This article is intended to provide you with the most basic wildlife care guidelines necessary to insure both you and the animal are as safe as possible throughout the rescue experience.
THE MOST IMPORTANT FACT:
There are very serious potential health risks in handling injured or even orphaned/abandoned baby animals.
Especially when an animal appears to have been bitten and with certain species in certain parts of the United States (regardless the age of the animal), it is critical that every precaution is taken to safeguard yourself as well as any other members of your household, both two-leggers and four-leggers. These possible health risks include rabies, which can be transmitted to both humans and our domestic pets, and distemper, which can be transmitted to both dogs and cats. Avoiding contact with body fluids (blood, saliva) as much as possible and keeping all clothing or other articles used to help the injured animal away from pets and other humans in the household until they have been thoroughly sterilized are a must. Please see the Links page for resources that can provide you with information about wildlife and disease. I strongly recommend you find this out before you need to know.
These risks are also one of the reasons that in the United States the state and federal governments have passed laws requiring anyone caring for sick, injured, or infant wildlife be licensed and why breaking these laws carry such severe penalties. (Possessing wildlife without a permit can not only cost thousands of dollars in fines, but can also prevent you from ever obtaining a rehabilitator’s permit or license in the future!) Licensing or permitting helps to insure wildlife rehabilitators are trained not only in wildlife care, but also in maintaining the health and safety of all concerned. I don’t mean to frighten you, but is entirely possible for our compassion to inadvertently put many at great risk. Risk that can be prevented with just a little knowledge.
If your head as well as your heart is now engaged, here are the basics on how to successfully and safely help a wild animal.
Small Mammal Triage 101
1. Do obtain treatment for injuries.
2. DO provide supplemental warmth.
3. DO provide hydration.
4. DO NOT FEED!
5. Find a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.
Not all young animals have been orphaned or abandoned.
There are many species whose mothers leave their youngsters in order to go out and forage (for example, deer and rabbits.) Especially as babies become more mobile, they will start to move away from the nest or den, however, mother is normally closer than you think. Unless the baby is obviously injured or is being buzzed by flies (a sign body temperature has dropped too far and death is imminent) your best tactic is to simply leave for a few hours. If the baby is still in the same position when you return (especially as it grows dark) or has been heard crying then the odds are it has been either orphaned or abandoned and needs your help.
True orphan squirrel behaviors include extreme “friendliness” in eyes-open babies (think of the children’s story, “Are You My Mother?”), and crying (calling) for an extended period of time. No matter their age, however, if something happens to their mother and she does not return, all squirrel babies will and do go looking for her. Even hairless, eyes-closed infants will blindly make their way out of the nest, and because they are entirely unsuited for such activity, end up on the ground. (See the “Biology & Natural History” page for help in determining the age of a baby squirrel.)
It should be noted that baby rabbits are really and truly on their own while still small enough to fit into the palm of your hand! But if a nest of baby rabbits appears too young to be on their own (eyes still closed, for example) there are “tricks” you can use to determine if the mother has come back and left again, like strategically placing two long, thin twigs in an “X” across the top of their nest and checking later to see if it has been moved. (Mother rabbits spend very little time on their nests, visiting only two or three times from dusk through dawn to quickly feed and then move off again, acting rather as a decoy to predators.)
If you are in doubt, go to the Links page for more information or call a licensed wildlife rehabilitator for advice.
You can put babies back into their nest.
It is a myth that mothers will reject a baby that has been handled by humans. Just don’t overdo it; simply scoop it up gently and place it back into the nest if it is readily accessible.
Obvious injuries require immediate care.
If there are bleeding wounds or an obvious break in a limb or tail, the animal must be taken to a vet immediately. If the animal appears to be in shock (very listless and cool to the touch) this too requires emergency treatment. Be extremely cautious about handling – wear gloves and use an old towel to pick up the animal, wrapping it carefully and especially covering its head; sometimes it is easier to use the towel to gently “push” it into a box. Even very young animals can and will bite if in pain and a seemingly unconscious animal can “miraculously” spring to the defense if it feels threatened. Do not try to give any water or food and avoid moving the animal as much as possible because if there are external injuries the chances are good there are internal injuries as well. (Very small wild mammals who appear to have hind-end paralysis often have concurrent, oft-terminal internal injuries. ) Secure the animal in a pet carrier or appropriately-sized box and take it to the nearest vet (most cities have veterinary clinics open 24 hours a day for emergencies.) If there is no such 24-hour emergency facility near you, contact your local animal control, the non-emergency number of your local police department, or look in the phone book for a wildlife rehabilitation center. These resources may be able to help you find someone qualified to treat the animal. If you have no choice but to keep the animal overnight, place the container in a dark, quiet room and simply leave it alone until you can get it to a medical facility first thing in the morning.
Baby mammals must be kept warm.
Most cannot thermoregulate until they near weaning so if you find that you must take in a relatively healthy-appearing baby mammal, even for a couple of hours before transporting it to a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, the first thing you must do is get it somewhere safe, warm, and quiet. A secure box small enough to act as a nest, lined with paper towel and tissue and set partially on a heating pad set to “low” or partially on a hot water bottle is all that’s needed. (Make sure there are air holes in the box!) A small cat carrier also works well for older babies and a small nest box lined with paper towel and tissue can be put inside for it. It is important that the baby be able to move away from the heating source if it gets too warm. Place the container in a room away from all household activity, especially any domestic pets to prevent the possible transmission of parasites or disease. (Fleas, ticks, distemper, and mange are all potential though very unwelcome guests.) Do not forget to continue to provide supplement heat during transport to a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.
Baby mammals need hydration.
The second thing to do, if you are unable to get the baby to a vet or wildlife rehabilitator immediately, is begin to hydrate it. Almost every single orphaned wild baby mammal will be suffering from dehydration and emaciation, and if to a severe enough degree this causes a condition called “necrotic bowel syndrome”. In simple terms, what happens is that blood is diverted from the digestive tract in order to preserve more vital organs such as the heart and lungs. If this condition continues for too long, parts of the bowel will begin to die and if you put food into a baby with dead bowels, you will end up with a dead baby. So after the baby has regained body warmth, offer it only Pedialyte or water to which you’ve added the tiniest pinch of sugar and salt. But don’t force the baby to take it. If it is too frightened or “shocky” it will need some time (perhaps several hours) to calm down. Just check on it at regular intervals and continue to offer it the fluid. (A sterilized eyedropper or small “worming” type syringe are fine to use, just be sure to not overfill the baby’s tummy or give it more than a drop or two per swallow. Do not use a pet nursing bottle for a baby squirrel. They aspirate very easily, causing pneumonia and eventually death.) Depending on the size of the baby, restoring proper hydration can take several days.
Wild baby mammals cannot digest cow’s milk.
Never, ever give a wild baby cow’s milk. Most species cannot digest it and you can cause the animal severe gastric upset resulting in fatal diarrhea and dehydration. This is a painful and messy death which is easily prevented. Think of it this way: we can live a long time without food, but we cannot live for long without water. Temporary, emergency care requires only that you provide hydration. Anything needed beyond this point should be done by or only under the direct instruction of a licensed wildlife rehabilitator familiar with the species.
Bad cases of fleas, ticks, or maggots are manageable.
This is normally not a problem if the baby is still very small (i.e. ears and/or eyes still closed, little to no fur or upper incisors). Youngsters who are just past true infancy but still nursing (becoming fully-furred, eyes open, somewhat mobile and alert but still appearing very baby-like) can be bathed but this should only be done if a flea infestation is very, very bad and you have no choice but to keep the animal indoors overnight. Use a large bowl or small bucket of warm water (just above your body temperature) and keeping a hold of the baby at all times gently but firmly, always supporting its lower body, slowly lower it in a “sitting position” in your hands into the water. Soaking the baby for a few minutes will drown many of the fleas (make sure to keep its eyes, nose, and ears dry), then gently soap its fur with a few drops of flea shampoo that is labeled as safe for puppies and kittens, rinse with warm water, follow this with physical removal of any remaining flea stragglers or especially maggots (fly eggs; they look like tiny grains of rice), and gently towel dry. Immediately place the baby into its warm “nest”, cover it, and leave alone. If done immediately after hydrating, the baby should be rather relaxed and not put up too much of a fuss. Older animals or very fussy babies can have their bedding lightly misted with Ovitrol or a flea & tick spray labeled as safe for puppies and kittens if it is not possible to (very) lightly mist it onto their fur. Never spray into eyes or ears and do let bedding dry before placing an animal on it.
Find a wildlife rehabilitator.
Each species of wildlife has very specific dietary and habitat requirements to which the average animal-lover, no matter how well-intentioned, simply cannot commit. Once you’ve gotten the baby settled down and hydrated, your final and most caring step of all is to get on the telephone or here on the internet and find someone who has both the training and the facilities to care for it properly to help insure it is able to be successfully released back into the wild (see the Links page).