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Providing a Home for a Prairie Dog

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

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Before bringing home a prairie dog, you should make sure you have a suitable, safe enclosure for your pet. You will also need to provide a complete diet and consider how you can meet your pet’s exercise and socialization needs.

Housing

A proper enclosure for prairie dogs should be spacious and secure.

Housing for prairie dogs should be well-secured because their natural curiosity and chewing behavior will likely expose them to a number of household dangers such as toxic chemicals, poisonous household plants, or electrical cords. Animals kept as pets should be provided with a large enough space and materials for burrowing. Hay or wood shavings deep enough to allow your pet to burrow work well; however, cedar shavings should be avoided as they can irritate the respiratory tract. Nest boxes can be used to simulate the natural burrow environment. Large plastic rodent cages placed inside a larger container can help prevent bedding from spreading around when your pet digs or burrows. A large rock helps maintain a prairie dog’s nails, and nonpoisonous dried tree branches or chew toys allow the gnawing action required to maintain appropriate tooth length. Prairie dogs do best in a cool, dry environment and should be kept at temperatures of 69 to 72°F (20 to 22°C) and relative humidity of 30 to 70%. Bedding materials should be replaced regularly, and enclosures cleaned and sanitized weekly to prevent disease. Prairie dogs can be trained to use a litter pan or box.

Diet

In the wild, prairie dogs mainly eat grasses, as well as some leaves and flowering plants. Feeding your prairie dog a diet of good quality commercial rabbit or rodent pellets, alfalfa cubes, and timothy or grass hay will help keep it healthy. Pelleted diets and alfalfa should be decreased as animals mature to prevent obesity or gallbladder disease. Treats should be given sparingly, if at all, because obesity can shorten the life of your pet. Fruit can be given as an occasional treat. Prairie dogs have big appetites. During summer, they will normally store up fat reserves for hibernating in winter. Although prairie dogs are not true hibernators, they may enter an inactive state if they are kept at temperatures less than 55°F (13°C). Watering systems should be sanitized at least every other day to prevent bacterial contamination.

Exercise

Providing a housing enclosure that is large enough for the prairie dog to move around and play, as well as materials for burrowing, allows your pet the exercise required to help it stay healthy and fend off boredom. Adding chew toys and tubing (to simulate tunnels) can help keep your pet active and curious. Prairie dogs are not climbers, so shelving in the cage is not necessary.

Temperament

Prairie dogs can be very friendly and sociable with their owners; however, they can become stressed and may bite anyone to whom they have not bonded. Because prairie dogs are sociable animals, they require attention from and interaction with their owners. They can make a number of different sounds, and owners may come to recognize particular calls that indicate excitement, greeting, aggression, and others. If left alone, prairie dogs can become depressed and develop behavior problems. It is highly recommended that your pet be neutered; otherwise your prairie dog can become irritable and aggressive during breeding season.

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