Prairie Dog: Species Profile

Characteristics, Housing, Diet, and Other Information

Prairie Dog

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Despite their name, prairie dogs are actually rodents. The black-tailed prairie dog is one of five different species of wild prairie dogs, but it is the one most often seen in the exotic pet trade. Native to the Great Plains region of the United States between Canada and Mexico, black-tailed prairie dogs live in colonies on these grasslands.

Taking up residence close to small rivers, on sloping hills, or on flat grasslands, prairie dog colonies thrive by burrowing into a variety of soils and foraging for plentiful food options. Simulating their natural habitat is what dictates their complex needs. Keeping prairie dogs as pets is difficult; they require a long-term commitment from a devoted owner who has the expertise to provide an advanced level of specific care. Prairie dogs are susceptible to human diseases and can also become aggressive if not given many hours of daily socialization.

Species Overview

Common Name: Prairie dog

Scientific Name: Cynomys spp.

Adult Size: Body is 11 to 13 inches long; weighing 1 to 3 pounds

Life Expectancy: 8 to 10 years in captivity

Prairie dogs as pets illustration
The Spruce.

Behavior and Temperament

Prairie dogs are diurnal, meaning that they are active during the daytime hours and sleep at night. Being very social creatures, prairie dogs will become depressed or sick if not given enough attention. If you don't have at least six hours per day to spend with your prairie dog, then plan on having a full colony of prairie dogs or none at all. With the right training, pet prairie dogs can be leash trained (using a special prairie dog harness) and even learn to come when they hear their name.

The sex of a prairie dog doesn't make one gender a better pet than the other, with the exception that male prairie dogs possibly have a stronger musky odor than females, but the smell is not unpleasant. Both sexes need to be either spayed or neutered to avoid health issues later in life. If you do not get your female prairie dog spayed, her estrous cycle (referred to as "rut") will cause her to become aggressive and it will drastically, but temporarily, alter her behavior.

Housing the Prairie Dog

Providing a natural environment where a prairie dog can burrow and forage for food at all stages of a prairie dog's life is essential. As adults, they are able to burrow several feet underground and they create different subterranean chambers for different purposes.

Unless you have a large enclosure (such as a 10-foot by 10-foot concrete-bordered pit filled three feet deep with dirt to allow burrowing), a large dog-sized cage is unfortunately usually used to house a pet prairie dog indoors. When burrowing is prevented, it is not ideal; it may lead to anxiety from overexposure to stimulus.

If given an appropriate burrow outside, to stay warm in the winter and cool in the summer, they can withstand extreme temperatures on either end of the thermometer. When housed outside without a burrow, however, their systems are ill-equipped to deal with extreme hot or cold temperatures.

Food and Water

A natural prairie dog diet consists primarily of grasses, with some brush and roots. They rely on the prickly pear cactus (which you can grow in bulk at home) for much of their water intake. Depending on the season, prairie dogs may eat more underground roots than grasses, but they are known to be foragers and can adapt to changing environments in search of foods.

The captive prairie dog eats a simple vegetarian diet of pellets, fresh hay, grasses, fresh fruits and vegetables, seeds and nuts, and freshwater. In the wild, grasses are the preferred food of the prairie dog and generally make up about three-quarters of its diet. When kept as a pet, prairie dogs should be fed a high fiber pellet diet along with timothy hay or timothy hay cubes.

In captivity, prairie dogs can be offered a pelleted diet such as Exotic Nutrition's Prairie Dog Diet. This food was formulated specifically for the nutritional requirements of captive prairie dogs. You should also offer whole oats. Good fresh vegetables include raw sweet potatoes and raw carrots.

Common Health Problems

Each year, prairie dogs will go into a rutting period that can last for several months. During this time, their personalities can drastically change; they often become defensive or even aggressive. Prairie dogs also seem to be very susceptible to bubonic plague which makes them a risk to nearby human populations. Some parks have been shut down in an attempt to prevent the spread to people.

In captivity, prairie dogs are susceptible to obesity from being fed the wrong foods, dental issues from a lack of fibrous foodstuffs that clean teeth and gums, and diet-associated heart disease, respiratory diseases, and fungal diseases. Ultimately these health issues are due to a mismanaged habitat, and as with many systemic diseases, symptoms are often vague and non-specific. Any sign of irregularity in your prairie dog warrants an examination from your exotic animal veterinarian.

Is It Legal to Own a Pet Prairie Dog? 

Prairie dogs are large rodents that were one of the main culprits implicated in a monkeypox outbreak in 2003; they were then banned as pets for over five years in the United States. As of 2008, the FDA has lifted its restrictions on pet prairie dogs, But in 2016, prairie dogs carrying the plague became a concern. Check with your state before getting a prairie dog to be sure they are allowed to be kept as pets in your locale.

Licensed USDA dealers sell wild prairie dogs to the public; different dealers have different methods of collecting the pups. Ask your dealer what method of collection they use to be sure it is humane to the prairie dogs. The dealer should also give you a health certificate and proper USDA paperwork to allow you to legally own the prairie dog they are selling.

Purchasing Your Prairie Dog

Baby prairie dogs generally become available in the United States between the months of April and July. This is around the time when they breed and then pups are collected. In an effort to control their population, thousands of prairie dog pups are collected each spring and summer by vacuuming them out of their burrows.

A revamped sewer truck is often used to suck the rodents out of their homes; they are then either used as food for endangered wild animals such as eagles and black-footed ferrets (which naturally controlled the population until humans drove the species to near extinction), or they are sold to the pet trade.

Baby prairie dogs make better pets than captured adults since they are more easily trained. Owners consider them very affectionate but if kept by themselves, prairie dogs will demand a huge amount of attention. If raised with other prairie dogs, as they should be, they will bond more with their rodent family than with their human family, but this is the much more natural and healthy choice for them.

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