What It’s Really Like Owning a Pet Squirrel

From shedding to showering to non-stinky poops.

By Jessie Schiewe

It’s not everyday you meet someone who owns a squirrel, but apparently in the 17th and 18th centuries in the U.S., they were very  popular pets . (Art:  Ivan Chadinksi )

It’s not everyday you meet someone who owns a squirrel, but apparently in the 17th and 18th centuries in the U.S., they were very popular pets. (Art: Ivan Chadinksi)

Four years ago, when Decan Andersen found a small, bloody fur ball outside of his house in Denmark, he had no idea his life was about to change. It was a four-week-old male Eurasian red squirrel with a huge gash on its chest that had fallen from the fourth floor of the building. And it was about to become his.

Living in a “woodsy area” on the outskirts of a Danish city called Værløse, Anderson was used to seeing wildlife in the garden. Usually they weren’t injured or so young, but on that day, he decided to do what he usually did when he saw animals: go back inside and come out in a few hours to check on them, at which point they’d often be gone. He kept an eye on the critter through his window, and was excited when the squirrel’s mother appeared. Except she didn’t take him back into the wild with her, as he’d hoped.  After sniffing and prodding the body, the mother seemed to decide he was a lost cause, and scampered off with her other children, leaving him to die.

As an animal lover, Andersen knew he had to do something to save the life of the squirrel, whom he named Tintin.

“I was faced with a choice of letting him die or taking care of him,” Andersen said. “I made my decision and I would do the same thing again if I had the chance.”

Even though he already had two cats — Coco and Tiger — Andersen scooped up the tiny body and brought it inside. To his surprise, the felines didn’t seem to mind the new addition. Coco even cleaned the squirrel’s wounds and then cuddled up next to him to keep him warm.

Tintin wearing one of his father’s old socks as a T-shirt. (Photo:  Decan Anderson )

Tintin wearing one of his father’s old socks as a T-shirt. (Photo: Decan Anderson)

Andersen called a local veterinarian to get advice, and was told to cut old socks into T-shirts for Tintin and to protect the open wound. Because the squirrel was so young, he had to be fed kitten milk through a baby bottle.

It took five months for Tintin’s wound to heal, but even though he was recovered, Andersen knew he couldn’t release the squirrel back into the wild. Tintin had become too domesticated and desensitized to the dangers of the outside world, and was almost an adult. Were he to be released back into nature, he’d never survive.

“He doesn’t react to hawks or birds flying around, and he doesn’t understand the warning signs that there is danger nearby,” Andersen said. “While all the other squirrels are fleeing for their lives, he’s just sitting there not paying any attention to it.”

And it seemed as if Tintin didn’t want to return to the wild either.

“I tried to release him multiple times, and he never left. He kept coming back to scratch on my door.”

Fortunately, Andersen was able to procure special authorization from the local wildlife preservation branch to keep the squirrel, given his domesticated status. “Now he’s my son,” the squirrel’s owner said.  

But keeping a wild animal as a pet is no easy task. It requires living alone — which fortunately was already the case for Andersen who is retired — as well as constant attention toward the rodent. Guests are difficult to have over, as squirrels can become easily stressed and territorial, and Andersen can’t leave Tintin alone for more than a few hours.

“It’s like having a toddler and a puppy,” he said. “It’s a lot of work.”

In fact, if Tintin hadn’t literally fallen into Anderson’s lap that fateful day in 2013, he probably would never have owned such an exotic pet. A staunch proponent of keeping wild animals wild, he believes they deserve their freedom and, in most circumstances, should never be domesticated. He makes sure to communicate this to Tintin’s legion of online fans, many of whom have fallen victim to wanting a squirrel after seeing his photos. Anderson created a website for Tintin, and right smack-dab-in-the-middle of the homepage he wrote, “Squirrels are NOT good pets.” To further dissuade potential squirrel owners, he added, “Tintin is a extremely rare and unique case and character! Tintin cannot and should not be replicated!”

Although he doesn’t follow “those accounts,” Anderson has noticed an uptick in squirrel profiles on social media. “I think more people are getting squirrels and many of them are getting them for selfish reasons,” he said. “And I don’t support that. …I only follow special-needs or rescue squirrels, like ones that have lost a leg or have brain damage.”

On a recent weekday, while Tintin took an afternoon nap, OK Whatever spoke with Andersen about the pros and cons of keeping a squirrel as a pet. If you ever wondered how a squirrel gives kisses — or what its pee smells like — now’s your chance to find out.

 
Decan Anderson and his “son,” Tintin. (Photo:  Decan Anderson)

Decan Anderson and his “son,” Tintin. (Photo: Decan Anderson)

Squirrels are sweet.

“Tintin is really affectionate. He loves to snuggle around my neck and give kisses. He also likes being held in both my hands and curling up into a little fur ball. At night, he comes up to cuddle with me and then he crawls to his own bed to sleep.”

They’re also eternal babies.

“Tintin is like a puppy and like a toddler. You need to have a constant eye on him or else he's going to start trouble. Even though he knows that he's not supposed to do something, he's going to to do it as soon as you turn your back on him.”

They live long lives (yay!).

“The record for a squirrel is 20 years. We aim to beat that.”

But you’ll be stuck with them forever.

“You can’t leave squirrels alone for more than a few hours. In the afternoon, Tintin usually goes to bed and then I go out to do some shopping or other things. Because of this, I haven’t gone on a vacation in four years.”

Squirrels are entertaining.

“He's a huge amount of fun, definitely a mood enhancer. He’s very fun to watch and he runs around a lot. I can always hear his pitter-patter on the floor. Tintin also likes to wrestle. He has a few teddy bears that he loves to toss around and give them a good beating. In fact, he still has his first one. It’s very beaten up and has a few holes, but it’s functional.”

And need to be entertained themselves.

“Tintin constantly needs motivation to get his energy out. Squirrels like to run around, so you can’t keep them in a cage. Even if I’m sick or injured, I still have to get up and entertain him and make sure that he doesn’t go insane. Because once they start going insane, they can do harm to themselves, like biting their tail, arms, or legs. It happens when they get stressed and can’t release their energy. They can start to attack humans, too, when they go crazy. I’ve seen incidents where people go on vacation for a week or two weeks and then they come home and their squirrel is missing a tail. What happened was their squirrel went crazy and bit it off. It can survive without its tail, but there will be blood everywhere and it’s very painful.”

They are smart…

“He's very intelligent. We tried a lot of those dog puzzles that you can buy for your dogs to interact with them, and he has managed them all. Even the hardest ones, he's figured them out in no time. The only trick I've really enforced is that he doesn’t bite when I’m giving him a treat. Often squirrels want to grab the food and rip it out of your fingers, but I’ve taught him not to do that and he knows he has to sit nice and come up and give me a hug, and then he can have his treat.”

…but not smart enough to be house-trained.

“They'll poop anywhere. A poop here and there happens, even in your bed. Squirrel poops are kind of like hamster poops: small little pellets. They’re easy to clean, there's no odor, and no smearing off — you just pick it up with a tissue.”

Fortunately, their pee isn’t that gross.

“Squirrels squat to pee and it doesn’t smell bad — it actually smells kind of good, because it smells nutty. It’s almost like peanut butter and it doesn’t have that normal urine smell. Squirrel pee is also not very acidic, so it’s not damaging to wood or anything like that. Tintin is good at peeing in certain spots and not just peeing all over, so I put some newspapers down in those spots and he pees on that.”

owning-a-pet-squirrel

Squirrels need expensive food.

“Squirrels eat seeds and fruits and vegetables, and everything has to be organic and fresh. I have to visit the store every week for fresh produce and I buy the seeds online. In the beginning it was hard to find food, but now I've got my sources down, so it's not so difficult.”

But at least their breath isn’t terrible.

“Tintin’s breath is not really smelly. He's vegan, so there’s not really animal products in his food, which helps with odors. Because I control his diet, I don’t have to worry about brushing his teeth. He can grind them and clean them on hard shells and nuts.”

Visits to the vet are expensive and necessary…

“Squirrels have to go in every six months. There’s also no insurance for them, so you have to pay the full amount every time and it’s usually a couple of hundred bucks. It was also hard to find a local veterinarian who would take a squirrel as a patient. They don’t want the responsibility because it’s a wild animal.”

…because squirrels can get sick!

“Tintin caught the gray squirrel pox once, and he was admitted to an animal hospital in the capital and was there for three days. We don’t know how he caught it — it could have been from a branch or something he ate. I knew something was wrong because he just started to act strange and sleep more and wasn’t being so energetic. I could just tell something was off.”

At least they’re not smelly.

“Tintin can get a little nutty smelling, but it's not bad or as strong as a dog might smell.”

And they’re delicate climbers.

“Squirrels don’t knock stuff down with their tails. They’re not like a cat that just walks on a shelf and pushes everything down. Tintin is a very delicate runner.”

They might even take a shower with you.

“Sometimes I bring him in the shower to bathe, and sometimes he decides to jump in the shower with me. It only takes a split second. He jumps on my shoulder and sits there for maybe two seconds getting all wet and sneezing, because the water runs down his nose, and then he jumps off when he's had enough.”

owning-a-pet-squirrel

Going outside with one can be dangerous.

“Tintin doesn’t like dogs. He's very scared of them. Also, I have to worry about birds or cats picking him up. I keep my eye on the sky all the time when we’re outside. Overall, it’s not always fun going outside with him. Sometimes people get curious and ask a lot of questions, and there are people who are very fast to judge. They just come with their opinion about me taking him out of the wild and putting him on a harness and keeping him from living his life. When, in reality, it's actually the complete opposite. I’m trying to give him the best of both worlds instead of keeping him locked in a cage for the rest of his life.”

“No New Friends” should be squirrels’ anthem song.

“You can’t get a new pet because they will fight for their territory with their lives. Tintin will antagonize any new pet that comes in, whether it’s a puppy or a kitten. It causes a lot of stress for squirrels. Tintin is good with guests, but I’ve seen other squirrels even start attacking people because they're not used to new humans in their territory.”

You will need to make your house squirrel-friendly.

“Squirrels love to chew on soft plastic and wood. If you have a pencil or iPhone earbuds lying around, they’re going to chew them up. They’ll also chew on wood furniture, so you can’t have anything super nice. If you have some Ikea stuff, then it doesn’t matter, but you definitely wouldn’t want to buy a $5,000 couch or anything antique.”

Fortunately, squirrels barely shed.

“Their hair is so fine that if you pick it up and let it go, it just stays suspended in the air. It doesn’t fall, that’s how fine it is. Cats definitely shed more, even birds do.”

And they also give great kisses.

“Tintin shows affection by licking. He has a long, soft tongue. It’s not rough like a dog’s or a cat’s — it’s very very smooth. His kisses are wonderful.”

 

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