Prairie Dogs: Diseases

By Gregory Rich, DVM; Rick Axelson, DVM

What are some of the common diseases of pet prairie dogs?

Common conditions of pet prairie dogs include obesity, dental disease, respiratory disease, heart disease, and parasites. Prairie dogs can also be afflicted with cancer and ringworm (a fungal disease of the skin and hair coat).

What are the signs of these diseases?

"Signs of illness, regardless of the cause, are often non-specific."

Signs of illness, regardless of the cause, are often non-specific. For this reason, any deviation from normal in your pet’s activity levels, appetite, or defecation habits should be immediately evaluated by a veterinarian that is experienced with exotic pets, and prairie dogs in particular.


An overweight prairie dog may suffer from secondary heart, liver, or pancreatic problems. Obesity results from feeding the wrong diet and from lack of exercise. Obesity is easily prevented by doing your due diligence in educating your family about the recommended diet for your prairie dog. An overweight prairie dog will likely be resistant to a change to a proper diet, as they often become "hooked" on the diet which predisposed them to obesity in the first place. Please refer to the "Prairie Dogs: Feeding" handout.


External parasites may easily be seen on prairie dogs. These include fleas and ticks. Intestinal parasites, such as worms, or protozoa, such as giardia and coccidia, may be identified by a microscopic fecal examination. Prairie dogs bred in captivity generally have fewer parasite problems than wild-caught animals. A thorough veterinary examination, including microscopic analysis of the feces and anti-parasite treatment if deemed necessary, is critical upon purchase of your new pet.

"Prairie dogs bred in captivity have fewer parasite problems than wild-caught animals."

Fleas can carry plague; prairie dogs should be treated for fleas before purchase. Wild-caught prairie dogs can harbor the intestinal parasite Balisascaris procyonis, which can be transmitted to other pets and people. Washing your hands after handling your prairie dog will greatly diminish or prevent transmission of this parasite to family members and/or to other household pets. There is currently no known effective treatment for this parasite.

Dental Disease

Dental disease can occur from overgrown teeth or from malocclusion (abnormal positioning) of the teeth. Damage to the teeth can result from trauma, chewing on the cage, or feeding an improper diet (one too low in fibrous grass hay.) Signs of dental disease can include decreased appetite, weight loss, and excessive salivation from the mouth. Treatment of abnormal teeth may require filing misaligned teeth under anesthesia or, in severe cases, surgical tooth extraction. Tooth abscesses may be suspected by soft swellings on the jaw or on the cheeks below one of the eyes. Skull or dental radiographs will be necessary in many cases to detect a condition referred to as pseudo-odontoma. Dental diseases often require regular scheduled veterinary visits to keep things under control.

Respiratory and Cardiac Disease

Respiratory disease may be secondary to obesity, or may be the result of an infection with bacteria or fungi. Tumors or cancerous growths in the chest or lungs are not common, but have been documented. Diagnosis is through radiography, ultrasonography, or cultures of discharges from the respiratory system when indicated. Treatment depends upon the cause, but the prognosis is always guarded as many of these cases are diagnosed late in the course of the disease.

As with respiratory disease, cardiac disease is also seen in prairie dogs. Dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), a heart disease also seen in people, dogs, ferrets and cats, may occur in prairie dogs. Clinical signs include difficulty breathing, weight loss, and lack of appetite. Diagnosis of this disease will involve chest radiographs and an Echocardiogram. Specific cardiac medications recommended as treatment for DCM have been promising in some cases. As with many respiratory diseases, the prognosis for cardiac disease is always guarded as many of these cases are diagnosed later in the course of the disease.

Monkey pox, which is transmissible to people, was reported in some prairie dogs in 2003. Due to an outbreak of monkey pox in the USA, a joint order was issued that banned the import of several African rodents and also the transport, sale, or release of pet prairie dogs.

How can I tell if my prairie dog is sick?

Although symptoms of certain diseases may be relatively specific, most signs are vague and non-specific. Common non-specific signs include anorexia (lack of appetite) and lethargy, which can be seen with many diseases. Therefore, ANY deviation from normal should be a cause for concern, and should alert you to take your prairie dog to your veterinarian for an immediate evaluation.

How are prairie dog diseases diagnosed?

Sometimes the history and physical examination will give the veterinarian clues as to the underlying problem (obesity, dental disease, etc.). Often, diagnostic testing (fecal examination for parasites, aspiration of lumps and bumps to check for abscesses and cancers, x-rays, blood tests) must be done. Due to the nature of prairie dogs, most testing is done under gas anesthesia or use of an injectable sedative.

"History and physical examination will often give the veterinarian clues as to the underlying problem."

How are prairie dog diseases treated?

Diseases related to diet are treated with dietary correction. As noted above, prairie dogs with dental disease may require surgical tooth extraction or filing misaligned teeth under anesthesia. Truly sick pets often require hospitalization with syringe feeding and intravenous (IV) fluid administration. Bacterial and parasitic diseases are treated with the appropriate medication. Prairie dogs with serious disorders of the internal organs are treated with supportive therapy, including drug therapy as indicated. Unfortunately, many do not survive due to the advanced stage of the disease at the time of diagnosis.

Veterinarians belonging to AEMV (The Association of Exotic Animal Veterinarians) or AAZV (American Association of Zoo Veterinarians) are generally more educated about prairie dog diseases and treatment.

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