An eastern grey squirrel in southern Maine is showing symptoms of squirrel pox with growths over its eye. Squirrels pass the virus to other squirrels, often when gathered at feeders. Credit: Courtesy of Cathy Outlaw

With their fluffy tails, alert expressions and humanlike paws, most people find squirrels undeniably cute. So imagine someone’s surprise when they glance outside and instead see a squirrel covered in oozing sores and scaly raised growths on its body.

That is exactly what some people in Maine are seeing right now. They are the symptoms of squirrel pox and there is nothing cute about it.

Squirrel pox growths show up on the outside of the squirrel most commonly around their eyes, mouths, feet and genitals. If there are enough of them, they can transform a squirrel from a welcome backyard visitor to something that belongs in a summer B-horror movie about zombie rodents.

The growths are hairless and can be dry or oozing liquid. They can range in size from a tiny lump to something the size of a quarter.

The good news is, along with not being all that common in the state, for the most part squirrel pox does not condemn the animal to a life of wandering the woods looking like a tiny monster.

According to wildlife experts, a squirrel with visible squirrel pox has a very good chance of recovering all on its own. That means, according to wildlife experts, there is no reason to “rescue” or interfere with any lumpy squirrel you see.

There are extreme cases when the lumps spread to the animal’s internal organs and that’s when it can be fatal.

“I would not recommend trying to capture a squirrel that has the virus,” said Shevenell Webb, wildlife biologist and furbearer specialist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. “It is naturally occurring and will run its course in time.”

What people can do is stop providing the perfect place for the squirrels to pick up the virus — bird feeders, Webb said.

Squirrels infect each other and that’s easy to do when they are gathering in groups looking for a free meal at a feeder.

“It’s like when you get a large concentration of people,” Webb said. “If someone is sick and it’s something that spreads easily, others are going to catch it.”

With squirrels, the most common gathering places are at bird feeders, she said.

“You have one squirrel eating at the feeder that has the virus and its saliva gets on the feeder of the other seeds,” Webb said. “Then another squirrel comes along and comes in contact with that saliva — it’s the perfect place to spread squirrel pox.”

Webb recommends anyone that observes a squirrel or squirrels near active bird feeders remove the feeders altogether.

“Like a lot of people, I love watching birds,” she said. “Unfortunately you can attract multiple [squirrels] to that feeder and risk exposure if one has the virus.”

Here in Maine, it can infect both the red and gray squirrels and this is the time of year when people have the best chance of seeing the afflicted squirrels in Maine.

“I would not say it’s super common here,” Webb said. “But it’s also not rare — we see it popping up from time to time.”

Juvenile red squirrels are the most vulnerable to the disease, according to Webb.

Anyone who suspects there is a squirrel with the virus in their area should not attempt to approach or capture it, Webb said. Not only is there no real need for the squirrel to be treated, the rodents are carriers of rabies.

Humans and pets can’t contract squirrel pox.

Leaving it alone is the best strategy, but people can call  the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife to report the sighting if they are concerned.

“It’s nothing to really worry about,” Webb said. “For the most part, squirrels with squirrel pox are just really ugly to look at.”

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.