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, 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.
Common Name: Prairie dog
Scientific Name: Cynomys spp.
Adult Size: 11 to 13 inches long; weighing 1 to 3.5 pounds
Lifespan: 8 to 10 years in captivity
Can You Own a Pet Prairie Dog?
While prairie dogs are legal to own as pets in most states, there are instances where they can be considered wild animals and therefore are illegal or require a permit. Prairie dogs were one of the main culprits implicated in a monkeypox outbreak in 2003 and were then banned as pets for over five years in the United States.
As of 2008, the FDA lifted its restrictions on pet prairie dogs, but in 2016, prairie dogs carrying the plague again became a concern. Check with your state before getting a prairie dog to be sure you're in compliance with local and state laws.
Like with most pets, there are a few ethical things to consider before investing in a prairie dog as a pet. First and foremost, you need to ensure you have the time, energy, and finances available to properly care for a prairie dog. They require a lot of care and attention and will not do well if starved for attention.
Additionally, prairie dogs are very social creatures and thrive in large groups in the wild. For this reason, unless you can give your prairie dog nearly undivided attention throughout the day, it's recommended to house more than one prairie dog together for company, socialization, and overall welfare.
Things to Consider
For the best chance at successfully owning a prairie dog as a pet, it's recommended that you acquire your animal while young, so they can be properly socialized and grow up accustomed to life in captivity.
Additionally, prairie dogs can get nippy if frustrated or handled incorrectly. For this reason, they may not be suitable to a home with small children who may handle the pet unsupervised.
Prairie Dog Behavior and Temperament
Prairie dogs are diurnal, meaning that they are active during the daytime hours and sleep at night. As 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.
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 often 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. Keep in mind, if you choose a housing method where burrowing is prevented, it is not ideal and may lead to anxiety from overexposure to stimulus. Be sure to provide them with plenty of places to hide, like boxes, tunnels, and more. A secure, escape-proof cage is also recommended.
If given an appropriate burrow outside, prairie dogs can withstand extreme temperatures on either end of the thermometer, keeping themselves warm in the winter and cool in the summer through burrowing. However, if you house your prairie dog outside without a burrow, their systems are ill-equipped to deal with extreme hot or cold temperatures. Generally, they prefer temperatures around 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
What Do Prairie Dogs Eat & Drink?
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 while in search of food.
In captivity, prairie dogs eat a simple vegetarian diet of pellets, fresh hay, grasses, fresh fruits, vegetables, and water. When kept as a pet, prairie dogs should be fed a high fiber pellet diet, along with timothy hay or timothy hay cubes. This food was formulated specifically for the nutritional requirements of captive prairie dogs. You should also offer whole oats and fresh vegetables, including raw sweet potatoes and raw carrots. Food and water should be readily available at all times, as prairie dogs are grazers and like to eat day and night.
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 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 and respiratory 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. Consider bringing your prarie dog in for wellness exams to discuss diet, housing, and overall husbandry for recommendations on improvement and to ensure your pet is healthy.
Purchasing Your Prairie Dog
Baby prairie dogs generally become available in the U.S. 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 are sold to the pet trade.
Licensed USDA dealers sell wild prairie dogs to the public, and different dealers will 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.
Can You Have a Prairie Dog as a Pet?
Similar Pets to the Prairie Dog
If you’re interested in pet prairie dogs, check out:
Otherwise, check out other rodents that can be your new pet.
Do prairie dogs do better in their natural habitats than in a domesticated one?
For the most part, yes. Prairie dogs are active and social creatures and will naturally benefit more in an environment where they can be around others of their kind while burrowing and running around as they'd like. However, if you can mimic these environmental characteristics, they will do well in captivity.
Are prairie dogs hard to take care of?
Prairie dogs are moderately difficult to care for. They require a lot of attention and care when it comes to creating the right social and physical environment for them. As a pet owner, you should be certain you can dedicate time to owning a prairie dog before purchasing one.
Are prairie dogs related to canines?
No—Despite their name, prairie dogs are actually rodents and are more closely related to squirrels, groundhogs, chipmunks, and woodchucks.
Thas, I. et al. Clinical Diseases In Pet Black-Tailed Prairie Dogs (Cynomys Ludovicianus): A Retrospective Study In 206 Animals. Journal Of Small Animal Practice, vol 60, no. 3, 2019, pp. 153-160. Wiley, doi:10.1111/jsap.12974
Wildlife Partners Unite to Protect Iconic Species from Deadly Plague. U.S. Department of Agriculture
Biggins, Dean E., and David A. Eads. Prairie Dogs, Persistent Plague, Flocking Fleas, And Pernicious Positive Feedback. Frontiers In Veterinary Science, vol 6, 2019. Frontiers Media SA, doi:10.3389/fvets.2019.00075