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How to Care for Orphan Squirrels

By: Dr. Dawn Ruben

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Each spring there are many orphaned wild animals found in our communities, and baby squirrels are among the more common. Many things can create an orphan situation. The nest could be knocked down by a storm, the wind or tree trimming. Or a predator could take away the mother. The most common reason, however, is lack of space.

A mother squirrel gives birth to a litter of three or four babies, born almost blind. The babies are one to two inches long and have no fur. In fact, a newborn squirrel weighs about as much as two U.S. quarters. A mother nurses her young approximately 75 days, and as they grow, she teaches them the foraging, climbing and social skills necessary for survival. As the babies grow and more room is needed, one or more may be accidentally pushed out of the nest. The mother will usually pick up the baby and if it is uninjured will return it to the nest.

You might find an orphaned squirrel abandoned or it may crawl up your leg looking for food. You might want to observe it for a while to see if the mother returns. However, if it is cold or there are other life-threatening circumstances, you should intervene.

Before initiating the care of a baby squirrel, try to find a licensed rehabilitator – all states have them. Call your veterinarian or the local chapter of the S.P.C.A. for information. If you are unable to locate a rehab center, you can attempt to raise the baby for eventual release back into the wild. A squirrel is a wild animal and should not be kept as a pet. The only way to keep one in captivity would be to keep it caged and squirrels do not do well when confined.

Initial Care

Until you find a rehabilitation center or until you decide what you are going to do, the baby will need some initial care.

  • The most important thing you can do is keep the baby warm. Do not attempt to feed him if he feels cool to the touch. Keep the animal next to you until you return home. Then provide an external source of heat, such as a heating pad. You can also fill a baggie or empty plastic soda bottle full of warm (not hot) water and put it under a blanket with the baby in the blanket.

  • Examine the baby squirrel for injuries. If the animal is bleeding or seems distressed, get professional help.

  • Check the baby for dehydration by examining the mouth and nose for dryness. Baby squirrels are at a risk for dehydration, and the smaller the baby, the greater the risk. Once you have raised the animal's temperature, begin to hydrate. You can use a syringe or eyedropper to feed water, Pedialyte (available in grocery stores), or Gatorade, warmed to body temperature.

    How Old is the Baby?

    Determine the age of the baby if you can. A squirrel's eyes open at about five weeks of age. If your baby's eyes are closed, he is under five weeks old. Here are other guidelines:

  • Under a week of age: Totally pink with no hair at all
  • Two or three weeks old: Begins to grow hair – a grayish purple shadow
  • Four weeks old: Downey white hair on the belly and legs
  • Six weeks old: Upper front teeth emerge
  • Eight weeks old: Looks like a miniature squirrel

    Care for Less Than Five Weeks Old

    A baby squirrel less than five weeks of age will require more intensive care than an older orphan. During rehabilitation, keep the animal confined to a small cage containing branches and a fresh water. Even young babies can climb, so do not rely on a box. Keep the young animal warm, but keep him out of direct sunlight.

  • Feed the baby puppy milk replacement (not human or kitten milk replacement). It can be purchased at most pet stores. Use an eyedropper or a small syringe for feeding. Feed every four hours from dusk to dawn and feed as much as the baby will take, at least 3 ccs. Be sure the formula is warmed to 98 degrees F. Cradle the infant in the palm of one hand and administer the formula slowly. Let the squirrel set the pace.

  • After feeding, use a moistened warm cotton ball, tissue or towel and gently rub on the genital area. This will stimulate urination and defecation. You may not get results every time, but it will establish a pattern early. This feeding and stimulation schedule should continue until the baby opens his eyes.

  • Keep household pets away from your baby. You don't want him to become accustomed to pets; this would be dangerous when released to the wild.

    Care for Over Five Weeks of Age

  • Once the eyes are open, continue the milk replacement feeding every six hours instead of four. You can also add various fruits, raisins and dried cereal (Cheerios) to the cage. The squirrel will begin playing with the fruit and cereal, but won't be able to eat much of it. Gradually, your baby will begin to wean himself by taking less and less milk per feeding. You will need to supply clean fresh water for drinking and grooming.

  • Your squirrel should now be able to urinate and defecate alone so stimulation should not be necessary.

    Care at Seven Weeks of Age

  • Decrease the milk feeding to twice a day, morning and night. Begin offering nuts in addition to the fruit and cereal; offer peanuts and acorns in the shell so the young squirrel can start playing with them and slowly learn how to open the shells. Your squirrel will be teething, so you should provide a hardwood branch to chew on. You should also provide an eight by eight by twelve inch nesting box with a three-inch entry hole. Give him small twigs, straw or bits of cloth so it can try to build a nest. You squirrel needs to have a place to hide as well as sleep. At this time move the cage to the outdoors.

  • When you see that the young squirrel can open nutshells on his own, the most important part of rehabilitation should begin. In order to survive in the wild and not become a pest or a nuisance, the squirrel must develop a fear of humans and independence. From this point on, keep the squirrel in the cage but DO NOT TOUCH HIM. The next two weeks must be completely hands-off.

  • After about two to three weeks, keep the cage door open to allow the animal to explore a little. He should be able to develop some independent skills so he won't have to rely on people for food. Continue to offer fruits and nuts in the shells and fresh water.

  • It may take several days for the squirrel to spend significant time outside the cage. However, at some point, your young charge will not return to the cage. This means your job is done.

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