The Balding Prairie Dog

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

Although prairie dogs shed in the spring and fall, any other type of fur loss could signal a health issue. PublicDomainPictures/Pixabay

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.

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