How to Care for Abandoned Squirrels: A Guide From Day One to Release
Step by Step Guide to Rehabilitating, Raising & Releasing Squirrels
Caring for squirrels is a big commitment and is not recommended for anyone who can't dedicate the time, patience and effort required. For those who are able to commit, it can be a joyous and rewarding experience. There are many breeds of squirrels, such as the gray squirrel, red squirrel, and even the flying squirrel. Some breeds require different care. Here in Florida, we mostly find that are squirrels in need of aid during the hurricane season. That also happens to be during the mating season; therefore, there are many nests blown out of trees, mothers are killed and the babies have been abandoned. I explain certain scenarios of occurrences and what to do before snagging up a nest found on the ground. You will also find step by step instructions from how to care for infants up until their release back into nature.
Before you read on, I cannot stress enough that it is highly recommended to contact a wildlife rehab person or center and have them cared for by someone with experience, equipment, and knowledge before attempting rehabbing on your own. If you are unable to find someone or if you simply decide to take on the task, then the information provided here will help you through. The general process is restoring health (if necessary,) raising the infants and then training/preparing them for release.
What to Do When You First Find Baby Squirrels
Don't Immediately Assume They Are Abandoned!
Babies or injured squirrels are often found in a dislocated nest or under a tree. If you find a nest, place it back up into the nearest tree. If the nest is disheveled, you can place them in a shallow basket with the remainder of the nest and some leaves to cushion them if necessary. Leave the area immediately but stay close to watch. Grab yourself a drink and a chair and prepare to keep watch for at least a few hours. Often times, the mother will come back. She may even be watching from a distance but waiting until she feels it is safe to return. Like with mother rabbits, they often forge for food during the day or leave the nest during the day in order not to draw attention from predators. Unfortunately, people assume the babies are abandoned since there is no sign of a mother nearby and grab the nest. That is why you need to place it off the ground and wait. If the mother does not return within at least 3 hours, go ahead and take them.
A litter usually consists of an average of 4 squirrels. Keep in mind that if you find a nest with only 1 or 2 babies, survey the area for more. Don't worry if there are only 1 to 3 squirrels in the nest.
For the following information, I will use "him" as a singular term but utilize the information for multiple squirrels if you are caring for more than one.
Initial & Immediate Tasks: Assess Health & Body Temperature
- Body Temperature: The first thing to do is to make sure the baby is warm. Place the baby in a small box (like a shoe box.) Keep the baby warm. If he has not yet opened his eyes, use a box with high sides. Make sure the box has a ventilated lid. You can cut a large hole in the top of half of the box and duct tape a piece of screen over the hole. This is to assure he cannot get out because he will crawl around even when very young. Next, place a heating pad on LOW on the other ½ of the bottom of the box. Cover him with a soft baby blanket. Squirrels feel secure when they can hide in a blanket. Do not use a towel because the baby can snag his little toes and toenails or even twist and break his fragile ankles. Test the heating pad to be sure the temperature is not too warm but at a comfortable 99 degrees.
- Dehydration: Your second mission is to check for dehydration. It is very common for abandoned squirrels to be dehydrated. To verify, gently pinch the skin between the shoulder blades behind the neck. If the skin stays "tented" for a few seconds then you know he is dehydrated. His fluids must be replenished but never give fluids or feed a cold baby. If he is warm or after he has been warmed, try giving him Pedialyte because that is the best hydrating solution to use. Most pharmacies and grocery stores carry it in the baby aisle. Do not attempt formula or food at this point.
The Initial Feedings
Before feeding formula or foods, feed him at least a few meals using the Pedialyte. Any animal that is dehydrated may become very sick or even die if food or formula is given too soon. They can't digest foods well when in this condition.
Right after feeding, the baby will need to be stimulated to urinate, especially if his eyes are still closed or if he has recently opened them. To do this, gently stroke his abdomen and genital area with a warm damp cloth. He should urinate, but if he has not been fed for a while, he may not urinate much right away.
If and when the squirrel is a bit older and being fed regular feedings of formula or food, you will need to stimulate him to have a bowel movement. You won't see too much if any if it is an infant and only still being fed Pedialyte or formula. Be patient because it can take several minutes for results. The urine should be light yellow. If it is too dark, feed him more often or stimulate him to urinate more frequently. Continue this process after each feeding until you are sure he is old enough to uninate on his own. Just so you're aware, his urine may have a strong smell to it which is from the formula. This will subside after he has been weaned.
Next, you need to check the size of his belly before you feed again. If the size is not smaller by the time he is due for another feeding, then he has not been able to digest the substance from the previous feeding. Don't feed him again until you stimulate. See if he will urinate or have a bowel movement. If he does not urinate or have a bowel movement, he may have gas, bloat, or may be constipated. If you think this may be the case, then you can soak the lower half of his body in warm water and massage his back, sides, and abdomen. He will need to pass gas or some stool to satisfy the problem. During the soaking and stimulation process, be cautious not to allow him to become cold.
Video of Proper Feeding of a Baby Squirrel
This short video will show you the proper way to syringe feed
How Much and How Often to Feed the Squirrel
Warm a small amount of Pedialyte in the microwave that is enough for only one feeding. Test the liquid to be sure that it is not too warm. Initially, give the baby ½ cc of the Pedialyte every 15 minutes for the first two hours.
- Very Important: If you notice any formula coming out of his nose, stop feeding and immediately and use a tissue to pat his nose dry. Keep a tissue close by while feeding. Do not allow the baby to breathe the formula back in again when this happens. Wait until he can breathe properly again before you continue to feed him.
You will need a small, tip dropper or a one cc needle-less syringe to feed the baby. Most veterinary clinics will provide you with a dosing syringe if needed. Feed him slowly and keep only the tip of the dropper in his mouth. If he sucks too hard, he may take the liquid into his lungs. Be sure you hold him upright when feeding.
To Begin Feedings:
**Once the baby is rehydrated for several days, you can begin feedings every 2 hours. Every 2 hours is only for an infant under 2 to 3 weeks of age. Read on for older squirrel feeding schedule.
- Mix 1 part Powered Puppy Milk Replacer such as Espalac with 2 parts distilled water and 1/4 part whipping cream (not whipped cream) or plain yogurt.
- Make only enough for a three-day supply.
- Warm enough for one feeding in the microwave as with the Pedialyte.
- The baby's first formula feedings should be introduced gradually.
- For the first two feedings, mix 75% Pedialyte with 25% formula.
- For the next three to four feedings, mix half of each
- For the next three to four feedings, mix 75% formula with 25% Pedialyte.
- After this gradual introduction, give 100% formula
Feeding Schedule by Age of Squirrel
- Between 7 to 10 weeks old: Feed every four hours until weaned to solids only.
- Under two weeks old: Feed every two hours
- At 4 to 5 Weeks old until eyes are opened: Feed every three hours
- After the baby has opened his eyes, you can begin to gradually introduce solid food
- Between 7 to 10 weeks old: Feed every four hours until weaned to solids only.
- Remember; continue to feed the baby his formula until he no longer wants it. (About 7 to 10 weeks)
- Proper nutrition is very important. When ready, you can offer the baby Primate Dry Monkey Biscuits. This product has the right amount of nutrients to help protect the baby from severe illnesses such as seizures, malnutrition and especially Metabolic Bone Disease.
Properly Housing the Squirrel by Age
Even as the squirrel ages, it is still important that he keeps warm, but not too warm. Don't place his house directly under a vent or drafty location. You still want to keep him at around 99 degrees. Squirrels feel secure when they can hide in the blanket, so always keep a light blanket (remember, not a towel) available to him. Any large container or cat carrier is best for him in the first couple of months but prepare for aging housing needs.
The higher a squirrel rests, the safer he feels, so you'll need a bigger cage as he grows.
A squirrel needs to chew because his teeth never stop growing. In fact, they can grow into his jaw if he cannot grind them down. Place tree branches (with no shards or sharp edges) into the carrier or cage with him so he can scratch and chew on it. Cat scratching aids are also helpful, especially ones he can hide in. You can give him a thick, clean dog bone and pine cones, too. He needs to gnaw and chew, but he needs to get used to climbing, playing and eventually foraging for food.
As the baby squirrel grows and becomes more active, purchase a large cage with enough room for him to climb. He must have plenty of room to climb and build muscles, or he can develop physical problems.
Be sure the indoor cage is at least 24 inches wide, 24 inches long and at least 3 feet high. Provide shelves for him to climb and lay on. Remember, the higher a squirrel rests, the safer he feels. Eventually, you will start to hide his food in various places, so he can learn to forage. You can start this at any time but be sure you remember where you hid food in case he doesn't find it, and it goes bad. Continue reading below for training your squirrel for life as a wild squirrel on his own in the big world.
Additional Housing Information
The cage must have a sleeping box with blankets for padding and also to hide in. The higher the box is in the cage, the safer he feels. You can secure a box with wire and branches from outside of the cage. Do not use a cage with a wire grid bottom. This is not comfortable for him and is also danger to his little feet possibly getting caught. A flat, hard plastic, metal or sanded wood is the best surface for the flooring of his quarters.
Be sure to have a water source in the cage but do not use plastic containers (for food or water) because he will chew them up. Attach a small ceramic water cup from the outside of the cage. You can use a hanging bottle, but he may require help to understand how to use it. Before you stop feeding him his formula, be sure he is drinking from his new water source.
Ready, Set, Playtime
Indoor & Outdoor Play Training
Play is important because squirrels need companionship. Having more than one squirrel is beneficial because, upon their release, two or more squirrels will help each other survive and ward off squirrel bullies. Squirrels are naturally playful animals, and it is also a way for them to socialize in the wild.
While still full time living inside, allow him out of his "house" to play for at least an hour a day, but more in increments if possible. The squirrel will start pacing if he is kept in a small cage for too long. He can also suffer from heart failure and die from being confined for too long. However, do not let this discourage you from keeping him in your care for the appropriate amount of time!
Releasing an inexperienced squirrel too early will leave him vulnerable to starvation, predators, and many other dangers. At four months, a baby still lacks any sense of direction and is very easy prey. Therefore, around six months of age is usually the most recommended time to release.
Take him outside each day in a carrying case at first. This way, he can get used to the sounds and smells along with the atmosphere but still feel safe and secure. Do this for at least a week. By the time he is ready to play unconfined outdoors with you, he will most likely be very attached to you and look to you for comfort and safety.
Don't be concerned if he won't leave your body the first few times. However, he will eventually want to explore. Almost certainly, he will not go too far when not on your person. He will explore, but notice he will keep looking back at you to be sure you're still there. Keep encouraging him when playing.
Word of caution: Don't allow him to jump onto low rooftops, near water (especially standing water) or other areas where he may get stuck, climb too high and be scared to climb down, etc.
Most times, any animal that a human raises, especially from infancy, will become attached to their handler/parent. This is a natural act. It is fine to receive and show affection to and from the baby animal, but being human, it is difficult for us to eventually let them go when ready. You have to remember that it is a wild animal that will be happier in its natural surroundings.
Cleaning the Cage
Your squirrels’ cage must be cleaned daily. You can use a mild detergent but do not use bleach or anything toxic. An example would be to add a couple tablespoons of Murphy's Oil Soap in a gallon of water. Use that to wash the shelves and bottom of the cage. His toys will also need washed, especially if you smell urine on them. For toys, you can use mild dish liquid and be sure to rinse thoroughly.
Sunlight Exposure Is a Must
A squirrel needs to be exposed to sunlight each day, so place his cage by a window that receives adequate sunlight. He can begin to lose his hair and suffer from a deficiency of vitamin D if lacking exposure. The window must be screened because the rays from the sun cannot penetrate through glass. Unless the weather is too cold, try to keep the window open if a screen is not available. You can also move his cage outside for an hour or two as long as he receives proper air ventilation. Otherwise, use an approved pet sun lamp.
Solid Foods: When & What to Feed
The squirrel will start to turn away from the formula which is his way of telling you he's ready for solids and water full time. This will usually happen between 7 to 10 weeks of age.
After the baby is eating the Monkey Biscuits well, you can begin to slowly introduce (but one at a time to be sure he doesn't have an allergy or get an upset stomach) a variety of other nuts, raw fruit, and vegetables. Change out the food twice a day to avoid any food rotting or going stale.
NOTE: Squirrels can be picky and will not like some foods. He will sometimes urinate on food that he does not like or wipe his mouth on the ground. This is his way of telling you he's not diggin' those particular foods.
Permissible & Recommended Solids
You can now try feeding the following:
Sweet potato, Broccoli, Cauliflower, Corn on cob, carrots, lettuce, green pepper, berries, pineapple, melon, pear, Hickory nuts, chestnuts, peas, kiwi, squash, peaches, apples, avocado, acorns, figs, dates, pears, celery, mushrooms, pistachio nuts, grains, hazelnuts, sunflower seeds (without salt) and also try Hartz Mountain green thin hamster food. You can also give store-bought dry cereal that doesn't contain salt or too much sugar. Occasional Froot Loops or Cheerios are fine. (My squirrels always loved those.)
It is not recommended to buy any type of packaged "squirrel feed" from pet or feed stores.
Did You Know?
A squirrel needs to chew because his teeth never stop growing. In fact, they can grow into his jaw if he cannot grind them down.
Other Important Tips & Advice
- To relax or calm a baby to sleep, stroke gently under his chin and neck.
- Squirrels are very fragile so never allow a child to play with him. It is also not recommended to allow more than one or two humans to handle the squirrel because it can make him too "people friendly" or may rely on humans to continue caring for him after his release. Unfortunately, people can be cruel, and if a squirrel is too friendly with humans, some humans may not be too friendly or take kindly to being approached by one.
- Never grab a squirrel by the tail! It can easily break off and will not grow back! OUCH!
Training the Squirrel for Life Without You
You will need to train your little one how to build a nest to sleep in and be capable of warding off other squirrel bullies when he is on his own after release. Therefore, start “training” him as soon as possible by placing nesting items inside his house. When you first give him the “tools” for a nest, break it all up into small, loose sections and allow him to put it together.
Use small tree branches, grass, leafy, thin branches, etc. Hopefully, he will instinctively start to build a nest and may even sleep or relax in it. It will look like a tiny bird's nest or a big ball of brush. If he doesn’t seem to know what to do with the brush you’ve provided, start the nest for him and let him watch you. He will probably finish it. Place the nesting brush sections off the flooring; preferably on a shelf within his house. He will need to build his nest up high after release.
Did You Know?
Female red squirrels are so promiscuous that they sometimes mate with up to 14 male squirrels in a single day!
Release Preparation & the Big Day
Usually at 5 to 6 Months of Age
Be sure the baby has been in an outside cage for at least a couple weeks prior to releasing him. This will help him get used to being outdoors without you there with him all the time, yet still safe. Be sure the release area is safe from dogs, cats and not too close to a high traffic road. The best place would be a local state or federal reserve. Be sure there is plenty of water, food, and fruit and nut trees around.
You can also release him in your own yard, and if you're lucky, he may become a permanent resident. Place a squirrel feeder (nut box) and keep it filled with striped sunflower seeds mixed with raw peanuts and/or other nonperishable foods I recommended above. Make certain he know where the food will be and continue to provide food for at least several weeks after release.
Do not release the squirrel in extremely hot or cold temperatures. Wait for a nice day, then brace yourself. Open the cage door and let him go on his own. Leave the cage open for him to come and go as he wants or needs. Stay with him but keep a good amount of distance. If he is ready, he'll take off for an amount of time as to where he feels confident and ready to proceed on his own, for the most part. If he disappears, you've done your job. But, read on.
For the first week after a full release, try to watch him until he has his confidence and can find food and water adequately and regularly.
He will probably return to the cage to sleep and eat for a while. Be sure he has fresh food and be sure to close the cage at night to keep predators out. Open the cage again at dawn so that he can continue to explore his new world. When he has found a new home, he will not return to the cage again. Remove the cage, clean it thoroughly and store it for another possible rescue. You can also donate it to a wildlife rehabilitation center or local animal shelter or hospital.
Squirrels Do Not Make Good Pets
Facts and Food for Thought
The hardest part is when your little one takes off and doesn't come back for the first time ever upon final release. You will probably cry. I cry every time! It is an emotional moment.
Squirrels do not make good pets. Though they are very playful animals and are seemingly domesticated when you see them in the wild, they are still WILD animals. Once they mature, especially when mating season is afoot, squirrels can and will become very aggressive and demand freedom. Yes, they do form somewhat of an attachment to their human handler/parent, but they are wild and need/deserve to live life as nature intended. Don't deny them that simply because you don't want to let them go. Also, they will scratch you up and your furniture. They will pee and poop all over, chew everything including electrical cords which can kill them and possibly burn your house down. They can't live in a cage after maturity (for reasons I explained above), and you simply cannot allow them to have unsupervised roaming freedom of the house.
So, after your squirrel raising adventure, pat yourself on the back, cherish the experience and memories, know you have done well for the animal world and smile. The dedication and commitment you put into this is commendable. I know it is emotional to see them off into the world to go live a big boy or big girl squirrel life, but it is part of the process; part of life. I thank you, the animal kingdom thanks you, all animal lovers thank you and the universe, in general, will certainly repay you with good karma!
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
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