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Care of Orphaned Wild Animals

 Nancy A. Fisher, BS, LAT
 Clinical Coordinator
 Animal Technology Program
 Michigan State University
 East Lansing. Michiga

Definition and Sources of Orphans

An orphan is defined as any animal that has become motherless while still unable to care for itself. It may also mean a very young, though independent. animal suddenly unable to fend for itself due to sickness, injury or extreme environmental conditions.

Mothers may be killed by cars. predators or disease. Storms may shake babies from poorly constructed tree nests as well as force them from shallow ground nests.

Unfortunately, many adopted animals are not true orphans. People often have difficulty believing that tiny rabbits and squirrels, though alert, eyes open and walking well rather than crawling, can actually care for themselves. In the cases of infants, the mother could be out foraging for food or waiting nearby for humans to leave the area. If there is concern that the babies may be motherless, the nest should be observed from a considerable distance for the return of the mother and to fend off predators. This could mean several hours of careful, quiet observation. Any infant found outside the nest should be returned to it immediately if it appears healthy and uninjured. It is only a myth that the mother will not accept the baby after it has been touched by humans.' The baby should be approached and handled quietly so that it will remain calm and not fall from the nest again in an attempt to flee.

Anxious to help, people forget that the baby's best chances for survival lie in its remaining with the natural mother. Attempts to raise a wild baby, either out of kind concern or as a family learning experience often end in frustrated disappointment when, all too frequently, the animal dies. However, if the permanent absence of the mother can be determined or if the baby is found weak and cold, adoption becomes a necessity.

Legal Requirements

Anyone interested in caring for injured or orphan wildlife should be aware that specific county, state and federal regulations exist governing their possession and care. Permits, usually given free of charge to qualified individuals, are required to handle the majority of wild species. Degree of protection varies with location and species.

It is imperative that the veterinary practice inform clients of the legal responsibilities involved in the care of wildlife, especially with the more unusual animals such as birds of prey. These animals require a long-term, well-organized commitment by a knowledgeable individual or group. It would be advisable for the practice to keep an up-to-date list of local wildlife authorities, such as the local conservation officer or game warden.


Immediate identification of the extremely young mammalian or avian orphan is not necessary since basic requirements (warmth. nest, high energy food source, regular feedings) are somewhat universal. Very soon, however, proper identification will be of major importance. It will be difficult to develop a suitable, long-range nutritional plan or establish criteria for release if the orphan's proper life-style and habitat are not known.

Young mammals can be classified as either altricial or precocial. All altricial mammals, for example, the squirrel and the rabbit, are born with their eyes sealed closed, cannot walk at birth, and are hairless or have only a thin, soft covering of hair. Precocial mammals, such as the hare and the deer, have their eyes open at birth, have more extensive hair or fur, and can walk about only hours after birth.

Birds also are classified as altricial or precocial. Whereas precocial birds, such as ducks and pheasants, are covered with a soft down and begin to walk about at birth, altricial birds are born naked and helpless. Songbirds, pigeons and birds of prey are altricial.

The most common mammals (e.g., squirrels, rabbits) present little problem, while young birds are often quite difficult to identify. It is helpful for any practice, or technician, interested in wildlife care to keep a field guide on hand. These guides, through descriptions of feathering, beak shape, and normal habitat, can provide some information for a natural diet as well as release to the wild.

When first presenting the orphan, the client can provide important details as to the type of habitat in which the infant was found, types of nests seen, or species of adult birds seen in the immediate vicinity.

When a field guide proves inadequate, the local chapter of the Audubon or other ornithological society conservation officer, nature center, or community member with a special interest in rehabilitating wildlife, may assist in identification of the animal.

Environmental Temperature

Initially, a proper environmental temperature is probably the most important need of the orphan baby. As a general rule, the temperature control system of the very young animal functions poorly. Temperature extremes are to be avoided, as the resulting stress can weaken a healthy orphan or even kill one that is already debilitated.

There are several inexpensive, readily available ways to supply adequate warmth. Sixty-watt light bulbs are an excellent heat source. They provide a more constant warmth than hot water bottles and are less hazardous than heating pads, The bulb should be suspended above the nest, and an inexpensive outdoor thermometer placed on the cage floor Later, when the baby is more active, it may be necessary to place a screen between the animal and the bulb to prevent contact. By lowering or raising the bulb, the temperature at the nest site can be increased or decreased, respectively.

Hot water bottles are an adequate heat source but have the disadvantages of leaking (thereby soaking the orphan and causing him to chill) and needing to be refilled frequently with fresh hot water to maintain a stable temperature. If a commercial hot water bottle is not available, empty alcohol or peroxide bottles (with tight fitting lids) work very well. Bottles should be covered with towels to protect the baby's sensitive skin from extreme heat.

Heating pads should also be covered carefully with a towel to prevent burns. There should be no easily accessible folds into which the animal could crawl, thereby coming in contact with the hot vinyl of the pad. Pads should be used only at the lowest temperature setting,

It is important when using either hot water bottles or heating pads that they do not cover the entire nest. The only way the infant will be able to reduce the heat is to crawl off the source.

If a commercial incubator is used, all vents, heat sources and water chambers must be covered with screening to prevent small creatures from crawling into them and becoming injured.

The environmental temperature should be selected and adjusted according to the following guidelines. An altricial bird with no feathers will require an environmental temperature of 90 to 95 F When feathers begin to cover most of the body, the temperature should be lowered 5'F per week until a temperature of 70 to 75F is reached. Orphan mammals' requirements are similar. If the baby is naked and its eyes are closed, an environmental temperature of 90 to 95F should be provided. If the animal has hair, but the eyes are still closed, 85 to 90F should be adequate. Once the eyes open, the temperature should be decreased 50F per week until 70 to 75F is reached.

The Debilitated Baby

The cold, weak or injured wild animal orphan presents an especially difficult challenge. Obviously, life threatening conditions (bleeding, hypothermia, respiratory distress, dehydration) must be dealt with first.

The cold, weak baby is the most common situation, especially after hard storms, Frequently, eliminating the hypothermia will result in a reasonably healthy orphan with good chances for survival. The client who finds a hypothermic baby can be instructed to cup it in his hands until a more adequate heat source can be provided.

Dehydration can be treated with an oral rehydration formula, as well as by the injection of fluids prescribed by the veterinarian. An oral rehydration formula has the advantage of containing ingredients found in the home. The formula is as follows 1 teaspoon salt and 3 teaspoons Karo syrup to a quart of water. An alternative emergency formula is warm cola with a raw egg beaten into it.

A cold, weak baby (either bird or mammal) should not be fed solid food since, in the debilitated condition, the animal will be unable to digest the food properly. Only warm oral rehydration formula should be fed until the orphan is no longer chilled. The weak orphan will need more frequent feedings (every 30 minutes for mammals and every 15 minutes for birds) but smaller amounts at each feeding.

For the weakest orphans, tube-feeding may be necessary. The same procedure is utilized in gavaging (stomach tubing) an orphaned wild mammal as is used for orphaned puppies.' It is particularly easy to pass a tube into the lower esophagus of birds since the glottis (opening into the trachea) is clearly visualized, and thus avoided, at the base of the tongue.

Nests and Shelter

Both the infant avian and mammalian orphan will need a nest for warmth and security. For altricial birds, a berry box or similar size container can be lined with tissues for easy cleaning. Rabbits and squirrels will be comfortable in a small box lined with an old flannel shirt or towel. They seem to like crawling into folds to snuggle, so some looseness in the fabric should be provided. If a heat source other than an incubator or lamp is used, the nest area must be large enough for the baby to crawl away to a cooler section. Place the nest in a quiet place away from drafts, unsupervised children and family pets.

As the infant progresses and begins to move about the nest, exploring or perching on its sides, the smaller container can be replaced with a spacious cage containing a nest area. Adequate room to exercise is essential to the growing orphan.

Birds will do well in a space 30" x 30" x 36".Twigs of various sizes and heights may be used for perching. Rabbits and squirrels will need a space approximately 30" x 36" x 36". Squirrels will need branches of different sizes on which to climb.

All orphans are notorious for messiness, so the cage will need to be constructed of a sturdy, easily cleaned material. Cages of hardware cloth or screen (available at hardware stores) are not difficult to make. Both can be stapled to a wooden frame or the hardware cloth alone can be folded into a box shape and sewn together with thin wire. Care should be taken to eliminate any sharp edges which could cause injury.

Orphaned Wild Mammals

Even though precocial mammals are more independent than altricial mammals at birth, species differences will determine the extent of difficulty encountered and commitment required in raising a wild orphan. Some animals in the precocial group, such as hares, are ready for release quickly, with minimal human contact and the accompanying risk of imprinting. By contrast, deer, even when raised similarly to the domestic goat orphan, are extremely difficult to rehabilitate and release successfully. Among altricial mammals, carnivores, such as raccoons, require more time and complicated training for successful release than the squirrel or cottontail rabbit.

Orphaned Baby Squirrels and Rabbits Estimating Age

Squirrels and rabbits are both altricial. Born naked, each begins growing hair immediately after birth. Rabbits’ eyes open at 2 weeks of age squirrels' eyes open at 19 to 21 days of age.

Suitable Diets

A mammalian infant whose eyes are still unopened should receive a formula to replace the mother's milk. Milk composition varies greatly among species and finding the balanced formula that sufficiently meets the energy requirements of a particular animal is a major concern. One of several commercial canine or feline milk replacers (available from feed stores and drugstores as well as veterinarians) is suitable for the rabbit and squirrel.

Homemade recipes may be preferred because they are less expensive and still adequate. Since rabbits and squirrels are small as adults and generally have a high metabolic rate, their formula must be concentrated and high in energy. Egg yolk, in addition to being easily digested, is an excellent source of protein, fatty acids, and vitamins A and D. Baby cereals are also quite high in protein, and Kayro syrup is a good, easily digestible carbohydrate source. For the finicky baby, a little honey may be added as a sweetener. However, once sweetened formula is introduced, the orphan may refuse unsweetened formula thereafter Table sugar is unacceptable since it is not easily digested by young stomachs and usually causes diarrhea. Several examples of homemade formulas are given in Table I



 Formula #1   Formula #2  Formula #3  Formula #4
 3 oz Goat's milk or homogenized cow's milk  Evaporated milk mixed 1:1 with water  1 Teaspoon mixed baby cereal for every 3 oz homogenized milk  One large egg yolk added to enough homogenized milk to make 4 to 6 oz of formula
 1 Teaspoon mixed baby cereal  1 Teaspoon Karo syrup  Add either 4 drops Karo syrup or  
 1 Drop corn syrup  1 Teaspoon baby cereal 1/2 Teaspoon commercial canine or feline milk replacer  
 1/4 Teaspoon calcium gluconate      
 1 Drop vitamin oil      
 3 Drops wheat germ oil      
 1/2Teaspoon commercial canine or feline milk replacer .

Formulas should be prepared in small amounts (6 to 8 oz) and kept refrigerated to avoid spoilage. All utensils used in formula preparation should be clean. Before feeding, the formula should be warmed. The temperature of the formula may be tested on the inside of the person's wrist or elbow.

Once the eyes are open and the orphan is beginning to move about the nest, it is time to start supplying a variety of foods as well as continuing the formula. Moistened dog food, baby cereal, leafy vegetables and small grains should be provided. As he crawls about, the baby should begin to take interest and nibble at the new diet. Water should be made available in small amounts in a very shallow dish or jar lid.

Gradually, more adult foods may be added to the orphan's diet. It is essential to introduce a wide variety of foods at the earliest possible age. Those animals fed a limited diet or permitted to eat only favorite foods will be at a great disadvantage if released into a habitat where those items are not readily available or are in limited supply. Suggested transition and adult diets for squirrels and rabbits are listed in Table II.



 Squirrels Rabbits
 Mostly buds, seeds and fruits of: Soybean
 Spruce Garden crops
  Oak Alfalfa
  Hickory  Clover
  Maple Crabgrass
  Beech Bluegrass
  Black Walnut Plantain
  Wild Cherry Wheat
  Pine Sumac
  Douglas Fir  Sheep sorrel
 Sunflower seeds Twigs and bark of young:
 Occasionally some insects: Gray Birch
  Caterpillars Red Maple
  Cocoons Wild Cherry
Formula should be fed until the baby is eating other foods well. Then, as the animal's weight and activity increase, the formula feedings may be reduced and eventually eliminated.

Feeding Formula

Rabbits and squirrels normally nurse in sternal recumbency with the head tilted upward. Therefore, when the infant is fed, it should be held upright with the head tilted slightly forward. Cradling an infant on its back only increases the danger of aspiration of the formula.

Both the rabbit and squirrel will nurse well from a plastic eyedropper or small syringe. A glass eyedropper should be avoided since it could be bitten and broken, causing injury to the animal's mouth. The tip of the dropper should be placed under the lips and a tiny amount of formula expelled. Once the baby tastes the formula, it should begin to nurse vigorously. Applying very gentle pressure to the bulb will keep the formula at the tip of the dropper. If bubbles appear at the nose and the baby gags, the dropper should be removed from the mouth. While the head is tilted downward, the excess milk may be wiped from the face. Feeding may be resumed in a few minutes. The orphan should be allowed to eat until full, that is, until it loses interest and stops nursing.

Careful observation of the baby will help determine the necessary frequency of feeding. A healthy orphan, when satisfied, will sleep contentedly in the nest. When hungry, it will begin to stir anxiously and crawl about the nest searching for food.

Until its eyes are open, a strong, healthy squirrel baby will need to be fed every 2 to 4 hours during the day. Rabbits should be fed every 4 to 6 hours, Night feedings are not required unless the animal is sick or debilitated. After the animal's eyes are open and it is beginning to nibble at a variety of new foods, the number and size of formula feedings should be decreased. The amount of solid food eaten, activity and weight gain are important variables to monitor to be sure that the animal is ready for weaning. The orphan should be cleaned well after feeding formula by wiping the face and paws with a warm, slightly damp cloth. As with orphan puppies and kittens, urination and defecation must be stimulated with warm, moist cotton by wiping the anogenital area after each feeding.


Most orphaned wild animals, if supplied a wide variety of foods at an early age, will gradually begin to wean themselves, Occasionally, an animal will be stubborn and continue to demand formula. Some authors advocate allowing the youngster to nurse as long as it wants, while others suggest alternating dropper feedings with dish feedings or formula, especially for squirrels. Dish feeding may be introduced to mammalian orphans by means of a shallow jar lid lined with bread, The bread is soaked with formula and the animal's mouth is placed against it. Once it has tasted the formula, it should begin to eat from the dish. With some animals, this will take some time and patience, When the orphan is eating well from the dish, discontinue the dropper feeding. Weaning usually takes place at approximately 3 weeks of age for rabbits and 4 weeks for squirrels.

Orphaned Baby Birds

As with mammals, the precocial avian species have some different needs from the altricial group. Many (e.g., ducks, geese, quail) can be raised similarly to the domestic chick, using a commercial diet available from a feed store. They can be released early with little training. Altricial birds will require a more complicated commitment.

Estimating Age

The age of altricia birds is usually determined by feathering. Those 1 week old or younger are still naked, but the dark projections of emerging pinfeathers are just noticeable. By approximately 2 weeks of age, pinfeathers will cover most of the skin. Feathering occurs first on the back of the head, then the wings, and finally the abdomen and breast. By 3 weeks of age, the birds are well covered, fluttering about and exploring the nest. At 4 to 6 weeks, they are flying.

A way of determining the age of altricial birds prior to the onset of feather development is by noting the presence or absence of the egg tooth. An egg tooth appears as a white projection at the tip of the beak and is used to crack the shell. Generally, it has disappeared by 3 days of age

Suitable Diets

Initially, baby songbirds, both seed and insect eaters, will generally do well on a diet of canned dog food, moistened cat chow, or seed-baby food (strained beef) mixture. The dog food should be high quality, high in protein and not oily. As with mammals. a wide variety of foods should be offered as soon as the bird is able to move around the nest. Once again, variety in diet plays a key role in the orphan's chance for survival. Identification of the species will, of course, be necessary in order to supply the proper foods (Table III).



Insectivores Omnivores Seed-Eaters
Cuckoos Cardinals Finches
Creepers Catbirds Goldfinches
Swallows Chickadees Indigo Buntings
Swifts Cowbirds Larks
Vireos Flickers Sparrows
Wrens Flycatchers  
Warblers Grackles  

Sample diets are listed in Table IV. When the orphan is eating a wide range of foods well, the dog food can be cut back gradually, Water, with a drop of multivitamin supplement added, should also be offered in very shallow jar lids, once the new foods are added.

Doves and pigeons have a special nutritional need. Young birds of these species are fed a milk (actually a crop secretion) regurgitated by the adult bird. The formula for these orphans must be either a semiliquid cereal mixture or a cereal-meal mix formed into soft pellets, Suggested semiliquid formulas and pellet rations appear in Table V. As with other orphaned wild birds, as soon as the baby begins moving about the nest well and exploring, offer a variety of foods (Table IV), water and vitamins.



Insectivores   Seed-Eaters   Dove-Like Birds  
Natural Substitute Natural Substitute Natural Substitute
Caterpillars Lean ground beef Acorns Wild bird seed Some summer Chicken scratch
Grasshoppers Meal worms Fruits Raisins and fall insects Wild bird seed
Grubs Beef strips grapes Cherries Sunflower seeds Bread
    cherries   Grains  
Ants Bread and milk apples Apples wheat  
Bores Set blackberries Bread corn  
Beetles Wild bird seed Seeds and grains Scratch feed oats  
    corn   Bristlegrass  
Spiders Hard-boiled egg oats      
    wheat   Doveweed  
    bristlegrass   Mustard  
    sweet gum      



Pellets Semiliquid
One hard boiled egg yolk (mashed) Equal parts of: Equal parts of: Well moistened dog meal Equal parts of:
Instant, strained baby cereal Chick starter Cooked wheat-base breakfast cereal
3 Tablespoons mixed baby cereal Wild bird seed Beaten raw egg
Strained beef baby food Grain   Human infant soybean milk formula powder
3 Tablespoons oatmeal      
1 to 2 drops vitamins Enough warm  
3 Tablespoons corn meal homogenized milk    
  to make above    
Enough homogenized milk to mix above ingredients to a stiff consistency   ingredients into a    
Let stand until mixture is stiff enough to form into pellets. Start with a thin mixture and thicken it as the bird gets older Start with a thin mixture and thicken it as the bird gets older
Dip pellets in water when feeding.  Recommended for unfeathered birds  Recommended after birds are feathered Recommended for feathered and unfeathered birds Recommended for feathered and unfeathered birds
Thinner mixture may be fed to very young birds with an eyedropper.    

Methods of Feeding

Songbirds can be fed the formula pellets with blunt tweezers (nonmetal types are safest, if available). In nature, seeing the mother or sensing the vibration of her returning to the nest will elicit a gaping response from the young. Heads tilted upward and mouths gaping open, they will flutter anxiously for food. By tapping the side of the nest or dangling the tweezers in front of the beak, the same response can be stimulated. When the bird gapes, the food is placed gently in the back of the throat. If the food is placed too near the tip of the beak, the bird may accidentally shake the food out of its mouth in its excitement. The dog food should be formed into small pellets and dipped in water to provide moisture and lubrication.

Pigeons and dove-like birds do not gape. Instead, they will probe with their beaks, sometimes turning their bodies in small circles. If the semiliquid mix is fed, it can be placed in a bulb detached from an eyedropper. The orphan will probe into the bulb and suck out the formula. Gentle pressure applied to the bulb will keep the formula close to the open end. Sometimes the semiliquid mix can be fed with a cut-off plastic eyedropper inserted deep into the bird's mouth. If attempts at feeding the semiliquid mix are unsuccessful, the pellet ration can be fed to pigeons and doves. The bird's mouth is opened gently and a small pellet (moistened first in water) is placed in the back of the throat.

A baby bird will stop begging when full and should not be forced to overeat. Birds should be offered food every 30 minutes for the first day. The bird's behavior will indicate how often it should be fed, but many young birds can adjust to feedings once per hour for 12 out of every 24 hours. As for mammals, an orphaned bird's progress is measured by the animal's appetite and general condition. The orphan should grow stronger, more alert and more active. As feedings continue, it should require more formula but less frequently.


A bird can be taught to eat on its own by dropping the food in front of it. If the food is then placed about the cage on branches or under leaves, the bird should begin to learn to search for its food. Carnivorous birds, such as owls and hawks, require special training in hunting their prey (this topic is beyond the scope of this article).

Drinking may be taught to a bird by dipping its beak in a shallow dish or by placing 1/2-inch tinfoil balls in the water dish to attract the bird's attention to the water

Release of the Wild Animal Orphan

Rabbits are ready for release around 6 weeks of age, squirrels at about 8 to 12 weeks. Each should be alert, active and eating a wide variety of foods well, for which it must forage in the cage. Squirrels should be able to crack a nut. Initially, a few nuts should be cracked and left in the shell for the baby squirrel to investigate. Birds should be flying well and eating a wide variety of foods for 1 to 2 weeks before release at about 6 weeks of age.

Once hand feeding of the animal has been discontinued, contact with humans should be minimized. In order to survive release, the animal must become independent and wary of people. A number of factors should be considered when selecting a location for release of the animal. Can the two main requirements of a wild animal-adequate food and cover be met in the selected area? Is the area low in both vehicle and human traffic? Are hunting and trapping permitted? These orphans, though hopefully not tame, will maintain a different outlook toward humans than their truly wild counterparts and consequently may not recognize potentially dangerous situations.

A sheltered animal should not be suddenly released into a wild situation without previous exposure. When release time is near, the cage may be kept outside in a protected area during the day and the location may be changed daily. At least 1 week of outside exposure should be supplied before release.


  The primary goal in caring for orphaned wild animals is to enable them to return to and survive in their natural environment. For legal and ecological reasons these animals, unless permanently disabled, should not be kept as pets. The satisfaction that results from assisting in the preservation of wildlife is perhaps the greatest reward of all.

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