Squirrels as Pets
A furry backyard visitor raised the question: Do squirrels make good pets? We evaluate their possibility as household pets. Squirrels are fun animals to watch, whether they are playing chase or burying their latest foraging discovery. Squirrels as Pets???
One that visits my backyard regularly has a huge fluffy tail and is quite entertaining to watch as he hops around, but he also climbs wood fences and trees with astounding ease. His claws look nothing short of talons, and I can’t imagine the damage he could inflict in my home. My neighbor thinks he’s cute and wants to keep him as a pet, but do squirrels make good pets?
Squirrels are members of the rodent (Rodentia) family that have existed for 50 million years and have adapted to coexist with humans. They usually feed on nuts, fruits, seeds or scraps. They will nest high in trees between branches strong enough to support their nest or in trees with hollow entries. We see squirrels become very active in winter at the start of their mating season. Baby squirrels are incredibly adorable and hard to resist keeping as pets, but looks can be deceiving.
The Early Months
Within the first six months of life, squirrels acclimate to humans, show affection and become dependent on us for food. As they approach 6 months old, their claws and teeth are much longer and sharper, and they can unintentionally inflict harm on humans, pets and furniture. Several reports support these facts, and in one case a child was bitten on their finger down to the bone.
Squirrels may also exhibit aggressive and harmful behavior during mating seasons. The animals may not know their own strength or mean harm, but most are simply not equipped to be a safe animal for domestication from the wild.
At this point, most people think it’s time for the squirrel to be reintroduced to the wild, but unfortunately that is a death sentence for the animal. A squirrel cannot survive without the necessary skills needed in the wild, such as finding food, avoiding predators, establishing its place within a territory and finding a potential mating partner. The good news is squirrels’ behavior can be changed and they can be taught the skills needed for survival in the wild.
Making an Animal Wild Again
If you found a baby squirrel and raised it to around 5 to 6 months of age and it’s time to set it free, it must change from a pet to a wild animal with instincts necessary for its survival. There is a way to do this: You can rehab the animal yourself or find a licensed rehabber.
Some types of squirrels (such as flying squirrels) can be domesticated, but it takes a great amount of time and care to acclimate them to humans. Because the process is not guaranteed to be effective, and even simple mistakes can lead to an animal causing serious injury as it matures, I am not comfortable recommending them as pets.
Some states and countries prohibit owning squirrels as pets; be sure to fully research their care and your local laws before committing to purchase or adopt any species of squirrel.
- The average squirrel litter produces four offspring.
- Females in the wild breed only once with a male and will never breed with that specific squirrel again.
- Baby squirrels have no teeth or hair and are blind for up to eight weeks.
- Tree squirrels do not hibernate.
- The squirrel brain is the size of a walnut.
- Male tree squirrels are the cleanest animals in the rodent family because they take twice as long as females to clean and groom themselves.
- A squirrel’s incisors grow six inches per year.
Helping pet squirrels become wild again
Baby squirrels are the sweetest and cutest things you have probably ever seen. They are so gentle, cuddly and adorable as babies. It’s basic human instinct to want to care for such a cute little baby. It’s also lots of fun to play with them as babies just like it’s fun to play with puppies and kittens. The only problem is when these babies get older, they are not as tame as dogs and cats which have been bred for tameness for centuries. These babies are wild animals with wild instincts. They have been bred to be wild, the opposite of tame, for their own survival.
When squirrels are only six weeks old, it’s cute when they climb up your pant leg, sit on your shoulder, wrestle with your hand, try to nibble on your ear lobe. When they are six months old it’s a completely different story. Their gentle nibbles turn to painful bites when their teeth are fully grown. When they climb up your pant leg they can leave you bleeding with their now long and sharp claws. They are very smart and need a lot of attention.
If you don’t give them what they want, they will bite and scratch you because they had no mom to teach them manners. When they become sexually mature they can become even more aggressive, possessive and jealous. They will attack everyone except the main caregiver or maybe even just everyone. This is the time when people generally send them packing by throwing them out the back door. They’ve had their fun with the cute baby but do not like the wild adult they have become.
This is a sure death sentence for them. They will also instantly become a menace to yourself and your neighbors when they get mad and try to physically demand attention. An unsuspecting person will try to kill a squirrel that jumps on him and bites him.
When they are babies, they have not yet been taught how to properly fear humans and pets so of course they will crave your loving attention. They must fear humans and pets for their own protection and survival. They also must learn how to socialize, communicate and relate to other squirrels or they will be killed by the dominant squirrel in the territory. They must know how to run from cats and dogs so they won’t be attacked.
They must know not to climb up strangers legs begging for food because that stranger may kill them out of fear. They must learn how to build a nest in a tree and not in someone’s attic or on the ground or they will be killed. They must learn how to forage for food on their own or they may starve without handouts.
First and foremost, the best thing to do for the squirrel, rehabber and finder, is to turn over a baby squirrel to a licensed rehabber as soon as possible. It is incredibly stressful and confusing for the squirrel to go from being a pet to being wild. He would be much happier and better adjusted if he were raised to be wild from the beginning. Of course if you are reading this, you didn’t get the baby to a rehabber and now you have a wild maturing squirrel on your hands.
Below I shall outline the process that I use to get pet squirrels wild and ready for release back to nature. I have had to do this quite a few times each season because people either had no idea how wild adult squirrels can get or they just wanted to have their fun with the baby then toss him outside if/WHEN he gets mean.
1. Start to wean the squirrel off human contact.
You can’t just stop playing with the squirrel instantly and throw him outside. He will be frightened, confused, angry, sad, stressed out and ill equipped to deal with other squirrels and nature. I start by putting him in a large indoor cage at least 2’x2’x4′ tall. I will let him come out and hang out with me for a couple of hours a day. Make sure the room is baby proof. You don’t want him chewing on wires, falling out screen windows… If you don’t have a safe room, you will need a bigger cage, 3’x3’x6′. I will play with him and love him in the same manner he was cared for before. Each day I spend less and less time with him. If he starts pacing, loses weight, exhibits self destructive behavior, chews on the cage bars, pulls or scratches his fur out or stops eating, I will play with him a little more and wean him more slowly.
2. Give him lots of fun things to do.
I give them tons of toys, great things to eat and a stuffed animal so he can wrestle with it. Parrot toys, ferret toys, hammocks, hanging toys, wood to chew on, nesting material, a regular squirrel nest box, real tree branches, lots of levels in his cage, pine cones, acorns… Of course, nutrition is also very important. He needs proper nutrition so he can feel good physically and psychologically. I will give 50% rodent blocks then fruits, vegetables and a few nuts and seeds after they’ve eaten their meals. They need to have a nice glossy coat, shiny eyes and well developed musculature. Your squirrel needs to be climbing up and down the cage, hanging upside down, climbing upside down and jumping.
3a. Make sure he is around other squirrels.
I will have other squirrels in cages right next to him so he can hear, see and smell other squirrels. He will get used to other squirrels and hopefully eventually realize that he is also a squirrel and not a human baby. If he is young enough, say 4 months of age, I will place a younger extremely laid back squirrel in with him. I start off by having the squirrel in a cage directly next to his cage for a few days. I of course sit there and watch them like a hawk so no one gets hurt. Sometimes I will have to put him and the other squirrel both into another cage at the same time so they don’t have territory issues.
If they can get along, I leave them together. If they try to hurt each other, I separate them back into side by side cages. If they’re 4 months or younger, this generally works. Then the more wild squirrel will teach the tame one social skills, how to build a nest and how to play. I can then just take these squirrels to the prerelease cage together to get fully wild and they should be okay. If he doesn’t get along with another younger squirrel, just keep him near other squirrels and continue reading below.
3b. Start to take him outdoors.
I would take his cage outdoors for a few hours a day weather permitting. I would continue this for a week or so, so he can get used to the sounds, smells and sights of the outdoors. If you are feeding squirrels or other wildlife in your backyard, you can continue to feed them for a few days so your squirrel can see them and learn a little fear. They will probably bark at him which should scare him. He needs to learn to fear the dominant adults. If you are going to release your squirrel to your yard, you don’t want lots of other large dominant adult squirrels out there. They can and will kill your squirrel with one good bite to the back. After a few days, stop feeding all animals in your yard. You need the neighborhood animals to realize that they shouldn’t come to your yard for a while. Even without food they’ll keep checking your yard for a week or so.
4. Leave his cage outdoors 24 hours a day.
Be sure to put some weather, rain, sun protection over the top. Put his cage far away from the sights of humans and domestic pets. Only go out there to feed, water and clean his cage. Don’t hand feed him through the bars. I use a feeding door so they can’t escape and I don’t have to go inside. Again, if he paces, stops eating, loses weight, interact with him a little them wean him off human contact again. Make sure he has tons of fun things to eat and play with so he won’t miss you.
Introduce natural foods to him that he will find in the wild. Give him pine cones, acorns, roses. Make sure he has natural trees to climb in his cage. Make sure his cage is as tall as you can get, 6′ is great. Give him natural nesting material and fabric so he can learn to place them in his nest box. Scatter his natural food on the floor for him to find. Place water in a bowl. Don’t use a bottle anymore. (Don’t you wish you just gave him to a rehabber in the first place now?)
5. Negative training if needed.
Hopefully by now he will fear you a little bit when you go out to feed him. Hopefully he won’t still run to the front of the cage to get close to you. Hopefully when you clean his cage he won’t jump all over you and try to cuddle. If he does, it’s time for some negative reinforcement. Get a squirt gun. Whenever he rushes to you when you go to his cage, squirt him and say NO real loud. If he jumps on you when you clean his cage, do the same thing. If he jumps on you, firmly remove him while saying NO. Be loud when you clean his cage. Don’t speak nicely to him. This is for his own good. If he jumps on a stranger, they could kill him.
6a. Release in a yard.
By now your squirrel should know how to make a nest, forage for food in his cage and fear you a little. It’s time to release him to you yard. You can start by leaving the cage door open in the daytime. Stay out of your yard and away from him when he’s out. You can watch him through a window. At night he’ll probably go back to his nest box. You can lock him in at night if he would be safer from other animals. In a week or so, he may just leave his cage permanently. You can place another nest box or his own nest box up a tree or on a post near his cage. Make sure it’s at least 8′ high and has protection from the rain. Make sure the hole is facing south so he has wind protection.
6b. Release away from humans.
Well, you tried but it didn’t quite work out. He can build a nest, forage for food and is frightened of other animals but he still wants to jump on you. You will have to release him away from humans. Go into his cage and scare him into his nest box. Put wire mesh over the hole. Wire this to the box. Remove the box from the cage and it’s time for a road trip. You need to go at least a mile away from humans. Make sure your site has water, natural food, tall trees, good nesting areas and limited predators.
There need to be a few squirrels but not too many. Bring a ladder and wire his nest box as high up a tree as you can, at least 8′. He will use this as a temporary home. You can scatter a little bit of food around the base of the tree. If there are predators in the area, you might want to make a secondary exit hole in his box so he can flee if say a raccoon sticks his paw into his nestbox.
6c. Total failure.
Your squirrel can’t build a nest, can’t forage for food, isn’t afraid of other animals and wants to climb on humans. Maybe he even has metabolic bone disease because you didn’t give him proper nutrition as a baby. It’s a total failure. It’s illegal to keep a pet squirrel in most states without a license or permit. If he is definitely not releasable, you need to find a rehabber who will use him for educational purposes. Most rehabbers have more ex-pet squirrels that they can take so this will be tough.
If you can’t find him a legal home, you will have to euthanize him for his own good, yours and the publics. He will not be happy as a wild pet. You and your family will not be happy with an animal they fear in their home. You can’t just throw him out the back door because he will jump on a neighbor and that person will kill him. Euthanization is the only merciful thing to do. I personally have never had to do this but I know some rehabbers who have when people raised pet squirrels that were totally spoiled, neurotic, unhealthy and mean.
Hopefully you are reading this when the squirrel is still a baby. Hopefully you will now be convinced to take him to a rehabber so he can be raised and released properly. You and the squirrel will be much happier. It also is a great lesson to teach your children and a wonderful happy story to tell to all your friends. You saved a baby squirrel and took him to a place to get proper care so he could be released back to the wild to live a happy life.
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