Disclaimer: Pet Keen does not endorse or encourage keeping prairie dogs as pets. This article is for informative purposes only.
Despite being called “dogs,” prairie dogs are actually large rodents native to the Great Plains region of the U.S. Prairie dogs are becoming popular as pets, particularly the black-tailed prairie dog, but are they a good fit for captivity?
There are many challenges to owning a prairie dog as a pet, especially when it comes to providing a natural habitat and giving them the care they need. Find out all you need to know about what keeping one of these animals entails, and whether it’s a good fit for you.
About Prairie Dogs
Prairie dogs are herbivorous burrowing rodents that reside in grassland areas. The five species of prairie dog in North America include the black-tailed, white-tailed, Utah, Mexican, and Gunnison’s prairie dogs.
In the wild, the prairie dog is a keystone species, meaning they have a profound effect on the natural environment. Their mound-building activities encourage the renewal of topsoil and grass development. They’re also important to the food chain as a prey species for predators like golden eagles, coyotes, hawks, ferrets, coyotes, and foxes. Other burrowing rodents and birds rely on prairie dog burrows for nesting, and grazing species rely on the grass development for food.
Are Prairie Dogs Legal to Own as Pets?
Prairie dogs were among the rodents responsible for the monkeypox outbreak in 2003, leading to a ban in the pet trade for five years. In 2008, the FDA relaxed restrictions on prairie dogs in the pet trade. Then, in 2016, a growing concern over prairie dogs carrying the plague led to individual states or localities restricting ownership. As with any exotic pet, be sure to check your local laws before getting a prairie dog.
Behavior and Temperament
Prairie dogs have some of the most complex social structures and communication in the animal kingdom. Because of this, prairie dogs require a lot of socialization and attention to stave off boredom and stress. If you can’t devote at least 6 hours per day to your prairie dog, then you’ll need to provide them with a full colony to meet their social needs.
They’re diurnal, meaning they’re active during the day. This makes socialization a bit easier, but you’ll need to arrange for a pet sitter or invest in a colony to address their needs while you’re at work all day. If your prairie dog isn’t handled regularly, it may become aggressive.
Male vs. Female Prairie Dogs
Both male and female prairie dogs can have good temperaments. Males have a musky odor compared to females, but it’s not unpleasant. No matter which you choose, your prairie dog will need to be spayed or neutered to prevent health issues and curb aggression from hormonal changes.
Fixed males can be housed together and females can be housed together intact or spayed. If you want to house males and females together, the males need to be neutered to prevent breeding. Full colonies should have only fixed animals.
Prairie Dog Housing
Prairie dogs need a naturalistic habitat that allows for burrowing and foraging. Adult prairie dogs can burrow several feet and create chambers, so you will need a room-sized enclosure with concrete borders and at least three feet of subterranean burrowing space. If your prairie dog can’t burrow, it may experience anxiety and stress.
Some climates are suitable for outdoor enclosures. Prairie dogs don’t hibernate, but they burrow and become dormant during cold seasons. If you don’t provide them with a burrow, however, they’re unable to withstand temperature extremes of hot summers and cold winters.
Prairie Dog Diet
In the wild, prairie dogs eat mostly grasses for food and prickly pear cactus for water. They also forage, so they will eat roots and brushes. Your captive prairie dog’s diet should consist of pellets, hay, grasses, seeds, nuts, and vegetables. It’s important to provide enough fiber for healthy digestion. Some commercial prairie dog foods are available and meet their nutritional requirements.
Prairie Dog Health Problems
Before you get a prairie dog, make sure you have a qualified exotic veterinarian in your area or within driving distance. Prairie dogs can be aggressive and defiant during examinations, so most veterinarians use gas anesthesia to subdue them. Throughout their life stages, prairie dogs should have at least one annual exam and a six-month checkup. As they age, you may need to increase their exams to two or three times a year.
Exams typically include a fecal examination for parasites, a full physical examination, blood tests, urine tests, and radiographs. Vaccines aren’t necessary or approved for prairie dogs at this time.
Prairie dogs may develop health problems from captivity, such as obesity and heart or respiratory conditions. Dental problems are also common. All of these can be prevented with the appropriate diet in moderation and regular veterinary exams.
Another concern is monkeypox, which has been reported in prairie dogs in 2003. Symptoms of this disease include discharge from the eyes and nose, enlarged lymph nodes, fever, and skin lesions. Monkeypox is a zoonotic disease that can be transmitted to humans.
Where to Buy or Adopt Prairie Dogs
Prairie dogs are available during the pupping season, which falls between April and July. Because of the abundance of prairie dogs in the wild, thousands of pups are collected to control their population. Once collected, they’re used as food for endangered species or sold into the pet trade by USDA-licensed dealers.
Baby prairie dogs are ideal and easier to train than adults. If you’re planning to get a full colony, it’s best to get a bunch of babies to raise and house together. Typically, young prairie dogs will bond with their colony more than their human owners, which is the healthiest option.
While you may find adoptable prairie dogs, they’re fairly new to the pet trade and may not be available. Also, adoptable adults may come with health problems or behavioral problems. Whether you’re adopting or purchasing, get a veterinary exam to ensure your prairie dog is healthy.
Prairie dogs can be good pets for committed owners that provide the necessary housing, dietary, and social needs. Owning a prairie dog is a lot of work and expense, however, and may not be ideal for busy adults or families with young children and other pets. Furthermore, prairie dogs can develop behavioral issues and may carry zoonotic diseases that impact not only their owners but the general public.
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Featured Image Credit by Sonja-Kalee, Pixabay