Black Tailed Prairie Dog Complete Care Guide | Captive care including housing, feeding and behaviors
Updated: Sep 19
If you are here, then you are considering a prairie dog as a pet and you are in the right place to learn vital information to make the right decision. This was written from the perspective of a professional prairie dog caretaker and actual experience, be careful of pet articles written by professional writers who only compile information from the web and may have an agenda or bias underlying the article.
As a hedgehog caretaker since 1997 I have personally cared for hundreds of different prairie dogs as well as breeding and selling them since 2008. My name is Ashley Duncan I am the owner and founder of JEAR and prairie dogs have been a big part of my life since I was a teenager. I thoroughly enjoy sharing them with people because of their surprisingly fun and big personalities.
Owning a pet prairie dog Care guide
How long do prairie dogs live
Pet prairie dogs Lifespan Black tailed prairie dogs live upwards up 12 years.
How big are prairie dogs?
Pet prairie dog Size Healthy adult prairie dogs are normally 1-2 pounds.
What do prairie dogs eat?
Pet prairie dog Diet- Over 90% of a PD diet should consist of Timothy Hay and fresh grasses. Hay is important nutritionally as well as physically because it helps their teeth wear down the correct way. As rodents, their teeth grow continuously so they must wear them down daily.
The other 10% consists of a variety of other foods, treats and protein such as veggies, fruit, grain, and insects. Avoid dried corn.
Good treats include carrots, sweet potatoes, zucchini, corn, apple, kale, parsley
Good proteins include mealworms, crickets, or dry kibble dog food.
Avoid feeding them dry corn, chocolate, junk food, sweets
Prairie dogs should be offered large and unlimited amounts of fresh timothy hay.
As rodents, their teeth grow continuously so they must wear them down daily by chewing hay and cubes. They are relentless chewers and can be destructive if not given enough appropriate items to chew.
Water from a bottle should always be available.
Prairie dog General Personality
PDs can be affectionate and loving pets if cared for properly and acquired at the right age. Daily handling and bonding is crucial in the first few weeks after you receive them to ensure proper socialization. It is relatively easy to bond with a new baby but is very challenging if you receive an older adult who is not bonded to you. Each PD can have their own personality but generally they are attention seekers and affectionate with their humans. They have spunky and bold personalities that are unlike many other small rodents.
Bonding with a prairie dog
It is imperative that you receive a young, hand raised baby before the age of 10 to 12 weeks. Under 10 weeks is optimal, as it allows appropriate bonding time for your new baby. You will need to spend a considerable amount of time with your new baby for the first few weeks of their life to create a strong bond.
Preparing for a Prairie Dog
Before you bring your PD home, you should have its habitat ready, you should also baby proof your house if you plan on letting them have free range at times. They will chew on electrical wire, please keep them away from these. When you first bring your baby home, house them in a 15 gallon aquarium or plastic tote with a vented lid. Use your old cotton t-shorts as the bedding with some grassy hay. Feed them timothy hay, PD pellets and dry puppy kibble.
Remember to locate a vet experienced with exotics and that is willing to see your baby BEFORE you get your baby. Before the big day, schedule an appointment for your baby be seen for an initial exam. Have your vet give a general examination and let them get familiar with you and your baby in case of an emergency or routine visits in the future. You should take your baby in yearly for annual checkups.
How much time does a Prairie Dog require?
The first few weeks are critical, and you must spend as much time as possible with your baby to bond with it. Several hours a day of holding is required the first 2-3 weeks. After bonding is achieved, it would still be best to spend as much time as possible but at least an hour every day would be best. They are very playful, social and time consuming. This is not the type of pet to leave in a cage alone all day long.
Living with a prairie dog pup
Prairie dogs can be affectionate and loving pets if cared for properly and acquired at the right age. They are busy and curious little things, they instinctively need to chew, and dig. Prairie dogs are diurnal, meaning they are awake during the day and sleep at night. Daily handling and bonding are crucial in the first few weeks after you receive them to ensure proper socialization. It is relatively easy to bond with a new baby but is very challenging if you receive an older adult who is not bonded to you. Each pup can have its own personality but generally, they are attention seekers and affectionate with their humans. They have spunky and bold personalities that are unlike many other small rodents.
Remember to locate a vet experienced with exotics that is willing to see your baby before you get your baby. Before the big day, schedule an appointment for your baby to be seen within 72 hours for our health warranty to be effective. Have your vet give a general examination and let them get familiar with you and your baby in case of an emergency or routine visits in the future. You should take your baby in yearly for annual checkups.
Bonding with a prairie dog
Bonding is a very special characteristic of the Prairie Dog. Bonding occurs during the first few weeks of ownership and can last for the life of your pup. Begin the bonding process by gaining your baby’s trust. Hand-feeding the babies will make them very sweet and love to be around you. Spend a lot of time with your baby and gain their trust. This will let your baby become familiar with your smell and voice.
Should I get one Prairie Dog or two?
Prairie dogs are extremely social animals and do much better in pairs. In the wild, they live in very large colonies sleeping, eating and playing together all day & all night long. I highly recommend getting two babies, they seem to have much more outgoing personalities. Some people are concerned with the babies only bonding to each other and not to them, this is untrue unless you do not spend time with your babies. They WANT to be with their people.
What sex(es) should I get?
All pet prairie dogs should be spayed or neutered the second fall season to prevent territorial and marking behaviors. Since the babies are spayed or neutered the differences in behaviors are not determined by the sex. Each baby has a very distinct personality that is generally determined by the environment it is raised in.
Spaying or Neutering Prairie Dogs
Babies should be spayed or neutered in the fall of their second year. Consult a vet before getting a baby to find one who is able to safely complete the surgery. This is not an option for keeping pet prairie dogs. During mating season PD's will become territorial and very aggressive.
Prairie dog care guide
How to care for a Prairie Dog
Keeping your baby safe and exercised is at the top of the list on needs for a habitat. There are many options to choose from, I suggest a strong wire cage with as much floor space as possible.
Their bedding should consist of timothy hay, aspen or pine shavings and/or newspaper and must be changed at least every 5-7 days. Give them many things to destroy like non-toxic toys, bird toys, cardboard boxes to shred, blankets. Exercise is important, PD's can get overweight easily without the proper balance of diet and exercise. I use large wheels in the cage but outside of the cage time is best. PD's also need activities, and enrichment. This is done by foraging, inspecting surroundings, making new burrows, and encountering new smells & objects. I like to set up their play area and cages differently every week or when I clean it out. I change the placement of hide houses, scatter food and insects in different areas/corners, and also I move the actual cage area from time to time. Grab a couple of twigs or leaves from outside and let them investigate the new smells. PD's are very sociable and benefit greatly from other prairie dog companionship. Two or more prairie dogs make the best situation. I find that they make better pets when they have a playmate, they understand that they are not a human but a prairie dog and will respect their human owners as masters, instead of equals.
Handling your pet prairie dog
PD's are very affectionate and playful. They will give you kisses and actively seek attention, enjoying any play time or snuggle time they get with their humans.
Noises prairie dogs make
Yahoo – Greeting, response to noises.
Chuckle – Playing, happy
Squawk – Playing, happy
Chirps – Frustration
Yip – Fear
‘EEE’ – Dreaming
Err, Err – Very happy
Whimpering – Pain or injury
Getting started- preparing for a prairie dogs
1. Cage – Before you bring your baby home, you should have their habitat ready. A strong wire cage such as the Ferret Nation or Critter Nation cage. Plastic, wood, or coated wire are not suitable for any part of the cage. For the first two weeks, I recommend keeping them in a plastic tote, 20-gallon aquarium, or similar. They need a heat source, you can use a heating pad. Put timothy hay on the bottom as well as an old t-shirt or towel for them to snuggle in. Once your baby becomes very active you can slowly introduce them to their big permanent cage. They should be transitioned to their full-size cage within a couple of weeks. You can do this gradually or all at once depending on your pup's behavior. Move as many things as you can from the small cage to the big cage in order to keep some of their same scented toys and familiar items.
You have a wide variety of choices for an adult prairie dog cage. You should always house your prairie dog indoors. You can use a rabbit hutch or a large guinea pig cage. Please remember that they will chew on some items and even plastic parts on cages so be careful when making your cage and accessories purchases.
You’re cage setup should never be over four feet. Prairie dogs climb on the bars and will fall off. They also have no depth perception. Meaning a 2-foot fall and a 20-foot fall look the same to your pup. Don’t let them climb up on high furniture or cabinets.
2. Cage cleaner – Dish soap, vinegar
3. Bedding – Shavings/pellets, Paper, Newspaper, Liners - never cedar
Liners need to be changed every few days. Other beddings will need to be replaced once a week.
4. Wheel or some kind of exercise option
5. 2 food dishes - One for dry food and one for wet food.
6. Water bottle
7. Toys/Cage accessories
Good toys include hanging toys, hammocks, foraging towers, and chews. Give them many things to destroy like non-toxic toys, cardboard boxes to shred, blankets. Prairie dogs are very intelligent and can suffer if they don’t have daily interaction and stimuli.
8. Heat source
Heat pad: Place the pad underneath your enclosure and in a corner, so your pup can come and go as they please.
9. Digital thermometer – Optional
Prairie Dog Temperature considerations
Baby pups need to be kept very warm, especially the first couple of weeks. If your home is cold or chilly, you may want to keep part of their cage on top of a heating pad to make sure they stay warm, always make sure they can get off the heat pad if they get too warm. You can also add an extra blanket or two in their cage. Keep all cages off the floor, it’s better to keep them on a desk, on a stand, or a table, keeping them on the floor can cause them to get chilled.
If your baby gets cold or feels cool when you go to get them out of the cage you MUST warm them immediately with your body heat. Do not attempt to feed them any liquid while they are cold, they may inhale liquid into their lungs.
Prairie Dog Nail trimming
Occasional toenail trimmings may be necessary but keeping toys and enrichment for them will help wear their nails down naturally. If you do need to trim your prairie dog’s nails as they can get quite long, it's important that you are capable and comfortable with nail trimming. If they get too long they can cause discomfort and curling. Having an extra hand is always helpful when trimming your pup's nails. If you cut the pink part use quick-stop, corn starch, or flour to stop the bleeding. If this happens, don’t feel too bad. Almost every owner has done it at one time or another.
Start playing with and massaging your prairie dog’s feet early on so they get used to it.
You can try trimming their nails while they are asleep since they are pretty heavy sleepers.
Bath Time for prairie dogs
Do not ever get your prairie dog wet. If they get dirty and need help you can use baby wipes. They will groom themselves, and once you are bonded to your pup they will groom you out of affection as well.
Prairie Dog Out of cage playtime
· Be careful of anything they can squeeze under or behind
· Be sure anything in your pups reach is safe and non-toxic
· Be aware that your pup may pee, or poop when out of their cage
· Be aware of household hazards
· Keep an eye on them!
Household hazards for Prairie dogs
· Toilet, sinks, bathtubs, buckets, swimming pools, and even open pots of liquid on countertops, make sure to keep the doors closed and put lids on everything before you let your pup out to play.
· Air freshener, candles, cleaning chemicals, and sprays – Pups have a great sense of smell and a very curious personality, so they will automatically be drawn to anything that smells sweet.
· Insects are a natural food for them, so always make sure to clean up any dead bugs around the house that might have been killed by pesticides.
· Keep your pups out of the kitchen while you are cooking, stovetops, toasters, coffee pots, light bulbs, and hot pots can all injure your pup.
· Any space your pup can squeeze into may create a potential issue or hazard.
· Open windows and doors are easy ways for your pup to get out.
· Holes in cabinets, holes in walls, or holes near plumbing fixtures.
If your prairie dog pup escapes from its cage
· Double check they aren’t hiding under any bedding or in any corners/pouches.
· Put the toilet seat down.
· Shut all the doors after you check each room.
· In each room check under everything including appliances.
· Leave out strong-smelling foods to lure them out.
· Make some noise, they may make noises back.
· Turn up the heat if it's cold they are likely to stay huddled up.
· Find out how they escaped and prevent it from happening again.
Exercise for prairie dogs
Prairie dogs are very active and will require exercise and activities to avoid becoming overweight or sick. A solid plastic wheel in the cage is a great exercise tool. You should spend time with your pup as often as you can outside of their cage. Exercise does not only mean running on a wheel.
Prairie dogs also need other activities and enrichment:
· Interactive toys and cage accessories
· Playing soft music for them
· Providing nest boxes is a good idea, as it simulates natural burrowing behavior.
· Including multiple textures and materials in their cage
· Allowing your pup to forage for their treats and burrow
· Social interaction with you or another animal
· You can find a million unique toys all over the web, Amazon, Etsy, Facebook, etc. You can even get creative and make your own!
· Some people build some type of tunnel system for their pups
Prairie dog Health
Keeping weekly records helps you get a feel for what is normal and what’s not. Some things that are recommended to keep track of are weight, food intake, wheel activity, temperature, and any physical changes. It’s even more helpful when your prairie dog starts to get older.
The first thing you should do if you are concerned that your pup is acting weird is to bump up the heat and address the issue ASAP. They are naturally prey animals, therefore, they hide their illnesses very well. Any odd behavior can be the first sign something is wrong.
Prairie Dog Scent Glands
Prairie dogs have three tube-like glands located in the opening of the anus that will protrude out when your prairie dog is excited, territorial, or unsure. Young pups will scent more often due to them being more excitable. Once neutered/spayed the smell is less noticeable. You will want to leave this gland intact, removal is unnecessary.
There may be times when your pup has a minor injury or the power goes out. Having a small emergency kit with some helpful items can make all the difference.
Prairie Dog Dead Baby Syndrome
Young pups are susceptible to getting chilled easily. At this age, they will have a hard time regulating their body temperature. When this happens, they will be hard to rouse, or they will feel cold and limp. They do not hibernate and should not exhibit these symptoms. The pup appears to be dead, but do not assume this is the case! They are in a state of dormancy to conserve energy, get your pup on a heating pad as soon as possible and call your vet stat!
· Avoid drafty cages
· Give them plenty of blankets to burrow in
· Make sure they have a heating pad on hand just in case
Pet Prairie Dog FAQs
Do they need baths?
No, they will groom themselves. You should not bathe your PD with water. Occasional toenail trimmings may be necessary but keeping toys and enrichment for them to wear their nails down naturally.
Should I get two so my prairie dog will not be lonely?
It is highly recommended to have more than 1 prairie dog, they are very sociable and benefit greatly from having other prairie dog companionship.
Do they require Vaccinations or shots?
No vaccinations are needed, however annual exams and routine checkups are beneficial with an experienced vet.
Can I take my prairie dog outside?
They should not be outside unless they have a harness on.
Do they have an odor, or offensive smell?
They do have scent glands that they can release when they feel scared or threatened. They will also do minimal marking in their cage but typically during breeding season.
How are they with other pets?
They get along well with most other animals, however, when introducing or allowing any two animals to play together you run the risk of injury.
What is their general personality?
Very fun, energetic and loves attention and cuddles.
Things to consider before owning a prairie dog
· Cleaning their cage at least weekly can be time-consuming but it must be done for the health and happiness of your baby.
· They may urinate or defecate on you, but very rarely. Babies will do this more often than adults.
· They have sharp claws and very sharp strong teeth. They will use these intentionally and unintentionally on you when they are happy, scared, etc.
· Some cities and states do not permit the possession of prairie dogs.
· Finding a vet that will treat a PD can be challenging especially in smaller cities, however, they must be spayed or neutered so the vet must be capable of performing the surgery.
Fun Facts about prairie dogs
· Prairie dogs can molt their fur up to twice a year, shedding their winter coat for a summer coat.
· Pups are born blind, deaf, and furless.
· Prairie dogs greet family members with a “kiss”