We Love Prairie Dogs
Introductory First Aid Notes
© 2013 by Gena Seaberg, Ph.D., All Rights Reserved
Introductory First Aid Notes
© 2013 by Gena Seaberg, Ph.D., All Rights Reserved
We're sharing the information below for informational purposes only and is provided strictly as a resource. It does not substitute licensed exotic veterinary treatment, where time is critical in emergencies. For your animal's sake, please do not attempt to diagnose or treat from home or by advice through social media platforms that may miss essential variables specific to your beloved pet when it is in need. Please get your prairie dog to an exotic veterinarian as soon as possible. If you need help finding a qualified exotic vet near you, please don't hesitate to contact us, and we will help you. Personalized care advice is always available to you and your specific prairie dog by contacting us concerning captive care, but it does NOT replace proper veterinary care. Gena Seaberg is also willing to partner and collaborate directly with your veterinarian at any time and welcomes their call or email as she works with veterinarians worldwide routinely. Please allow for a 24-48 hour response time in non-emergency situations. If an emergency arises and your vet needs assistance, please ask your vet to state the urgency in any communication. Thank you.
Information in this document is limited and does not include proper bandaging strategies, what to do in cases of nerve-related self-mutilation after spinal cord injury, various dental concerns, digestive ailments, parasite treatment measures, and more. The information is limited due to the high potential for liability or harm to your beloved pet when its unique characteristics, nutrition, health history, and specific caretaking practices have yet to be discussed. If interested in help in these areas, don't hesitate to get in touch with Gena Seaberg directly for more personalized one-on-one assistance to address your particular needs and help to find the proper veterinarian to assist you.
TO AVOID INJURY AND ACCIDENTS, PRAIRIE DOG-PROOF YOUR ENVIRONMENT AND THEIR HABITAT AND SUPERVISE YOUR PRAIRIE DOG CLOSELY WHEN THEY ARE OUT IN YOUR HOME! IDEAS ABOUT PRAIRIE DOG PROOFING CAN BE OBTAINED THROUGH A FREE CONSULT ON THIS WEBSITE, OR WE WELCOME YOUR IDEAS AS WELL IF YOU WANT TO SHARE THROUGH THE ONLINE CONTACT FORM.
Due to eye placement as a prey species, prairie dogs do not have good depth perception, which means that they visually cannot distinguish the difference between a height of several inches or centimeters and that of several feet or meters. This lack of visual perception can be confusing for new prairie dog owners because it appears that their prairie dog is an expert climber. The confusion lies in that the owner doesn't account for the fact that in the wild, the prairie dog is quite skilled at climbing the gradually inclined tunnels in and out of its burrow, but when it reaches the surface of the burrow, there is flat earth or a gradual dirt mound surrounding the burrow entrance. There is no potential for a fall. So, they climb out of their wild burrow without risk of falling.
Prairie dogs are adept climbers in the wild, but this doesn't mean climbing is safe when this animal is in a captive setting. They will actively seek out and climb on top of ANY object in your home to get to a high vantage point so that they can see or predict what's coming while trying to emulate their observation role for potential predators or harm as they would in a wild colony. Captive prairie dogs must always be carefully supervised outside their safe cage or habitat. If a long life span is a priority, it is paramount that FALLS MUST BE PREVENTED. It is the caretaker's responsibility to ensure that falls of any distance are minimized, that the prairie dog's captive environment is safe to prevent potential falls, and that while they are out exploring, the caretaker is vigilant to avoid them climbing and falling from objects. FALLS ARE THE MAJOR CAUSE OF MOST PRAIRIE DOG ACCIDENTS CAUSING DENTAL TRAUMA, SPINAL CORD INJURY, NERVE DAMAGE, SELF-MUTILATION, AND MORE. Even if the prairie dog falls a small distance, the result can be disastrous if it twists incorrectly during the fall.
If your prairie dog does fall and sustains dental trauma from breaking one or more incisors, please get in touch with us promptly for proper intervention measures. Incisor breaks must be dealt with without delay and in a specific manner to ensure that your prairie dog doesn't suffer dental problems later in life. Do NOT ignore an incisor break and wait for the new incisor to grow back in because incisor breaks can potentially create other dental problems throughout the entire mouth if not dealt with correctly. Brushing the incisor breaks off can and often does result in problems later for your beloved pet if specific steps are not taken that are better discussed through a free consultation. Please be careful of misinformation on the internet and through social media about this topic, as often, issues arise from these incidents months or years later.
While everyone will do their best to prevent falls in captive settings for their prairie dog, we strongly suggest that you place padding under cage doors or other areas where they may fall if you're not ready for them and actively watching. It is also vital to repeatedly check these areas for their placement, as your prairie dogs will likely move things around to "work" while they are out. Please do not assume that the padding is in place and unchanged, but check before getting them out to explore each time to reduce the chance of injury.
If you suspect your prairie dog is unconscious (not to be confused with deep sleep or torpor), first observe to see if it is breathing by looking for signs of inhalation by the rising and falling of the chest. Next, feel the prairie dog's temperature. Is it cold to the touch? A prairie dog's body temperature is close to our own (approximate range 35.3-39.0°C, or 95.54 – 102.2°F). If you can't see any obvious signs of trauma where there is a bone misplacement, protrusion, or something of this extreme nature and the prairie dog is cold to the touch, you want to begin to rub the prairie dog vigorously and bring it close to your skin for warmth. Some caretakers will tuck the prairie dog up against their skin on their chest and stomach inside their shirt. Instead, you can also use a heating pad, hot water bottle, or if you don't have one available, fill a plastic water bottle with hot (not scalding) water. Make sure to test the temperature against the inside of your wrist (just like when checking the temperature of food/milk for a human baby), and if it is too hot for you, it is too hot for your prairie dog. Continue to rub the prairie dog vigorously and bring up body temp.
If body temperature is normal to the touch, check the airway, and again (assuming no signs of injury), check how it is breathing and continue rubbing their body vigorously.
Call if you have other questions. In case you're wondering, CPR has been performed successfully on prairie dogs. However, it is not recommended to attempt it unless you have exhausted all other measures, cannot get to a veterinarian in time, or your prairie dog is found not breathing and is at death's door. DO NOT PERFORM THIS unless you've cleared the airway, rubbed them vigorously, brought up their temp, and explored other measures and are only doing so as your last-ditch effort. If you are familiar with performing CPR for infants, this same process must be approached even more delicately with the nature of the breaths you provide.
Confusion about Torpor:
Prairie dogs in captive settings do not work in the same manner as their wild counterparts. Captive prairie dogs are not nearly as industrious when compared to the labor wild prairie dogs perform; therefore, their body composition is different. The shift in body composition and exposure to the elements of their ecosystem is much different in prairie dogs found in the wild compared to those that adapt to captive settings (even in those that are captive-born). This difference makes it very important that caretakers do their best to prevent living conditions that may cause semi-dormancy or torpor. What exactly is torpor? It can be defined as a state of lowered physiological activity typically characterized by reduced metabolism, heart rate, respiration, and body temperature that occurs in varying degrees, especially in hibernating and estivating animals (Merriam-Webster). Prairie dogs enter torpor when exposed to prolonged periods where temperatures fall below 20.5°C or 68.9°F.
Caretakers are strongly encouraged to maintain environmental habitat conditions that are static and consistent over time to avoid a state of torpor. Habitat temperatures and lighting conditions become even more of a priority as the prairie dog ages past what would be average life expectancy in the wild. Black-tailed prairie dogs do not go into an actual hibernation state in the wild; they go into a temporary semi-dormancy when conditions are extreme. These periods are short in duration, and most times, wild black-tailed prairie dogs are active to some extent year-round. Again, it is essential to remember that wild prairie dogs are built to endure these brief dormancy periods, and captive prairie dogs are not.
The captive caretaker is looking to achieve the year-round activity of at least an hour or more per day over their prairie dog's life span. When prairie dogs are kept consistently engaged and active daily, it benefits their health considerably over time if they are NOT yo-yo-ing up and down in activity level, making it challenging to regulate their metabolism over time, especially when they enter senior phases of life or have outlived their wild relatives. To keep your prairie dog active and to avoid dormancy or torpor-causing conditions, maintain your prairie dog habitat in the most centralized area of your home, sanctuary, zoo, or rescue. They get cues to "work" from all the surrounding activities of the household. They do best in the middle of all the action of their caretaker's home and feel part of a "greater coterie" or family this way. The activity of their environment helps stimulate them to be busy and not oversleep. It is also VERY IMPORTANT that caretakers maintain conditions where temperatures remain at a constant 21-22°C or 70-72°F, drafts are avoided, and full-spectrum (UVA/UVB but emits no heat) light exposure is similar to what they'd encounter in the wild put on a timer 12-14 hours per day. Appropriate full-spectrum lighting can be found on the resource page of weloveprairiedogs.com. Please note that full-spectrum lighting cannot be replaced by diffused sunlight from a window or door where UVA/UVB is filtered out. Prairie dogs often face health challenges over time and do NOT do well living in back bedrooms, garages, basements, or other spaces where there is poor lighting, no activity going on around them, and dramatically fluctuating temperatures. These poor conditions often lead to torpor. You want to do your best to keep things as stable as possible over time and pay even more careful attention to this issue as your prairie dog ages.
Do NOT automatically assume your prairie dog is dead; it can be in a state of torpor. Have your veterinarian assess to make sure!!!!! Evaluate the conditions noted above, and if any are in question, correct them immediately to prevent future episodes. Repeated episodes are very taxing and can decrease lifespan.
Torpor in adults:
The symptoms can be progressive and often start when you notice your prairie dog sleeping far more than usual and not being nearly as active in fall or winter. Note that changes in barometer and light occur predominantly during fall and winter, often when intervention is most needed due to shorter periods of daylight. When you notice this shift, make sure to adjust lighting and ensure temperatures do not fluctuate and fall within the preferred range noted above. Also, make sure to get them up and engaged in some way with you or a toy during the day to keep them busy. It is okay for them to sleep 12-14 hours, too, but you need to see them up and busy for a prolonged period each day, with consistent intake and output each day making sure to notice whether they decide to be active at night instead.
Other symptoms include difficulty being awakened from a deep sleep, being completely limp, being cold to the touch, no visible heartbeat, and they don't appear to be breathing.
Suppose you discover your prairie dog to be cool to the touch, and you've remedied all other areas concerning their habitat conditions and location in your home and you're sure the lighting is appropriate. In that case, if drafts are minimized and temperatures are ideal, then rub them vigorously, and warm them with warm towels, a hot water bottle, a heating pad, or direct, skin-to-skin contact as noted above in the section about finding your prairie dog unconscious. Another thing to consider and rule out is if their nutrition and diet rations are on track using the Captive Nutrition document found on weloveprairiedogs.com for guidance in case they are experiencing a protein deficiency which can cause them problems, too. Sometimes it is best to seek free consultation in these instances as metabolisms can vary from prairie dog to prairie dog, so knowing the proper amounts along with what form of protein is best in each scenario can be tricky from animal to animal and must be evaluated case by case.
Torpor in pups:
Symptoms are the same as those in adults, but torpor is more commonly experienced with pups when their environment is not kept warm in similar fashion to what is found in their wild nesting chambers. For those that have been taken from the wild or their mothers too young, are not on their ideal nutritional plan for their unique stage of development with their specifically adjusted protein rations, and are not stable in their thermoregulation, it is essential to keep a heating pad under a portion of their habitat to help them with temperature regulation until their nutrition has been accounted for in what each pup needs uniquely, in addition to maintaining the conditions noted for adults above if they are unable to self-regulate their own temperatures. Frequent periodic daily checks are recommended to see if pups are maintaining their own body temp or require additional assistance while ensuring they are each getting enough hydration to offset the heat. Suppose they continually need additional intervention with the heating pad after each diet and protein ration is individually evaluated. In that case, you may have more serious issues (including failure to thrive) requiring veterinary intervention.
What you can do:
Increase lighting 12-14 hours per day to emulate the bright sunlight of their native prairie habitat. Utilize full-spectrum lighting that is UVA/UVB but emits no extra heat to dehydrate them potentially. Be sure that your prairie dogs can escape the light, too, if they choose, and that temperatures stay a consistent 21-22°C or 70-72°F. Also, ensure that drafts are minimized by doors and windows, monitor fecal and urine output, appetite, body temp, and water consumption daily, and engage them in activity with you directly or a toy every day. In the case of pups or with ill adults, make sure to keep them warm or maintain their temperature with a heating pad (watch that they are NOT able to access the cords), hot water bottle, or warmed towels being careful to monitor hydration levels if you are using extra heat in their environment.
A word of caution about heating pad use and dehydration:
If thermoregulation becomes an issue for your prairie dog resulting in the use of a heating pad, please be sure that the prairie dog is compensating with extra hydration that can be lost with its use by monitoring urinary output, water intake, and periodic skin turgor or “tent” tests to check for hydration. If the skin in the turgor test is slow to snap back, your prairie dog is likely experiencing dehydration which warrants prompt attention through extra hydration via syringe or by appropriately administered subcutaneous fluids administered by your licensed veterinary provider.
If you suspect your prairie dog is choking on something, quickly secure it by cocooning it with a kitchen towel or wearing a sturdy pair of leather gloves or welding gloves. This is for your safety to keep from being bitten due to a fear bite because of the situation at hand. Next, stand up straight, legs slightly spread apart, and with the prairie dog very secure, face up toward you, in both hands (with your hands cradling their back as pictured below), bend at the waist in a steady but rapid, sweeping motion as though you were going to touch your toes. With the prairie dog in both hands, you look to put their head below their hindquarters so that you can first attempt to dislodge the object or fluids from the airway in this sweeping motion. When you bend down at the waist rapidly with them held securely in both hands in a sweeping motion (almost like chopping wood), it can help get any fluids or dislodge an object. The photo below illustrates where I used a stuffed prairie dog instead of causing distress to an actual prairie dog.
Note the position of the prairie dog where the head is down. Bend rapidly at the waist up and down in a sweeping motion with your arms. Repeat this swift motion two or three times to help get fluids, or object dislodged from the airway if they are choking.
If this first attempt to get the object removed from the airway is unsuccessful, try a couple of more times rapidly bending up and down with them. If you can't get it out in this manner but can see the object lodged in their airway, carefully (and preferably with assistance) use a hemostat to remove the object, careful not to injure their teeth, tongue, or gingiva.
(Hemostat, do not use without another person's assistance. Please carefully use this tool only in cases of choking where initial measures fail, but you can see the object causing the airway obstruction.)
Electrical Burns and Electrocution:
It warrants repeating that again; it is essential in captive settings that the caretaker be proactive and carefully prairie dog-proof the home for safety purposes (see strategies on weloveprairiedogs.com) and that all activity outside of its habitat is vigilantly supervised as prairie dogs are very industrious and busy by nature, just as they would be in their wild setting. Their instinctive nature to test and work on everything in their setting, safe or not, can continually present safety issues in the human home or in environments that are not the same as their native prairie.
Falls and dental trauma tend to present the majority of captive accidents to prairie dogs as pets. Another prevalent area where accidents occur is related to safety hazards associated with wires, cables, and electricity. I receive between 40 and 50 calls yearly due to electrical burns and electrocution. Electrical burns can be very hard to detect initially. A caretaker may notice the event as it happened where their prairie dog chewed on a wire and quickly lets it go and then opens and closes its mouth a few times or maybe even rubs its paw against its mouth like there was something in it. Often caretakers miss these clues and don't notice that their prairie dog may avoid water consumption or eating certain things, but they have no idea why, and they do not connect that there could have been an accident with a wire or cable that is causing this change in appetite or approach to food. They can't see burns in the mouth, trachea, or even internal burns from the prairie dog's wire chewing. If you suspect electrical burns, monitor your prairie dog's approach to food, and water, and then look for changes in urine concentration and fecal output. Sometimes fecal output will be tarry and smell like metal, and it might have traces of blood throughout when smeared against a white paper towel/napkin. Urine may also contain blood.
Sometimes, it is evident that your prairie dog has been electrocuted or suffered electrical burns. Sometimes there are blisters to the lips, tongue, and trachea. Sometimes there will be singed fur around the face, and sometimes you can smell a metallic or burned smell from their mouth. Occasionally there may be unexplained paralysis to parts of the lips and face from where the injury occurred. If you suspect electrocution, don't waste time. Make an emergency trip to your veterinarian and let them know the nature of the event if known. Have them perform tests and labs to rule out internal damage where the event might have caused internal bleeding or organ damage.
Above all, do not underestimate the damage electricity can cause to an animal as small as your prairie dog. What may seem harmless to you can be life-threatening and internal injuries can go undetected, resulting in death.
Make sure to periodically check all wires and cables to ensure that they haven't been chewing and to prairie dog-proof cords, cables, and wires to make sure they are NOT accessible.
Wound care can be quite complex and problematic with this species; therefore, it will only be briefly discussed here. It can often be troublesome to remedy due to obsessive grooming by the individual prairie dog or through social grooming/barbering by cagemates attempting to "fix" or repair a wound. Often these behaviors to try to repair the wound are driven out of necessity not to appear weakened or vulnerable as a prey species. Sometimes excessive chewing or grooming of a wound is due to nerve response if there is deeper non-visible nerve issue that can create an itching or burning sensation that causes them to chew themselves incessantly. Frequently, following a surgical procedure, as incision sites begin to dry and scab over; this is when wound management practices are most often essential.
If there is post-op recovery where an incision needs to heal, please keep the prairie dog isolated in a single-story cage without access to ramps, a wheel, or the ability to climb, so as not to cause further injury. Also, keep it apart from its cagemates unless you provide a very closely supervised visitation session to prevent the cagemate from accidentally opening an incision that may require additional surgical repair from your attending veterinarian.
An emergency number for a licensed exotic veterinarian on weekends or after hours is always suggested for a surgical complication or emergency. If utilizing a 24-hour emergency veterinary clinic, be sure to be able to communicate the following:
Gender and whether intact/spayed/neutered
Current symptoms/onset date/change of behaviors and symptoms over time and progression
Health history to include any and all visits to the vet, as past incidents may shed light on new issues.
Daily diet includes brands used, frequency provided, ration amounts, and the last known intake/output (bring a fecal sample in a Ziploc bag to keep moist so they can see most current output).
Where in the home is it maintained, what type of habitat do you use, and details about the habitat (litter, bedding, the frequency it is cleaned, and if products are used).
Do you have any details that may help shed light on the situation?
Prairie dogs in the wild only live about five to six years at maximum. Captive prairie dogs have been known to live into their teens, with some reaching 15+ years with best practices found on the weloveprairiedogs.com website when coupled with individualized consultation.
Each person's prairie dog's living situation can vary markedly from home to home. There are numerous variables to consider, so please consider contacting us for individualized consultation to help assess your prairie dog's needs case-by-case. Just as no two people are alike, no two animals are the same, and they deserve respect uniquely to meet each one's needs for a long life.
Again, if you need help finding a veterinarian, please submit your request through the contact page. If you're looking for a free consultation for best practices for your pet or have questions on what's here, you're also welcome to reach out to Gena Seaberg directly at [email protected] or if you're having an emergency, reach out by phone at 425.870.1729.