Despite their name, prairie dogs are actually rodents. The black-tailed prairie dog is one of the five different species of prairie dogs in the wild and is also the one most often seen in the exotic pet trade. Naturally found in the Great Plains region between Canada and Mexico in the United States, black-tailed prairie dogs live in large colonies in the grasslands. Often close to small rivers, on sloping hills, or flat grasslands, prairie dog colonies thrive by burrowing in a variety of soil and foraging for vast food options. Their natural habitat dictates their needs as pets. A prairie dog should be carefully considered as a pet prior to getting one since they require a long-term commitment from a devoted owner.
Common Name: Prairie Dog
Scientific Name: Cynomys
Adult Size: The prairie dog's body is 11 to 13 inches long, and it can weigh 1 to 3 pounds.
Life Expectancy: More than 8 years
Difficulty of Care: Advanced. Prairie dogs require a lot of daily attention and are a long-term commitment. They can also become aggressive and are susceptible to diseases.
Behavior and Temperament
Being very social creatures, prairie dogs will become depressed or sick if not given enough attention. They will not be happy pets for someone who does not have the available time to spend with them that they need each day. If you don't have a couple of hours a day to spend with your prairie dog, plan on having a colony of prairie dogs or none at all. With the right training, pet prairie dogs can be leashed trained (with a special prairie dog harness) and learn to come when they hear their name. Prairie dogs are diurnal and active in the daytime hours.
Providing a natural environment where a prairie dog can burrow and forage for food at all stages of a prairie dog's life can be difficult. As adults, they are able to burrow several feet underground and create different chambers for different purposes. Unless you have a large enclosure (such as a concrete pit filled with dirt to allow burrowing) a large cage is unfortunately usually used to house a pet prairie dog indoors but this is not ideal. They can withstand extreme temperatures on either end of the thermometer if given an appropriate burrow to stay warm in the winter and cool in the summer.
Food and Water
A natural prairie dog diet consists primarily of grasses, with some brush, roots, and the prickly pear (which you can grow at home) for much of their water intake. Depending on the season, prairie dogs may eat more underground roots than grass, but they are known to be foragers and adapt to their changing environments.
Common Health Problems
Each year, prairie dogs will go into a period called rut that can last for several months. During this time, their personalities can drastically change, often becoming defensive or even aggressive. Prairie dogs also seem to be very susceptible to bubonic plague and other diseases. This is mostly in the wild, but something to be aware of.
Prairie dogs are large rodents that were some of the main culprits for a monkeypox outbreak in 2003 and were thus banned as pets for over five years in the United States. As of 2008, the FDA has lifted its restrictions on pet prairie dogs. Check with your state before getting a prairie dog to be sure they are allowed to be kept as pets where you live.
Purchasing Your Prairie Dog
Taken from the wild in an effort to control 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 and are then either used as food for endangered wild animals such as black-footed ferrets (which naturally controlled the population until humans killed off almost the entire species) and eagles or sold to the pet trade.
Licensed USDA dealers sell prairie dogs to the public and may have different methods of collecting their 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.
Baby prairie dogs make better pets than captured adults since they are more easily trained. Owners consider them very affectionate and if kept by themselves, prairie dogs will demand a huge amount of attention since they are very social animals. If raised with other prairie dogs as they should be, they will bond more with their rodent family then with their human family, but this is much more natural for them. 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 the pups are collected.
Can You Have a Prairie Dog as a Pet?
With the exception of male prairie dogs possibly having a stronger odor than females, the sex of a prairie dog doesn't make one a better pet than the other. Both sexes have anal glands (which can be removed by an experienced exotics vet) and 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 drastically, but temporarily, alter her behavior.
If you’re interested in pet prairie dogs, check out:
Otherwise, check out other rodents that can be your new pet!