Sick Squirrel Behavior (and What to Do)

As an avid squirrel enthusiast, I’m often asked how to tell if a squirrel is sick or injured. Squirrels are such common backyard visitors that we’re bound to encounter one seeming a bit under the weather now and then. Knowing sick squirrel behavior is important for both their well-being and our own safety.

In this guide, I’ll cover everything you need to know about sick squirrel behavior, including the most common signs of illness, what diseases to watch for, and how to help a struggling squirrel in need.

How to Quickly Identify Sick Squirrel Behavior

Here are the most common signs that a squirrel isn’t feeling well:

  • Lethargic movements or inability to move
  • Loss of balance or falling over
  • Walking in circles or stumbling
  • Hair loss or bald patches
  • Swollen face or abscesses
  • Crusty eyes, nose, or mouth
  • Strange vocalizations
  • Unprovoked aggression or lack of fear of humans

If you spot a squirrel exhibiting any of these behaviors, it likely needs help. Contact a wildlife rehabilitator for guidance. Never approach or handle wildlife without proper training.

How to Identify Common Squirrel Illnesses

Squirrels can suffer from a variety of bacterial infections, parasites, and other health conditions. Here are some of the most common illnesses to look out for:

Metabolic Bone Disease

Metabolic bone disease (MBD) is a nutritional disorder that affects squirrels. It is caused by an improper diet that is deficient in calcium or vitamin D. MBD leads to weak, brittle bones that are prone to fractures and deformities.

Signs of MBD in squirrels include:

  • Hesitant to move or jump
  • Walking with an awkward gait or limping
  • Splayed legs
  • Swelling around joints
  • Rubbery or fractured bones


Mange is a skin condition caused by mites. It leads to hair loss, crusty skin lesions, and intense itchiness. In squirrels, mange usually first appears on the underside and tail.

Signs of mange in squirrels include:

  • Bare patches of skin
  • Flaking or crusty skin
  • Redness and inflammation
  • Intense scratching
  • Restlessness


Abscesses are pockets of pus caused by bacterial infections. Abscesses commonly form on the face, legs, shoulders, and hips of squirrels.

Signs of abscesses in squirrels include:

  • Swellollen areas on the body
  • Draining wounds
  • Crusting
  • Loss of fur around the wound
  • Lethargy


Conjunctivitis, or pink eye, is an inflammation of the lining of the eye. It can be caused by viruses, bacteria, irritants, or allergies. Conjunctivitis leads to crusty, swollen, reddened eyes.

Signs of conjunctivitis in squirrels include:

  • Crusty or oozing eyes
  • Swelling around the eyes
  • Squinting or blinking excessively
  • Pawing at the eyes


Tularemia is a rare but highly contagious bacterial disease. It attacks the eyes, liver, spleen and lungs. Tularemia is most often transmitted through tick and deer fly bites.

Signs of tularemia in squirrels include:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Fever
  • Swollen eyes, head and neck
  • Abscesses
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Loss of fear of humans


Rabies is a fatal viral disease that impacts the central nervous system. It causes brain inflammation and paralysis. Rabies makes animals act erratically and aggressively.

Signs of rabies in squirrels include:

  • No fear of humans
  • Unprovoked aggression
  • Paralysis
  • Circling or stumbling
  • Jerky movements
  • Excessive drooling

What to Do If You Find a Sick or Injured Squirrel

When coming across a struggling squirrel, your first instinct may be to rush to its aid. However, sick squirrels can bite or scratch when feeling threatened. It’s best to keep your distance and contact an experienced wildlife rehabilitator for guidance.

Here are some tips on how to safely help a sick or injured squirrel:

  1. Avoid direct contact unless you have training. Squirrels can carry diseases transmittable to humans.
  2. Call local wildlife rehabilitators to report the situation and get instructions. You can usually find a list of rehabbers through your state’s wildlife agency.
  3. If the squirrel is approachable, use thick gloves to gently contain it in a ventilated box lined with a soft towel. Avoid excessive chasing.
  4. Note where you found the squirrel. Rehabilitators will want to return it to its home range once healthy.
  5. Take the squirrel to the rehabber as soon as possible. Don’t attempt to treat it yourself.
  6. Disinfect anything the squirrel touched to prevent disease transmission.

In some cases, a sick squirrel may recover on its own if given time. I once saw an underweight squirrel stumbling and struggling to climb. Rather than interfering, I left food and water nearby and monitored from a window. Within a day he was scampering about normally! However, when in doubt, it’s always best to get professional guidance.

How to Lower Risks of Squirrel Diseases in Your Yard

To help keep neighborhood squirrels healthy and reduce risks to your family, here are some tips:

  • Remove food sources. Don’t feed wildlife or leave pet food outside that could attract sick rodents.
  • Disinfect feeders. Clean bird feeders regularly to prevent infectious diseases from accumulating.
  • Clear den sites. Trim branches and debris where squirrels nest to discourage mange mites.
  • Fill holes. Seal openings in roofs and attics to prevent contact with sick animals.
  • Pick up pet waste. Promptly remove cat and dog feces so squirrels don’t ingest parasites.
  • Monitor for illness. Routinely scan your property for struggling squirrels in need of rehab.


Sick squirrel behavior often includes lethargy, lack of coordination, bare patches of skin, and discharge around the eyes or nose.

Diseases like metabolic bone disease, mange, abscesses, and rabies are common in squirrels. If you spot an unwell squirrel, contact wildlife rehabilitators for advice rather than intervening yourself.

With proper care from licensed experts, many sick squirrels can fully recover and be released back into the wild.


How can you tell if a baby squirrel is sick?

Signs of illness in baby squirrels include lethargy, labored breathing, discharge from the eyes or nose, injuries, bald spots, and a pot-bellied appearance. Baby squirrels also often shiver when sick. Orphaned infants who are crying constantly need help. Contact a wildlife rehabilitator if you find a struggling baby squirrel.

Why do mother squirrels reject their babies?

There are a few reasons a mother squirrel may reject or abandon her young. If the babies are visibly ill, she may abandon them to protect the rest of the litter. Other times mothers reject babies after human contact, either because the babies smell unfamiliar or she feels her nest is unsafe.

Can you raise a baby squirrel yourself?

Raising an infant squirrel is extremely challenging and often unsuccessful without training. Baby squirrels eat a specialized formula and around-the-clock care. They are prone to malnutrition, dehydration, and digestive issues. Always contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator first before attempting to care for a baby squirrel.

How do you treat mange in squirrels?

Mange is treated with prescription medications like ivermectin, doramectin, and selamectin. The medications are administered orally or topically over the course of several weeks. All other squirrels nesting in the same area also need to be treated. Ridding an area of mange mites often requires habitat disinfection.

Can you get sick from touching a squirrel?

Yes, it is possible to get sick from touching squirrels. Squirrels can carry diseases like salmonella, rabies, ringworm, and plague. Avoid direct contact with wildlife and wear gloves if handling sick squirrels. Always wash your hands thoroughly after coming into contact with wild animals.

Why is a squirrel laying flat?

A squirrel flattening itself against the ground could be showing signs of extreme illness or overheating. Squirrels flatten their bodies to try to cool themselves when dangerously hot. A squirrel unable to move or stand could be paralyzed or have a severe injury. A flat squirrel almost always needs quick rehabilitation.