Today’s question is admittedly a little quirky, and I received it via voicemail on our home phone rather than email through our website, but decided to post my response here, in case other inquiring minds want to know how to do such a thing:
I was doing some tree work and knocked a couple of baby squirrels out of their nest. There’s no putting them back — the limb is gone — so I am considering trying to raise them.
I understand you have some experience with this. Can you give me any guidance?
A tender-hearted arborist
Dear Tender Heart,
You are right. Our family does have experience with raising squirrels, thanks to the fact my daughters brought home a couple of abandoned squirrel kits they found on a concrete path near our home last fall and we nursed them back to health.
I’m happy to share everything we learned with you.
Bringing them home:
- Of course, the best choice for raising baby squirrels is the squirrels’ mother. Don’t ever disturb babies in the nest, and if they fall out and are in no immediate danger from dogs or cars or water, wait to see if the mama squirrel will retrieve them before getting involved.
- If mama squirrel is dead or unavailable, or if their home has been destroyed, check this site to see if there is an experienced wildlife rehabilitator in your area who would be willing to care for them. Raising baby squirrels is a tedious and time-consuming job and should not be undertaken lightly.
- If you do decide to raise the babies yourself, you’ll need to learn as much as you can about caring for your new charges. Two of the most helpful sites we found for doing this were Squirrel Tales and The Squirrel Board. Both are full of reliable, accurate information and are great places to get your questions answered by licensed squirrel rehabilitators.
- In the meantime, wear gloves when handling the babies (for your own protection — their nails are sharp!) and follow the steps in our “quick-start” guide:
Keeping them warm:
- You need to get the baby warm before you attempt to feed it.
- One of our babies came to us via a cardboard box left on our doorstep. A neighbor’s dog carried the squirrel kit home in his mouth, so the neighbor dropped it off on our porch. It was pretty stiff when my son stumbled upon the package, but he placed the squirrel inside a sock that had been warmed in the clothes dryer and kept it cuddled on his chest until his sisters could get home and take over. That worked like a charm!
- To keep the squirrels warm in their nesting box, place a heating pad under one end of a shoebox. That way, the squirrel babies will be able to move to a cool area if they get overheated.
- You’ll also want to provide nesting material. We used newspaper and shredded paper bedding for small animals.
- One of our squirrels did most of his sleeping inside a child’s cotton sock. (This not only kept him warm, but had an added benefit of protecting him from his sister, who did a lot of rooting around wanting to nurse in the night, but was not very discriminating about what she pacified on.)
- Depending on how long it has been since your babies were last fed, there is a good chance that they will be dehydrated when you get them. You must tend to the process of rehydrating them before attempting to give them other nourishment.
- We used Pedialyte for this purpose, which you can find on the baby aisle of your local grocery store. Warm a small amount of it up slightly (test on your wrist to make sure it’s not too hot), then feed to the babies using a 1 to 3-cc syringe (do NOT use a dropper).
- Hold babies belly down or upright and tilted forward to feed (see photos below). Do NOT feed babies on their backs, as you risk getting the fluid in their lungs which could kill them.
- Continue to use a syringe to feed the babies (no needle). If you cannot find a 1-cc or 3-cc syringe, ask your pharmacist for one of the syringe dispensers they provide for giving medicine to babies. Those will probably be 5-cc size, but they are usually free and will work in a pinch.
- If you are feeding more than one baby, use a separate syringe for each. Wrap colored tape around the base of the syringe to keep them straight — we used blue for the boy and pink for the girl.
- Once the babies have been rehydrated, you will need to switch them to formula. Do NOT feed squirrels cow’s milk or baby formula. Use something specifically made for baby animals.
- We got very good results using Esbilac puppy formula mixed with heavy cream. You will need to gradually wean them onto the full strength mixture. You’ll find the concentration levels we used here (scroll down to Section D for the full mixing instructions and feeding schedule).
- The babies need to eat every two hours until their eyes are open, and every four hours thereafter. After a few days of this, the feedings all start to blur together! We used this chart to keep track of it, and took turns during the nighttime feedings:
- Continue to hold them belly down and tilted forward, and feed them as much as they’ll eat.
- We bought a small can of ready-mixed Esbilac from a local pet store, as we needed it immediately, then we ordered a large canister of the powdered variety online, which was more economical.
Keeping them regular:
- The babies will need to eliminate after almost every feeding.
- To encourage them to do so, dip a cotton ball in warm water and gently swab their parts. This simulates the mama squirrel’s licking them clean.
- Their poop should be soft, but not runny. Later, when they begin eating solids, the scat will resemble small, hard pellets.
- Once they begin eliminating on their own, you can discontinue the cotton ball cleanings.
- A large shoebox makes an acceptable nesting box for very young baby squirrels (before they open their eyes) — provided you don’t have cats in the house.
- Once they become more active and start climbing, they’ll need better boundaries. At this stage, we still kept ours in the shoebox, but we placed the shoebox (and heating pad) inside a much deeper box (the kind paper towels come in at Sam’s). That way, they were still contained — and still able to stay safe and warm — even if they wriggled out of their smaller bed.
- Your squirrels will eventually stop sleeping all day and will want to be active and look around, yet they will not be quite mature enough to release into the wild. At that point, you will need to keep them in a large cage for their protection — the bigger the better. You can see the one we used, purchased second hand at a garage sale, in the background of the photos below.
- Put a tree branch in the cage for them to practice climbing on.
- It is okay to let your squirrels run about the house, and later the yard, but you will need to watch them very carefully while they are out.
- Keep toilet seats down and watch baby squirrels closely around swimming pools.
- Walk slowly, watch where you are stepping, and don’t slam any doors when the babies are out of their cage. The squirrels are so fast, you will hurt them unintentionally if you are not vigilant. Look up as well as down when shutting doors, as squirrels like to climb and will sometimes rest on top of open doors.
- Your squirrels will be ready to release at about 12 weeks of age.
- If they are still sleeping in a shoebox, you will have to provide a more permanent home before setting them free. We built a wooden nesting box using a slightly modified version of these plans.
- Provide material for them to use in building their nest inside the box. Leaves and straw are fine. We also cut up strips of polyester fleece, which dries quickly and offered extra warmth for the winter months ahead.
- To start getting them acclimated to the outdoors, move their cage outside on sunny days. We wired the wooden nesting box inside their cage so they could get used to sleeping in it a few weeks before we placed it in the tree.
- We have a large yard with lots of trees, and we would allow the squirrels to practice climbing for short periods everyday until they were old enough to be on their own. This is a little risky, as a couple of times our little boy squirrel stuck in the tree and we had to get a ladder to fetch him down.
- Eventually, we were able to leave the door to the cage open, and the squirrels would play outside all day and only return to the cage when it was time to be fed or to bed down for the night. We only locked the door to the cage when they were in for the night, to protect them from the cats who prowl our neighborhood at night.
- Later, my husband wired the door open wide enough for the squirrels to come and go, but too narrow for cats to get through.
- Once they were spending most of their time outside the cage, we put the wooden nesting box to a tree, about 15 feet off the ground.
Here’s a little video we made of our squirrels, so you can see them in action, from the day we brought them home to the day they were released:
We now have second generation squirrel kits scampering about our yard and eating from our bird feeders. They are so much fun to watch!
Suzy still visits our porch every day in search of the nuts my daughter leaves for her. Her new friends come, too, but dart away when they spot us watching through the window.
Suzy stays and stares us down. She won’t let us hold or pet her anymore, but she doesn’t act like she feels threatened by our presence.
We count it such a privilege to get to raise our little baby squirrels, and wish you success in caring for yours!