We Love Prairie Dogs
Caging and Enclosures
By Gena Seaberg, Ph.D. © April, 2007 All Rights Reserved
Caging and Enclosures
By Gena Seaberg, Ph.D. © April, 2007 All Rights Reserved
Please take time to read this section in its entirety. We acknowledge that it is quite lengthy to read. However, it involves a critical aspect in the long-term welfare of keeping pet prairie dogs that we feel requires careful thought and thorough understanding, so an educated owner can thoroughly grasp the "big picture" before making what could be expensive and time-wasting habitat choices for their beloved pet. It contains valuable information throughout and concludes with some pointers to consider regardless of your choice between using a cage, enclosure, or both. It is incredibly challenging to create the "perfect" habitat for a pet prairie dog. Almost any option you choose will have some weak points or aspects that may be improved due to the constant testing and building nature of this colony-building species. The challenge is working with your purchase or creation and improving it as you note needed changes and continually evaluating your choices and how they impact your pet over its lifespan. Short term choices are never the problem. It is how those short-term choices affect health and safety long-term. If you would like free, personalized consultation services to help you with your cage or habitat design, please contact us, and we can get you pointed in the right direction. Please note other aspects of captive habitat such as bedding, toys, litter, water bottles, hay bins, and other accessories will be found in different sections of this website, so please make sure to read those passages too!
Getting customized help for enclosures is recommended due to the countless variables involved in safely doing so for this species over time. We strongly suggest you reach out for free consultation for the safety and welfare of your pet to ensure all unique characteristics of your prairie dog's behavior and history are accounted for to best suit its individual needs.
Ultimately, your cage and/or enclosure should be designed to keep your prairie dog safe and entertained when they cannot be out with you and while you are away from home. Prairie dogs are incredible escape artists as they exploit their environment for weakness, and a secure cage and/or enclosure is a critical component that needs careful consideration. When it comes to your cage or enclosure's overall size and dimensions, the world is your oyster as long as you make sure to take certain factors into account.
When trying to decide whether to go with a cage or enclosure, take some time to think about both you and your pet's immediate needs and make a checklist that weighs all of your choices' pros and cons over a long period of time. Creating a thorough list before getting started is a great idea that may save you from wasting time and money. It will help if you are willing to periodically check any caging and/or enclosure you utilize and evaluate what is important to you in terms of safety, fun, and maintenance over time. What are the cage or enclosure's weak points, and how do I remedy them if and when my prairie dog discovers them? Prairie dogs are quite smart and industrious, and you can be sure they will find the weakest point in any choice you make; the key is finding ways to manage those weak links easily as they arise. What type of caging and/or enclosure provides that most easy cleanup and will be maintenance-free the longest? What do I need to think about to keep my prairie dog safe? Can it fall? Are there areas where my prairie dog could get trapped or caught, resulting in injury? Make sure to consider these issues when the cage or enclosure is empty and again once beds, toys, and other accessories are added. Are my choices going to result in a large amount of effort and cost in the long run if I need to replace segments, or are there sections that my prairie dog may find weak enough to work on to escape providing the risk of injury? Is there a way in my design to prevent tooth trauma, shift in dental alignment from chewing unsafe or inappropriate items, or cage nose that still allows for adequate ventilation that is paramount to a prairie dog's long-term respiratory health? Do the choices I'm making allow my prairie dog the ability to be housed in a centrally located place in the house, where they are highly visible and can get routine visual and verbal interaction with me even if I don't have time to supervise them out of their cage or enclosure?
For some people, the cost is one of their primary concerns. You should ask yourself, "Will building this particular inexpensive style of a cage or enclosure result in my eventual building and/or replacing it entirely with several cages or enclosures over my prairie dog's lifespan, costing even more money in the long run because the construction materials degraded quickly and presented health or safety risks to my pet?"
Many people choose different types of wood frames for their caging and/or enclosures due to cost and ease of construction, only to realize that the wood will get compromised over time with water from when you clean it and with urine and waste from your pet. There are MANY reasons why wood isn't a healthy, safe, economical, or time-saving cage construction material. Due to wood grains' porous nature, there is no comprehensive way to get it truly and completely clean and sanitary. Over time, it can grow harmful bacteria and/or mold, leading to respiratory problems with your prairie dog or being lethally toxic if ingested by your pet's ongoing working and gnawing activities. There are no safe chemicals to use to clean and eliminate the germs, mold and/or bacteria growing in the wood that wouldn't impact the long-term health of your prairie dog. People that use wood for their caging and enclosures often discover that they need to routinely monitor and replace sections over time when they are compromised from digging, gnawing, or from becoming wet by various means. Some people think that merely sealing or finishing the wood will take care of this issue, but again, over time, there is gradual degradation, regardless of how it is finished, that will eventually result in the need to replace individual sections of your cage/enclosure. If you are not a handy woodworker or are not inclined to perform the required reconstruction periodically, wood may not be a wise choice of building materials. There is also the very serious potential for significant and potentially lethal dental issues using wood creates for your prairie dog where their chewing or working on the wood in their habitat can shift their dental alignment and symmetry throughout their mouth, causing malocclusion, odontoma, dental abscesses, and more. Some owners try to remedy the wood problems by covering the wood in metal or plastic flashing pieces. This strategy can work, but the owner needs to periodically check areas where it is bolted or screwed into the wood as those are the weak points that degrade and become compromised by moisture as described above over time.
We would ask the owner to question why to use wood at all, and maybe metal or plastic is a wiser choice, but then there are some drawbacks to using these materials too. Depending on the metal you choose, it can degrade more slowly than wood but offers another potential health risk, rust. If the metal degrades to the point where rust is starting to form and could is ingested from your pet's licking or gnawing or causes skin problems from exposure, it needs to be replaced. Some owners know upfront that they may go through a few cage or enclosure setups in their prairie dog's lifetime. Therefore, they incorporate that knowledge into their thought process in their budget and design and how much expense per habitat setup they are willing to make. Some metal wired cages may last 4-5 years, depending on your upkeep and the type of metal you choose. Plastic can be porous like wood depending on what you choose or become porous with digging or gnawing combined with repeated cleanings if chemicals are used over time. Urine can eventually permeate the plastic, leaving only harsh and unsafe chemicals to remove the odors. Plus, some plastics can be worked on and degraded over time by your prairie dog and even possibly ingested by their digging and gnawing. Some plastic has been reported to become warped and too flexible from pressure washing and hot water washings. Finding good quality, highly durable, long-lasting, and easy to clean building materials is usually incredibly challenging for a prairie dog owner. Most other exotic pet species do not "industriously work" on their cages in the manner prairie dogs do, so most cages are not built with prairie dogs in mind.
Some people prefer to make their cage and have done so successfully. If you choose to use a cage, small wire spacing is recommended so that a prairie dog will not try to chew on the bars and cause damage to their teeth, nose and/or mouth and will not get its feet caught. Long term cage nose and repeated tooth trauma from cage bar chewing can possibly lead to devastating health problems such as a fracture of a tooth or jaw or even odontoma and should be avoided if at all possible. A cages sidewall dimensions should be no more than 1" x ½" for outside walls and ½" x ½" floors using 14 gauge wire or less. The lesser the gauge value, the stronger the wire is a preferred choice with the above dimensions and will keep feet from slipping through while allowing fecal matter and other waste to drop into a slide-out or pullout litter pan below. Many people choose to go with galvanized wire due to cost, but some choose stainless steel to delay corrosion issues. Vinyl wrapped wire should be avoided due to gnawing where the prairie dog may ingest coating particles. Some people like powder-coated wire too, but if there is any risk that the material may break down over time and be ingested through gnawing activities, you may want to think twice and avoid it. Many hardware stores do not carry 14 gauge or smaller wire, so a you may need to find a specialty store to make the purchase. Sometimes animal feed stores are a good source for cage wire of this type, but other specialty stores also carry it (see links and resources for more caging info). Usually, a wire store will also carry the necessary tools and attachment rings called J-Clips (there are other types, too) to assist you in assembling your cage. They may also carry door latches, and several different types are on the market. Due to your prairie dog's inherent desire to be with you, they will often work on doors and openings extensively to try to get out of their cage. Try to prevent this by researching your door closures carefully and realizing that it may be necessary to reinforce corners of doors with additional security clips. Some people use carabineer style or dog leash style clips that can be purchased at a local hardware store. When considering wire dimensions, keep in mind that prairie dogs can break or get a foot or nail caught on any floor spacing larger than ½" x ½" wire. Some people may complain about our recommended sidewall dimensions of no more than 1" x ½" because they want to be able to pet their prairie dog through the bars. We ask that you please consider your priorities here. Is it more important for you to pet your prairie dog through the cage bars, or is it more important to prevent them from hurting their face and teeth from repeated gnawing on the bars? They have been known to break their teeth from applying too much leverage on the bars when they chew. Over time this could lead to serious health concerns. Full floors are best as balconies can be dangerous to prairie dogs. Prairie dogs are not visually equipped to consistently manage navigating cages with balconies because they do not have the depth perception to notice the difference between 2 inches and 3 feet. You want to avoid putting them in a position where they could jump or fall off a balcony at a bad angle, potentially cause a very serious or life-threatening injury. Ramps to bi- or tri-level cages can be dangerous for the same reason that a balcony can, always use caution and think of long-term health. Even one slight accident at a wrong angle could result in a fracture or other health issue despite the fall's distance. If your cage has wire ramps, try to remove the ramp and/or attach PVC pipe for access to different floors. PVC pipe can be found at a local hardware store and cut down to any length you desire. Larger sized PVC pipe can be found at just about any plumping store if you cannot find it at the hardware store. Replacing wire ramps can help prevent your prairie dog from catching their toes and nails where the ramps are hinged to the floor. If using wire caging materials, make sure that the edges of doors are covered with rubber door guards (see photos), so that rough edges don't cause a safety issue to your pet. You may also want to implement this stripping anywhere where two ends may meet where a prairie dog may work at getting your attention, such as where a cage lid on the top makes contact with the surrounding vertical sides. (Note: reacting by giving attention to a prairie dog when it is trying to work at escaping from its cage or enclosure only reinforces the negative behavior, so do not give attention when your prairie dog is working at escaping from its habitat when you know that there is no safety issue to worry about).
If you want to consider long-term health in your cage design, it is best to use a pull out style litter pan to avoid having your prairie dog in direct contact with their litter and waste. Over time skin, coat, and respiratory conditions have been known to develop in those prairie dogs where owners did not have a pullout style pan for waste to drop through. A metal pull out style pan makes daily cleaning easy. Stainless steel metal is preferred because it typically will last longer than plastic pull out trays, and the metal isn't permeated as much with urine odor over time when it is scrubbed down. When the waste is allowed to drop through to the bottom pan, the owner often only has to pull out the pan, dump it, wipe it down, fill it with fresh litter, and put it back in place for a quick cleanup. Some cages sit inside a bottom tray, where the prairie dog walks on its litter or bedding, which they sometimes will use for a restroom; this is not a wise choice over time. This style cage requires you to lift it, which can be burdensome depending on its size and also requires more frequent cage cleanings because you don't want to have any food contaminated by urine and feces or for your pet to be in direct contact with their waste for long periods. Some people in caging situations with no pull out pan often require daily or even twice daily cleanings depending on the number of prairie dogs they have.
Again, we reiterate that you can build any size cage that you desire for your pet(s). However, consider in your planning enough room for the total number of prairie dogs you intend to keep, their toys (including a 15" wheel that you can mount in a safe position), latrine area, sleeping, and eating areas in your design. Also, think about allowing enough room to allow for their building and nesting activities, ease of cleanup, and allowing them appropriate room to stand, perch, guard, and observe comfortably. Question your design if you have built-in easy access to all areas of their cage? Is each access point built strongly and securely enough to withstand their repeated and inevitable escape attempts? Are you able to periodically look for weak points and able to reinforce them as necessary?
Many people choose an enclosure over a cage because they want their prairie dog to experience what they perceive to be a less confined environment; the truth of this depends on the construction of both. The world is your oyster with what you create in both instances of cage or enclosure, so it is more a matter of your preference. If you choose to go with an enclosure instead of a cage, many of the same issues and concerns from the caging section apply to your enclosure equally. However, there are other considerations to entertain. What materials will you use, and what are the pros and cons of your choices? Some people convert whole rooms into "Prairie Dog" rooms where only their prairie dogs occupy the space. While having an entire room dedicated to your pet sounds like a terrific idea, there can be behavioral and health drawbacks to this option as well. Prairie dogs in the wild and those in captive settings are still instinctually prey animals. In the wild, they will sit and observe their full surroundings, monitoring all activities by those members within their coterie, and actions by other species coming and going that enter or pass through their environment. It is essential that the prairie dog(s) be able to see the activities around them and that their sight is not blocked off by walls of a room, doors, or enclosure walls. For some prairie dogs if their site is blocked, you may face behavioral problems because they feel anxious when they cannot observe properly and are surprised or caught off guard by their owners and other visitors. You can help address their visibility issue by using Plexiglas for a doorway or one entryway. Some people will use transparent Plexiglas for all of their enclosure walls and have certain bedding sections where the prairie dogs can escape and hide when they feel the need. Having visibility is a critical element of your enclosure. Another crucial factor has to do with cleaning and maintenance. Enclosures often mean that the prairie dog may have areas where they are in more direct contact with their waste; we've already mentioned that such contact can lead to long term health problems with their skin and respiratory system. Depending on construction, this often means more frequent cleanings are required in enclosure situations where there is no drop down pan to catch waste. Lastly, adequate ventilation can cause long-term health concerns depending on what habitat you create. Ventilation challenges are especially true in smaller box-style enclosures where over time, waste and odor permeates the construction materials used, especially if the flooring becomes saturated over time. Again, carefully think through your material and construction choices and consider your options when faced with the challenges noted here. Preventing falls is another concern in your prairie dog(s) enclosure, and what they are able to climb that could result in an injury, as noted in the caging section, must be considered here as well. If using a room, will you tile or laminate the whole room? If so, make sure to also tile/laminate the surrounding vertical walls up to the height of about 3 feet to keep your Prairie Dog from chewing through the drywall. You may also want to put a kicker plate on the door bottom to keep the prairie dog from chewing and destroying the door to the room while also removing the wooden millwork as a chewing hazard.
Tips for both cages and enclosures –
Location, location, location! For their best long-term health and behavioral response, keep your prairie dogs in the most commonly frequented areas of your home. Please do NOT keep them in garages, basements, breezeways, bedrooms, or other areas where they cannot easily see you from the confines of their cage or enclosure. They need to see you easily, even when they cannot be out with you. When they can easily see and visually interact with you from the safety of their habitat, they often feel more at ease and feel as though they participate and contribute to the family dynamic similar to their social needs in the wild. If they can't, they will often spend lots of time stressing and working to find weaknesses in your design that will enable their escape so that they can interact with you and the family. This behavior can lead to safety concerns and many costly repairs and changes to enclosure and cage design when they consistently work to get out. If they can see you easily, they are more at ease and will not focus on getting out as intensely.
Carefully consider your building materials and cage accessories. Are you using wood that can be easily compromised by chewing, water, and waste? While this topic has been covered previously, it is worth restating that there are many problems with using wood that can be avoided with different building materials. Wood can splinter and harbors harmful fungus and bacteria that cannot safely be cleaned without impacting your pet's health. Behaviorally, you also cannot expect that your prairie dog will not chew on other wood items around the household if you provide wooden-framed caging, wood toys, beds, and other items in their habitats. Wooden moldings and doors are frequently chewed upon by those with wood in their cage design, but it makes it much more difficult to curb these habits if you have wood in their habitat too. Almost like being upset with a puppy for chewing up your clothing when you gave it is sock or slipper to chew or tug upon. It is hard for them to distinguish between what is permissible to nest and chew on from what is not, depending on the materials you choose to provide.
As prairie dogs age, inconsistent exposure to full-spectrum lighting (no heat lamps but UVA and UVB without added heat to help with Vitamin D needs) and varying temperatures can significantly impact their health. Sometimes the cumulative effect causes them to oversleep in a semi-hibernation pattern or near torpor state. It can lead to a complete shutdown in a captive setting if not recognized in its beginning phases. Keeping the environment at a consistent temperature of 70 degrees, and not lower, without a great deal of fluctuation is ideal as your prairie dog ages; that way, it doesn't force their bodies to overcompensate to regulate between hot and cold. Again, this becomes a more pronounced problem as your prairie dog ages and occurs at different ages depending on your prairie dog's unique chemical makeup. Sometimes it begins to appear as early as the age of 5 to 6, while others might not have this matter creep up until they reach 10, it all depends on a multitude of factors unique from animal to animal. Areas of the country that have drastic temperature changes must observe their pets and recognize their pets' daily patterns and any changes and intervene when necessary. Contact us promptly if you have a problem with "shut down or oversleeping" in your prairie dog. We can help with nutrition and habitat factors that may be impacting your pet. While some people recognize that temperature drops can pose a health risk to their pet, they often forget that heat can be just as threatening. Most people think that since it is seasonally hot in areas where wild prairie dogs are captured, they can handle the heat well in a captive setting. This is not the case, as in the wild they often go down to cooler chambers underground to get out of the hot sun, so make sure to think about this during hot summer months in your captive habitat. Keeping temperatures consistent is essential to their long-term health so that they can regulate themselves more easily.
Temperature and lighting are another very important reason to carefully evaluate your habitat choices and make sure to have your prairie dog's habitat centrally located in a common area of your home. Many bedrooms used as a "prairie dog room" often don't allow for adequate lighting and temperature regulation, let alone the visibility issues already mentioned. Bedrooms, basements, and garages are often dimly lit and do not make optimal habitat locations. Extra full-spectrum UVA/UVB/no heat lighting, ventilation, heating, and air conditioning sources have to be implemented in these habitat locations along with a great deal of additional owner interaction because of the lack of stimulation they receive from not being in areas that get plenty of stimulation.
In the wild, prairie dogs get lots of light exposure during the day when their environment allows for it. It is essential that you replicate that pattern in captivity. Adequate full-spectrum UVA/UVB/no heat lighting can also help improve your pet's mood and behavioral tendencies during rut season, and it also helps them as they age and keeps them from shutting down (see more below). You can incorporate many different types of lighting into your habitat, but be careful of your choices and evaluate the potential safety hazards they might pose. You don't want your prairie dog to be electrocuted from chewing any cord or accessing any electrical outlet. Even if you unplug a fan or other appliance, it can still hold enough charge or current to harm your pet. Ideally, your prairie dog should have access to plenty of light 12-14 hours per day. Make sure, however, that there are areas within your habitat where your pet can escape the light if they choose. If your lighting source emits some heat (heat lamps are NOT recommended), make sure your prairie dog is drinking enough to compensate for its hydration lost from the added heat source. Fecal and urine output are ways to identify if your pet is losing fluids from the heat of your lighting choices. Ideally, your lighting choices shouldn't emit this amount of heat. For best results, have your enclosure or cage located in a brightly lit room free from drafts. Many, but not all, prairie dogs enjoy sitting near large window areas in a living or dining room where they enjoy the company of family from within their habitat and are also able to observe the outdoors. Ambient, diffused light from windows is not enough to provide or satisfy their vitamin D needs that they get in the wild from sun exposure. Full-spectrum UVA/UVB lighting without added heat can be beneficial for light therapy needs that benefit mood and health long-term. There are many types on the market, and some can be quite expensive, do your homework here as there are very inexpensive options available. Vita-Lite or Avian Sun 5.0 by Zoo Med are popular brands people choose.
Make a checklist in advance before you acquire this pet to identify your habitat choices' pros and cons. While cost can often be a driving factor, remember that with some things, you get what you pay for; this is an area where that saying applies. Make sure to evaluate the materials you choose and the strengths and weaknesses overall of your finished product, regardless if you bought a cage from a store or built your cage or enclosure from scratch. Consider overall safety, durability, strength (weight both empty and full), possibilities of degradation (rust, gnawing, chewing, digging, moisture, odor problems due to permeation by waste), amount of maintenance required both for cleanings and for upkeep over time, possible weak points requiring future reinforcement or repair, ventilation, visibility, mobility, convenient access for both cleaning and to your prairie dog(s), size (should be an adequate amount of standing (to their full height) and running room for each prairie dog) and yes, cost. Cutting corners to save money with this aspect of prairie dog care can wind up costing you even more money in the long run, especially if you have to replace materials or have veterinary costs from health complications that arise due to poor maintenance, materials, plans, and construction.
Search the internet for different cage and enclosure setups and what door closures they utilize because there are many ideas to think about to reach a style that works well for you. We have included links to a few companies known to make great custom cages and enclosures geared toward a pet owner and a prairie dog's needs. However, one thing is for sure with this species, and there is no such thing as a "perfect" prairie dog cage or habitat. All have some challenges for this hard-working animal. Check our links to see some pictures of cages and enclosures people have used to help get your creative ideas started. Again, note all the pros and cons when you are looking at these pictures for when you purchase or design your own. If you do not find something that fits your needs from one of the companies listed in our links, make sure to ask if they can build something custom. Many companies are happy to help meet any of your particular needs but only if you ask for what you are looking for specifically.
Regardless of your choice of cage or enclosure, the frequency of cleaning is determined by its size, the number of prairie dogs that inhabit it, and the materials you use as litter and bedding. It also helps the pet owner to step back and think about the "big picture" of prairie dogs in the wild in their native habitat. Prairie dogs are some of the most sophisticated architects in the animal kingdom and build quite elaborate burrow and tunnel systems. They are such advanced builders that engineering students at some universities have even studied their construction techniques in the wild. Prairie dogs take into account weather, air, and water flow and adjust their construction accordingly. Their underground chambers are warm, airy, and removed from the impact of inclement weather. Only exceptionally severe storms and extreme flooding impact their construction. So, what does this have to do with cages, enclosures, and cleaning? In a wild prairie dog town, prairie dogs often build separate bathroom chambers from their nesting and nursery chambers. When a bathroom becomes too contaminated with waste and odor, they collapse the section upon itself, which suffocates the smell, and then they begin using a newly constructed chamber. This process repeats itself. Waste in the collapsed section is broken down and absorbed into the ground and may be redeveloped at a future date when needed. Again, restrooms are not located where they sleep; this should also be part of your thought process in a captive setting. Potty locations should not be near where they are sleeping, and they should not be in continual contact with their litter and waste. A pullout style litter pan in a cage is an excellent choice to allow for waste to drop through, and it virtually eliminates direct contact with waste and provides a bit more ventilation. When evaluating how often to clean, or if your environment allows for adequate ventilation for your prairie dog, take time to put your head inside their habitat and breathe for at least one full minute. Most people don't accurately measure how long a full minute is, so bring a timer if there is any doubt. If you can smell urine and waste, so can your pet. Repeated incidents of over exposure to these odors over time may lead to respiratory concerns for your pet over time.
Despite your choice of cage or enclosure, you must consider the enclosure or cage location in your home, the amount of lighting it receives, its exposure to varying temperatures, ventilation, sight restrictions, and protection from excessive heat or cold, access to other household pets, etc. Prairie dogs do not have any depth perception; they are not visually equipped to tell the distance between two inches or a six-foot drop. Many people note that they are great climbers, and while this is true, you once again have to consider in the wild what they typically are climbing; they climb a gradual incline from their tunnel to the flattened earth or the mounded area surrounding their burrow. There is not a drop or anything to jump from once they have climbed out of their hole. Just because they can climb doesn't mean that they can jump safely in a captive setting or know how to manage a fall from any distance. Many broken backs, teeth, head trauma, and other serious accidents have occurred. It is paramount that whatever habitat option you choose, you evaluate if they could fall any distance that might result in injury and prevent it.
If you have a picture of a cage or enclosure that you have made or that works well with your prairie dog(s), please email them to us. We'd love to create a network to share information by adding them to this site for others to get ideas from to benefit their pets.