Can Prairie Dogs be Pets?
Prairie dogs are basically like cute loafs of bread with little arms and eyes. And bonus - they make a LOT of different and adorable noises. In fact, some consider those various noises to be far more complex than humans originally thought.
Prairie Dogs Have a Lot to Say
Prairie Dogs are very social animals and live in large communities where they venture above ground and below ground in large burrows. So these little 2-4 pound creatures have developed a language system to help communicate within their villages.
A professor at Northern Arizona University, Con Slobodchikoff, has spent the last 30 years studying the Prairie Dog language. Slobodchikoff and his students conducted an experiment to capture sounds of the animals while different types of predators neared their territory. Using software to analyze the sounds, they had some fascinating findings.
The team discovered that “the calls clustered into different groups, and each cluster had its own signature set of frequencies and tones. Prairie dogs, in other words, don't just have a call for 'danger' — they have one call for 'human,' another for 'hawk' and a third for 'coyote.' They can even differentiate between coyotes and domesticated dogs.” (NPR) Never heard a Prairie Dog before? Check this video of Lubbock, TX's very own Prairie Dog Town, which is a protected area/sanctuary for this this animal to thrive in without worries of human invasion. Read more about how Lubbock is embracing the Prairie Dog.
They Are Called Towns - And a Lot of Different Animals Rely on Them.
Native to North America and the Great Plains, the Prairie dog is technically not a dog. It’s a part of the Squirrel family, or scientifically known as Sciuridae. They are far from independent creatures and prefer to be in large groups (called Towns) which can number up to the thousands. “Prairie dogs are considered a 'keystone' species because their colonies create islands of habitats that benefit approximately 150 other species.” (Defenders of Wildlife). And in their towns, these Prairie Dogs create numerous rooms below ground for different purposes, including nurseries, food storage, bedrooms and even a room to turn-around in. Check it out:
“Much of the Great Plains has been converted to farming or pastureland, and prairie dogs are not often welcome in such places. Because of their destructive landscaping, they are often killed as pests. During the 20th century, about 98 percent of all prairie dogs were exterminated, and their range subsequently shrunk to perhaps five percent of its historic spread.” (National Geographic).
Their population has gone from roughly 150 million to about 10-20 million in the last 100 years. Although the numbers are declining, this animal is not considered endangered. The population has dwindled down because of human growth, but it also has sustained it’s numbers due to people helping to protect these cute little loafs of bread.
People like Rob.
Meet a Prairie Dog Pet Owner
Rob Wiener, a librarian at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, TX, always felt drawn to the animal throughout his life which eventually led to his first adoption in 2001. And Rob has never looked back. From advocating for them in the wild to fostering and adopting them into his home, Rob champions for them whenever he can. But we wanted to learn more about these little bread buddies as pets. And before we do that, here’s a picture the bread comparison we keep chatting about.
Prairie Dogs as Pets
In an interview with Rob, we were able to closely learn more about what it’s like to have these creatures as pets. “They can be as snuggly as a dog and as standoffish as a cat,” says Weiner, and “they are the smartest animals I have ever met.”
Assuming your state and landlord (if renting) allows the ownership of a Prairie Dog, these animals make great pets for small spaces. It’s recommended to keep them in cages because “their whole world is through their mouth,” says Rob. But under his supervision, he will let the animals roam through his home and garage. Prairie Dogs are used to burrowing so will have no issue chewing on your furniture or baseboards. And most importantly, while they do get along with people and will tolerate most strangers, they can bite. “And they do,” confirms Rob, “It’s not a pet I recommend for families with small children.” However, it's important to note that every Prairie dog is different and with proper training, this behavior can be discouraged.
It’s important to have more than one because they are such social animals, but if you want to bond with them, you need to be very present because they can bond with each other first, making it harder for the owner. “You need to make the investment of time,” mentions Rob.
Speaking of investments, the cost of owning a Prairie Dog is comparable to owning a dog or cat. To begin, you will need to sink in about $300-500 for a cage, food and materials and also be prepared to handle routine and unexpected vet care. Rob encourages pet owners to “make sure that you can find a local vet that sees exotic animals before adopting one.”
One could ask if it’s humane to domesticate a wild animal, but Rob highlights that it’s about saving the animals in the wild. “I advocate for them in the wild, but places for them to live are rapidly disappearing. The responsible pet trade is one way to save this wonderful animal.”
Keeping these animals as pets is certainly not for everyone, but if you are drawn to them as much as Rob is, they can be wonderful pets. They are highly communicative, expressive and entertaining pets that can bring a lot of joy to the right-fit and responsible pet owners.
“They can be tremendously affectionate.” Rob has many stories about how his Prairie Dogs have snuggled up to him and have even nuzzled into his neck displaying their affection. Just like a dog!
If you are considering one as a pet or just want to learn more about them, do your research and check out some resources and products Rob Weiner recommends:
- Prairie Dogs: The Complete Pet Owner’s Manual. Just like it says! Check this title out to gather basic information on keeping healthy and content pets.
- Bringing a Prairie Dog Pup into Your Home, by Karen and Betsy Callis with Lynda Watson Stoica. Because a Prairie Dog is not a common pet, check this title out to make sure you are properly transitioning into ownership.
- The Raw Deal: Horrible and Ironic Stories of Forgotten Americans, by Ken Smith. This book is a series of stories that dedicates each chapter to a different human to tell their story about how they got a raw deal, but he dedicates one to an animal. And you guessed it - it’s the Prairie Dog!
- Wondering where to purchase one? Start your research with this site: http://www.weloveprairiedogs.com/
- A healthy diet is important for every being. To keep your Prairie Dogs healthy, Rob recommends these foods:
Anyone out there also own a Prairie Dog or curious to own one? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!
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