Letter to a New Prairie Dog Owner


Beavers, rats, prairie dogs, squirrels.. They’re all rodents and they’re all built to chew. Yes, that (opening their mouths) is 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 their tail is already bushy or they are chirping in anger 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 their head is fixed and they can’t get a bite in. Then, drop them in and slam the door. You’ll learn the pitch and style of the chirps that mean anger. Prairie dogs have one of the most advanced animal languages on the earth. In my experience, one very specific style represents anger.

My oldest prairie dog (a female), every so often, gets very emotional/hormonal and starts attacking everything. It’s very rare (every couple of years). 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. The only other time they has escalated almost instantly is when she, as a very young pup, almost fell off a bed (a few feet from the floor). I yelled in alarm and grabbed her very forcefully. It scared her so much that she nearly bit all of the way through my finger. You have to sound a certain way and often use behavioral engineering (“tricks”) to get them to do what you want, not unlike a preschool teacher with children that have never before been in school.

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-term 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 on their way or back into the cage 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 underneath 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 (or to sterilize the whole room prior to releasing them) and stick to it. For the cabinets, I use terracotta roofing tiles. They’re sloped (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.

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 incrementally disassemble their cage from the inside (I’ll have to set one of my tall food bins on the top of the cage to keep them from pushing the roof off). 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.

Remember.. These are just the precautions or handling procedures. They’re very sweet animals. They all have different psychologies, different personalities, and different fears. They even dream and have nightmares. I have some that always stare out the window, some that always run behind my washer/dryer, and two that always follow me around (one of them likes being played with and the other loves being held). One of them panics and starts emitting an alarm when I go in my backyard and the rest hide until it’s over.

Lastly, when they’re squeaking while they’re sleeping, rouse them and then let them fall asleep. This used to happen more when I just had one. It might have something to do with their community mindset (they defend in numbers not as individuals). She might’ve been perpetually afraid.


One thought on “Letter to a New Prairie Dog Owner

  1. Wow thanks for all the great info! So good to know! I had 2 PDs many years ago and don’t remember them being so energetic as these! The ones I have now are males from this years litters. I have heard I need to neuter them….? In priced it at several places and the cheapest was $375, on up to around $500! And I have 2! Is it really needed? I did not with the last ones I had. I don’t remember any problems. Thanks again for your expertise!!

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