Prairie Dog Care

CARE OF PRAIRIE DOGS

Prairie dogs are heavy bodied rodents which by some have been referred to as burrowing squirrels. They are native to the grassy plains of western North America ranging as far north as the Dakotas all the way south to northern Mexico. Of the five species of prairie dog (Cynomys spp.) which reside in the United States, the black-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus) is the species most commonly domesticated.

In the wild, prairie dogs reside in colonies. They form extensive burrows where they live. Unlike many rodents which prefer the night life, prairie dogs tend to be active during the day.  They are gray to brown in color, with adult body weights of two to three pounds.

DIET

The natural diet for prairie dogs consists primarily of grasses. In captivity the diet should be comprised of rabbit pellets and unlimited timothy or other grass hay. The rabbit pellets should be rationed at one-fourth to one-third cup per animal daily (otherwise you may head towards obesity).  Alfalfa hay should not be given due to its high calcium to phosphorus ratio, which if used long-term, predisposes the animal to metabolic problems. Dietary supplements may include occasional small amounts of fruits, breads and grains.

Clean, fresh source of water must be available at all times. A typical rodent water bottle equipped with a sipper tube works well. Alternatively, a water bowl may be used, but is more likely to become contaminated with food, bedding and fecal waste. Regardless of the choice, it should be cleaned and thoroughly washed daily.

HANDLING

The proper procedure for lifting a prairie dog is to wrap one hand around its chest and support the hindquarters with your opposite hand.  Care should be taken when working around their head and face, for they may bite when disturbed or agitated. Sharp claws (used for digging) may serve as weapons when threatened. An old bath towel may be used to wrap around the animal to allow better control and further protection.  Unlike most rodents, prairie dogs have very scant loose skin over their neck, so “scruffing” for restraint is difficult. A frequently handled prairie dog may become rather docile and easy to work with.

HOUSING

Prairie dogs can be housed within enclosures made of wire, stainless steel, durable plastic, or glass. The latter two materials must be used with caution since enclosed units greatly reduce ventilation and may contribute to respiratory disease as a result air quality issues and difficult regulation of humidity and temperature.  Minimally the enclosure should have at least one open side for adequate ventilation (be careful using aquariums). Wood should be avoided due to the difficulty in cleaning and susceptibility to destructive gnawing. The design and construction of the enclosure must be escape-proof.  Be careful to prevent  sharp edges and other potential hazards. The size of the enclosure must allow for normal activity. If the sides are at least ten inches high, the top can be left open, assuming other pets are not a threat.

Cage flooring can be wire or solid.  Wire-mesh flooring provides a cleaner environment and easier maintenance but may result in injuries to the feet and hocks.  Over extended periods it may result in foot pad and hock infections from abrasive rubbing on the fecal-contaminated wire. In order to reduce the chances of this happening, provide a solid platform as a resting place in one area of the cage.  Solid floored cages tend to be more esthetically pleasing when appropriate bedding is used.  Deep bedding on a solid floor also provides the best conditions for prairie dogs to burrow, which is essential for their wellbeing.

Bedding materials must be clean, nontoxic, absorbent, relatively dust-free, and easy to replace.  Acceptable choices include wood shavings (aspen pine), shredded/pelleted paper, and other commercial pellets.  Ground corn cob can increase the risk of certain fungal problems. Cedar shavings may lead to respiratory and liver disease in some rodents, so should be avoided.

Prairie dogs are more comfortable and relaxed when housed in a quiet secluded spot.  Be sure to select a location away from direct sunlight and cold damp areas. Prairie dogs do best in a dry, cool environment with adequate ventilation. Drastic environmental changes should be prevented, most importantly high temperatures and high humidity.

Prairie dogs are social creatures, so more than one animal may be safely housed together. Even males and females can coexist in the same enclosure peacefully (watch out for reproduction!)

COMMON DISEASE CONDITIONS

Obesity

Obesity is common in prairie dogs. They will likely become over weight if offered unlimited food and provided with only minimal exercise.  The body confirmation of prairie dogs is naturally a little heavy/stocky.  Once obese, these rodents have a much greater tendency towards heart disease and respiratory problems (both discussed below).  The best way to prevent obesity is to limit access to pelleted food (give only one-forth to one-third cup daily) and provide ample hay and exercise (including burrowing).

Pneumonia

Respiratory disease is also very common in prairie dogs.  Obesity and poorly ventilated cages often play a role in the animal’s susceptibility to respiratory pathogens.  Pneumonia can result from a number of viral and bacterial agents.  Many of these disease causing organisms normally inhabit the respiratory tract of clinically healthy animals.  They serve as opportunistic invaders when the pet’s body defenses are lowered as a result of stress and other illness.  Signs may include difficulty breathing (dyspnea), discharge from the nose and eyes, loss of appetite and lethargy.  Veterinary consultation should be sought immediately for any of these symptoms. A bacterial culture with antibiotic sensitivity of the throat and/or nasal passages may be required to assist the veterinarian in the selection of an appropriate antibiotic. Aggressive antibiotic therapy and supportive care is often necessary to get the condition under control. Unfortunately, even though elimination of the symptoms is possible, eradication of the causative pathogen is unlikely (and relapses can occur).  Correction of the predisposing factors is necessary to reduce the chance of recurrence.

Heart Disease

Heart disease occurs in prairie dogs at an increased incidence versus other rodents.  This condition is often associated with obesity and may appear as respiratory distress.  Signs include lethargy, respiratory difficulty, reluctance to move, sudden collapse, cold extremities, and pale to purple discoloration of the tissues lining the mouth (mucus membranes). If any of these signs are observed, veterinary assistance should be sought immediately. A veterinarian will likely need an echocardiogram or radiographs to assist in the diagnoses.  Although this condition won’t be cured, management and extended good quality of life is possible.  The goals of therapy include correcting underlying risk factors such as obesity, and management of the symptoms.

Pseudotuberculosis

Prairie dogs have been shown to be natural carriers of Yersinia pseudotuberculosis.  This bacteria is spread by fecal contamination.  Affected animals exhibit nonspecific signs such as weight loss, lethargy, loss of appetite, and diarrhea. To make a diagnosis, the veterinarian may be able to culture the organism from blood, feces or tissues.  Sometimes enlargement of the spleen, liver, and abdominal lymph nodes is observed.  Once a diagnosis has been established, treatment with a broad-spectrum antibiotics and supportive care is employed, and can be curative.

Ringworm

Prairie dogs are susceptible to mycotic (fungal) infections such as ringworm.  Microsporum gypseum is the agent usually associated with prairie dog ringworm.  Effected animals exhibit areas of fur loss, increased pigmentation and thickened skin over the chest, abdomen, lower back, tail, and head.  By itself, this condition is not usually very itchy (pruritic). A veterinarian can confirm a diagnosis with skin scrapings and fungal cultures. Treatment consists of antifungal agents topically and systemically (by mouth).

  • · Special Thanks to Midwest Exotic Hospital and Dr Bobby Coffins and Drs Wallach & Boever whose published information on this subject was compiled to produce this info sheet.

Prairie Dog Facts

Scientific name…………………………………………………………….. Cynomys Iudovicianus

Life span…………………………………………………………………….. 5 – 10 years

Environmental Temperature………………………………………….. 68~ 72 degrees F

Relative Humidity……………………………………………………….. 30 – 70 %

Sexual Maturity…………………………………………………………… 2 – 3 years

Breeding Season…………………………………………………………… January – March

Estrous cycle………………………………………………………………. 2 – 3 weeks

Gestation……………………………………………………………………. 30 – 35 days

Weaning Age……………………………………………………………….. 6 – 7 weeks

 

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Veterinarian/Owner of Pismo Beach Veterinary Clinic

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