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The Balding Prairie Dog

What would cause a senior prairie dog to lose its fur?

By Jerry Murray, DVM
Posted: November 2, 2011, 5 a.m. EDT

prairie dog standing on its hind legs
Courtesy Jerry Murray, DVM
Although prairie dogs shed in the spring and fall, any other type of fur loss could signal a health issue.

I had a recent case involving a pet prairie dog. The prairie dog was an 8-year-old, intact female that had lost a lot of her fur. Prairie dogs in the wild typically shed twice a year. In the spring they shed and put on their summer coat, and in the fall they shed again and put on their winter coat and extra weight for the winter. The appearance of the fur loss did not look like a normal shed cycle.

In the wild, prairie dogs are prone to have fleas, ticks, lice and mites. All of these external parasites can cause fur loss.  No fleas or ticks were seen on this pet prairie dog. A skin scraping was done to look for mites and lice, but neither parasite was seen. Thus external parasites were unlikely to be the cause of the fur loss.

Pet prairie dogs are also prone to ringworm infections. Despite its name, ringworm is actually a fungal infection. A special culture was performed to test for ringworm; however, the test was negative. Thus it was unlikely that ringworm was causing the problem. 

Now that the common problems were eliminated, it was time to consider some of the other causes of fur loss. Prairie dogs are actually rodents in the squirrel family. Some rodents, such as micerats and guinea pigs, are prone to barbering (chewing the fur off of other animals in the same cage). This prairie dog was housed with three other prairie dogs in a large cage, so barbering was a possibility. Yet the fur loss did not appear to be from barbering. 

Some rodents, such as guinea pigs, are prone to developing ovarian cysts with elevated estrogen levels. The high estrogen level causes fur loss mostly in the flank area. The fur loss of this prairie dog was not in the flank area, but an ovarian cyst was still a possibility.

Pet ferrets commonly develop problems with their adrenal glands, which then overproduce hormones such as estrogen. Ferrets with adrenal gland disease typically have generalized fur loss, so this was also a possible cause of this prairie dog’s fur loss.

After consulting with a few other veterinarians and a wildlife biologist who studies wild prairie dogs, I found out that odd fur loss is somewhat common in older prairie dogs, but no one knows the exact cause for it. An ultrasound of the abdomen would be the next step to check the size of the ovaries and the adrenal glands.  If the ovaries and adrenal glands appear normal on the ultrasound examination, then a melatonin implant can be tried to see if it will correct this prairie dog’s fur loss.

See all of Dr. Murray's columns>>

Posted: November 2, 2011, 5 a.m. EDT

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Reader Comments
My Prairie dog has what looks like dandruff all over his head. What is it, and how do i get rid of it?
sue, Cranston, RI
Posted: 9/6/2013 2:01:00 PM
Since I have seen this many times in SOME older prairie dogs, all living under the same conditions, I tend to doubt if this is a light issue. However, that's not to say that melatonin implants would not be helpful.

I suspect that if it's not an adrenal issue, that it may just be age related.

just my thoughts
Dianne James, Midwest Prairie Dog Shelter, IN
Posted: 11/2/2011 1:42:01 PM
Great article and interesting issue, Years ago I had an rgs, so somewhat related to pd's and she lost a bunch of fur down both sides of her back, we tested for everything and all came back negative, one vet finally suggested that we get a reptile daylight lamp and put it on a timer for 12hr cycles and within 2 weeks all the fur came back, it was in fact a hormonal issue caused by not having proper light cycles, so I would imagine that in her case too a melatonin implant could have worked since it helps regulate sleep wake cycles and I assume should effect the hormones involved as well.
Bonnie, Calgary
Posted: 11/2/2011 8:44:23 AM
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