Prairie Dogs Prairie Dogs

Prairie dogs are very fun pets to have and easy to care for, but there is a lot of false information out there, especially on the internet and sometimes from pet stores, so make sure to see a veterinarian regarding proper care, caging, bedding and diet before buying all the "wrong stuff". There are only a few veterinarians in Chicago and the Chicago suburbs that specifically care for prairie dogs and other exotic pets, including the veterinarians at Midwest Bird & Exotic Animal Hospital (located near Chicago's west side, only a few blocks west of Harlem, Chicago's western border), so make sure to find the right veterinarian before your prairie dog gets sick!

Scientific Name: Cynomys ludovicianus
Life Span: 5-10 years
Environment Temperature Range: 68F-72F
Relative Humidity Range: 30-70%
Sexual Maturity: 2-3 years
Gestation Period: 30-35 days
Breading Season: January-March
Weaning Age: 6-7 weeks

Prairie dogs are heavy bodied rodents, which have been referred to as burrowing squirrels. They are native to the grassy plains of western North America from the Dakotas 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 kept as pets. In the natural state, prairie dogs reside in colonies. Prairie dogs form extensive and elaborate burrows within which they live. They tend to be active during the day, unlike many other rodents, which prefer the nightlife. These rodents are gray to brown in color, with an adult body weight of two to three pounds on average.

Diet and Handling

What do wild prairie dogs eat?  Do they eat bowls of man-made pellets?  No. They eat fresh or dried out vegetation (also know as grass, many wild leafy greens like dandelions, and dried grasses, a.k.a. hay) and a small amount of seeds or grains or berries that they find.  But if you are currently feeding pellets to your prairie dog, you do not want to take them away abruptly or completely!  This can hurt them!  And when we help you to wean them down or off of the pellets, onto a healthy leafy green and veggie diet, it is of utmost importance that you wean them to an appropriate, specific diet with great variety.  Please do not guess what to feed your prairie dog!  They can end up in the hospital, very sick, if you feed them the wrong vegetables or fruit snacks.  And if you feed them only pellets and hay, they will likely eventually get sick in different ways from eating pellets (kidney/bladder issues, gut issues, malnutrition, etc).  Tailoring a diet for your prairie dog takes finesse and time and guidance from one of our veterinarians.  As much as we'd like to just write some easy instructions for you here, we can't risk your prairie dog's health by assuming it's just like every other prairie dog.  They have similar diets, but not exactly the same.  We take into account your prairie dog's age, size, urine-calcium, stools, etc, to guide you to the correct diet items and amounts.

Wild prairie dogs get lots of sunshine, even if it's through the leaves of bushes.  This stimulates their bodies to make vitamin D for them, good for their bones and bodies.  As indoor pets, our prairie dogs tend to get little to no direct sunshine.  Giving vitamin D to them via vitamins in the water or food or in any oral fashion can be toxic or insufficient, so do NOT do this!

We can help our prairie dog to produce natural vitamin D by providing a UV-B light for a few hours, a few times a week, and by using the correct bulbs and bulb strengths.  There is still research being done regarding how many hours of light and what strengths of bulbs are best, but for now, some is better than none. 

It is important for you to schedule an appointment with one of our veterinarians to discuss your individual prairie dog's needs.  Please don't adjust your prairie dog's diet, bedding or lighting on your own, without instruction from one of our vets -- you could potentially harm your prairie dog if you do not wean to a proper diet, over the proper amount of time, appropriately!!   Also, many prairie dog treats and items that are sold in pet stores are not appropriate for them-- there is no such thing as the "prairie dog diet police" to keep anyone from selling anything to you.  Buyer beware!  And please do not believe everything you read on-line!  Most of the information out there is very incorrect and/or out of date!  Please call to schedule an appointment BEFORE your prairie dog gets sick. Prevention is the best (and cheapest) medicine.

Prairie DogsHandling
The proper procedure for lifting a prairie dog is to wrap one hand around its chest while supporting the hindquarters with your other hand. Be careful when working around their head and face, for they may bite when disturbed or agitated. In addition, they may have sharp claws used for digging, which may serve as weapons when threatened. An old bath towel may be used to wrap around the animal for better control and further protection from these claws. Unlike most rodents, prairie dogs have very little loose skin over their neck to scruff for restraint. When handled frequently, these animals may become rather docile and easy to work with.

Housing and Breeding


Disease Conditions


Obesity is a common condition observed in prairie dogs. They have a tendency to become overweight when given unlimited feed and minimal exercise.

It is, however, important to realize that the body confirmation of prairie dogs is typically heavy and stocky. Once they do become obese, these rodents have a much greater tendency towards heart disease and respiratory problems (both will be discussed later in detail). The best way to guard against obesity is to limit access to food pellets (give only one-fourth to one-third cup daily) and provide ample hay. In addition, these animals should be given the opportunity to exercise and burrow.


Respiratory disease is one of the most common medical problems encountered in the prairie dog. As mentioned above, obesity and poorly ventilated cages often play a role in an animal’s susceptibility. Pneumonia can result from a number of viral and bacterial agents. Many of these disease causing organisms routinely inhabit the respiratory tract of clinically healthy animals, and they serve as opportunistic invaders when the pet’s body defenses are lowered as a result of stress or other disease. Signs of pneumonia may include difficulty breathing (dyspnea), discharge from the nose and eyes, loss of appetite and lethargy.

Veterinary consultation should be sought when a prairie dog exhibits any of the above symptoms. A bacterial culture with antibiotic sensitivity of the throat and/or nasal discharge may be required to assist the veterinarian in the selection of an appropriate antibiotic. Aggressive antibiotic therapy in addition to supportive care of the patient is often necessary to get the condition under control. Unfortunately, even though elimination of the symptoms may be possible with appropriate therapy, eradication of the causative bacteria may never occur. In addition to treating the symptoms, correction of the predisposing factors is necessary to reduce the chance of recurrence.

Heart Disease
Heart disease occurs in prairie dogs at a higher rate than other rodents. This condition is often associated with obesity and may lead to apparent respiratory disease. Signs of possible heart disease include lethargy, respiratory difficulty, and reluctance to move, sudden collapse, cold extremities and pale to purple discoloration of the tissues lining the mouth (mucus membranes). When any of these signs are observed, veterinary assistance should be sought. A veterinarian can make the diagnosis of heart disease based on the above clinical signs, listening to the heart (auscultation) and chest X-rays. This condition cannot be completely cured, but only clinically managed. The goals to therapy involve correction of underlying factors, such as obesity, and management of the symptoms.


Prairie dogs have been shown to be natural carriers of Yersinia pseudotuberculosis. This bacterium 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 of the affected prairie dog. In addition, enlargement of the spleen, liver and abdominal lymph nodes may be observed. Once a diagnosis has been established, treatment with a broad-spectrum antibiotic and supportive care may be effective.

Prairie dogs are susceptible to mycotic (fungal) infections commonly known as ringworm. Microsporum gypseum is the agent most commonly associated with prairie dog ringworm, but infections with other fungal agents cannot be ruled out. Affected animals exhibit areas of hair loss, increased pigmentation and thickened skin over the chest, abdomen, lower back, tail and head. In itself, this condition does not appear to be very itchy (pruritic). A veterinarian can confirm a diagnosis with skin scrapings and fungal cultures. Treatment consists of antifungal agents given topically and systemically.

Prairie Dogs