Hand-rearing and rehabilitation of orphaned palm squirrels, Funambulus sp. (revised)

Devna Arora

 

The Palm Squirrel

Devna Arora - A young 5-striped Indian palm squirrel

Palm squirrels are palm-sized rodents with thick, bushy tails that belong to the genus Funambulus and the subfamily Calloscuirinae, a subfamily of squirrels found in Asia. The genus Funambulus comprises of 5 species of squirrels widely distributed in the Indian subcontinent with the subgenus of Prasadsciurus found right up to Iran.

For ease of classification and understanding of behaviour, I prefer to group these squirrels based on their proximity to human settlements. The two species of palm squirrels commonly found in urban, suburban and rural landscapes are:

1. Indian 3-Striped Palm Squirrel (Funambulus palmarum) which has a more southern distribution and is commonly found in peninsular India and Sri Lanka.

2. Indian 5-Striped Palm Squirrel (Funambulus pennantii) which has a more northern distribution in India and in commonly found in central and northern India as well as Nepal, Pakistan and Iran.

The two species can easily be distinguished by counting the number of paler coloured stripes on the squirrel’s back. The squirrels range from 22.5 cm to 40 cm in length, which includes a tail of 11–12 cm long, and weigh between 100–200 gm. Data suggests that palm squirrels live on average for 5-6 years in captivity although individuals have been known to live longer. They may only breed seasonally in the northern distribution of their ranges but breed all-year round otherwise.

Both species are highly gregarious and extremely adaptable, easily adjusting to a variety of living conditions and habitats and have spread well beyond their native range in recent years. They adapt easily to semi-modern constructions and thrive on human generosity and readily accept goodies from human hands. It is not uncommon to see individuals nesting in roof tops, false ceilings, unused attics or cupboards, etc.

The other palm squirrels found in forested landscapes are of course shy, comparatively rare, less adaptable and more specialized in their needs. They exist in restricted zones and habitats and are of course under looming threats due to intense deforestation, habitat degradation and fragmentation.

3. Dusky-Striped Palm Squirrel (Funambulus sublineatus) is restricted to riparian habitats, particularly reedbeds, in southern India and Sri Lanka. Listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List due to increased habitat destruction in its already limited distribution range.

4. Western Ghats Striped Squirrel (Funambulus tristriatus) is endemic to the Western Ghats and locally common in forested landscapes and coffee estates of Maharashtra, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The species is known to occur at elevations between 700 to 2100 meters above sea level. Although the species is listed as Least Concern on the ICUN Red List, the major threats to the species are habitat degradation and replacement of native trees by exotic ones, which the species appears to avoid, in managed landscapes.

5. Layard’s Palm Squirrel(Funambulus layardi) is endemic to montane, evergreen forests of central and south western Sri Lanka but is also found in lowland rainforests. Listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List as it is under major threats due to deforestation and habitat degradation.

Nesting

Devna Arora - Indian palm squirrel - Nesting material from a fallen nest

Indian palm squirrels commonly nest in the branches of trees, holes in the tree trunk or in man-made structures such eaves of houses, attic spaces, electricity boxes, etc. Squirrel nests are made of grasses, threads, wool, cotton, jute fibres and other fibrous materials. Female squirrels sexually mature at 7-9 months of age and commonly give birth to 3–4 young after a gestation period of approximately 42 days. The young are referred to as kittens, kits or pups.

N.B. This protocol has been written based on my experiences with Three-striped and Five-striped Indian palm squirrels. Similar hand-raising techniques will be applicable for other Funambulus species as well. Rehabilitation and release techniques will of course differ as the other species require a more conservative approach.

Displacement of young

Squirrel young are only cared for by the mother and are often found after the mother has been killed in road accidents or by predatory animals, or are unable to care for the young due to debilitating injuries. The young are subsequently detected when they start wandering further away from the nest in search of her. Many displaced young are also found after their nests have been destroyed or blown away by heavy winds or storms. Kits are also often displaced accidentally due to human intervention while some young may even have been abandoned.

In spite of these temporary setbacks in the initial stages of their lives, the careful application of rehabilitation techniques ensures successful release and post-release survival of the young. 

Before rescue

Before attempting to rescue any orphaned or distressed animal, you must ensure that it is truly in need of rescue. People often find animal young unattended while the mother may well be keeping a watchful eye on the young from a safe distance away. Often, people accidentally stumble upon the young animal’s hiding place to which the mother will return to after foraging. The young must not be picked up or displaced until it has been ascertained that the mother will not return.

To ensure safety from predators the young must only be watched from a safe distance away or the mother will be reluctant to approach her young. Any sudden movements that might scare the mother away must be avoided. Movement around the kits must also be avoided as it would expose the kits’ hideout and bring them to the attention of potential predators, thereby compromising their safety.

If the kits have been found just before dark, it would be advisable to keep them in a safe, warm place for the night, and then attempt to unite them with the mother at the break of dawn. Palm squirrels are diurnal in nature and even while she may be in the vicinity of the kits, the mother may be unable to look for them at in the absence of light.

If the young must be picked up or handled, it is advisable to locate the nest and place them back in the nest at the earliest. If the nest has been destroyed, the kits may be placed in a small box which acts like a replacement nest, and securely placed as close as possible to the original nest. The new nest may simply be lined with clean cloth and nesting material from the broken nest. An access route for the mother to enter the new nest must be ensured before placing the nest. It must be ascertained that the mother has returned to the new nest or the kits will have to be hand-raised as a last resort.

Only animals genuinely in distress must ever be rescued. The young must be raised in a manner making them independent and able for release, and must be released at the appropriate age, time and place. If a lone youngster has been found, it would be advisable to keep an eye out for its siblings as there might be other young ones in need of help too. A veterinarian must be contacted immediately should the squirrel need any medical help.

General guidelines for hand-rearing orphaned squirrels

Devna Arora - Neonate - Indian palm squirrel

Hand-rearing an infant is a challenging task that requires outstanding dedication and commitment. They not only need to be cared for round-the-clock but are also extremely delicate and require exceptionally tender handling.

The hand-rearing of wild animals must also be approached ethically, taking into consideration the future implications and needs of young animals. All wild animals have the right to be free and must be raised in a manner without compromising on their release potential. The process of rehabilitation too must begin at the appropriate age to maximize their release potential and chances of survival after release.

Hygiene

Young animals have underdeveloped immune systems and are extremely susceptible to infections. It is vital to maintain very high standards of hygiene when handling the young. Hand-raised animals are at a further disadvantage of not having received their mother’s milk and the anti-bodies they would receive through her milk and need special care in terms of handling and hygiene.

It is essential to always wash your hands thoroughly before handling the kits especially when they are under 2 months of age. It is also important to clean your fingernails after cooking or eating food, chillies, pickles, chiwda (a spicy, savoury mix), etc. as the spices tend to get caught under the nails. Owing to their small size, the hands inevitably come in contact with their eyes while handling the kits, thereby, unintentionally smearing the eye with spices that may burn or irritate the eye intensely. Similarly, wash your hands thoroughly after touching any harmful chemical substances like mosquito mats, insecticides, bleach, etc.

You must wash your hands and arms thoroughly after touching any carnivorous or predatory animals like dogs, cats, snakes, birds of prey, etc. It is even recommended to change into a fresh set of clothes if the animals have been handled closely. The carnivore smell on the body will either scare the young squirrels or habituate them to carnivore smell, and thus their presence, in close proximity. Habituated animals are less fearful of predators and are hence more likely to fall prey as their flee-response is reduced. Similarly, predatory animals must never be housed in the same room or in close proximity to the young squirrels.

Like any other mammal, squirrels too can carry rabies. Although, young squirrels are rarely aggressive, it is important for the safety of the handler to not get bitten by the young. In case of a squirrel bite, please contact a doctor or veterinarian and follow the appropriate treatment.

Hypothermia

Animal young have higher basal body temperatures and should feel warm on touch. Prolonged exposure to the cold can result in hypothermia, a condition in which the body temperature falls substantially below normal and can prove to be fatal for the young. Thermoregulation is poorly developed in young infants and they are unable to produce body heat to warm them. Consequently, they are often in a hypothermic state when found. Even though thermoregulation develops by the time the kits are fully furred, injured and sick animals may also require an external heating source to maintain their body temperatures.

Heat stress

If the young have been separated for a longer duration and are in a warm location, their body temperatures are likely to be elevated beyond normal. Thermoregulation being poorly developed in the young, they are unable to cool themselves down either. It is important to first slowly bring down the young one’s body temperature by placing them in a cool and well-ventilated area. They can also be offered a cool (mildly cold, not chilled) hydration formula as it helps in hydrating the young and bringing down their body temperatures.

N.B. The young must never be either cooled or warmed too quickly.

Dehydration

Water constitutes a high percentage of body weight in young animals and they get dehydrated easily when not given suitable feeds or fed at irregular intervals. Due to the time lag between having separated from their mothers and having been found and reached a rehabilitator, most young animals are often quite dehydrated when they first arrive at rescue centres. The young can easily withstand the lack of food for a day but will not survive if dehydration levels peak.

Dehydrated young are unresponsive and listless. Their skin appears wrinkled; they have a weak grip and are unenthusiastic to feed. The Skin Turgor test, commonly referred to as the Tent Test, can be used to test the young for dehydration. Gently pinch a small amount of skin on the squirrel’s back, to form a tent, then let go. The skin quickly goes back down to normal when well hydrated, but takes longer to go back to normal, making the “tent” more evident when the young are dehydrated.

Similarly, a very hot hot-water bottle must never be used for the young as it dehydrates them very quickly. The ambient temperature in the box can be gauged by placing your hand in the box five minutes after placing the hot-water bottle. If the box feels too warm and uncomfortable, the warmth of the bottle should be reduced immediately and the box ventilated to bring down the temperature.

Re-hydration

Lactated Ringers and Pedialyte are excellent oral rehydration solutions and are advisable for cases of severe dehydration. A homemade oral rehydration solution can be made using the proportion of 1 litre of water, 1 teaspoon of salt and 3 teaspoons of sugar, but must only be relied upon as a last resort as it cannot replenish other essential salts received through rehydration solutions.

Although the kits must solely be offered a rehydration solution when they are severely dehydrated, they can be offered a diluted feed if they appear to be mildly dehydrated. Feeds can initially be begun with a ratio of 60:40 feed and water with a teeny pinch of electrolytes, e.g., Electral powder if they appear mildly dehydrated. The electrolytes must be discontinued as soon as the kits start to appear hydrated. Smaller and frequent feeds must be offered to the young until their hydration levels reach normal.

Water and Digestion

The kits must always first be re-hydrated before putting them onto a regular feed as rehydration and digestion are both mutually exclusive processes. Water is not only a prerequisite for digestion but also enables the body to perform other vital functions. When food is introduced in to the stomach, the stomach draws out water from other cells of the body to aid the process of digestion. Even a dehydrated body will give up fluids to aid digestion, leaving the body further depleted of fluids. Water in the stomach is only absorbed after it reaches the small intestines and proves to be insufficient to refill the deficit that has already been created. The digestive demands made by food thus cause a further depletion of body fluids and exacerbates dehydration which can prove to be fatal for the young if not addressed on priority.

Minimizing imprinting

Imprinting is a process by which a young animal learns and impersonates the behaviour patterns of its biological or surrogate parent, be it human or any other animal. This imitation enables wild animals to acquire the necessary behaviour traits and greatly assists in their survival.

Hand-raised young, however, imprint on their surrogate parents, thereby learning new traits and often forgoing behaviour patterns essential for its survival in the wild. It is therefore advisable that the young only be handled by as few people as required. This ensures that they only look upon their foster parent for comfort and not seek security from human beings in general.

For similar reasons, the young must not be housed with animals of different species as they may begin to impersonate the behaviours of the other species, which might not be advantageous for their survival. Housing the young with conspecifics however encourages play behaviour, communication, interdependence and the manifestation of behaviour traits more apt for their survival in the wild.

Housing the young

Animal young must always be housed in a warm, safe, dark and quiet place. Young under the age of one month can ideally be housed indoors as it is safer and undisturbed inside. The ambient temperature too can be better regulated when indoors. The young can be moved to a suitable outdoor enclosure after the age of one month but must be protected from the elements, for e.g., excessive sun, rainfall, or stormy winds, and must be provided with a warm and safe place to return to whenever they feel the need to do so.

Devna Arora - Indian palm squirrel - Box for housing the young

A box of approximately 2 ft. in length and 2 ft. breadth, and 2 ft. high, with some holes towards the top for ventilation, will be adequate for the kits to sleep in. The box must have a lid, especially when the young are less than a month old so the kits cannot crawl out when left unattended. A wicker or picnic basket may be used for the same purpose but it may not be ideal for retaining the warmth in colder climatic conditions.

To enhance their feeling of warmth and security, it is recommended to simulate the conditions of the nest when the kits are placed in the box. Even with the lid of the box closed, the kits prefer to be covered by some soft material, particularly in colder weather. Leaving a fold of cloth for the kits to crawl under replicates the presence of the mother and adds to their feeling of comfort. The kits would prefer not to be covered only when the ambient temperature in the box becomes uncomfortably high. It would therefore be important to recheck the temperature in the box if the kits seem to be uncovered, and reduce the warmth and/or increase the ventilation to achieve the temperature.

Devna Arora - Indian palm squirrel - Snuggled in a blanket

A litter of 4 squirrels can comfortably be housed in the above-mentioned space but only kits from the same nest, i.e., siblings, must be housed together. Kits from different nests can be kept together but the litters must first each be quarantined separately for at least a week and known to be healthy to prevent any chances of cross infection. It is advisable to house different litters together especially when you have just one kit in any one of the litters, but they must first be quarantined. Kits from the same nest must never be separated unless absolutely required. Keeping the young together allows them to bond more with each other than with the keeper and become more independent. It also develops their social skills and reduces the extent of taming, thereby giving them a better chance at survival after release.

It is important to keep a careful watch on the young when housing squirrels with other animals in the same room or enclosure for a squirrel may easily bite or injure other small animals.

A warm blanket or towel can be used for bedding for the young. A fresh and clean set of bedding must be used and washed frequently thereafter. Bedding for sick animals must be kept separate and either sterilized or washed at high temperatures before use again.

Fleece material, e.g., yellow dust cloth used for vehicles, must never be used for kits under 1 month of age. The kits have a tendency to look for the mother and try to suckle on the fibres of the fleece material in their sleep. In doing so, they can ingest the cloth fibres and choke to death.

A hot-water bottle, heating pad or heating lamp is essential for providing external heat for young. If none of these are available, a soda or drink’s bottle may be used as a substitute. The hot-water bottle must always be wrapped in at least 2 layers of cloth (or 1 layer of a thick material) before placing the kits on or near the bottle. The kits need to be monitored closely to prevent either chilling or overheating.

The kits must never be permitted to come within reach of an uncovered bottle as they can get scorched. Care must be taken not to leave any space for the kits to crawl under the bottle. To prevent accidental scalding, the hot-water bottle and drink’s bottle must be checked for leakage each time before use. New hot-water bottles too have been found to be faulty and must be tested before use.

A quartz alarm clock too has been recommended to reassure the young. The ticking of the clock replicates the rhythm of the heartbeat, simulating the mother’s presence and reassuring the young. The clock can be covered in cloth and placed inside or just outside the box. Ensue to turn the alarm off before using a clock for the kits.

Although squirrel feeders are not manufactured or sold in India, they are available in specialized shops abroad and can easily be imported beforehand. A feeder can be also fashioned either using a pipette or a syringe with the nozzle of a scalp vein set. A 1-2 ml syringe would be ideal for smaller infants while larger syringes are more practicable for older kits. Droppers must be avoided as they are difficult to sterilize.

Devna Arora - Assembling the feeder - Indian palm squirrel

Feeders and hygiene

It is of utmost importance to maintain very high standards of hygiene while feeding the young. The gut wall is much more permeable in younger animals and toxins from infections in the gastro-intestinal tract can easily seep through the gut wall and cause systemic toxemia or generalized infections in the young. It is therefore absolutely essential to sterilize the feeders after every meal to prevent any bacterial infections.

Devna Arora - Simple steam sterilizer

A simple steam sterilizer or an ordinary kitchen pan can be used to sterilize the feeders. All parts of the feeder must be detached and rinsed in normal water, and then immersed in water and boiled for 2-5 minutes after the water first comes to a boil.

The feeders will need to be replaced periodically when using disposable syringes. The rubber bulb at the base of the plunger of disposable syringes hardens after sterilizing it a few times, jamming the feeders and making them unsafe for use. Consequently, the feeders, i.e. syringes, must be replaced to ensure smooth and safe feeding of the young.

Soap must never be used to clean the feeders. The feeders are very small which makes it impracticable to either thoroughly clean them from the inside or rinse them free of soap residue after cleaning. Inadequate cleaning of the feeders would lead to dangerous levels of bacterial growth on the feeders while leaving soap residue in the feeder too would be very harmful for the young. The easiest and safest method of cleaning the feeders is therefore by sterilizing them.

Feed composition

Diet is a crucial factor in the growth and development of the young. It is vital to offer the young a healthy, nourishing and easily digestible feed. The milk-replacement formula used should be kept as close to its mother’s milk as possible. Squirrel milk is high in density and contains 23-39% of dry solids. The feed must therefore be supplemented with additional fats and proteins when using cow’s milk as a base. This must be done cautiously as excessive fats and sugars in the feed can lead to diarrhoea. Lactose too poses a serious challenge when using cow’s milk for the young.

Table: Comparison of milk composition of squirrels and cows (Bourne, undated; Trendler, 2005)
Animal   % Fat   % Protein   % Carbohrdrates   % Ash   % Dry solids   % Water  
Squirrel  10.45   9.2   3.4   -   -   -  
Grey squirrel  67   20   10   -   39.6   -  
Cow  3.7   3.2 - 3.3   4.6 - 4.8   0.7   12.5   87.6  

 

Suitable milk replacers like Esbilac’s puppy milk replacer or any other puppy milk replacers are recommended for hand-rearing squirrel babies. However, these are not available in India and infant milk formulas like Farex milk, Lactogen, Nan, etc. may be used instead. Depending on their age, the kits may be given a combination infant milk formula, boiled egg yolk and infant cereal preparations like Farex or Cerelac to meet the nutritional requirements.

It’s essential to add vitamins and minerals to the kit’s diet but must be done carefully as an excess can cause diarrhoea. Any good veterinary or paediatric vitamin drops can be used for the young. The addition of probiotics like Sporlac, Bifilac, or Vibact, that mainly contains the beneficial lactobacilli bacteria is also extremely helpful. Use of digestive enzymes, for e.g. lactaid, too may be required and beneficial for the kits. The amount of probiotics and enzymes will depend upon the strength of the preparation being used and the exact dosage can be obtained from a veterinarian.

Using formula milk

Only boiled water must ever be used to prepare the feed. Refrain from preparing the feed in plastic containers as there are concerns over chemicals like BPA leaking into the formula if stored and heated in plastic containers. A fresh batch of feed must be prepared every day as using stale feed can lead to infections. Feed prepared for the day must be immediately refrigerated upon preparing and only the quantity required per feed must be heated each time. The remainder of the feed must be discarded after feeding the kits.

N.B. The feed must never be reheated more than once as it promotes bacterial growth and can lead to severe food poisoning.

Feed for the neonates

New-borns at birth would be fed on Colostrum, the very first milk produced by the mother at parturition. Colostrum is very thick, creamy and yellowish in colour, and has high concentrations of proteins, nutrients and anti-bodies that are essential to protect the new-born against many infections at birth. Neonates that haven’t received colostrum need particular care in terms of hygiene as they lack the maternal anti-bodies that help to fight infections.

The neonates can be given a milk substitute like Farex Milk, Lactogen or Nan, until their eyes open. Prepare the feed as per the instructions given by the manufacturer and dilute the feed to a proportion of 70:30 feed to water (boiled water) for the kits initially as the feed can be heavy for the young to digest. For kits that have settled and are digesting the feed well, the feed can be prepared to normal strength. By the time the kits are a week old, boiled egg yolk must be introduced to their feeds. Add vitamin drops, probiotics and enzymes to the feed as mentioned in further pages.

Formula to be used once the eyes open

6 tablespoons of water + 1 scoop of Farex milk + ½–1 scoop of Farex or Cerelac wheat/apple + 10–25% egg yellow (boiled egg only)

Feed for older kits can be prepared using either fresh milk or a milk substitute, although infant milk formula, when available, is certainly preferred. A mix of 6 tablespoons of water with 1 scoop of Lactogen will equal 7 tablespoons of fresh milk.

The addition of Farex wheat/apple and egg to the feed must slowly be started with the addition of ½ scoop Farex and 10% egg yellow at 2-3 weeks of age, and gradually increased to 1 scoop Farex and 25% egg yellow over the following 2 weeks. It is essential to add egg yellow and Cerelac to the feed as it increases the density and calorific value of the feed and provides better nutrition for the growing young.

Egg yellow also contains many essential minerals and fats which increase the nutritive value of the feed. Raw eggs can carry the bacterium, Salmonella Enteritidis, which can lead to severe food poisoning and pose a serious threat to the young. Pasteurised eggs, if available, may be used raw, but only hard boiled eggs must be used otherwise.

Once the kits have accepted and digest the feed well, paediatric vitamin drops and gripe water must be added to alternate feeds. The addition of vitamin drops and gripe water can be started with a droplet (very small drop) of each to alternate feeds and gradually be increased to 2 drops in alternate feeds over two weeks.

Feed consistency

Feed for the neonates would be of the consistency of milk, whereas feed for older kits must be of a slightly thicker consistency than milk, for e.g. much like milkshake. It is essential to prepare the feed to the right consistency as thicker feeds provide inadequate water for the young and can prove to be very heavy for the kits to digest. Diluted feeds on the other hand will not provide adequate nutrition for the young, consequently affecting their growth and development.

Feeding

The young must always be given a warm (never hot) feed, simulating the temperature at which the young would receive milk in nature as it is soothing, easier to digest and they feed better. The feed must never be hot as it will scald the young’s oesophagus and intestinal lining causing severe damage and inviting infections. Cold milk on the other hand must be avoided altogether as it can chill the young and even cause cramps. The temperature of the feed must be tested each time before feeding the kits by dropping a few drops on your hands. The kits must be given small feeds frequently as longer gaps between the feeds tend to weaken them.

Squirrel babies naturally like on their stomachs, much like little puppies do, when feeding from the mother. It is unnatuural for them to lie in any other position and forcing them in unnatural positions while feeding them can affect their suckling reflex and lead to aspiration of the formula. They are also more likely to struggle to turn back on their stomachs if held in unnatural positions, causing an unnecessary struggle and mishaps during the process of feeding.

Devna Arora - Indian palm squirrel - correct feeding position

It is therefore extremely important to hold the young horizontally (like in the picture above) while feeding them to ensure smooth feeding and prevent aspiration, i.e., inhalation of the formula. This also prevents the feed from entering the trachea in case too much feed is accidentally pushed in as the surplus feed can drip down the sides of the mouth.

Devna Arora - Indian palm squirrel - pauging in between feeds

The kits must be fed slowly while maintaining a steady pressure on the feeder and allowing them to suckle. Older kits will suckle on the feeder much like they do from a bottle and care must be taken to prevent them from suckling the feed too fast. Smaller and weaker kits, on the other hand will have a weaker suckling reflex and require small breaks during the feed to allow them to catch up on their breaths before continuing with the feed.

N.B. If unsure about how to feed the young, it is safer to drop tiny droplets of milk on their tongue and allow them to lick it.

Never use excessive force whilst still feeding the kits if the feeder appears to be stuck. The feeder must be removed from the kit’s mouth and readjusted until the obstruction has completely been removed before continuing to feed. This prevents accidentally squirting too much feed into their mouth and aspirating the young.

Aspiration pneumonia

The repeated inhalation of either oropharyngeal or gastric contents, for e.g., milk, into the lower airways can lead to an infectious process causing aspiration pneumonia. Aspiration pneumonia is one of the most common causes of mortality in hand-raised animal young and every care needs to be taken to minimize this risk. It is vital to ensure the use of the correct teat and size of the teat hole, correct feeding position and handling during feeding, correct milk temperature and avoidance of overfeeding or force feeding to prevent aspiration pneumonia. If it is suspected that the kits have aspirated the feed, for e.g., the kits sneeze or cough up milk after a feed, a veterinarian must be consulted to begin the preventive treatment without delay.

Weaning

Indian palm squirrels are weaned off at 8-10 weeks of age. The frequency of milk feeds for the kits can be reduced by a feed every week until weaning period, but most kits like their bedtime feed to be extended for a few more days. Interaction with the kits must also be reduced during the weaning phase as it creates some detachment and encourages their independence, thereby giving them better chances of survival after release.

Milk is an ideal source of protein and calcium, and weaning the kits early can compromise on their growth and development, while extending bottle-feeding only results in humanising them further more. Although hand-raised young solicit to be bottle-fed for longer than their wilder counterparts, they should be weaned off at roughly the same time as they would normally be weaned off in nature.

Ano-genital stimulation

The muscles and control of the gastric tract are poorly developed in animal young and it is essential to stimulate the ano-genital area very gently with a warm, wet cloth after every feed for the first 3-4 weeks of the young one’s life. This encourages urination and defecation. A gentle body rub, with emphasis on the bottom half of the body, the upper thighs and the buttocks, will also encourage urination and defecation. Failure to do so can result in constipation, bladder problems, uraemia, toxaemia and megacolon. Ano-genital stimulation is extremely important in animals that are weak or have calcium deficiencies.

Squirrel droppings

The droppings are a good indicator of digestion. It is essential to keep an eye on the kit’s droppings to make sure they digest their food well. The droppings should be well formed and will appear somewhat granular and yellow-brown in smaller kits that are only being fed formula. Nevertheless, the droppings shouldn’t be too sticky and you should be able to lift it with a piece of tissue without causing any staining.



It will be necessary to make changes to their diet if they don’t digest their feed well. Once they cross the age of one month and start eating other foods, their droppings will be like those of adult squirrels (and much like those of rats) – black, hard pellets.

Warmth and well-being

Always keep the kits warm and hold them in your hands or on your chest for at least 2 hours every day, especially when you have just one young one. This is extremely important as it gives them a feeling of security, and they thrive on physical contact. The kits primarily vocalize when they need something, especially when they are hungry or if the temperature of the box is either too warm or too cold. Often, the kits will even vocalize when they just want to be held. It is important to check up on them once they vocalize as ignoring them for prolonged periods will lead to a feeling of neglect and insecurity and affect their growth.

The kits must be given a gentle body rub, simulating the mother’s licks, after every meal. They thoroughly enjoy this, and it adds to a feeling of well-being and security for the young. The kits feed well and in turn grow better and healthier when they grow with a feeling of safety and comfort. It is also a good practice to gently sponge the kits with a soft cloth dipped in warm water 2-3 times a week as it helps keep them clean. The kits must only be sponged (never bathed) during the day and immediately be dried up using a dry towel. They must never be sponged at night as it can rapidly chill the young. Also, a hairdryer must never be used to dry the young.

Sexing squirrels

Devna Arora - Indian palm squirrel - sexing squirrels

The vulva of the female is located lower in the body, closer to the anus whereas the penis of the male is located higher up and closer to the umbilical cord (difference visible in the photographs above). Although sexing neonates can be tricky, the testicles of male squirrels are very obvious once they are over a month old.

Ectoparasites

Devna Arora - Indian palm squirrel - squirrel fleas

Young squirrels only start grooming themselves at 4-6 weeks of age and can groom themselves effectively by 8-10 weeks of age. It is important to groom them until they are independent enough to do so themselves. Young squirrels, if furred, often come in when fleas on them and any visible fleas must be removed while grooming the kits. Squirrel fleas are 0.5-1 mm in size and soon turn into severe infestations if left unattended.

Frontline or Protektor spray (containing Fipronil, a broad spectrum insecticide) has been used successfully to treat severe infestations of fleas. One spray on the young one’s back and one spray on the belly should suffice for the treatment of fleas. It must be ensured that the solution does not come in contact with the eyes or ears. The guidelines in the literature provided along with the spray must be strictly followed for optimum results and the safety of the kits. The kits must be allowed to dry up themselves after the application of the spray. The spray must therefore only be used during the day as it takes a while for the kits to dry up and they might catch a chill if left sodden for long at night.

The fleas tend to multiply in the kits’ bedding and will repeatedly climb onto the squirrels from their bedding. It is therefore important that the fleas not only be eliminated from the kits but also from their bedding. Although it is ideal to use a fresh set of bedding after the application of the spray, the spray can also be applied to the bedding to eliminate the fleas.

Caution: Flea sprays are very toxic. 
The effects of their toxicity on squirrels are unknown. The spray must be used very cautiously and would necessitate a watchful eye on the young for a couple of hours afterwards.

The above mentioned sprays can both be purchased from a veterinarian or a pet shop. It is recommended to consult a veterinarian if unsure about its usage.

Continue to Page 2: growth and corresponding care

Protocol published in 2013

First and foremost: if the animal is injured, it would be very obvious but is the animal truly orphaned? Please ensure if the animal is truly orphaned and not receiving parental care before you decide to pick it and take it home.

The second step would be to reach the animal to a rehabilitator or rescue center. If you are unaware of any in your vicinity, you will be able to get guidance from your local veterinarian, zoo or forest department.

This is not an uncommon situation to find yourself in. Although there are innumerable rescue centers and rehabilitators around, there may be times when there are none in your vicinity or you are unable to reach anyone in time for help. It may be best to prepare yourself to care for the animal in such an instance.

Much information on many topics and species is readily available online. Try to narrow down some pieces of information you can work with for a start. Also, get in touch with rescue centers or rehabilitators via phone or internet. Exchange digital photographs where necessary – it barely takes a few minutes. Even if unable to help you directly in person, any person or center will surely be willing to guide you through the care of the animal and help you in choosing an appropriate protocol for its care and rehabilitation.

It is a common myth that any baby (or adult) bird or mammal that has been touched by human hands will be killed by the rest of its group. This belief has most strongly been associated with baby birds, making people extremely reluctant to pick up and leave babies back in their nest even when the parents are around.

Over innumerable years, we have reunited many youngsters successfully, and inevitably, they have all been handled by human hands for several hours or days before being reunited. The key factor in the acceptance of the animal by the parent and other group members seems not to be the smell of human touch on the animal, but the actual process of reuniting.

A common mistake that most people make while attempting to reunite an animal is that they linger on too close and in turn, frighten the parents away. When trying to place an animal back in its nest, you must always keep a safe distance from the nest and the rest of the group so as not to scare them away. It is easy to get impatient and want to return to the animal after short intervals, but you must refrain from doing so, rather, observe from a distance. Success is more likely than not. I can hardly believe any parent would refuse to accept its own child just because a ‘human’ has touched it!

Some people have suggested the use of gloves to prevent direct contact with the animal. Although you may not always have gloves on you when you need to handle an animal and it isn’t completely necessary to have them when handling a rescue, you may choose to use them if you prefer to.

Yes, in all probability. But, no animal can be simply picked from captivity and released – that is when they will not survive. Animals need to go through a period of rehabilitation before they can be release. The technique and timeframe of rehabilitation will depend upon the species and individual in concern. Guidance on rehabilitating your animal can be sought from an experienced rehabilitator.

Wild animals belong in their natural habitats. Their true glory and happiness can only ever be seen in nature. As much as the babies will be attached to you and need you when they are young, they will soon outgrow their dependence on you and their heart will yearn to be outside, in the wild – where they belong.

Rather than waiting too long and releasing an animal that is not completely prepared, it is wise to plan the release, rehabilitate the animal and release a strong and prepared animal that will surely be able to survive in the wild.

If you truly love them and want what’s really best for them, I trust you will do what is best for your little one.

You can work with any species you are more comfortable with or all species that you come across. Often, we just work with animals as they come along but if you don’t feel particularly confident with any species, it might be better to transfer it to someone more confident. If you prefer to work with a certain species and feel your hands are better adapted for that species, you may specialize in it – its’ your call.

It takes lots of time, deep commitment and a genuine interest in the wellbeing of another animal’s life to enter the field of wildlife rehabilitation. Experience and knowledge are paramount as there are many that cannot be written or explained to you but those that you will learn through your own experience. Wildlife rehabilitation is a painstaking and time consuming task requiring your complete dedication and lots of sacrifices.

In a nutshell, the following are the basic qualities required to be a rehabilitator:

1. Genuine interest and concern

2. Dedication and sacrifice

3. Commitment to work in the best interest of the animal

4. Willingness to learn

5. Willingness to ask and look for help

6. Willingness to go the extra mile

7. Willingness to let go at the time of release

Many small animals, esp. urban species, can be rehabilitated and released from home as long as they have a natural distribution around your home. Many of these animals come back for visits until they are completely independent but sometimes for longer as they are closely bonded to the caregivers. Often, the animals may completely cease to return after release or some days after release. Although this seems disappointing, it a good sign demonstrating that the animal is completely independent and capable of surviving on its own without any assistance from you.

As rehabbers, our aim is always make the animal independent so it doesn’t feel the need to keep returning.

Yes, we can definitely attempt to help every animal that needs our help. But unfortunately, we may not always be able to cure every animal and restore it to its desired health status. As rescue workers, we come across a disproportionately disadvantaged population of animals, some of which are beyond human help. There may be times when it is in the best interest of the animal to euthanize it. But it is our duty and responsibility to make an informed choice and always work for the betterment and highest quality of life for the animal in concern.

Euthanasia, commonly known as ‘mercy killing’, is the act of killing someone to relieve it from unbearable and incurable suffering. Needless to say, euthanasia is always the very last resort after all other means to help the animal have failed and purely done to relieve an animal of unbearable pain and suffering. Euthanasia can be easily carried out by a veterinarian by means of an injectable drug – a quick and painless process. Your veterinarian will be able to advise you on the same. Ensure you have the appropriate permission to do so when dealing with protected species.