Ground squirrels might score highly in the cuteness stakes, but that does not mean they necessarily make great pets. The vague term encompasses all those squirrels that don’t spend much time in the trees, which is a lot of different species. They all have one thing in common though -- they are not really domestic animals. Some species, often prairie dogs, chipmunks and Richardson’s ground squirrels, are kept as pets, but haven’t been for long.
Never buy or adopt a ground squirrel, or any other animal, that was caught in the wild. Aside from the animal welfare and conservation considerations, such a squirrel is highly unlikely to make a good pet. If you aren’t certain of a squirrel's origin, go somewhere else. In the event you are adopting from an animal sanctuary, only adopt wild-caught or timid squirrels if you have considerable experience -- these are not pets for the first timer.
Bear in mind that ground squirrels can live for six years, sometimes longer, and need a fair amount of space and care. Although they may be cute, squirrels are often difficult to handle and sometimes show aggression -- as mentioned above they have not been domesticated for long. This means that they do not make good pets for children.
Some species of ground squirrel are endangered while others are considered agricultural pests. Some of the latter group could become invasive species in areas outside their range. This means it might not always be legal to own a ground squirrel or you might need a permit beforehand, which might not be issued to a private individual. Thoroughly check your region’s regulations on the species you wish to keep before adopting them.
Squirrels of all types are extremely active, needing a large, multi-level cage and plenty of outside-the-cage time every day. A ferret cage, the bigger the better, would be appropriate for most species. They also need a variety of toys, including a solid, not runged, wheel and a couple of nest boxes. Other basics are a safe substrate, such as a paper-based bedding or even potting compost, a water bottle and a food bottle. Include a deep layer of the substrate because ground squirrels, as the name suggests, enjoy burrowing. Include a litter tray and non-toxic twigs or branches to give the squirrels something to climb on and to chew.
Most ground squirrels are omnivores, consuming a wide range of plant and animal material. As pets, they can have a pelleted food for that species supplemented with fresh produce and possibly some live insects, such as crickets. However, check the requirements of your particular species first.
Day-to-day care is not dissimilar to that of most other small rodents. Ground squirrels need fed and the water in the water bottle needs changing every day. While you’re at it, remove any uneaten fruit or vegetables from the previous day, clean the litter tray and remove spots of particularly soiled bedding. The entire cage needs to be cleaned properly at least once a week. Place the squirrels in a pet carrier or let them out into a squirrel-proof room, and throw away the used bedding, contents of the litter tray and substrate. Wash everything in warm water with dishwashing liquid, rinse, dry and put everything back together again with fresh bedding and substrate.
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Judith Willson has been writing since 2009, specializing in environmental and scientific topics. She has written content for school websites and worked for a Glasgow newspaper. Willson has a Master of Arts in English from the University of Aberdeen, Scotland.