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Ferret World
Ferret Care
Chapter 2

Ferret Care

Chapter 2


Be careful where you sit/walk when the ferret is out — he might be under a pillow, blanket, pile of laundry, etc. Sleep sofas and recliners are places where ferrets can get caught in the mechanics. Block off refrigerators, washers, dryers and dishwashers. Ferrets can easily slip under them. Ferrets have no sense of direction in large areas. DO NOT allow them outdoors unless on a leash and under close supervision. Swallowed items are very dangerous. Some ferrets chew latex rubber. (Rubber toys designed for babies are usually safe. Ferrets enjoy "squeak" toys, but be sure the "squeaker" is not the "inserted" type. Those built right into the rubber are safe , but check all toys periodically for signs of chewing. If so, discard it immediately). Some ferrets will chew and ingest certain types of cloth. Any of these items can cause an intestinal obstruction (and an expensive removal operation - if it's discovered in time. Also, watch for anything made of Styrofoam, like the "peanuts" in packaging or the foam rubber in cushions).


Thinking of Giving Away Your Ferret?

Is it really necessary for you to give-up your pet for adoption? Here's a checklist of situations we've commonly run across that, with patience, compromise and a bit of effort, have allowed people to keep their pets.  Also, please consider the age of your pet. While many books indicate ferrets live 8 to 10 years, the reality in the United States today is that ferrets live, on average, 5 to 6 years. They are considered geriatric at 5. If your pet is approaching or over 5 years, few people will want to take on potential vet bills. While large vet bills are relatively rare with ferrets and most of their illnesses are medically manageable, the age issue will come up with any potential adopter or with any shelter. We strongly recommend you rethink giving up older ferrets. If you've had them through their "good" years, they ask for very little in the way of care and time in their "older" years. For many people, the older years can be a ferret's best with their owner as the intensity of their youth is behind them and at long last they may welcome the time spent on your lap in front of the television.

Landlords/Parental Homes/Roommates - By far the most common reason people call to give-up their ferrets is the owner's new rental facility will not allow pets. Quite often rental clauses include this provision because of potential damage - all too common with chewing puppies or cat urine. Noise is often a concern. Frequently, these concerns are can be alleviated by a) explaining that what you have is a no-noise, caged pet, similar to a hamster, which does not run the house uncontrollably; or, b) by making an additional security deposit. Ask as you are looking for a new rental - there are a number that will accommodate small, quiet pets.

If it's your parents or a roommate with the "problem" - you need to consider how long your situation will last. If you have a roommate for one year, is it reasonable for them to ask that you give-up your pet of four years? If you are going to be living with your parents temporarily, would they consider allowing you to keep your ferret if it is only kept in one room of the house? If "odor" is the issue, consider purchasing a HEPA air filter. Single room filtering systems are not expensive and may allow you to keep your pet with you.

Allergies/Pregnancy - Frequently, allergists and obstetricians will arbitrarily advise patients to "get rid of the animals" in their household. In either situation, this might be an overreaction! First, is the allergy truly being caused by the ferret or by it's bedding/litter/food? Ferrets are fur-bearing pets meaning they do not produce significant amounts of dander that "hair" bearing animals such as cats, most dog breeds and people produce. If dander is the culprit, then a ferret can be a fine alternative to the more common pet as most people find it is "hypo-allergenic."

If it is the bedding that is causing the "problem," are you using dust producing bedding such as pine or cedar shavings? First, ferrets should never be kept - long-term - with wood shavings as bedding. Certain woods can be toxic while the dust produced by these types of bedding can be damaging to your pet's respiratory system over time. Switch to all cotton bedding material such as T-shirts or receiving blankets (man-made fibers can "hold" odor even after washing). Alternatively, use newspaper in cage trays. Wash the bedding and your ferrets more frequently! Ferrets are notorious for stirring up dust under your furniture and carrying it to their bedding. That could very well be what you are reacting to - with your ferret just being the innocent "carrier." As any allergist will tell you: vacuum frequently. If you have carpeting, get rid of it! Nothing is more difficult to keep clean and hygienic than carpeting.

There is also the possibility of having desensitizing vaccinations. Speak with your allergist or consult with another if yours is unfamiliar with ferrets.

As for pregnancy: ferrets do not carry toxoplamosis which may be passed to pregnant women when they change an infected cat's litter box. That is the principal health concern today. If you are still concerned, get someone else to change the litter box. Don't put your child on the floor to play where animals have been or where you walk in shoes if "hygiene" is a concern (consider what you are bringing into your house on your shoes! This is what play-pens were designed for!). Never allow ANY animal alone with a child. With common sense pets and children can get along wonderfully! Don't deny yourself the companionship of your pet, especially if it has lived with you for any length of time, just because of pregnancy!

Having an allergy or a baby should not require you to get rid of a loving pet. It's also a poor example of responsible behavior for any children in your home!

No Time - We can't solve the "no time" issue for you, but we can suggest you consider the following before deciding to adopt out your pet. Is the situation temporary? Maybe you have had to take a part-time job for a few months and you can't play as frequently with your ferret. Few situations last forever. A good rule of thumb - what is older or longer - the pet or the situation? Remember, one of the reasons people keep pets is to alleviate the stresses of life. Look to streamline their care and you'll have more time to spend with them when you do have some free time.

Perhaps you have an "only ferret" and a companion will shorten the time needed to entertain your ferret. Ferrets can not spend long, periods of time in a cage. First, they become bored; and, second, when they are let loose, they can become even more "hyperactive" than normal from all their pent-up energy. Having a buddy can sometimes work off that energy freeing you to sit and relax watching them rather than having to participate in those strenuous ferret chase games.

Consider changing their living arrangements. Here at the shelter, our ferret-care time requirements were cut significantly when we eliminated the cages in the shelter and allowed the ferrets their very own room to play in. Cages are a lot of work to clean and maintain, no matter how well designed. A small, ferret-proofed room (even a bathroom) can make a wonderful "cage" that is easier to keep clean and gives your pets more space and stimulation. If you can't close a door, a 24 inch high barrier made of plywood or pegboard can hold back just about any ferret.

Behavioral Situations - So your ferret "nips" or "poops all over." Getting rid of the animal will not solve the problem - both of which can be overcome with just some basic re-education - yours and your ferrets! Refer also to the "no time" section above. Sometimes behavioral problems occur when ferrets are left in their cage too much. Ferrets vary in their activity level due to age or simply to their personality type (ferrets can be active; very active; hyper-active; or warp-level active). Lock an active creature in the equivalent of a closet and watch out when they do get loose!

Any behavioral issue can be dealt with as long as it's done through positive reinforcement rather than through punishment, and if it's dealt with consistently. Erratic behavior on your part will only further confuse your pet. Keep in mind you are dealing with "someone" who cannot communicate with you and with whom you can only communicate by example. Ever play charades? Try playing it with ear plugs, without words, and without hands - strictly use facial expressions and forget the concept of "right" or "wrong." See how long it takes to get your message across to someone!

Nipping - We have only ever met one "biter" show up in the hundreds of ferrets that have come through the shelter. That ferret had a history of abuse and never has been able to get over trying to bite any hand that comes directly at it's face. It has always been able to be picked up - - - it was just afraid of a hand coming at its nose. Once we "learned" how to approach her, the "problem" was eliminated. Nipping is a learned behavior. It is either caused by fear or a lack of knowledge (again, both on the part of the ferret and its handlers). First, let's cover the latter situation.  Ferrets play rough with one another. Their idea of a good time is to drag each other around by the scruff of the neck. Most often with kits, that is precisely what they are trying to do - grab your "neck" and haul you around. Unfortunately, we operate on touch - not on teeth! Therein lies the difference between our species.  When teaching a ferret not to nip, slapping, slamming or otherwise administering punishment will not work. In some animals, it can even provoke stronger, defiant reactions. Remember, the ferret is trying to play and you are trying to hurt it. This is NOT the basis for developing a long term relationship! You can't talk this over so you need to firmly but gently explain. How? By playing it's game.  The game happens to be "I'm the boss and can drag you about." They hiss, they hop and they grab and drag. You need to say "NO," and hold them and continue to say no each time they try to bite. NEVER put a ferret down after it nips! You have just let them "win." And not just because they want to be let go - but because you gave them control. That's the game. Who "controls" whom. It's setting up a hierarchy, and if you "give-up," they've won that round. Do it often enough and the ferret is left in charge while you are the underling!

Fear nipping is a different situation. At some point in its history (either at the ferret farm, along the way to or at the pet shop, or when you first handled it) it became afraid. It may have nipped and someone hurt it. Pain creates an exceptionally powerful memory (Consider touching a hot stove). Unlearning that reaction can take a lot of time. Worse, you probably don't know the "triggering" event. That's what you need to try to discover first.  Analyze those situations when the ferret tries to nip. Is it when you try to pick it up? Are you "blind-siding" the animal? Ferrets instinctively fear anything that swoops down from above thousands of years ago their enemies were hawks. Don't come at it from behind like a swooping hawk!  Keep in mind, some ferrets only nip when they need to get down to use the litter box! Others may nip after you've used a certain kind of soap, perfume or if you smoke. Ferrets' sense of smell is highly sensitive. Often, certain scents, (or even certain sounds they find extremely annoying or even "painful") will trigger a nipping reaction. This is about the only way a ferret can communicate with a human. (We have seen former nippers retain this ability to "alert" us to something bothering them by furious licking behavior. Remember, these little critters do not vocalize their needs or desires like a cat or dog. They are very "tactile.") Try a different soap or "unscented" laundry detergent. With annoying noises, eliminate the squeak toy that precipitates any nipping behavior. And never allow "cute" nipping! Trying to teach an animal an allowable "degree" of nipping behavior is next to impossible! You've just made what is a simple yes or no task into an extremely difficult one.  With some careful observation and some changes on your part, you should be able to overcome almost any "nipping" problems and develop a happy relationship with your ferret. If you are dealing with a very high strung, overly energetic animal (yes - there are some ferrets that are far more "hyper" than others!); then, the nipping may occur when you are trying to hold it and it wants to run. Understand that you will not change it's desire to run around! All you can do is learn to compromise the point and just enjoy watching rather than holding your ferret. Ferrets are NOT lap pets. The ones who do enjoy sleeping on someone (they almost never just sit unless contemplating their next move!) are extremely rare and usually elderly. Sitting still for a ferret is not a learned behavior. If they do sit quietly, it is just part of their innate personality

Could your ferret be blind? Don't automatically discount blindness or deafness. Ferrets are skilled at hiding such shortcomings as they don't see very well to begin with and are quite selective in their hearing. We have a deaf ferret that is also blind in one eye. We swear he hears the refrigerator door where his treats are kept or his sense of smell is extraordinary! Learn to speak to or tap the floor nearby before attempting to pick the ferret up to allay any fears.

Litter boxes - Ferrets are, by their nature, very clean, latrine animals - meaning they prefer to use certain selected sites for their toilet. Additionally, ferrets have small, fast digestive systems. Like children, they almost always need to relieve themselves immediately upon awakening. Ferrets also prefer to "back into a corner" where they can be sure something isn't going to "attack" them while they are otherwise occupied.  Unfortunately, young ferrets are all too often taken from their mothers too early. Like cats, mother ferrets with good litter habits will train their kits for you. If mom didn't or couldn't, you get to fill the void in their education. Complicating the situation is the too frequent habit of pet stores to house young ferrets in their litter box. By this we mean not maintaining a separate litter box for the animals or just putting shavings in a cage and placing several animals inside. Since there is no "special" spot for them to go, they consider everything and everywhere the latrine. Small wonder you get them home and they go "anywhere" they are standing.

Armed with these facts about ferret behavior and a little background on the "root" of poor litter box habits, almost any problem can be overcome. All you need is patience, understanding, and a bit of consistent effort. Remember, they aren't trying to be "bad." They don't know any better!

First - NEVER slap or yell or stick their nose in "it" or otherwise hurt a ferret for "going" in the "wrong" place. All you are trying to tell them from their point of view is that "going" is bad. It's too far a leap of logic for them to connect WHERE with WHAT. All they will "learn" is that pooping equals yelling or hitting or the worst: sticking their nose in "it." Try that on your children and see what happens! They land up "hiding" their "mistakes."

Second - ALWAYS insist that your ferret use it's litter box or papers in their cage before you let them come out. If you do not cage your ferret, during this critical retraining period, consider using a cage or confining your ferret in a small area like a bathroom. (A frequent problem with young ferrets is giving them too much room, too soon. It would be the equivalent of letting a baby lose in a stadium. They would never find the bathroom again even if they wanted too. It's just all to overwhelming).

Third - when they do "go" in the wrong place, only "discipline" them immediately following the behavior. Don't catch up with them a minute or more later, "show" them what they "did" and lock them in their cage as "punishment." You can certainly put them in their cage immediately following a "nip" or if they "go" outside their litter box, but it has to be IMMEDIATE. They will never connect the two events if they are not simultaneous! One and one is just that to a ferret - they will never connect the two.

We hope you can find a way to keep your ferrets. They can be the best of pets with just a bit of effort on your part.



[reprinted from the August 1994 issue of The INDEPENDENT VOICE]

Politics isn't always about power: it can also be about policies, which means more than just color and confirmation standards.

It means principles, and commitment to the well-being of ferrets themselves. Hundreds of ferrets are needlessly sacrificed each year for rabies testing because of bad laws. Thousands are consumed and sacrificed in laboratories.

Thousands more are euthanized by animal control agencies because of bad laws, lack of communication between owners and public health authorites, and failure of local ferret clubs to give adequate support to shelter/rescue groups.

More die because "ferret mills" sell under-age, surgically butchered ferrets to pet stores who know nothing about their special needs and sell them as "disposables" to anyone who walks in the door.

Others die prematurely of genetic predispositions to certain cancers because of irresponsible breeding practices, causing grief and heartbreak to their owners. In five or ten years, if our little fuzzies continue to grow in popularity, the animal control facilities in this country could become charnel houses for unwanted ferrets.

The legacy of politics in the ferret community has traditionally been a sorry one dominated by power struggles and vanity wars within a self-selected "elite" of big breeders.

There is a lot more at stake here, at least for people who really love ferrets, than convertibility of show points. And things can't change for the better unless people who care about it work together and set an example. For ferret clubs, that means outreach to and communication with local animal control authorities, humane societies, pet stores, and the general public, as well as stronger support for rescue work.

For owners, it means responsible breeding and spay/neutering practices, and providing the best possible care and protection to our own ferrets. For everyone, it should mean taking a principled stand against ferret mills that churn out maimed, genetically defective weasels to feed research laboratories and pet-store chains.

Unscrupulous organizations that allow ferret mills to sponsor championship rings or accept other valuable considerations from them are sending the wrong message to ferret owners and the general public. By dismissing ethical standards as "politics," they contribute to the problem instead of the solution.

[reprinted from the August 1994 issue of The INDEPENDENT VOICE]


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