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Prairie Dogs as pets

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  Prairie Dogs as Pets
Is a Prairie Dog the Right Pet for You?
Well, when I encountered my first pet prairie dog, there was something familiar about him. I just could not put my finger on it. Buddy was sweet and lovable and always wanted to be around us. He was jolly and round. When he had free-time out of his cage, he followed us everywhere. He was such a happy prairie dog. One day, he was mistakenly left out of his cage when we were gone. When we returned, there he was, standing in the doorway, arms outstretched to welcome us home, herald our arrival, and give us all a hug. It was a very humbling experience, and I had a fleeting thought about grampa and reincarnation. Naw, it couldn't be. Naw. Hmmmmmmmmm.
So:
If you like interacting with a species of animal that is affectionate, loving and cuddly, then a prairie dog might be the right pet for you. You might not get to lick the cream off the cap, but there will be other rewards.
In order to end up with an animal that fits that description, it is first important that you understand the following three basics:

What prairie dogs are about
How to choose the best one for you
How to take care of it properly, both physically and mentally.
That is all you have to do. If you read this FAQs thoroughly, you will have the great beginning of understanding this complex and wonderful little animal - the one that can be the most unforgettable pet in your entire life.

What they are about - Their natural instincts/desires
The big three: Affection, Cleanliness, Chewing
Prairie dogs are ground squirrels, but differ from their wild ground squirrel or tree squirrel 'cousins' who live alone, in couples, or loose groups. Unless you just arrived from Pluto (pardon the dog pun), you already know that wild prairie dogs live in huge towns and have an intense and complex social life with their families in the wild. They kiss, hug, groom, pat and play with each other continually. They never tire of being with their families. They need this touching, feeling lifestyle to remain mentally healthy. When we bring them into 'captivity' we MUST simulate this behavior and give the prairie dog the feeling of 'belonging'. If you are an affectionate person, that enjoys holding, petting and loving a creature that will return it ten fold - one that will pat your face with its little hands, give gentle love nibbles, snuggle in your arms and give you sleepy smiles when you wake it up, you will adore having a prairie dog. If you do not have time to spend with a good amount of time with it, you might be better off with some beautiful tropical fish who do not need the same stimulation. Because of the prairie dogs' need for this body contact, they will - without losing a breath - accept you totally, unconditionally and whole heartedly as their 'family'.
They won't care what your measurements are, if you need a haircut, just got fired or have three new zits on the very end of your nose. They won't be impressed if you drive a Porsche, make 90K a year, have both nipples pierced or can play the harmonica and guitar at the same time. If you are good to them, and love them, they will love you to their last breath. It will be up to you to see that they are taken care of and fed properly so that this last breath will be far into the future.
Before I go into nutrition/housing, etc. I do need to explain the down side of prairie dogs so you are fully aware and there are no surprises.
Prairie dogs must chew. Here is where you might need a sense of humor or it could help if you are slightly demented or into an interesting form of animal art. Their incisors (the big ones right smack in the front of their cute little mouths) will grow forever. They must chew to wear them down. If they are not provided with interesting and wonderful things to chew, one of two things will happen:
Their teeth will grow to great length, become deformed and the bottom two can grow up into the roof of the mouth, into the nasal cavity and cause irreparable damage to the prairie dog.
They can turn your antique rocker into a roller, dad's favorite chair into milking stool and sister's rag doll into rags. They can eat the taillights and rearview mirrors off brother's $160 sneakers and turn gramma's false teeth into an indistinguishable work of prairie dog sculpture.
Those are the probabilities if you do not provide interesting and plentiful things to chew. These 'things' can be branches from non-toxic trees and shrubs like willow, aspen, rose, etc. carrots, sweet potatoes, hay cubes, rodent block, grasses with roots, and the like. Add a few pieces of clay pottery (be sure it was not fired with lead), brick, rough rocks, etc. Give them plenty of this legal stuff in their cage and when they come out, lay some of the less offensive ones around. When they begin to chew the table leg, redirect their energies to the legal chew toys. Certain hard rubber, nylon bones, and new nubby chewies for dogs work well. They usually do not seem to like rawhide - quite understandably since they are vegetarians.
You should prairie-dog proof your house. They can get into cupboards that contain dangerous chemicals, foods they should not eat, or the door might shut and they will be locked in. They could get into or under appliances that have fans, heating coils, etc. Some problem areas could be under a refrigerator, the back of a television set, a stove, heater, etc. Notorious chewers, they could become electrocuted if they chew through an electrical cord.
They are neat animals and can be house-trained or actually, will house-train themselves if given the right circumstances. Set their cage up with two flower pots. One for sleeping and one for a potty chamber. In the wild, their burrows contain chambers for both of these activities. The sleeping chamber contains leaves, grasses and the like. You can simulate this by proving non-linting material for bedding (no flannel or terry cloth) like cut up tee shirts, polyester batting, etc. The other flower pot can be made inviting as a potty hole by simply adding 1 to 2 inches of sand. Place its cage in a central location, out of the direct path of sun, vents, etc. Have it a floor level and leave the door open when the prairie dog is out and about. It will return to the potty chamber when needed, sort of an 'inhouse' outhouse. The droppings are small dry pellets if you are feeding it properly and occasionally you'll find a little raisin or two here or there when it just cannot! make it back in time because it is too interested in something else. The sleeping chamber is revered by the prairie dog. They retire early and it is not uncommon for pet prairie dogs to climb into their cage at 7:30pm, barrel into their flower pot, pull the blankies over them and snooze their way to slumberland. In the morning, they are like a golden spring flower, rising after dawn, sleepy-eyed, arms outstretched, heralding the morning with a Wheeeep-ah! Wheeeep-ah! Wheeeep-ah!
Neutering
Prairie dogs MUST be neutered by the fall of the year they are born. Prairie dogs are seasonal breeders with huge hormonal surges that can begin as early as October and last until March. They can develop a major case of PMS and a strong urge for territorial protection. This means that your sweet loveable little friend can become irritable, uncomfortable and crabby. Females may begin 'nesting' behavior, collecting 'stuff' from everywhere to make their nest. Males may become fiercely protective of their cage and areas they consider to be theirs. They may be especially defensive against males of all species including you of you are male. Males can swell (they do not have an external scrotum) in the rear between the anus and navel and even the prepuce (penis sheath) can become impacted with secretions and debris. The simple solution? Neuter. If you don't do it, don't e-mail me. I will have NO sympathy. No matter how bonded, they can exhibit this behavior. Some never do or do not for several years, but, as my mom use to say: "Mark My Words!" If you 'forget' to neuter or decide to ignore this adament plea, you will not be able to interact with the prairie dog until it is 'through' this period. Do not, under any circumstances, push the animal or try to discipline it by hitting, etc. Ain't gonna work! It will only become more defensive. Once the period is over, it should return to normal (there are no guarantees) if you have not let it establish aggressive behavior to you. Established behaviors are often impossible to correct.
Neutering is inexpensive and directions written by two veterinarians are on this site for your veterinarian if they wish to use them. One final note here: YOUR PRAIRIE DOG MUST BE IN NORMAL - not FAT - condition for anesthetic to work properly and recovery from anesthesia to be uneventful. Fat prairie dogs require more anesthesia and may not survive the surgery!
Nutrition
Nutrition is about the easiest to administer of any animal I have ever known. To keep them healthy, and to ward off potential problems with HEART DISEASE AND RESPIRATORY DISEASE all you have to do is think about what they eat in the wild. Read and weep - but more pet prairie dogs are lost every year at 2-3 years of age to heart and respiratory disease because of improper nutrition. You too can prevent forest fires! How?
Have you ever seen a prairie dog town in the middle of a sunflower field, a chocolate chip cookie factory, an apple orchard or a peanut field? I think NOT! Then lets not feed them those foods.
Nature does not make many mistakes. And prairie dogs are not a mistake! Prairie dogs evolved to fill the niche in nature that could utilize plants other creatures didn't use.
In the wild, they eat marginal foods, that are high in fiber, low in fat. But it makes us feel like cheapskates if all we need to feed an adorable animal like a prairie dog is a fist full of grass and a couple of branches. So we buy parrot food and rabbit food and peanuts, sunflower seeds, crackers, cookies, pizza, - yes, that is right - prairie dogs have been fed pizza! Now when is the last time Domino's delivered to a prairie dog town?
Actually, we can give a few other foods, and here is a good diet for a prairie dog:

A prairie dog fed an incorrect diet, high in fat will become obese and die at a young age.
A prairie dog's nutritional requirements depend on its age, activity level for that particular prairie dog, its individual metabolic rate and health condition. An average adult prairie dog, in good health, should have the following foods in its diet to promote good health and prevent obesity: (Newly weaned babies are usually fed 25% of this daily ration.)
Fresh grass, roots and all, with the dirt shaken off, but not washed off is the best staple in their diet. Be sure no chemicals have been used on or near the grass such as fertilizer, weed killer, insecticides, gasoline, oil, antifreeze, etc.
Grass hay, hay blocks and/or chemical-free grass fed free choice Hay blocks or products with more than 25% alfalfa are not recommended for prairie dogs.
Prairie dog pellets
Rodent lab block or monkey biscuits - a few
Seeds and nuts for treats - 1 teaspoon
Maintenance-type dry dog food - 1 tablespoon (can be used for treats)
Leafy dark green vegetables - 1/2 cup, packed
Other vegetables and fruits - 2 teaspoons (favorites are sweet potatoes, carrots, broccoli, green beans)
Small animal vitamins
Water - free choice
Housing
If you decide to add a prairie dog pup to your family, get everything set up before you bring it home. It needs to go straight into its new environment when it leaves the pet shop.

Prairie dogs need a place of their own including a bed and potty chamber. Clay flower pots work well for both of these.
A cage at least 24" x 24" and a minimum of 30" high, with a double wire floor, between which is a removable litter pan. The mesh the prairie dog stands on should be no more than 1/2" square to prevent broken legs. If the mesh openings are larger, insert a piece of 1/2" mesh to fit the floor.
Two metal or crockery feed dishes (One each for dry food, and veggies)
An outside water bottle (and crock dish if not trained yet to bottle)
Two clay flower pots (one for sleeping, one for a potty chamber)
Bedding material for sleeping chamber - cut up tee-shirts - never terry cloth or other materials that produce lint!!!
A perch
A nylon floss string or nylon rope toy
A hay rack and hay
Cat or dog figure-8 or adjustable figure-H harness and a leash
Non-toxic, tough toys and play objects
Tunnel system (optional) (PVC non-perforated sewer pipe works well)
A ferret wheel
Gnawing toys-sticks, blocks, etc.
Gnawing foods - dog biscuits, monkey biscuits, rodent block
Pine shavings - never, never cedar
Food items as listed in nutrition section
Treats (seeds, dried fruits and vegetables as found in some parrot mixes)
Cat or ferret flea spray or powder
Care sheet from the supplier or Book, Prairie Dog Pets or Prairie Dog Primer by Pat Storer
Training
Leash-training is pleasant and easy if the baby is introduced to a figure-8 or adjustable figure-H harness as soon as possible. Once it is familiar with the harness, clip on a leash and let it go where it wants to go, with you exerting little or no pressure on the leash. Keep an eye on the prairie dog in case the leash gets caught on something. Gradual restraint when it ventures in the wrong direction will teach it to maintain slack on the leash. Always make training sessions positive for your companion. Treats are a positive reinforcement when it moving in the proper direction.
If your prairie dog is chewing on something, a sharp 'clap' with your hands AND a strong verbal 'No!' will distract it. Immediately give it something legal to chew. Corporal punishment does not work with a prairie dog and will only teach the it to mistrust you. Returning it to the cage for a 'time-out' also works well if it ignores the verbal correction. In other instances, never pick your prairie dog up and put it directly into the cage without some cuddling and petting first or it may begin to refuse to be picked up. It will want to be out with you whenever it can be unless it is ready for bed.
Prairie dogs thrive on attention and affection and give back so much more than they take. They have an innocent, unreserved way of making you feel special and needed. Return the favor and you too shall reap the rewards of this special little animal.
 
 

This page was created on 08/27/04