Richardson's Ground Squirrels

Richardson's Ground Squirrels as Pets

Richardson's ground squirrels, commonly but erroneously called gophers, have become popular pets in places outside their geographic range. Some of the commercially available Richardson's ground squirrels may have been bred in captivity or born in captivity to a female who was pregnant at the time of capture. Others may have been captured from the wild. None can be considered as fully domesticated. Hence, there is no guarantee that a Richardson's ground squirrel will be a suitable pet.  Those captured from the wild are particularly likely to have been stressed and to revert to natural wild behaviour, so it is better to purchase a captive-born squirrel or, best of all, a captive-bred squirrel (preferably from a reliable source that has been breeding squirrels for several generations).

Because of superficial similarity in appearance between Richardson's ground squirrels and black-tailed prairie dogs, some people in the pet trade (either deliberately or out of ignorance) mis-identify the species they are selling.  If you are planning to acquire either a Richardson's ground squirrel or a black-tailed prairie dog, consult a reliable source so you know how to distinguish between the species and so that you can care for the animal you acquire in a manner that is appropriate to that species.  See Similar Species

Very importantly, Richardson's ground squirrels are much shorter lived than black-tailed prairie dogs, but not all pet sellers are aware of this and mislead people into thinking that their pet will live for a decade or more.  Richardson's ground squirrels are likely to live for 3 years if male and 4 years if female.  Very rarely some pets live to 6 or 7 years of age.

Gail Michener and Richardson's ground squirrel
The Richardson's ground squirrel that Gail Michener is holding was born in captivity to a mother who was pregnant when brought in to captivity. Captive-born animals that are handled frequently and gently from the age of weaning at 4 weeks can make suitable pets.
Photograph by Bernie Wirzba, University of Lethbridge.

Responsible ownership:

If you decide to own a Richardson's ground squirrel, you then assume full responsibility for the care of your squirrel for its lifetime, and that could be 5 to 7 years if you are lucky.  A more usual lifespan is 3-4 years.

Although young Richardson's ground squirrels are cute and charming, they are increasingly likely to express unwanted natural wild behaviour as they age  -   especially if the squirrel was born to a wild-caught mother or was itself captured from the wild.  The more generations of captive breeding, the more likely the squirrel will be better adapted to captivity.  Currently most Richardson's ground squirrels on the pet market have not been bred in captivity, though some may have been born in captivity to a female that was pregnant when captured from the wild.

The responsible owner of a pet Richardson's ground squirrel needs to invest substantial time keeping the pet socialized and must be willing and able to adjust to the changes in their pet's behaviour that result from aging or reversion to natural wild characteristics and also to the changes in temperament that occur as the squirrels go in and out of breeding readiness ("rut").  If an easy-care pet is wanted, consideration should be given to acquiring other small mammals that have been bred in captivity for many generations, such as hamsters, degus, chinchillas, or guinea pigs. 

Richardson's ground squirrels are not suited to everyone.  In a survey conducted in 2013, 54 of 114 pet Richardson's ground squirrels had been acquired by their current responsible pet owner because they needed to be rescued or were otherwise unwanted by the original owner or they had already spent lengthy periods unsold in pet stores. These re-homed pets were lucky to have a second chance.

Captive-bred and captive-born Richardson's ground squirrels can NEVER be released into the wild, as they do not have the skills to survive.  Richardson's ground squirrels that are released from captivity in an unfamiliar or inappropriate environment will undoubtedly DIE an unpleasant death.  They experience extreme harassment and attacks from other animals who do not tolerate unfamiliar strangers and treat released animals as intruders. In addition, because they do not have a personal burrow system into which they can retreat, released squirrels experience stress from exposure to inclement weather and they have no place to escape from predators.

Wild-caught Richardson's ground squirrels can ONLY be released into the wild if they are returned to the EXACT location at which they were initially captured within their natural geographic range, i.e., into familiar habitat that is occupied by their known family members.

 

Facts to gather before acquiring a pet Richardson's ground squirrel:

When looking for a breeder or purchasing in a pet store/pet fair or accepting a rescue/re-home individual, ask a lot of questions and request to handle the animal to assess how it responds. Some example questions are:

  • Is this a Richardson's ground squirrel? (ask how the person knows and ask for an explanation of how it differs from a prairie dog)
  • Was the animal bred in captivity, born in captivity to a pregnant wild-caught female, or captured in the wild? (ask how the person knows this information and ask for the identity of the seller/breeder from whom the pet store/pet fair obtained the animal)
  • How old is the animal?
  • Has it been handled frequently and at what age did handling start?
  • How long has the current owner/pet store had this animal?
  • What is its personality and how does it respond to handling? Friendly? Tries to escape? Bites?
  • Has it received any vet care? Does the breeder recommended special care?
  • What diet has it been living on? Has it been gaining weight?
  • Any other questions you may have - the more, the better.

Habituation to human handling:

To become a suitable pet, Richardson's ground squirrels require extensive gentle handling from a young age  -   the younger, the better. Every human-pet relationship is unique, so the tolerance and friendliness of a pet Richardson's ground squirrel depends on the personality traits of both the human and the squirrel as well as the squirrel's previous familiarity with humans.

For both captive-born and wild-caught Richardson's ground squirrels, handling on a regular daily basis should ideally begin at the age of 4 weeks, when juveniles are just old enough to begin eating solid food and start leaving the natal nest. The older the squirrel is when handling by humans begins, the more patience and time it takes to habituate the animal. Older juveniles may not become social or friendly, even if handled frequently. Animals captured as adults almost never become suitable pets.

Frequent and gentle handling, accompanied by treats such as a slice of melon or unsalted sunflower seeds for rewards, will help the squirrel to become tame and familiar with handling. Do not squeeze or grasp the squirrel tightly across the chest, as this makes breathing difficult. If startled or held too tightly the squirrel may instinctively bite or scratch to get away.  Some pets become less tolerant of handling as they age and revert to normal wild behaviour.

 

Useful Facts:

In the natural environment, Richardson's ground squirrels spend the majority of their life in underground chambers and tunnels, coming above ground primarily to forage for food. Thus they prefer to sleep in a confined space, to retreat into tubes, and to dig in sand/soil boxes.

Richardson's ground squirrels are not tree squirrels! Make sure that your squirrel does not climb up too high; they have no good way to climb down again, so they tend to jump or simply let go to get back to the ground.

Richardson's ground squirrels are less sociable than prairie dogs, so it is not necessary to keep them in pairs. Free-living Richardson's ground squirrels in nature normally tolerate only their closest kin with whom they have lived since birth, and genetically related females are more sociable than female-male or male-male combinations. If you acquire more than one squirrel, watch them very carefully when initially placed together to ensure they are compatible. If the ground squirrels are intolerant of each other, house them separately.

Hibernation:

Captive Richardson's ground squirrels do not need to hibernate, but if housed in a cool (5-15°C) area, they may go in to torpor for several days at a time. Even if a captive Richardson's ground squirrel never goes into torpor, it still undergoes cycles of weight gain and weight loss and periods of lethargy and activity, similar to wild animals.

Pet owners need to be able to distinuish between TORPOR (a natural cooling of the body associated with hibernation) and HYPOTHERMIA (an unnatural cooling of the body as a result of ill health).  At normal room temperatures, pets are much more likely to be exhibiting hypothermia than torpor.  Under household conditions (which usually do not mimic seasonal patterns of temperature and light changes), the free-running rhythm of activity and hibernation gets out of synchrony with the real world, so one cannot simply use calendar date to predict when an animal will be ready to hibernate. See below under Hypothermia versus Torpor for further information.

Weight cycle:

See Annual Weight Cycle under the Appearance drop-down menu for details.

Because they hibernate in nature, Richardson's ground squirrels undergo a natural cycle of weight gain and weight loss, even in captivity. They gain weight by depositing large amounts of fat in the body cavity and a layer of fat under the skin.  Captive animals with access to unlimited food and little opportunity to exercise can become exceptionally obese.  Ideally, body mass should not exceed 600 grams.

In nature, Richardson's ground squirrels lose most of their stored fat over-winter and emerge in springtime at weights of 200-275 grams for females and 350-450 grams for males.  Males then lose weight during the mating season.

In captivity, an adult squirrel's weight should never drop below about 250 grams for a full-grown female and 350 grams for a full-grown male.  Regular weighing of pets is recommended because it is difficult to estimate weight just by appearance. Especial note must be taken of the reasons for weight loss.  A common problem in captivity is damage to the incisors, which then results in unaligned and overgrown upper and lower front teeth, eventually preventing the animal from eating. See below (Overgrown incisors) on how to prevent tooth problems and how to deal with a pet that is starving due to problem teeth.

Reproduction:

In captivity, Richardson's ground squirrels undergo a similar reproductive cycle as in the wild.

Males:

  • testicles enlarge and descend into the scrotum and the scrotal skin changes from pink, to grey, to purple-blackish
  • may undergo a weight-loss period
  • acquire a strong musky smell when testicles are descended and testosterone levels are high
  • testes begin to shrink, regress, and become abdominal after a few weeks
  • it is not necessary to neuter (castrate) your male squirrel. If you choose to neuter your male squirrel, surgery should be performed at the peak of his reproductive cycle when the testes are descended.

Females:

  • exhibit a swollen, bright pink vulva indicative of estrus; in the wild, this state lasts for only a few hours, but vulval swelling can last for several days in captivity
  • it is not necessary to spay your female squirrel.

Mating:

In nature, males are in reproductive condition (descended testes producing sperm) for 4 weeks immediately after emergence from hibernation. In nature, each female is in behavioural estrus (receptive to mounting) for about 2 hours on one afternoon a year, typically on her third day out of hibernation. Thus, reproductive synchrony between the sexes is achieved in nature as a consequence of the timing of the end of hibernation. Such synchrony between males and females rarely occurs in captivity, where pets usually do not hibernate, and thus unplanned pregnancies are very unlikely.

Housing requirements:

  • medium to large sized cage with a deep bottom and bars with 3/4 inch spacing or less
  • unscented shavings: not too fine, otherwise small pieces irritate the eyes
  • a box (cardboard, plastic, or wood) that can be used as a nest site
  • nesting material, such as strips of soft toweling, that the animal can manipulate; paper towels tend to produce fine dust that irritates the lungs when shredded by squirrels, so limit the use of paper for nest material
  • sand in several plastic containers: squirrels use one as a latrine (washroom) and the other(s) for digging
  • plastic or metal food dishes; place food inside the cage as the shape of the snout on Richardson's ground squirrels prevents them from obtaining food from food hoppers hung on the outside of the cage
  • water bottle; although Richardson's ground squirrels learn to drink from a water bottle, they prefer to obtain water from very moist foods such as water melon and romaine lettuce
  • if living in a dry climate provide a mister-style humidifier set up about 1 m from the cage, and run it for about half the day to ensure that the air is not too dry; this will reduce respiratory problems

To make the cage more interactive and prevent your squirrel from getting bored, consider placing some of the following items in the cage:

  • black PVC pipe with a 3- to 4- inch inside diameter (8-10 cm) for tunnels
  • cardboard boxes or tubes for chewing and manipulating, and to retreat into
  • sand/soil sites for digging
  • wood boards at various levels, but not too high; ensure that the boards are easy to remove for regular cleaning
  • nest box with soft toweling that can be ripped up (better than paper toweling which creates a lot of dust and irritates the eyes and air passages)
Individual Richardson's ground squirrels vary in their interest in running wheels.  For squirrels that choose not to use a running wheel, instead provide items that emulate tunnels that they can run through.

When allowing your Richardson's ground squirrel out of its cage, make sure to provide an escape tunnel (more PVC pipe, mail tube, cardboard box, etc.) so it can hide.  Some squirrels learn to use a hamster ball, but this may take some training.

Basic Care:
  • clean cage, dishes, and containers frequently using a non-scented soap
  • make sure latrine is cleaned frequently and clean sand or soil is provided
  • check toe nails and front teeth (incisors) frequently to ensure they are  not over-grown
  • TOE NAILS of captive animals do not get worn down rapidly because captive ground squirrels do not spend as much time digging in hard soil as in the wild. Be prepared to trim the down-curved portion of long nails once a month or as needed. Avoid cutting the nail to the quick, as this causes bleeding. To stop the bleeding, place a bit of flour or corn starch on a gauze or paper tissue, place over the wound and keep pressure on the nail for a minute or so
  • check the INCISORS regularly to ensure that they are being worn down and are not misaligned. The upper and lower front teeth of Richardson's ground squirrels (and other rodents) grow continuously, wearing away on each other during foraging. In captivity, the tendency for squirrels to chew on the bars of the cage can result in tooth damage and misalignment of teeth. If the incisors become misaligned, trim them regularly so they do not become overgrown. Teeth can be trimmed with a strong nail clipper or small side-cutter pliers by you or your veterinarian (who can demonstrate the technique to you). The mandibles of the lower jaw are not fused together at the midline, so do not be alarmed if you notice that the lower incisors spread apart when you open the animal's mouth
  • keep a record of BODY MASS by weighing the animal on a regular basis, such as every 10-15 days.  Weight varies with age, sex, and season, so Richardson's ground squirrels do not have a "standard" weight.  See Annual Weight Cycle for typical body weights for adult and juvenile males and females throughout the year.  Except when they have fattened for hibernation, full-grown Richardson's ground squirrels usually weigh 300-450 grams, depending on sex and the time of year.  Captive animals with access to unlimited food and little opportunity to exercise can become exceptionally obese.  Ideally, body mass should not exceed 600 grams.  Conversely, body mass of healthy captive adults should never fall below about 250 grams for a female and 350 grams for a male.  

Diet:

Richardson's ground squirrels are vegetarians that eat leafy vegetation and seeds in the wild.  Suggested foods for captive ground squirrels:

  • fresh greens, particularly romaine lettuce
  • dandelion leaves and flowers (if whole plants are fresh picked, they keep well in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for 2-3 days)
  • melon (watermelon, cantaloupe, etc.)
  • other fruits (ripe bananas, apple pieces)
  • unsalted sunflower seeds, hulled or unhulled
  • unsweetened muesli, porridge oats
  • timothy hay
  • pelleted squirrel or rodent diet
  • try various foods and see what your squirrel likes.
  • DO NOT feed sweetened or salted foods
Make sure that any old or uneaten food is removed from the cage daily. Keep a water bottle available, even though moisture is preferably obtained from moist foods. A mineral block should be provided - not a salt block!

Make sure that when your squirrel is in fattening mode, you decrease its food intake to prevent having a grossly obese animal.

If your pet is not eating well or has tooth problems, try some oat porridge gruel thinned and cooled with a little low-fat milk.  If the squirrel is very weak, initially feed small amounts of thin gruel with a plastic dropper, but be very careful that fluid does not enter the respiratory tract. If the squirrel still is not eating properly in 1-2 days, consult your veterinarian.

     

Common Problems:

Fur wearing off nose
    Cause:
    rubbing nose on cage, boredom, attracted to taste of bars of cage
    Solutions:
    • make cage more interactive
    • position cage contents (boxes, boards) so that is not so easy for the squirrel to chew on the bars of the cage
Respiratory problems (laboured breathing, wheezing)
    Cause:
    dry air, too much fine particulate matter in air; in the wild, Richardson's ground squirrels spend the majority of their time underground in cool moist soil, so the air in their burrows is quite humid whereas the air in human houses is usually much drier
    Solution:
    • run a mister style humidifier set up about 1 m from cage for at least half the day; clean the humidifier frequently to prevent mould
    • give soft toweling to chew and rip up instead of paper toweling, which creates fine dust particles that irritate the air passages and eyes.
    Note:
    Once respiratory problems have begun, it is almost impossible to cure the damage to the lungs, so provide a moist environment from the beginning.

Overgrown toe nails

    Cause:
    insufficient opportunity to wear down nails by digging
    Solutions:
    • provide a container of packed sand or soil for digging
    • trim nails with nail clippers; trim off the curved nail tips without getting too close to the fleshy part of the toe

Overgrown incisors

    Cause:
    misaligned or broken teeth as a result of chewing on bars of cage.
    Because the upper and lower front teeth (incisors) grow continuously, their length is normally kept in check by the opposing teeth wearing away on each other during foraging.  If the incisors in the upper and lower jaws are misaligned or some incisors are broken, the normal wearing action will not occur and the teeth grow unimpeded. Eventually those teeth get so long and curved that the animal is unable to eat and the elongated teeth may even penetrate the palate

    Solutions:
    • make cage more interactive to reduce chewing on bars
    • position cage contents (boxes, boards) so that is not so easy for the squirrel to chew on the bars of the cage
    • trim elongated incisors with a strong nail clipper or small side-cutter pliers  (the mandibles of the lower jaw are not fused together at the midline, so do not be alarmed if you notice that the lower incisors spread apart when you open the animal's mouth to trim the incisors)
    • if tooth problems are causing eating difficulties, provide a thin oat porridge gruel until broken teeth have grown back in to place
    • if your pet persistently damages some of its incisors, those teeth may eventually die.  Thereafter, the opposing incisor in the other jaw will never get worn down and you will need to trim those unworn teeth regularly (every 2 weeks) to prevent over-growth
    • check teeth regularly to detect problems before they affect the animal's health
    • weigh your pet on a regular basis to help detect unusual or rapid weight loss that could be the result of tooth problems

 

Hypothermia versus Torpor

In both conditions, the ground squirrel's body temperature declines from the normal 37°C to room temperature, but the causes are entirely different so different action is required.  Hypothermia is a sign that the animal is ailing and unable to maintain normal body temperature because of ill health, whereas torpor is a natural stage in hibernation from which the animal will eventually rewarm automatically. At normal room temperatures, pets are much more likely to be exhibiting hypothermia than torpor.

A hypothermic squirrel requires immediate attention in order to gently and slowly rewarm it and to investigate the cause of its inability to thermoregulate.  Check for weight loss/starvation as a result of damaged teeth that prevent food intake. If the problem is systemic and internal, veterinary care is likely required.

Richardson's ground squirrels rarely hibernate at the room temperatures typical of most homes.  However, under exceptional circumstances, an obsese squirrel whose inbuilt annual rhythm has prepared it for hibernation might start to hibernate if it is exposed to temperatures below 15°C. It will roll into a ball inside bedding that it has formed into a nest and gradually cool down to room temperature, i.e., enter a torpor bout.  The length of the torpor bout depends on the ambient temperature, with longer torpor bouts at cooler temperatures.  At household temperatures of around 15°C, a torpor bout is likely to last only 2-4 days at most before natural rewarming through thermogenesis returns body temperature back to 37°C.  See Hibernation Physiology for more details.

 If you are concerned about your squirrel's health, find a veterinarian who specializes in the care of exotic small pets.

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