By Mary Van Dahm
Ah! Spring is here! Fresh air and warm sun beckon to us come outside again after a long, cold winter. Naturally we want our pets to enjoy the benefits of the new season, too. But is it safe to take your ferret outside? What precautions should you take if you want to take your ferret for a romp? Here are a few pointers so you and your furry friend can have a fun frolic and avoid possible problems from outdoor dangers.
Any time you take your ferret out for a walk, he should be on a harness and leash. A harness is more secure than just a collar and allows you to pull the ferret up out of harms way should the need occur. A stray dog or an unsupervised child can quickly grab your ferret if the owner or parent isn’t around to stop them.
You should leash train your ferret inside of your house first before you try taking him outside. Initially put only the harness on the ferret. Be sure to supervise your ferret when his harness is on him inside the house so he doesn’t snag it on something under your furniture. Leave the harness on for short periods of time (5-10 minutes) a few times each day. Gradually leave it on for longer periods of time. This allows your ferret to get used to the harness and lets you know if it is adjusted properly. The harness should be snug or else your ferret will wiggle his way out of it. You should still be able to put one finger between the harness and the ferrets skin. If you can’t, then the harness is too tight.
Do not leave a harness on a ferret all of the time when he is indoors. A harness should only be used indoors when you are leash training your ferret. If you leave it on him all of the time, he will lose his hair where the harness rubs against his skin and the skin may get irritated. You might also forget to adjust the harness occasionally for weight gain or loss. This can result in either the harness becoming imbedded into the skin (the harness is too tight) or your ferret may slip out of the harness (the harness has become too loose). As mentioned before, the ferret can also get hung up on something and become trapped.
Types of Harnesses
I recommend an ‘H’ style harness that can be adjusted to the ferret’s size without having to be readjusted each time. This style usually comes with quick release closures for ease in putting the harness on and taking it off. Remember to check the fit occasionally since ferrets have seasonal weight changes. ‘H’ harnesses will usually fit ferrets ranging from 6 ounces up to 4-1/2 lbs.
Harnesses that have Velcro closures are usually OK, too, but the Velcro tends to pick up lint and eventually looses its ability to stay closed. These harnesses also have to be purchased by size so that the wrap around area connects properly. The harness that you buy now for your kit may not fit him when he gets to be an adult.
I do not recommend string type harnesses at all. This type of harness is usually not very secure and they are hard to adjust. Most ferrets quickly learn to get out of them and some ferrets chew the cord. Nylon ‘figure 8’ harnesses are also not very practical. These are made primarily for cats. Ferrets learn how to hold their breath and expand their chests so you think that the harness is tight enough. As soon as you aren’t looking, they release their breath, the harness goes slack and they climb out of it. Sometimes ‘figure 8’ harnesses are your only option for very large mates (Over 5 lbs.) Most harnesses manufactured for ferrets aren’t big enough for a ferret that large.
Once your ferret gets used to wearing the harness, attach the leash to it. Let him walk around just dragging the leash for a while. (Again, be sure to supervise him so he doesn’t get hung up on something.) When he lets used to that, then you can start holding the leash and give the ferret some resistance so he learns that he may not be able to go anywhere he pleases. Once this is mastered (more or less), then you are ready to take your ferret outside!
Walking a ferret is a bit like walking a cat. They generally lead and you follow. With practice, some people have taught their ferrets to ‘heel’, but most ferret owners don’t have enough time or patience to truly master their meandering mustelids!
Beware of ‘Bugs’!
There are many tiny predators that can be lurking in your lawn or in moist, grassy fields. Fleas, ticks, mosquitoes, mange mites, and even some types of spiders and ants can pose health risks to your pet. These creatures are more than just a nuisance. Some of them can carry diseases or even smaller parasites that can be debilitating or even deadly to your ferret.
Before you take your pet outside, spray him thoroughly with a ferret safe flea and tick spray. Make sure you spray his chest, stomach and under his arms, as well as his back and legs. Put a little spray on a tissue or cotton swab and apply the liquid to the backs of your ferret’s ears and under his chin. These are favorite spots for ticks to attach themselves. Do not get the chemicals in or near your pet’s eyes or nose. Flea powder can be used, also, but the powder tends to shake off as the ferret hops about. There is also the risk that the powder will get into the ferret’s eyes or that he might inhale some of it.
Be sure to check your ferret over before you bring him back inside the house just in case a ‘hitchhiker’ climbed onto your pet in spite of your precautions. Check for bites and treat them with an antibiotic cream or ointment. If you notice extreme redness or swelling, call your veterinarian for advice. Your ferret may need something to counteract the allergic reaction.
There are microscopic dangers to your pet as well. Tiny parasites and bacteria can lurk in rainwater or in small traces of feces and urine that other animals may have left behind. Carefully wash your ferret’s feet when you are done with your walk. It is a good idea to carry some alcohol wipes with you so you can wipe your ferret’s feet immediately if he walks in something he shouldn’t have.
Vaccinate Your Ferret
All ferrets should be vaccinated for distemper whether they go outside or not. Distemper is an aerosol virus and can be carried into your home on your shoes and clothes. Taking your ferret outside greatly increases your ferret’s risk of exposure to this virus. Keeping him up to date on his shots reduces this risk greatly. (No vaccine guarantees 100% protection. That is why it is important to get annual booster shots for your ferret to improve his chances of warding off this fatal disease.)
Rabies vaccines are also strongly recommended, in fact in some states they are required. While the chance of your ferret being exposed to and contracting rabies is slim, the price of the shot is cheap insurance for the welfare of your pet. Not only will the vaccine protect your pet from rabies, but also it will help protect your pet from ignorant people should your ferret nip or scratch someone. Most states and counties now recognize a quarantine period for ferrets that have had their rabies shots. An unvaccinated ferret may still be euthanized, if the person that was nipped or scratched demands it. This is especially true if the ferret has been outside where the possibility of exposure increases.
Fertilizers and Other Poisons
A beautiful lawn is a joy to behold for the homeowner, but it may indicate a hidden danger for your pet. Fertilizers and weed killers can be poisonous to your furry little friend.
Commercial lawn care companies are required to put signs on the lawn to indicate that it has been treated. Unfortunately these signs are usually small and you may not notice them right away. People who fertilize their own lawns are not required to put up notices at all. Most spray fertilizers and weed killers are safe for humans and animals within 24 hours or once they have dried. Granular fertilizers can be a problem because the grains do not dissolve immediately and can get caught in the ferret’s footpads or between his toes. This can be irritating to his feet and skin. If he licks his feet later, he might also ingest some of the fertilizer, which can make him sick. One good way to avoid some of these hazards is to keep your ferret in your own yard. You know whether anything has been sprayed on your premises and when and where it was applied. This is still not a 100% guarantee that you won’t ever encounter something dangerous within your own parameters, but your ferret’s chances are definitely better than they would be on strange ground.
Fluids that have dripped from cars are another danger. Oil, windshield washer fluid, and antifreeze often leak out of our cars’ engines leaving spots on our driveways. Antifreeze is especially notorious because it has a sweet taste that many animals are attracted to. It is very poisonous and if you think your ferret has licked any of it, seek medical treatment for your ferret right away. A few licks can be deadly to a ferret. The possibility of exposure to chemicals like these is another reason why it is important to wash your ferret’s feet after his walk. Don’t forget to wash your ferret’s feet in winter, too. Sidewalk salt and other snow melting chemicals can also be harmful to your pet.
Heat and Cold
Ferrets are fairly resilient little animals, but even they can tolerate only so much.Extreme temperatures can make your pet miserable and can even prove to be deadly if not monitored and corrected in time. Ferrets are very susceptible to heat stroke. They do not tolerate temperatures over 80 degrees very well. If you are outside with your ferret on a warm day, try to keep him in a shady spot. If you are planning to be outside for a while, bring along your ferret’s drinking bottle or a bowl filled with cold water and offer some to him frequently. Putting a few ice cubes in the bottle or bowl will help keep the water cool.
Be sure to bring along a spray bottle with some cool water in it, too, so you can spray your little buddy down if you need to cool him off. If the temperature is over 85 degrees, or if there is no shade available for your ferret, then leave him inside in an air-conditioned room. Don’t risk his life because you think he needs a little fresh air!
Be sure to keep your ferret off of hot cement sidewalks and asphalt driveways. These surfaces can get very hot even on moderately warm days. The surface of the sidewalk can also be rough on your ferret’s feet. Short stints on a cement surface can be OK, but don’t try to take your ferret all the way around the block and keep him just on the sidewalk.
Gravel can also be hard on your ferret’s feet. If there are any sharp stones, they might cut your ferret’s footpads. Watch out for broken glass or other sharp things that might be mixed in with the gravel, too.
Ferrets are also susceptible to chills. Cool temperatures (55 – 65 degrees) are usually not a problem, but if you see your ferret shivering, pick him up, tuck him in your coat and take him back home. Those fur coats that they sport provide some warmth, but a ferret that has been kept inside in a controlled temperature does not have the thick undercoat that an animal that lives outdoors does. Think of it as the same as you going outside on a winter day in just a sweater. That’s fine for just going to your mailbox, but if you have to stay outside for any length of time you will get severely chilled. Some ferrets do seem to enjoy playing in the snow, but again, use common sense. Ferrets can get frostbite and they are susceptible to colds and flu. A couple of minutes outside on a mild winter day are fine. If the weather is raw and windy, keep him inside!
Cages and Carriers
Many people like to take their ferrets outside in a cage or carrier to get fresh air. I even know one woman who likes to put her ferrets in a cage and take them for a ride around the block in a wagon. The ferrets don’t get much exercise this way, but they do get fresh air and they seem to enjoy the attention that they get. Even though your ferret is probably very secure in his cage or carrier, don’t let your guard down. Keep the cage under supervision at all times.
Curious children may stick their fingers in the cage or even try to open it to play with your ferret. This can present two problems. First, if the ferret nips or even scratches the child, the child may get upset and tell his parents that your ferret ‘bit him’ (Whether he actually did or not!). This may lead to legal repercussions up to and including the euthanizing of your ferret. Second, if the child does not close the cage properly, your ferret may get out and get lost. Less than 20% of lost ferrets are ever reunited with their owners. Most lost ferrets die from exposure, hunger or an encounter with another animal.
Remember to keep your pet’s cage out of the sun. The cage may be in the shade when you first put your ferret outside, but as the sun’s position changes in the sky, so does the area where shadows fall. You can cover part of the cage with a towel so if the shade from a tree isn’t always available, your ferret will still have some shade.
Unfortunately this usually isn’t adequate on very warm days (over 80 degrees), especially if there isn’t any breeze. A bowl of ice water and frequent misting can make things more tolerable, but again, if the temperature starts getting too hot outside; take your ferret back inside.
The "I Want Out" Syndrome
Taking your ferret outside on a regular basis can be a blessing and a curse. Familiarizing him with the neighborhood may help keep your ferret from wandering off too far should he accidentally escape from your house. Unfortunately, once your ferret has had a taste of the outdoors, he may want to keep going out. You may find yourself having to ‘cut him off at the pass’ every time someone goes in or out your door. Make sure that everyone who comes in your house is aware that you have a ferret running around inside. In fact, if you know you are going to have a lot of traffic through your house at a particular time, lock your ferret safely in his cage or put him in a designated ferret room with strict instructions to everyone in the house to ‘Stay out!
I know several people who put up safety gates across their front hallways so that their ferrets can’t get to the door and accidentally get out while people are coming and going. This can be fine for immediate family and some close friends, but it isn’t practical for casual acquaintances or large gatherings. These barriers should definitely be taken down at night as they can be a safety hazard to your family if there is an emergency in your home and you need to escape quickly or to firemen who may be trying to save you.
Traveling With Your Ferret
This topic could be an article all its own so I will just touch on some of the highlights here. Traveling with your pet can be fun and exciting. Ferrets generally travel well. Even those who seem initially to be frantic to get out of their cages or carriers eventually settle down and take a nap. But don’t let this fool you. If they can find a way out, they will get out.
Some people may think, "So what? My ferret is still in the car so I won’t lose him." Unfortunately, most people have little understanding about how cars are built. In many cars your ferret can access the trunk through gaps under and behind the back seat. In an older car with a bit of rust, a ferret can dig his way through the floor of the trunk and fall out, or he may get asphyxiated from fumes from your exhaust pipe.
Your ferret can also find his way out by crawling under the dashboard. He could then get caught in the engine or tumble to the road below. If the fall doesn’t kill him, he could still get run over by your back wheels or by a car behind you.
An open car window can be another exit for your ferret or more simply, when you stop the car and open the door, he may dash out. All in all, your best bet, and the safest one for your ferret, is to get a secure pet carrier or travel cage and keep your ferret inside of it. Even if your kids beg and plead to let him out, resist the temptation for the sake of the ferret.
Put a collar or a harness with an identification tag on it on your ferret while you travel. At least if he escapes, someone might recognize him as a pet and will catch him and return him to you. If the trip is going to be more than an hour or so, provide your ferret with food and water and, if you have room, a small litter pan. Your ferret should also have a towel or some kind of bedding material in the carrier to make the ride more comfortable. The fabric will also help soak up any spilled water, urine or feces so your ferret doesn’t get wet or dirty.
For warm weather, bring along a plastic milk bottle filled with ice. This way if the air conditioner in your car goes out, you can place the bottle of ice in with your ferret to help keep him cool. NEVER LEAVE FERRET ALONE IN A CAR! The temperature inside your car -even with the windows open – can reach 120° in a short time. Even on mild days the air in your car can reach critical temperatures.
In cold weather, bring along some towels or a blanket to protect your ferret, in case your car breaks down. Wrap the towels or blanket around the carrier to help your ferret hold in his body heat. You should bring an extra towel to put inside of his carrier, too.
Camping With Your Ferret
I cannot stress enough how bad this idea is. Every year I get calls about ferrets that have gotten out at a campsite. Most tents are not made to hold in a ferret and most people’s minds are on other things at the campground – not on who’s watching the ferret. Save your outdoor jaunts with your ferret to your immediate neighborhood. New smells in the woods can be exciting for your little friend, but so are the smells in his own back yard.
Outdoors First Aid Tips
As careful as you try to be, accidents can always happen. You get called away to the phone or you get to chatting with a neighbor over the fence. The weather changes suddenly and you can’t get your ferret home as fast as you would like to. Suddenly you have an emergency situation. What should you do?
First of all, remain calm. Panicking will not help the situation any. Second, assess the problem.
Heat Stroke -If it is a hot day and your ferret suddenly starts to pant, or worse, he goes limp or turns bright red, he is probably suffering from heat stroke.
Get him into some shade, if possible. Take a towel, rag, or some of his bedding and wet it with cool water and lay it over his body. If you don’t have a rag or towel with you, just pour some of the water on him. If he is conscious, try to encourage him to drink. If he is not conscious, do NOT put any fluids in his mouth or he may choke! If he starts to come around, take him home and keep an eye on him. Keep him in a cool, but not cold or drafty, spot in your house. If your have Pedialyte or Gatorade in the house, give him a couple of teaspoons of that to add electrolytes to his system. If he continues to get better, then you’ve pulled him through OK. If within 10-15 minutes he doesn’t get better, or if he gets worse, get him in to a veterinarian right away!
Hypothermia – If your ferret gets out of the house or if you and your ferret are playing in the snow and he slows down or starts shivering severely, put him inside of your coat and get him back indoors right away. If he continues to shiver, keep warming him with your body’s warmth or wrap him in a towel or blanket. You can offer him some Gatorade or Pedialyte. If he continues to shiver or if he becomes unresponsive, call your veterinarian for further instructions.
Poisoning – Try to find out exactly what kind of poison your ferret consumed (Antifreeze, fertilizer, pesticides, etc.) Call your veterinarian with this information and then get your ferret to the vet’s office or follow his instructions and do what he directs you to do.
The purpose of this article was to caution you about some of the problems you and your ferret can encounter outside. This does not mean that you should never take your ferret out! Outdoor play can be a lot of fun for both of you. Just remember that in many instances your furry friend cannot look out for himself. He depends on you for that – so don’t let him down!