Prairie Dog-Proofing Your Home, and General Cage Theory

There are many things that are easy to miss as a new owner. Indeed, such things would be a lot easier to predict if your eyesight were three inches from the ground.

This is by no means a comprehensive entry, nor an authoritative one, but, as I’m still learning about the interior vulnerabilities of my home to an onslaught of prairie dog tenacity even after three years, it has to be written.

The most important thing you can do is not underestimate your dog. It might be easy to say, “The -chances- that he/she are going to pry -that- open are remote,” but, unless the physics prevents it from happening, you should be proactive. Prairie dogs are diligent and devious. They might figure out a way around the obstacle, or they might just work at it until they get it. It’s only a matter of time. They will -never- forget about anything that could be of interest to a prairie dog, such as a secret hole, a cable they like to chew, or a place they can go that is otherwise completely unreachable by humans, like behind a bed or in a couch. Keep in mind that these animals are built to chew, and need to chew (their teeth continuously grow). They will chew through wood (not good for them because of the splinters), PVC and any kind of plastic, drywall, and cables of all kinds (mine has caused cables to short-circuit and spark). They also have a decent ability to climb, and wedge into any space. Keep any doors closed that lead to dangerous places (uninsulated rooms, garages, pool areas, stairs).

For example, I recently found out that there was a corner near the baseboard under a cabinet that hadn’t been finished, and had a gap in it. Yesterday, one of the new prairie dogs found it and scurried up into it before I could do anything about it. Today, one of the small prairie dogs had escaped, found the hole, and, from what I could guess, had spent the entire day hiding in it while I was at work. After I got home, did a count, and came up one short, I was trying to determine who was missing when I suddenly heard little feet running in my direction from the kitchen.

When it comes to caging, if the bars are even remotely the size of your dog’s head, you’re most likely going to have trouble for the following reasons:

    • The cage may have manufacturing defects, where the bars may be unevenly spaced.
    • More often than not, if the bars bend, the prairie dog will try to insert his head between every opening between every set of bars, on a regular basis, and may succeed in bending them.
    • Not for reasons of escape, but a prairie dog should be prevented from chewing on bars because this can cause an odontoma (a tumor), after several years.

The three most practical options are:

    • Buy a standard, metal-bar cage.
    • Buy a large, vertical cage (on wheels, and one or more “floors” connected by ramps).
    • Find a local cage-designer to create a cage. These might have a premium ($300 – $500), but I’ve heard of custom, multi-floor, vertical models where the bottom section just contains bedding and is relatively closed-off. The prairie dog can burrow in darkness, like the they’d be allowed to in the wild.

Wood cages are discouraged. They have splinters and [potentially] chemicals, and they absorbs liquids and other junk from within the cage. Also, don’t introduce anything with sharp edges (like metal plates or flashings) unless you know what you’re doing. Sharp edges can be dangerous for obvious reasons.

If you’re buying a cage with walls made from metal bars and the bars are not tightly configured (no more than 1/2″ of an inch apart), make sure to pick-up some metal screening or chicken-wire at a Home Depot (so prevent them from being able to escape), and use bits of wire (can be bought in spools from the same place) to fix the screening to each side of the cage, and on the top. Make sure the little bits of wire used to tie the screening to the cage are left long-enough and directed towards the outside of the cage so that the dog can’t pull them through the bars, and either chew on them or poke themselves. Of course, the only way to truly prevent the dog from even being able to access the individual bars and being able to chew on them (and causing odontoma, mentioned above, or broken teeth), is just to get a cage where the sides are more of a mesh of tiny squares made by crisscrossing bars (like a screen), not just rows of bars. If they can’t get their snout through, they will likely not chew.

As far as the size of a new cage is concerned, make sure that it provides your prairie dog enough space to live (at least four feet wide, if there’s just one or two dogs). They may love to chew things that you give them (mine chew through shipping boxes and cereal boxes, all-day, every day), which fills-up the cage, and they will need to burrow. You also might have to stuff the cage with food for a week, if you go on vacation. It’s borderline cruel to have to fill 90% of it with hay, a food bowl, and a large water bottle. You should also get them a big wheel (plastic is quieter than metal). In my cage, the wheel might be used every day for a week, and then not for a month or two. The more tasks or entertainment that your prairie dog has, the less they will probably want to escape. Mine are so used to chewing cardboard, that there’s nothing to do but sleep or look around when there’s no more cardboard to shred. Developing a tumor is therefore unlikely, due to chewing on bars. Of course, depending on the gender (mine are female) or the personality, your dog might not be interested in chewing.

You can also get creative with four-inch-wide PVC pipe. For example, the basin of my cage is about five-inches deep. I placed a three- or four-foot length of this PVC, along with a couple of elbow joints, in the bottom of the cage. It’s mostly completely hidden by the bedding and cardboard/paper debris, and provides the occupants a secret place for security and privacy.

I also went beyond this. I:

  1. Bought two large Rubbermaid containers, an extremely rigid 2′ x 1′ x 1/4″ piece of wood (I don’t know what type), and a bunch of 4″ PVC.
  2. I cut a hole out of the wood, opened the large side-gate of the cage, and placed the wood over the opening. Obviously, I trimmed it to fit. I used some binder clips to fasten it to the cage.
  3. I cut 4″ holes in the fronts and adjacent sides of the Rubbermaid containers. I then ran a length of PVC between them, on the inside, as well as from the front of one to the front of the other, and then to the cage.
  4. I cut out large holes from the lids, and stapled chicken wire. I bent-in all of the legs of the staples with a needle-nose pliers to protect the occupants.

This added a couple of extra “rooms” to move between:

Habitat 1

Habitat 2

In the end, cardboard debris was stuffed into the pipes connecting the second Rubbermaid so as to completely isolate the first container from the second since it was not used and, apparently, seen as a security problem. I had also added PVC to connect the containers from behind, but these were also decommissioned. However, the first container is regularly used for sleeping, and almost everything is done from the safety of the pipe: chewing on cardboard, eating, and hiding from threatening noises.

Also, since the lids are soft plastic, the sides started being chewed-on where they meet the chicken wire. The only way to prevent this was to take the lid from the container that I was no longer using, and tape it down, tightly, on top of the original. This made a double-layer of chicken wire, which made it very difficult to get into position to chew.

Aquariums weren’t mentioned as caging options because it’s generally not a good idea to have a cage with walls that don’t allow free airflow.

Lastly, whatever your cage, make sure you put it in the center of the household. Prairie dogs crave being involved. Although you should be taking time out to play with them every day, they should at least be able to see you at most other times.


5 thoughts on “Prairie Dog-Proofing Your Home, and General Cage Theory

  1. How do you cut a perfect circle in the rubber bin for pvc? And… how can you keep them from chewing on the edges of that hole>?

    • Use a marker to trace a line around where the pipe is going to pass through the container and then cut it with an exacto knife. Make sure to cut it a little tighter than the markings to make it a tight fit with the pipe. The tighter it is, the harder it’ll be for the prairie dog to work his teeth into it.

      Note that very few things are a permanent solution with prairie dogs. You’ll probably have to replace the materials every so often due to their endless, constant assault on anything that they can directly grab or chew. You’re just trying to make them last as long as possible.

      • Thanks for the heads up! I kinda figured that… Never ending chewing, like beavers! I hear that that normally greet you with an open mouth because that is what they do in the wild and then lock teeth. So when I reach in to pet them and they come at me with an open mouth… Should I allow them to lightly close their teeth on my hand? I have been doing that and they have not bitten very hard… As long as you don’t leave your fingers there a long time. The first day one bit the shit of my daughters toe as w e sat on the floor with them to bond. So that really scared her! She is ok now… We are also constantly trying to hold onto them to pet them as they try to wiggle away. Very stressful. Any tips?

      • Beavers, rats, prairie dogs, squirrels.. They’re all rodents and they’re all built to chew. Yes, that’s their very sweet welcome to you. They have three different levels of biting that are relevant to the safety of people: 1) the kind where they’re welcoming you or feeling out a material with their mouth, 2) when they’re hungry, and 3) when they’re angry. They will never hurt you with (1). They will make you uncomfortable with (2). In this case, they’ll chew everything they see trying to figure out what they can get down their throat whether it’s good-tasting or not. As far as (3) goes, you should keep them locked away or isolated until they calm down (a half-hour should do it.. they have a very short emotional memory). If you’re holding them, and they’re already bushy or chirping in anger (you’ll learn) and need a second to put them away, you need to very securely hold them from the back and lock your thumb and index finger around their neck and under their jowls so they’re head is fixed and they can’t get a bite in.

        My oldest prairie dog (a female), every so often, gets very emotional/hormonal and starts attacking everything. It’s very rare. Usually things don’t escalate so fast that you can’t recognize the anger in time and leave her a alone for a bit. The anger chirps are pretty unmistakable. If you want to actively mitigate it you might isolate them (if you have more than one) and give her a very small handful of some vegetarian dog kibble. I’m sure I’ve mentioned the brand on here, somewhere. I can’t check into it right now.

        Prairie dogs are very narcissistic: it’s all about them and all about what they feel like in the now. This also feeds the short-emotional memory thing. They’re quick to anger and quick to forgiveness. If they don’t get their way, you’ll just tick them off. Let them go when they’re done with you. Let it/them out of the cage at a time that you know they’re hungry. Putting the food in the cage near the end (assuming they can climb back in) will automatically get them to come back without you having to chase them around or lure them out. Get on your chest and look at everything from four inches off the floor to figure out cavities that they’re going to want to explore (like in cabinetry). Put heavy, durable obstructions in front of them. Once they discover a hiding place or a weakness, they will *never* forget and *always* try again. Come up with a plan to prevent access and stick to it. I use terracotta roofing tiles. They’re lower on one side than the other. I slide it underneath the foot of the cabinets and it completely blocks the openings underneath and is impervious to them.

        Lastly.. You will continually underestimate them. They will inexplicably get on counters, get in hampers, climb into drawers from under dressers, try to jump on top of four-foot-tall garbage bins so many times that it’s statistically impossible for them to fail. They will find their way over three or four foot barricades. They will climb on shelves, shatter glass, trap themselves in the bathtub, chew their way through anything that’s not hardened steel if there’s something mildly interesting on the other side, try to make a home in your couch, and find ways to iteratively disassemble their cage from the inside. Never let them out of your sight, always try to have as many walls between them and the outside world as possible, and try to make loud noises or freak them out as much as possible if you have to open a door to the garage or outside. A neurotic association with a door they should never pass through only helps. If they escape, there will be no way to recover them and they’ll be eaten in short order.

        Also, beware of low-hanging lamp cords. If something is within twelve inches of the floor, it’s a plaything.

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