Squirrels as Pets - Is It OK to Have a Pet Squirrel?
Squirrels are small mammals from the family Sciuridae. Although there are almost 300 different species of squirrel. the animals we most associate with this name are tree squirrels. These include various types of squirrel species found in the subfamily Sciurus. These are bushy-tailed squirrels which are found all across America, Europe and many other parts of the world. These animals are small, cute and relatively docile, meaning many of us wonder whether we can keep squirrels as pets.
At AnimalWised, we ask is it OK to have a pet squirrel? We look at the advantages and disadvantages of keeping squirrels as pets for both potential human guardians and the squirrels themselves.
Characteristics of squirrels
Although the diversity of squirrel species is great, the squirrels we are considering as potential pets are different types of tree squirrels which have very similar physical characteristics. These are the same squirrels we see in parks scampering up trees, as well as many other urban and non-urban environments.
As their name suggests, squirrels are arboreal animals which spend their time in nature climbing, digging and gnawing at almost anything they find. They are a curious and tremendously active animal which love to explore in freedom. If we are to leave them to their own devices, it is unlikely they will want to spend much of their time in a cage inside a home.
Squirrels are wild animals which will not be happy if they do not have sufficient time and opportunity to exercise. They are restless and continuously alert, requiring guardians who can dedicate sufficient time and attention to them. For this reason, if we are to consider keeping squirrels as pets, the first thing we need to do is know whether we have the time and patience necessary to meet the responsibility of their care.
Although it may be difficult to hear squirrels in the wild, it is important to know that squirrels can be quite noisy in the domestic environment. Not only do they may a lot of noise running over objects, shaking their cage or playing with toys, but they can be quite vocal. The noises they make range from chirping to barking and squealing.
Even tame squirrels which have been brought up with humans their whole lives can have difficult relationships with humans. Even if some individuals do form strong bonds with a human, they can be very timid around other people. They can also become aggressive when not cared for properly or when they are nearing hibernation. For this reason, they are not good pets for young children or those who otherwise cannot meet their needs.
Adopting a squirrel as a pet
One of the main things when considering whether it is OK to have a pet squirrel is to think about where to adopt one of these rodents. Often adoptions are not readily available, something which can cause serious issues. When adopting a squirrel as a pet, we need to consider the following:
- It is absolutely not advisable to buy a squirrel online, through dubious individuals or unapproved breeders. The squirrel can transmit a host of diseases including rabies that can be spread to people and other animals in the home.
- You cannot catch a squirrel in the wild. Not only is it most likely illegal to take a squirrel from the wild, feral squirrels are not suited to living in domestic environments. They will likely be very afraid, so they will bite you and it is not easy to bond. Squirrels are prey animals to many predators and you will most likely represent a threat to them. They can even die from acute stress when taken from nature.
- It is very important that the squirrel that is going to be our pet comes from a breeder that meets the requirements and regulations of where you live. There are many unscrupulous breeders to esteem profit over the squirrel's welfare.
- We can never adopt a squirrel less than 2 months old. Young squirrels need to stay with their mother until this time. Only after this time will they be able to socialize with a human family.
Caring for a pet squirrel
It is never advisable for a squirrel to live in captivity when they can live in the wild. Although many tree squirrels are not considered under threat of extinction, many are still in need of conservation and protection. Denying a squirrel the right to live in freedom is a major consideration when thinking whether it is OK to have a pet squirrel.
Squirrels which have been brought up in domestic environments may not be able to fend for themselves in the wild. If we do keep a squirrel as a pet, we need to create a large and safe environment which is exclusively for them. Their cage needs to be large, with minimum dimensions of 1 x 1.2 m (3.2-4'). We should arrange some tree branches inside for perching since these are arboreal animals.
The squirrel cage needs to be placed somewhere away from drafts or direct sunlight. A moderately shady place in a quiet area of the home will be necessary. The cage will need to have a nest inside which can be made from a cardboard box with cotton balls as nesting material. Only use 100% cotton as other types may contain unsuitable materials. Squirrels will rest at night, so they must not be disturbed when nesting and resting.
Although they need to be somewhere quiet, we should place them somewhere completely cut off from the household. Squirrels are social and curious animals and neglect could generate serious anxiety.
They do not usually give off an unpleasant odor, although they have a certain tendency to mark their territory. They do this as and cats do by spraying urine. Carpet, furniture and other items may be affected. They will also likely chew on plants and discarded food left in the home as they are scavengers. We need to be very careful not to leave any potentially toxic products lying around.
When we let the squirrel explore around the home, we need to be careful to monitor their actions. We cannot let them chew wires, knock things on the floor, eat something inappropriate or otherwise cause themselves injury. We also need to ensure they are unable to escape to the outside as a tame squirrel may not be able to survive outside in the wild.
Young squirrels which are just a few months old do not regulate their body temperature properly without their mother. For this reason, if we have a adopted or rescued a very young squirrel, they will need a pad placed under their nest that does not exceed 37 ºC/98.6 ºF.
Find out more about caring for this animal with our article on how to look after a squirrel.
Diet of squirrels
As with caring for guinea pigs and rabbits, we should have a feeding dish and water bottle available at all times. If our squirrel does not immediately understand how the water bottle works, we can leave a shallow dish of water as well until they do.
The diet of squirrels depends to some extent on age:
- Feeding of baby squirrels: we will need to provide them with dairy substitutes using a syringe. Ask the expert for the appropriate doses depending on their age. They will indicate the guidelines and specific feeding times which may vary between 2 to 5 times a day. It is very important that you speak to the expert from whom you adopted the squirrel. It is they who can help you with guidance on these individual animals.
- Feeding adult squirrels: while it is difficult to find squirrel food in non-specialized pet stores, they can usually be fed guinea pig food. Any type recommended by the expert from whom you purchased the squirrel should be suitable. A change in diet can be disruptive for your new squirrel. We will also feed them with a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts, mushrooms, eggs and even insects such as crickets.
Learn more about these fascinating rodents with our article on where squirrels live.
Pet squirrel health considerations
Below we provide a list of the most common diseases which affect squirrels. If keep squirrels as pets, you need to be observant of the following:
- Abscess or fistula: squirrels can receive trauma from falls, fights with our animals or various other reasons. If they receive wounds, they can become infected and develop into abscesses. Broken bones and other internal injuries will also need immediate treatment.
- Parasites: scabies mites and fleas are common squirrel parasites.
- Skin nodules: can be from parasites such as cuterebra (larva) or a viral infection.
- Emphysema: constant panting and blood appearing around the nostrils. This is a serious condition which requires immediate treatment.
- Pneumonia: due to stressful situations combined with a humid environment and poor hygienic conditions. They are also very sensitive to some human viruses.
- Cataracts: most common in elderly squirrels.
- Enteritis: of bacterial origin, this intestinal disease is very common. The problem is compounded if Salmonella bacteria is involved.
- Meningitis: as soon as we detect it, it is essential to go to the veterinarian. They will develop bouts of paralysis.
- Malocclusion: as with rabbits and other animals, squirrel teeth do not stop growing. They need blocks and other items to wear down their teeth. If they do not, they can form malocclusion and will require treatment to cut the teeth to the right size.
Is it OK to keep a pet squirrel?
It is true that many people have kept pet squirrels and developed truly reciprocal bonds. This is because it is possible for individual squirrels to have a happy life in the domestic environment. This is not the same as meaning keeping squirrels as pets is easy or advisable for most people.
Squirrels are not domesticated. While some are tame, the process of taming involves taking wild squirrels out of their natural habitat and losing their freedom. The environments into which they are brought are all too often inappropriate. They do not have the right facilitates and space, nor do they have guardians who can meet the responsibility of their care.
When we see videos of pet squirrels on YouTube and other services, we often don't see the hard work and dedication it requires to keep them animals in a fair condition. Many of these videos encourage people to adopt an animal they cannot adequately care for, often resulting in abandonment of the squirrel. It is dangerous to encourage keeping squirrels as pets since many will be harmed in doing so.
A growing interest in squirrels as pets also encourages improper breeding. People wishing to make fast money might breed squirrels or even capture them from the wild. This is not only illegal, but it is very harmful to squirrel communities.
For those who can dedicate a sufficient amount of time to caring for squirrels, a lot of research will need to be undertaken. They will also need to look at the resources available since many veterinarians will not have experience caring for squirrels.
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