The most common diseases affecting prairie dogs include infections of the digestive system, injuries, and respiratory disorders. These and other diseases are discussed in this section.
A prairie dog's teeth grow continuously. Through the constant gnawing and grinding action of the opposing teeth, the prairie dog keeps this growth in check. However, uneven positioning of the upper and lower teeth when the jaw is closed, known as malocclusion, sometimes occurs. This may cause an overgrowth of the incisors (front teeth) or cheek teeth. If the condition interferes with eating, prairie dogs will eat less or not at all, and they may lose weight and condition. They may also drool. Excess moisture may accumulate on their muzzles and chest along with partially eaten food. As maloccluded teeth continue to grow, nearby tissues may be damaged. To treat this condition, your veterinarian will sedate or anesthetize your prairie dog, then trim the overgrown teeth back to normal length.
Teeth may be broken if prairie dogs chew on the wire mesh or bars of their cage. If teeth become fractured, your veterinarian should trim them to avoid further damage.
Odontoma is another dental condition seen in prairie dogs. This occurs when the root of the incisor enlarges to the point that the nasal passages become blocked, causing difficulty breathing. The cause is uncertain, but it may be related to vitamin or mineral imbalances, lack of sunlight, or inadequate wear or pressure on the incisor teeth. Treatment can be difficult because it includes addressing the underlying causes as well as surgery to correct the odontoma.
Several conditions may cause diarrhea in prairie dogs, including overeating, rapid dietary changes, intestinal parasites, bacterial infections, such as those causing Tyzzer's disease (see Rabbits: Intestinal Diseases), or antibiotic-induced changes in naturally occurring harmless bacteria in the intestines. Poor nutrition should be corrected; for example, providing more fiber in the form of good-quality hay can help prevent diarrhea. Supportive treatment includes injected fluids and bismuth subsalicylate (the active ingredient in antidiarrheal medications such as Pepto-Bismol® and Kaopectate® ). Intestinal parasites may be treated with appropriate antibiotics. In cases of antibiotic-induced toxemia, your veterinarian may recommend giving Lactobacillus bacteria (such as that contained in probiotics) to help reestablish the natural balance of intestinal bacteria.
Injuries due to fighting and accidents (such as being dropped when handled) can cause fractured leg bones. A lack of calcium in the diet can also lead to fractures. Unless the prairie dog is restrained from chewing off bandages, casts, or splints, affected limbs may require amputation. Fractures require at least 3 to 6 weeks to heal. Pelvic fractures (broken hips) are common in adult prairie dogs and may heal on their own if the animal is housed in a way that prevents climbing.
Hair Loss (Alopecia)
The most frequent causes of hair loss in prairie dogs include injury due to catching or rubbing the fur on wire cages, poor nutrition, skin parasites (such as fleas, lice, and ticks), and parasitic fungi that affect the skin, hair, or nails.
A prairie dog with a fungal skin infection such as ringworm may not show any signs or it may have small, patchy areas of hair loss. Other signs to look for include irregular or circular, crusty, flaky skin sores with reddened edges. Transmission is by direct contact with infected animals and contaminated objects such as cage bedding. Diagnosis is based on physical signs and identification of the fungus in or on infected hairs by a laboratory test or by viewing the skin with an ultraviolet light called a Wood's lamp. Effective treatment may include fungicidal ointments, clipping hair from affected areas, povidone-iodine scrubs, or giving antifungal medication by mouth. Ringworm is contagious to humans and other animals.
Infestations of fleas, lice, or ticks can be treated with dips containing malathion or cat flea preventives and environmental control. Follow the treatment program, including careful attention to dosage levels, recommended by your veterinarian. Fleas on wild-caught prairie dogs pose a risk of carrying the organism that causes plague (see Prairie Dogs: Plague).
In 2003, an outbreak of monkeypox virus in the United States resulted in a number of human and animal cases, including several in prairie dogs. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention documented the transmission of the virus from infected Gambian rats to prairie dogs at an exotic pet distributor. Signs include large amounts of discharge from the nose, discharge from the eyes, difficulty breathing, enlargement of the lymph nodes, and sores on the skin and mucous membranes. Both animal-to-animal and animal-to-human transmission have been confirmed. Primary transmission is by direct contact with infected animals or eating the undercooked meat of an infected animal. There is no effective treatment. Because monkeypox virus can be transmitted to humans, any infected animal (and all animals it may have been in contact with) should be euthanized. Potential sources of infection must be removed, and housing thoroughly sanitized and disinfected. Wild animal species of differing origins should be housed separately to prevent spread of the virus.
Plague is a disease that can occur in several species of animals, including rodents and humans. The form of the plague that occurs in rodents is known as sylvatic plague. Prairie dogs are highly susceptible to infection with the bacteria that cause sylvatic plague (Yersinia pestis). The same bacteria also cause plague in humans. This disease can be spread through flea bites, droplets in the air, and direct contact. Currently, sylvatic plague is widespread throughout the western United States. Rapid outbreaks of plague affect a high proportion of the animals exposed, and the high death rate in wild prairie dog populations within a colony may limit further spread.
Infected animals may have no energy or appetite and usually die rapidly. Plague is often diagnosed after death by examination of the animal's body, which may show signs such as abnormal enlargement of the spleen, bleeding and inflammation of the lymph nodes, and fluid in the lungs. Diagnosis is also based on the appearance of sudden, widespread illness and laboratory tests to detect the disease-causing bacteria.
Of all cases of human plague reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention where a source of infection was identified, 13% were due to contact with wild prairie dogs. Infection may be transmitted from prairie dogs to humans by bites from infected fleas or by small droplets of fluid expelled in the air by coughing or sneezing. The risk of pet prairie dogs becoming infected and infecting their owners is very low; however, appropriate precautions should be taken with any newly wild-caught prairie dog. In addition, prairie dogs should not be kept in outside cages in areas where plague is known to be a problem.
Preventing the transmission of plague infections to humans requires adequate personal protective equipment (such as goggles, masks, respirators, gowns, and gloves), appropriate sanitation and disinfection, wild rodent control, flea removal from all animal species present, avoidance of sick or dead animals, and appropriate antibiotics (such as tetracyclines or trimethoprim-sulfa).
Literally meaning “inflammation of the skin of the foot,” pododermatitis may occur in captive prairie dogs due to rough or wire cage floors, poor sanitation, or injuries of the feet. These conditions may lead to abrasions; pus-filled, slow-healing sores; and long-lasting infections. Diagnosis is based on signs and finding the agent causing infection in laboratory tests. If pododer-matitis is detected early, animals should be switched to smooth-bottom flooring and sanitation should be improved, including more frequent changes of softer bedding material. Nails may require frequent trimming. Wounds should be cleaned and hair clipped around the sores. Affected feet should be soaked in a warm, disinfecting solution such as chlorhexidine or dimethyl sulfoxide combined with appropriate topical antibiotics. Your veterinarian can recommend the best treatment program. Severe cases may require injected antibiotics given by a veterinarian.
Adult male prairie dogs that are not neutered and do not mate can develop a buildup of urine, discharges, and debris in the prepuce (the foreskin on the penis). If this material masses together and hardens, it may lead to discomfort, bacterial infection, and damage to the penis. This condition occurs most commonly during or following the annual reproductive season (October to January). A pus-filled discharge may be seen around the opening to the foreskin; you may also notice signs that the animal is unable to control urination. To treat this condition your veterinarian will need to sedate the animal, manually remove the debris under the foreskin, and thoroughly clean the area. If bacterial infection is suspected, the veterinarian will do laboratory tests to find which bacteria are present and recommend treatment.
Respiratory disease in prairie dogs may be due to infectious causes (such as pneumonia caused by bacteria) or noninfectious causes (such as a dusty or humid environment). Noninfectious respiratory disease is more commonly seen in prairie dogs kept as pets. Diet and environmental conditions are suspected to be underlying causes. Obesity may also play a role in older prairie dogs. The airways may become blocked by inhalation of foreign bodies (such as dust or lint) or because of dental problems. Signs of respiratory disease in prairie dogs include open-mouth breathing, sneezing, and discharge from the nose. Noninfectious stuffy, runny nose or other allergic discharges often respond favorably to antihistamines and nasal decongestants given by mouth. Follow your veterinarian's dosage instructions and treatment program.
If infection is causing the respiratory problems, your veterinarian will likely advise treatment that includes general support and appropriate antibiotics. Early treatment will provide the best outcome.
This disease, caused by Francisella tularensis bacteria, is rare in prairie dogs. However, when infection does occur, it causes serious illness (such as pneumonia, blood poisoning, and damage to the liver and spleen) with a high death rate. Transmission is either direct or indirect by bites from infected mosquitoes and ticks. Infected prairie dogs may show an inability to coordinate the movements of muscles, dehydration, severe diarrhea, and sudden death. There is no effective treatment for this infection. Because tularemia can be transmitted to humans, euthanasia is generally recommended when infection is suspected. In addition, potential sources of infection must be removed and housing thoroughly sanitized and disinfected.
Baylisascaris procyonis roundworm larvae have been found in some prairie dogs that come into contact with raccoons (the natural host of this roundworm). These larvae may migrate to the central nervous system and cause poor physical coordination, head tilt, and loss of the ability of affected prairie dogs to rise or right themselves. Major physical changes may not be apparent, but evidence of parasitic worms has been found in the brains of infected animals. There is no treatment.
Tapeworm larvae are common in wild prairie dogs, but they are rarely seen in animals kept as pets.
Cancers and Tumors
Tumors are uncommon in prairie dogs. Malignant tumors of the liver may occur, sometimes in association with chronic active hepatitis, a disease involving inflammation of the liver. Tumors in the sinus area of the upper jaw known as odontomas (see Prairie Dogs: Dental Disorders) are significant causes of upper respiratory signs in prairie dogs and may be related to the constant chewing and grinding action of the upper incisor teeth. Other tumors found in prairie dogs include benign kidney tumors, malignant stomach tumors, benign fatty tissue tumors, and malignant tumors of the fibrous tissue of the cartilage at the base of the tongue.
Last full review/revision July 2011 by Katherine E. Quesenberry, DVM, MPH, DABVP (Avian); Kenneth R. Boschert, DVM, DACLAM