dental health of rodents. Therefore, vitamin D supplementation may be appropriate for captive degus19.

To maintain healthy teeth, octodons should receive a daily dose of 25 IU of vitamin D3. The vitamin can be given on a weekly basis, or in doses contained in the platelets. Only vitamin D3 should be supplemented, not multivitamin mixtures, which would unbalance the Ca:P ratio.

Most mixtures already contain vitamin D, which is added during manufacture. In addition, when the plants or hay are air-dried. However, the level may vary depending on the plants and the weather conditions.

Octodon degus qui mange un granulé

Illustration by Vurore

However, hypervitaminosis D can have a negative effect on the dentition of Octodon degus, as in other animals. For example, long-term exposure to UVB light increases tooth growth17, which is not the desired outcome. However, this concerns rodents that have been exposed to 12 hours of light per day on a diet already fortified with vitamin D. Thus, the addition of vitamin D to the diet is sufficient in itself16.

Diet

There are now many brands of food offering formats adapted to the Octodon degus. As seen previously, feeding your octodon correctly is complex, because it requires taking into account many elements. For its health, it is thus advisable to choose a varied and adapted food. Unfortunately, most of the industrial foods are not adapted and do not propose an ideal Ca:P ratio for degus. A comparative article is available on our website.

Hay

Octodon degus qui mange du foin

Octodon degus eating hay (Tambako The Jaguar)

Hay is an important part of the diet, although it usually does not exceed 10 to 20% of the it. This is because, in the wild, degus prefer leafy plants, shrubs and trees to conventional “grass”. Hay should always be available in unlimited quantities. It is essential to keep it clean, for instance in an open hay rack, or away from soiled corners of the litter box. Degus eat hay for food, but also use it to rummage around, picking out the best bits. They can also build nests with it. Access to hay is therefore also important for their mental well-being.

Hay has little impact on the final calcium content and ratio. Most hays have an average calcium level and a correct ratio. However, it is advisable to offer a variety of grassland hays. For those who like to offer variety in food, hay is a way to offer other tastes to octodons. Be careful not to vary too often, as this can cause digestive problems. A comparison of hay types is available on our website.

Water

Degus are animals that make do with little. Although they do not drink much, water is essential for their health. Dehydration can cause serious health problems. Degus should always have fresh, clean water available. Whether it is a bottle or a bowl. In the summer, it is essential that they are also offered fresh food so that they can ingest water through their food. It is interesting to note that Octodon degus cannot process chlorine. It is important to avoid giving them chlorinated water on a daily basis and look for less treated water. However, unlike rabbits, water ph or minerals are not important to consider.

Industrial food

Many foods are available for sale. These are labelled as “special degu”, but are very often far from the real needs of this rodent. Indeed, after comparing the different nutritional values of these foods, it turns out that there is currently no perfect solution for degus on a daily basis. Most of these foods offer a catastrophic Ca:P ratio, which will lead to significant health problems in the short and long term. In addition, they do not offer enough fibre8, which is essential for tooth wear and the digestive system. They also contain many grains, which are rich in carbohydrates and therefore unsuitable for octodons. This food causes many problems, as it is the simplest solution to feed your degu. Some veterinarians advise that no more than 20% of the total diet of rodents should be industrial food8.

Octodon degus qui mange.

SAB Degu Mix

Here comes the question: how to feed your degu easily in captivity? The answer is unfortunately that it is not necessarily easy. Indeed, many parameters come into play to achieve the ideal diet. However, the international community has looked into the problem and has come up with the SAB degu-mix. It is more than a mix, it is a precise and ideal way to feed your degus.

Conclusion

Octodon degus qui mange des plantes

The diet of the degus has a direct influence on their health, both physical and mental. On the one hand, feeding a species-appropriate diet can prevent diabetes and other related diseases, but also dental problems, which are very important in degus. On the other hand, handling fresh food and having access to a wide variety of plants is beneficial for rodents. Not only their selective behaviour, but also the way they eat allows them to flourish. This is why it is also interesting not to use bowls, but to disperse and hide the food as much as possible. It may seem difficult to implement the SAB diet, but once the habit is established, it is an economical and appropriate way to feed your animals.

Translation by Matthieu Selles.

Sources

 

  1. Diseases_in_pet_degus_A_retrospective_study_in_300_animals[][]
  2. Nutrition and Behavior of Degus (Octodon degus)[][][][]
  3. Feeding Ecology of Two Chilean Caviomorphs in a Central Mediterranean Savanna[]
  4. What’s causing obesity in pets and what can we do about it?[]
  5. Similarities between obesity in pets and children: the addiction model[]
  6. Obesity in Pets – One Health and Animal Welfare Considerations[]
  7. Growing Incidences of Obesity in Pets and its Long term Effects[]
  8. Dentistry in Hypselodont Small Animals: Guinea-pigs, Degus and Chinchillas[][][]
  9. Immunobiologie de Janeway[]
  10. High-protein diet affects circulation[]
  11. Nutrition and Behavior of Degus(Octodon degus)[]
  12. Cataract prevention in diabetic Octodon degus with Pfizer’s sorbinil[]
  13. From genes to cognition: Octodon degus , an animal model for AD translational research: Developing topics[]
  14. Diabetic cataracts and flavonoids[]
  15. Cataract Prevention in Diabetic Octodon Degus with Pfizer’s Sorbinil[]
  16. Impact of a high-phosphorus diet on the sonographic and CT appearance of kidneys in degus, and possible concurrence with dental problems[][][]
  17. Impact of pelleted diets with different mineral compositions on the crown size of mandibular cheek teeth and mandibular relative density in degus (Octodon degus)[][]
  18. Vitamine D : effets osseux et extraosseux[]
  19. Contribution à l’étude des affections bucco-dentaires chez les rongeurs et lagomorphes domestiques[]

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