Prairie dogs (typically black-tailed prairie dogs) are becoming popular as pets. Like all rodents, they have teeth that continually grow throughout life. They are active, playful, and sturdy rodents and can make fairly affectionate pets if purchased young, socialized properly, and given lots of attention. However, they do demand a lot of care and attention, so prairie dogs represent a significant commitment. They are not suitable pets for everyone and may not be considered the best family pet (especially with small children) as they can become difficult, nippy, and aggressive if not regularly handled or socialized. 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.
"They do demand a lot of care and attention so prairie dogs represent a significant commitment."
In the wild, prairie dogs spend a lot of time in groups; they are social animals who often greet each other with a sort of "kiss." Unless you can spend a large amount of time with your pet, keeping only one prairie dog is not a good idea.
Males vs. Females
Males can be housed together if neutered and females can be housed together with or without spaying. If a male is housed with a female, neutering is essential to prevent breeding and unplanned pregnancies. Prairie dogs are burrowing animals, so their housing should allow for this normal activity. Males are usually larger than females. The average weight of an adult prairie dog ranges from 1.5-3.5 lb (650-1600 g).
Female prairie dogs usually produce one litter per year. Pregnancy lasts 35-40 days, and the average litter contains 2-10 pups. Pups are weaned by seven weeks of age. Puberty is reached at two to three years of age. Pregnant and nursing females may become aggressive towards other prairie dogs, and should be separated from them.
If properly cared for, prairie dogs have a lifespan of about 8-10 years, similar to rabbits. Like rabbits, they are "hindgut fermenters," which means that the digestion of their food occurs by bacterial fermentation in the lower intestines. This also means that they require a large amount of dietary roughage or fiber. Obesity is a common problem in pet prairie dogs, due to improper diet and lack of exercise. Properly feeding your pet (with a diet of mainly Timothy hay, Orchard grass, or Brome hay) and allowing for adequate exercise can prevent this problem.
Dental disease is very common in pet prairie dogs. Abnormal tooth growth or dental malformations need to be addressed by a qualified veterinarian, especially if you suspect your prairie dog has swellings around the jaw or face or is having trouble eating.
Selecting Your Pet Prairie Dog
Ideally, you should adopt or purchase a young prairie dog. If the one you wish to adopt or purchase is already aggressive, choose another prairie dog or wait for another litter. The eyes and nose should be clear and free of any discharge that might indicate a respiratory infection. The pet should be curious and inquisitive and should be easily handled. It should not be thin or emaciated. Check for the presence of wetness around the anus, which might indicate diarrhea. Check for the presence of external parasites, such as fleas and ticks. If possible, examine the animal's mouth for broken teeth or any obvious sores, which could suggest disease. Inquire as to whether the prairie dog has been surgically altered (spayed or neutered).
The First Veterinary Visit
Your pet prairie dog should be examined by an exotic animal veterinarian within 48 hours of purchase. In many cases, this is required by the seller in order for you to be protected by their health guarantee. At this visit, your veterinarian will discuss proper care, diet, and housing of your prairie dog.
Even tame prairie dogs can be difficult to examine during a checkup, as they are very strong and can be challenging to handle if they feel threatened or frightened. They are capable of deep, painful bites. As a result, gas or an injectable sedative is often needed to perform a thorough physical exam. While many owners are concerned about the safety of anesthesia, anesthesia using isoflurane or a similar gas is generally safe, even for sick pets. The chance of death (or injury to the pet, doctor, or staff) is much less when anesthesia is used than if the pet becomes stressed and agitated during handling when awake.
As is true with all pets, prairie dogs benefit from annual veterinary examinations. Many veterinarians who treat exotic pets recommend a check-up twice a year, especially for older prairie dogs (five years of age and older). A microscopic fecal examination (to look for parasites) and full physical examination can detect diseases in their early stages, before the pet begins to show symptoms of illness. Other tests that may be recommended as part of a routine wellness examination include radiographs (x-rays,) blood tests, and urine tests.
Since most veterinarians do not treat exotic pets, make sure the veterinarian you select has experience with treating exotic pets. Your veterinarian should be a member of the Association of Exotic Mammal Veterinarians (AEMV) or the American Association of Zoo Veterinarians (AAZV).
Vaccines are neither needed nor approved for pet prairie dogs.
Interesting Information About Prairie Dogs
- Prairie dogs do not hibernate but may have dormant or less active periods during cooler weather.
- Prairie dogs "bark" when excited or as an alarm call if startled.
- Prairie dogs can be nippy; talk to your veterinarian prior to purchasing a prairie dog if you have small children.
- To prevent injury to your pet and family, prairie dogs should not be allowed free reign of the house.