Caring for Orphaned Ground Squirrels

ground squirrel

Female golden-mantled ground squirrel

Suppose that you are out in the forest and you come across a baby ground squirrel that is obviously orphaned, with little doubt about it. What do you do? Having an idea of what steps you should and can take might be the difference between the little critter living or perishing. If they die, it would be unfortunate, because these are easily tamed animals, they are entertaining and interesting and they aren’t especially difficult to care for. Indeed, most pets are harder to keep than a pet squirrel.

It is important to know that the young squirrel is indeed orphaned though. If the mother is found nearby, dead, it would be reasonable to assume that the little one or ones are abandoned and may not survive without a little help. It should also be noted that the goal of rescue and rehabilitation is to return the animal back to the wild when possible, though it can’t always be done.

Squirrel species and age

It is a good plan to get an idea of the age and kind of squirrel. Googling squirrels will give you an idea of type, especially since you will know what area it came from. As for the animal’s age, look at such things as fur, teeth, upright ears and so on. The less developed the squirrel is, the younger they normally are. If the squirrel has no fur or very short fur, there is an excellent chance that it is only one or two weeks old or less and would best be cared for by the nearest wildlife rehabilitator or wildlife vet.

If it is furry and beginning to get teeth though, provided that you have the patience, you can raise it to the point that it can be released. It could also be kept as a pet, if it is legal in your location and the animal isn’t an endangered species.

In some US states, it is illegal to keep a wild squirrel as a pet and many squirrel species are on the endangered list. So the usual goal is to rehabilitate the squirrel until it can be released back into the wild. Also, it is illegal in many place to turn squirrels and other rodents loose into the wild unless the animal is being returned to the wild.

Need for warmth

Let’s assume that you have a squirrel that is old enough for you to care for. How do you do it? Ground squirrels and tree squirrels are different. However, you must keep the little squirrel warm. Squirrel young usually require between 98 and 99 degrees F. Pine shavings for bedding are fine, but the animals still must be kept out of drafts and cold. Try to avoid using cloth for bedding, as their claws can get caught in the material. Shredded paper towels or clean toilet paper would be a better choice.

Feeding baby squirrels

If the little critters are not fully weaned, do not feed cat milk supplement, goats milk or cows milk. The fat to protein ration is wrong for squirrels. You can feed it puppy supplement, available in stores or vets offices, fed every couple of hours.

Pedialyte (fruit flavored) is good if the animal is showing signs of being dehydrated, but it doesn’t have many noticeable calories, so go light on the amount you use. Use an eye dropper, small bottle or syringe without a needle (usually available in vet supply stores) to feed the fluids, and do not overfeed them. Baby squirrels will often accept more food than they should have and overfeeding can harm them.

Feeding too fast can cause them to get fluid in their lungs and this should also be avoided. Dry puppy food, carrots, strawberries and dandelion greens can be given to the baby very early on, to get it used to eating ‘real’ food. Dried grass is good for them to chew on. A salt block like those for rabbits is also good, especially if it contains minerals. As the animal gets older, quality hamster or gerbil food can be given to the creature.

Limbs and branches can also be supplied to give the squirrel something to chew on, though you should make sure that they haven’t been sprayed with pesticides. A squirrel’s teeth grow continually throughout their lifetime so the wood helps them wear the teeth down enough that the growth doesn’t become a problem.

Bathing squirrels

It is very common for young squirrels to have fleas. To deal with these, bathe the baby in warm water, using ‘no more tears’ baby shampoo, making sure that you keep the baby’s head above the water. Little squirrels can actually get to the point where they enjoy their baths.

Setting up a tank

A large cage with fine mesh to prevent the squirrel from getting out can be great for containing the squirrel. However, ground squirrels are burrowing animals, so the cage should be used with a container such as a fish aquarium, which can be filled with dirt, with a way for the animal to go back and forth to the dirt at will. It isn’t uncommon for them to dig a tunnel one day and then fill it in and dig a new one the next day. They will also often bury a cache of food in the soil.

Squirrels are meticulously clean animals and they will often use the same spot over and over to do their bathroom duties. This should be cleaned periodically in order to keep the animal healthy.

Raising a squirrel can be fun and a joy, but remember that they are still wild animals and must be respected. They require time, effort and commitment, too. Still, they are quite endearing. Many species, for example golden mantled ground squirrels (Spermophilus lateralis), are diurnal, too. This means that they sleep at night, so you’ll be able to enjoy them during the day.

Whether the animal is going to be turned loose in the wild or kept as a pet, the care of orphaned squirrels is a better alternative than allowing them to die. I raised a pair of squirrels that were a complete delight and who enjoyed riding in my shirt pockets. They are good pets and interesting ones. Chip and Dale were among the best pets I’ve ever had.




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Posted in pets and animals and tagged , , , , by with 22 comments.


  • Nana says:

    I will be keeping this article in mind if needed very well written

  • ptrk12 says:

    You are quite an animal lover.

  • Barbara Radisavljevic says:

    I think I will link to this in the blog I’m writing for Squirrel Appreciation Day tomorrow. I read a book once by a zoologist who kept a squirrel as a pet inside the house for a while and it nearly drove him crazy before he returned it to the wild. I think it was a squirrel he had rescued.

    • rextrulove says:

      @barbrad, if I remember it and have time, I’ll write about my experiences with the two we raised. It was a rescue, but we couldn’t return them to the wild because they were so young when we rescued them. They wouldn’t have lasted 5 minutes in the wild.

      I’m honored that you’d link to this article.

  • Ellen Santistevan says:

    Thank you for this article… It’s the first one that says I might be competent enough to take care of an orphaned baby. I found a nearly dead ground squirrel last week, eyes not open, and have been taking care of her for 5 days now, long enough for her eyes to open and for her to get curious about the world.

    • rextrulove says:

      You are quite welcome. The first week is the hardest, but it sounds like you are doing great. If it survives for a couple more days, chances are good that it will make it. As an extra tip, my two squirrels totally loved having a grape, cut in half. They could lick up the juices even before they had teeth that were large enough to chew.

  • Kimberly Struck says:

    I just found 6 babies half dead from rain took them home and nursing is going great I love them

  • Kimberly Struck says:

    I just found 6 babies half dead from rain took them home and nursing is going great I love them

  • Kimberly Struck says:

    Just found 6 babies half dead from rain.Nursing now at home and so far doing well

  • Kimberly Struck says:

    Just found 6 babies half dead from rain.Nursing now at home and so far doing well

  • Nicole Herring says:

    My kittens outside got ahold of a baby ground squirrel this morning and it is pretty scratched up and was very cold. I took it inside wrapped him with a towel and placed a heating pad underneath it to keep it warm. It’s eyes are not opened yet but it does have fur and small teeth. It is very vocal and it doesn’t seem like my cats hurt it too much. I am going to go and get it some puppy milk but was wondering if you could tell me when might be a good time to introduce some greens to it and if it might still be to young to give it a small bath for fleas. I am planning on setting it free once it gets healthy enough.

  • rextrulove says:

    Nicole, as soon as the eyes are open and the teeth start to grow, you can expose it to green vegetation and seeds (like hamster mix). It will still be a week or two after it actually starts eating the greens and seeds before it can be weaned.

    I’d wait until the eyes are open before bathing it. It can be too much stress if it can’t see what is going on. This said, it is very common for infant squirrels to have trouble going to the bathroom until they learn how. This is true of newborn kittens and puppies, too. To encourage them, after each feeding, use a damp, warm towel to wash around the vent.

    • Nicole Herring says:

      Thank you so much for your response. I have been feeding it through a syringe every two hours. It didn’t really want to take the milk at first but seems to be getting the hang of it now. I love animals and it breaks my heart to see them hurting especially new babies. Thank you again so much for your help!

  • Golda says:

    Hi, thank you so much for this article. I found a baby round-tailed ground squirrel a few weeks ago and followed your advice, Skippy is now extremely active and playful and eating all sorts of greens. I just got him a multi-level ferret cage, which will be good to run around in but the bottom of it is wire. I’m not sure what kind of bedding to put in a wire bottomed cage, do you have any suggestions?

    He also seems very round-bellied, he eats a good bit of sprouted lentils, pea pods, sweet potato, mesquite leaves and beans, and hey, not sure if I might be overfeeding him? I pretty much offer as much as he wants to eat and let him self-regulate his diet. He does run a lot on his wheel and loves to wrestle-fight, so he gets a good amount of exercise. I am worried about him being lonely, but not sure what kind of creature to introduce him to except for his human friends.

    Thanks for any advice!

    • rextrulove says:

      I’m sorry for taking so long to answer you. Ground squirrels love digging in the dirt. If there is a way to do so, I’d recommend putting a couple of feet of dirt in the bottom of the cage. One way you might do it is to put an old 20-gallon aquarium filled with dirt in the bottom of the cage.

      As for bedding, pine shavings usually works well, but for its actual nest, a softer material is usually appreciated. They do make soft bedding, commercially, but I have even used shredded cotton cloth or toilet paper.

      Yes, squirrels can become overweight. I’d suggest cutting back on the green foods and to give the squirrel a mixture of grains, like can be found in hampster food. I’ve used hamster food with great success. Also, be sure to put some wood in the cage for Skippy to chew on. The teeth of a squirrel grow continuously and if they don’t have something to chew on, the teeth can become too big. That can endanger them, so giving them some wood lets them wear down the teeth. You can experiment with the kind of wood, as long as it isn’t toxic or treated. I’ve used branches from an apple tree, a plum tree, and a fir tree and the squirrels have liked them. Usually, you don’t need to go out of your way to get them something. Try something from nearby trees.

      Ground squirrels actually tend to be solitary, except during breeding season. Skippy should do well with its human companions. If you managed to get another squirrel somehow, it is likely that the two would fight. We had a pair, but they were from the same litter, so they were used to each other from birth and they were the same gender. You might find that the little one enjoys soft music or recordings of nature, though.

      It sounds like you have a great pet and that it will have a good life. They can be a joy and can become quite tame.

  • Una says:

    Thank you for writing this , there is little info for ground squirrels and I have a litter of 4 resque babies they were about 1-2 weeks old when we got them, now they are 4-5 weeks old & an absolute joy to care for 🙂

    • rextrulove says:

      I’m glad that it was helpful. I’ve noticed the same thing…a lack of information. One thing you might need to do in the future is to separate the genders, though. When they get a little older, their minds are apt to turn toward breeding and their behavior could become unruly if they aren’t separated.

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