We see them all the time. Whether you live in the city or the country, squirrels are all over the place. Sometimes, petting one looks like a fantastic idea – but is it a good one?
Touching a squirrel may not be the best idea. Squirrels have incredibly sharp claws that may accidentally claw an individual upon touch. They can carry diseases such as typhus 1 and leptospirosis 2 and can also carry parasites such as fleas and ticks 3.
Generally, you shouldn’t be touching any wild animals because of them being… wild animals. While it may seem like a good idea, touching a wild squirrel won’t have a ton of benefits in the long run.
Why You Shouldn’t Touch a Squirrel
So, you definitely typed this question into your search bar because, at some point, you became interested in the idea of petting, touching, or feeding a squirrel.
Honestly, I can’t blame you one bit. I’m back and forth between my apartment in the city and traveling back home to see family out in the middle of nowhere. I see squirrels in some shape or fashion pretty frequently and more often than not, I generally want to figure out how I can pet them JUST to say I did.
I know it’s not the best idea, but the thought still pops into my head.
The same thought goes for bunnies that are on my lawn. One night, I was determined to pet this rabbit outside of our house. I stood near him, inching closer and closer for about 20 minutes before I moved too fast and spooked him away.
I now realize two things.
First, I sound incredibly stupid after writing that.
Second, I realized that trying to interact with wild animals might not be the safest thing in the long run.
The impulse is there – but should it be? In reality, it’s not a smart move to pet any wild animal.
More often than not, all of these animals seem entirely harmless to touch. But in fact, they’re wild animals, who have interacted with other wild animals and live out in nature where they are much more likely to carry disease (link to CDC).
If you look at the image above – those claws are sharp! If a squirrel reaches for your hand or perhaps even food that’s in your hand, the claws then maybe too sharp for you to handle.
Squirrels, like any undomesticated wild animal, can become easily agitated 4 making them not one of the best creatures to touch.
Wild animals are generally stayed away from for a reason: because they’re wild.
Can You Grab a Squirrel?
It’s definitely not a great idea to grab a squirrel (or any wild animal).
The same reasons apply as to why its a bad idea to touch a squirrel.
If you’re out in your backyard or sitting in a park trying to feed a squirrel by throwing food in the distance but don’t touch the squirrel, then that’s a different story.
If you’re feeding the squirrel and decide “heck, I’m gonna try and grab it” you’re literally asking for trouble.
Think about this.
The squirrel is moving closer and closer to you as you attempt to feed it and get it to eat out of your hand. It trusts you more and more as it gets closer to your hand.
Finally, the squirrel starts eating out of your hand and all of a sudden – you grab it!
An animal that has never been grabbed by a human before is now being picked up and held.
The first reaction of the squirrel will most likely be panic from the animal. The squirrel hasn’t learned what it’s like to be held by a human, whereas a domesticated animal like a dog or cat knows what to expect.
If you try and grab a squirrel, you’re asking for trouble.
Don’t grab a squirrel or any other wild animal unless you have experience dealing with animals, or you’re a trained professional.
It’s much more worthwhile to sit back and just enjoy nature. If you’re sitting at the park and want to feed some squirrels, go ahead and throw some birdseed down in front of you and watch them eat it.
Don’t grab any squirrels. Seriously.
But Aren’t Squirrels Friendly to Humans?
Depending on your area (city vs. country), squirrels can be INCREDIBLY friendly to humans. Squirrels by nature, are extremely curious creatures. They’re usually very interested in what’s going on around them.
If you live in a high population area, such as a suburb, city, or college campus, you might find that squirrels (along with other wildlife) are pretty friendly.
Conversely, if you’re hiking or just out in nature, you might walk up to a squirrel and just to have it scatter away as fast as it possibly can.
Often, this is the difference between squirrels that have learned to live with society and those who rarely see people.
It comes down to basic psychology. A study published in the Northeastern Naturalist demonstrated that squirrels who live in a populated suburb environment show lower levels of alertness than squirrels who live in nature 5.
In simpler terms: Squirrels who live in highly populated human areas have learned that humans likely won’t bother them.
On the other hand, squirrels that live in nature aren’t used to humans, so their levels of alertness are much higher when they see one.
Overall, there are less natural predators for squirrels that live in highly populated humans areas, as opposed to those who just live in nature.
This is all the more reason for squirrels to feel more comfortable living in nature.
In my opinion, animals are much smarter than we give them credit for. No, animals aren’t able to form extreme complex thoughts 6, but their instincts are put into use daily, and they’re able to learn from it.
Squirrels, much like any other animal, have one goal: survival.
As humans, our main worry is staying alive long enough to fully provide for our families. We focus on nutrition and longevity, whereas animals in nature focus on having enough food for storage and defending themselves from predators.
Squirrels aren’t at the top of the food chain, so they’ve needed to develop a keen sense of awareness based on the things around them that drive and predict survival.
Living in a city or suburb, squirrels have learned that humans AREN’T really a threat. Sure, a human driving a car might be a threat – but a human walking down the street probably won’t (and legally can’t) harm them.
Naturally, living with humans without fear has made squirrels friendly and more likely to interact with humans.
I still don’t advocate for touching a squirrel, but if you have some in your backyard, it would be pretty interesting to go ahead and feed
If you offer squirrels food, they’ll be much more likely to interact around you and get closer. This can be good and bad for a few reasons.
Feeding a Squirrel Will Make Them Even More Friendly
Like any wild animal, if you feed them, they’ll learn that you’re a food source and will more than likely come back for more.
It’s basic psychology that when animals associate something good with something else, they’ll learn that those two things belong together and seek them out more. It’s a basic principle called animal learning 7.
By feeding a squirrel in your backyard, you’re basically teaching the animal that they can expect food from you and your home. They’ll learn that you are a reliable food source.
This will, in turn, will make squirrels much more friendly with you and your property. You’ll become less of a neutral presence to them and more of a positive presence.
If you love nature, this is great news because you’ll see more squirrels around.
Why Squirrels Can Cause Trouble
When you feed squirrels consistently, they can and WILL come back for more. You’re providing them a steady and easy food source.
If you get a few squirrels on your property. Your chance for them doing some severe damage to your property can go up.
Here are some common damages that squirrels can do to your property:
- Squirrels can bite through and chew electrical wiring
- They can chew holes into your siding to get into your attic
- Squirrels can chew through insulation inside your home
- If you have any exposed PVC pipe, squirrels can chew through that as well
While they may be fun to feed for a time or two, they might end up causing (and costing) more trouble than they’re worth.
1. Squirrels can bite through and chew electrical wiring
Once squirrels have taken shelter inside your home, they’ll likely start chewing on anything they can find to sharpen and shape their teeth. Electrical wiring is one of the best things in your attic that will be able to solve this problem for the squirrels.
In fact, these animals have caused so much of a problem that there has even been a patent filed in the United States to create rodent-proof wiring 8. Pretty amazing stuff.
Really, this shows that the problem IS apparent and will be even more likely if you end up feeding squirrels on your property. They’ll come back more and more until suddenly, you don’t feed them one day, and they go chewing at random wires near your house while searching for food
2. They can chew holes into your siding to get into your attic
Just like wires, squirrels love to chew holes into your siding. However, squirrels more or less will chew into the siding of your house to take up shelter, which usually ends up being in your attic.
If the squirrels have taken home in your attic, it becomes illegal in most states to harm them with trapping methods. You’ll need to make an expensive call to a local pest control service to fix both the entry point and to brainstorm getting rid of the squirrels.
3. Squirrels can chew through insulation inside your home
Insulation makes for EXCELLENT materials for squirrels to chew through and build a nest with. It’s soft, warm, and thick. Heck, it’s insulation! There’s a reason why we have it in our homes.
Squirrels love to take this stuff, rip it out of your attic, and build a nest with it. It’s a pretty great move on their part.
4. If you have any exposed PVC pipe, squirrels can chew through that as well
More than likely, squirrels will chew through your PVC pipe to gain entry into some part of your house. Their teeth are powerful enough to do this, but it IS a pretty high effort for them.
If squirrels are always around your home, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them try all sorts of different ways to get into your house and look for food.
- AReynolds MG, Krebs JW, Comer JA, et al. Flying Squirrel–associated Typhus, United States. Emerging Infectious Diseases. 2003;9(10):1341-1343. doi:10.3201/eid0910.030278.
- Izurieta, R., Galwankar, S., & Clem, A. (2008). Leptospirosis: The “mysterious” mimic. Journal of emergencies, trauma and Shock, 1(1), 21.
- Durden, L. A., Ellis, B. A., Banks, C. W., Crowe, J. D., & Oliver, J. H. (2004). Ectoparasites of gray squirrels in two different habitats and screening of selected ectoparasites for bartonellae. Journal of Parasitology, 90(3), 485-490.
- Buck, C. L., & Barnes, B. M. (2003). Androgen in free-living arctic ground squirrels: seasonal changes and influence of staged male-male aggressive encounters. Hormones and behavior, 43(2), 318-326
- Cooper, C. A., Neff, A. J., Poon, D. P., & Smith, G. R. (2008). Behavioral responses of eastern gray squirrels in suburban habitats differing in human activity levels. Northeastern Naturalist, 15(4), 619-626.
- Kaye, L. J. (1995). The languages of thought. Philosophy of Science, 62(1), 92-110.
- Mackintosh, N. J. (1974). The psychology of animal learning. Academic Press.
- Watkins, D. (1979). U.S. Patent No. 4,171,463. Washington, DC: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.