The prairie dog is well-adapted to predators. Using its dichromatic color vision, it can detect predators from afar and then alert other prairie dogs to the danger with a special, high-pitched call. Con Slobodchikoff and others assert that prairie dogs use a sophisticated system of vocal communication to describe specific predators. Prairie dogs also trim the vegetation around their colonies, perhaps to remove any cover for predators. Their burrows generally contain several routes of escape.The prairie dog is chiefly herbivorous, though it eats some insects. It feeds primarily on grasses and, in the fall, broadleaf forbs. They have up to 4 pups yearly, which are born blind and furless and need about 30 days of close nurturing by their mother.
Ecologists consider this rodent to be a keystone species. They are an important prey species, being the primary diet in prairie species such as the Black-footed Ferret, the Swift Fox, the Golden Eagle, the Badger, and the Ferruginous Hawk. Other species, such as the Mountain Plover and the Burrowing Owl also rely on prairie dog burrows for nesting areas. Even grazing species, such as Bison, Pronghorn and Mule Deer have shown a proclivity for grazing on the same land used by prairie dogs. It is believed that they prefer the vegetative conditions after prairie dogs have foraged through the area.
Despite their ecological importance, prairie dogs are frequently exterminated from ranchland, being labelled as a pest because they are capable of damaging crops and often clear the immediate area around their burrows of most vegetation. This program of extermination probably originated in the nineteenth century, hundreds of years after the Native Americans began using prairie dogs as a food source.
Prairie dog habitat has been impacted by encroachment of human development, and removal by ranchers and farmers. Numbers of all species of prairie dog have been greatly reduced as a result. The largest remaining community is comprised of Black-tailed Prairie Dogs.
Until 2003, primarily black-tailed prairie dogs were collected from the wild for the exotic pet trade in Canada, the United States, Japan and Europe. They were removed from their underground burrows each spring, as young pups, with a large vacuum device. They are difficult to breed in captivity, but it has been done on several occasions. Removing them from the wild was a far more common method of supplying the market demand.
They can be difficult pets to care for, requiring regular attention, and a very specific diet of grasses and hay. Each year they go into a period called rut, that can last for several months, in which their personalities can drastically change, often becoming defensive or even aggressive. Despite their needs prairie dogs are very social animals and come to almost seem like they treat humans as members of their colony, answering barks and chirps, and even coming when called by name.
In mid-2003, due to cross-contamination in a Chicago-area pet store from an unquarantined Gambian pouched rat imported from Africa, several prairie dogs in captivity acquired monkey pox, and subsequently a few humans were also infected. This led the CDC to institute an outright ban on the sale, trade, and transport of prairie dogs within the United States. The disease was never introduced to any wild populations. The European Union also banned importation of prairie dogs in response.
While largely seen by exotic pet owners and vendors as unfair, the monkey pox scare was not the only zoonosis incident associated with prairie dogs. Prairie dogs are also very susceptible to bubonic plague, and several wild colonies have been wiped out by it. Also, in 2002, a large group of prairie dogs in captivity in Texas were found to have contracted tularemia.
Prairie dogs are not natural carriers of any of the three diseases, but the ban is believed to be in the best interests of protecting the public and there are no intentions of ever lifting it. The prairie dog ban is frequently cited by the CDC as a successful response to the threat of zoonosis.
Prairie dogs that were in captivity at the time of the ban in 2003 are allowed to be kept under a grandfather clause, but they may not be bought, traded, or sold and transport is only permitted to and from a veterinarian under proper quarantine procedures.