Courtesy of Oxbow Pet Products
Getting to Know your Pet Prairie Dog:
Prairie dogs are some of the most social of herbivore pets! They appreciate human interaction and affection, like to be cuddled and show their gratitude with a little bark or yip. (Barking can also be a means of expressing alarm.)
On the other hand, prairie dogs are wild animals—they can be demanding and tend to require a lot of attention and owner commitment. They can become moody and aggressive without proper care—and you should never ignore or isolate them. It’s important to pay close attention to housing, nutrition and training of a prairie dog as you make them a part of your family.
Fun Facts about Prairie Dogs:
• Prairie dogs are rodents, not a species of dog. They should not eat dog food.
• Prairie dogs might be illegal in some places.
• Prairie dogs like to dig, so provide plenty of bedding and PVC piping.
• Average life span: 8 ½ years. Maximum reported life span: 15 years.
• Average adult weight: 1-2 lbs
• Gestation period: 30 – 35 days.
• Average kits per litter: 2 – 10.
• Optimal weaning age: 6 weeks.
What you Need to Start:
Large cage with solid flooring
Cardboard box to nest and hide in
Heavy water bowl or water bottle
Heavy food bowl
Toys and tunnels
Prairie dog toenails need frequent trimming. Their teeth grow rapidly throughout their lives, and it’s important to provide plenty of chewing material to keep growth under control.
Even though prairie dogs are extremely social animals, they need a place to call their own. Select a large crate or cage (at least 24” x 24” and 36” high)—large enough to provide ample room for cage furniture and toys. Choose solid flooring or mesh flooring with spacing less than one inch to prevent leg and foot injuries.
The cage needs to be tall enough that your prairie dog can stand on its hind legs and jump upwards. Solid or tight mesh sides must be deep enough to hold plenty of substrate for digging and burrowing. Place your pet’s home where there is plenty of household activity, but away from drafts and sunny windows.
Placing them in solitude or ignoring them often leads to behavioral and social problems.
Inside of the cage, provide a hiding/nesting box—one for each animal, with a common play area, if you have two prairie dogs together. Old towels or socks make great nesting material. Provide toys for enrichment, such as untreated wood blocks or old newspapers.
A bedding of compressed high-fiber wheat straw is best, because it absorbs as much as 300% of its weight in moisture. Choose a 100% biodegradable, dust-free bedding that will not stick to fur. You also can use straw or hay, shredded paper, certain hardwood shavings or composite newspaper pellets.
Avoid shredded paper made from shiny newspaper ads that contain toxic substances. Also avoid cedar and pine shavings—they contain resins that can irritate your pet’s skin, eyes and mucous membranes.
Prairie dogs want to be considered members of the family! Once they are litter trained, they even can be allowed to run around outside of the cage. Use child safety gates to keep them contained to a certain part of the house, and make sure the area is prairie-dog-proofed, because prairie dogs are notorious for gnawing, chewing and digging. In the cage, it is important to prevent your pet from chewing on cage bars or mesh, which can damage their teeth. In some cases, you might need to place a plastic shield in front of metal bars or wire mesh.
To protect your home from chewing when prairie dogs are roaming, cover cords and outlets, and make sure house plants are out of reach, because some can be poisonous. Be prepared for damage to curtains, carpets, wood molding and furniture.
Prairie dogs have been known to use their digging skills to dig holes in couch cushions and mattresses! You can prevent this by providing plenty of digging material and PVC piping in the cage.
Because prairie dogs are diggers, they are not agile climbers and can get hurt if they try to climb high furniture.
Be sure to always pick up your prairie dog from the cage, rather than letting it simply barge out the door. This encourages good behavior, socializes your pet to people and prevents him or her from becoming pushy and aggressive.
Prairie dogs are herbivores, which means they eat only plant material. Obesity is very common in captive prairie dogs, and lack of exercise or an improper diet contribute to this life-threatening malady. It’s important to feed your pet correctly to keep him or her from getting fat and unhealthy.
Water: First and foremost, all animals need lots of fresh clean water. A water bottle with a sipper tube works better for your prairie dog than a water bowl, because the bowl can be tipped over or contaminated with waste and bedding. However, your pet will chew the sipper tube if too much of it is accessible. Hang the bottle on the outside of the cage, so just the tip of the spout is inside. Change water daily and clean the sipper tube weekly.
Hay: At least 75% of a prairie dog’s diet should be unlimited, free-choice grass hays such as timothy, brome, orchard or oat hay.
Free choice means a pet can choose when to eat the hay—at any hour of the day. To assure freshness, wait until the pet nearly finishes one batch of hay before restocking. Hay provides essential fiber, which helps maintain intestinal and dental health.
Chewing on hay also prevents boredom, obesity and dental disease by satisfying the animal’s innate desire to chew. To provide environmental enrichment, you can pile hay in the cage and hide treats or hay cubes in it.
Complete, high-fiber cubes: Large hay cubes are especially effective in satisfying chewing instincts, stimulating the prairie dog’s innate playful behavior and providing complete nutrition. Be sure the hay cubes you choose to feed are complete cubes that are fortified with vitamins and minerals. Feed three to four cubes a day in a sturdy crock bowl, in addition to free-choice hay, and clean dishes daily. Remove any leftover food. Avoid feeding peanuts, sunflower seeds, puppy food, and other fatty foods that are high in calories and low in fiber. Contrary to what we might think, prairie dogs do not need table scraps, meat, cookies, crackers, dog biscuits, fruits or starchy foods. If you already have begun to feed your prairie dog a fatty or starchy diet, it’s important to gradually covert your pet to the new feed over the space of one or two weeks. Gradually changing food for any reason helps avoid digestive upset.
Treats: Just as with humans, there is more to your pet’s meals than the basics. Eating should be fun! Treats also help you bond with your pet. However, it’s tempting to feed too many treats, because pets like them so much. Avoid feeding so many treats that your pet refuses basic foods. Treats should make up no more than 5% of the total diet. Offer pre-packaged treats that are all-natural and low in sugar, with no artificial additives. Treats such as yogurt drops, carrots, dried fruit, and seed sticks are high in calories that promote obesity in prairie dogs. You can offer small quantities of vegetables as treats.
Fresh parsley, cilantro, sage, and basil are wonderful ways to add flavor and variety. Be sure to give no more than one cup of vegetables per day. To prevent digestive upset, feed the same treats consistently and avoid gas-forming vegetables such as broccoli or cauliflower.
Prairie Dog Troubleshooting:
Labored, noisy breathing, inactivity, depression, decreased appetite: Prairie dogs are prone to respiratory disease, which might be a result of, or exacerbated by, inappropriate humidity levels, soiled bedding with high ammonia levels, incisor teeth abnormalities (possibly related to chewing on metal) or infectious disease. Obesity also can tax your prairie dog’s respiratory system. Some of these issues can be addressed by carefully planning your prairie dog’s environment and diet, as explained in this article. If you observe any of these abnormalities, you should schedule a visit to the vet.
Aggression or mischievous behavior: Prairie dogs are extremely social and have a strong desire to bond with their human owners.
Normally they love to be cuddled and played with, but this can vary with season and events in the home. Some can be protective of their homes and family, so exercise caution when playing with and petting prairie dogs. They have been known to bite, and they can carry diseases that are transmissible to humans. (However, they do not transmit the plague.) To avoid aggressive behaviors, be sure not ignore your pet, and be sensitive to times when they might like to be less active.
Getting your prairie dog spayed or neutered also can help diminish seasonal mood swings and aggressive tendencies. It is not uncommon for them to become somewhat aggressive and high-strung once sexual maturity is reached. Spaying and neutering are an important part of being a responsible pet owner and can extend the life of your prairie dog.
General health: Regular visits to the vet are vital to keeping your prairie dog healthy. If you see any signs of digestive upset, diarrhea, slobbers, dental problems or other abnormal behaviors, call the vet for advice.
What you Probably Didn’t Know About Prairie Dogs:
Prairie dogs naturally go dormant at certain times of the year, displaying semi-hibernation behaviors, including eating and playing less—and even becoming grumpy. This often happens during inclement weather and during cooler, less sunny months.
Prairie dogs eat their own poop—both solid fecals and soft, moist cecals, which they consume directly from their bottoms. Although it seems strange to us, this is natural behavior, and it’s good for your pet because the poo is packed with nutrients!
1. Johnson-Delaney C: Special rodents: prairie dogs. Exotic Companion Medicine Handbook, Lake Worth, FL, Zoological Education Network, 1996.
2. Lightfoot TL: Clinical examination of chinchillas, hedgehogs, prairie dogs, and sugar gliders. The Veterinary Clinics of North America, Exotic Animal Practice 2(2):447-469, 1999.