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Description and Physical Characteristics of Prairie Dogs

By Katherine E. Quesenberry, DVM, MPH, DABVP (Avian) ; Kenneth R. Boschert, DVM, DACLAM, Associate Director, Division of Comparative Medicine, Washington University

Adult prairie dogs are 12 to 16 inches (30 to 40 centimeters) long and weigh 2 to 4 pounds (1 to 2 kilograms), with males slightly larger than females. Prairie dogs have short legs, sharp claws, a bark-like call and a need to chew. They have partially developed cheek pouches and tails covered with fur. The lifespan in captivity may reach 8 to 10 years.

In nature, prairie dogs live in large and complex social groups referred to as towns, which may cover many acres. Towns are subdivided into colonies or wards; these are further subdivided into distinct social family units called coteries. Coteries usually consist of an adult male, 1 to 4 adult females, and any offspring less than 2 years old. Prairie dogs are active during the day, particularly during the cooler hours of the day when they feed and socialize.

Wild prairie dogs live in groups called coteries.

Female prairie dogs come into heat once a year and produce an average litter of 4 to 5 pups in the spring. Pregnancy lasts 34 to 36 days and pups are born blind and hairless. After weaning at 7 weeks of age, young males soon move away, while females typically spend their entire lives in their original coterie. Aggression from females directed at other females increases during pregnancy and the period of time in which they are nursing their young. Prairie dogs have a scent gland that can emit a strong musky odor.

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