Do squirrels make good pets?

The details

In his 1973 book The World of the Gray Squirrel, biologist Frederik Barkalow wrote:

Squirrels can look appealing and people often consider keeping one as a pet, but looks can be deceptive. Squirrels can be highly destructive. - Credit: Marc Baldwin

If you can ignore having your furniture chewed to bits, the draperies shredded, and droppings scattered willy-nilly about the house, the gray squirrel is the pet for you.”

Barkalow's experiences mirror those of many wildlife rehabilitators and that of Oxford Scientific Films founder-director John Paling, who, in his book Squirrel on my Shoulder, described similar mayhem caused by the orphaned Grey squirrel kitten “Sammy” he and his family were rearing. Paling described how he was unable to house-train Sammy, who used a cat litter tray only for caching leftover nuts and left his dropping anywhere he happened to be. House plants were also targeted as suitable caching spots:

I returned late that night to find the whole place in a terrible mess. The wet soil had been dug out and there were piles of black compost and squirrel paw prints over the windows, along the work surfaces, over the oven and all over the floor.”

Paling also had to barricade parts of the house, particularly the kitchen, to stop the kitten getting behind appliances. Indeed, in his book, Paling has a chapter simply entitled “Havoc”, which starts with the passage:

Early days with Sammy were pure bliss compared with the unimaginable chaos that often surrounded him as he got older.”

More serious than cosmetic damage to furniture and mess is the danger squirrels and their constantly-growing incisor teeth, which must be continuously worn down by chewing, pose to electric wiring. In the wild, squirrels will gnaw nuts and bark to keep their teeth in check, but captive individuals will often turn their attentions to electric cabling and can easily chew through thick three-core wiring serving heavy duty appliances such as cookers and fires. In Paling's words:

How [Sammy] didn't arc-weld his teeth together, is still a miracle. We were horrified at his potential for causing a major disaster and we realised we were all very lucky that nothing more serious had happened from his wire chewing.”

Many rehabbers also point out that squirrels will often bite and scratch the hand that feeds them. That said, in January 2023, I was contacted by a reader who had a much more positive experience with a pet squirrel, with their family for 13 years, that was described as being “just like a cat”. It seems that this squirrel never caused its owner any problems, or damaged their house.

Overall, while the personality of any individual squirrel is likely to be a significant factor in how amiable they are, they can be very demanding and destructive small mammals.