The contents of Squirreltales have been reviewed and endorsed by respected, trained, and experienced rehabilitators across the country.
By Sarah Rowe
Wildwood Squirrel Rescue, Taylor County, Georgia, USA
Georgia Wildlife Rehabilitator's License #9730
To find a rehabilitator in your area, go to https://www.squirrel-rehab.org/connections
Before initiating the care of a baby squirrel, try to find a licensed rehabilitator to take the baby. Call a vet's office and ask, or contact your state Department of Natural Resources for a rehabber in your area. If you cannot find a professional to take the baby, then follow these instructions to the letter, and if the baby you have found does not have injuries that are terminal, you will successfully raise it to release.
Step 1: Get the Baby Warm
Step 2: Hydrate
Step 3: Treat Wounds
Step 4: Get the Right Formula and Feeder
How Old Is My Baby?
Metabolic Bone Disease
Squirrels Are Not Pets
A healthy baby squirrel, while in the hairless state, is bright pink all over, with pink gums and lips; it squirms, responds to touch, feels warm, and is fat and round. A dehyrated or cold baby is grayish pink with grayish gums and lips; it will ball up, be unresponsive, sluggish or lie still; it will look thin and feel cold to your touch. A healthy furred baby will have very pink gums, respond appropriately to its environment, feel warm, and look round and full.
A baby squirrel should feel much warmer than your skin. If it feels cool to your touch then it is cold. Hypothermia will kill. Do not attempt to feed a cold baby. Until the baby is fully furred, he or she does not produce enough body heat to warm him or herself. A furred baby who is sick or injured will need a heating source. Wrapping it in a blanket will not suffice since the baby cannot warm the blanket. You must provide a constant heat source. The most dependable and accessible is an electric heating pad. Temporary heating, until a pad is found and the nest box warmed, can be supplied by filling a ziplock baggie with hot water and putting it under a blanket with the baby in the blanket. Do the following: turn the pad on low , place it on a table; get two bath towels: fold one in half and lay on the pad; rumple the second towel and put it in the nestbox (bigger and taller than a shoebox with flaps that can be folded over. No matter how small, these babies will climb and you may find it frozen in a corner of the room if there was no top on the nest). Make a pocket in the middle of the towel with your fist, put in the baby and gather the covers together over the baby. Placing the nest box half on and half off the pad will provide a cool place if the baby becomes too hot in one area. Now go on to step 2, Section-B.
In addition to warmth, the most important first treatment you will give the baby squirrel you have found is rehydration. Any baby has encountered trauma by being separated from Mama: the separation may have been a few hours, or days. The younger the baby the greater the risk of dehydration and if you do not rehydrate you will lose it. Even the healthiest looking babies should first be rehydrated. Most people immediately give the new baby milk of some kind. DON'T DO IT. A baby will not starve to death over a 24-hour period, but it can surely die of dehydration. Rehydrate first. I repeat: Do not start the baby immediately on formula, rehydrate first.
Why is rehydration so important? Water is essential for the digestion of food and enables the body to perform other functions that sustain life. Rehydration defined is a period of time wherein no food is given and electrolyte fluids are administered to repair damage from dehydration, refill reserves, and re-establish body chemistry. The extent of rehydration is based on the extent of dehydration.
Rehydration and digestion are mutually exclusive processes; they cannot be achieved at the same time. When food and water are introduced to the stomach, the water in the stomach is not used for digestion: the stomach makes a demand on the cells of the body to give up fluids to digest the food; the cells will give up fluid no matter how little the body has at the time of demand, leaving the body further depleted. The water in the stomach is not absorbed until it reaches the small intestines, after the digestive demand has been made; what is absorbed then, is not enough to repair and refill, so a downward spiral ensues with each feeding: food causes digestive demand followed by more fluid depletion followed by more severe dehydration, ending in death in a few days if not immediately.
There is absolutely nothing gained and much damage done by combining rehydration fluids with formula in a feeding. This is a fairly common practice and is not rehydration. At the end of a rehydration period using electrolyte fluids, when body function has been restored, formula can be introduced with a large volume of plain water, not electrolyte fluids, to increase water reserves and allow the body to slowly adjust to the digestion of food once again. Without initial rehydration, you will have a thin, dry, grayish little mummy, too weak to lift its head, instead of a precious, fat, round, wet, pink baby. If you have already given formula, then stop immediately and start over with rehydration. Again, rehydration and digestion cannot take place at the same time so rehydration has to be accomplished before food is given.
Remember that rehydration is a temporary measure meant to address deficiencies and should not be continued indefinitely.
Pink babies should be given a couple of feedings of plain water during the day to make sure their hydration stays up. I recommend a water feeding first thing each morning and one before you go to bed.
Not only should a regimen of rehydration be initiated before food is given, for a length of time and volume depending on the extent of dehydration, but the proper fluid must be used. Gatorade is not a rehydration fluid; it is designed to keep athletes hydrated. Gatorade has a high salt content, which promotes fluid retention and may cause diarrhea when given inappropriately. Pedialyte is the best oral rehydrator available to the public, with Lactated Ringers best but not generally available to the public.
Choice #1: Use fruit flavor Pedialyte, an infant rehydration fluid available to the public in drug and grocery stores. Pedialyte is designed to replace lost body fluids and electrolytes. DO NOT MIX PEDIALYTE WITH FORMULA.
Choice #2: Lactated Ringers by subque injection (the best rehydration fluid because the formulation resembles blood chemistry, and if the animal is unresponsive and cannot drink, the only method of rehydration). Injection has to be given by a vet. Lactated Ringers can be given orally as well as by injection. Injected fluids should be followed with oral fluids when the animal is able to drink. A note: if this baby needs injected fluids from a vet, be sure that all the vet does to the baby is give the injection of fluids. Vets are not academically trained about wildlife, their needs, or the situations under which we find these babies and all too frequently they never even consider rehydration. The situations they encounter with domestic pets are very different from what we encounter with wildlife. I have heard many tales of vets taking a baby into the back of the clinic, filling it up with formula instead of injecting fluids as they were asked to do, and the animal is dead very soon afterward. Take this paper with you if you do go to a vet, to give yourself some credibility for what you are asking him or her to do.
Choice #3: Homemade rehydration fluid: 1 qt. Water, 1 tsp salt, 3 tsp sugar. This is meant only for situations wherein, for some reason, you cannot get pedialyte or lactated ringers. It is not a full electrolyte solution, but is better than nothing.
How long to Rehydrate and How Much Fluid to Give: How long to rehydrate depends on the amount of dehydration. To determine amount of dehydration and how much fluid to give, do the following:
Positive responses to rehydration: You will see a remarkable difference in your baby. A rehydrated baby will gain weight on fluids, be eager to eat, responsive rather than lethargic, have a strong grip, elastic skin, and will urinate copiously. His body temperature will be stable. Urine will be clear (fox squirrels do have a more yellowish urine naturally but there should be plenty of it).
If you have a baby who was separated from Mama due to a tree cutting, has no injuries, and was taken into care immediately, then he should be well hydrated because he was so recently with Mama - in that case, no rehydration is necessary, but be sure to introduce formula diluted with water, per instructions in the section called Introducing Formula.
CAT BITES KILL. Cat bites must be treated with a wide spectrum antibiotic such as Clavamox (safe and contains clavalanic acid as well as amoxicillin). Obtain this drug from your vet. Don't accept amoxicillin alone - it will not kill the gram negative bacteria that is in a cat bite. Clean all punctures by flushing with betadine. Hydrogen peroxide is a poor anti-bacterial flush.
HEAD INJURIES with major swelling are more difficult because a steroid such as dexamethazone should be administered to reduce pressure and damage caused by swelling of the tissues and fluid. This drug can be dangerous if not used properly. The proper dosages should be observed and given for 3 to 5 days.
The animal must be withdrawn slowly, with decreasing dosages, or it will die from the withdrawal. A liquid form is available. It is obtained from a vet who will advise you on dosages. A baby with a head injury will fall or drift to one side, and carry the head to that side. The swelling from the injury will probably be noticeable.
A FRACTURED LEG, unless it is a complete break and the leg is misaligned, should not be taped. Taping can cause many problems and the baby will grow so fast that a fracture should heal before the baby is old enough to be up and about.
IF YOUR BABY HAS DEFORMING INJURIES that would prevent its later release, then do the kind and loving act of freeing it from suffering through euthanasia. Your vet will aid you in this. A squirrel who cannot run free is a squirrel deprived of its essential nature and you will always be a warden tending a prisoner.
FEEDERS: The right feeder is a syringe, in the sizes of 1 cc syringes for a pinkie, 3 cc syringes for a 3 to 5 week old baby, or 6 cc syringes for a 5 to 6 week plus baby. DO NOT USE PET NURSER BOTTLES - you can aspirate the baby with a bottle (get milk in the lungs, causing pneumonia or outright drowning). Get syringes from a vet or some drug stores. Get several because some types of syringes have gaskets on the ends of the plungers that begin sticking after a few feedings, progressing to completely stuck. Other types have o-ring gaskets that do not stick.
FORMULA: the right formula is Esbilac Powder Milk Replacer for puppies with heavy whipping cream added. Scientific studies show that Esbilac Powder more closely resembles mother squirrel milk than any homemade formula or other brands. Be sure to use Esbilac Powder - the liquid is not exactly the same formula; in addition, it is less nutritious because it has a greater dilution than the powder will have after reconstituting. Additionallly, do not use Hartz Nursemaid, Mother's Helper, human infant formula, goat's milk, evaporated milk, or other cow's milk. These products are so poor nutritionally that they can cause the death of your baby through starvation, diarrhea, or malnutrition; if your baby does survive being fed these poor formulas, he will be small, weak, and prone to metabolic bone disease. Do not believe that pet store clerks know anything about the dietary needs of infant squirrels - they are there to sell the products displayed in that store. Additionally, most vets don't know about the nutritional needs of squirrels: their training and most of their experience is with domestic animals who have different needs from wildlife. Many products advertise on the can that they can be fed to squirrels and other wildlife - that doesn't mean they should be. Esbilac Powder is expensive and sometimes hard to find, but if you are going to the trouble to love and care for this baby and raise it to freedom, why subvert your efforts with a formula that will not meet its nutritional needs?
Mix and handle the formula as follows: 2 parts of water to 1 part of Esbilac Powder, and 1/4 part of heavy whipping cream. By whipping cream I mean real cream that is found in 1/2-pint cartons in the dairy case, not substitute whipped creams. Mix in a small jar what you think you will use in 2 to 3 days. Refrigerate mixture and the powder, too. Warm only what you will need each feeding to a little better than room temperature. This is your full strength formula.
Initial Rehydration and Formula Introduction Schedule: do not fail to follow the schedule below. This schedule will continue hydrating the baby and also will introduce the formula gradually so that the baby doesn't react adversely to a new food. The proportions noted in this schedule are based on a 3 cc syringe. If you are using a different size, then adjust the amounts accordingly.
The baby should now be sucking enthusiastically, and when finished eating, sleeping satisfied and quiet with a little round belly. Note: give the tiny pink babies some extra water every day because they dehydrate easily. For the last feeding before you go to bed, add some extra water to the syringe. You can stop this when the baby's hair begins to emerge and he or she looks fat and healthy.
Refer to Section-G for a comprehensive schedule of feeding amounts by age, and what foods to feed when.
Tiny pink babies without hair, or with scant hair appearing on the back of the head and shoulders, can only ingest small amounts per feeding, so more feedings are necessary. He or she should be fed about every 2 to 3 hours from when you get up until your bedtime. About getting up at night: ideally, a tiny baby would be fed twice a night, but most of us must work and sleep is necessary for us to function; if you are tired and your boss is angry because you are late to work, then you will feel pressured and the baby will suffer. Be diligent during your waking hours, and the baby should be alright. If the baby is dehydrated or sick then you should give nightly feedings until it is fully recovered.
As the baby grows and can injest more formula at each feeding, the times between feedings can be increased until, at approximately 5 weeks of age, you are feeding it every 4 hours. As the baby goes through weaning and is ingesting increasing amounts of solid foods, you can decrease the number of feedings per day until the baby is eating only solid foods and has rejected the formula - this rejection will usually occur around 10 weeks of age, although some babies differ from this pattern; if one wants formula longer, give it.
An infant squirrel should be stimulated to urinate and defecate every time you feed it. Failure to do so can cause uremic poisoning. All mother mammals lick their babies to initiate this process, and to keep their babies clean. A baby will leak on him or herself but this is not the same as voiding a bladder. And also, an unclean baby will get diaper rash, urine burns, on its tender belly. Stimulate by tickling the babies genitals with a cotton ball or other soft, absorbent material. Stimulate until the baby is around 6 weeks old.
When you first get the baby, its stools will be a hard dark brown. Within 24 hours of feeding formula, the stool will change to a mustard brownish color; it should remain firm. If it is runny, then you have diarrhea. Add water to the formula for a couple of feedings (about 1/2 water, 1/2 formula) then continue with full strength formula. The baby might have been slightly dehydrated. Another reason for runny stools is overfeeding. A baby's belly should never look bloated after feeding - it should be nice and round. If the diarrhea does not stop in 24 hours, it may be serious, such as extreme dehydration, a parasite such as coxccidia, or a bacterial infection. Take it to a vet and have a stool tested. Albon is the treatment for coxccidia, as well as for some gram negative bacterial infections. The vet will recommend a dosage.
The babies' eyes open at 5 weeks but they don't see well at first and nothing about their behavior will change for another 5 or 6 days; they will still eat and go back to sleep immediately. At 6 weeks, put monkey chow (called Zupreem Primate Chow and can be purchased at pet stores that sell products for exotic animals) or rodent chow (no gerbil or hamster food) into the nestbox with the baby. It will at some point begin gnawing on the monkey chow. Primate, or monkey, chow is a balanced nutrition and, in combination with fresh veggies and a diet low in nuts/seeds, has been proven to prevent metabolic bone disease, a disease that is caused by a lack of calcium in the diet.
Metabolic Bone Disease (MBD) is a deficiency of calcium in a squirrel's diet. It is caused by an improper diet wherein seeds, nuts, and corn are the major, or only, components of a diet. The condition will kill the squirrel. This is not a theory - it is common because some people ignore the warnings, do not follow the dietary instructions, give the animals a diet high in seeds, nuts, and corn, and low in calcium bearing foods. In addition to bone development, calcium is needed for all organic functions, including heart, respiration, blood circulation, muscle, and eyesight. Do not think you and your squirrel will be the exceptions if you feed a diet composed of seeds, nuts, and corn. This deadly diet is often sold in stores under the descriptor "Squirrel Feed".
Seeds, nuts, and corn are high in phosphorous and contain low, or no, calcium (almonds and hazelnuts do have a small amount of calcium, but also contain phosphorous). The body needs phosphorous as well as calcium, but when phos ratios exceed calcium ratios, the phos blocks the absorption of calcium, making it unavailable to the body. If one feeds a low amount of high calcium foods, and a high amount of phos foods, it will cause mbd. Therefore, calcium foods must be the major component of the diet. Squirrels love nuts, seeds, and corn and will eat those foods exclusively if given the opportunity. When these foods are the major component of the diet, they are the nutritional equivalent of candy. When given as small portions of a diet, with high calcium foods being the major item on the menu, seeds, nuts, and corn become just one more nutritional element, in this case a positive element. Again: a diet of seeds, nuts, corn will cause metabolic bone disease if they are the major, or only, components of a diet.
Symptoms of MBD: general body soreness, activity levels decline, lethargy, sometimes a drop in appetite, sometimes labored breathing, increasing in severity to seizures and or paralysis, then death if not treated. The symptoms usually manifest around the age of 10 weeks; the caretaker may not see the symptoms, or recognize what he or she is seeing, until the symptoms become severe and the animal goes down. This is the point at which people usually call me crying, "something is wrong with my baby, he is paralyzed (or having seizures)." Some babies are dying in the person's hands as we talk. This anguish is so preventable if one feeds a high calcium diet.
Treatment for MBD: Get calcium into the squirrel IMMEDIATELY, not later, not tomorrow, NOW. Failure to initiate treatment will kill the squirrel, or at the least, leave him paralyzed and unfit for release. MBD is treatable if identified at the onset of symptoms. The treatment is calcium. When seizures are present rather than paralysis, the symptoms will stop within a few hours once calcium is given, but paralysis will not correct that quickly, if at all. Even if the symptoms are stopped by the onset of teatment, the animal still is not healthy until his body has absorbed enough calcium to repair the damage and function normally.
Administer a calcium suppliment containing Vit D, Vit D3 is best. Vit D3 makes the calcium more absorbable. In advanced situations wherein the animal is having repeated seizures or is paralyzed to the point of dragging his rear section, take him to a vet for an injection of calcium. Then follow up that injection with oral treatments at home. Do not use a vitamin suppliment - what is needed is calcium, which is a mineral, not vitamins, but vit D is necessary and is usually included in calcium supplements because it facilitates the absorption of the mineral.
There is a special and simple way to successfully release the squirrel you have nurtured. Don't just take it to a tree and let go; The squirrel may reach your back door before you do, begging to come in. That he is begging to come in doesn't mean he is rejecting his birthright: it means he is unfamiliar with the outdoor territory. Squirrels have home ranges in which they know every tree, rock, and bush, dog and cat. Take them to another area and they are completely unnerved and afraid.
Provide an outdoor cage as a support system for your baby until he or she has adjusted to new surroundings and is comfortable outside. Your baby must learn to interact with its own kind as well as learn about its new environment. Put the baby in the cage outside a week or two prior to your release date. This will introduce the baby to outside temperatures, sounds, and daylight/nighttime schedules gradually. Place the cage in a protected area such as a screened porch, a covered patio, carport, etc. Make sure cats and dogs cannot reach the cage. Protect the cage from rain and too much direct sun. Include a wood nestbox in the cage so that the baby will have shelter and can hide if predators come to the cage. Continue putting food in the cage every day, and give reassurance by talking to him and touching him. It will be very frightened at first and will probably hide in the nest box for a day, but will eventually come out. You can even, in the case of extreme fear where the baby crouches panting and squealing in the cage, move the cage out of the house every day for a few hours until the baby is comfortable outside. Then leave the cage outside all the time, including nights, for 1 to 2 weeks.
One day, when the squirrel is scampering all over the cage, and the weather will be mild for several days, open the door and let it find its way out. Do not remove the cage and keep food and water and the nest box in the cage. He or she will come and go from the cage for awhile until it has built a nest or taken over an old one.
Another way to release the squirrel after it has been acclimatized in a cage for a week or two is a tree release in a wood nestbox.
Acclimatize the squirrel for two weeks in a release cage outside that has a wood nest box and quilt batting for bedding (quilt batting is very warm and dries out if it gets wet; do not release a squirrel in a box that has cotton or wool bedding because it will not dry, causing mildew, nor will it warm the baby when it is wet; the squirrel will not stay in a wet, mildewed bed). Be sure the nestbox has several small ventilation holes drilled in each side. Very early on release day before the squirrel comes out of the box in the morning, close the entrance to the wood nestbox with the squirrel in the box. Take an extension ladder to the tree you have chosen the previous day, wedge, nail, or use bungee cords to attach the box to the tree as high as possible; then open the entrance. The squirrel will be warm, dry, and secure in the home he already knows that is located high in a tree, which is where he wants it to be. Once squirrels are released, they don't like going back into a cage and will move out as quickly as possible. They may move out before they have been able to fine-tune their nest building skills and will be left with no place to sleep or hide, but not wanting to return to the cage. Releasing them from a nestbox in a tree satisfies their emotional and physical needs.
Squirrels are wonderful babies, but can be vicious adults. In most states it is illegal to keep them and if caught a person could pay a big fine. They have no domestic instincts, they do not love and they do not feel loyalty; they have no pack or herding instincts, and are by nature solitary creatures. Do not allow yourself to confuse their natures with those of dogs and cats. Squirrels have special dietary and spacial needs that are difficult to satisfy. Mature squirrels are unpredictable in mood, do not forget or forgive mishandling, and will bite even the hand that fed it and kept its bottom cleaned. Do not believe the stories you hear or read which imply squirrels are wonderful pets - they are not.
Squirrels are creatures of pure instinct with very strong defenses. Their bodies are designed for trees and dirt, not houses and cages. They will shred your curtains, urinate and defecate anywhere they happen to be, claw the skin off your arms, bite you, and if kept in a cage will develop mindless routines of movement. You will become a warden tending a prisoner. There is nothing more heart rending than to see a squirrel hanging on wire or screens longing for something it cannot name but wants so intensely. The squirrel is driven by instinctive emotional and physical needs that cannot be satisfied in captivity and that cannot be changed.
Releasing a squirrel will relieve you of the day to day responsibility and the pain and guilt you will feel when the squirrel you have loved and nurtured dies in captivity. And die it will - because of poor diet; because it bit somebody and was thrown against a wall; a child injured it or it injured a child; someone moved a sofa and crushed it; slammed a door when it was sitting on top of the door; or it drowned in a toilet. A squirrel you raised and who lives in your backyard is a happy squirrel that will come to you and take treats; it may even come in and out of your house. You can have a relationship with a free squirrel that you cannot possibly have in captivity, a relationship that is based on respect and admiration and not on selfish possessiveness.
Love and nurture the baby you have found, and after giving life, give the greatest gift of all - the freedom to enjoy that life. The first time you watch your baby scamper up a tree you will feel the rightness of it, you will see its unbounded joy. You will profit from one additional aspect of freeing your baby and that is a feeling of participation in the natural world by giving back to Mother Earth one of her own.
FOR FURTHER INFORMATION PLEASE CONTACT:
Sarah Rowe - Wildwood Squirrel Rescue
Copyright © 1991-2023 Sarah Rowe - Permission given to copy if distribution is free.