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Choosing a Prairie Dog

By: R. D. and Patti Bartlett

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Black-tailed prairie dogs, Cynomys ludovicianus, are small, communal, burrowing rodents with endearing mannerisms, but they are plagued by bad press, non-indulgent ranchers, land-developers and property owners. Today's wild population of this keystone prairie species is an estimated one percent of their population at the turn of the 20th century. Black-tailed prairie dogs have been poisoned, vacuumed and hunted almost to oblivion. They deserve to be included on the federal endangered species list, but politics and other priorities have so far prevented this.

Four species of prairie dogs are found in the central and western United States. All are communal, but the black-tail, a species of relative lowlands, is particularly so.

Exactly how communal is communal? In the early 1900s in Texas, one prairie dog town covered more than 2,500 square miles and had an estimated p-dog population of more than 400 million animals. Today, black-tailed prairie dogs have been eradicated over much of their former range. Prairie dogs may now be most reliably seen in the wild only along some roadsides and in public park lands.

Should an animal so reduced in numbers be collected from the wild for the pet industry? In a perfect world, the unequivocal answer would be no. But the world of a prairie dog is anything but perfect. It is very likely that if they were not destined for the pet trade, the captured little rodents would be eradicated. So, with that in mind, our answer must, at least for the time being, be an equivocal yes. A life span of 6 to 9 years can be expected in captivity.

Appearance

Adult are 3 to 4 pounds in weight and 14 to 16 inches long (including a 3-inch long tail). Despite his name, the black-tailed prairie dog is actually a burrowing squirrel. Of the several species found in the United States, only the black-tail actually has a black tail. His relatives, the smaller white-tailed Gunnison's and the endangered Utah prairie dogs, have tails tipped with white. Clad in soft hairs of buffy-tan to tan (rarely white), a prairie dog is darker on his back than on his stomach, and his chin and throat are lighter than his stomach. The very short, thin tail is fully haired. The eyes are situated near the top of the head and vision is keen. When sufficiently frightened, with an alarm bark, they dive headfirst into the burrow. Before reemerging, they peer cautiously around. With the eyes so close to the top of the head, very little of the prairie dog shows as he scans the area from the burrow mouth.

As do the incisors of virtually all rodents, those of the prairie dog grow continually. Under ordinary circumstances, the teeth are kept at the ideal length and sharpness by wearing against each other and by chewing. Occasionally, when not provided with sufficient chewing materials or through injury or other trauma, the teeth may fail to wear naturally. This will prevent your pet from eating naturally.

Housing

To chew, chew, chew is a prairie dog's forte. It's nothing personal - it's just what they do. Furniture legs, Habi-trails (from the inside out), electrical cords, old clothes, even bare toes – he'll try them all and if he likes them, he will chew them. The message here is when your pet is running loose around a room, make that room as chew-proof as possible, and watch your prairie dog carefully and continually. If you need to leave even for a moment, put him back in his cage.

This three-dimensionally active animal requires a cage at least 2 feet by 2 feet by 4 feet. Better yet is a cage 2 feet by 4 feet by 6 feet.

The prairie dog gets his name from his bark-like vocalizations. Actually, these little rodents have a rather extensive repertoire of sounds, but the two most noticeable are the "here comes danger" bark and the "all-clear" bark. Both sounds have two-syllables, but are of different intonations.

Feeding

In the wild, these rodents eat a main diet of grass and perhaps a berry or two. They do not eat a high-fat diet, and they should not be given a high-fat diet in captivity. Timothy hay, carrots, sweet potatoes, a few sunflower seeds, safflower seeds, turnip greens, collard greens, dandelions (flowers and greens), nasturtiums (flowers and greens) and rabbit chow, are all acceptable dietary items. Do not give peanuts, cookies and other high-fat foods. Do not allow your prairie dog to become unnaturally obese, but do keep in mind that some wintertime weight gain is entirely normal. Fresh water should be available at all times.

Handling

If at all possible, purchase a prairie dog pup. Handle your prairie dog pup gently but firmly. Gently tickle his cheeks, chin and belly and pet his back so he becomes fully accustomed to your handling and petting. By the time he is weaned you will have a devoted (sometimes almost too devoted) pet.

The more often you handle and pet your prairie dog, the tamer and more tractable he will become and remain. Even if obtained when older, prairie dogs usually become reasonably (but not reliably) tame. A single prairie dog is more dependent on his human owner for playful and loving interactions than a pair of them housed together.

Prairie dogs are not adept climbers, but will often attempt to ascend to the highest vantage point.

Breeding

Following their normal winter slow-down (they don't truly hibernate) prairie dogs become more active and begin breeding as the days lengthen and winter gives way to spring. However, these little rodents do not breed reliably in captivity, and almost all of those available in the pet trade are taken from the wild. From three to five seems to be a normal litter, although up to eight pups may occasionally be born. The babies are born about 45 days after a successful breeding. They are small, hairless and their eyes are closed. They begin weaning at about 5 weeks of age, begin leaving the burrow a week later, and disperse when they are about 10 weeks old.

Unless it is your intent to try to breed them, neutering is suggested for all captive prairie dogs. This should be accomplished before the late autumn (and the related and normal pre-winter fat accumulation) of your prairie dog's birth year.

Medical Concerns

Although prairie dogs are normally hardy and with good care remain quite healthy, occasionally sickness or injury may befall your pet.

  • Diarrhea
  • Urinary blockage
  • Difficulty moving
  • Malocclusion
  • Obesity

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