Last fall, we put up a birdfeeder in our backyard that turned our suburban Seattle backyard into a mini-zoo. There were chickadees, nuthatches, jays, robins, thrushes, towhees and many other birds. To keep the squirrels from destroying my birdfeeder, I kept a ground feeding tray for them.
Soon I could recognize the lovable pests. There was the mischievous fat squirrel, Rascal, the competitive brothers (I later realized they were mates) Chip and Dale, and some other regulars. By January, our backyard pets associated me with the F-word… FOOD.
Rascal the birdfeeder destroyer
Chip and Dale fighting
Most of them were happy co-existing with me, but one little guy decided to go where no squirrels dared. One day, as I watched him finish his food from behind the window, he stood up on his hind legs, clasped his hands, looked straight into my eyes and waited expectantly.
I thought I was going nuts, because lately I’d been staying home so much. Then it happened the next day, and the next. I put a finger against the window and he bounded right up to it, pawing at the glass and looking back and forth from me to the table where I kept the food. This little guy really was talking to me!
And so started an extraordinary friendship. Every time I went downstairs for breakfast or lunch, he ran up to the window and assumed his hungry-puppy pose. He was tuning himself to my routine! He bounded around excitedly in a flash of gray fur when I spotted him, and soon stayed put at the tray when I went to refill it.
Initial balding along spine and shoulders
Then he started balding along his spine and shoulders. At first, it was just a little bit, but then he lost hair at an alarming rate. It was still March and quite cold, so I feared he would freeze to death. Frantic, I found a squirrel lovers’ forum, The Squirrel Board, to determine whether this was molting or something else. They were stumped, because it looked like Mange, a common fungal skin disorder, but he didn’t have scaly skin, a major symptom of Mange. Mange was a possibility as Seattle is wet almost all year through. They suggested the antibiotic paste Ivermectin 1.87%, but wrong/over dosage can be lethal, so I refrained from treating him yet.
To make things worse, as his fur thinned I realized my squirrel, Patches, was a she. It was early spring and she was probably a nursing mom, and I wasn’t sure how safe Ivermectin would be for her kits.
I eventually found a blog by a squirrel rehabilitator, which made me quite certain her skin condition was Dermatophytosis, and the best way to treat her was to give her a good diet and virgin coconut oil. So I gave her Kaytee Forti-diet for hamsters and gerbils, half a walnut with quarter teaspoon of coconut oil and some powder from cuttlefish bone (normally found in the pet bird section). It’s the closest I could find to the recommended KayTee Forti-Diet for Rats and Mice.
Patches and I are BFFS
By March end, Patches and I had become inseparable. She scampered up to me as I sat out, held my hand with her little paws, put her little snout in my palms and nibbled away. She liked to show off, too. When other squirrels competed for food, she’d call for me. When I went out and other squirrels backed off a few feet, she’d scamper up to me boldly and hang out, showing her fellow squirrels how close we were. She knew I always gave her second servings and after that, the walnut as a dessert, so she pleaded (read demanded) only twice. Sometimes she’d ask for some other food. No I’m not nuts, people, this squirrel talked.
She was a big bully too. Sometimes this 1.5 pound creature sat near my feet and growled, trying to dominate me like she bullied the other squirrels. A loud clap and an admonishment worked and after a few times, we finally established the alpha in the relationship and she recognized my saying “good girl” as a cue to scuttle away.
But her condition got worse. By April, she was completely bald waist up. Her exposed skin turned gray but not scaly, so I finally guessed it was another form of Mange, called Notoedric Mange. Desperate, I started administering the Ivermectin hidden in her walnut, hoping that her kits were old enough to handle it as well. If she didn’t show up for a few days, I agonized that I’d killed her. But Patches is a super squirrel. In three weeks, she stopped balding. In four, she had fine fur on her upper body. By end of May, Patches had turned into a fur ball. She did develop some fresh bald patches on her lower body, but she managed to grow it back, so maybe that bit was molting.
4th week. Her bald upper body has fine fur.
Dosage completed. Upper body furry, lower body molting
I was delighted I could do my bit for my furry friend, although I was terrified I may have killed her kits. But I recently saw her hopping along with a little squirrel, I really hope it was her kit.
As our rental lease expiration approaches, with a heavy heart, we’ve decided to wean our backyard pets so they’ll be self-sufficient by fall. So starting June, we now feed them just once a week, unless someone looks obviously hungry.
I haven’t seen Patches in weeks, but last I saw her, she was happy, healthy and bullying other squirrels as usual. Thanks to her, all the animals in our yard see us as friends, and many other squirrels now eat right next to us as we sit out. But no one has talked to us. The Jays, however, have learned how to ask for food, and the little chickadees stay put, grumbling impatiently, when we go out.
Although I miss her sorely, I know it’s for the good. Patches taught me so many things, and she gave me the greatest gift of all—her trust. Coming from a wild animal, it’s exhilarating and fulfilling like nothing else.
She’ll always occupy a special patch in my heart, for I know she’s a one in a million squirrel.
Healthy, happy and hungry
Want to see Patches in Action? Watch here
I’m just another squirrel lover who somehow managed to treat a wild squirrel. Please check with an expert or a squirrel lover’s forum if you see a sick squirrel and want to help.
Notoedric Mange was my best guess and Ivermectin did work, but I’d like to know what Patches really had. If you know, please tell me!