They’re a common sight throughout most of North America, and to many, squirrels are as cute and furry as they are entertaining. They’re small, too—they don’t bark, and they even seem to have personalities all their own.
Granting all of this, it’s no surprise that squirrels are considered by some to be a great pet. But this all sounds too good to be true…can a cute, friendly, furry little critter that scales trees in a flash and hides nuts in its cheeks really be a manageable pet?
In this article, we’ll be exploring the many reasons why squirrels can become great pets. And, we’ll also be discussing the many lesser-known features of squirrels that can present challenges to prospective pet squirrel owners.
Photo Credit: Pierre-Selim on Flickr
If you’re considering getting a pet squirrel, this is what you need to know.
The Pet Squirrel’s Storied Past
Dating back to the early 1700’s, squirrels have been en vogue as pets, and they’ve been often kept as housemates for wealthy families. Even notables like President Warren Harding—the 29th President of the United States—kept a pet squirrel he called ‘Pete’.
Going back even further, Benjamin Franklin himself wrote an ode to a pet squirrel named Mungo that unfortunately met its fate when a neighborhood dog caught and killed it. Franklin wrote:
“Few squirrels were better accomplished, for he had a good education, had traveled far, and seen much of the world. Thou art fallen by the fangs of wanton, cruel Ranger!”
And, who can forget the iconic trio of chipmunks that brought us high-pitched holiday music in the 1980’s and 1990’s? Whether it’s a presidential pet named Pete or a family of quick-witted, furry little friends, it’s almost expected that people would want to domesticate squirrels and keep them in cages, pens, or coops. We do the same thing with gerbils, snakes, lizards, and tarantulas, so how much of a stretch is it to think that a squirrel could be raised to be friendly and *gasp* even house trained?
The reality of pet squirrel ownership is a lot more nuanced than Hollywood or American culture might have you believe. There’s actually a lot to know about the wild nature of squirrels, their preferences for food, their behavioral tendencies, and the amount of effort that would be needed to keep one as a pet.
To best understand why, let’s take a look at two common squirrel species in North America: the Grey Squirrel and the Flying Squirrel.
Gray Squirrel Traits
The Gray Squirrel (also known as Sciurus carolinensis) is found throughout the eastern United States, Canada, and parts of Europe. These curious creatures prefer a diet consisting mostly of nuts (especially acorns and chestnuts), and they’re known for caching their food in the ground, a characteristic behavior shared by other rodents.
So, would a Gray Squirrel make for a good pet? Maybe. Or, maybe not.
Gray Squirrels are known for being especially destructive to the bark of certain trees. These squirrels are also considered by some to be a pestilence due to their habit of digging up plants and even burrowing into the ground. So, if you happen to have any houseplants or material in your home that could resemble tree bark (drywall, perhaps?), it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect your pet Gray Squirrel to do some damage to it.
Remember, too, that unless a Gray Squirrel has been raised in captivity and wasn’t plucked from the wild, it’s going to have some inherent habits and behaviors that pet owners might not expect. One of these habits is protecting itself if it senses danger. In places where squirrels live in close proximity to humans, there have been numerous documented cases of ‘Gray Squirrel attacks’, however rare they may be.
[Note: When it comes to domesticating wild animals of any kind—not just squirrels—there are some states that consider wild pet ownership to be sharply illegal. Before making the decision to get a squirrel as a pet, check to be sure that this is legal where you live.]
Flying Squirrel Traits
Flying Squirrels are occasionally found in exotic pet stores that have a license to sell them as pets. While not as destructive and ‘invasive’ as Gray Squirrels can be, Flying Squirrels are still just as wild, and they’re going to come with a lot of the same high-maintenance traits and characteristics as Gray Squirrels.
Interestingly, Flying Squirrels aren’t that much more difficult to care for than birds or Sugar Gliders. They do require a lot of space, and they’re going to be active throughout most of the day, something that could quickly become exhausting for a pet owner who doesn’t have the time or energy to devote to caring for it.
The good news about keeping Flying Squirrels as pets is that they can live a long time. If kept in a comfortable, ‘wooded’ environment that is large enough for it, a domesticated Flying Squirrel can live to be 12 to 13 years old—easily eclipsing the lifespans of many giant dog breeds. As far as pet squirrels go, the Flying Squirrel does appear to be one of the more manageable and least destructive species to consider.
Wondering what you’ll be feeding your Flying Squirrel? It might not be as simple as heading outside to collect some nuts or even going to the grocery store to buy a bag of them. Squirrels can be finicky, and they might not always be interested in your choice of food. Thankfully, there are specially formulated pellets that contain minerals and organic material that mimic what a squirrel might eat in the wild, increasing the nutritive value they get from their meals while in captivity.
Other Behavioral Considerations
We’ve established that pet squirrels can be good pets if they’re domesticated very early in their life, and we’ve shown the reasons why a Flying Squirrel in particular could be a good pet if certain guidelines are followed.
There are a few other considerations, however, for the prospective pet squirrel owner. Once a squirrel has bonded with its human owner, it will become attached to that person, making separation difficult to manage, (by the way, the article I just linked too says that keeping a squirrel as a pet is a horrible idea) even with a squirrel sitter. Also, squirrels have an immensely high energy level, and they require a lot of daily exercise. So, if you don’t have the ability to provide your pet squirrel with bi-hourly playtime or thrice-daily social interactions, it’s possible the animal could get bored, anxious, or even depressed.
Squirrels are social animals, and they’re used to communing with others within their species. If you choose to raise a squirrel as a pet, keep in mind that they’re going to be naturally predisposed to connect with the other living things around them. It’s not uncommon for squirrels to bond with cats or other pets, making them an even more appealing addition to existing families.
Remember that just because a squirrel is your pet, that doesn’t mean that it can’t live outside. Once a squirrel has bonded with a human owner, it’s going to recognize that owner wherever he or she is, whether that means indoors or outdoors.
Ready to Get a Pet Squirrel? Do Your Homework, First!
Deciding to get a pet of any kind is a big commitment. It’s even more so when the pet is a wild animal like a Grey Squirrel or a Flying Squirrel. We’ve shown in this article that squirrels can make great pets, when provisions are made for them that address their needs for food, socializing, and physical activity.
If you’ve decided to get a pet squirrel, remember to check your state laws related to the domestication of wild animals, and be absolutely sure you know how you’re going to deal with the many challenges that may crop up along the way.
Lastly, if you find an injured or abandoned squirrel in the wild and you think it might be ok to keep as a pet, the ASPCA reminds you that it’s advisable to contact a local wildlife rehabilitation center, instead.
Good luck on your journey to squirrel pet ownership!