A pet prairie dog requires a long-term commitment from a devoted pet owner. These large rodents were some of the main culprits for a monkeypox outbreak in 2003 and were thus banned as pets for over 5 years. As of 2008, the FDA has lifted its restrictions on pet prairie dogs. With that being said, a pet prairie dog should still be carefully considered as a pet prior to getting one.
The Wild Prairie Dog
The black-tailed prairie dog is one of the five different species of prairie dogs in the wild and is the one most often seen in the exotic pet trade.
Found in the Great Plains region in the wild between Canada and Mexico in the United States, black-tailed prairie dogs live in large colonies in the grasslands. Often close to small rivers, on sloping hills, or flat grasslands, prairie dog colonies thrive by burrowing in a variety of soil and foraging for vast food options.
Their diet consists primarily of grasses, with some brush, roots, and the prickly pear (which you can grow at home) for much of their water intake. Depending on the season, prairie dogs may eat more underground roots than grass, but they are known to be foragers and adapt to their changing environments.
The Pet Prairie Dog
Taken from the wild in an effort to control population, thousands of prairie dog pups are collected each spring and summer by vacuuming them out of their burrows. That's right - vacuuming them. A revamped sewer truck is often used to suck the rodents out of their homes and are then either used for food for endangered wild animals such as black-footed ferrets (which naturally controlled the population until humans killed off almost the entire species) and eagles, or sold to the pet trade.
Licensed USDA dealers sell prairie dogs to the public and may have different methods of collecting their pups. Ask your dealer what method of collection they use to be sure it is humane to the prairie dogs. The dealer should also give you a health certificate and proper USDA paperwork to allow you to own the prairie dog.
Check with your state before getting a prairie dog to be sure they are allowed to be kept as pets where you live.
Prairie dogs weigh between 1 and 3 pounds when they are full grown and can live over 8 years in captivity. Baby prairie dogs make better pets than captured adults since they are more easily trained. Owners consider them very affectionate and if kept by themselves, prairie dogs will demand a huge amount of attention since they are very social animals. If raised with other prairie dogs, they will bond more with their rodent family then with their human family.
Caring for Pet Prairie Dogs
Providing a natural environment where a prairie dog can burrow and forage for food is difficult in captivity. They are able to burrow several feet underground and create different chambers for different purposes. Unless you have a large enclosure (such as a concrete pit filled with dirt to allow burrowing) a large cage is unfortunately usually used to house a pet prairie dog indoors.
Being very social creatures, prairie dogs will become depressed or sick if not given enough attention. They will not be happy pets for someone who does not have the available time to spend with them that they need each day.
If you don't have a couple of hours a day to spend with your prairie dog, plan on having a colony of prairie dogs or none at all.
Prairie dogs are herbivores who may occasionally eat some insects and are usually pretty flexible in what they will eat due to their constantly changing environments in the wild (expanding human populations). They can withstand extreme temperatures on either end of the thermometer if given an appropriate burrow to stay warm in the winter and cool in the summer.
Differences Between Male and Female Prairie Dogs
With the exception of male prairie dogs possibly having a stronger odor than females, the sex of a prairie dog doesn't make one a better pet than the other. Both sexes have anal glands (which can be removed by an experienced exotics vet) and both sexes need to be either spayed or neutered to avoid health issues later in life.
If you do not get your female prairie dog spayed, her estrous cycle, referred to as "rut," will cause her to become very aggressive and drastically, but temporarily, alter her behavior.
All in all, a pet prairie dog demands a large, burrowing-proof, enclosure to allow them to live the most natural life with a great deal of attention. If not given the opportunity to burrow or be social they will most likely try to dig through your carpets and furniture and create quite a mess or become ill and have behavior issues. Handle them often and supervise children with prairie dogs to avoid nasty bites.
With proper love and attention, your prairie dog will be coming when called and talk to you as though you were another of his kind.