Captive Prairie Dog Nutrition Recommendations
By Gena Seaberg Ph.D., © 2005 All Rights Reserved
What constitutes a healthy diet for captive prairie dogs?
The dietary intake of the prairie dog consists of three essential categories: hay (most of their diet), treats (all items that are not hay), and protein. Developing pups will enjoy a higher treat and protein allotment than mature adults until they reach the weight thresholds noted below. Feeding guidelines for adults and pups follow; please read this carefully and contact the author privately if you’d like more comprehensive nutritional information than what is noted below specific to your pet's unique health history and metabolism.
General weight maximums & considerations impacting nutritional recommendations are below.
If your top concern with nutrition for this species is longevity, it is important to understand that captive prairie dogs DO NOT “work” nearly as hard or in the same capacity as their wild counterparts, regardless of their activity level in captivity. To compensate for this lack of work, we must first comprehend their highly efficient nature in the wild to get by with very little. It is our human tendency to feel the need to show love through food, but it is guaranteed to cut lifespan short with this efficient rodent. Caretakers who follow these feeding guidelines and later reach out for free consultation support when their prairie dogs reach geriatric stages can often find their prairie dogs reaching ages ten or more, assuming proper habitat and husbandry have also occurred.
The ideal weight range for captive adult females is 2 ¼ - 2 ½ lbs max or 1021-1134g.
The ideal weight range for captive adult males is 2 ¼ -2 ¾ lbs max or 1021-1247g.
It is recommended to stay in the middle of these weight ranges and not exceed the top of the range for optimal long-term health. Caretakers should only slightly and temporarily increase or decrease treat rations listed below as needed, with the overall goal to keep weights consistent within these ranges. Each prairie dog’s metabolism will vary slightly and can be impacted by several factors, including hormonal rut, so getting a digital kitchen scale can be helpful, along with cataloging weight quarterly to help the caretaker keep weight within the noted thresholds.
There may be some unique instances where common sense and good judgment apply for those prairie dogs that would be considered “runts” of their litter. In these cases, ensuring that they are at least above 680g or 1.5 lbs is key; this would be based on their frame size. If you need assistance with this determination, contact the author.
All prairie dogs should be offered large and unlimited amounts of fresh timothy hay or other grass hay that is replenished daily. A suggested serving guideline is 4-5 large handfuls of hay per prairie dog that are roughly equal to their body size. Other types of safe grass hays include: oat, meadow grass, brome, and orchard grass, to name a few. DO NOT FEED ALFALFA (unless for protein, see below), a legume hay that contains too high of calcium and protein content. Prairie dogs are selectively herbivorous, meaning they will only consume the nutritionally viable portion of a strand of grass or hay and may not eat all you provide. On average, only about 15-20% of the hay you provide contains valuable nutrition. The rest is hay waste known as chaff, an empty hull of little to no nutritional value that they may use for nests or other uses. Captive caretakers should therefore anticipate high amounts of hay waste. It is essential each day to take time to remove uneaten and/or soiled hay and replace it with a fresh supply to encourage your prairie dog’s continual interest in foraging and eating. Eating large amounts of hay long-term will prolong its lifespan if you follow these feeding guidelines. Hay is most critical as a "whole food" from a digestive tract, dental health, and immune system standpoint. Pelleted food is considered processed food, regardless of hay content, and is never a replacement for high hay intake. Hide treats noted below within the hay as a form of enrichment activity. Store hay in a dry environment away from potential pests where it is allowed to breathe. Some people store hay in large plastic Rubbermaid trash cans in their garage with vent holes poked in the lid. Check routinely for mold in your hay because it is deadly if ingested by your pet. To provide a general idea, a daily adult captive diet should consist of approximately 98% timothy or other grass hay, 2% treats, and minimal protein.
Treats are any and all other food or supplements that are not hay or considered a protein source. Treats should be limited to the following serving size recommendations:
When fed timothy hay-based pellets as a daily nutritional supplement or treat for thriving, mature prairie dogs six (6) months in age and older, weigh 2 lb (907 g) or more, feed 1/8 cup or 24 grams. Not all pellets are optimal to a long lifespan, all for this species should contain timothy hay as their first-listed ingredient. If it doesn't specify hay type in the ingredient list, BEWARE! Also, make sure that any pellets you use DO NOT contain alfalfa or dried corn as both can gradually lead to serious health issues for your pet. Feed this quantity only if the timothy-based pellet is used as a SINGLE treat combined with fresh grasses and hays.
*For pups less than six (6) months in age and under 907g (considered an adult weight), feed 1/4 cup or 48 grams of grass-based pellets. Feed this amount only if the timothy-based pellet is used as a SINGLE treat combined with fresh grasses and hays.
Currently, the two most healthful timothy hay-based pellet options for prairie dogs being recommended at this time are Oxbow’s Essentials Adult Rabbit and American Pet’s Prairie Dog Natural.
AN IMPORTANT NOTE ABOUT TREAT RATION AMOUNTS: If feeding an additional treat item in addition to pellets or supplemental food such as fresh vegetables, feed lesser amounts of timothy hay-based pellets so that the prairie dog is only receiving 1/8 cup (24g) or ¼ cup (48g) FOR PUPS in maximum treat allotment amount per day. Consider hiding all treats within fresh hay and grasses to serve as an enrichment activity to the prairie dog. Suggested vegetable treats follow below.
Prairie dogs also need varying protein amounts based on age, weight, and stage of development. Recommended protein rations are as follows (CHOOSE FROM ONLY ONE PROTEIN SOURCE BELOW):
Adults (those at or over 907g/2lbs): Two whole dried or live mealworms per day, feed one in the morning and one at night for a total of 14 in a week. For male prairie dogs over 2.75lbs/1247g or females over 2.5lbs/1134g, give only one mealworm per day. Based on the above, giving two per prairie dog is recommended, or one per prairie dog per day if getting close to maximum weight thresholds.
*Pups: a half-tablespoon of dried mealworms per day per prairie dog divided in half over the course of the day, with half served in the morning and half in the afternoon/evening. If you are using powdered mealworms, provide a teaspoon of powder a day. Slow down and decrease this ration over the course of three weeks as your prairie dog reaches 6 months in age or approaches 907 grams/two pounds to the adult ration above.
If you are unable or cannot feed mealworms, caretakers can implement a high-quality dog kibble (Nature’s Recipe Grain Free Chicken, Pumpkin, Sweet Potato OR Nature's Recipe Healthy Skin & Coat Vegetarian Recipe by Del Monte) is a good choice as it does NOT contain dried corn, which is harmful to the gall bladder. For pups that are under six months in age or under 907g, feed 1 teaspoon to 1 rounded tablespoon per day. Feed closer to 1 teaspoon if your prairie dog is thriving on the dietary recommendations above and getting close to adult size. For an adult over 907g in weight, feed only two pieces of the kibble per week in total, splitting it over the course of the week with one piece one day and another a few days later, or alternatively breaking those two pieces into smaller chunks to give a small fragment each day.
In lieu of dried mealworms or kibble, other protein sources for pups would include ¼ cup alfalfa hay or ¼ tsp. crickets (dead or alive, depending on your pet’s preference) but ONLY IF you cannot acquire the dog kibble OR dried mealworms that are referenced first.
If an adolescent or adult prairie dog exceeds 907g, decrease the protein SLOWLY over the course of three weeks until they meet the adult-serving recommendation above. Adults should remain on one or two pieces of dried kibble per week or the recommended mealworm ration above until they reach geriatric age, and then further consultation will be needed to assess your particular pet’s needs. Geriatric age varies from animal to animal but typically starts around age 6-8. Contact the author at no cost if you question if your prairie dog needs to initiate a personalized geriatric diet regime.
What about the use of fresh grasses or greens? Read carefully!
If you are capable of providing fresh grasses, it is highly recommended. There are important factors to consider when feeding fresh grasses, including wheatgrass or dandelion greens. First, some grasses are not recommended and can be toxic or poisonous. If you are unsure of what specific grass you are using, don’t feed it. Second, if you’ve determined you have safe and non-toxic grass to eat, be absolutely sure they are free of pesticides and fertilizers that can spread from neighboring lawns by wind and rain. Third, be careful of what additional flowers or other vegetation might be intermingled that could be toxic. Fourth, it is difficult to assure that the grasses you offer have not been compromised from parasites or bacteria from other animals that could be compromised that may eliminate their waste, and you can’t always see what is on the grass you are providing. Fifth, adequate hydration can be an issue for your prairie dog if you are unable to provide fresh grasses year-round consistently as they will often substitute fresh grass intake instead of drinking from their water bottle. Lastly, excessive use of some fresh grasses at particular growing times can be too rich and high in nitrate, nitrite, oxalates value, which can build over time to toxic levels in the prairie dog’s renal system. These compounds are not always easily excreted. Therefore, LIMIT FRESH GRASS INTAKE TO LESS THAN 5% of the serving amount of hay you feed per day. This will encourage your prairie dog to continue to drink from its water bottle as usual when fresh grasses are not available while also ensuring high concentrations of toxicities are kept minimal from various grasses growing in different seasons.
Recommended vegetables and considerations for an appropriate pellet.
Treats consist of limited amounts of various vegetables (see below) and some supplemental timothy or grass hay-based pellets and/or cubes. Any pelleted type of feed developed with prairie dogs in mind is suitable as a treat but should never be considered a complete diet regardless of its grass content. Remember that pet food companies are trying to sell their products and do not solely specialize in one species and are not necessarily concerned about your pet's long-term welfare and lifespan. They want you to buy many pets and keep buying pellets. Pelleted feeds do not enable a prairie dog to replicate the type of chewing action that is important for proper overall tooth wear and maintenance over time because they chew grasses and hays differently than they do pellet feed, which is comparable to humans eating processed foods. Even tooth wear from hay or grass is essential in tooth maintenance to avoid the possibility of odontoma, malocclusion, or other dental conditions throughout their lifespan. Silicates from dust and dirt on hay and grass provide overall dental abrasion in a similar manner as the grit we experience in toothpaste with humans and aid in the long-term dental health of your pet. Overall digestive tract function and digestive motility are kept optimal by feeding high amounts of hay and keeping pellet use minimal. The hay provides better gut abrasion for healthy digestion and immune system function. All pellets you consider purchasing should list timothy hay or another grass hay (not alfalfa) as their first ingredient for best results over time and improved longevity. They should not list dried corn or maize in their ingredients either as that can cause their gall bladder to fail. There are other items to consider in a pellet, and if you have questions, you are welcome to contact the author directly on any brand you are considering.
Suggested vegetable treats that are typically offered can include and are not limited to one snack/appetizer/pinky-finger-sized baby carrot per day. If they don’t prefer the carrot, serve an equivalent amount of one of the following: sweet potato, yams, zucchini, squashes, pumpkin, all without skin or seeds, and romaine lettuce. Root-based vegetables replicate tubers they dig and eat in the wild along with other forbs and herbs. Some vegetables to stay away from include dried corn (very small pieces of fresh can be given a couple of times a year as a very special treat), spinach (it interferes with calcium absorption), standard potatoes, cruciferous or gas-producing vegetables, legumes, and iceberg lettuce. Be smart and only feed treats in quantities that make sense for your animal’s size. Providing an entire leaf of romaine lettuce can be the equivalent of a human eating an entire head of lettuce. The results of that could be disastrous! Keep servings minimal to what is listed here because eating a soft diet can eventually lead to dental issues if they are over-eating these items instead of large quantities of hay over time.
Do not feed seeds and nuts because their fat and oil content are too high for your pet’s long-term health unless they are given as a very rare treat such as special occasions or major holidays, 3-4 times per year. Prairie dogs that are given seeds and nuts often as treats may not suffer initially, but long-term many report fatty, sebaceous cysts and other health matters from trying to process too much oil that is not natural to their diet. Some speculate providing sunflower seeds to this species, but true, full seed-producing sunflowers do not natively grow in their native prairie habitat but are instead the much smaller sunflowers that do not produce similar seeds. Those seed-producing items are often eaten by other species higher in the food chain as they compete for resources in a prairie ecosystem. Birds, insects, and many other species share colonies with this animal, not to mention how efficient they are in sharing resources with other prairie dogs.
Additionally, fruits should NOT be provided unless a VERY RARE treat due to how this efficient species metabolizes sugars. If you are insistent on providing this very special treat, I would not recommend any more than 3-4 times a year maximum, and it may only be a 1" x 1" cube of watermelon or other melon without the skin or seeds, and no berries or pitted fruits as many are toxic over time in this species, not to mention the negative impact that excessive sugars can cause in this animal particularly.
Do NOT provide branches, wood, or plastic items for chewing to wear down their teeth. Proper tooth abrasion and even wear throughout the mouth can only occur with a plentiful diet of hays and grasses that wears the entirety of their mouth. Prairie dogs have suffered dental abscesses, splintered wood fibers embedded in the gut lining, and other long-term health complications from chewing wood and other materials in the name of tooth maintenance that alters their dental symmetry throughout their mouth. Respiratory concerns also arise because you cannot get urine and other matter removed from wood safely. Prairie dogs are quite capable of self-maintaining their teeth through their high-hay diet as long as there has been nothing to throw off their natural dental alignment such as a fall where they have broken incisors or items in their habitat such as wood that can cause their bite to be off. Prairie dogs do not natively live in high-wooded areas and are NOT beavers!
Once a consistent diet has been established with your pet, try to stick to it. A prairie dog's digestive tract can be sensitive to a highly varied and inconsistent feeding regimen over time. If you must make dietary modifications due to weight, or for any other reason, do so slowly over many weeks, supplementing a few pieces of the new food every few days while removing the unwanted item gradually, so you don’t shock their system. Overnight changes can be disastrous.
Suppose you stop and consider where a prairie dog comes from and the competition it gets in the wild for food. In that case, you will understand the importance of not overindulging this highly efficient animal with treats and will do your best in following the ratio noted above.
*SPECIAL NOTE ABOUT PUP DEVELOPMENT AND FEEDING*
Developing pups have a higher protein and treat maximum intake allotment that dramatically drops off when prairie dogs reach the mature adult weight threshold of 2 lbs or 907g. Please understand that all pups will initially only consume minimal levels of hay, treats, and protein, as noted above, as their digestive tract transitions from nursing to eating solids. This means that they will NOT start out eating the maximum treat and protein ration above but will gradually grow and increase intake over time not to exceed what is outlined here. The key is that your pup gets unlimited fresh hay that is replaced daily and that you incrementally increase treats as they can manage them based on their size and stage of development.
Do not push milk formula feedings if your pup is eating solids well as they progressively become lactose intolerant, and you can cause serious health problems to their digestive tract if you push formula longer than necessary. They are often weaned between 8-10 weeks, although some very small pups may need a supplemental formula on a variable schedule until they reach 12 weeks, but this isn’t common if fed ideally from the start.
Please get in touch with me to help assess case-by-case if you are unsure whether to initiate OR continue with formula OR what specific formula mixture to use in these situations, as best formula mixtures will vary greatly depending on each pup, its point of origin, timing of acquiring it, its stage of development, and additional variables that impact each uniquely. Some formula mixtures found online that are meant for tree squirrels and other species can harm a prairie dog as their needs are slightly different along with what you put in the formula at different milestones they reach.
Caretakers should ensure that consistent growth is taking place over time and note that most pups reach full size at around six months of age, but not all will do so. What is important to monitor is that the pup is gaining weight and growing but not losing weight or regressing over time. What is outlined above is the maximum guidelines for what adults and pups need for long-term health. If you maintain the weight thresholds mentioned above, it will cause less stress on their skeletal structure as they hit the geriatric phases of life because those that weigh significantly over these thresholds often suffer a host of health issues that shorten lifespan, including arthritis, congestive heart failure, diabetic/hypoglycemic symptoms, and much more. Since captive prairie dogs don’t work in the same manner as their wild counterparts to account for the surplus nutrition that they’d never encounter in their wild habitat, please keep your feeding conservative and respect the wild nature of this species.
Questions? Email or call today for a free consultation!
Gena Seaberg, Ph.D.
Consultant for Prairie Dog Care Internationally Since 1994