Degus often chase each other around and nip at each other's tails but how do you know if they are playing or fighting? What vocalizations do they make when they are fighting?
Are Your Degus Playing or Fighting?
Degus, like many other rodents, are quite social and do often engage in play fighting. If neither degu is getting injured during these battles then you have no need to worry. They may however have disagreements that could be classified as minor squabbles or battles over dominance.
In addition to playing and having minor arguments, sometimes degus just do not get along and will have serious fights that require separating them.
Usually serious fighting is pretty hard to mistake for play, both by it's intensity and the fact that serious fighting often results in injuries. Adhering to the following the guidelines for determining whether fighting is play, a minor issue, or a serious problem that requires intervention can help keep your degus safe.
Degu Play Fighting
Degus will often engage in play behavior which may involve a degree of play fighting. There may be boxing, chasing, and nipping. They will often chatter at each other as well. This sort of activity is often mutual and the degus will take turns chasing each other. Injuries are rarely seen as a result of play fighting and the degus involved usually get along the rest of the time by sharing food and toys and cuddle while they sleep.
Minor Degu Squabbles
Sometimes degus will have minor squabbles over a treasured resource. This could be food, special treats, favorite toys, etc. These disagreements are usually quite minor (like human siblings) but if you think your degus are having these sorts of squabbles too often, you can try adding additional food dishes and toys, or perhaps provide a bigger cage.
As with play fighting, the involved degus usually get along well the rest of time and snuggle together when sleeping.
Degu Dominance Struggles
Degus need to establish a social structure (dominance hierarchy) so they must determine who will be the "top degu" (alpha degu). This is often established fairly easily, but when degus are quite evenly matched for age, size, and strength, it may be more of a struggle and more fighting may be seen. This fighting may be a bit more intense than play fighting and may involve some growling, grunting, tail thumping and kicking, especially with evenly matched degus. However, even in this case, the battle is usually settled before serious fighting or injuries occur (though the occasional small scratch or scrape may occur). Dominance behavior can also involve the more dominant degu mounting the more submissive degu.
Once dominance struggles are settled, the degus usually calm down and go back to getting along, playing, and sleeping together. Struggles over dominance may start out as minor squabbles, but progress to more serious fighting so monitor the situation closely if fights seem to escalate in frequency or intensity so that you can separate them if necessary.
Serious Degu Fighting
Serious fighting usually starts out with threatening grunts or growls and tail thumping and progresses to wrestling, biting, and kicking at each other. The degus may roll together in a ball and bite aggressively at one another, especially around the head and neck. Usually, the vocalizations and biting are much more intense than with any kind of play fighting or minor squabbling. If your degus are fighting like this or really injuring one another, intervention is necessary and you made need to seek medical attention for your degus from your exotics vet.
How Do You Separate Fighting Degus?
Leather gloves are recommended to prevent getting bitten when you are separating fighting degus. Throw a small towel over the degus to distract them and to make separating them easier then use your gloved hands to remove one the offending degus.
Place the degus in separate cages, at least temporarily.
Degus that have fought this seriously may never get along, so it may be best to simply house them in separate cages permanently. Some owners will try to re-introduce degus that have had a serious fight. This involves having two cages and swapping the degus back and forth between the cages to get them used to each other's scent and decrease the territorial instincts involved. However, if two such degus are re-introduced, you must be prepared to watch them carefully and separate them again if they go back to fighting. If they fight a second time, it is best to separate them permanently.
Edited by Adrienne Kruzer, RVT