In most cases, the next best alternative is to locate a wildlife rehabilitator who can care for the baby and ideally reintroduce her to the wild. If you need help locating a wildlife rehabilitator, you can call your locale humane society or a nearby vet's office.
Before we met my wife Karen worked as a wildlife rehabilitator, and has experience caring for squirrels including a blind male squirrel that she kept as a pet. After our son Kaleb found Beebz in our backyard, orphaned, cold and dehydrated, we made the decision to keep her. While we are happy with this decision, and Beebz is a loved and treasured member of our family, nevertheless this is not something that I would recommend for everyone.
In the interest of fairness, I should point out that there are some people who will argue that a healthy squirrel should never be kept as a pet, and that the goal should always be to return a squirrel to the wild. Here is one web page that makes the case against keeping squirrels as pets. Whether you agree or not (and obviously I don't), the argument is well-intended and should be considered. On the other side of the coin, here is a page that argues that in at least some cases, squirrels can be kept as pets. And here is a page with some advice about caring for a pet squirrel.
If you do find yourself caring for an orphaned or injured baby squirrel, and think that you would like to keep it permanently, please, above all, consider--very carefully--this question:
Am I willing to commit to caring for this squirrel through its entire life?
A squirrel can live in captivity for up to twenty years. The longer a squirrel is kept in the house, the less likely it will be that it can be rehabilitated and returned to the wild. Once a squirrel has become used to being around people and has lost its fear of us, to return it to the wild will likely be a death sentence. This is even more so if the squirrel has been around other pets like cats and dogs. If you find after a few months that caring for your new pet is more trouble than you had expected, don't think that you can just turn it loose in the backyard or local park. It will not have learned the behaviors and skills that it will need to survive.
That having been said, here are some things to consider before taking on the responsibility of keeping a squirrel:
- You will have to provide a cage. This is non-negotiable--well, with one exception, if you have a spare room that you are willing to turn over to your squirrel. It would have to be squirrel-proofed, meaning no electrical cords, containers of anything toxic, or other objects that would be dangerous if chewed on. The main point is, you can not simply give a squirrel the run of the house, as you would a dog or cat, for several reasons: (1) Squirrels are intensely curious. Your squirrel will explore every place that she can get to, and they can get to just about any place. (2) They are incredible athletes. Anything that you see squirrels do outside--climbing, jumping, running--they will also want to do inside. This also includes (3) chewing on anything and everything, which is the biggest reason you will need a cage. Even if you don't mind teeth marks on your furniture and possessions, chewing on electrical cords or electronic gadgets such as cell phones will always be a danger. It is extremely important that you provide things for your squirrel to chew on, as a squirrel's front teeth grow continuously and must be worn down by chewing. This can include sticks and branches, and a piece of bone or antler, which has the added benefit of providing calcium in the diet.
- The cage will have to be large enough to provide a humane living space. Beebz lives in a cage that is four feet tall, four feet wide, and three feet deep. I would not recommend anything much smaller than that for an adult squirrel. This gives her space to climb and jump. There should also be a nesting place. For Beebz, we hung a canvas shopping bag by the straps from the top bars of the cage. We have also provided plenty of nesting material: old socks and t-shirts are good. We gave her a stuffed animal that she took the stuffing out of to give additional nesting material. Her cage is in the living room, where she gets plenty of attention, next to a window.
- You absolutely must give your squirrel plenty of attention and regular, frequent, and supervised time outside of the cage. My goal is to take Beebz out of her cage for play time every day. This gives her a chance to run and climb and jump. She will climb around on my arms and shoulders, leap from the top of the dresser to my hand or shoulder, or just go tearing around the room in circles. And often she will climb up to my chest so that I can pet her. Even when she is in her cage, I make a point to pet her and talk to her frequently. Her cage is in the living room near the couch, so any time someone is sitting there reading or watching TV she has company.
- Be ready to deal with some bites and scratches. Squirrels are not aggressive creatures, but they do carry some very sharp objects. They can not be declawed. And your squirrel will likely see you as the closest thing to a tree that she has access to. My hands and arms are pretty much permanently scratched up. And because a squirrel can not see things directly in front of her face very well, she may mistake a carelessly placed finger for a nut, resulting in some painful if accidental bites. Even during playtime, Beebz will now and then deliver a "play bite" which, while it is not hard enough to draw blood, can be a little bit painful.
|Squirrels sometimes like to play rough|
I'm not writing all of this to dissuade anyone who is ready to make a serious commitment to raising and keeping a squirrel. Beebz is friendly, happy, and healthy, and having her as part of our household has been and will continue to be a fun and deeply rewarding experience.
To be sure, there are some excellent benefits of having a pet squirrel:
- I don't have facts to back this up, but a squirrel's belly has been scientifically proven to be the softest substance in the universe.
- If you have oak trees in your yard, a pet squirrel will help you to dispose of all those acorns that litter your lawn in the fall. The same goes for any other kind of nut tree, of course.
- Squirrels are not expensive to feed. A healthy adult squirrel will need to eat about one pound of food per week. A varied diet is important. Beebz eats a combination of compressed woodpecker blocks, which contain sunflower seeds, other seeds, and peanuts; fresh vegetables such as kale, sweet corn, the top parts of red bell peppers (she loves the pulpy part that has the seeds attached); and nuts. In the fall, as I said above, we collect acorns from the oak trees in our yard.
- Squirrels are intelligent, attentive, playful and affectionate. Beebz loves to be petted and talked to. If I am sitting on the couch in the evening watching a basketball game, Beebz will often lie on her stomach on the upper level of her cage next to me and watch the TV. When she is playing outside of her cage, if I extend my hand and just nod or motion to her, she will almost always jump onto me and run up to my shoulder.
- Squirrels' poops are tiny and hard like little pebbles. They do not smell and are not difficult to clean up. Squirrels are generally very clean animals, and create very little odor. However, they are messy eaters, and can scatter nut shells, fruit peels, etc. over a large area.
|Beebz watches to make sure that I do a good job|
cleaning her water dish
I already sort of touched on this above. I think the most important thing is to provide a variety of healthy foods for your squirrel. Nuts are, of course, a favorite. Any hard-shelled nut such as walnut, hazelnut, or pecan, or of course acorns, will be appreciated. Peanuts are okay but are not nearly as healthy as other varieties and should not make up a large portion of a squirrel's diet.
In spite of the stereotype, squirrels like to eat much more than just nuts. You can also give sunflower seeds and corn, especially a fresh ear of corn on the cob. Beebz loves to tear the husk off the ear of corn. For a treat she also loves the millet sprays that are sold in pet stores for birds, and which cost very little.
Vegetables are very important. Among the fresh vegetables that we give Beebz are kale, cabbage, turnip, carrots, and sweet peppers. As I mentioned above, Beebz loves the top part of the bell pepper, especially a red bell, with the stem and the pulpy seedy part on the inside. Fruits are also an excellent food. Beebz loves apple slices, grapes and strawberries. I also give her a deer antler to chew on to help wear her teeth down (very important) and to provide additional calcium to supplement her diet (see update below).
Reading this list of foods may sound expensive, but it really isn't. As I noted above, an adult squirrel needs about a pound of food a week. Most of the vegetables can simply be leftovers of whatever you and your family might be eating. Or if you aren't big on veggies in your own diet, you can easily get enough fresh vegetables and fruit from the produce section of a supermarket to feed a squirrel for very little money.
Update May 2013:
It has been quite a while since I have read over this page. A lot has happened since I wrote this. Last year we moved from North Carolina to west Texas. Beebz made the trip with me in the car and has handled the journey and the transition beautifully. It is hard to believe that this August she will be three years old.
I have noticed that this page has been getting quite a lot of views recently, and I think I should at least briefly address the recent comments regarding calcium. I have been aware of the need for calcium in a squirrel's diet, and have researched the means available to meet this requirement in Beebz's diet. In addition to regularly giving her calcium-rich food such as kale, I also provide her with a deer antler that she loves to chew on. This is one of the ways that squirrels in the wild get calcium. Pieces of antler are available in most pet stores, including PetSmart. Another option is cattle bones that have had the meat removed, also sold in pet stores. I have offered this to Beebz, but she clearly prefers the antler pieces.
I do not believe that expensive calcium supplements that must be ordered online are necessary. After all, wild squirrels do not have these supplements.
Someone also asked about whether Beebz has any toys. We do give her a stuffed animal that she likes to roll around with. Usually this is something from the Dollar Tree store, since the toy usually won't last very long.