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How is a Ferret Like a Potato Chip?

By Mary Van Dahm

How is a Ferret Like a Potato Chip -- By Mary Van Dahm

Just toss two ferrets into the same bag and have them nestle together like two chips off the same spud. I wish it were that easy! Unfortunately, many ferrets don’t agree with this theory and go out of their way to prove it. But why do we expect it of them in the first place? We credit ferrets with having many human attributes such as joy, intelligence and curiosity and yet we get upset when they display our darker side and show jealousy, sullenness or even hatred.

Most ferrets do welcome company. It gives them a chance to have someone to frolic with (and cause twice the trouble with!). They might display a little tail sniffing or neck checking, but will eventually say “Welcome Aboard!” Others take a little more time. They may try a little pushing and shoving to test the other ferret or to let him know that this is their house and to tell the newcomer that they are Top Dog here. Eventually, they settle down and everyone establishes his own routine and order in the system.

What about the ferret that doesn’t seem to get along? Will he ever fit in? Most of the time, he will. It may take a while (sometimes months) but the established ferrets generally get tired of harassing the newcomer and finally realize that he’s just not going to go away. In a minute, I will tell you how to speed up this process, but first I want to talk about the ferret that will never get along.

Most ferrets that fit into this category are ferrets that have been alone (away from other ferrets) for most of their life. They have forgotten that they are ferrets and do not associate with others of their species when confronted with them. They often become territorial and even an animal of another species may be unwelcome if brought into the house. Some ferrets in this category have been with another ferret or ferrets for many years. They have bonded with a group or individual and feel resentment toward being separated from their peers. Let’s face it; if you were taken away from your family and told that you would have to live with the Smiths for the rest of your life and you didn’t even know them, you might be upset, too! The Smiths, on the other hand, may decide that you are an ungrateful wretch aren’t fit to be in their family — and so the hostilities begin. Before you give up hope, though, stop and realize the stress the animals are going through. What can you do to avoid this stress to begin with?

First of all, don’t rush the animals. When you bring the newcomer home, help him to feel that this is his home, too. If he was eating a certain food before, get him some – even if it’s not your usual brand. You can slowly add some of your brand in each day until he gets used to it. What kind of bedding did he have? Ideally if you got the ferret from another owner, you can ask him to send along the ferret’s favorite blanket or towel.

Add to that your own ferret’s bedding so he can get the chance to study your ferret’s smell before actually meeting him. Switch bedding. Put some of the new ferret’s bedding in with your original ferret. I’m hoping that you’ve caught the fact that the two ferrets are not being kept together yet. If you don’t have a spare cage, sometimes a spare room is an alternative (the bathroom is usually a good idea-just make sure it is ferret proof and that the toilet seat is down!)

Let the newcomer out by himself for a little while so he can explore the allowed area without being bounded. This gives him the chance to check out escape routes and hiding areas should the face-to-face encounter with your first ferret prove to be a bit rough. When you let your ferret out to meet his new friend, STAY THERE WITH THEM!! Do not leave the room. If the phone rings, ignore it. If it’s important they’ll call back. As I said before, don’t be surprised or worried if there is a little pushing or shoving. Ferrets form pecking orders. Some do it so fast that you never realize that it’s there. Other times it’s a test of wills and may take several encounters to establish. If the shoving gets too rough, separate the ferrets for a while then try again. If they are actually biting each other, try spraying them with some Bitter Apple or similar product (this can be found in most pet shops in the dog grooming section). Another thing is to try to distract them with a treat. I have seen many ferrets take time out from a fight to share Linatone out of the same bottle.Sometimes, they even lick each other’s faces! If you can do this several times a day for the first week or so, you should eventually see the hostilities die down. Be sure to vary the treats so they don’t OD on too much of a good thing.

Sometimes, you can judge the seriousness of the encounter by the body language that the ferrets display. If they are just testing each other, their fur will remain flat and their stance fairly normal. If they are upset, they will sometime hunch down a bit and sway with their walk, like a bulldog. Sometimes, they will flair their tails a bit, too. If they are VERY upset or angry, they will definitely flair their tails and sometimes even the hair on their backs. If they still have their anal glands, they will generally express themselves at this time. (If they’re going to be miserable, they want everyone to be miserable!) This stage is generally followed by a swift attack by one of the ferrets. Screaming, screeching and neck biting generally ensues. If this continues after several encounters over a period of time, you can generally assume that these two ferrets are not compatible and will have to be kept and let out to play separately. Ferrets do have mock battles. They are generally not as aggressive as the real thing. One way to find out if you are witnessing a mock battle or not is to pick up one of the ferrets. If the remaining ferret relaxes his pose and comes toward you in an eager manner as if to say “Hey, where’s my buddy?” then you know they were just roughhousing. On the other hand, if the ferret runs off in fear or comes lunging after the other ferret, then you know the battle was for real. The important thing to remember is to not give up on the first try or the first ferret, for that matter. Just because your ferret didn’t get along on the first encounter doesn’t mean that he will never get along. If you don’t have the time and patience to persevere, don’t be afraid to try a different ferret than your first selection. Your ferret may just be waiting for Mr. or Ms. Right to come along. Some ferrets form silly prejudices (They’re a lot more like humans than we think!). I have one little female who will only tolerate males. She is in a cage with three big males and is as happy as a lark. I also have a male who will only tolerate females. He’s in with a harem of four! Oddly enough, I also have a ferret who is color prejudiced. He is a Sterling Silver, yet he only tolerates sables!

Find out what is right for you and your ferret. If you want two or more ferrets but they don’t get along, try letting them out in shifts. This isn’t as hard as it sounds (unless you have about 40 ferrets, like some people we know!) and it gives you the opportunity to see different personalities in action. Pass the dip, please!

[intlink id=”gcfa”]This article originally appeared in the May/June 1992 issue of “Off the Paw”.[/intlink]

Where to Get a Ferret

By John Bradley

Where Can I Get a Ferret -- By John Bradley

It’s a question I get a lot since creating this web site. Most ferrets are acquired from one of three sources. Typically ferrets are purchased from a pet store, from a ferret shelter, or from a private breeder.

Pet stores

I’m not sure about other counties, but in the US, most ferrets come from pet stores. Pet stores have the advantage that they are easy to find. Just look in the phone book. Most areas have at least one or two local pet stores that carry ferrets. All you need to do is show up and you can pick out the ferret you want. Since pet stores get their ferrets from large scale ferret farms, they can offer baby ferrets on a year round basis. Ferrets from pet stores are fixed and descented. Pet store ferrets generally run around $125 which is pretty cheap considering that you are getting a kit (baby ferret) that in the short term just requires shots. The spaying/neutering and descenting has been taken care of. Sometimes the little bigger ones (i.e. the ferret that has been in the store for a little while) will sell for a little less.

Ferret Shelters

We now move on from pet stores to ferret shelters. This of course is what can and does unfortunately happen in real life. Impulse buyers, or people simply misinformed about what it takes to take care of a ferret, may end up taking their pet store purchase to a ferret shelter.

Ferret shelters are a great place to get a ferret for a number of reasons. First of all by getting a ferret from a shelter you are helping out some unfortunate little fuzzy that through no fault of it’s own is without a home. It’s always nice to know you are helping control the problem of unwanted pets by adopting one that is without a home.

Another good thing about shelters is that the people running the shelter have a lot of experience with ferrets and will be able to answer a prospective ferret owner’s questions. While most pet shops won’t take back a pet once purchased, most shelters will since the purpose of a shelter is to find a good home for the ferret.

If for any reason you are unsure about if a ferret is a good fit for your lifestyle I would really recommend seeing if there are any shelters in your area. Unfortunately, that’s one of the downsides of shelters. Not every place has them. You may also be disappointed if you are looking for a kit. While shelters do get kits from time to time, the majority of ferrets are a little older. For a new owner I definitely would not rule out, for example, a one year old ferret. While real young ones are cute, they do grow real fast to adult size (and their still cute… just bigger). Also the real young ones tend to be wild and a bit on the nippy side. With a little training and age they outgrow this quickly, but by getting a little older ferret you may be able to completely skip this step.

In terms of price, ferret shelters are the cheapest way to go. Many charge depending on age with the young ones being more expensive.

Breeders

I really get a lot of mail from readers looking for private breeders. Unfortunately there are not a lot of them. In fact, it is typically much easier to find a ferret shelter than a breeder. Certain areas of the country seem to have number of them concentrated in one area where in other parts there aren’t any to be had. To find a local breeder I would first suggest checking the list of breeder links on the site. If none are listed there, check to see if there are any shelters in your area. They may know of a local breeder. Finally a call to your local veterinarian may lead you to a local breeder, especially if they specialize in exotic pets.

Ok, now that we’ve established how to find a private breeder you may ask what is the difference between breeder and pet store ferrets. Most pet store ferrets come from large ferret farms where thousands of ferrets are breed at a commercial scale. Ferrets bred this way don’t have the chance to interact with humans as they would in a private home. Another drawback of some commercial ferret farms is that while some are known as “pets only”, many sell to both the pet trade and for laboratory use. This can be a real turnoff for ferret enthusiasts given the nature and intelligence of these animals.

The knowledge that a ferret was brought up in a home environment is a real plus in this ferret owners eyes. It’s nice to know that the kits from a particular litter were able to stay together until they are purchased as a treasured pet by their new owner.

Many times the small breeders will specialize in certain colors. If you are looking for a show quality cinnamon ferret, a breeder is where you want to go. Which brings me to another point. Many small scale breeders show their ferrets at ferret shows and they breed their ferrets for certain qualities. Be prepared to shell out some extra bucks for that show quality cinnamon, but if that’s what you want, a breeder is the place to get it.

Blood lines are another reason to get a ferret from a breeder. Some breeders in the US specialize in ferrets that have European bloodlines. Diseases such as adrenal disease are much less common in Europe. By incorporating European stock into the breeder’s ferrets, it is hoped that healthier ferrets will result.

Most ferrets from breeders are much larger than ferrets from pet stores. This is especially true in male ferrets. This is due for two reasons. First, the bigger ferret is a characteristic that tends to be bred for. Secondly, ferrets purchased from breeders are not fixed. It is up to the owner to get this done. While not spaying females is not an option, waiting until they are six months old is a good idea. This lets their bodies to fully develop with the benefit of all the hormones they are supposed to have. As for the males, leaving them intact until they are nine months old really makes a difference. Waiting to fix a male ferret will result in a ferret that is much bigger and stockier than his pet store male counterpart. Male ferrets are supposed to be nearly twice the size of the females. Because pet store ferrets are fixed so early the size difference is not nearly are pronounced.

So there you have it, the three most common ways to acquire a ferret. But come to think of it there is a fourth way of acquiring a ferret. That’s when the ferret seems to be searching for a owner. I’ve gotten a number of e-mails from people that have found ferrets that had gotten away from their owners and were lucky to find someone to take them in.

A Pet Stroller Danger

By John Bradley

A Pet Stroller Danger - By John Bradley

I recently received an e-mail from a ferret owner describing a tragic incident regarding a stroller that was designed for pets. An unfortunate choice in materials makes it potentially dangerous for ferrets.

Here’s the letter…

I spoil my babies. Nothing is too good for them. Their house could easily hold 20-30 ferrets, it holds 3. They have their own toys, harnesses, name tags. They see the vet when they so much as sneeze. They get fed 4-5 different foods as well as raw… nothing is too good for them.

In fact I even bought them their own stroller. This is what I am writing about. I bought the Four Paws Fresh Air Pet Stroller, but after checking pet stroller after pet stroller I notice no matter what the brand, they are all the same.

I took my ferrets for a walk one day and when I came home I let the stroller sit were they could get to it, not aware of the possible danger. Not long… sadly not long turned out to be too long. My beloved Loki ate some of the foam on the handle bars (put there for my comfort while I push the stroller). At the time I did not notice what he was up to. A while later when he started acting sick, I rushed him to the vets were he underwent emergency surgery to remove the foam from the stroller handle. He came home that day from the vets and seemed to be doing well. That was until the next day just after noon. He then suddenly took a turn for the worse and by 5 o’clock that day had died.

It turns out the blockage caused a blood clot which was not seen during the surgery. Later the clot moved to the heart and killed my ferret. Please warn other ferret owners. These strollers are wonderful, but take off the foam padding on the handle to prevent a potential tragedy. I still see my baby struggling for life in his last few moments. I don’t want this to happen to anyone else.

– Kathy

I first want to thank Kathy taking the time and likely saving the lives of other ferrets by letting us know her ferret’s story. It really drives home that we need to be extra careful when ferret proofing. Foam rubber, while highly attractive to ferrets, needs to be kept out of reach and in no way accessible to our ferrets.

Ferret proofing is not a one time only exercise. We need to continually check furniture for possible exposed foam (due to wear) and consider if any new items are ferret safe if they are placed in an area where the ferrets may get to them.

After receiving Kathy’s e-mail, I noticed that not only do pet strollers use foam for the handles, this is a common feature for baby strollers as well. Foam can also be found on broom and tool handles and exercise equipment. I’m sure there are other items, but this just points to the fact that ferret owners need to be extra vigilant to help ensure the safety of our pets.

When choosing products for ferrets it is important that foam rubber not be used in any part of the construction of such items. This includes pet strollers and ferret bedding. Ferret bedding, or any other type of animal bedding used for ferrets should never be stuffed with foam. Ferrets are hard on their bedding and frequent washings further take their toll on ferret bedding. Inevitably, the fabric will wear, seams will pop and the foam used for stuffing will be exposed. Because of this foam should never be used. Instead, polyester fiberfill is a much better and safer alternative for making comfortable, yet safe bedding for ferrets.

Why is Chocolate Poisonous to Ferrets?

By Dr. Gary Brummett, DVM

Why is Chocolate Poisonous to Ferrets? - By Dr. Gary Brummett, DVM

Most pet owners don’t realize that chocolate can be poisonous to their pet. The primary toxic agent is theobromide, which excites the heart and causes abnormal heart rhythms. Other clinical signs include vomiting, muscle tremors, depression, and increased urination. Death may occur from cardiac arrest. [Chocolate can also affect the kidneys and liver].

Although tolerance varies in small animals, the minimum lethal dose is about .1 oz [1/10 of an ounce] of baking chocolate or 2 oz. of milk chocolate for a ferret weighing 2 lbs. Treatment by your veterinarian is necessary when clinical signs are present, and are based on delaying absorption, hastening elimination, and providing supportive treatment.

As is often the case, prevention is the best path to follow – so keep chocolates out of the reach of your pet!

[intlink id=”fair”]This article originally appeared in the May/June 2001 issue of "The F.A.I.R. Report".[/intlink]

Traveling With Your Ferret

By Susan A. Brown, D.V.M.

Traveling With Your Ferret -- By Susan A. Brown, D.V.M.

Traveling with your furry ferret friends can be an enjoyable experience if you do some careful planning and take a few precautions before you set out on your journey. As much as we love our pets, not everyone feels the same and in the case of ferrets, some people who are uneducated on the sweet nature of these critters, can be downright unpleasant about having them around. In addition, ferrets are still illegal in a few areas of the country. Let’s then cover some of the basics of traveling with a ferret to get you off on the right foot, or should I say “paw”!?

MODE OF TRAVEL

Probably the best way to travel with your pet is in your own car. In this way you can control the important things such as when to stop for eating, playing and resting and you can control the temperature to which your pet is exposed.

If you do not have access to a car or have to travel a long distance you can choose from trains, buses and planes. I made some calls regarding what public modes of transportation would allow ferrets on board, and I received a definite NO to any pets from the Chicago suburban train and bus companies. Only seeing-eye dogs were allowed. This may differ in other areas of the country, but call first before making those reservations.

Airplanes are the most commonly used method of long distance travel, so I checked on some airlines to see which ones would accept ferrets on in the cabin. To say the least I was very disappointed that the list was so small. Out of nine major airlines only two, Delta and America West, allowed ferrets inside the cabin with the passenger. To their credit they were very cheerful about the prospect of having these critters on board and I commended them on their open policy. There may be a hefty charge for a one-way trip for pets riding inside the cabin regardless of the destination. A few airlines do not allow pets, other than seeing-eye dogs anywhere on the plane, even in the cargo compartment. Most of the airlines allow only dogs, cats and small birds in the passenger area and allow ferrets only in the cargo area. These airlines said there would be no exceptions to
having ferrets in the cabin.

I was assured that the cargo area of the planes that allowed pets are pressurized and heated, but obviously, the optimal choice is to have your pet with you in the cabin if at all possible. Airlines will not take pets into the hold area if the outside temperature is either extremely hot or cold because the pet may have to sit in a carrier outside the plane while waiting to be loaded. This could affect whether your pet can travel with you at all times on your trip. If the ferret is going in the cabin, the outside temperature is not a problem. All airlines require a health certificate from a veterinarian issued no more than 10 days before the flight.

If you do take your ferret on public transportation, please do not remove him/her from the carrier while on board unless there is an emergency. Your pet may be frightened by the new experience and you will greatly increase the chances of an escape or a bite to an unsuspecting passenger.

WHERE TO STAY

The first thing to consider when planning your stay is to make sure that ferrets are legal at that location. Remember that even within ferret-friendly states, ferrets may be illegal in certain cities, I just had a client relate a harrowing experience she had with her ferrets in Dallas, Texas which is a ferret legal state, but they where they are illegal in the city. Fortunately her ferrets were not confiscated and she got away with only a visit from the local law enforcement agent to her hotel room and had to pay a fine of several hundred dollars. Therefore it maybe necessary to call local animal control officials in your destination city to make sure there will be no problems before making your plans.

In addition to the outright legality of ferrets you need to know about the procedure in the case of a ferret bite. A few ferret legal locations in the country do not recognize the effectiveness of the rabies vaccine and may confiscate your ferret after a bite regardless of its vaccination status. Even in ferret legal states, ferrets are still considered wild animals and problems are handled by the Fish and Game Departments as well as Public Health. Make a call to the state Public Health Department as well as the local animal control department to determine if there are any regulations of which you need to be aware.

Obviously you need to call ahead and make sure that the hotel, motel or camp ground or relatives house allows pets. Many people attempt to sneak their pets into overnight facilities without asking permission. If you get caught doing this, there may be a hefty fine as well as the possibility of confiscation of your pets if you are in a ferret-restricted area. Carefully weigh these serious consequences when contemplating your trip.

WHAT TO BRING

Medical Records: I highly recommend that anyone traveling with their ferret bring a copy of their pet’s medical records. This can be extremely helpful to a veterinarian who may have to treat your ferret in an emergency. The vaccination records are particularly useful and should be carried on your person at all times on a trip, If your pet bites someone, it will be necessary to show proof of rabies vaccination. It goes without saying your ferret should be up to date on vaccinations before to going on the trip.

Health Certificate: This may be required in some areas where you are staying. Have a health exam performed a few days before your trip and carry your certificate with you. This certificate also serves as proof of ownership. It is absolutely required by airlines.

Microchip number or certificate: I recommend that if you travel with your pet you should get it microchipped and carry the registration number with you. A great number of veterinarians in the country as well as animal shelters and animal control agencies have scanners to read microchips and if your pet is lost it can be more readily returned to you if it has a permanent form of identification. Contact your veterinarian for more information on the simple microchipping procedure.

Medications: Make sure you have an adequate supply of any medications that your ferret is currently taking. For medications the ferret needs continuously, bring more than will be needed on the trip in case some of it is spilled or damaged. If you need to get a prescription refilled on the trip, have the medical records handy or a prescription request from your veterinarian. You might consider making up a first aid kit for your pet in case of an emergency on the way. You can include hydrogen peroxide to clean wounds, styptic powder to stop bleeding from a nail, small gauze pads and one inch adhesive tape to cover a wound, Kayro syrup or honey in case of a hypoglycemic attack, ajar of strained meat baby food and a packet of powdered Gatorade and feeding syringes (usually ranging in size from 3cc to 35cc).

Travel carrier: The carrier that the pet will travel in should be escape proof, well ventilated, and be large enough to allow the pet to go to the bathroom in a corner and not soil itself when sleeping. The carrier should also have a solid floor of a material the pet can’t chew through and have a secure lock. Cat or small dog-sized plastic carriers work well. Provide sleeping material such as a sleep sack, towels or blankets and bring plenty of extras because these materials are likely to get soiled at some point during the trip. Put several layers of absorbent paper on the bottom of the cage. Do not attach water bottles or bowls while the cage is in transit because the water can spill and cause to a wet, cold environment for your pet. If you need to provide food in the cage due to the length of time between bathroom stops, use dry food in a small lightweight plastic container attached firmly to the side of the cage. Heavy bowls can shift and cause injury to your pet. The carrier can be a safe, friendly home to your ferret and he or she should be kept in it at all times when unattended.

Food and water: Bring plenty of food along and protect it from extremes in heat as this may alter its nutritional value. Water can be provided in a bottle or bowl during rest stops. If the weather is very hot, you can put ice chips in the water to cool your pet.

Tranquilizers: I do not recommend the use of tranquilizers when traveling with ferrets. They dull the senses and ferret may become lethargic making it difficult to determine if there is any other problem going on such as heat stroke or hypoglycemia. Ferrets adapt to travel very well without adding the use of tranquilizers. In addition, older ferrets can suffer from a variety of medical problems and tranquilizers may aggravate with these conditions. If your ferret seems very frightened by traveling in the car, you might consider taking it for short rides at home and building up its tolerance to travel before embarking on a long trip. This may especially be true if the only trips your ferret has taken in the car are to the veterinarian, where the experience may have been less than pleasant!

“Air conditioner”: If you will be traveling in very hot weather you need to make sure that your car’s air conditioning system is in good working order. However, in case the air conditioner malfunctions or if you need to stay overnight in a warm area, it is a good idea to travel with a few plastic one half to one gallon jugs, such as empty, clean milk-cartons, which can be filled with water and frozen or filled with ice. This container can be placed on the outside or inside of the carrier, which will then give off cool air as the ice melts and act as a natural “air conditioner”. If you put the bottle inside the carrier or cage make sure it is securely fastened so your ferret doesn’t accidentally get injured in case it shifts in the cage.

A FINAL NOTE… LETTING STRANGERS HANDLE YOUR FERRET

I wish the world was altogether a friendlier place to ferrets, but the truth is, in some areas it is not. There are a wide variety of consequences if your ferret bites someone on your trip ranging from a delay in your trip due to quarantine of your pet to confiscation and euthanasia of your pet. As mentioned, in some areas even if your ferret is properly vaccinated for rabies, he or she could be confiscated if a human is bitten. Therefore, PLEASE be very cautious about who you allow to handle your ferret. We all know that most of these critters are gentle by nature and normally wouldn’t think of biting a soul. However, in a strange, potentially frightening situation, or when exposed to certain odors, your pet may behave in a manner that is not expected. In addition to the concerns mentioned you may find yourself liable for medical bills and lost time on your trip if your pet has to be quarantined in the area for 10 days. This same caution goes for cats and dogs as well. With a little planning and care you can have a great trip with your little friend. Bon Voyage!

[intlink id=”gcfa”]This article originally appeared in the May /June 2001 issue of "Off the Paw".[/intlink]

To Cut or Not to Cut?

By Mary Van Dahm

To Cut or Not to Cut -- By Mary Van Dahm

Every day we get calls at the shelter asking our opinion about surgery for ferrets with medical problems such as adrenal cancer, insulinoma or lymphosarcoma. While the ultimate decision should be made between you and your veterinarian, here are some guide lines that we offer for ferret owners who have to face this difficult decision:

How old is the ferret?

Will the surgery extend its life by a significant amount? Since the average ferret only lives about 6 or 7 years, an older ferret may not be as good of a candidate for surgery as a younger one. The condition of the animal should be taken into consideration, as well as its age. A ferret in overall good shape, in spite of its age, may be a good surgical candidate and may have a longer than average lifespan ahead of him.

How far has the disease progressed?

Most cancers, when caught early, have a good rate of surgical success. Some cancers, like insulinoma, however, can reoccur, but surgery can buy some medication free time for your pet. Debulking the insulinoma tumors (removing any large, visible tumors) may help keep the cancer from spreading to other organs. Your pet might also be lucky enough to not have a reoccurrence. If the cancer is advanced and has already spread to other areas of your pet’s body, then surgery may not help much. Unfortunately sometimes your veterinarian can’t be sure how far the disease has spread until after he cuts the ferret open. Sudden low glucose readings can be indicative of a very active growth of insulinoma tumors. Insulinoma has been known to spread to the liver, spleen and even lungs.

Is the ferret in any pain?

Fortunately most cancers in ferrets cause no or little Pain. Unfortunately, if the ferret is experiencing pain, such as in the advanced cases of lymphoma, the ferret is probably in the terminal stages of the disease and surgery may not be of any help.

Note: In some advanced cases of insulinoma, some ferrets may make vocalizations, such as moans or even screams. The ferret usually is not in any pain. These cries are caused by low glucose seizures. The brain is not getting enough sugar and “short circuits”. This causes thee body to receive wrong signals and vocalizations may occur.

Will the surgery improve the quality of life for the ferret?

In most younger ferrets (under 4 years of age) the answer is usually “yes”. The surgery will often improve the long term quality of life for the ferret. This, of course, will vary with each ferret depending on what kind of cancer the ferret has and whether multiple cancers are present. Old ferrets (over 6 years of age) may experience some short-term benefits from surgery, but they have to be weighed against the stress they will experience from the surgery itself. Once again, overall health and condition of the ferret must be considered to determine whether the ferret is a good candidate for the surgery.

Are there other options available?

Many veterinarians are now working with medical and holistic alternatives to surgery. Some of these treatments are not cures, but can help control the cancers or at least the symptoms for a period of time. These treatments are often cheaper than surgery, but not always.

Is the surgery within you budget?

No matter how much we love our pets, sometimes there is a limit to what we can do for them. Finances are often the final decision-maker for many people. This is a fact of life and choosing to not have surgery on your pet should not be considered shameful, as long as you do your best to keep your pet comfortable and follow your veterinarian’s advice for alternative treatments, if available. Some veterinarians will allow you to pay off your bill on time if you can at least put down a deposit toward the balance due.

Note: Planning ahead and starting a little “rainy Day” fund for your ferret “now” while he or she is still health is an excellent idea. This way you will have more treatment options open to you, should you ever need them.

The final option

Saying goodbye is sometimes the hardest decision to make. If your ferret is suffering, and the veterinarians can do nothing more for your pet, or if you can’t afford to do more for your pet, please consider euthanasia. Forcing your pet to live in pain because you “don’t have the heart” to put him to sleep is cruel and selfish. The last step of helping your ferret through life is helping him through death.

[intlink id=”fair”]This article originally appeared in the March/April 1998 issue of \”The F.A.I.R. Report\”.[/intlink]

Ferret Photo-Sensitivity Study Update

By Mary Van Dahm

An Update to the F.A.I.R Ferret Photo-Sensitivity Study -- By Mary Van Dahm

No, this doesn’t refer to ferrets that are camera shy! This refers to the effects of light and dark cycles on ferrets.

We have long suspected that early neutering could have some effect on ferrets, but it didn’t provide a complete picture for many of the adrenal cases we were seeing. Since we already knew that light and dark periods have an effect on the ferret breeding cycle, was it possible that light affected ferrets physically in other ways?

Most members of the mustelidae family are nocturnal (active at night) or are active during the early morning or late evening hours when the sun is just below the horizon. Many members of this family live in burrows during the day to avoid the heat and light of the sun. The average time spent in actual light is just a few hours a day and it is often subdued. This is totally different than the lighting cycles that we subject our pet ferrets to. Most ferret owners tend to keep their pets in sunlit rooms during the day and then subject them to more light in the evening when lights are turned on in the house.

The purpose of our study was to determine if this extended light period had anything to do with the prominence of adrenal disease in ferrets. We also wanted to consider the possibility of whether the age at which the ferret was neutered had any effect on the incidence of adrenal disease, but this was to be considered a by-product of the light study.

We took 30 ferrets aged 3 months to 2-1/2 years and separated them into 6 groups. Each group contained 1 or 2 ferrets that were early neuters, 2 ferrets that were altered at puberty (6 to 9 months) and 1 or 2 ferrets that were altered between 1-1/2 and 2-1/2 years of age. The late altered ferrets (juveniles and adults) were all animals that came into our shelter from different parts of the country. They came in at random as give-ups. They came from breeders in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, and Wisconsin. We hoped that having ferrets from different backgrounds and bloodlines would reduce the possibility of a genetic susceptibility to the disease tainting the test.

The ferrets were set up in such a way that they had a sleeping room with no windows at all in it and the lights were only turned on for short periods of time to clean cages. Three playrooms were set up so that each shift could have about 12 hours of playtime. The ferrets received light for a short period of time (about 6 hours) each day. A combination of indirect fluorescent tight and indirect natural light (from a north window)were used.

All of the ferrets were free fed a mixture of Totally Ferret, IAMS kitten
food, Eukanuba cat food, Marshalls ferret food, and an occasional scoop
of Purina Kitten Chow or Cat Chow as a treat. They were also offered ‘ferret gruel’ daily – a mixture of whatever crumbs were left in the bowls from the day before moistened with water and with a dash of Ferretone, brewers yeast, ProBalance and shark cartilage added.

To date, (almost 5 years from the start of the study) only 3 of the ferrets involved in the study have developed signs of possible adrenal disease (Mostly thinning hair on the tail). One of these ferrets has a very low glucose level and is on a high dose of prednisone, which may be aggravating her adrenal glands. The other two had somewhat bad coats to begin with – even as juveniles – so there is a possibility that their hair loss is a hereditary condition and not adrenal disease that is causing their poor coats since they are both sisters. Six ferrets have gone in for non-adrenal related surgeries (hair balls, cystic spleens, insulinomas). The ages of these ferrets ranged from 3-1/2 years to 6-1/2 years at the time of surgery. These ferrets all had completely normal adrenal glands. Two of these ferrets were early alters.

Unfortunately some of the ferrets from the study are no longer with us. One died from lymphoma, two died of heart disease, one died of kidney failure, and one had liver disease. Ages at death ranged from 2-1/2 years to 6-1/2 years. Post mortems showed that all of the ferrets had healthy adrenal glands. None of these ferrets were early alters.

The rest of the group is still going strong, although a few have developed insulinoma. Our oldest ferret is 7-1/2 years old now. He is a late alter. Our oldest female is 6-1/2 years old and she is an early alter.

As God reclaims his little clowns, we will continue to do post mortems and record the conditions of the adrenal glands at that time.

In conclusion: Judging from the information collected so far, I feel very strongly that light plays an important role in the early onset of adrenal disease in ferrets. Perhaps excessive light causes an overly active adrenal gland (hyperplasia). If nothing changes in the ferret’s environment to reduce the light exposure, the hyperplasia develops into true adrenal disease or even cancer.

I can’t say at this point if light is the whole answer. There may be other factors that we have yet to discern, but light seems to be a strong factor. This may also be evident in the number of ferret shelters that I have talked to who notice that most of the ferrets that stay there for any length of time seem to develop signs of adrenal disease. Long hours of light or irregular lighting (as volunteers come and go at different hours) may be having an effect on the shelter residents. In those cases there is no easy solution to this problem.

Note: Click here To see the the first ferret light sensitivity study article.

[intlink id=”fair”]This article originally appeared in the September/October 2001 issue of “The F.A.I.R. Report”.[/intlink]

'Tis the Season

By Mary Van Dahm

Tis the Season - By Mary Van Dahm

The holidays will soon be upon us. Parties and family get togethers are popular in most households during this time of year. Unfortunately these events can present many dangerous situations for our ferrets.

Most of us do our best to maintain a safe environment for our fuzzies. We ferret proof our houses (and re-check them periodically!) and take special precautions when we know that guests are coming over.

Hopefully most ferret owners safely lock their ferrets up in a cage or a ferret-proof room with a barrier across the doorway. But what can you do if unexpected company stops by? It’s not polite to tell people, “Come back later – my ferret is out playing!” While another ferret owner may understand this request, the average person might be insulted!

One solution is to invite your friends in, but let them know right away that there is a ferret on the loose. Ask them to wait by the doorway while you locate your pet and tuck him away in his cage. If you cannot find your pet right away, ask your company to watch their steps carefully and check all sofas and chair cushions to make sure that a little furball isn’t nestled inside or underneath before they sit down. Hopefully your ferret will hear all of the commotion and strange voices and come out to investigate. If there still is no sign of your pet, caution your guests about the following things:

  • Bathroom – make sure that everybody puts the toilet seat lid down. Some people are not aware that many ferrets can climb or pull themselves up and could fall into the bowl. Don’t rely on your guests to remember to put the lid down, either. Verbally remind them to do it when they come out of the bathroom or check it yourself.
  • Carpet Lumps – these are not always the sign of a careless housekeeper – they are often furry ‘speed-bumps’ and should not be stepped on!
  • Snacks/Drinks – caution your guests about leaving glasses or bowls on the floor. Not only might your ferret make a mess if he sneaks up to investigate and tips things over, but the contents may also be harmful to your pet.
  • Refrigerators – you might be amazed at how fast a ferret can sneak into an open fridge! Unfortunately the thin coats that most household ferrets have are not enough protection against hypothermia.
  • Purses, Gloves, Hats and Boots – these are all tempting items that your ferret may try to investigate. Disappearing hats and gloves can be more than annoying. Some ferrets like to chew on these items and can end up with a blockage. Boots can also cause blockages if chewed, but also carry the added danger of being coated with de-icing solvent, sidewalk salt or other chemicals. Purses can be the biggest danger of all due to the wide variety of items that many women carry—from rubber bands and medicines to practically the kitchen sink!
  • Coats – hopefully you had room in your front closet to hang your company’s coats. If not, you probably laid the garments across your bed. Have your guests pick up their coats carefully in case a little furball decided to take a nap inside the coat or up a sleeve. Make sure that your guests check their pockets, too, for stowaways. I know of someone who thought he had his gloves in his pocket and got halfway to his car when the ‘gloves’ started to move! I don’t know who was more surprised – the guest who discovered the ferret or the owner when he answered the door and was handed a fuzzy package!

Other things to watch out for during the holidays are holiday decorations. Trees, lights, tinsel, ornaments and wrapped packages are all temptations for our fuzzy friends.

Evergreens can be dangerous to ferrets because of the pine sap that can make a ferret sick and from the chemically treated water that many people use to keep the trees fresh. Wrap your tree stand with chicken wire or hardware cloth so your ferrets cannot get to the water to drink it. Better yet, get a short tree and put it up on a table where your ferrets can’t reach it. I’ve even seen trees that have been hung from the ceiling by a hook to keep the ferrets and other pets away from it. (Make sure thatthe trees are away from anything that the ferret can climb to jump over to the tree!)

Gift wrap and ribbons can pose hazards to ferrets. Many ferrets are attracted to the shiny paper and ribbons. The paper can cause a hazard if it is chewed and swallowed – especially if it is foil based. Wrapping paper does not break down easily and can form a blockage in a ferret’s intestines. Ribbons can be a hazard if they are swallowed. Not only can pieces of ribbon form a blockage, but they can also cut up the intestines. Ribbons can also pose a hazard, not only if swallowed, but if your ferret gets his head stuck in one of the loops of the bow he might strangle himself.

Tinsel, like ribbon, is also an intestinal danger. Lights can pose a shock hazard if your ferret chews on the cord. Your ferret also might chew off a bulb and cut its mouth, or worse yet, get electrocuted. I strongly recommend, if you have to have a full sized tree, that you make the room that the tree is in totally off limits to your ferrets while the tree is up.

I hope that these suggestions and precautions will help you have a safe and enjoyable holiday season with your pet!

Other Hazards

Ron O’Hara, a FAIR member from Michigan, sent in this additional list of dangers that ferret owners should be aware of all year long:

  • Box Springs – many ferrets tear out the underlining of the box spring of the bed. This not only makes it hard to retrieve the ferret, but the ferret may get injured or stuck.
  • Stuffed Animals – do not let your ferret play with stuffed animals that have protruding or glued on plastic parts (Especially eyes, nose, mouth, etc). Watch ears, limbs and tails for signs of chewing and take the toy away from your pet if you see these signs.
  • Tennis Balls – Watch for chewing. Tennis balls are made of rubber which can entice a ferret to chew on it. Even the fuzzy covering to the tennis ball can cause a blockage if it ‘pills up’ and is swallowed. Check all of your ferret’s toys regularly for signs of wear or chewing and throw worn toys away – even if it is your ferret’s favorite!
  • Pigs Ears and Rawhide Treats – Pieces chewed off of these common dog treats can form serious blockages in your ferret’s intestines.
  • Tissue Boxes – some people give these to their ferrets as an inexpensive toy. Make sure that you take all of the plastic off from around the opening. Some ferrets chew this and can get a blockage or choke on the plastic.
  • Toilet Paper/ Paper Towel Tubes – ferrets have gotten their heads caught in paper tubes and have suffocated. If you insist on giving your ferret these items to play with, then at least cut the tube lengthwise so your ferret can easily release itself from the tube.
  • Carrier Parts – some pet carriers have black rubber or plastic tips on the prongs that you squeeze together to open the carrier. Ferrets have been known to pull these tips off of the prongs!

Let’s make a real effort to keep our fuzzies safe during this upcoming holiday season and through-out the new year!

[intlink id=”fair”]This article originally appeared in the November/December 2002 issue of "The F.A.I.R. Report".[/intlink]

The Results of a Four Year Study on Light Sensitivity in Ferrets

By Mary Van Dahm

The Results of a Four Year Study on Light Sensitivity in Ferrets -- By Mary Van Dahm

Note: For the purpose of this newsletter, the information given here is general. I have used the terms ‘dim’, ‘moderate’ and ‘bright’ to refer to the light levels used.

All 40 of the ferrets involved in this study were between the ages of 1 and 3 years at the onset. To try to avoid the possibility of hereditary predisposition to certain cancers, the ferrets were obtained from different sources around the country as follows: Tennessee – 3; Iowa – 3; Wisconsin – 3: Missouri – 2; Michigan – 2; Minnesota – 3; Peoria, IL – 6; southern Illinois – 3, northern Illinois 3; and Marshall Farms (N.Y.) pet shop ferrets – 12. (The ferrets were all give-ups at our shelter – we did not purchase any ferrets for this study.)

The ferrets varied in color from albinos and dark-eyed whites, assorted silvers and silvermitts, chocolates, cinnamons, sables and black sables. About half of the ferrets were tight colors and half were dark. Each group contained a variety of dark and light ferrets.

The Marshall Farms ferrets and the Minnesota ferrets were all neutered or spayed at 6 weeks of age or less. All of the other ferrets were neutered or spayed at six months of age or older (most of them were over 1 year). The ferrets were divided into 8 groups at random by compatibility with at least one early neuter in each group and at least 3 sources of ferrets being represented in each group. The ferrets were housed in a room without windows for their ‘down’ time. Some dim peripheral light came from the open doorway to the room and a light had to be turned on for about 1/2 hour twice a day for cage cleaning and other necessary functions that couldn’t be done in the dark. The ferrets were let out to play in their respectively lit areas for about 7-1/2 hours each day. Three* shifts were let out at a time. Shifts were run from 8 a.m. – 3:30 p.m.: 4 p.m. – 11:30 p.m. and midnight to 7:30 a.m. The half hour between shifts was used to clean the play areas, scoop litter boxes and replenish food and water supplies. (*The extra shift was divided between a pet mink and some polecats and not included in this study).

Seven ferrets were euthanized or died during the course of this study. One was from the dim light group, two were from the moderate light groups and four were from the bright light groups. The reasons for euthanasia or death were as follows: 1 – prostate disease resulting in chronic urinary blockages; 2 – congestive heart disease; 1 – liver dysfunction; 3 – combination cancers (adrenal, insulinoma, lymphoma). Three of these ferrets were early neuters (2 Marshalts/ 1 Minnesota) and four were late neuters (1 Michigan, 1 southern Illinois, 1 northern Illinois and 1 Missouri). Of the remaining 33 ferrets, none of the ferrets kept in low lighting have shown signs of hair loss, 20% of the ferrets in the moderate light group have shown hair loss, and 25% of the ferrets in the bright light group have shown hair loss.

Now here’s where things really get interesting. 40% of the ferrets in the low light group developed insulinoma. Four of the ferrets that went in for insulinoma surgery (approx. 33% of the total for the low light group) were found to also have adrenal tumors – two of them were even bilateral – yet they did not show any exterior signs of adrenal disease – no hair loss, no swollen vulvae, no strong smells. A couple of them – both males – did show renewed sexual aggression – trying to mount other ferrets.

About 35 – 40% of the ferrets in the moderate and bright light areas also developed insulinoma. One from the moderate light group and one from the bright light group also revealed bilateral adrenal disease during surgery. Not all of the ferrets with insulinoma had surgery due to finances.

Another interesting occurrence was when, at the beginning of the fourth year, I took one group from the bright light area and one group from the dim light area and switched them. Two of the ferrets who were from the dim light group and switched to bright light developed thin, dry coats, while two ferrets from the bright light group who had outward signs of adrenal disease, developed full, soft coats again after several months in dim light. One ferret from the bright light group who had advanced signs of adrenal disease did not grow hair back in.

I know that this study was not done under the best controls, and using ferrets from such diverse backgrounds may have been a draw back rather than a plus, but roughly speaking the evidence presented from this study seems to point to the possibility that many ferrets, whether from private breeders or from ferret farms, are prone to getting this disease, but due to the surroundings that the ferrets are kept in, the owners, and even their veterinarians, may not know that the ferrets in their care are affected.

Ferret owners in Europe have been quick to claim that ferrets in the United States are more prone to adrenal disease than European ferrets. But European ferret owners generally keep their ferrets outside in cages in protected spots or in sheds with limited access to light. Maybe these ferrets do have adrenal disease but just don’t show signs of it. In the U.S., most ferrets are kept as indoor pets. They are subjected to daylight from windows during the day and to artificial light at night. Maybe this extended photoperiod is affecting their hair growth.

The other widely held belief that this study challenges is the belief that ferrets that are neutered early run a greater risk of adrenal disease than late neuters. In this study, it did not seem to make a lot of difference. The percentage of early neuters affected was similar to the number of late neuters affected, with the early neuters only showing about a 3% greater incidence of outward signs of adrenal disease. Since these ferrets are our pets, we didn’t routinely open up each ferret to see which ferrets might have had adrenal disease without showing symptoms. As each ferret passes, we will do a post mortem on them and add whatever information they reveal to this file.

[intlink id=”fair”]This article originally appeared in the January /February 1999 issue of “The F.A.I.R. Report”.[/intlink]

Pet Products May Not Be as Safe as You Think They Are

By Leslie Sinclair, DVM

Pet Products May Not Be as Safe as You Think They Are - By Leslie Sinclair, DVM

Take the Following Quiz:

Which of the following can seriously harm or even kill your animal companion?

  1. Medication prescribed by your veterinarian specifically for your pet.
  2. Bedding or nesting material labeled for use by your type of pet and sold by your local pet supply retailer.
  3. Over-the-counter flea treatments.
  4. A toy chosen especially for your pet.
  5. All of the above.

If you chose “E – All of the above,” you were correct.

Surprised? So were the many people who have told the Humane Society of the United States the heartbreaking stories of their pet’s injury or illness as the result of using such products. These pet owners contacted the HSUS because they wanted to be sure other companion animals didn’t suffer the same fate.

Too often, pet owners fail to realize that any product, even one designed specifically for pets like theirs, can be harmful. Individuality is the culprit. While we love each pet for his individual characteristics, the fact that every companion animal is different makes it impossible to create a product that will be safe for use by all of them. Individual animals may have unforeseen adverse reactions even to drugs that have been prescribed for thousands of other animal patients. While there are hundreds of products available for treatment and prevention of fleas, these drugs and pesticides can be quite toxic to pets if used in the wrong manner. Even when these products are used properly, their effects can be harmful or even fatal for some animals.

To make matters worse, there is little government oversight of the safety of pet products. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has jurisdiction over about 15,000 types of products, but the agency does not accept complaints or issue warnings about pet products. Calls about products for use on pets are referred to the National Pesticide Network, part of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). A call to that office (1-888-858-7378) reveals that the EPA can accept reports and provide information about pesticides for control of parasites on pets, but not about other products.

Even if there were an agency whose mission was to guard your pet’s safety, it could not act as a substitute for the protection you can offer by following some simple guidelines:

When your veterinarian prescribes medication for your pet, be sure you understand what the medication is meant to treat and how to administer it properly. Ask your veterinarian to explain how the drug works and whether there are any known side effects. Check the label carefully to be sure you’ve been given the proper prescription, and inspect any refills carefully as well. Administer the drug as directed, and contact your veterinarian if your pet’s responses differ from those your veterinarian told you to expect.

Fleas, ticks, and other parasites can be a medical problem for your pet. Not only do they cause damage themselves, but the drugs and pesticides used to eliminate or prevent them can be harmful if used in the wrong manner or if your pet is sensitive to them. Despite the availability of “do-it-yourself” flea products from grocery stores and pet-supply retailers, always ask your veterinarian about the best approach to flea prevention. Read and follow label directions, and never use a product on any animal for whom it is not meant. Also be aware that a flea product applied to one animal may be harmful to another animal that lives in the same home, so discuss this possibility with your veterinarian as well.

Choose chew treats carefully. Avoid products such as rawhide chews and pigs ears. The chemicals used to preserve them may be irritating to your pet’s digestive system. [This type of chew can also cause blockages in ferrets]. And, if they are improperly preserved, they can become contaminated with pathogenic bacteria – like salmonella – that can be easily transmitted to pets and humans.

When choosing toys, bedding, collars, or other items for your pet, inspect them carefully to ensure that they are well- made and cannot be easily pulled apart. Look for parts, like buttons [or sewed on or glued on eyes] that might come off and choke your pet. Even if a toy or other item appears safe, watch your pet interact with it. Some toys are appropriate only with supervision and should not be left where your pet can get to them. If your pet attempts to ingest any toy, bedding material, or other substance, take the item from him right away. If he appears to have already ingested it, consult your veterinarian immediately.

Here’s a final quiz:

  • Question: Who can best protect your pet from the unforeseen dangers of toys, medications, and other pet products?
  • Answer: Only you. Your pet counts on you to keep him safe!

Dr. Leslie Sinclair, DVM – is the former HSUS director of Veterinary Issues, Companion Animals.

[intlink id=”fair”]This article originally appeared in the May/June 1996 issue of "The F.A.I.R. Report".[/intlink]

Summer Heat Reminder

By Mary Van Dahm

Summer Heat Reminder -- By Mary Van Dahm

It’s that time of year when outdoor temperatures are on the rise. Indoor temperatures can get pretty steamy, too, especially if you do not have air conditioning!

Ferrets do NOT tolerate heat very well. Temperatures over 85° can be fatal to your ferret if he can’t find a place to cool off! If you do not have air conditioning in your home, move your ferret’s cage to the coolest area possible (usually the basement). If you don’t have a basement, direct a fan toward your ferret’s cage. Frequently mist your ferret with cold water from a spray bottle or let him have access to a cool pan of water that he can splash around in to cool himself off. (My ferrets love it when I float a few ice cubes in the water. They ‘bob’ for them like apples!)

You can also freeze plastic gallon or 1/2 gallon milk bottles or 2 liter pop bottles 3/4 full of water and place the frozen bottles in your ferret’s cage so he can cool himself off by laying against the frozen bottles. (Be sure not to fill the bottles all the way to leave room for expansion of the ice. Otherwise the bottle may split and you will have water everywhere when the ice starts to melt!)

The frozen bottles can also be used when traveling with your pet in warm weather. Be sure to secure the bottles in the carrier so they don’t roll around and injure your pet.

Never leave your ferret in a car – even on seemingly cool days. The temperature in your car can reach 120° in less than 10 minutes on a 75° day! If you are traveling with your ferret, make sure that his cage or carrier is in a shady spot inside your car. (This spot can vary as the angle of the sun changes during the course of the day or as you turn different directions, so check on your ferret often).

If your car breaks down somewhere, take your ferret’s carrier out of the car and try to set it in a shady spot off of the asphalt. If you have to walk to get help, take your ferret with you. Never leave him alone unattended. If his cage or carrier is too big to take with you, try waiting for help at your car and leave your pet only as a last resort.

How can you tell if your ferret is getting overheated? Symptoms usually include panting, lethargy, a bright red nose and dark red foot pads, and finally, unconsciousness and death, if not treated quickly. If your ferret does get overheated, cradle his head with a cool wet rag and cover your ferret’s torso and legs with a cool, wet towel. You can also dip his body (not his head or he will drown!) in cool NOT COLD! – water. If the water is too cold, he could develop hypothermia or go into shock. You are just trying to return his body to a normal temperature(101°). If you have Pedialyte or Gatorade on hand (or mix up a little sugar water), offer him some – but only if he is conscious. Never put any thing in your ferret’s mouth if he is unconscious or he may choke. Watch for your ferret to revive and call your veterinarian for further instructions.

Let’s have a safe and fun summer and be sure to keep it safe for your critters, too!

[intlink id=”fair”]This article originally appeared in the July/August 2003 issue of "The F.A.I.R. Report".[/intlink]

Shedding… A Hairy Situation

By Mary Van Dahm

Shedding... A Hairy Situation -- By Mary Van Dahm

Shedding is a natural process that most animals with fur or hair experience. Ferrets are no exception. Old hairs fall out and new ones grow in. As you stroke your pet’s coat you may find an occasional thread of fur in your hand. Sometimes you may even end up with a handful! What is considered a normal amount of shedding for ferrets? When should hair loss cause concern? Can anything be done to stop it or reduce it?

First let’s understand the make up of your ferret’s coat. A ferret actually has two coats – an undercoat of soft, fine, densely growing fur that acts as a layer of insulation; and a topcoat of sleek guard hairs, which help repel dirt and water from the undercoat. The undercoat is usually white to cream in color and can be seen by parting the guard hairs. The guard hairs, on the other hand, encompass a rainbow of colors from black, sable (dark brown), and chocolate (light to medium brown), to cinnamon, champagne, silver and white. The guard hairs give ferrets their distinguishing features, such as their masks and coat patterns.

Ferrets generally shed their coats twice a year. In spring and fall you will probably notice a more abundant hair loss. In the spring ferrets will shed out their excess winter hair growth and replace it with a sleek summer look. Come fall, ferrets usually reverse the process. Their bodies dispose of old hairs and fill out with a lush winter coat. There are always exceptions to this rule. Ferrets are very photosensitive; that is, they are affected by the light (either natural or artificial) that they are exposed to. If your ferret is constantly exposed to a lot of light, for instance if you tend to frequently turn the lights on in the room that your ferret spends most of his time in, this can throw his coat cycle off. His coat may not grow in as thick as most normal coats or it may grow in sporadically. You may never even notice a well-defined spring or fall shedding cycle. Some ferrets that are exposed to sudden light changes may drastically ‘blow’ their coats. Their fur will literally fall out in handfuls and these ferrets may develop a ‘Kiwi fruit’ look. This close cropped fuzz is the new coat growing in and eventually the ferret will look normal again. An interesting, but sometimes startling phenomenon in ferret hair growth occasionally occurs when the new hair starts forming under the skin. In sable ferrets this new growth will often give the skin a deep blue hue. In chocolate ferrets the skin may appear olive or khaki colored. The ferrets will appear as if bruised, but there is actually nothing wrong with them. This discoloration is especially noticeable about a week or two after a ferret has had surgery, if the surgery was done just before or during the seasonal shed. Another interesting shed pattern that some ferrets develop is a V shaped pattern that usually starts on the forehead or at the back of the neck and works its way down the entire body. This will sometimes temporarily give the ferret an unusual striped pattern or sometimes the ferret will have one coat color above the shed pattern and another color below it!

Ferrets can develop a condition known as ‘stud tail’. This is usually a condition found in unneutered hobs during breeding season when hormonal changes cause the hair on the tail to fall out. Some people believe that excess oils excreted during this time may plug skin pores and also cause this condition to occur. In neutered ferrets irregular lighting can cause a similar condition. The old hairs have received the light cue to fall out, but the new hairs are not yet ready to grow back in. Eventually the body catches up and the ferret’s tail hair fills back in. Diet can also play a strong part in your ferret’s hair growth and shedding. A ferret’s coat grows from the inside out in more ways than one! If your ferret has been raised on a diet of premium grade ferret food it should show in his coat – soft and shiny. Ferrets are obligate carnivores (They MUST have a meat based diet) and need a diet high in meat proteins, fats and a balance of vitamins, minerals and amino acids. If your ferret is not getting enough nutrition from the food he is eating, he may develop a dry, sparse or brittle coat. It is important that you get your ferret on a better diet right away before permanent developmental damage is done. Some ferrets will resist sudden changes in their diets and you may have to mix some of your ferret’s old food in with the new food until you can wean him completely over. To help your ferret get back on the right track, you can also offer him an oil based fatty acid supplement such as Mrs.Allen’s Shed-Stop, Ferretone, Furotone, Linatone, etc. If your ferret likes the taste of these supplements, you can put a few drops on his new food to help entice him to eat it. Be sure to change the food regularly so the oils don’t go rancid. Eventually you should be able to stop putting the oil on the food and just offer a few drops a day as a treat or reward instead. Some manufacturers of fatty acid supplements may tell you to pour their product all over your ferret’s food, but if your ferret is on a premium diet, this should not be necessary. Too much oil can cause gastric upset or diarrhea and can lead to obesity. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t see results in your ferret’s coat right away. Sparse coats and brittle hair take a while to rebuild and you might not see any results until your ferret’s next seasonal coat change. If your ferret’s coat continues to get worse, you may be facing other problems besides an improper diet.

Your ferret’s health also has an important influence on your ferret’s coat and shedding. If your ferret is sick, your ferret’s body will divert the nutrients it digests into energy to fight off whatever sickness is affecting him. If your ferret’s body does not receive enough nutrients, or if the illness is so severe that the body cannot absorb the nutrients and disperse them properly, then your ferret’s body will first draw these nutrients away from what it considers to be the most expendable feature of your ferret, which is your ferret’s coat. If the illness persists, then the ferret’s body may start drawing needed energy from muscle mass and bone density, after the fat reserves are depleted. Hopefully you will have gotten your ferret in to see a veterinarian before these latter stages develop! I previously mentioned the effect of hormones on hobs in rut. There is also a hormonal condition that affects jills (intact female ferrets) and can cause their hair to fall out. This condition is called hyperestrogenism. Hyperestrogenism is caused by the jill being left in heat (estrus) too long. The high levels of estrogen can cause the hair to become thin or fall out in uneven patches. Breeding her or spaying her early in the heat cycle can help her avoid this potentially dangerous condition. There are also shots that your ferret can receive to take her out of heat. Unfortunately hair loss from hyperestrogenism isn’t the only problem your ferret can face. A severe condition called aplastic anemia can also develop. The high levels of estrogen cause the ferret’s bone marrow to stop producing red and white blood cells. Without red blood cells, oxygen and nutrients cannot be carried through the blood stream to sustain life, and without white blood cells your ferret’s immune system becomes depressed and pneumonia or other diseases can set in. A high percentage of jills die from this condition every year, so your best bet, if you are keeping your ferret as a family pet and not for breeding purposes, is to have her spayed just before (or early into) her first heat. This is usually around six or seven months of age. Most pet shop ferrets are spayed or neutered as kits, so this may not be a problem to you and your pet.

Another health problem that can cause severe hair loss is adrenal disease. This problem is fairly common in ferrets over three years of age. Adrenal tumors may grow on one or both adrenal glands. There is still a lot of speculation as to what causes these tumors in ferrets. The results of the disease, however, are fairly obvious, with patterned hair loss being the most common indicator. Generally, a ferret shedding his coat due to adrenal disease will start with hair loss at the base of the tail. This alopecia (hair loss) usually works its way up the back and down the tail in a fairly symmetrical pattern. The ferret may eventually lose hair over 90% of his body. The most common treatment for this disease is surgical removal of the affected adrenal gland. Fortunately most adrenal tumors are benign and the success rate for this surgery is good. If you think your ferret is developing this disease, be sure to talk to your veterinarian about it. With adrenal disease, no amounts of good food or vitamin supplements will bring your ferret’s coat back without medical intervention. If your ferret has been on a good diet, though, his chances of a quicker recovery after surgery increase. The last major cause of shedding or hair loss in ferrets is allergies. Just like people, ferrets can suffer from a variety of allergies in their environment. The two most common allergies that ferrets suffer from are food allergies and topical allergies. Food allergies usually cause digestive problems in ferrets (vomiting, nausea or diarrhea), but can eventually lead to hair loss due to stress or nutritional deficiencies in the body. Corn gluten meal intolerance is a common food allergy in ferrets. Topical allergies are caused by irritants to the skin. Some common irritants to ferrets are detergents or fabric softeners, cedar shavings, corncob bedding (a common source of mildew), household cleaners (which can also be toxic to ferrets), and bug bite dermatitis. Fleas, ticks and flies love to attack small animals that run low to the ground. Ferrets are no exception. If you notice that your ferret is afflicted with any of these little pests, be sure to treat him and his surroundings immediately. A few fleas can multiply into a few hundred in a very short period of time. Be sure to use flea and tick products that are safe for your ferret. Most products won’t say ‘Safe for ferrets,’ on the label, but most products that are safe for young kittens are usually safe for ferrets. If you have any questions or doubts, don’t be afraid to contact your veterinarian to see which products he or she recommends. You can also call local ferret shelters and clubs and see what they recommend.

Now that we have discussed some of the causes of shedding and hair loss, here are a few tips on dealing with unwanted hair. Brushing your ferret’s coat with a ferret brush or a soft cat brush at least once or twice a week will help remove some of the loose hairs that may collect in his coat. Bathing your ferret once a month can help remove dead hair, too. Don’t over bathe your ferret, though, or you may dry out his skin and strip his coat of needed oils, and make his shedding worse. If your ferret is going through a heavy shed or blowing his coat, you should brush him at least once a day during this period. Some ferret owners will even ‘pluck’ their ferrets’ coats. This is a process where you gently pull out the patches of loose hair. If you feel resistance and the hair isn’t coming out easily, then the hairs are not ready to come out yet and should be left alone. You don’t want to cause your pet discomfort!

Your ferret will try to do a lot of his own grooming, too. You may see him licking or biting at his coat. Some ferrets will not groom themselves in front of people and will do it only when they are alone, or after you have gone to bed.

Small amounts of hair will usually pass through the stomach along with your ferret’s food. Sometimes, though, this hair will collect and form a hairball. This is especially likely if the ferret is experiencing a heavy shed. It is important to give ferrets a hairball laxative on a regular basis – usually two to three times a week. During their seasonal sheds, it is recommended that they get this laxative daily. You don’t have to give them much – about a 1/2 inch ribbon of laxative will do. This is enough to keep the hair in the stomach lubricated and let it slide through the intestines. Most ferrets enjoy the flavor of the hairball laxative and will look forward to their ‘weasel grease’ as a treat. Ferrets generally cannot cough up hairballs like cats do. If a hairball does form in your ferret’s stomach, your ferret will most likely have to have surgery to get it taken out. This can be an expensive operation and it is usually avoidable with a few pennies worth of the laxative.

The final thing that you will need to do for your ferret is to keep his bedding and cage clean. Even if you brush your ferret during his shedding period, loose hair may collect on his bedding or on the wires of his cage. This loose hair may then blow around the floor, or worse, your ferret may ingest it. Washing your ferret’s bedding once a. week on a regular basis and twice a week during shedding seasons will help keep your ferret’s cage and play area cleaner. This will also keep your ferret smelling fresher, since washing the bedding prevents musk oils from building up in the bedding.

Remember – no ferrets are shed free, but with a good diet, proper veterinary care and a little grooming you should be able to make the best of a hairy situation!

[intlink id=”fair”]This article originally appeared in the May/June issue of "The F.A.I.R. Report".[/intlink]

Rainbow Bridge

Rainbow Bridge

Just this side of heaven is a place called Rainbow Bridge. When an animal dies that has been especially close to someone here, that pet goes to the Rainbow Bridge. There are meadows and hills for all of our special friends so they can run and play together. There is plenty of food, water and sunshine, and our friends are warm and comfortable. All the animals who had been ill and old are restored to health and vigor; those who were hurt or maimed are made whole and strong again, just as we remember them in our dreams of days and times gone by.

The animals are happy and content, except for one small thing: they miss someone very special, someone who was left behind. They all run and play together, but the day comes when suddenly one stops and looks into the distance. His bright eyes are intent; his eager body begins to quiver. Suddenly he breaks from the group, flying over the green grass, faster and faster.

You have been spotted and when you and your special friend finally meet, you cling together in joyous reunion, never to be parted again. The happy kisses rain upon your face; your hands again caress the beloved head, and you look once more into those trusting eyes, so long gone from your life, but never absent from your heart. Then you cross the Rainbow Bridge together…

-Author Unknown

Outdoor Dangers

By Mary Van Dahm

Outdoor Dangers -- 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.

Leash Training

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!

[intlink id=”fair”]This article originally appeared in the January/February 1999 issue of "The F.A.I.R. Report".[/intlink]

New Ideas in Feeding Ferrets

By Dr. Louise Bauck, DVM

New Ideas in Feeding Ferrets -- By Dr. Louise Bauck, DVM

The domestic ferret requires only small quantities of food, so high-quality, premium diets are a reasonable option for ferret owners. However, there’s more to know about ferret nutrition than recommending or feeding a high-quality, premium ferret diet.

If you own these fascinating carnivores, you owe it to yourself – and your pets – to learn more about their dietary requirements. Although we have scant research on the science of pet ferret nutrition, we have some new findings extrapolated from nutritional research about black-footed ferrets in zoos, as well as mink and cats.

Ferret veterinarians are particularly interested in the relationship between diet and common health problems such as obesity, stunting, urinary tract obstructions, trichobezoars (hairballs) and pancreatic cancer, as well as the relationship between taurine and cardiomyopathy (heart disease). Other areas of interest include omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids and factors that affect oxidation (rancidity).

Free Choice Feeding

Normally, adult ferrets consume 30 to 40 grams (1 to 1-1/2 oz) of a quality dry ration each day. To promote ‘free choice’ feeding, you may leave dry food out alt day. However, ferrets tend to ignore stale food, so don’t put out more than the animals will eat in a single day.

Ready access to food is particularly important to young ferrets. First, baby ferrets may be more likely to nip or bite when hungry. Second, young ferrets can suffer from hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) if deprived of food. Recently weaned ferrets do best on a dry premium ferret food that has been mixed with warm water. To ensure freshness, replace this moistened food several times a day.

It can be a challenge to provide adequate nutrition for pregnant ferrets, which may suffer from complications such as toxemia or small litter size. Rations for pregnant ferrets must contain more than 35% high-quality protein and more than 22% fat.

Extended fasts are not recommended even for surgical patients. Most surgical patients should be fasted for a minimum of four hours but not longer than eight hours.

High Protein Requirements

Ferrets should not be fed like cats: They need higher levels of quality protein, more fat and less fiber than cats do. However, the guaranteed analysis printed on the food bag is not very helpful in determining protein levels in the food. The protein must have high ‘biological value’ and high digestibility, and the amino acid balance must be suitable for an obligate carnivore with a very short digestive tract and a rapid intestinal transit time. Most reference texts suggest that levels of quality protein for non-breeding ferrets should be 34% to 40% on a dry matter basis.

In 1995, investigators at the Toronto Zoo found that the feral diet of the black-footed ferret is approximately 42.5% protein on a dry matter basis – with prairie dogs serving as the primary protein source. Although the domestic ferret originated in Europe, where it certainly did not eat prairie dogs, its original carcass diet probably consisted of similar, but smaller, rodents.

Because ferrets are not plant eaters in nature, the protein in their diets should be derived primarily from animal sources rather than plant sources, such as soy or corn gluten meal. Some experts suggest that excess plant protein in the ferret’s diet can lead to alkaline urine and urinary stone formation. Urolithiasis, seen in North American pet ferrets, is particularly difficult to deal with in male ferrets, which can develop serious obstructions and infections.

Based on this information, the primary or first listed ingredient in a ferret food should be protein with a high biological value, such as chicken or poultry meal. Poultry meals generally cost more than poultry by-product meals, so they are more likely to be used in ‘premium’ diets. Egg also is a high-cost protein ingredient with a very high biological value.

Good-quality poultry meals for ferrets probably should be bone-reduced grades (low ash). This information does not appear on the ingredient list, but may be obtained from the manufacturer. Meals made from poultry byproducts or other byproducts are difficult for consumers to evaluate because their ingredients vary greatly and are not graded or controlled. Sometimes, desirable organ meats, such as liver, are included. In other cases, all useful items have been removed already. The inclusion of heads and feet usually lowers the biological value of protein in byproduct meals.

Unlike minks, ferrets in the wild do not eat fish. In our experience, some ferrets find fish-based diets less palatable. Unless very high in quality, fish meal may be prone to increased rancidity or oxidation problems. However, some ingredients derived from cold water fish contain oils that are high in valuable fatty acids, and sometimes are given as part of a dietary supplement.

It is important to remember that two similar ingredients may be made to look less prominent in an ingredient list if they have been ‘split’. Common examples include herring meal and whitefish meal, or soya meal and soya flour. Ingredients must be listed by weight, so they move farther down the ingredient list when split. This may make it difficult to determine whether fish or soy might be the principal ingredient. Some manufacturers may have good reasons for using two similar ingredients – contact the manufacturer for more information.

According to the investigators at the Toronto Zoo, the apparent requirements for amino acids (relative amounts) in the black-footed ferret are substantially similar to those of other carnivores. For example, arginine deficiency had been reported in ferrets while taurine deficiency has not. Taurine problems have been studied in the cat, but have not been described in the ferret.

Because dilated cardiomyopathy, a heart problem, has been reported in ferrets, some researchers have become interested in the role of taurine in the ferret’s diet. Feline cardiomyopathies sometime respond to taurine supplementation, but this effect apparently has not been seen in the ferret. Taurine generally is present in premium ferret rations, even though it usually is not listed as a separate ingredient.

High Fat Requirements

Ferret owners should pay close attention to the fat content of any ferret ration. Ferrets have high requirements for dietary fat compared with cats or dogs. In fact, levels of up to 30% have been suggested for normal ferrets!

The quality of the fat is a deciding factor in determining whether fat levels are adequate. For the best fatty acid balance, select diets that use high-quality, fat sources. For example, poultry fat is considered to be high in quality with approximately 60% unsaturated fatty acids and 22% linoleic acid. Beef fat has 52% unsaturated fatty acids and only 4% linoleic acid. ‘Animal fat’ is derived from an unspecified source, usually beef or pork.

Fat and oil substances can be broken down into dozens of saturated and unsaturated fatty acids. Unoleic acid is a fatty acid that is sometimes called an omega 6 type. Often, the terms linoleic acid’ and ‘omega 6′ are used synonymously – as are the terms linolenic acid’ and ‘omega 3’. However, the omega 6 and omega 3 families include many different fatty acids.

What is important is the ratio of total omega 6 fatty acids to total omega 3 fatty acids ingested. Many standard carnivore diets have an unbalanced omega 6 to omega 3 ratio – as high as 20-to-l or 30-to-l. First, fat sources used in prepared foods differ in content. Second, the heat of the extrusion process destroys many beneficial fatty acids.

Several manufacturers have devised solutions to the problem of balancing fatty acids. For example, many diets feature poultry fat – which has a naturally good balance of fatty acids – or special fatty acid additives. In addition, several companies offer fatty acid liquid supplements. Other ferret owners can tell you how much their pets adore products such as Dermacare, FerretDerm, Nutriderm, [Ferretone, Linatone, etc.]. I let my ferret lick a few drops right from the bottle as a treat.

There’s another good reason to pay attention to fat: The sources of fat and their relative amounts affect the food’s shelf stability. Rancidity (oxidation) of fats is an ever-present problem in commercial ferret diets because they contain higher levels of fat than canine or feline diets. Thus, preservatives of some kind are recommended. Ascorbic acid and tocopherols (vitamin E) may not be sufficient to preserve the food if it is stored for a prolonged period or is stored in less-than-ideal conditions.

The use of gas-impermeable materials and low-oxygen packaging techniques as well as storage in cool conditions may significantly preserve the quality of the diet. I recommend storing all ferret foods in the refrigerator after purchase.

Look for an expiration date on any high-quality ferret diet. Buy only what you can use by that date [even if it is on sale!].

Minimal Fiber Requirements

Ferrets probably eat little fiber in the wild, and do not require it in their diets. With shorter digestive tracts than cats, they seem to do better on diets containing fewer carbohydrates than are found in most cat or kitten foods. In fact, one reference has suggested that ferrets may be maintained without carbohydrates if sufficient fat is present. Therefore, grains and fiber ingredients should be minimized in good-quality ferret diets.

Pet ferrets can develop trichobezoars (hairballs), but this is not thought to be related to diet or fiber intake. Because ferrets have low fiber requirements, it may not be appropriate to increase cellulose levels in their diets in an attempt to flush out hairballs, as we do with felines. Grooming our ferrets regularly is a much better approach.

Pancreatic problems (endocrine neoplastic disease or cancer) are common in pet ferrets in North America. Although there is no evidence linking these conditions directly with an increase in dietary carbohydrates, it would seem logical to mimic a natural diet as closely as possible. This means less grain and less fiber in the rations. This also means cautioning owners to severely limit candy treats or high sugar items such as fruit juice, cookies, ice cream, chocolate (also likely toxic), and raisins.

Although many ferret rations contain ingredients such as fruit juices to increase palatability, these additives should be present in very small quantities to avoid introducing unneeded sugar into the diet. Sugars are simple carbohydrates and are not part of the ferret’s natural diet.

Controlling a Ferret’s Weight

Ferrets can become obese. Do not try to manage a ferret’s weight by controlling food portions, increasing the diet’s fiber content or decreasing the diet’s fat content. Instead, the best way to manage a ferret’s weight probably is by exercise.

Let’s look at the link between obesity and exercise. Recently, I was involved in an informal study by a ferret food manufacturer to examine the effects of cage-living versus liberty on a ferret’s weight. Over the course of two years, we studied six ferrets at a time, being careful to rotate their housing situations to minimize the effects of seasonal weight loss or gain. (Many authorities believe that some ferrets tend to gain weight in the fall.)

For the cage-living portion of the trial, we confined six ferrets, in pairs, in three commonly used commercial cages over a period of approximately six months. Although they were allowed out for occasional exercise, the ferrets spent most of their time in the 4′ x 2′ cages. They were fed a high-quality commercial dry ration of 38% protein and 20% fat, offered free-choice in multiple feeding stations. Several of these ferrets experienced obvious weight gains during the trial period.

For the liberty or exercise portion of the trial, we confined the ferrets, one pair at a time, in a room without cages for a six-week trial period. They had access to numerous toys, boxes and tunnels, which were exchanged with novel items each week. They were fed the same ration, still offered freechoice in multiple feeding stations. These ferrets frequently engaged in vigorous play activity, particularly in the morning and evening.

At least 3 of the ferrets were considered to be obese at the start of the exercise portion of the trial. Five of the six ferrets lost significant amounts of body mass and changed markedly in appearance. Although they showed significant weight loss in a short time period, the animals showed no signs of metabolic distress or problems associated with the rapid change.

Apparently it is not necessary to reduce caloric density to cause weight loss in ferrets – even if the diet is relatively high in fat. Increasing the level of exercise may be a safer and more nutritionally sound method for weight control.

Promoting Ferret Food

It is important to remember that feeding kitten food to ferrets is a poor strategy. In my experience, few owners can make a clear distinction on an ongoing basis between a true premium kitten food (sometimes suitable for ferret maintenance if it meets all the criteria discussed in this article) and a ‘regular’ or grocery store kitten food. Rather than take the chance that the owner will switch to a regular kitten food, I simply recommend that all ferret owners feed a high quality ferret food as described here.

At present, we do not have enough research to justify any formal recommendations regarding a special ‘kit’ food for young ferrets. However, experience at one food manufacturer’s holding facility in Canada has suggested that young ferrets achieve excellent growth and health on ferret diets with at least 38% protein and 22% fat.

Canned cat foods and soft-moist cat foods are used less commonly to feed ferrets. First, it is difficult to achieve a sufficiently high caloric density to meet the ferret’s needs when using ordinary canned foods. Second, it is very difficult to keep moist foods fresh – a problem made worse by the fact that ferrets tend to eat small meals throughout the day. Theoretically, these problems can be negated. However, more research is needed on the practicality of using canned diets on an extended basis.

Carcass Diets Versus Commercial Diets

Experts suggest that we mimic the ferret’s natural diet as closely as possible. So why not choose ‘carcass diets’ over commercially prepared diets?

In Europe, it is common to provide pet ferrets a diet consisting of fresh or frozen thawed carcasses, including culled mice, chicks and even fresh road kill. In North America, commercial fur farmers often feed ferrets frozen raw meat and fish diets designed for mink. However, hygiene concerns and the need to purchase large quantities of raw or frozen meat tend to preclude the use of these diets by the average pet owner in the United States. Besides, ferrets raised on dry commercial diets may be reluctant to sample fresh carcasses.

Pet owners will probably have more practical success if they stick with premium-quality dry ferret foods – as long as they remember to critically evaluate the ingredient list and guaranteed analysis information on the packages.

Ferrets are fascinating carnivores that deserve additional research as to their dietary needs. It is my hope that manufacturers will sponsor new research as pet ferrets continue to gain in popularity!

Louise Bauck, BSc, D.V.M., MVSc, is the director of veterinary services for the Hagen Avicultural Research Institute in Montreal, Canada.

[intlink id=”fair”]This article originally appeared in the March/April 2002 issue of "The F.A.I.R. Report".[/intlink]

It's Showtime

By Susan A. Brown , DVM

It's Showtime - By Susan A. Brown , DVM

Participating in a ferret show can be a lot of fun. You can socialize with old and new friends and most of all be surrounded by furry little faces of all different colors and personalities. To maximize safety and enjoyment at the show, however, you need to bring appropriate supplies, prepare your pet, and follow a few basic “rules” while at the show.

BEFORE THE SHOW

HEALTH OF YOUR PET – First and foremost, your pet should be in good health before even considering taking him or her to a show, even if you are just going to watch. There are increased risks of picking up disease at a show so you do not want to expose a pet that is already in poor health. Even if your pet just comes down with the sniffles or a little loose stool the morning of or the evening before the show and was in great shape up until then, it is best to leave him at home. Not only do you not want to risk your pets health, but it is irresponsible to risk the health of other ferrets at the show by bringing a pet that may be dealing with a health issue.

Vaccinations – Most ferret shows will require proof of rabies virus vaccination and canine distemper virus vaccination in order to be registered and admitted. These vaccinations should be administered at least 30 days but not more than a year prior to the show.

Rabies vaccinations are required in the event that your pet bites a person. Even though your pet may never be exposed to rabies by running around the backyard, in most states, if a ferret bites a human and is not properly vaccinated for rabies, he or she can at the very least be impounded at your cost for 10 days for rabies observation. In some localities, the pet could potentially be euthanized if unvaccinated. So why take a risk with the life of your pet?

Canine distemper virus is still around, although rarely seen in ferrets now because most pets are kept indoors and are not exposed to other animals with this disease. However, because canine distemper is incurable and because you cannot know what the exposure of the other ferrets at the show is, it is best to be current on canine distemper vaccinations. There is currently a very safe canine distemper vaccine available that does not have as many of the side effects of previous vaccines for ferrets. In the few cases where a ferret has had a reaction to either the canine distemper virus or the rabies virus vaccine and it is deemed by the veterinarian that no more vaccinations can be given, it is best for that ferret to NOT attend a show.

WHAT TO BRING

Proof of rabies and canine distemper virus vaccination- Either certificates or a letter signed by a licensed veterinarian.

Cage – Bring a sturdy cage with plenty of room for a toilet area, feeding area and a sleeping or private area. It is best to have some kind of lock on the cage, particularly if you have to leave the cage alone for any period of time during the show. Bring extra bedding and litter material in case of accidents.

Signs – Bring a sign that you can attach to your cage indicating who the ferrets are and a polite warning to not stick fingers or faces up to the cage. Even the sweetest ferret can become excited at a show by the activity, the noise or the smells and nip out of curiosity or fear.

Food – Bring the ferret’s favorite foods and of course have a fresh source of water available at all times.

Disinfectant/Cleanup – Bring a hand Disinfectant to clean your hands after handling ferrets other than you own. These products are alcohol based, and should contain 60 to 70% alcohol to be effective. They come in gels, foams, wipes, or lotions. You may also want to bring a spray disinfectant and paper towels to clean up any accidents your pet may have outside of his cage.

Clothing/Shoes – You might consider bringing a smock or another shirt you can put on over your regular clothes if you are going to handle ferrets other than your own. In this way you can remove that shirt before going back and handling your ferrets to minimize spread of disease. If ferrets are allowed to run around the floor at the show, consider wearing washable shoes to the show that can be removed before you go into your home and washed before their next use.

Bring a Friend or Family Member – A friend or family member can not only be pleasant companion, but can help “police” the area where the cage will be in case you have to go elsewhere to shop, eat or show your ferret.

AT THE SHOW

The following are a few basic guidelines to help you minimize problems
and enjoy the show.

DISEASE PREVENTION – Your ferret should be up to date on vaccinations and in good health. A healthy immune system is the best prevention against disease. However, there are still diseases that can be transmitted by other apparently healthy ferrets because the disease may still be in the incubation stage or there just may be no obvious outward signs at that moment. I am not going to spend time in this article discussing all the different diseases that ferrets can be exposed to because they all can be prevented in a similar fashion by following these basic hygiene practices: (Note: the term “stranger ferret” is used to denote a ferret that is not your own and about whom you have no knowledge of the background.)

  1. Don’t allow your pet to come into direct contact with stranger ferrets (including playing in another ferret’s cage even if the stranger ferret is not present).
  2. Do not allow your pet to come in contact with the stool or urine of stranger ferrets.
  3. Disinfect your hands thoroughly after you handle a stranger ferret. This is where the alcohol- based disinfectant you brought comes into use. To be effective the product must contain 60 to 70% alcohol and it must contact all areas of the hands and be allowed to dry on the hands.
  4. Use a different outer shirt or smock when handling stranger ferrets and then remove it when handling your ferrets. Better yet, make a practice of not holding stranger ferrets up against your clothing. Wear washable shoes at the show and remove them before entering your home and wash them before wearing them again.
  5. Don’t allow other people to handle your ferret unless they are wearing a clean smock or shirt (if they hold the ferret up against them) and they have disinfected their hands.

*Note: At a well run show, the judges should be cleansing their hands and the judging table between each ferret judged. They should not be holding the ferrets up against their bodies to avoid contamination through their clothing. If tube races are being done, the tubes should be disinfected between each race or new tubes used. For bag races, new bags should be used for each ferret.

INJURY PREVENTION

It is a simple matter to prevent injury to yourself or to your pet with some common sense.

Pet Injury – If you follow the guidelines for disease prevention you will have removed most of the potential for injury because your ferret will not be in contact with stranger ferrets. In addition, make sure the cage is constructed in such a manner that there is no possibility for the pet’s head, legs or toes getting caught. Don’t allow strangers to handle your pet. You can hold your ferret securely and they can then pet him or her after properly disinfecting their hands.

Human Injury – Have a sign on your ferret’s cage or carrier asking people to not place fingers or faces close to the cage. As mentioned earlier, even the sweetest ferrets can become excited or anxious at a show because of the new smells, sights and sounds. Sometimes ferrets can become agitated by the smell of someone’s cologne, or by seeing an interesting looking finger or nose approaching their cage like a really neat new toy! Bring a friend or family member along to the show to help watch the cage during the times you may have to leave the area. In addition, as mentioned under Pet Injury, do not allow strangers to handle your pet because you do not know their experience level. Always warn people not to put ferrets up to their faces and YOU follow the same advice when handling a stranger ferret. After you get to know a ferret and can trust it’s response, that is a different story, but at a show, away from home, you just never know. More than one of our clients has been surprised at a show by an unexpected response from a beloved pet.

In the case of a human injury where the skin is broken, have the person wash the wound immediately under running water, and offer a disinfectant product to wipe the wound before the person puts on any bandages. If the injured person’s blood comes in contact with you, wash it off thoroughly and disinfect the contaminated area. Contact the show manager, or veterinarian in charge immediately for further instructions. It is important to make a full report in writing at the time of the incident in case it is needed for future reference.

CONCLUSION

This may seem like a lot of things to remember, but in reality it is mostly common sense. Prevention is the best cure and it takes much less time than managing an accident! Please, be safe and enjoy the sights and sounds of the show, the excitement of your pets to be there and know that you are part of a very special group of people that know the secrets of the love of ferrets.

[intlink id=”gcfa”]This article originally appeared in the September/October 2002 issue of “Off the Paw”.[/intlink]

Inherited Behavior Traits of the Domesticated Ferret

By Susan A. Brown, D.V.M.

Inherited Behavior Traits of the Domesticated Ferret -- By Susan A. Brown, D.V.M.

Our domesticated ferret (Mustela putorius furo), retains close physiological and behavioral ties with its direct ancestor, the European polecat (Mustela putorius). There were a few changes that took place during domestication which selectively bred the wild ferret into animals that were more easily handled by humans. Domesticated ferrets are not afraid of humans and are able to handle new environments without fear. Pet ferrets are not as alert to dangers that their wild ancestors would have encountered. Another change that took place during domestication is that pet ferrets can live in communal groups peacefully (anyone who has more than one ferret has observed a sleeping “pile” of ferrets on many occasions) whereas the European polecat is a solitary animal. This ability of the pet ferret to live in a group may also be related to the fact that the great majority of our pets are neutered, and certainly in the case of the males at least, this decreases the amount of aggression that is seen between animals. Domesticated ferrets, however still maintain instinctive behaviors for play, territory marking and hunting. There were a number of interesting studies done in Europe in the 1960’s and 70 ‘s on comparison of the behavior of the European polecats and ferrets that I think show useful information on how to understand why our little friends do what they do. Please see the list at the end of this discussion for these scientific papers. Let’s take a look at some of these behaviors.

AGGRESSIVE PLAY BEHAVIOR

Of course we must remember that ferrets, even our dear pets, are carnivores, meaning that they are predators of other species of animals. So in their former wild life, it was essential to learn effective hunting techniques as well as means of protecting their territory from strangers. Therefore, it appears that aggressive play behavior can serve as a tool to teach aggression and protection skills as well as hunting skills. This behavior starts at around 6 weeks of age and eventually merges into more serious adult aggressive behavior as the ferret matures. Ferrets both young and old, like to rough house. Ferrets will still exhibit bouts of play behavior as adults, particularly during courtship or within a familiar group. The most serious aggression occurs when a stranger is introduced into a group or during times when a ferret feels fearful about a situation.

Neck biting by both sexes is the most common aggressive and play behavior seen. This behavior is used by the males to control females during mating. In addition, the neck bite is used to quickly kill prey when it is used during hunting, therefore, play neck biting in youngsters may serve as practice for hunting later. Ferrets have very thick skin over the back of their necks and they can sustain very aggressive biting without serious injury. In all my years of practice I never saw a ferret that had a serious injury after neck biting behavior with another ferret. This situation is opposed to that of domestic cats, that get into a fights involving both teeth and nails with serious injuries and often abscesses as the result.

Other ferret offensive aggressive behaviors that can be observed include lunging, sideways attack, dancing and a staccato clucking sound. This is often called, the “weasel war dance” and is in actuality a display of bravado and scare tactics directed towards another creature, which in the case of a pet ferret, is usually their human caretaker. Defensive behavior, which is displayed when the ferret is fearful, includes hissing, screaming and snapping of the jaws. A ferret scream can be quite loud, high-pitched and alarming, but is associated with fear, not pain. This high-pitched scream can be quite unnerving to us humans and we tend to want to rush in and stop the altercation. However, I have found that if you have a sufficiently large space and at least one more hiding space then ferrets in the area into which they can escape, they will generally work it out on their own. I have often observed that the screaming ferret is not even being touched by another ferret, but is just being “stared down”. Amazingly enough, injuries from ferret “fights” are incredibly rare. I would not make this statement about fights between dogs, cats or even rabbits. (*NOTE: Allowing fights, does not apply to ferrets that are debilitated with illness. These animals should be allowed plenty of private space in which to heal.) If you really need to minimize the fighting amongst ferrets, you can use a bitter-tasting product to the neck area of all the ferrets. If a bite occurs, there is usually a very quick release as soon as the bitter substance is tasted. We recommend a product such as BITTER APPLE made by Grannick.

BURROWING

The polecat ancestors of the ferret lived in underground burrows. They usually took over other animals ‘burrows and then modified them by digging additional entryways and rooms. In the home, the domestic ferret thoroughly enjoys digging in soft materials, including carpeting, furniture stuffing, and litter box material. Ferrets also appreciate being able to explore tunnel-like areas and having an enclosed sleeping area.

Another habit retained from the polecat ancestor is the storage of items in these burrow areas. After a wild polecat makes a kill, if it was larger than what he could eat immediately, he would bring it back to the den area to eat later in several meals. Females that are raising kits will always bring food back to the den. Some pet ferrets like to carry out this behavior with not only bits of food, but other “toys” in their environment such as car keys. If you are missing some small items, you might look in your pet’s “den” or adjacent areas.

TOILET HABITS

The wild polecats are very fastidious about their dens and never defecate or urinate in or near the burrow. They use urine and stool to mark their territory as well as their anal gland secretions. Ferrets, like polecats, prefer to back up to a vertical surface to defecate or urinate and then proceed to leave their scent with anal gland secretions by dragging their anus over the surrounding area. This behavior is still intact in our pets even though the majority-of-ferrets sold into the pet trade today have had their anal glands removed. The removal of the glands does not remove the behavior pattern. In addition, an intact male ferret may mark his territory by rubbing his abdomen or side around the perimeter leaving the scent of skin oils in the area. We do not observe this behavior in ferrets that are neutered prior to sexual maturity.

SENSE OF SMELL AND SIGHT

Ferrets (and polecats) appear to use olfactory (scent) clues rather than visual clues when searching for prey. However, once the prey is located, they are stimulated by a range of visual movement somewhere between 25 and 45 cm/ sec, which is the escape speed of a small rodent. In addition, ferrets learn to attack the neck area of the prey as they experience success with an efficient kill. Ferrets in the home like to run after and sometimes grab moving targets, such as feet, objects rolling across the floor and other pets. You can elicit this play behavior by pulling a small toy across the floor on a string at a fairly rapid pace and allowing your ferret to chase and “kill” it. However, if the “attack” becomes a problem behavior, you can use the bitter tasting substance as mentioned before, on shoes, socks and hands as an aid to deter your pet.

Ferrets have an elaborate anatomical system for sensing odors like other carnivores and appear to develop their smell preferences for food during the first three months of life and by the fourth month, (when in the wild they would be leaving the nest) these preferences are set. This may explain why it is difficult to change a ferret’s diet as an adult. This also points out that it is beneficial to expose a ferret to a variety of foods prior to this 16 week cut off to provide a more varied and nutritious diet.

Being close to the ground, ferrets spend a great deal of time with their noses to the floor investigating their environment. This behavior results in the inhalation of dust and debris and a subsequent sneeze to remove the foreign material. A ferret’s sneeze, which is very loud and sounds like a combination of a cough and a sneeze, may be alarming to the humans in the house. Unless sneezing is frequent or associated with other clinical signs, you need not be concerned with this behavior.

I hope this gives you a little peek into why your pet does what he does. Ferrets, having the physiology of an efficient, energy conserving little predator, will display their various behaviors with great intensity. After they are done playing and had a meal they will sleep deeply for hours, conserving their energy for the next “hunting expedition”. It is important to allow them plenty of space and toys in their environment for mental stimulation during those “hunting/ play” periods and then of course a cozy, dark spot for their well deserved rest afterwards.

Enjoy your little “hunters” and give them all a hug and a kiss from me.

References:

  • Apfelbach R, Olfactory sign stimulus for prey selection in polecats (Putorius putorius L.). Z. Tierpsychologie, 33, 1973; 270-273.
  • Apfelbach R, Wester U, The quantitative effect of visual and tactile stimuli on the prey-catching behaviour of ferrets (putorius furo L.). Behavioural Processes, 2, 1977; 187-200.
  • PooleTB, Aggressive play in polecats. Symposia of the Zoological Society of London, No 16,1966; 23-44. Poole TB, Aspects of aggressive behaviour in polecats. ZeitschriftfurTierpsychologie, 24(3): 1967:351-364.
  • Poole TB, Some behavioural differences between the European polecat, Mustela putorius, the ferret, M. furo, and their hybrids. JournalZool., Londl66,1972;25-35.
[intlink id=”gcfa”]This article originally appeared in the November/December 2002 issue of "Off the Paw".[/intlink]

How to Trace a Lost Ferret

By Mary Van Dahm

How to Trace a Lost Ferret - By Mary Van Dahm

Spring has come at last! Warm days herald fresh air through open doors and windows. This can be a dangerous time for pets (especially ferrets!) that try to sneak outdoors to enjoy the nice weather, too.

While most ferret owners are aware of this potential problem, even the most careful owners can be caught off-guard. Children or unexpected guests can accidentally let a curious critter out.

What can you do if you suddenly realize that your furrball is missing? First of all, don’t panic. Call all of your family members together and discuss a plan of action. Divide the search efforts and areas up to cover the most ground possible.

Here is a simple check-list to follow to guide you in your search and rescue efforts:

  1. Check through your house carefully, including places where your ferret “couldn’t possibly go.” Look inside closets, drawers, under dressers and other furniture, on shelves, in hampers or clothesbaskets, under and inside refrigerators and other appliances.
  2. Check your backyard, bushes and garage. Most ferrets when exploring a new area will cling to the side of a building or structure before venturing out into an open area. If your ferret is used to going for walks with you on a leash, check areas where you may have taken your ferret before. He will be most likely to go to familiar territory before he wanders into strange areas.
  3. Ask your neighbors, and especially neighborhood children, if they have seen a ferret or “strange animal” recently. Kids spend more time outdoors than adults do and a new “creature” roaming the block will surely catch their attention. Ask permission to enter neighbors’ sheds or garages and ask your neighbors to check their dryer vents to see if your ferret may have climbed into one of them. Check window wells, too. We get several calls each year from people who have found ferrets (And occasionally minks!) in their window wells.
  4. Post notices and pictures of your ferret wherever possible – bulletin boards at local stores, pet shops, veterinarian offices, libraries, bus stops, and gas stations. (Be sure to take them down again once your pet is back safe at home.)
  5. Alert your mailman, newspaper boy, and anyone else who passes through your area frequently.
  6. Call your local police, city pound, and animal shelters. If possible, give them a picture of your ferret or a very detailed description. Does your ferret have any tattoos or distinguishing marks to make identification easier? Is your ferret microchipped? Check back with these agencies frequently since they may be too busy to call you or they may forget to let the next shift know that you are looking for your pet.
  7. Place your ferret’s cage or carrier outside with some of his used bedding in it. Sometimes they can smell their way home. Check the cage frequently for signs of his return. Ferrets are most active during the early morning or evening hours. CAUTION: Try to set the door of the cage in such a way that only a ferret can get into it. Cats, possums and raccoons can be opportunistic freeloaders if they smell food and may raid the cage if they can get into it.
  8. Place an ad in your local newspaper(s). Give a detailed description of your ferret. Use common terms in describing your pet. Some people may not know what a “sable” or a “silvermitt” are, but they can understand what a “dark brown” or a “white-footed” ferret is. Be sure to mention when and where your pet was lost. You don’t have to list your exact address. You can put something like “on the 100 block of Main Street”.

Last, but not least, be sure to list your phone number so people can reach you. You should list day and nighttime numbers, if you work. It is usually best to run your “lost pet” ad for about 2 weeks. This gives people who only get a Sunday paper a chance to notice your ad. Be sure to check the paper yourself to see if anyone has listed a “found” ferret.

Hopefully all of this advice will never be needed and your ferrets will stay safe and secure in your home. But if you, or a friend, should ever lose track of a pet, these guidelines are a good thing to keep on hand!

[intlink id=”fair”]This article originally appeared in the May/June 2003 issue of "The F.A.I.R. Report".[/intlink]

Household Dangers

By Mary Van Dahm

Household Dangers -- By Mary Van Dahm

Once again we would like to remind ferret owners of common household dangers that can be fatal to your pet. Household cleaners: Fantastic, Lysol, and many other pine scented cleaners, can be extremely toxic to ferrets. It doesn’t take much either! We recently had a ferret brought into the shelter was experiencing convulsions. The owner had cleaned the cage with Lysol and apparently had not rinsed it thoroughly enough. Of two ferrets involved, one had already died and the other was holding on by a thread. Unfortunately, in spite of veterinary care, the second ferret didn’t make it through the night, either.

Another group of innocent looking killers are empty toilet paper and paper towel rolls. They can be a lot of fun for ferrets who love to push them around, but some ferrets get their heads stuck inside and choke to death. We had some friends stop by a couple weeks ago who brought one of their ferrets along with them in a carrier. When I went to take the ferret out to say hello, I was greeted by a frantic little guy with a toilet paper roll stuck on his head! Fortunately he was fine after we got the roll off.

Ironically we received the Central Arizona Ferret Club’s newsletter a couple of days later and one of their members had the same thing happen – with tragic results.

Another problem that has been showing up in our shelter is ferrets eating Styrofoam packing “peanuts”. Usually small pieces will pass through the intestines with the stool, but sometimes they don’t – resulting in a blockage. Also, we don’t know how the chemicals in the plastic will affect the ferrets stomach and intestines. I know that ferrets who eat rubber bands often develop severe eosinophylitis – inflammation of the intestines – and ulcers. There is a possibility that Styrofoam can do the same.

So, PLEASE… Supervise your ferrets with new toys and try to foresee any dangers that might arise from even the most innocent circumstances. I know we can’t always outguess our little friends, but we have to keep trying.

[intlink id=”fair”]This article originally appeared in the January/February 1995 issue of "The F.A.I.R. Report".[/intlink]

Hiccups and Odor Control in Domestic Ferrets

By Susan A. Brown

Hiccups and Odor Control in Domestic Ferrets -- By Susan A. Brown, D.V.M.

I have received a couple of letters since the last issue on two short subjects that I would like to address. The first involves hiccupping in ferrets. The writer noted that their ferret had hiccups frequently with no apparent relationship to any particular activity. A hiccup as defined by Webster’s dictionary is “a sudden, involuntary contraction of the diaphragm that closes the glottis at the moment of breathing”. It is not completely understood what starts the hiccups, but we are all familiar with a variety of remedies that can stop it in humans. In ferrets, it is relatively common, especially in younger animals. It is frequently associated with excitement, but may occur spontaneously also. It is really nothing to worry about and will go away on its own with no help at all. Some people have reported that giving a sugary treat, such as a hairball laxative (which is flavored with molasses), or raisins, or ice cream is helpful. However, be extremely careful with these treats, because the ferret’s pancreas is easily stressed with excessive sugar and the result can be diabetes. There are certain diseases (notably insulinoma) that may require that sugary foods be given more frequently, but in the healthy animal keep them to a minimum (hairball laxatives can be given in the amount of one inch every other day).

The other letter involved a young lady who had to return her already neutered and descented ferret to the pet store because her parents objected to the odor. The animal was only 8 weeks old. I have had a number of people that have complained about ferret odor and I have personally “smelled” the pet and noticed nothing offensive. My conclusion is that there are some people who will probably find any animal odor offensive, no matter how small it is (hence all the pet shampoos that aim at making the pet smell more like coconuts, apples, oranges or pine trees). If one is to keep a pet, no matter what kind, one must be willing to accept all the features that come with it including hair shedding, cleaning up after it as well as its individual body perfume. Personally, I find the “odor” of the ferret to be quite warm, earthy and friendly and not at all offensive, and I know many people who would agree with me. So, by all means, do not get a ferret or any other pet if you will be spending a lot of time trying to make it smell like something else, or trying to make it act or look like something other than it is.

Two other brief notes… Descenting a ferret does not automatically get rid of the odor, because 99% of the ferret “odor” is coming from the oil glands in the skin. Neutering the animal is all that is generally necessary to take care of the really strong body perfume. There are those cases in which the ferret is “spraying” the anal gland material frequently, or when the anal glands become infected at which time we surgically remove them. The other note I would like to make, is that if you have owned a ferret for a while and you notice a sudden change in its body odor (particularly in ferrets 3 and older), have an examination done by a veterinarian. Sometimes this noticeable change may be due to changes in the adrenal gland.

Well, as usual, give them all a hug and a kiss for me… and tell them you love them just the way they are!!!

[intlink id=”gcfa”]This article originally appeared in the July/August 1991 issue of "Off the Paw".[/intlink]

History of the Ferret

By Susan A. Brown, D.V.M.

History of the Ferret -- By Susan A. Brown, D.V.M.

The domestic ferret has been a useful member of the human household for a few thousand years. Today they have reached true companion animal status and are appreciated throughout much of the world.

SOURCE OF DOMESTICATED FERRETS

The domestic ferret (Mustela putorius furo) is thought to be a domesticated Western or Eastern European polecat. The Eastern European or Steppe polecat (Mustela eversmanni) and the Eastern European polecat (Mustela putorius putorius) are very similar in appearance and skeletal structure. The ferret can interbreed and produce fertile offspring with either of these species of polecat. The domestic ferret is not a domesticated form of the black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes) which was native to the western United States. Black-footed ferrets recently became extinct in the wild, but they are gradually being reintroduced through captive breeding programs.

The name Mustela is a Latin derivation of the term mus for mouse. Animals in the Mustela genus include weasels and other “mouse catchers”. Putorius is from the Latin putor, which means a stench referring to the musky odor of the ferret. Furo comes from the Latin furonem meaning “thief”. So we have a “mouse-catching, smelly, thief”! The word ferret most likely comes from the Latin furo or the Italian furone with the same meaning of “thief”.

Currently there is still controversy over which species of polecat the domesticated ferret actually came from. Studies have been performed comparing skull structure, coat color and behavior in all three species. In addition, there is little archeological evidence to suggest exactly when ferrets were domesticated and what path they took in becoming established in Europe. This maybe because their tiny bones decay rapidly or because archeologists previously overlooked their remains as insignificant and did not record these findings. Some suggest that the ancestors of the domestic ferret originate in Northern Africa and then were spread to Europe with Roman and/or Norman invasions. Many researchers believe that the spread of ferrets through Europe was accompanied by the spread of the rabbits that they hunted, as we shall see in the discussion under Historical Use.

EVIDENCE OF DOMESTICATION

One strong piece of evidence that an animal is truly domesticated is that it retains some of the characteristics of the juvenile of the species. This is done through selective breeding and it serves to make the animal more docile and able to be manipulated by man. There have been extensive studies done on the behavioral differences between wild polecats and ferrets that indicate there is indeed an alteration in behavior. In general, ferrets show less fear of man and less fear of an unfamiliar environment than do the polecats. In addition, it took ferrets longer to get used to a repeated noise they were exposed to than the wild ferret. These behaviors exhibited by the ferret indicate are retention of more juvenile responses.

It is interesting to note that if wild polecat babies are taken from their mother prior to opening their eyes and then raised by a human, they will imprint on the human and become relatively tame. They can remain tame if there is continued contact with humans. In contrast, mink and weasels that are hand-reared may become tame for a short period, but usually revert to a fearful wild state at maturity. This docile behavior upon being hand-raised may be a key to why ferrets could be domesticated in the first place.

HISTORICAL USE

A ferret-like animal was mentioned by Greek authors Aristophanes in 450 BC and Aristotle in 350 BC. The references are unclear because an exact description of the animal is missing. Somewhere between 63 BC and 24 AD Strabo writes of a plague of rabbits in the Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean that was causing a famine. He describes a Libyan animal that was bred for the purpose of hunting, was muzzled and put into rabbit holes. This animal, which behavior sounds like a ferret, would cause the rabbit to bolt from the hole where men and dogs were ready to dispatch it. This practice bears a striking resemblance to the practice of ferreting that has taken place in Europe for centuries. Pliny in AD 23-79 and Isidore of Seville in AD 600 also mention ferrets being used to hunt rabbits. Ferrets may also have been kept around households to control rodents, but the majority of references relate to ferrets and rabbits. The ferret’s close cousin, the mongoose was used more often for rodent and snake control and continues to be used in this manner today in areas where it is indigenous. These early references to ferrets have given rise to the hypothesis that the ferret originated in the Mediterranean area, but there is still insufficient evidence to call this a fact.

By the 1200’s ferrets had spread to Germany and there are stories that Genghis Khan may have used ferrets in Afghanistan in 1221. The first references in England are in 1223 and again in 1281 where a ferreter was listed as part of the Royal Court. Other interesting bits of information from England in the late 1200’s to the late 1300’s include the fact that one needed an annual income of forty shillings to own a ferret and that ferrets were owned by high-ranking church officials. King Richard II issued a decree in 1384 allowing one of his clerks to hunt rabbits with ferrets and again in 1390 prohibiting the use of ferrets on Sunday. In 1551, Gerner in Zurich described the first albino ferret as “the colour of wool stained with urine”. From here on, there is increasing evidence in Medieval European literature of ferrets being used to hunt rabbits. Ferrets were also used for fur production, although this seemed less popular until the 20th century. In addition, probably by at least the eighteen century ferrets were being used on ships to help control the rodents that were so prevalent. It is also highly likely that a few humans historically also enjoyed the ferret’s lively personality and kept these little critters purely for their companionship. It is clear that ferrets were used early on to hunt rabbits, both as a pest control measure and as a sport. There is evidence that Roman soldiers routinely used ferrets in hunting rabbits. Ferrets may have spread to the northern European continent during the spread of the Roman Empire, or as others have suggested they may have spread with Norman invasions.

It does seem clear, however, that wherever ferrets went there were rabbits. The European rabbit, which, by the way, is also the ancestor of our pet rabbits, originated in the Iberian Peninsula, in the region of Spain and has been Raised in captivity for at least 2000 years. Rabbits were intentionally introduced into Northern Europe and now, so it appears, the ferrets were introduced along with them.

In the 1860’s New Zealand colonizers imported game animals including the rabbit. By the 1870’s rabbits were decimating the landscape because there are no natural predators that control the rabbits in New Zealand. Five ferrets were released in 1879 to control the rabbit population. This was followed by the release of thousands from 1882 to 1886. Stoats and weasels, which are close relatives of the ferret, were also released. Ferrets developed feral (able to live under “wild” conditions) colonies in New Zealand which resulted not in the eradication of rabbits, but contributed to a disastrous decline in native birds. Ferrets were able to live successfully in the wild because the climate of New Zealand may be ideal, and the ferrets had no predators other than man. Many of New Zealand’s birds are flightless and thus at risk of losing their lives to a ground-dwelling predator such as the ferret. Ferrets are not the only factor in the loss or these species, but their presence is significant. The current estimate of the number of feral ferrets between the two islands is around one million.

Rabbits were introduced into Australia by early British settlers for much the same reason and with the same consequence as in New Zealand. Ferrets were then introduced to control the situation. However, in Australia, ferrets were not able to establish feral colonies probably due to a different climate and the fact that they have predators such as fox, feral cats, dingoes and hawks.

In recent history there has been a significant decrease in the use of ferrets for hunting rabbits, for rodent control or for fur production and they are now more commonly kept as pets. Ferrets are kept as companion animals in South Africa and Japan as well as most of Europe at this time.

INTRODUCTION TO THE UNITED STATES

Ferrets were probably introduced into this country in the eighteen century via ships that carried them as ratters. In addition, some colonists brought them over as hunting companions. By the early 1900’s ferrets were being imported by the tens of thousands to be used as “vermin” exterminators. They were used to destroy rabbits, raccoons, gophers, rats and mice. Prey animals will usually flee in the presence of the “scent of a ferret” and so ferrets few were needed to protect barns, warehouses and granaries. The USDA promoted the use of ferrets for rodent control. If your farm was infested you could call the ferretmeister to come and release ferrets on your property. The ferrets went on a search and destroy mission and then humans and dogs, usually terriers, placed around the area would kill the vermin as they tried to escape. Some establishments simply maintained their own colony of ferrets for this purpose. When chemical rodenticides became available there was no further need for the “ferret patrol” and this practice died out.

Fur farming never took a strong hold in the United States and hunting with ferrets was made illegal in most states in the twentieth century. In the mid-twentieth century ferrets were readily embraced as companion animals by Americans and this continues to be the primarily role of the ferret in the U.S. today. There are currently no feral populations of ferrets in the United States. The only ferret introduced into the U. S. has been the domestic form and not the wild polecat.

USE OF FERRETS

The following is a list of some the historic and modem uses for the ferret:

Hunting Rabbits – As mentioned, this was probably one of the first historical uses of the domestic ferret and perhaps its main reason for domestication. The use of a ferret to hunt rabbits is commonly called ferreting. Ferrets were used both for rabbit population control and as a means for humans to obtain food. There is very little training involved because ferrets naturally enjoy running through burrows and seeking out prey. In ancient times, muzzles were used to prevent the ferret from killing and eating the rabbit underground and then taking a nap. There is also evidence that some ancient ferreters made holes in the upper and lower lip of the ferret and tied the lips together or placed a metal ring to hold the lips together before a hunt. Fortunately, muzzles are not used today, but occasionally a harness with a long line attached is employed. These items are rarely needed because when the rabbit smells the ferret coming and it bolts out its escape hole before it can be caught. Prior to releasing the ferret the rabbit holes are covered by purse string nets held in place by a stakes. The net closes around the rabbit as it tries to escape. Alternatively dogs, such as terriers or lurchers. Which is a dog that contains greyhound blood, chase and catch the rabbit or the hunter shoots the rabbit. Lighter colored ferrets are preferred because they are easier to see and retrieve after a hunt. Ferreting is still practiced in some areas of the world.

Rodent control – It is likely that ferrets were also used for rodent control around houses as soon as they were domesticated. Small mammals and birds make up the majority of the wild ferret’s diet and if allowed it is certain they would have hunted within the household. As mentioned, in more recent times, ferrets were used to control rodents around barns and granaries and on European and American ships. The Massachusetts Colonial Navy, which was organized on December29, 1775, was reactivated in 1967 and in 1986 proclaimed the ferret it’s official mascot. An excerpt from the ceremonial speech shows the importance of ferrets on these ships. “Now in the days of the wooden men o’war there was quite often, an uninvited population of rodents aboard ship… Dogs were completely unsuccessful mousers and besides their barking kept both captain and crew awake. Cats were infinitely preferred over dogs, but they were unable to chase mice into the many narrow holes and passageways aboard the ship, so more mice escaped than were caught. But… there was one animal the rats and mice could never escape from… no matter where they tried to hide… no matter how small a hole they ran into… they were doomed! This animal was one of man’s best friends and totally fearless. They were in great demand aboard ships of the colonial navy, and fortunate indeed were the crews that had a ferret for a mascot and friend.”

Fur Production – Ferrets have been raised for fur production for centuries in Europe and in the early 1900’s an effort was made to establish this practice in the United States. The wild coloring of the ferret is preferred and it is likely there was a considerable amount of breeding back to the wild European polecat to maintain the uniformity and quality of the fur. A coat made out of ferret fur is called a fitch coat. Fortunately the practice of breeding ferrets for their fur has become much less common and eventually may die out altogether.

Transporters -The ferret’s anatomy and willingness to run through dark tunnels make them ideal in transporting cables through long pipes. Oilmen in the North Sea, telephone companies, camera crews and people working on airline jets have used ferrets for this purpose. The ferret wears a harness where a long thin nylon line is attached. The nylon line is then connected to the cable that needs to be pulled through the conduit. The use of mechanical devices for this purpose has made the ferret obsolete as a transporter.

Ferret Legging -This is a silly English pub sport that has been around for centuries, but fortunately is no longer common. The contestant must ties his trousers legs securely around the ankles, then places two ferrets, who have full sets of teeth, down his pants and finally tie the waist of his trousers securely closed. If a ferret bites, it can only be dislodged from the outside of the pants. The object is to be the person that keeps the ferrets in his pants the longest. In 1983 a 72-year old Yorkshire man withstood the ferrets for 5 hours and 26 minutes.

Biomedical Research – Ferrets became models for biomedical research in the twentieth century. One of their first uses was for the study of human influenza virus, which they are susceptible to. Currently they are used in the areas of virology, toxicology, pharmacology, reproductive physiology, endocrinology, physiology, teratology, and anatomy. Some of the byproducts of their use in human research has been a tremendous growth in our understanding of ferret anatomy, physiology and ferret disease. Biomedical use of ferrets is the greatest in the United States because of the presence of large-scale ferret breeding facilities that can produce healthy ferrets in large numbers. Other countries lack these facilities and thus ferrets are not used as readily. Unfortunately or not, these breeding facilities produce the largest percentage of ferrets used for pets as well.

Companion Animals – By far the most common use for ferrets today is as a companion animal. They are small, easy to care for and have entertaining and responsive personalities. Ferrets are bred in an astounding variety of color variations and now there is even a longhaired ferret available. Ferret organizations devoted to the nurturing of the ferret as a pets have sprung up all over the world. Devoted ferret owners attend ferret shows where their pets compete in areas such as color classes, best-dressed ferret, yawning contest and races involving bags and long tubes. It is perhaps fitting after a history of working for humans that ferrets should now enjoy a life of luxury as a beloved companion!

References:

  1. Biology and Diseases of the Ferret by James G.Fox, D.V.M., 1998, Williams and Wilkins.
  2. Ferret Husbandry, Medicine and Surgery by JohnH. Lewington, 2000, Butterworth-Heinemann
  3. The Complete Book of Ferrets by Val Porter and Nicholas Brown, 1987, Pelham Books.
  4. The domestication of the ferret by Clifford Owen in The Domestication and Exploitation of Plants and Animals. Peter J. Ucko and G.W. Dimblebyeds. 1969. Aldine Publishing Company.
  5. Some behavioural differences between the European polecat, Mustela putorius, the ferret, M. furo, and their hybrids by Trevor B. Poole. Journal of the Proceedings of the Zoological Society, London (1972) 166, pp 25-35.
[intlink id=”gcfa”]This article originally appeared in the March /April 2001 issue of "Off the Paw".[/intlink]

Heartworm Season is Back

By Mary Van Dahm

Heartworm Season is Back -- By Mary Van Dahm

For those of us in the Northern States, it is
time to start our ferrets on heartworm medication again. (Ferret owners
in the south should keep their ferrets on a heartworm preventative all
year long.)

Heartworms are spread by mosquitoes. As the weather warms up and mosquitoes
return, the threat of heartworms in our pets increases. Even if you don’t
take your ferrets outdoors, they can be exposed to this threat.

Because of a ferrets size, it only takes one heartworm to kill
a ferret!

All it takes is one small hole in a screen, or someone walking in or out
of the house and holding the door open long enough for an infected mosquito
to get in.

Heartworms use to be difficult to detect in ferrets, but now there is
a fairly accurate blood test for them (the CITE test). Because of a ferrets
size, it only takes one heartworm to kill a ferret!

Treatment for heartworms, once your ferret is infected, is risky. It is
a lot easier, and a lot less expensive, to establish a preventative program
to safeguard your ferret against heartworms in the first place! The medication
(Ivormectin) is given orally just once a month during warm weather (April
through October) and costs around $10 per ferret for the whole summer.

Talk to your veterinarian if you have any questions about putting your
ferret on heartworm prevention. Many veterinarians have handouts that explain
the life cycle of the heartworm and how the medication works in your pet.

[intlink id=”fair”]This article originally appeared in the May/June 1996 issue of "The F.A.I.R. Report".[/intlink]

Health Alert!

By Mary Van Dahm

Health Alert! - By Mary Van Dahm

Just when we’ve finally gotten the treatment of ECE (Epizootic Catarrhal Enteritis) under our belts and have a heightened awareness of ADV (Aleutian Disease Virus), another “bug” pops out of the woodwork to plague our pets. We have been hearing reports from all over the country about sick ferrets. Some fatalities have been reported, also.

The symptoms are intermittent diarrhea and dehydration, often with severe weight loss and often accompanied by high fever. In severe cases there may also be bloody stool. Not all ferrets are affected by this “virus” (for lack of a definitive classification). Affected and non-affected ferrets can share the same cage. Older ferrets with other medical problems seem to be hit the hardest. Stool samples and intestinal biopsies often show a high helicobacter count, which probably just means that the virus has weakened the ferret’s immune system enough to allow this opportunistic organism to proliferate.

Aggressive treatment with fluid therapy, high calorie hand feedings (“Duck Soup”) and antibiotics (Amoxicillan) for 3 – 4 weeks seems to pull most ferrets through this illness. Unlike ECE, ferrets, once recovered, do not seem to be further carriers of this disease. The possibility of a severe flu strain is very likely so if anyone in your house gets sick this winter, keep them away from your ferrets!

[intlink id=”fair”]This article originally appeared in the March/April 2003 issue of "The F.A.I.R. Report".[/intlink]

Ferrets and Lyme Disease

By Mary Van Dahm

Ferrets and Lyme Disease -- By Mary Van Dahm

We received a request to reprint an article about a ferret that we treated about 6 years ago for a tick-related disease symptomatic of Lyme disease. Unfortunately, since we didn’t save the information on a disc, and since our hard drive crashed on our old computer, the original article is lost.

Here is a brief history of the ferret, what symptoms it had and the treatment given: The ferret, a little stray female about one year old, was loaded with ticks. We pulled off all visible ticks and gave her a flea and tick bath in case there were any small ones that we had missed.

The next day when we took her to the vet, he found a few more ticks and he removed them. The check up was otherwise uneventful and the ferret was declared healthy.

Being a stray, we held the ferret for 7 days, just in case the original owner might be looking for her. No one claimed her so we finally put her up for adoption. A woman came to look at her and decided to adopt her, but asked us to hold her for one more day because she wanted to do some ferret proofing before she took the ferret home. Ironically, this delay probably saved the ferret’s life, as the next day she was very unsteady on her feet, so we postponed her adoption until we could find out what was wrong. Within a few of days she could not stand up at all. We took her in for blood work, but nothing out of the ordinary showed up.

The paralysis continued to spread and we had to force her to urinate and relieve herself. We also had to hand feed her because she could not hold herself up to eat her food. She had a fever of almost 105 degrees. I finally noticed some discoloration around some of the tick bites and remembered my sister-in-law had similar markings when she had developed Lyme disease. I called our vet right away and asked him if ferrets were susceptible to this disease and he said he had never heard of a ferret having it. I persuaded him to find out the protocol for Lyme disease in other animals and calculate it for ferrets. Treatment included doses of tetracycline, amoxycillin, and prednisone.

After a few days of treatment she seemed to be doing better. She was even holding her head up a little bit on her own. By the fifth day, she was trying to stand up, but was still very wobbly. After ten days she was almost her normal self. I don’t remember if we stopped treatment after 14 days or if we continued for 21 days to be on the safe side. Shortly after 28 days we put her back up for adoption (The lady who had originally wanted her decided to take a different ferret in the meantime). She was finally adopted by one of our members and lived out a normal ferret life.

We never did send blood to a lab to confirm if it actually was Lyme disease. The reason for this was that the test was quite a bit more expensive than the treatment and by the time the results came back she would either have been dead or have started responding to the treatment. Luckily our gamble paid off in this case.

We have since heard of three other cases of ferrets having tick related diseases. Two of these cases also started with the paralysis in the hind legs and continued toward the front of the body. These two ferrets also survived the ordeal using the protocol for Lyme disease.

The third ferret’s paralysis started with its front and back legs at the same time. This ferret developed respiratory failure and died. I don’t know if this ferret’s death had to do with the way the disease progressed, if treatment was not started soon enough, or if this ferret had a different disease than the other ferrets did. In each case, no blood work or pathology was done to verify what disease was involved.

An interesting fact that we learned at a later point is that Lyme disease rarely manifests itself if the ticks are removed within 24 hours. It was explained to me by a human physician that the disease is spread, not when the tick initially bites its host, but when it regurgitates fluids to keep the wound open for future meals. Therefore it is important to check your ferrets any time you take them out to a moist grassy area and remove any ticks you find immediately. If you happen to run a shelter or rescue, the same thing applies to stray ferrets that are found with ticks on them. You may also want to hold these animals for 10-14 days prior to releasing them for adoption, since that appears to be the incubation time for this disease in ferrets.

Note: There are several new flea and tick products on the market for use on ferrets, but one of the best products to use if you have a heavy infestation is Frontline Top Spot for cats. This is considered ‘extra label’ use (i.e. the product was not manufactured for ferrets), but it has worked safely and effectively on many ferrets that we know of. We use the smallest dose recommended for kittens and small cats. You can literally watch the ticks fall off of the ferret when this product is used!

[intlink id=”fair”]This article originally appeared in the July/August 1999 issue of "The F.A.I.R. Report".[/intlink]

Ferret Nutrition

By Mary Van Dahm

Ferret Nutrition -- By Mary Van Dahm

As a member of the family Mustelidae, the Domestic ferret still has a lot in common with its wild cousins as far as nutritional needs are concerned. While the Domestic ferret’s body is no longer as muscular and sleek as his wild ancestors’, and he no longer has to catch his own dinner to survive; he is still an obligate carnivore, which means he must have a meat-based diet.

This doesn’t mean that you should catch mice or birds for him or feed him raw meat or road kill! While these are certainly sources of meat protein, the chances for contamination and disease are very great. Most ferrets wouldn’t know what to do with ‘dinner on the hoof’ anyway. While some ferrets might think it is great fun to chase a mouse if they came upon one, very few would recognize a mouse as ‘dinner.’ A proper dinner for a sophisticated ferret should lie neatly in a bowl and go ‘crunch’ when it is consumed!

But what is a proper dinner for a ferret? There are a lot of foods that go ‘crunch’. Which ones are best for your fuzzy friend? As I mentioned before, domestic ferrets need a meat-based diet, so obviously you need to look for diets that are high in meat protein.

Product Labeling

Learn to read the labels on the bags of ferret food in the store. Ingredients are listed in the order of highest percentage of content to least percentage of content. The first item listed should be a meat item – usually poultry, poultry meal or poultry by-products. Fish and fishmeal are acceptable, too, but may give the food a strong fishy smell.

Unfortunately the government does not require that the actual percentage of each item be listed so sometimes it is hard to judge which food is actually better. One food may list only two meat-based proteins out of the first five ingredients, but may be just as good – or better than – a food that has four meat items listed. For example: if food ‘A’ has 15% chicken by-products, 15% chicken, 15% fish meal and 15% liver it could have 4 meat items listed amongst the first 5 ingredients. But if food ‘B’ has 50% chicken and 20% fishmeal, it would still have more meat protein than ‘A’, even though it only has 2 meats listed in the first 5 items.

Essential Proteins

Proteins are made up of amino acids, which are some of the building blocks of the body. Proteins help manufacture blood cells and help develop muscles and bones. A minimum of 30% protein is necessary for good health in ferrets. Usually 35 – 38% is best. Remember, though, a food can be 35% protein, but if it is all plant protein, your ferret will not be able to digest it and his health will suffer. Ferrets can survive on a lower meat protein diet, but they usually have to eat more to compensate for the lower protein level supplied. Also, there is a big difference between ‘surviving’ and ‘thriving’! On a lower quality diet a ferret’s body must work harder to squeeze all the nutrients it needs from the food. This strain may lower the ferret’s resistance against disease. Lower meat protein foods may seem like a bargain at the checkout counter, but if your ferret has to eat twice as much to get the nutrition he needs, then you may not be saving any money after all. Don’t forget that “garbage in – garbage out” also affects the amount of litter used and you will have twice as much scooping and clean up to do since all of the indigestible filler in the food will pass through the ferret’s intestines and produce more stools. There is a school of thought that promotes occasional high fiber meals for ferrets to help clean out their colons, similar to the new hairball foods promoted for cats; but no studies have been done on ferrets to prove or disprove this train of thought.

Fat

In contrast to humans, who are forever trying to diet, fat is very important and essential in a ferret’s diet. Fat is a very concentrated and digestible source of energy for your pet. Most ferrets need a high fat diet – preferably 18% or more. Young, growing kits and very active or nursing adults do best on fat levels of about 22 – 25%. Less active adults and older ferrets can get by with levels closer to 18%. Many ferret owners like to give their ferrets fatty acid supplements, such as Ferretone, or Linatone. If the ferrets are on a high quality diet, they should not need these supplements except as a treat or reward. A few drops (up to1/8 teaspoon) of these products each day can help you bond with your ferret. Too much of these products will just make your ferret obese!

I generally recommend that the fatty acid supplement be given separately out of an eyedropper or on a spoon, rather than pouring it over the food, as some manufacturers recommend. First of all this allows you to measure your ferret’s intake of the supplement so he doesn’t eat too much of it. Too much of a good thing can give your ferret an upset stomach or even diarrhea! Second, giving the supplement to him separately keeps both the food and the supplement fresher. The oil on the food can go rancid in warm weather and it can make dust and dirt stick to the food. Third, feeding our ferret the supplement separately makes it something special between you and your ferret. Food and treats are great bonding tools for people and their pets.

Carbohydrates

There are two forms of carbohydrates – fiber and starch. Fiber is a complex carbohydrate that is almost indigestible to the ferret. Some fiber is necessary in your ferret’s diet to help give bulk to food in the ferret’s intestines so the food can be pushed through the digestive system. Starches, the second form of carbohydrates, are also called soluble carbohydrates. When cooked, starches are highly digestible, even by ferrets. (Uncooked starches are not digestible at all by ferrets.) Soluble carbohydrates supply energy, but are not as good a source of energy as fats are. The sources for carbohydrates in your ferrets food – rice, corn and soybeans – are also used as ‘binders’ to help hold the food together.

Vitamins

Vitamins are also important in your ferret’s diet. They help your ferret’s body metabolize the food he eats. It has not yet been determined what levels of vitamins are actually needed in a ferret’s diet. Generally speaking, if your ferret is on a premium ferret diet there should be adequate amounts of vitamins in his diet already. Fat soluble vitamins, such as vitamins A, D3, and E, are stored by the body for later use if they are not immediately needed. These three vitamins are found in high levels in most of the fatty acid supplements that are available in many pet stores. Moderation should be the rule when giving supplements to your pet as ferrets may develop vitamin toxicity if constantly overfed high doses of fat-soluble vitamins.

Vitamin C (Ascorbic acid) is a water-soluble vitamin that is needed to prevent diseases such as scurvy. Fortunately ferrets’ bodies are generally able to produce adequate levels of vitamin C on their own. Many people who are into holistic medicine recommend additional doses of vitamin C in the ferret’s cancer prevention or treatment. Whether this additional vitamin C is actually helpful to ferrets has not been clinically proven, but in individual cases it seems to have helped many ferrets. Since vitamin C is water soluble, excess vitamin C in the ferret’s system is usually eliminated through his urine. You usually can’t over-dose a ferret with vitamin C, but why waste it. A few drops (1/4 – 1/2 cc) of liquid vitamin C each day is fine. Most ferrets don’t like the taste of liquid vitamin C so you may have to mix it with a favorite treat to get him to take it.

The ‘B’ vitamins, Thiamin (Bl), Riboflavin (B2), Pyroxidine (B6), Cyanocobalamin (B12), plus Niacin, Pantothenic Acid, Folic Acid, Biotin, and Choline are also water-soluble vitamins. These vitamins are found in adequate quantities in premium ferret foods and no further supplementation is needed.

Minerals

Minerals are a necessary part of your ferret’s diet, but proper quantities of each mineral can be more critical – and less forgiving – than vitamins. Minerals are usually divided into two classes – Macro minerals and Micro (or trace) minerals.

Macro minerals, as their name implies, are required in larger quantities in the body. These include calcium, phosphorous, potassium, sodium, chloride, magnesium, and sulfur. These macro minerals help your ferret develop strong bones and muscles and control the absorption and release of fluids throughout the ferret’s body. Micro minerals are required in much smaller quantities. The amounts needed are so small that they are referred to in parts per million (ppm). Some micro minerals are: zinc, copper, iron, iodine, manganese, and selenium.

Sub-groupings of trace minerals, sometimes, called ‘micro-trace’ minerals, are measured in parts per billion (ppb). These ‘micro-trace’ minerals include: chromium, fluorine, nickel, vanadium, silica, lithium, and arsenic. Strangely enough, while these minerals are all necessary for the continued health of your ferret, they can also be toxic or life threatening in high or unbalanced doses. Usually, if a ferret is on a high quality food, these minerals will be adequately provided without the addition of mineral supplements. In fact, since these minerals are so delicately balanced, I do not recommend that you add a mineral supplements to your ferret’s diet except under the direct supervision of your veterinarian or a certified animal nutritionist.

Holding it all Together

All pelleted animal foods need a ‘binder’ to hold them together. This allows the product to be shaped and pelleted and keeps it from crumbling into powder after drying. Ferret foods are no exception. The most commonly used binders are rice, corn and soybeans. Rice flour is the best binder to use. It is well tolerated by the digestive tract and the most digestible of the three binders. Unfortunately it is more expensive so many pet food manufacturers pass it up for one of the other two binders.

Corn is the most often used binder. It comes in 4 forms – whole corn, kibbled corn, ground corn and corn gluten meal. Corn is plentiful to come by and therefore cheaper to use. Unfortunately some forms of processed corn – especially corn gluten meal – cause digestive disorders and allergic reactions in some ferrets. Corn gluten allergies are one of the most commonly reported food allergies in ferrets. This can cause a painful gastrointestinal problem in the ferret that is totally preventable.

Signs of a food allergy can be chronic irregular, soft or mucusy stools, gassy bowel or bloating, pawing at the mouth due to an upset stomach (This can also be a sign of a hairball or of insulinoma. Have your ferret checked by a veterinarian to be sure what his problem is if you see him doing this) and sometimes skin rashes or swollen feet. If the situation is not corrected by switching the ferret to another diet, the ferret can develop thick, hardened intestines or ulcerated bowels.

Soybean meat and soy flour are also commonly used. Soybean products are usually well tolerated by ferrets but some veterinarians caution that the high use of soy protein in some of these diets may affect hormonal levels in ferrets after long term use. No formal studies have been done yet to prove or disprove this theory in ferrets, but it is documented in pigs.

Ferret Food vs. Kitten Food

This is a topic with mixed responses from many ferret experts. Logically, since you are feeding a ferret, you would think that ferret food would always be your best selection. With the exception of a few of the lower quality ferret foods on the market; feeding your critter ferret food is usually your best bet. Ferret foods are nutritionally geared toward the needs of your ferret. The protein, fat, vitamin and mineral ratio is balanced for a ferret’s metabolism. Most cat foods may not meet these needs.

Totally Ferret is my ferrets’ favorite ferret food. Dr. Tom Willard and his wife, Trish – the people behind the product – are very dedicated to developing the very best food for ferrets. The quality of their food is the highest on the market and it is very palatable to ferrets. There are other good ferret foods out there, too, and if Totally Ferret ferret diet is not available in your area, don’t despair. If you can’t find a good ferret food at your local pet shop, Totally Ferret is also available through some ferret shelters, veterinarians and mail order companies.

If you are on a road trip with your pet and you suddenly realize that you forgot the bag of ferret food at home; high quality kitten foods may be used instead, lams kitten food or Eucanuba kitten or cat foods (not dog food!) are good in a pinch, lams is the most palatable to ferrets of the three, but they are all good products. You can also offer these foods to your ferret as an occasional treat to get him used to their tastes so he won’t turn his nose up at them during an emergency situation. Stay away from grocery store cat and kitten foods. Your ferret may enjoy these brands just as much as his regular diet, but most grocery store pet foods are high in vegetable fiber and are not digestible or nutritionally sound for ferrets.

Dry vs. Wet Foods

As a general rule, offer your ferret dry foods rather than wet foods. This will help prevent tartar buildup and help keep his teeth cleaner. Dry foods also have the advantage of being able to be left out so your ferret can nibble throughout the day. Wet foods have to be changed several times a day to prevent spoilage and are usually fairly expensive compared to dry foods. Wet foods can be good if your ferret is sick or unable to eat hard foods for some reason. Kits (baby ferrets) should be given moist food from the time that they are first being weaned until about 8 or 9 weeks of age. You can moisten your ferret’s regular food, or use a quality-canned food. This helps prevent constipation and prolapsing of the rectum.

Free Feeding vs. Rationing

Ferrets have a digestive transit time (the time it takes the food to pass through the stomach and the intestines) of only 3 – 4 hours. Because this is such a short time, most ferret experts agree that ferrets should be allowed to free-feed (have food available at all times). If you find that your ferret is getting obese, try switching him to a lower fat diet rather than depriving him of food altogether. If this doesn’t help, consult with your veterinarian first before pulling your ferret’s food away from him. If your ferret has medical problems, then you might not be able to withhold food from him. If he is a young, healthy ferret, you might be able to ration his food and put half of it out in the morning and half out at night. If he runs out of food for an hour or so before his next feeding it shouldn’t hurt him.

Don’t forget that ferrets have seasonal weight gains and losses; so sudden weight gains may not be something to worry about. A ferret is usually considered grossly obese if his stomach drags on the floor. Some ferrets actually wear the hair off of their stomachs because they can’t keep their stomachs lifted off the ground. This is not to be confused with abdominal hair loss on intact male ferrets that mark territory by dragging their stomachs over things. Old or sick ferrets may also drag their stomachs if they have hind leg weakness or enlarged spleens.

Water

Even the best ferret food will fail to sustain your ferret if he doesn’t receive adequate amounts of fresh water. High protein diets require more water to be processed by an animal’s body than lower protein diets. Clean, fresh water should be offered to your ferret daily and should be available at all times. If your local water supply has a high mineral content, especially if it contains calcium, sodium or lead, you should give your ferret bottled water, or at least water from another source. Water with high levels of fluoride, chlorine and other chemicals should also be avoided.

Summary

Ferret nutrition doesn’t have to be complicated. A quality diet, plenty of fresh water and regular check ups by your veterinarian should keep your ferret in optimum health. Round out his physical needs by supplying his emotional needs with love, attention and play. Common sense and a moderation of treats should keep your ferret happy and healthy for years to come.

[intlink id=”fair”]This article originally appeared in the March/April 2000 issue of "The F.A.I.R. Report".[/intlink]

An Owners Guide to Ferret Health Care

By Mary Van Dahm

An Owners Guide to Ferret Health Care -- By Mary Van Dahm

STARTING OUT RIGHT

A good diet is the best foundation to any pet’s health care. Ferrets are no exception. As carnivores, ferrets require a high meat protein diet and many veterinarians believe that they benefit from taurine in their diet, just like cats. Therefore a high quality dry ferret or kitten food is an excellent choice. Totally Ferret by PFI, IAMS kitten food, and Hill’s Science diet growth formula, are some of the brands we recommend. Most grocery store cat foods and some ferret foods are made primarily from corn and soybean meals. Since a ferret has a very short digestive transit time (approximately 3-4 hrs.) the ferret’s stomach and intestines do not have adequate time to break down and absorb the vegetable matter in these lower quality foods and most of the food will pass through undigested. The ferret will have to eat more to satisfy its nutritional needs and in turn will produce more stools; so in the long run, buying a cheaper brand of food will probably not save you any money. A poor diet may also set your ferret up for future health problems which will cost you money to correct later.

THE MOST COMMON HEALTH PROBLEMS OF THE DOMESTIC FERRET:

The following health problems are ones that many veterinarians have dealt with on a regular basis. We hope that, with good care and caution, your ferret will never experience any of these situations, but if your ferret does, your knowing what to look for and what to do may help prolong – or even save – your ferret’s life.

NON-INFECTIOUS HEALTH PROBLEMS

ANAL GLAND IMPACTION

This is a condition that occurs in undescented ferrets when the opening of the anal gland is blocked or if a bacterial infection has caused the glands to produce thick, turgid material that is difficult to pass.

Symptoms: You may notice one or two round lumps (depending if one or both of the glands are affected) on either side of the anal opening. A ferret may “scoot” his butt on the floor, if the impaction is irritating him, but usually most ferrets don’t seem to be bothered by this condition. Sometimes the gland will rupture. This may occur near the anal gland opening or even through the anal wall. This can be serious as it leaves a wide entrance for bacteria and infection may result.

Treatment: In early stages warm compresses held against the glands are sometimes effective or your veterinarian may be able to express the glands at his/ her office. If neither of these procedures works, or if your ferret is prone to chronic anal gland impaction, then surgical removal of the gland is recommended. For a ruptured gland, surgery is necessary and you may want to have both glands removed at the same time for convenience.

Prevention: There is no real prevention to this problem other than removal of the anal glands. Since this is not a frequent problem, we do not recommend the routine removal of anal glands in ferrets. Checking your pet’s glands regularly and detecting impaction early can help prevent ruptures or infection.

APLASTIC ANEMIA This is a common cause of death of unspayed, non-breeding females. This condition occurs when high levels of estrogen are produced during the “heat” cycle and suppress the production of red and white blood cells in the bone marrow. Advanced cases are irreversible and death occurs from the severe anemia and secondary bacterial infections that set in.

Symptoms: May be seen in jills that have been in heat for 1 month or longer. Outward signs may include an extremely swollen vulva, lethargy, hind limb weakness, loss of appetite, spotty or complete hair loss (do not confuse this with patterned hair loss caused by adrenal disease), and in some advanced cases a sour smell and turgid discharge from the vulva. Close examination may show the gums to be pale and sometimes even the nose, ears and pads on the feet will lose color.

Treatment: The ferret should be taken to a veterinarian immediately. A complete blood count (CBC) should be taken to determine the severity of the anemia. If the condition is caught early, the ferret may be spayed to prevent reoccurrence of the problem. Moderate anemia may require multiple blood transfusions and other supportive care prior to surgery. If the condition is advanced, there is no treatment since at that point it is irreversible. In such cases euthanasia is recommended.

Prevention: Any jill that is not going to be used for breeding should be spayed before her first estrus (usually around 6 or 7 months of age). Jills that are going to be used for breeding at a later date may be taken out of heat with the hormone HCG, but this should be used only as a temporary measure as many jills quickly go back into heat a few weeks after receiving the injection. Some breeders use vasectomized hobs to bring jills out of heat, but this method is sometimes unreliable.

CARDIOMYOPATHY

This is a condition that is usually seen in ferrets over 3 years of age. It consists of either the thinning or the thickening of the walls of the heart. This affects the blood flow through the heart.

Symptoms: Some signs are: a sudden decrease in activity; collapsing in the middle of play (in advanced cases a ferret may not even be able to walk across a room without stopping to rest): and the ferret may have great difficulty waking up. Other symptoms are chronic coughing, shortness of breath, fluid build up in the abdomen and lethargy. Diagnosis of the disease is done through X-rays and an EKG.

Treatment: There is no cure for this disease, but the condition can usually be helped with the use of diuretics and other medications. A high quality diet has shown to be helpful, too.

Prevention: Since some veterinarians believe this may be a hereditary condition, we do not recommend breeding ferrets that have it. Feeding your ferret a high quality diet may also help prevent or control this condition.

CATARACTS

This is a condition where the lens of the ferret’s eye becomes opaque. Depending on the maturity of the cataract, the ferret may see little to no light. Cataracts may affect one or both eyes, but the latter is most common. Ferrets may develop juvenile or geriatric cataracts. Juvenile cataracts generally show up before the ferret is one year old. This is thought to be a hereditary condition. Geriatric cataracts are usually caused by the aging of the eye, injuries to the eye, or possibly from taurine deficiencies.

Symptoms: Looking into your ferret’s eyes, you will notice whitish circles within the pupils. Since ferrets generally have poor eyesight and since cataracts usually develop slowly, you may not even notice that your ferret has them. Sometimes the affected lens dissolves and the eye becomes clear again. This does not indicate the return of your ferret’s vision, although he may be able to detect some light again.

Treatment: Treatment is rarely done on this condition in ferrets. Prevention: Do not breed ferrets with cataracts to avoid passing the condition to other generations. Feeding a diet containing taurine may help, but no concrete evidence has been collected to support this theory.

G.I. FOREIGN BODIES

These may consist of hairballs, soft rubber or plastic pieces that have been chewed off of toys, rubber bands, insoles from shoes, foam rubber or numerous other items that ferrets may pick up off of the floor and eat.

Symptoms: Ferrets usually cannot cough up hairballs or foreign bodies like cats do; so most objects will remain in the stomach if they are too large to pass. This may present itself as a slow wasting condition as the object replaces the space needed for proper food digestion (hairballs often present themselves in this manner). Loss of appetite, nausea (evident by the ferret pawing at its mouth), and vomiting may occur, but are not evident in all cases. Sometimes the ferret may also have black, tarry stools. If the foreign body passes out of the stomach and lodges in the small intestine, the ferret will usually become acutely ill (severely depressed, dehydrated and experiencing acute abdominal pain). If surgery is not performed, the ferret can go into a coma and die in less than 24 hours.

Treatment: The ferret should be seen by a veterinarian immediately to determine if the ferret needs surgery or not. If the ferret is not acutely ill, a barium X-ray series may be done to determine what is causing the blockage. If it is organic in nature (such as a hairball), the veterinarian may try oral treatments with digestive enzymes or heavy doses of cat laxative before attempting surgery.

Prevention: The use of a cat hairball laxative 2 – 3 times a week (every day during shedding seasons) will help control the formation of hairballs and will help small pieces of chewed up materials to pass out of the intestines. “Ferret proofing” your house on hands and knees to look for potential objects that your ferret may try to eat or chew should be done on a regular basis.

HEAT STROKE Ferrets cannot sweat and therefore they do not tolerate high temperatures (over 80 degrees) very well.

Symptoms: The ferret will start panting heavily and may become limp and listless. Eventually the animal will pass out and die.

Treatment: You must bring the ferret’s body temperature down, but not too low. Do not chill the ferret or it may go into shock. Soak towels in cool water and lay them over the ferret or partially submerge the ferret in a basin of tepid (not cold!) water. If the animal is conscious, encourage it to drink water, Gatorade or Pedialyte, if available. If there is no improvement within 5-10 minutes, get the animal to the veterinarian immediately.

Prevention: Do not expose your ferret to strong sunlight or take him outside on hot days. Do not set his cage near a window where it will be hit with direct sunlight. Do not leave him alone in a car, even on cool days, since the temperature inside the car can rise higher than the outside air temperature very fast! If you must travel with your ferret, take him inside with you when you leave the car. To keep the ferret cool while driving, be sure to give him plenty of cold water. You may also take a 2 liter pop bottle and fill it 2/3 full of water and freeze it the night before your trip. Set the frozen bottle in the carrier with the ferret (tie it down so it doesn’t roll around and hurt him!) This will afford him something cool to lean against for short trips on warm days.

INFECTIOUS HEALTH PROBLEMS

COLDS AND FLU

Ferrets are susceptible to cold and flu viruses. They can catch it from humans or other ferrets and can pass it back again as well.

Symptoms:Basically the same as in humans – runny nose, watery eyes, sneezing, coughing, lethargy, some loss of appetite.

Treatment: Usually a lot of rest and TLC is all that’s required. Make sure the ferret is drinking plenty of fluids. If the sneezing and runny nose is excessive, an antihistamine called chlorpheniramine maleate (sold as Chlortrimeton or under generic names) may be used at 1/4 tablet 2 – 3 times a day. DO NOT GIVE FERRETS ASPIRIN, except under the direction of a veterinarian. If a cold persists more than 3 days without any improvement; if the nasal discharge is discolored (not clear); if the ferret is wheezing or having breathing problems; if the ferret is extremely lethargic; if the ferret has lost its appetite completely; or if the ferret appears to have a fever, see your veterinarian right away.

Prevention: Don’t let people with colds or flu come near your ferret. If you have a cold, let someone else take care of the ferret for you until you are better. If you have to handle the ferret yourself, wear a facemask and wash your hands before handling the ferret.

DISTEMPER

Canine distemper is very contagious to ferrets and almost
100% fatal if they contract it.
It is a resilient virus that can stay active for a long time off of the host and can be carried to your ferret on your shoes, clothes, and in the air. Feline distemper is rare in ferrets and usually only affects very young kits.

Symptoms: Some ferrets experience sudden death, but for most the disease progresses over a period of about two weeks. Early signs include crustiness around the eyes and a rash on the chin. The rash may also be found on the abdomen. As the disease progresses, the pads on the feet may harden and thicken. Diarrhea, vomiting, seizures or severe lethargy are some other signs that may be noted. The ferret may finally lapse into a coma before it dies.

Treatment: None. Euthanasia is strongly recommended as distemper is a horrible, painful disease.

Prevention: Thankfully there are vaccines for distemper that will prevent your ferret from contracting the virus. Fervac-D by United Vaccine is the only current vaccine licensed for use against distemper in ferrets, although many shelters and veterinarians have used Galaxy – D with equal success. They are both modified live virus vaccines derived from non-ferret tissue cultures. It is important NOT to use a vaccine that is of ferret tissue origin or you may actually give your ferret distemper! Vaccination against feline distemper is not needed because of the extremely low incidence of this disease in ferrets.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Canine distemper vaccines MUST be given annually to remain effective. Kits (baby ferrets) should receive an initial series of shots at 6-8 wks., 11 wks., and 14 wks. of age; then annually. NOTE: Most ferrets from pet shops only have the initial 6-week shot. BE SURE TO GET YOUR KIT IN TO A VETERINARIAN FOR THE ENTIRE
SERIES TO AVOID HEARTACHE LATER!

E.C.E.(Epizootic Catarrhal Enteritis) VIRUS

AKA: The “Green Slime” Virus A highly contagious diarrheal virus that attacks the intestinal lining causing poor fluid and nutrient absorption which may result in extreme dehydration, anorexia, and sometimes death. Some ferrets are severely affected while others have little or no discomfort. Age, body fat distribution, general health, and possibly genetics may be factors.

Symptoms: Initially the ferret may exhibit vomiting which is then followed by a bright to dark green diarrhea. Most ferrets recover from this stage of the virus in about 2-7 days. This sometimes leads to a false sense of security that the animal is ‘better’. Unfortunately the virus continues to attack the intestinal lining causing inflammation and ulcers. The ferret may stop eating and anorexia and dehydration set in.

Treatment: Sub-Q (under the skin) hydration and a high calorie, soft diet are a must for severe cases. We recommend feeding affected ferrets with a mixture of Science Diet a/d canned food (available from your veterinarian) and Isocal, Sustacal or Ensure (human food supplements found at most drug stores) in a ratio of 6:1 (6 parts a/d to 1 part Isocal). Water or Pedialyte may be added to improve consistency for syringe feeding. We also add 1 teaspoon of butter (not margarine) per can of a/d to add calories for severe cases. The mixture may be heated a little to improve palatability. Some ferrets may need to be hand fed to make sure that they are eating. Ferrets that aren’t eating well on their own will need to eat 2-4 oz. of this mixture daily. Imodium (liquid) may be given to help stop the diarrhea. This can be administered at a dose of 1 cc 2 times during the first 24 hours, then it should be reduced to .30 cc 1-3 times a day for up to 4 more days. We also recommend giving Pepcid AC to reduce the chances of mouth and stomach ulcers from forming. This should be administered by crushing a 10 mg tablet of Pepcid and mixing it with 10 cc of water. SHAKE WELL and measure out .20 cc per dose. The suspension settles quickly and must be shaken well before each dose is administered.

Prevention: There is no vaccine currently available. Avoid contact with ferrets that have had the disease (they can be carriers for up to 10 months after recovery) Change your clothes and shoes if you have been to an infected household to avoid bringing the disease into your home.

NEOPLASIA (CANCER)

Cancer is currently the most common cause of illness and death of the ferret. Approximately 70 – 90% of all ferrets will develop some kind of cancer in their lifetime. Older ferrets, especially, seem prone to cancers; and multiple cancers are common in ferrets over 5 years of age. Fortunately, with regular veterinary check ups, blood work and X – rays, early detection and treatment can be achieved. Many cases of cancer in ferrets that are not curable are at least controllable if caught early.

ADRENAL ADENOMA OR ADENOCARCINOMA

This is a cancer of the adrenal gland, which is a small organ about the size of a small pea. The ferret has two adrenal glands – one near each kidney. The adrenal glands produce hormones which control a number of metabolic functions in the ferret’s body. Most affected ferrets develop adrenal adenoma, which is a benign form of the disease (i.e. it does not spread to other parts of the body) Adenocarcinoma is the malignant (spreading) form of the disease. Ferrets may have one or both glands affected by cancer. This is a common cancer usually found in ferrets over 2 years of age. About 40% of ferrets develop it. Symptoms: Signs may include: alopecia (hair loss) over all or part of the body (often starting on the lower back or along the back bone); poor coat quality (dry, brittle, thinning); loss of muscle and skin tone; itchy, flaky skin – sometimes with red patches or scaling; large deposits of abdominal fat; and a strong musk odor may be apparent. Spayed females may develop vulvular swelling as if they were in heat. Males may become more aggressive as if they were in rut.

Treatment: Surgery is the recommended treatment for most ferrets under 5 years of age. Since this usually is a fairly slow progressing disease, many older ferrets can live out normal life spans without surgery, but males may develop prostate problems and females with swollen vulvas are susceptible to infection.

Prevention: No preventative measures are currently known.

INSULINOMA

Insulinoma is a cancer of the beta cells of the pancreas. It is fairly common in ferrets over 3 years of age and approximately 40 – 50% of all ferrets get it. This cancer causes the beta cells to produce abnormally high levels of insulin, which drives the sugar out of the blood stream and into the body too quickly. This causes a serious drop in the blood sugar level and affects the brain, which needs a constant supply of sugar.

Symptoms: These may vary with the severity of the case. Early signs are easily overlooked and may include mild trances (staring into space for a few seconds) or the ferret sleeping more or harder to wake up. Staggering while walking; drooling; pawing at the mouth; and mild seizures usually come next. This may be followed by vocalizations,(The ferret can make sounds varying from a noise like a hiccup to screeches and screams. These are generally involuntary and do not mean that the ferret is in any pain), severe seizures, coma and death. Diagnosis is usually based on a fasting blood sugar level.

Treatment: Depending on the severity of the case and the age of the animal, different treatments may be suggested by your veterinarian. Some veterinarians prefer to approach the disease aggressively by surgically removing most of the tumors. One problem with this is that there are no guarantees that more tumors won’t grow and you may face a repeat performance. Another problem is that sometimes the tumors are too small to even be seen (the average insulinoma tumor is smaller than a pin head) or there are too many of them to remove without damaging the pancreas. Another choice is medical therapy. The ferret would need to receive oral medication for the rest of its life. We have seen animals survive over three years on medical therapy. Giving the ferret high protein treats such as baby food (meat varieties) and making sure that the ferret eats regularly throughout the day is beneficial. The disadvantage of medical therapy is that it does not necessarily stop the growth of the cancer and increased doses of medication may be needed as the disease progresses. Insulinomas have also been known to spread to other tissues and organs, such as the spleen, liver and even the lungs.

If you should notice your ferret having an insulinoma seizure, you can help stabilize him by first administering something sweet to him, such as honey or Karo syrup. (NOTE: As a general rule- ferrets with insulinoma should NOT be given sugary treats. This has been found to create a yo-yo effect with the blood sugars elevating rapidly and then dropping quickly again.) As soon as your ferret is steadier, give him some meat baby food or some of his regular food to balance out the sugar intake. Call your veterinarian and get your ferret into his/ her office ASAP.

IMPORTANT: Never put food or liquid into the mouth of an unconscious animal. If the animal is seizuring or is unconscious, rub some honey or syrup on his inner lips and gums. (Use a Q-tip, if possible, to administer the honey or syrup to avoid the ferret biting you if it starts to seizure again.) When the ferret starts to come around, then you can proceed as described above.

Prevention: Veterinarians do not currently know what causes insulinomas to appear. Diet and heredity are suspects and some veterinarians believe that it may be caused by a virus. Until more is known about the cause of this disease, no preventative measures can be established.

LYMPHOSARCOMA

This is a cancer of the lymphatic system, which is a part of the body’s immune system. It is usually found in older ferrets, but is being seen in younger ferrets now, too. Due to the younger ferret’s body being geared for growth, juvenile lymphosarcoma is often fatal because the disease spreads quickly in the freshly growing cells. In older ferrets it usually develops more slowly and may tend to go unnoticed until it presents itself as swollen glands, an enlarged spleen, rapid or steady weight loss, difficulty breathing, poor appetite or chronic diarrhea. A ferret with lymphosarcoma may have one or more of these symptoms, but these symptoms by themselves are not totally indicative of the disease. Other diseases, such as the flu, may present themselves in the same manner. A complete blood count (CBC) and a lymph node or bone marrow biopsy are usually recommended to confirm the diagnosis., An X-ray or EKG may be helpful in finding cancer in the chest. Research is being done to determine the cause of this cancer. Many veterinarians and researchers suspect that it may be viral in origin, but if it is, it is not thought to be highly contagious as many ferrets have been raised together without the disease spreading. A hereditary susceptibility is also being investigated.

Symptoms: Most ferret owners notice the swelling of the lymph glands along the ferret’s neck, under the arms or behind the back legs. These areas may become so swollen that the ferret looks like it has marbles under the skin.

Treatment: Chemotherapy has been successful in treating many cases of lymphosarcoma. Age, advancement of the disease, and other health problems factor into the criteria of whether a ferret would be a good candidate for chemotherapy. Homeopathic vitamin therapy is also being tried by some veterinarians. If the disease is advanced and the animal is suffering, euthanasia is generally recommended. Prevention: Currently none. If a hereditary susceptibility is found, then ferrets with this predisposition should be kept away from ferrets known to have the disease already. If a virus is isolated, then work can begin on making a vaccine to protect ferrets from catching this disease.

SKIN TUMORS

Some ferrets seem to be more prone to skin tumors than others. The most common are sebaceous gland adenomas and mast cell tumors.

Symptoms: Sebaceous gland adenomas and mast cell tumors generally present themselves as raised lumps under or on the surface of the skin. Some may look like warts or raised scabs on the skin.

Treatment: While most skin tumors are benign, removal is recommended, especially if the tumors are irritated, bleeding, or rough in texture.

Prevention: None.

If you have any questions about this information, please contact your veterinarian.

[intlink id=”fair”]This article originally appeared in a pamphlet published by F.A.I.R. [/intlink]

An Owners Guide to Ferret Grooming

By Mary Van Dahm

An Owners Guide to Ferret Grooming

CLEANING YOUR FERRET’S EARS

Ferrets’ ears are prone to earwax. This is normal and does not necessarily mean that your ferret has ear mites or an ear infection. Cleaning your ferret’s ears once or twice a month helps reduce the risk of bacterial build up, which can lead to ear infections, and helps you monitor for ear mites to prevent them from spreading, should one of your pets pick them up somewhere and bring them into the house.

MATERIALS TO USE

COTTON SWABS: Cotton swabs are the instrument of choice for cleaning ferrets’ ears. The ferret’s ear canal is shaped like an “L” and as long as you work gently, there is no risk to the ferret’s ears.

CLEANING SOLUTIONS: Ear cleaning solutions made for kittens and cats are usually safe for ferrets. Peroxide is another alternative in moderation. Do not use mineral oil, except as a softening agent for dried earwax. Be sure to clean it out thoroughly and follow with a drying agent or ear cleaner. If left in the ear, mineral oil can encourage the growth of bacteria and possibly cause ear infections. Do not use plain water, either, since water cannot dissolve the earwax, which is an oil-based material.

PROCEDURE: Pick up your ferret by grabbing his scruff (The loose patch of skin on his neck above his shoulder blades) and hold him up so his feet cannot touch any surfaces. Most ferrets will go limp when this is done properly. Hold the ferret over a table or counter so that if he does wiggle free, or you lose your grip, he won’t just fall to the floor! Pour a little ear cleaning solution into a small container, such as a jar lid. Dip the cotton swabs into the solution as needed.

Clean the outer ear first to avoid pushing excess dirt into the ear canal. Use a wet cotton swab first, then a dry one to soak up excess moisture. Repeat as needed using fresh swabs until no more dirt or wax is visible. Use the same procedure for the ear canal using a scooping/ twirling motion to prevent pushing wax deeper into the ears. Do not use the same swabs on both ears – always use fresh ones. This helps prevent the spread of mites or bacteria from ear to ear.

TRIMMING YOUR FERRET’S NAILS

Trim your ferret’s nails at least once a month. Most ferrets need to have their nails trimmed more often. Trimming your ferret’s nails not only helps keep them blunt, so they aren’t as likely to scratch you; it helps keep your ferret from snagging his nails on bedding and carpets. Ferrets have been known to actually tear a nail out by the roots when they’ve caught it on something. This is extremely painful to the ferret, and may require a trip to the veterinarian for stitches and antibiotics.

MATERIALS TO USE

CLIPPERS: Cat claw scissors or clippers are fine. Simple fingernail or toenail clippers for people can also be used. Stay away from heavy dog nail clippers as you may not be able to judge how far up the nail you are and you may end up cutting into the blood vein or “quick”.

KWIK-STOP/STYPTIC POWDER: Keep these items on hand in case you cut too far up the nail and bleeding ensues. Baking soda or cornstarch may also be used, but they are not as sterile.

PROCEDURE: MAKE SURE THAT YOU ARE IN A WELL LIT AREA SO YOU CAN CLEARLY SEE THE QUICK (The pink part of the nail)! Trim the nail up to about 1/8 inch of the quick. Do not trim any closer or you might hit the nerve endings that extend beyond the tip of the quick.

Sometimes, if you are lucky, you can trim your ferret’s nails while he is asleep. Realistically, you will usually have to deal with a wide-awake critter. If you have a partner, he can scruff and hold the ferret while you do the clipping. If you are doing this alone, one of the best ways to get the job done is to distract the ferret with a treat while you clip his nails. This can be done by laying the ferret on his back in your lap and putting a dab of cat hairball remedy, or another treat, on his belly. While your ferret is preoccupied with licking his stomach, you can trim his nails. With practice you can get the job done without the ferret knowing what happened!

WET GROOMING

Wet grooming is simply another term for bathing. Some ferrets like water and for them (and you!) bathing will be no problem. Others seem to have a cat’s aversion to the pastime and may put up a fuss.

MATERIALS TO USE

SHAMPOO: A mild shampoo made for ferrets or cats is fine. Baby shampoo may be used, but does not leave the coat as soft and shiny.

TOWELS: Several large bath towels – one to rub the ferret with, and others to lay on the floor so he can rub himself on them.

PROCEDURES

WATER LOVERS: For this group of ferrets, almost any sink or tub is fine. Some even enjoy a shower or being sprayed with a sprayer in the kitchen sink. Simply wet the ferret down in his favorite manner; apply a small amount of shampoo to his upper back; and massage the lather up to his ears and down to his tail. Be sure not to get soap in his eyes or ears. Rinse him thoroughly and then dry him off.

HYDROPHOBES: For ferrets that are afraid of water, I recommend the “double dip” method. Set up both sides of a double sink with warm water (If you don’t have a double sink, a single sink and a dish pan can be used). Dip the ferret into the first side of the sink holding him securely under his chest and hindquarters. While still supporting him under his chest, lift him out of the water and apply a small amount of shampoo. Work the shampoo up to his ears and down to his tail. You generally don’t have to wash a ferret’s underside unless fleas are a problem and you are using a flea shampoo (Use one that’s safe for kittens). Talk to the ferret as you bathe him. Use soothing tones. This will help him relax. When you are done lathering him, dip him back into the first sink to get rid of most of the shampoo, then into the second sink to rinse off the rest. Using a cup to pour the water over him can be helpful, too. Run your fingers through the coat to loosen up any shampoo down by the skin. When all traces of shampoo are gone, towel dry your ferret as best as you can. If you don’t mind your carpet getting a little wet, let your ferret loose on the floor with some extra towels and prepare yourself for some funny antics! If you prefer not to let your ferret run amuck, you can place several towels in his cage and leave him in there for 10-20 minutes or until the bulk of the water has left his coat. Don’t forget to remove the wet towels from his cage when he’s done. You don’t want your ferret to have to sleep with wet towels! IMPORTANT NOTE!! If you are letting your ferret dry off in his cage, TAKE THE LITTER PAN OUT or he may decide to dry himself off with the litter and undo all of your work!!

If your ferret has dry skin or a dry coat, apply a little coat conditioner while your ferret’s coat is still damp and work it into the coat and skin with a massaging motion. A simple homemade coat conditioner can be made from a mixture of one part Alpha Keri bath oil and 10 parts water. Shake well before spraying onto the ferret. A treat of a few drops of Linatone or Ferretone would be appropriate at this time, too!

DRY GROOMING

This is a great way to freshen up a ferret between baths or if your ferret is sick and you don’t want to expose him to a chill.

MATERIALS

BABY POWDER (Scent free or only lightly scented, if possible) BRUSH – A soft or medium bristled cat brush or baby brush.

A TOWEL OR NEWSPAPER – To put under the ferret.

PROCEDURE: Hold the ferret under his chest and lightly sprinkle him with the baby powder. Fluff the powder into the fur, working it down to the skin. Gently brush the ferret to remove excess powder and loose hair. Your ferret will be “Baby Fresh”!

SKIN AND COAT CARE

THE BEST FOUNDATION FOR YOUR FERRET’S SKIN AND COAT IS A GOOD DIET. Totally Ferret ferret food, or high quality dry kitten foods such as IAMS kitten food or Hill’s Science Diet feline growth formula provide essential fats and amino acids that your ferret needs to keep his coat healthy and shiny. Sometimes, though, in spite of a good diet, your pet may develop a dry coat or skin condition and your ferret may need extra help to maintain his coat, especially if he’s been sick or if the air is very dry in your home. A few drops of Linatone, Ferretone, or a similar product may be given daily for a while to help him produce the extra oils his coat needs. External treatments such as the conditioners mentioned in the wet grooming section may be helpful, too. Apply them 2 to 3 times a week as needed. If none of this works and your ferret still has a chronic dry coat, you may want to take him to the vet for a check up. Your pet’s dry coat can often be caused by illness, such as liver disease or adrenal disease.

DRY FOOT CARE

Most young ferrets do not have foot problems unless they are having a reaction to something in their environment. Perfumed litter or fabric softeners can cause allergic reactions; and unclean cages can cause urine burns or bacterial infections. All of these can show up as red, scaly feet. Sometimes, as ferrets get older, the pads on their feet get dry, scaly and sore. External lubrication with a bit of mineral oil or vaseline can help. Vitamin E creme is excellent, and has the advantage of being absorbed right away so you don’t get greasy paw prints all over the house! Bag Balm is another good choice. Depending on the severity of the condition, you may have to apply the moisturizer every day at first until the condition is under control. After that, once a week should maintain the feet in good condition.

TEETH CARE

Feeding your ferret dry foods and avoiding soft, sticky treats is the best start for clean, healthy teeth. But even with the best diets some tartar will start to build up on the teeth, especially the molars toward the back of the mouth. Simply scraping the teeth regularly with your fingernail should loosen most of the tartar. If you lack strong nails or do not want to get your fingers that close to your ferret’s teeth, you can gently rub the teeth in an up and down motion with the rounded end of a flat toothpick. A toothbrush made for cats can also be used. Cleaning your ferret’s teeth at least once a week is recommended. Have your veterinarian check your ferret’s teeth at least once a year for general maintenance, or sooner, if your notice any redness along the gum line, or other irregularities. If your ferret already has a heavy build up of tartar, have your veterinarian remove it before you start your maintenance program.

EXTERNAL PARASITES

Most ferrets that are kept indoors away from other animals do not get parasites, external or internal. Sometimes, though, we have other pets in the house that bring these pests in with them. Fleas, ticks, and ear mites are the most common parasites that pester ferrets.

FLEAS: These little vermin are hard to get rid of if you get them in your house. Not only must you treat the animal afflicted with them, but you must treat the entire house since fleas can, and will, hop to other parts of the house if they fall off of their host. Fleas spend most of their life cycle off of their host as eggs or larvae before becoming adults, so treatment of the rugs and bedding is important. The fleas themselves are elusive little black bugs about the size of a pinhead. Evidence of fleas can be seen, even if you don’t see the critters themselves. Black flecks of “flea dirt” (feces) can be seen if you push the fur up away from the skin. The ferret should be powdered, sprayed, or bathed with a flea-killing agent that is safe for kittens.

TICKS: Ferrets generally don’t get ticks unless you like to take your pet outside for walks in grassy areas. Unlike fleas; ticks are generally stationary parasites. They find a tender spot, and “dig in”. You may not even notice a tick at first. After a while, though, its gorged body can be seen through the hairs. Ticks swell to many times their normal size when they are full of blood. Care must be taken when removing ticks to get the whole tick off of your pet. Often the head stays inside the pet’s skin and can cause an infection. Since ticks bury their heads inside the skin of the host, many insecticides cannot reach them. Generally “plucking” them out is the best way to remove them. Clean the area with peroxide or alcohol to kill the head, if it did not come out. Treat the site with an antibiotic cream or ointment and watch it for a few days to make sure infection doesn’t occur.

EAR MITES: Regularly treating the ferret’s ears should keep this parasite under control. To check for ear mites, shine a light into your ferret’s ears. The mites can be seen as little white sesame seed shaped bugs crawling around. If you see any, you should take your pet to your veterinarian for ear mite treatment. Pet shops carry ear mite products, which are usually OK only as a preventative agent.

INTERNAL PARASITES

Internal parasites in ferrets are usually only detected by a veterinarian who can check the stool sample under a microscope. Most inside ferrets don’t get internal parasites unless there is a cat in the family that has picked them up from outside and then passes them to the ferret through the use of the same litter box or if another ferret is brought into the household and is a carrier. Internal parasites in ferrets should only be treated by a veterinarian.

[intlink id=”fair”]This article originally appeared in a pamphlet published by F.A.I.R.[/intlink]

Surprise… Ferrets as Gifts

By Mary Van Dahm

Ferrets as Gifts -- By Mary Van Dahm

Cute and cuddly, ferrets hold a special appeal to many people. Unfortunately not everyone holds this view, or even if they do, they might not be ready for a ferret at this time.

Almost every spring between the middle of January and the end of March, we see a surge of young ferrets dropped off at the shelters.

“I got it as a gift”, is often the reason given. People usually have good intentions, but don’t think things through. A friend says that they would love to have a ferret, but for some reason they don’t have one. This doesn’t mean that buying them one would be the perfect present. Maybe the reason they don’t have one is because they live in a no pet apartment, or maybe a family member is allergic to animals. Maybe they don’t have the finances right now to buy a cage, supplies and food or to pay for vaccinations and other veterinary care.

Also, people often express interest in an animal, but that doesn’t always mean that they actually want one. I love tigers and leopards, but that doesn’t mean that I would want someone to go out and get me one! I would not have room for one, nor do I have the time and proper resources to provide the attention and care that such an animal would require.

If you still want to give someone a ferret as a gift, don’t make it a surprise. Let them know that you were thinking of getting them a pet ferret and would like to have them come along to pick it out. This lets them know that you are planning a special gift for them, yet gives them a chance to say “No” if necessary. If they say yes, then at least you know that they will be getting the animal that they want. What if you had bought an albino and they really wanted a sable? Or what if they preferred a female rather than a male?

Another option would be to buy a couple of books on ferrets and give them to the person along with a note letting them know that if they still want a ferret after reading up on them and learning about them, then you would be honored to take them to get one.

If the person does decide that they want a ferret, suggest going to a shelter since there are so many ferrets in need of homes. This way you will be giving the ferret a gift, too – a gift of a new home!

[intlink id=”fair”]This article originally appeared in the November/December 2001 issue of "The F.A.I.R. Report".[/intlink]

Ferret Aleutian Disease on the Rise Again

By Mary Van Dahm

Ferret Aleutian Disease on the Rise Again -- By Mary Van Dahm

Note: This article originally appeared in January of 2000. The article discusses an ADV outbreak that occurred in that time period.

Outbreaks of Aleutian Disease Virus (ADV) have struck 5 shelters, a research ferret colony and 7 ferrets at an agricultural show here in the US and two breeders in England. The research facility had used cages that housed ADV infected mink over 2 years previous to housing the ferrets and the ferrets contracted the virus from the contaminated cages. Other sources of the virus are currently not known. A substandard breeder in Michigan who dumped a bunch of ferrets at a Michigan shelter is the suspected source for the disease in that state. Active outbreaks of ADV have also appeared in shelters in Texas, Pennsylvania, and Florida.

Aleutian disease is a parvo virus. Ferret – derived ADV strains are thought to be mutations of the more virulent mink origin ADV strains. There currently is no vaccine for this disease in ferrets so prevention is centered around disinfecting hands, clothes, and shoes after handling ferrets with known cases of the disease. Transmission of the virus may occur by aerosolization, but is usually spread by direct contact with urine, saliva, blood, and feces. The virus can remain active on contaminated surfaces for over two years if proper sanitation is not practiced.

Breeders should test their ferrets for ADV and test all new ferrets before bringing them into their ferretry. Ferret owners with very young or immune depressed ferrets in their household are advised not to get ferrets from mink farms or from known ADV infected ferret sources.

Fortunately most healthy adult ferrets that are exposed to ADV do not develop active cases of the disease. Exposed ferrets will usually live out normal life spans, but can become active if submitted to environmental stress or if they develop other health problems that weaken their immune systems. Unfortunately, ferrets that do become active with ADV usually die from it. Susceptibility to the disease is also thought to be partially genetic. ADV positive ferrets have been known to live with ADV negative ferrets without infecting the negative ferrets. On the other hand, in exposed colonies of related ferrets, up to 60% of the ferrets in the colonies eventually tested positive for ADV.

Symptoms of ADV vary. Some ferrets can die suddenly without any outward clinical signs of the disease. Most often the active form of the disease manifests itself by chronic, progressive weight loss, lethargy, enlarged liver and/or enlarged spleen anemia, rear leg or generalized weakness, neurologic twitching or seizures.and black tarry stool (due to internal hemorrhaging).

Since other health problems can also manifest them selves with these symptoms (hairballs, cancer, etc.) it is strongly recommended that a CEP (counterimmunoelectrophoresis) blood test or an IFA (immunoflourescent antibody) test be done. The CEP test is usually faster and less expensive than the IFA test, but the IFA test is more sensitive and can detect the disease in borderline cases. Many ferrets that test possitive can revert to negative after about 180 days, so retesting is recommended after 6 months.

The hallmark of ADV is hypergammaglobulinemia (the gamma globulin level is generally greater than 20%) usually with concurrent hypoalbuminemia. The most consistent histopathologic finding of ADV in ferrets is liver disease due to infiltration of the liver by plasma cells, lymphocytes, and macrophages. Enlarged lymph glands and lesions throughout the body may also be found in many, but not all, cases. Mink with ADV commonly develope kidney disease, but ferrets do not seem as prone to this development.

ADV is an imunosuppressent disease. Mink that test positive to ADV have also been found to be more susceptible to enteritis and to canine distemper (CD), even though properly vaccinated ADV seems to inhibit the CD vaccine’s ability to stimulate proper anti-body production against the CD virus. If a nonactive ADV positive ferret has been vaccinated for canine distemper, a revaccination is recommended in 6 months or after the ferret has had a negative test reading. In the meantime, keep the ferret indoors and away from possible sources of distemper.

Known cases of ADV positive ferrets should not be taken to places where they may come in contact with other ferrets (shows, fun matches, etc.) They also should not be allowed to run on floors or other areas where other susceptible ferrets or their owners may come in contact with residual traces of the virus from the infected animals.

[intlink id=”fair”]This article originally appeared in the January/February 2000 issue of "The F.A.I.R. Report".[/intlink]

ECE Virus Identified

By Dr. Bruce Williams, DVM

ECE Virus Identified -- By Dr. Bruce Williams, DVM

Dr. Matti Kuipel at the Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine has definitively identified a coronavirus as the cause of Epizootic Catarrhal Enteritis (ECE) in the ferret. Loops of gut from a number of cases of ECE submitted to the Purdue Diagnostic Lab stained positively for antibodies against a particular type of coronavirus. These results were repeated at a separate Canadian laboratory. Another collaborator, Dr. Melissa Kennedy of the University of Tennessee, appears to have isolated a primer for a restricted portion of the coronavirus genome from this material.

I have sent material from the original work that I did with the virus in 1994 for confirmation. We have long suspected coronavirus as the cause of ECE – the viruses were seen in the work done at the AFIP in 1994, and sporadically since then.

Dr. Kuipel’s persistent efforts to nail down the cause of the disease will legitimize the disease in the veterinary literature and, it is hoped, will open the door for others to conduct additional research, isolate the agent, and produce diagnostic tests and a vaccine. We are currently working on publishing the pathology data from the entire investigation, dating back to 1994.

Please realize that this is only a first step. A rapid diagnostic test has not been developed (all tests were run on either surgical biopsies of the intestine or necropsy material), a vaccine is not currently available, and the researchers are not developing these products for the market. However, this is a vital piece of the puzzle, and should go far in enticing the right parties to look at the potential for developing these types of products.

[intlink id=”fair”]This article originally appeared in the Sept/Oct 1999 issue of "The F.A.I.R. Report".[/intlink]

Ear Mites

By Judith A. Bell, DVM, PhD

Ear Mites - By Judith A. Bell, DVM, PhD

Probably most ferrets have had ear mites (Otodectes Cynotes) at some time in their lives. Ear mites can be acquired from, or transmitted to, dogs, cats, and other ferrets. If you own both a cat and a ferret, and one of them has ear mites, the other probably does, too, unless there is no contact at all between the two animals.

Ear mites do not live long off of the host, and are unlikely to be carried from place to place by a human being, the way fleas often are. However, cats and ferrets that sleep in the same areas, even at different times of the day, can transmit ear mites to each other. It takes about 3 weeks for the parasite to go through its whole life cycle, from egg to mature mite. Mite eggs are resistant to treatment. Treatments should be carried out keeping this in mind. One treatment kills only the mature mites. After a few days, a new generation will have hatched from eggs in and around the ear. Medication used in the ear is effective for only a few days, and a single treatment will rarely kill 100% of the mature mites. It therefore takes at least 2 treatments, and usually more, spaced at 1 – 3 week intervals, to truly eliminate ear mites. Shortening the treatment intervals will kill the adults faster and reduce the symptoms of infestation. It will make no difference to the length of time treatment is needed, though, because this depends on the rate at which mite eggs hatch.

Any ear mite medication safe to use in cats is safe to use in ferrets. If the ears are inflamed, it is best to use a medication to control infection and inflammation before using any anti-mite treatment. A veterinarian can prescribe a suitable otic ointment. When the infection is controlled, use the anti-mite treatment as directed by your veterinarian. Depending on the type of medication, this is often once a week for a few weeks, then about once a month to completely control mites. Spray the ferret with a [ferret safe] flea killer to destroy any mites on the coat. The tip of the tail is a spot where mites may be hiding, be- cause the ferret sleeps with his tail near his ears. [So be sure to treat the tail, too, along with the rest of the coat.]

[intlink id=”fair”]This article originally appeared in the March/April 2003 issue of "The F.A.I.R. Report".[/intlink]

Dealing With Ferret Death

By Susan A. Brown, D.V.M.

Dealing With Death - Reflections on the Inevitable-- By Susan A. Brown, D.V.M.

I am going to turn from medically oriented topics this month and discuss a subject that may be difficult for many of you to read or think about. It has been difficult for me, as a veterinarian, to sort out and deal with over the years. That subject is the death of a pet. The reason I would like to spend a bit of time discussing it, is that I think there are some ideas we might consider and reflect upon when it comes time for a special friend to depart from our presence, that might make the loss a little easier to bear and understand.

I would like to concentrate on our attitudes about death, not on the grief process itself. There are a myriad of books written and grief therapy groups formed that can help one through the various normal and healthy emotions experienced when a loved one passes on, so I would like to leave the subject of the grieving process to the experts.

One of the biggest problems that those of us trained in Western medical philosophy have to deal with is an attitude that death is a failure. Certainly, those of us in the medical profession are taught to feel that we have failed, or the medicines have failed or the machines have failed, if death occurs. It is as if we are supposed to hold off the inevitable forever, which we know for a fact is not possible. So whenever, we as veterinarians face the loss of a pet that was our patient, and we are made to feel as if we have failed, then the pain of the situation is that much increased. The owners also feel that they have failed, by not doing enough or not catching a disease soon enough, etc. etc. So a large burden of guilt and bad feelings descend and surround the death of a pet which can make the death almost emotionally unbearable. The guilt can go on for years and years and cause great damage to people’s lives.

In my heart, I have somehow always felt that this was a wrong approach,
and I have talked to other veterinarians that felt the same way. We have seen the suffering pet, the animal that begs us with its eyes to let it slip into a more peaceful existence, and we somehow know that death is not a failure, but a release to the next stage of the journey that we call life. I have seen where more pain was created for the pet when owners clung so desperately to the physical shell of its poor little body that they did everything to prolong a life in misery, rather than allowing the release of the spirit from its body to move on to the next plane of existence.

Of course, none of us really know what happens after death, nor why death occurs in the way and the time that it does. We have the benefit of thousands of people who have now shared near death experiences which are all amazingly quite similar. There are hundreds of stories of people experiencing phenomena involving a deceased pet days to years after that pet has passed away. We have the benefit of our own personal religions and beliefs to explain where we will go after our physical selves are no longer functional.

Many of us believe that there is a purpose and reason for everything that happens and even the time and nature of the death of a pet can have a lesson for us, a gift, as I like to believe, that can be learned for future positive use. Many of us also believe that life, or rather the spirit or soul or whatever you choose to call it, does not end when the physical body is gone. So many of the ancient cultures had no doubt about it, back in the times when humans were more in tune with nature and less “civilized.” It gives me great comfort to believe that when my body is done and my spirit enters the next part of the journey, that I will be surrounded by all the wonderful animal friends that I have encountered in my professional and personal life. I have every reason to believe that animal souls are just as precious and important as human souls. These wonderful creations of nature give us so much joy and ask so little in return that I know they continue on.

I know that many will not agree with me, and feel that when the body is finished, the story is over. For these people, the pain of losing a pet is great indeed, because there is no comfort in knowing that the spirit goes on. But if you search your heart and your own soul, and find hope for a beautiful place for your pet’s spirit after his body is worn out, then there can be a certain beauty to the release of death. The sadness we feel at the physical loss of a friend must never be overlooked, because it is real and it is painful and it must be experienced and dealt with. But perhaps it will be a little easier to let go when the time comes if you believe that your friend has moved on to a place of great peace, beauty and painlessness and will be there to bring you along on that spiritual journey when your turn comes.

I have many people ask me how they know when it is time to let go of a pet, either by euthanasia, or by allowing a natural death, if you know your pet well, and you spend a lot of time with him or her, you will intuitively sense by the body language and the eyes when your pet is ready. For those of you who are so closely attached that it is difficult to see, ask a trusted friend or family member who also cares for your pet to help counsel you. Of course, your veterinarian can also give you very helpful guidance, but the decision is ultimately between you and your beloved friend. Ask yourself, if you were in that pet’s position, how you would wish to be treated. Some animals ask to go early, and others want to stay right up to the end. If you feel comfortable with it. I think that it is preferable to have the pet pass away at home, if he or she is not in great pain or discomfort. If you choose to do this, realize that many pets prefer to die quietly alone at night or when you are out of the house. If you are trying very hard to keep them with you, I believe that they sense that it is easier for you and for them to let go if they die in a quiet place alone. If it is determined by you and your veterinarian that the best choice is euthanasia, then I recommend that you or a person close to your pet be in the room with him to comfort him on his passage out of this life. Do not feel badly if this is something that you cannot do, because it is very difficult and painful, and it requires a great deal of courage as well as the love you already feel. If you cannot be with your pet, you might ask that a member of the animal hospital staff that has become familiar with your pet be the one to hold and comfort it during the procedure.

Above all, remember that it is the quality of your pet’s life that you must keep in mind whenever you make decisions for him or her, whether it is what kind of cage to keep him in, how much time you can spend with him, or what extent of medical care that he will receive. Our pets ask that we do what we can to make them comfortable and happy and keep them with us as long as we can. But they also ask us to let go with love and remembrance when the time comes that they must journey from this life into the next one.

As always, give them all hugs and kisses for me, and I wish them all long and happy lives and beauty and peace in the next world.

[intlink id=”gcfa”]This article originally appeared in the March /April 1992 issue of "Off the Paw".[/intlink]

Creating a Safety Net

By Mary Van Dahm

Creating a Safety Net -- By Mary Van Dahm

Most of our pets are fairly short-lived compared to the average human life span of 70+ years. We usually think in terms of what we will do when they pass on. How will we cope? Will we get another pet? How will this death affect our lives? But what would happen to our pets if the tables were turned? What if we died first? Car accidents, plane crashes, heart attacks – they could happen to anyone at any time. Who would look after our pets?

Ferrets can be especially hard to plan for. They are very prone to early geriatric diseases and cancer. Finding someone who is willing to take on such an animal can be tough. There are ferret shelters, but would your remaining family members know where to contact one? Would the shelter have room for your pets? Are you satisfied to know that that is where your ferrets might end up? Might your family members decide to just have your animals euthanized instead?

Planning for your pets’ placement may seem like a gruesome task, but there’s no better way to show your love for your pets than to have detailed instructions set up and laid out for just such an emergency.

How many do you have?

If you have only one or two ferrets and you have other friends with ferrets, your plans may be very simple. Let your family know that if something happens to you, you want your ferrets to go to a certain person. Make sure that this person is aware of your wishes and is willing to abide by them. Have at least one alternate person in mind and inform that person of your wishes, too. If you have several ferrets, don’t expect one person to have to take them alt. The more ferrets you have, the more people you have to line up. Most people might be willing to take in one or two ferrets – maybe even three. If you have more ferrets than that, realize that they may have to be split up.

Ferret identification – Who is who?

Even if you only have two ferrets, if they are the same gender or the same color, how will people tell them apart? Don’t assume that everyone knows how to tell a male from a female. This may not sound very important on the surface, but what if one of them routinely gets medicine and the other one doesn’t need any? The more ferrets there are, the more complex it gets.

If you have several ferrets, it really helps to keep a notebook with information about your ferrets. In this notebook, list your ferrets’ names – one name per page. Under his or her names, write a detailed description about each ferret. Is the ferret male or female? How old is the ferret? (List month and year born, not just ‘current’ age, since 6 months from now that age will no longer be current, but a birth date never changes). What color is the ferret? Does it have any special markings, such as spots, white feet or toes, or a stripe on the head? If there is a stripe, is it wide or narrow? Is the nose pink, black, spotted? Does your ferret have a mask? If there is a mask, is the mask wide, narrow, faint, or bold? Does the ferret have long hair or short? Is the coat full or is the ferret balding? (Take into consideration seasonal shedding and coat changes). Are there any kinks in the ferret’s tail or any other unusual characteristics or deformities?

If possible, tape at least one picture of each ferret in the notebook. Two or more pictures are even better. One picture should be a clear shot of the ferret’s face. A second shot should show the ferret’s whole body. If any of your ferrets have drastic coat color changes with the seasons, it would be helpful to take pictures of these ferrets with their different coats and tape them in the notebook. Note what time of the year the pictures were taken and whether the ferret had its normal coat or was in the process of shedding.

Medical History

If your ferrets are young and have been relatively healthy, you might not have much information to write down, but you should at least note what vaccines your ferrets have had and when your ferrets are due for their shots again. Also make a note whether your ferrets have ever reacted to any vaccines or other medications. Somewhere in the notebook, preferably inside the front cover, you should list who your veterinarian is. You should also write a note of release for the veterinarian to release your records to the person taking your ferrets. Some veterinarians are very strict about releasing records, and may not be willing to bend the rules and release information without such a note, even if they know that you have died. Most veterinarians will usually honor a note of release. It is often helpful to have a copy of this note put in your file at your veterinarian’s office, too, so he is aware of your wishes in advance.

Having vital medical information written in your notebook is essential. If your ferrets have any medical conditions or are on any medications, be sure to list them all. Make a note of when the medications are given and how much of each medication is given. Highlight this information with a highlighter marker so it catches the eye of anyone looking through your notebook. Have your ferrets had any blood work done or x-rays? Have any of them had surgery? If so, what was the surgery for? Note when these procedures were done and what the results were.

An important note: Make sure all of your ferrets’ medications are labeled and that the labels are legible. You may know what prednisone, Lasix, or other medications look like, but you can’t assume that everyone else does. If your ferret is on any medications that need refrigeration, make sure your notes specify that, also.

Cage tags

Another method for quick identification is the use of cage tags. These
are just little cards that you can tape to the cage with brief descriptions of each animal on them. List any medications and dosages the ferrets might be on. This will at least catch someone’s attention in case they don’t notice your notebook right away. You can also make a note on the card referring to the notebook so someone will know to look for it.

Compatibility

On each page make a list of all of the other ferrets that each ferret gets along with. Do any of your ferrets have a “Best friend” or “special buddy” that you feel strongly about keeping together with that ferret or can the ferret be paired with anyone on the list? Is this ferret related to any others? Does the ferret get along with other ferrets or other pets at all? You may have a multiple ferret family, but let them out in shifts because they don’t get along together. How would someone else know that if you didn’t write it down somewhere? Also note whether your ferrets get along with kids or not. Do your ferrets nip or bite?

Preferences

There are many other things that you should list that may or may not be critical. What type of food does your ferret usually eat? Are there any special treats he likes? Does he have any food allergies? Does your ferret use a water bowl or a bottle? What kind of bedding does he like? Is your ferret a hammock lover or does he prefer to sleep in a sack or bed on the floor of the cage? Is he prone to chewing on any types of bedding, such as T-shirts or other soft materials? Does your ferret have a litter preference? Are there certain litters that he won’t use at all or that he might be more prone to dig out of the litter pan?

It might be a good idea to put a cautionary note to let the person taking your ferrets know that he shouldn’t use clumping litter or cedar shavings with ferrets because these litters may cause health problems.

Does your ferret have any favorite toys? Are these toys already in his cage or are they scattered around the house somewhere? Are there household items that you let your ferret play with – an old wallet, an extra set of keys or old shoes? It might be wise to let others know about this so they don’t put their good shoes or a wallet full of money down somewhere where the ferret could steal them!

Habits

Are there any little quirky things that your ferret does that others should know about? Is he a heavy sleeper? Does he snore? Does he chuckle or hiss a lot? Is he normally active at certain times of the day? Does he like to hide things? Does he scratch at carpeting? Providing this kind of information will let the new owner know if your ferret is acting like his normal self of if he might be depressed or under the weather.

What goes with your ferrets?

It’s only fair that if someone is going to take in your pets and care for them that you should supply them with some of the things that they might need. Make a list of what items go with which ferret. Try to divide things fairly amongst the animals, but there may be things that you just can’t split up. For instance if you have four ferrets and they are all living in one cage and you have two friends lined up to take two ferrets each, they obviously can’t both have the cage. You could specify which ferrets get the cage and then specify that the other person gets more of the other supplies as compensation. Or you could keep some money in an envelope taped inside your notebook with a note that it be used toward buying another cage or supplies for your ferrets, if needed. Even if you have enough cages and plenty of supplies to go around, it doesn’t hurt to have an envelope with some money on hand in case your ferrets are due for shots or need refills on their medications soon.

What to do with leftover/unwanted supplies

If the persons taking your ferrets already have a cage and supplies and don’t need yours, state your wishes as to what you would like them to do with your ferrets’ surplus belongings. You can have the new owners sell off the supplies to provide funds toward your ferrets’ future care or you can ask them to donate the items to a local ferret shelter.

Listing other options

Situations change frequently. A friend who had agreed to take your ferrets a few months ago may suddenly have something come up which won’t allow him to take them as planned. Make a list of other options so that person knows what else you would like him to do. If the ferrets are young and there is a local ferret club or shelter, you can direct your friend or surviving family members to take the ferrets to the shelter.If the ferrets are very old or have major medical problems that your friend realizes he just can’t handle, give him an out by permitting the ferrets to be euthanized. This may sound cold hearted, but older animals often don’t adjust to change as well as young ones do and the stress they will endure might intensify any medical problems they already have. Shelters are not always a good option in this case, either, because of the stress involved and because of the likelihood of ECE (Epizootic Catarrhal Enteritis) contagion, which would be a horrible thing for an older ferret to go through and could even be fatal to him.

A Quick Checklist For You to Review

  • How many ferrets do you have? Line up enough homes for the number of animals you have.
  • Ferret identification – How will anyone know who is who? Keep a written and pictorial record of what each ferret looks like.
  • Medical History List all medications your ferrets may be taking, when they get them and why. List their vaccination records, also.
  • Compatibility Make a note of which ferrets get along, including other non-ferret pets or children.
  • Preferences List some of your ferret’s likes and dislikes.
  • Habits What is your ferret’s daily routine? Does your ferret do anything unusual that might alarm a new owner?
  • What goes with your ferrets? What to do with surplus or unwanted supplies. Make a list of things you want each ferret to have. What do you want done with anything the new owner doesn’t want?
  • Listing other options If a home can’t immediatel be found for your ferrets, what other options would you want pursued in your ferret’s behalf? Would euthanasia be an option?

I hope that you will never have a need for this list and that you live a long and healthy life, but it never hurts to be prepared for the worst. This list is also good to have for when you go on vacation and have someone come in to care for your pets. They provide your pet sitter with all of the information he or she might need to take care of your pets while you are gone. It is also a good idea to have a friend or family member become acquainted with your ferrets. This way they will know the ferrets better and can help expedite the care and placement of your pets should something happen to you.

[intlink id=”fair”]This article originally appeared in the July/August 2000 issue of "The F.A.I.R. Report".[/intlink]

Considerations in Emergency Ferret Medicine

By Mary Van Dahm

Considerations in Emergency Ferret Medicine -- By Mary Van Dahm

I recently attended a GCFA club meeting at which Dr. Chris Vitale of Dundee Animal Hospital gave a talk on what to do if your ferret has a medical emergency. Here are some highlights from his very interesting speech.

There has been a dramatic rise in the popularity of ferrets in the United States over the last 10 years. This rise in popularity has driven an increase in the knowledge base for the veterinary community. This is fortunate, because along with this increase in popularity has come an increase in the number of ferret emergencies that are presented to veterinary hospitals.

In the early stages of ferret medicine, the rule of thumb was that they were little cats’; many of the diseases that ferrets are subject to are similar to many feline diseases. Advancing knowledge has updated many of these notions, and we now can view medicine and surgery of the ferret independently from other domestic species.

Handling emergencies is a multi-step process that begins long before your pet is ever sick. Use the following as a guide to prepare for emergencies both before and after they occur in your ferret.

Have an Emergency Plan

The most overlooked part of emergency care of any animal (human, canine, feline, or mustelid) is planning for an emergency. We are all familiar with fire drills; it is not unreasonable to at least think about a ‘ferret drill’. Knowing what to do in the face of an emergency is critical in gaining a successful outcome; it will allow you to remain calm, which is one of the most important things you must do.

The first thing to consider is where you can take your ferret for emergency care. Despite the fact that ferret medicine has advanced considerably, not all animal hospitals see ferrets. Because there are only a limited number of emergency clinics, the difficulty in finding a veterinarian to help you on an emergency basis can be considerable. Locating a suitable facility when your ferret is healthy is a good idea; ask your veterinarian if they recommend any hospital in the area, or call around. The time you take now could save your pet’s life.

Once you know where you are going to go, be sure you know how to get there. [Write directions down, including the phone number of the emergency hospital.] Trying to remember directions during a crisis will get you only two things: lost and frustrated.

After determining where to go and how to get there, have a plan in place on how to transport your pet. Wrapping your pet in a towel and dashing off to the vet is not the best choice. A well-padded carrier is a must. Don’t worry about not being able to see or hear your pet – you need to drive. You don’t need a portable condo, either. Just something to get the pet safely to the hospital.

Be sure to bring along any ongoing medications that your pet is on as well. Longstanding medications from your regular veterinarian can interact with any additional medication needed; the emergency staff will need to know the drug and dosage.

Prepare for any other special needs you have as well. If you don’t have a car, have the phone number of family or friends that can help you handy.

Prevention of the Problem

Many clients ask me, “What is the best way to handle a given emergency?” The answer is to NEVER LET IT HAPPEN. Naturally, some problems are out of your control. There are many things that you can do, however. It is very important to know your pet. Is he a chewer? Does she cliff dive off the stairs? Escape artist? Bully? All the things that make a ferret endearing can put them in harm’s way. Your job is to make sure that they can’t hurt themselves.

We all have routines we use to make sure we can control our pet’s environment – refine them. Don’t give any ferret full house liberty if you have small swallowable objects on the floor, exposed electrical cords, open railings on the stairs, frayed carpeting, D.Con, etc. Be especially cautious about recliners and rocking chairs – many ferrets (as well as dogs and cats) have lost tails, limbs, and lives to these.

All ferrets like to explore; some also chew, bite, fight, climb (and fall), etc. Don’t let your pet be a victim of it’s own behavior and poor environment control.

Assessing an Emergency

So you have a plan in place for emergencies and you have thought of every possible thing your ferret could injure herself on (quite a list, you will find). But tonight, Trixie just doesn’t look right. How do you know if this is a true emergency?

Good question. Many problems can present in the same fashion. The difference between a plain stomach ache and a gastrointestinal obstruction may be subtle on the outside, but very different inside.

Assessment of an emergency is an art that many people (hopefully) don’t have to master. Some things are always considered an emergency.

If you see any of the following, call your veterinarian immediately:

  • Non-responsivness
  • Difficulty Breathing
  • Severe Acute Pain
  • Open Wounds or Active Bleeding
  • Unproductive Urination
  • Seizures or Convulsions

If you are lucky enough to not see these things, then the hard part begins.

Accurate evaluation starts with your understanding of your pet. Changes in your pet’s routine or activity can be important. If you know Rambo like the back of your hand, and you know that he doesn’t refuse his 9 PM treat, and he just did, you have used your knowledge of your pet to begin assessment.

The next step is to collect information. What information? ALL OF IT. If it pertains to the animal in question, it is relevant. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Did he/she eat today/tonight?
  • When was the last urination?
  • When was the last defecation?
  • Has there been any vomiting?
  • Has there been any diarrhea?
  • What has his/her activity level been like?
  • Has there been any evidence of pain?
  • Has there been anything else out of the ordinary lately?

Your ability to answer these questions will help both you and your doctor determine to cause of the problems your ferret is having.

The rule of thumb we use at our facility is if you think it is an emergency, then we think it is an emergency. Don’t get caught up in the details; if you are concerned and you want to have your pet evaluated, bring it in. This is important to consider. If you call an animal hospital, there’s no way for them to accurately tell you if your pet is critically ill; only an exam can do that. It is always best to error on the side of caution; if you are in doubt, have the pet examined.

Home Care

After looking over your ferret and deciding that you do not have to have him evaluated immediately, you then may ask what can you do at home for him. Deciding what (if anything) you can do at home can be difficult, mainly because you probably don’t know what is wrong. Because of this, we do not routinely recommend any therapy at home unless we are familiar with the patient. This is done because sometimes doing the wrong thing is worse than doing nothing. Many medications that humans take freely can be damaging or even toxic to ferrets; bandaging wounds only allows the ferret to enjoy a gastrointestinal foreign body as well as a laceration.

Be sure to have all of the necessary equipment in one place on hand. The list of materials you should have in the home include the following:

  • Gauze Squares
  • Q-Tips
  • Corn or Pancake Syrup
  • Eyedropper
  • Laxatone or Other Hairball Remover
  • Nutri-Cal Feeding Supplement
  • Small, separate, transportable cage [or carrier], complete with water, food, towels etc. (This is used to either quarantine a sick ferret from others in the house or for transporting the ferret to the hospital.)
  • Bottle of Saline or Eyewash

There are some things that can be done that have minimal negative side effects. Be sure to attempt these only after consulting with a local veterinary hospital.

In the instance of a very weak ferret, try offering a small amount of pancake syrup orally. Give only drops at a time; a diminished swallow response may cause your ferret to drown in syrup. The theory here is that a weak ferret may have a very low blood glucose level; the syrup helps to correct that.

If you have active bleeding, apply direct pressure. This is the safest way to minimize blood loss. Active bleeding can cause significant problems in a short amount of time, especially if you only weigh 2 pounds. After holding the area for 5 minutes (NO PEEKING), release pressure and evaluate. If the bleeding resumes, apply pressure again and call the hospital back.

If your ferret will be at home for the night but going into your regular veterinarian in the morning, keep that ferret secluded from others in a warm environment with their own litter box. Do not supply food or water if vomiting is present unless ordered by your hospital. Blood glucose may be maintained temporarily with small amounts of pancake syrup if necessary in the vomiting ferret.

Seeking Emergency Care

(What to expect at an emergency facility).

OK, you found a problem, decided to take your little one in, followed your plan well, packed appropriately, brought any pertinent drugs and information, and you are at the emergency room. NOW what happens?

Emergency rooms will see patients in order of medical need, not in order of appearance. This is normal. If you need to wait, it is only because another pet is having worse problems than yours. Be patient, and wait.

The hospital will gather your personal information (name, address, telephone number) as well as information on your ferret. Sometimes a technician will do a preliminary exam before the doctor comes in. This is normal.

After the doctor has a chance to evaluate your pet, he or she will either give you a diagnosis right there (rarely) or recommend necessary diagnostic tests. In the emergency setting, it is not uncommon to perform complete biochemistry panels, radiographs (x-rays), cell counts, or urinanalysis prior to initiating a treatment regimen. This is normal. You always have the right to refuse these tests, but it could diminish the doctor’s ability to diagnose and ultimately treat your ferret’s problem.

Severe emergencies often require inpatient care. Be prepared to leave your ferret at the hospital if it is in his or her best interest.

Finally… A Word About Cost

Emergency care is expensive. Many emergency facilities will require payment in full when services are delivered or a significant deposit if the pet is hospitalized. If you are treated as an outpatient, costs can be from $100 to beyond $400. If your ferret is hospitalized, be prepared for a total cost from $250 to beyond $1000, depending on the nature of the illness. Many procedures cost more on ferrets due to their size, need for specialized equipment, and need for sedation to work on them.

Feel free to question what is being done and what the costs are, but know that quality medicine is not inexpensive. Specific emergencies and health issues of the ferret.

Common Ferret Illneses and Emergencies

  • Heart Disease (DCM) – Most common in middle age to older ferrets. Signs of disease at home include lethargy, reluctance to eat, weight loss, difficulty breathing. Treatment is directed to simultaneously improve pulmonary function and cardiac function. Prognosis is poor long term.
  • Gastrointestinal Foreign Body – Foreign objects are most common in the young ferret, hair balls in the older ferret. Vomiting is often seen, but not always. Signs can be mild (intermittent nausea) to life-threatening (coma, shock, death). Very rarely do ferrets pass foreign objects unassisted. Usual treatment includes surgical removal of the obstruction.
  • E.C.E. – Epizootic Catarrhal Enteritis (Green Slime Disease) A highly infectious disease of the gastrointestinal tract often leading to a large amount of green mucus-type diarrhea. Usually seen in ferrets that are new in the house or have recently been housed with other unknown ferrets. Treatment is to use aggressive supportive care (IV fluids, nutritional support, etc.) as the ferret must beat the virus in its own.
  • Urethral Obstruction – Most common in male ferrets. Often seen in conjunction with prostatic enlargement due to adrenal gland disease; also can be due to urinary stones, infections, etc. Initial treatment is to relieve the obstruction with a urinary catheter. Further treatment includes fluid replacement, correction of electrolyte imbalances, and treatment of infection. If adrenal disease is the cause, this must be addressed for a successful outcome.
  • lnsulinoma / Hypoglycemia – Signs at home include a profound weakness and lethargy, possibly seizures. The cause is usually a tumor of the pancreas that secretes the hormone insulin. High insulin levels will tend to depress blood sugar levels to the point of collapse and coma. Immediate treatment is directed toward stabilizing blood sugar levels and providing blood pressure support if necessary. Long-term care requires treatment of the underlying cause. Routinely, patients with insulinoma are treated with corticosteroids (prednisone) as a chemotherapy protocol.
  • Heat Stroke and Heat Exhaustion – Ferrets are susceptible to extremes in temperature. High environmental temperature is very dangerous to ferrets. Usually it is the old and sick that are worse off, but any can be affected. Ferrets do not have an efficient method to remove excess body heat. If you see your ferret panting heavily in the absence of excessive activity, be concerned about high body temperature, and move the pet to a cool location. If necessary, cool the ferret’s body temperature with cool water, not cold water (cold water could easily plunge the temperature too low too quickly) and call the hospital.
  • Human Influenza Virus – Ferrets have been shown to be able to contract human flu. While not a specific emergency, if you or another member of the house is sick with the flu, you should handle your ferrets (especially the very young, old, or sick) minimally, if at all. Have another member of the house care for the critter while you recuperate. If you must, be sure to follow strict sanitation procedures (wash hands and equipment well, no rubbinq eyes, noses, etc.).
[intlink id=”fair”]This article originally appeared in the November/December 1999 issue of "The F.A.I.R. Report"[/intlink]

Caring for Baby Ferrets

By Dr. Louise Bauck, DVM

Caring for Baby Ferrets -- By Dr. Louise Bauck, DVM

Being a ferret pediatrician definitely has its high points. Since my employer has shipped thousands of baby ferrets from our breeder to pet retailers from coast to coast, I get to take care of these adorable youngsters while they stay with us; checking on their health and safety as new shipments come in.

Actually, I rarely do anything other than examine them. Ferrets are hardy little creatures. But that doesn’t mean that problems can’t happen.

During a recent visit to my local pet retailer, I vowed not to get carried away – or behave like the sentimental lingerer the staff has come to know. Under no circumstances would I be side-tracked by the dachshund puppies, or the new chinchillas, or the baby Rex rabbit. I would stay away from the baby blue-tongued skinks. No, this time I would zip in and out, with no diversions.

I had gotten halfway down the dog food aisle when a staff member rushed up to me with a very strange request. “Dr. Bauck! Help! Would you come and see one of the baby ferrets that just fainted?”

In fact, as I later discovered, the baby had an inherited condition called narcolepsy, a disorder similar to epilepsy, which causes the ferret to collapse in sleep without warning. Luckily, it is not a life-threatening condition – as long as the pet is kept away from water dishes – and the ferret (“Beauty”) ended up going home with me.

Because this disorder can resemble other problems such as congenital heart defects or low blood sugar, I went over some of the basics of baby medicine and care with the staff to reassure them. What follows is an extended version of the pointers I gave to the staff that day on the weaning, nutrition, housing and exercise of juvenile ferrets.

Back to the Beginning

It is a good idea to understand the circumstances of a ferret’s birth. A pregnant jill requires more sleep and more food throughout gestation, which lasts about 42 days. She usually is kept with the hob until she shows signs of restlessness or starts to make a nest.

Two weeks before the kits are born, the female usually is transferred to a dark, secluded pen with fresh paper bedding or pine shavings. At this time, she may pluck some of her fur to use in constructing the nest. Owners should ensure that the animal remains warm and undisturbed, and supply her with abundant food and water.

During whelping, the mother and her newborns should not be touched or handled except in emergency situations. After the litter is born, the jill may eat the placenta, and the hormones in the afterbirth may stimulate the production of milk. The nursing jill should be monitored unobtrusively and provided with a constant supply of calorically dense food, along with plenty of water.

A normal-sized litter usually is made up of 7 or 8 kits. Baby ferrets are blind, pink-skinned and mostly hairless at birth, and unbelievably tiny. Kits spend most of their time suckling, sleeping and growing.

In about 20 days, the kit’s colors will be evident and their eyes will begin to open. Ferrets mature extremely quickly: In four months, the juvenile kit will look almost exactly the same as it will in four years.

In our area, most of the kits arrive at the store when they are approximately 7 weeks old. By then, they have had their first vaccination and most have already been descented and neutered.

Feeding Ferrets

The kits can be weaned at approximately 6 weeks. At this point, the rapidly growing youngsters need adult nourishment. A special kit or growth food is not required if you are offering a high-quality, calorically dense ferret food. Think of the situation in nature: Once a baby is weaned, it eats the same food as an adult animal does. Furthermore, most ferrets complete their skeletal growth very quickly.

For newly arrived store kits, I recommend soaking the food in warm water for 5 or 10 minutes before offering it. Talk to your breeder about which brand he or she is using before you consider a gradual switch. Feeding cat food to ferrets or recommending it to new owners is not a good idea. Even though some of my veterinary colleagues occasionally still OK the feeding of cat food, there is no need to do so now that high-quality ferret food is available in the pet industry.

Ferrets need more fat, and higher-quality fat, than kittens or cats. Ferrets also need more protein, and higher quality protein, than their feline friends. In addition, ferrets need fewer carbohydrates than kittens or cats. All of this is because ferrets have such a short gastrointestinal tract and a rapid intestinal transit time [The time it takes for the food to pass from the stomach through the intestines]. This is even more true for the growing kit than for the adult ferret.

A good brand of ferret food is usually more costly than a feline diet. However, because ferrets eat such small amounts, there is no excuse not to buy the best. As with any pet food, the truth about quality lies in the ingredient list, not in the guaranteed analysis. However, to start with, look for products that show at least 35% protein and 20% fat.

Ferret kits need balanced fats such as poultry fat (a better blend of essential fatty acids is found here when compared to unspecified animal fat sources). For ferrets of any age, the dominant protein should always come from high-quality animal sources, never soy or corn gluten meal. This will result in better growth and a lower risk of urinary tract obstructions later in life (due to the more acidic nature of urine pH). The highest-quality animal proteins usually are eggs and poultry meal. Byproduct meals can vary in quality, and do not essentially contain more organ meats than chicken feet.

Fresh water should always be available (and changed daily!) in a dish and/or a water bottle. Ferrets drink less water from bottles than bowls. However, they tend to flip over or contaminate bowls unless the bowls are raised off the floor of the cage and secured.

As for treats, avoid them until it is time to housebreak the ferret. Young ferrets love dairy products such as milk and ice cream, but wilt get diarrhea from such treats. Raisins and bananas, which are relished, can be offered in tiny amounts without harm. [current thinking indicates that raisins may not be healthy due to the high sugar content in them so it’s probably best to avoid them – editor] Sugary treats may promote pancreatic problems later in life. Avoid them!

Providing Safe Housing

The top three considerations for a ferret cage are obvious: roominess, safety and ease of cleaning. Bar spacing usually determines safety, although door closings also should be evaluated. If the ferret can force its bullet-like head through any part of that cage, it is in danger.

The cage should have a large door, offering easy access to a ferret sleeping in its nest box. A large, multilevel cage can be an excellent option for older pet ferrets if it is sturdy enough, with safe spacings for all doors and platforms. (Beware of narrow spaces that can entrap feet or toes, or larger ones that can trap a head.) Young ferrets do better in solid-bottomed enclosures.

Commercially produced wire cages with plastic bottoms are particularly easy to clean, and are roomy enough when purchased in the extra-large size. No ferret cage is ever going to be roomy enough unless the ferret comes out to play at least twice daily.

Bedding material must be disposed of or laundered weekly. A towel can be used, but the ferret may become tangled in the cloth if you let its nails grow too long. Hammocks, sleep sacks and other bedding are now commercially available for ferrets, or, if you are handy with a sewing machine, you can make your own ferret bedding.

Introduce kits to the litter box as soon as they are used to their new environment and have picked a corner for defecation. Begin with a corner (triangular) litter box and keep it filled with clean (non-clumping) cat litter or one of the many paper litters available.

Place a small amount of waste in the new litter to remind the babies what to do and where to do it. Soon they’ll get the picture and you can change the box as usual.

Choosing Toys

To a young ferret, a toy is just about the best thing that life has to offer, but be cautious about what you use. Commercial cat toys that are sturdy enough to withstand ferrets’ needle-sharp teeth and small, sturdy balls are fine if the kits are supervised during play. [Some baby toys and rattles made for human babies can also be fun for baby ferrets.]

I rarely recommend leaving toys in the cage because sooner or later, the ferret finds a way to eat most of them. This can result in an obstruction and a costly surgical procedure. Foam toys and squeaky rubber toys are particularly prone to creating this problem. Avoid them!

Neutering and Descenting

To some extent, the trait of discharging distinctive odors is probably true of all members of the mustelid (weasel and mink) family. For this reason, the anal glands are usually removed during castration or spaying – usually when the kits are 6 to 7 weeks old. The incisions from these procedures are so tiny that they are rarely visible by the time the kits are sold.

However, if the incision sites are still visible, simply check them daily and clean them with a little peroxide if necessary. A female will have a tiny incision on what looks like the center of her tummy (through which the ovaries and uterus are removed), as well as a pair under her tail (through which the scent glands are removed). A male will have an additional site nearby through which the testicles are removed.

Early neutering is becoming somewhat controversial, as some authorities are concerned about a possible link between pediatric neutering and adrenal gland abnormalities later in life. However, without the early surgery, many female ferrets will develop dangerous estrogen toxicity and many males will be abandoned by owners unwilling or unable to neuter and descent them.

Vaccinations and Exams

Most kits have received only their first distemper vaccination by the time they arrive at the store. Check the date on the papers that came with the ferrets [If there is no paper listing this, have the pet shop contact the breeder]. The second shot should be given 3 weeks after the first, and a third one should be given about 3 weeks after that. An ideal schedule would start at 6 to 7 weeks for the first shot, then 10 to 11 weeks for the second shot, then 13 to 14 weeks for the third shot. [Distemper shots need to be given annually after that.]

Contracting distemper is a disaster for any kit, as this is a terminal illness in all ferrets. Remind your veterinarian to order special ferret distemper vaccines well before you need to have the shots administered. [Most veterinarians who see a lot of ferrets keep these vaccines in stock, but it doesn’t hurt to check.] Ferrets should NOT be given cat distemper vaccines, parvovirus vaccines (canine combination vaccines) or any dog distemper vaccine derived from a ferret cell line.

There are two vaccines currently licensed for use in ferrets which are readily available in the United States and Canada. These are Fervac-D, by United Vaccine and Purevax, a high-tech, ultra-safe and effective distemper vaccine by Merial, Ltd. Ferrets are sometimes sensitive to Fervac, so it is a good idea to watch ferrets closely after the booster vaccinations are given just to make sure they do not experience adverse reactions. Ask your veterinarian for details.

At the time of vaccination, your veterinarian should also check the baby ferrets for any problems, such as fleas, ear mites, coccidial parasites, virus diarrhea or congenital defects.

Coccidia are single-celled parasites that occasionally cause intermittent diarrhea and straining in young ferrets. Occasionally straining caused by this or other types of diarrhea results in a small amount of prolapsed tissue under the tail. [Not enough fluids in the diet can also cause straining and prolapsed rectums in kits.] Because coccidia eggs are not always being shed when the kit is having problems, this can be very hard to diagnose. Luckily, your veterinarian can easily treat coccidiosis.

Ferret kits also can suffer from diarrhea caused by bacteria. The resulting liquid feces often are greenish in color [from excess bile]. Antibiotics (such as erythromyacin or chloramphenicol), isolation and good nursing care will be needed.

Rotavirus is another common cause of diarrhea in young kits. Breeders often see this soiling the babies while they are still in the nest box. Good hygiene and care of the jill usually results in the kits improving quickly as well.

Young kits also can develop respiratory infections (“colds” and pneumonia) in the store or new home. Ferrets are the only pet animals that can catch the human influenza virus, so affected family members and friends should not handle baby ferrets. However, most ferret respiratory infections are caused by bacteria.

Signs of respiratory infection include lethargy, rapid breathing, sneezing and a nasal discharge. These signs can also resemble distemper, so be sure to consult your veterinarian. Most ferret respiratory infections respond well to oral antibiotics, such as amoxicillan or cephalsoporin-type drugs.

Other Health Concerns

Important congenital defects that your veterinarian should be aware of include deafness, “undershot” jaws, cataracts and brain disorders, including narcolepsy. Baby ferrets also can collapse when blood glucose levels are too low, or when a heart defect is present.

Defects such as deafness can be difficult to detect in the kit. We use a tin can filled with pebbles to try to assess hearing if we note that one of the ferret kits is unresponsive, or continues to sleep after the others are engaged in play.

Abnormal gaits in the kits also should be investigated. A brain problem affecting the cerebellum can cause a bobbing, halting walk in a kit. The cause of this problem in ferrets is unknown. Fortunately the vast majority of ferret kits are perfectly normal – well, as normal as a ferret can be! – and extremely healthy.

Socializing Ferrets

Begin socializing kits when they are about 30 days old. They may not see well yet, but they are not too young to learn that human caregivers will be a significant part of their lives and that it feels good to be cuddled and petted.

To help minimize problems, such as nipping, make sure you have a clearly defined daily schedule for handling and training your kits. I recommend physical contact with kits no less than 6 times a day, for periods of 5 to 10 minutes. Ferret kits that are not handled frequently will take longer to get over their “nipping phase”.

When a kit tries to nip, scruff the baby gently, and say “NO” clearly. No physical punishment is needed or recommended. If done consistently, the baby will stop nipping as it matures and gets to know its human family. The most important piece of advice: Children must be supervised by adults anytime they are handling ferrets.

Most young ferrets thrive on gentle stroking, tickling, game playing and all sorts of mild human interaction. Maturing ferrets want and need loving attention – they must never be ignored or confined to a cage for days at a time.

Picking up a baby ferret is easy, as most kits seem to sleep constantly when they are young. (Some sleep very soundly. I have had more than one person call me about a baby ferret that “died”, only to have it wake up while we were on the telephone!)

Speaking softly to the sleeping baby, lift the kit with one hand supporting its belly, and then settle the kit’s body along your hand or arm. After the kit begins to get active and enjoy its surroundings, let it investigate the nearby floor area, and/or play with a toy.

Continue your quiet conversation, but keep a sharp eye out at all times. After all, ferrets are nature’s scamps! One minute they’re gamboling happily on the floor, and the next minute they’ve found trouble!

As the young ferret gets to know its caregivers and its environment, its owners will be delighted with the kit’s typical vocalizations – the “chook-chook” noise that’ means that all is well in the ferret world!

Louise Bauck, BSc, D.V.M., MVSc, is the director of veterinary services for the Hagen Avicultural Research Institute in Montreal, Canada.

[intlink id=”fair”]This article originally appeared in the May/June 2002 issue of "The F.A.I.R. Report".[/intlink]

By-Products, What are They?

By Thomas R. Willard, Ph.D.

By-Products, What are They? -- By Thomas R. Willard, Ph.D.

The companion animal and pet food industry the world over owes its very existence to the use of by-products from the human food processing chain. Without by-products, our pets would not receive the level of nutrition they enjoy today. The food would simply be too expensive and only the wealthiest individuals could afford to own pets. Before going further, we need to understand what by-products are, where they come from and how they are used to make healthful, nutritionally balanced, complete foods for our closest companions – our pets.

By-products, as a category, are not only misunderstood by most pet food consumers, but by most sales and marketing personnel within the pet food industry. Unfortunately, this lack of understanding is used to confuse consumers. Why would any pet food company want to confuse or mislead consumers when it comes to ingredients? The only reason is to try to give their own products a competitive edge over other products by making misleading claims concerning their product attributes. The use of the words such as ‘tastier’, ‘more appealing’, ‘safer’, or ‘no by-products’ are often used. Some companies base their entire marketing strategy on making by-products sound or appear unappealing at best, or, even worse, dangerous!

Regulatory Requirements

The fact is, the pet food industry is governed and monitored by the food or agriculture departments within each state. Each state publishes regulations which follow the guidelines of the Association of American Feed Control Officers, known as AAFCO. AAFCO is a regulatory body which is made up of state agriculture officials, who then form the AAFCO Pet Food Committee. Both the FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are represented on this committee.

Every state requires registration of all animal and pet food products sold within their individual territory. Before selling a food, the regulatory personnel of the state reviews the label for proper format, guarantees, as well as the proper definition of ingredients in the food. It is not only unethical, but illegal to use an ingredient that does not follow AAFCO approved definitions.

By-Products Defined

There are over 700 ingredients defined in the AAFCO manual, more than half of these are various derivatives and forms of vitamins, minerals or amino acids. Of the remaining 200+ actual feed ingredients, there are less than 20 that include the word ‘by-product’ in their name. However, the majority of the ingredients are by definition ‘by-products’. For example, there are 27 different corn or corn-derived products listed in the AAFCO manual, yet none have the word ‘by-product’ in their name. Ingredients such as corn grits, corn gluten feed, corn gluten meal, corn feed meal, corn bran, and corn cobs are all by-products of the various corn milling operations which make human food products. The official AAFCO definition of ‘by-products’ is: “…Secondary products produced in addition to the principal products.” Lamb meal, chicken meal, chicken, chicken by-products, fish meal, chicken fat, beef tallow, beet pulp, dehydrated cheese, brewers yeast, along with over 100 additional ingredients are all by-products. All are produced from the human food processing chain. No matter what other pet food manufacturers, sales people or advertising brochures might claim, almost all of the ingredients used in their foods are by-products and are not meant for human consumption!

Chicken, chicken meal, chicken by-products and chicken by-product meal are all by-products which come from plants processing chickens for human consumption. Chicken is defined as the clean combination of flesh and skin, with or without accompanying bone, derived from parts or whole carcasses of chicken or a combination thereof, exclusive of feathers, heads, feet and entrails. It should be suitable for use in animal feed”. Chicken meal is the rendered (cooking to remove water and fat from fresh meats) dried meal from flesh, skin and parts such as bruised legs, thighs, breasts and whole deboned carcases of chickens, all of these different ingredients are defined by FDA and AAFCO as, “not for human consumption”. On the other hand, chicken by product meal is the rendered, dry product of chicken by-products, such as the intestinal tracts, spleens pancreas, livers, gizzards and hearts. All of these come from the same production plants at the same time as the chicken parts listed above, which go into chicken meal.

By definition, both chicken and chicken meal that is used in pet foods are by-products, even though these ingredients may come from a human food processing plant and technically were at one time human grade food. No pet food company uses the whole chicken or the chicken parts intended for human consumption in their food. Why? COST! I Human grade food will cost 5 to 20 times more than “not for human consumption” food. Does this mean that by-products are not safe or possibly dangerous for our pets? NO!! All fresh meats, animal by-products, fats and even cereal grains must be further processed and handled in such a manner as to prevent them from spoiling. Drying, cooking, freezing, canning or adding antioxidants are all methods used to preserve the nutritional quality of various ingredients.

By-Product Grades

Poultry, by definition, may include chicken, turkey and geese. In the U.S., most processing plants can only handle either chicken or turkey, due to the size differences of the birds. Poultry processing plants are required to separate the feathers and the blood from the other by-products. In addition, many of these plants further separate the heads and feet from the internal organs and “not for human consumption” meat. The reason is two-fold. First, the chicken and turkey feet can be exported to Asian countries as a ‘delicacy food’ for human consumption, even though in the U.S. chicken feet are not recognized for authorized by the FDA to be sold for human consumption. Secondly, since the introduction of super-premium dry pet foods in the mid-70’s, manufacturers of super-premium pet foods demand a super-premium grade of poultry or chicken by-product meal. These higher-grade meals generally have higher nutrient levels and improved nutrient digestibility. To make these higher-grade meals, it is necessary to omit the heads, feet and birds that died prior to processing. Though the heads and feet do contain a great deal of protein and fat, they also contain a great deal of connective tissue, which is poorly digested by most carnivores. Totally Ferret® uses only super premium grades of chicken by-product meal in all our foods. As stated above, this increases the overall nutrient quantity and quality of the food, compared to the less expensive, lower grade products, even those that claim to use chicken meal rather than chicken by-product meal.

Those lower quality grade chicken and chicken by-product meals may contain heads and feet, along with the connective tissue left on the deboned chicken carcass. These parts reduce the digestible nutrients and may lack the balance of the essential amino acids necessary for proper nutrition for carnivore pets like the ferret. The super-premium quality chicken by-product meals used in Totally Ferret® do contain the intestinal tract and internal organs, as described above, because it provides the very highest nutritional quality for carnivores. Unfortunately, some of the American public, from an aesthetic point of view, may not like the idea of using chicken by-products, such as guts, hearts, livers, etc., in pet foods. But from a nutritional point, it is one of the best sources of nutrients for carnivore pets.

To Summarize

It is unfortunate that certain companies try to make themselves and their products sound better than they are by attempting to make others sound bad through negative advertising. This type of misleading and untrue advertising, however, is alive and well in the pet food industry.

Performance Foods, Inc., makers of Totally Ferret®, is committed to making the best, most nutritionally complete ferret food on the market. We use quality chicken by-product meal, eggs and liver meal as our major sources of protein and all are by-products. We hope you will by our foods based on the premise of quality nutrition for your ferrets, but let your ferrets be the judge. How they look, feel and act are the true measure of quality, not marketing or sales hype.

Thomas R. Willard, Ph.D. is an international consultant, speaker and nutritionist. He is the founder and president of Performance Foods, Inc. Dr. Willard holds a degree in Animal Science plus a doctorate in Animal Nutrition and Bio-chemistry. He has over 30 years of hands-on experience within the pet food industry. He has been actively working with ferret nutritional research since 1992, and has written many published articles.

[intlink id=”fair”]This article originally appeared in the July /August 2000 issue of "The F.A.I.R. Report".[/intlink]

Avoiding the Panic

By Dr. Bronwyn Dawson, DVM

Avoiding the Panic -- By Dr. Bronwyn Dawson, DVM

Sometimes I think it’s something in the air. In the last two months I have had several clients ask me about Aleutian disease [AD] in ferrets. The ferret folks on the Internet are talking about it the way they talked about ECE years ago; a local pharmacist calls to ask if I know anything about a vaccine; veterinarians who treat ferrets are dusting off their veterinary school notes to review this old, but little known disease. Let me state right up front that I’m very skeptical about the supposed wide-spread prevalence of this disease and I do not think this is the next ferret plague. However, this is a deadly virus with no vaccine and no treatment: and I think ferret owners certainly need to know as much about it as possible.

AD is caused by a parvovirus which was first reported in ranch-bred mink in the 1950’s. The parvovirus clan is a nasty one; its diverse members cause disease in dogs, cats, swine and wild mammals such as raccoons and coyotes. Like all viruses, parvoviruses can mutate into new strains and, if the mutation is great enough, have the potential to jump species lines. Those of us who owned dogs in the late 1970s remember when canine parvovirus suddenly emerged as a new disease: no vaccine, no treatment; dogs developed severe diarrhea and vomiting and usually died. Canine parvovirus, still one of the most feared puppyhood diseases, was a mutated form of feline panleukopenia, caused by the feline parvovirus.

AD, although originally a disease of mink, now has at least one strain which is specific to ferrets. Ferrets can also be experimentally infected with the mink strains.

Unlike the acute, severe disease caused by the feline and canine parvoviruses, active AD in ferrets usually manifests itself as a chronic wasting disease. Ferrets lose weight, become quite lethargic and weak, sometimes showing neurologic signs (everything from in coordination to seizures). Affected ferrets can become anemic, sometimes with dark tarry stools, and can develop kidney or liver failure. As stated before, antibiotics and all other treatments tried so far are ineffective. Good nursing care with supplemental fluids, feedings, even transfusions, can support a ferret sick with AD, but nothing will cure it.

“Wait a minute!!” You are saying as you read this. “Neurologic signs? Incoordination? Don’t we see that with insulinomas? Anemia? Dark, tarry stools? I thought intestinal ulcers caused that! A big liver and spleen? Couldn’t that be lymphoma?”

A resounding “YES” to all of the above, astute ferret owners! Not to mention that lethargy goes along with just about any illness that effects ferrets! Deciding that AD is actually the cause of illness in a ferret requires some specific diagnostic tests. There are two blood tests for ferrets that look for antibodies to the AD virus; the CEP tests used to screen mink and an Immunofluorescent Antibody test that [is] more sensitive. It is crucial to realize that a ferret can test positive on these tests yet be perfectly healthy. In fact, a positive reactor on these tests may never develop clinical disease. In the 1980s, Dr. Susan Brown, a well-known ferret veterinarian, screened over 500 shelter ferrets; 10% tested positive on the CEP test. Of these, only two animals developed disease signs compatible with AD.

There is another test that can help confirm whether a sick Aleutian-positive animal is sick due to the virus or due to concurrent disease. Serum plasma electrophoresis is a blood test that separates different protein fractions in the blood according to their molecular weights. Sick ferrets with more than 20% of their total proteins represented in the gamma globulins who have tested positive to AD are quite likely to be sick because of the virus. Sick ferrets with a normal electrophorectic pattern are likely to be sick due to some other illness, even if they test positive for AD. Necropsy with tissue samples submitted to a pathologist familiar with ferret diseases is the old standard for confirmation of AD in mink; however, this is not the way we like to diagnose disease in any pet.

Research is ongoing in the areas of vaccine intervention and treatment of AD, but right now, ferret owners are restricted to being familiar with the signs of this virus and distinguishing it from other ferret illnesses. The virus is shed in all bodily secretions; any ill ferrets suspected of AD should obviously be kept away from other ferrets. It is believed that asymptomatic carrier ferrets [usually] do not shed the virus, but even this has not been proven beyond a doubt. What is very difficult for ferret owners is the long incubation period possible with this virus and the problem of what to do with asymptomatic AD positive ferrets. Mink owners cull their animals, but these are livestock to them. I would never recommend euthanasia for a healthy AD positive ferret; however, I would have to caution the owner against bringing that ferret into contact with AD negative ferrets.

I am glad AD is being discussed; it is a poorly understood virus that has been completely unknown to most ferret owners. However, I caution ferret owners not to assume that any sick ferret with signs compatible with AD [automatically] has the disease. Lymphoma, insulinoma, eosinophitic enteritis, and cardiomyopathy are all far more common among American ferrets than Aleutian disease. Remember, in our country, if we hear hoof beats it is much more likely to be a herd or horses than a herd of zebras. A sick ferret is much more likely to have one of the more common metabolic diseases than the relatively rare parvovirus.

Dr. Bronwyn Dawson, DVM is a veterinarian at the Animal House Veterinary Hospital in Monrovia, CA.

[intlink id=”fair”]This article originally appeared in the May/June 2001 issue of "The F.A.I.R. Report".[/intlink]

An Owners Guide to Ferret Behavior

By Mary Van Dahm

An Owners Guide to Ferret Behavior -- By Mary Van Dahm

Everyone who owns a ferret or two has his or her own special reasons for doing so. The mischievous twinkle in their eyes, the special way they frolic across the room, the endearing way they hide ‘treasures’ (usually our socks, keys or other important things!) in their favorite spots throughout the house, all add up to the makings of a truly unique pet. We know we love these animals because of (or in spite of!) these traits, but why do they do what they do? What goes on in their fuzzy little heads? Here’s a short Owner’s Guide to Ferret Behavior that I hope will clear up some of the questions and confusion that many ferret owners experience.

The “Ferret Frolic” AKA the “Weasel Wardance”

Ferrets have the original “happy feet”. Long before Snoopy tap-danced across the comic pages, ferrets were frolicking. They may not have the grace of Fred Astaire, but their enthusiasm more than makes up for it. They bounce off walls, furniture, you, or anything else that doesn’t move out of the way! This is an expression of pure joy and excitement and is no cause for alarm (unless the ferret is on top of something and runs the risk of falling off!) This can also be an invitation for you to come join in the fun. Many ferrets love it if you pretend to chase them or let them chase you as part of the dance – just watch your step!

The “Dead Ferret” Syndrome

Ferrets are sound sleepers and when there is nothing else to do they indulge in this form of “suspended animation”. They trust us implicitly to watch over them and feel no need to be on guard while they snooze. Sometimes they fall into such a deep, relaxed sleep that an inexperienced owner may think their beloved pet has died. I know of ferret owners who have rushed an unconscious pet to the veterinarian only to have the animal wake up halfway there and look sleepily around with a, “Hey, where am I?” look on its face. One of my own ferrets was such a sound sleeper that I could pass him around a room full of people like a hot potato and he would never wake up! This is not to say that a ferret that suddenly starts sleeping heavily may not be experiencing a medical problem. If you have any doubts whatsoever, please be sure to take your ferret to see a qualified ferret veterinarian. If you do not already have a good ferret veterinarian lined up, call your local ferret shelter or club for a referral.

Stop Thief!

Ferrets have a propensity for stealing and stashing everything they can get their little paws and teeth on. Anything that isn’t up out of their reach or too heavy to drag is fair game. Some ferrets like rubber, plastic and leather items. Others like shiny or round items or even soft, fuzzy items. Their mode of transporting the loot varies with the weight, shape and size of the item they desire. One of the funniest sights I have ever seen is a ferret pulling a tennis ball across the floor. A ferret will wrap its front paws around the ball and scoot backwards with its hind legs, hanging onto the ball with all of its might. (Maybe they think they are stealing an egg?)

Collecting and storing items is a nesting instinct. The ferret is either collecting items to line its den with, or is actually treating the collected items as surrogate kits. My ferret, Ursa, used to make a nest under my dresser. She would take tissues, socks, or any other soft items and line her nest with them. Then she would take every stuffed animal she could find and put them into the nest. If you dared to remove any of them when she wasn’t looking, she would frantically search the house until she found them and place them back in the nest again. Sometimes she would grab another ferret and try to drag it to the nest, too. Usually the other ferret was not too thrilled about this and would slip out of her grasp and try to run away with Ursa in hot pursuit! Giving your ferret its own treasures to ‘steal’ and keeping your important belongings, such as car keys and jewelry, up out of the way will keep everybody happy.

Quite often ferrets will steal mouthfuls of food – their own or that of another pet – and store little caches around the house. This is a ferret’s way of saving for a rainy day. This trait is more often seen in multi-pet households where a ferret is trying to make sure that he gets his share of the kibbles.

Sometimes ferrets will store treats that they don’t like. They will politely take a treat that you offer to them and run off with it and quickly return for another. If the turn around time is faster than you know they could have eaten the treat in, you can be assured that it was stashed somewhere. They come back and beg for more in hopes that the next offering will be more to their liking. If it’s not, it will probably be stashed with the first treat. If nothing better is offered, they may eventually go back to eat the treats, or you just may find them the next time you clean house. If you have more than one ferret, quite often the other ferret or ferrets will find the stash of food and eat it, eliminating some of your clean up work (or they may make more stashes of their own!).

The Escape Artist

Ferrets are naturally inquisitive and love to explore. They are also very determined opportunists once they make up their minds about something. If they see you going through a door on a regular basis, they will want to follow and will try to sneak through that door every chance they get. It’s not that they don’t like their home or that they are unhappy with you. They just have a strong spirit of adventure and don’t realize the dangers that can await them outside. You can try to set them in another room and then rush to the door before they realize you are heading out, but usually they will be on your heels racing for the door, too. You may even be surprised to find them waiting by the door ahead of you! I generally recommend putting your ferrets in a cage or a designated ‘ferret room’ if you, your family or friend? are going in and out a lot. A lost ferret very rarely finds its way back home. Neutered and descented ferrets have very little musk with which to lay a return trail. Once they get beyond familiar territory, they stay lost until someone finds them. If they are lucky, they will be found by you or another caring person. If they are not lucky, they may fall victim to a dog, a wild animal or a person mistaking them for a rat or other pest.

The Nipping Ferret

Nipping is not to be confused with biting, which is usually the sign of a fearful animal or poor breeding practices. Nipping is a way of communication between ferrets, and sometimes you, until you teach your ferret that this is not acceptable behavior. Baby ferrets, called kits, nip at each other and may chop down quite firmly in play. They have tough skin and aren’t bothered by their siblings’ teeth. Humans, on the other hand, have more tender skin and can be more sensitive to such an encounter. It is important not to shy away from a nipping kit. Many people make the mistake of thinking that a kit will grow out of nipping on its own, with no training or work on the their part. On the contrary, a nipping kit needs more handling, not less! The best time to start breaking a kit of a nipping habit is when it is 5 to 8 weeks old. Unfortunately this is when most kits are still with the breeder or at a pet store and may not get the individual attention that they need. Reputable breeders, large or small, will handle their kits from the time the kits open their eyes until the time they are sold. A reputable pet shop will only order in as many ferrets as it can reasonably handle so that the kits can get the one-on-one attention that they need.

If your ferret is over 8 weeks and is still nipping a lot, don’t despair! Ferrets can be trained at any age. It just takes longer. First of all, analyze why your ferret is nipping. Does it want to play? Was it eating or sleeping and upset from being disturbed? If it’s wide-awake and hopping around, it probably wants to play. Letting your ferret out to play and letting it run around for a while before trying to handle it can help burn off some of its pent up energy. If it goes to nip at you, tell it “No!” in a loud, firm voice. Spraying your hands (and ankles and legs, too, if needed) with Bitter Apple, or something similar is usually helpful. Let the alcohol smell dissipate before reaching for your ferret or it may not want to be picked up. Be consistent. You will only confuse your pet if you let it nip sometimes and not other times. Make sure everyone in your household follows that rule, too. If your ferret is eating, try to be courteous and let it finish. If for some reason you can’t wait and you have to disturb your ferret, try offering your and is still nipping a lot, don’t despair! Ferrets can be trained at any age. It just takes longer.

First of all, analyze why your ferret is nipping. Does it want to play? Was it eating or sleeping and upset from being disturbed? If it’s wide-awake and hopping around, it probably wants to play. Letting your ferret out to play and letting it run around for a while before trying to handle it can help burn off some of its pent up energy. If it goes to nip at you, tell it “No!” in a loud, firm voice. Spraying your hands (and ankles and legs, too, if needed) with Bitter Apple, or something similar is usually helpful. Let the alcohol smell dissipate before reaching for your ferret or it may not want to be picked up. Be consistent. You will only confuse your pet if you let it nip sometimes and not other times. Make sure everyone in your household follows that rule, too. If your ferret is eating, try to be courteous and let it finish. If for some reason you can’t wait and you have to disturb your ferret, try offering your pet a treat as you pick it up. Hold the treat in one hand and as the ferret takes the treat you can pick him up with your other hand. You can also use this method when trying to lure your ferret out from under something, such as a dresser. If you are offering your ferret a treat out of your hand, be sure to wash any Bitter Apple off of your hand first or the treat will taste like Bitter Apple and your ferret will not want it.

A sleeping ferret should be picked up gently to avoid startling it. If it is laying in such a way that you can’t get to it easily, try calling its name or shaking a jingle toy. Do not use a squeaky toy to wake up a ferret unless your ferret has been trained to respond to a squeaky toy while it is awake. The high-pitched squeak of the toy may alarm the ferret and may provoke the ferret into biting. (How would you like it if someone screamed into your ear while you were sleeping? You might want to bite that person, too!)

You can also try holding a fragrant treat near its nose. This may not always wake up your ferret right away, but its sure fun to watch its little tongue start licking the air in its sleep! Resist the temptation to actually let your ferret lick the treat while it is still asleep as it may choke, but be prepared to let your pet have the treat once it is fully awake.

With the help of the above insights, understanding your ferret should now be a little easier, but don’t over analyze! Enjoy your pet for what it is – unique!

[intlink id=”fair”]This article originally appeared in the July/August 1999 issue of "The F.A.I.R. Report".[/intlink]

An Introduction to Ferrets

By Mary Van Dahm

An Introduction to Ferrets -- By Mary Van Dahm

Ferrets are curious, playful, and often very mischievous. They are never ordinary, and are by no means the pet for everyone!

Ferrets are small quiet, and great companions for apartment dwellers. A member of the family Mustelidae, they are identified as mustela putorius furo. They are related to minks, polecats, weasels, and otters. They are not related to rodents such as rats or mice! Ferrets are not a “new” animal. In fact, they have been domesticated for more than 2,000 years. For most of this time they were considered “working ” animals and were used for hunting and ratting. Now they are kept primarily as house pets, in fact, it is illegal to use them for hunting in the United States, although some Europeans still do so. The ferret we know cannot exist on it’s own and should never be turned loose because it will not survive more than a few days. They are totally dependent upon their human companions for survival.

Is a Ferret Right For You?

The normal life span of a ferret is currently 7- 8 years (although a few have lived as long as 12-13 yrs.) This means that when choosing a ferret you must not only consider your lifestyle as it is now, but as it will be 7 years from now. In addition, ferrets need personal attention, including playtime, from their human companions daily. Ferrets need freedom and should not be caged all of the time, but we do recommend a cage for when there are long periods of time without supervision available.

Initially, costs for veterinary care will be minimal, but may be slightly higher than the same services for dogs and cats. Annual check ups and vaccinations are a must to monitor the well being of your pet. As your pet ages, these costs will increase. Unfortunately ferrets are prone to many geriatric health problems, including cancer. Fortunately most of these problems can be controlled through preventative health care and veterinary supervision.

We do not recommend ferrets for households with very young children. Ferrets have tough skin and can play roughly with each other and cause no damage. The same playful action aimed at a child can result in a painful encounter, frightening the child which may retaliate by hitting the ferret. We also don’t recommend ferrets around birds, rodents, or small reptiles, due to the natural prey situation. Most ferrets will get along with dogs and cats if they are introduced carefully.

If any of these issues are a potential problem, then a ferret may not be right pet for you.

Selecting a Ferret

Choose and animal that is bright eyed and alert. Ferrets can sleep very soundly so do not be alarmed if it takes a while for you to roust a napping animal, but once it is awake it should be responsive. Any ferrets with crusty eyes or moth or having a nasal discharge that is full of mucus or yellow, green or brown in color is probably sick. We do not recommend that you pick any ferret form that group since if one is sick, the rest are likely to come down with the same thing shortly. If you have handled any of the sick ferrets, be sure to wash your hands thoroughly before going elsewhere to look at others or you may take the virus or flu bug with you and infect the next batch of animals!

Should I Choose a Male or Female Ferret?

Males (hobs) grow to be somewhat larger than females (jills), and may tend to have a more relaxed disposition. Personality varies with each animal, however, and many jills can be sweethearts, too. Hobs will average 3-4 lbs as adults and jills 1-2 lbs. Some breeders specialize in larger animals and have produced hobs up to 9 lbs and jills up to 5 lbs. Most of the ones you buy from pet shops will not grow that big.

As hobs and jills mature, they develop a strong musk scent which can be easily controlled in nearly all cases by neutering or spaying them. Ferrets produce musk to attract a mate, and once they are neutered or spayed, the hormones that activate the musk glands are gone and hardly any musk is produced.

Spaying is an absolute must for all female ferrets unless the animal is to be bred. A jill generally comes into estrus (heat) the first spring following her birth. Her vulva becomes pink and swollen, and she will remain in heat until she is bred or treated with a hormone injection to terminate estrus. This injection is only to be used as a short term solution as the jill will slowly come out of heat and then come into heat again within a very short time. These conditions are frequently fatal.

Neutering of hobs is also recommended. Not only does this reduce their musky odor, as previously mentioned, it can curb some of their aggressive tendencies towards other ferrets if they are to be housed communally. Unneutered hobs can be territorial and may fight with other unneutered hobs quite viciously.

Should I have my Ferret Descented?

Ferrets have anal glands which can exude drops of a pungent smelling liquid if the animal is frightened or angry. It is not as strong as a skunk’s odor and it dissipates in a few minutes. Baby ferrets will sometimes go through a sage of “poofing” for fun (similar to human children belching or making rude noises with their armpits!) Many pet shops sell ferrets already descented at 5-6 weeks of age, but we feel this is too young and can cause rectal problems later. Sometimes older ferrets get impacted anal glands – where the external opening gets plugged. If the gland becomes infected, or this becomes a chronic condition with your ferret, you may need to have the glands removed to ensure the comfort and health of you pet.

What Should I feed my ferret?

Ferrets are carnivores and therefore require a diet high in meat proteins. High quality cat or kitten foods, such as IAMS or Innova Feline or a quality ferret food such as 8 in 1 Ultimate, Totally Ferret, Innova EVO Ferret, or Natural Gold Ferret Diet are some good choices. DO NOT FEED FERRETS DOG FOOD OR ANY CAT/FERRET FOODS THAT ARE MOSTLY VEGETABLE PROTEIN. A ferret has a very short digestive tract and vegetable proteins are hard to digest so most of the lower quality food will be passed out of the ferrets system before the ferret’s body has had a chance to process it. The higher quality foods may cost more, but the ferret will get more nutrition per once and won’t have to eat as much. As the ferret matures and reaches its geriatric years, you veterinarian may recommend a lower protein diet which is less taxing on older kidneys. Ferrets do not tend to be obese and should be allowed to “free Feed” ( have food available constantly) unless your ferret has a medical problem and your veterinarian tells you otherwise.

Treats may be given in moderation. Since it is now theorized that sugary treats may later cause health problems such as insulinoma, it is best to avoid giving them to ferrets. When giving treats look for meat based products that are low in sugar. For this reason, due to their high sugar content, fruit and raisins should also be avoided. Dairy products are also a no-no as they can cause diarrhea. Strangely enough, hairball remedys, such as malt flavor Petromalt, can also be given as a treat with a purpose. Most ferrets love the sweet taste of these products and see them as a “treat”. While these products do contain sugar, they do help prevent dangerous hairballs from forming which is especially important during shedding season.

Ferrets should have plenty of fresh water available at all times. This can be given from a water bottle or a heavy crock style bowl. The advantage of the bottle is that the water will stay cleaner and the ferret can’t play in it, as they might with the bowl.

Editor’s Note: the preceding food and treat recommendations where altered by this site to reflect current thoughts on feeding ferrets.

How Should I House My Ferret?

An all wire cage is your best bet for your ferret’s home. Wood and wire may be used if the wood is well sealed with a high gloss paint or several coats of verithane (polyurethane). Do not use an aquarium to house your ferret as it will not allow the proper ventilation that a ferret needs and your pet can develop respiratory problems. The cage should be at least 2ft x 2ft x 14in high for one ferret – provided the ferret has plenty of play time outside of the cage. For multiple ferrets, or if your pet’s play time is more restricted, get as large of a cage as you can afford, or if the floor space is limited, try building a multilevel cage. An important thing to remember is that the spacing on the bars of the cage must be close enough so your ferret cannot escape. Ferrets can slip through bar that are only one and a quarter inch wide!

Furnishing the cage can be as simple or elaborate as you please. An old towel or sweatshirt can make a soft comfortable bed or you can buy a fancy cat bed to suit you tastes. A litter pan with a dust free litter, a heavy crock or a cage cup for food and a water bottle complete the set up.

Exercise and Play

Ferrets need exercise, and they should be allowed to play in at least a portion of the house where children and other pets won’t interfere. Be sure that your house if fully “ferret proofed”. This means no holes, air ducts, loose boards, open drains, doors that are easy to open, soft plastic or rubber items to chew on (watch out especially for rubber bands!), no toxic cleaners in low places, and no plants to dig in! Ferrets are very curious, so supervision is always a good idea. Litterboxes should be placed in several corners around the play area to help avoid accidents. Ferrets’ feces are usually not odoriferous and if the pans are cleaned regularly there shouldn’t be an odor problem.

Some people get startled the first time they see a ferret play. Ferrets jump up and down, turn somersaults, run sideways and even backwards! This is normal and should not be construed as a sick or seizuring animal! Ferrets slide, play tag, hide and seek, and attack and chase with other ferrets, with you, or with other pets, too. They may grab onto you with teeth in play, but this does not mean that they are trying to hurt you. Young ferrets (kits) go through a nipping stage and this must be discouraged very early. A light tap on the nose and a loud, firm “NO!” combined with patience and a lot of handling should eventually be sufficient. Remember that a ferret should not be hit or slapped in any situation. It is not necessary, usually makes the situation worse, and they can easily be hurt. If a kit tends to be especially nippy and hyper, try letting it out to play and run around for a while first before you interact with it. This allows it to work off some of its pent up energy so it doesn’t direct it at you. Reward your ferret with a treat when it is good to encourage proper behavior.

Toys

Ferrets are very imaginative and kittenish in their play. They like to push things, roll things, drag things and run through things! Ferrets will play with almost anything so it is up to you to make sure that what they play with is sake for them. Hard plastic balls with bells inside (not the weak lattice ball type), whiffle balls, tennis balls, ping pong balls, wooden spools from thread, nylabones, some baby toys and durable cloth toys are fine. Do NOT give them soft rubber squeaky toys, foam rubber toys, or toys that have parts that can easily be pulled or chewed off. Another favorite plaything is a large piece of 4″ or %” plastic drainage pipe or a piece of dryer duct. Ferrets love to run through these and you will be amazed to watch them double back on themselves and pop back out the very same hole they ran into! The dryer duct usually does not hold up as well and has to be replaced frequently.

Walking Your Ferret

Many ferret owners walk their ferrets outdoors on a harness and leash. Males especially seem to like to walk and keep pace with you – if you are heading in the direction they want to go! It’s a bit like walking a cat and should be practiced inside the house before trying it outdoors. Be sure your ferret is wearing a harness – not just a collar – when you walk it. A frightened or mischievous ferret can slip out of a collar and be very hard to retrieve. A harness also allows you to safely lift a ferret out of harms way should an unknown dog or cat approach you. An “H” harness is the most secure for ferrets, but a figure 8 harness can be adequate if secured properly.

Some words of caution: Ferrets being walked attract much attention. People, and especially children, will come up to you and reach out to touch your ferret very quickly. Warn people before they approach that the ferret may nip, even though you may be certain that it won’t. Ferrets frequently respond very quickly to a situation that they perceive as dangerous. If your ferret does nip someone, you are responsible. While there is now a rabies vaccine available, it is still very new and to some extend unproven. If the person who is bitten demands that a rabies test be done on your ferret, your ferret must be destroyed (euthanized and beheaded) to obtain the tissue required for testing. While it is very unlikely that a ferret maintained in a household as a pet could contract rabies, you may not be able to convince someone of this if they or their child has just been nipped by your ferret and is adamantly requesting proof that they have not contracted rabies from your ferret.

Other precautions: Do not walk your ferret if it is very hot or cold out. Ferrets suffer heat exhaustion very easily (Do not leave your ferret in a parked car for this reason, also!) and can suffer a chill if the temperatures are too cold. Ferrets do have fur coats, but most ferrets kept indoors do not develop the heavy coat that an outdoor animal would have.

Parasites can be a danger to pets walked outside, too. Fleas and ticks can be picked up from thick grassy areas and ferrets are susceptible to heartworm, which is carried by mosquitoes. Your veterinarian can give a heartworm preventative medicine to protect your ferret against that deadly parasite and spaying or dusting your pet with a flea and tick product safe for cats and kittens before you go out can help keep those pests from dining on your pet.

Make sure your ferret is up to date on its vaccinations. Ferrets are very susceptible to canine and raccoon distemper. Distemper is 100% fatal to ferrets if they pick it up, and they don’t have to come in direct contact with a sick animal to get it. Distemper is an aerosol virus and can be picked up easily by an unvaccinated ferret walking outside in the grass or on the sidewalk.

Also remember that once a ferret gets used to walks, it is more apt to attempt to get out of the house on its own. If this happens, ferret will not purposely run away, but its curiosity will probably get it beyond its familiar range and your ferret will be lost. If it is not found, it can die a horrible death from starvation or being attacked by a dog, cat, or other animal.

[intlink id=”fair”]This article originally appeared in a pamphlet published by F.A.I.R.[/intlink]

A Danger in the Home

By Mary Van Dahm

A Danger in the Home -- By Mary Van Dahm

Six little ferrets in six loving homes. I received call after call this month from grieving owners. “No one was even sitting in the chair”, was the response from each one.

Recliner deaths were on a rise in June this year. Most of us figure that if we can keep people out of the chair while our ferrets are out playing, our pets are safe. We get lulled into a false sense of security when day by day goes by and nothing happens. Unfortunately it only takes one slip and our little friends can loose their lives.

Strangely enough, as mentioned before, no one was sitting in the chairs at the time of the pets’ demise. Apparently when the chairs were put into the upright positions, they were not checked to ensure that the expanding mechanisms were totally contracted. The ferrets during their course of play managed to jiggle the mechanisms enough that they did contract – trapping the ferrets and killing them.

We also had a call about a sofa bed death. This call was unusal ion that the ferret did not die inside the sofa bed, but rather under it. The metal frame that holds the mattress was very low to the ground. When someone either moved the sofa bed or sat on it, ferret happened to be under part of the metal frame and was trapped and suffocated.

Most of us will be lucky and nothing will happen, but why chance it? If you have a recliner bed or a sofa bed, keep your ferrets completely out of the room that these pieces of furniture are in. (Or get rid of these items completely!) It may take a little time and effor to block these rooms off, but it takes even less time for your ferret to get caught and killed in them.

Clumping Litter Danger

I know we have spoken about this before, but while I’m on the subject of household dangers, I want to remind you NOT to use clumpimg litter with your ferrets. Another death was reported to us this month of a ferret ingesting or inhaling clumping litter. You can see how it clumps when urine hits it. Just imagine what it does in your ferret’s stomach!

[intlink id=”fair”]This article originally appeared in the July/August 1996 issue of “The F.A.I.R. Report”.[/intlink]

An important Update and New Observations About the ECE Virus

By Mary Van Dahm

An important Update and New Observations About the ECE Virus -- By Mary Van Dahm

Through personal experience and from talking with many experienced ferret veterinarians, we are learning that the ECE (Epizootic Catarrha Enteritis) virus may have some long term effects on many of the ferrets that contract this disease. Kidney and liver disease are showing up in an accelerating rate in animals 1 year or older who have been through this disease. We have also noticed some increase in stomach and intestinal cancer and thickening of the intestinal walls. We are currently recommending that all ferrets over 2 years of age that have gone through this virus should have a CBC and chemistry panel done to check for these conditions, especially if your ferret is showing any change in behavior or condition (Such as lethargy, biting, sudden weight loss, dark urine, chronic loose stools).

While some shelters and clubs recommend exposing ferrets to the disease to ‘get it over with’, we still believe that keeping your ferrets ECE free, if possible, is in the best interest of your pets. We have found that some ferrets do get the disease more than once and it can sometimes be as severe the second time around as it was the first time. It has been speculated that the virus may have mutated or that there are several strains of the disease, but nothing conclusive has been proven at this time. From our experience of running a shelter and helping so many ferrets through this disease, we have found that ferrets that are constantly exposed to the virus (in a situation where new ferrets are always coming down with the disease) rarely show recurring symptoms of the disease, as though their bodies are revved up to produce antibodies to the virus – similar to getting a vaccine. When these ferrets are finally adopted out from the shelter and then re-exposed to the virus at a much later date, they sometimes come down with it again, suggesting that their former immunity to the disease was only temporary.

As warm weather returns, some ferrets may have recurring boughts of loose, green stool. It is possible that cool weather renders the virus dormant and it ‘wakes up’ when the weather gets warm again causing a relapse in the affected ferret. It is important to remember that anytime your ferret has diarrhea or loose stool, start giving him fluids and electrolytes, even if he doesn’t seem dehydrated. Also make sure that he is eating. You can offer him some Nutrical or a title Ferretone in addition to his regular food, but remember that too much oil can upset his stomach, too. Any time your ferret has diarrhea for more than 24 hours, get him in to see a veterinarian. Ferrets can go down hill very fast and veterinarians can give your ferret sub-Q (under the skin) fluids and administer medications to help stabilize your pet. Your vet can also test your ferret’s stool to see if it something other than the ECE virus that is causing the diarrhea (coccidia and camplobacter can also cause diarrhea in ferrets).

An important reminder that we would like to bring up at this time is the contamination of pet shop kits with the ECE virus. If you have a ferret at home that has had the ECE virus, please refrain from playing with the kits you see in any of the pet shops you may visit. While the kits themselves rarely seem to be affected by the disease, people who purchase the kits and take them home to their other ferrets can bring the virus with them. Since a lot of people still don’t know about the ECE virus, bringing a contaminated kit home can be a death sentence to the established ferret, if the owner doesn’t know to begin treating the ferret right away.

In reverse, if your ferrets at home have never had the ECE virus, be careful where you go to get another ferret. Try to go to a pet shop that gets a direct delivery from the breeder (the animals are not shipped to a warehouse and then to the store) and make sure the pet shop doesn’t have the ferrets where every kid in town can reach the kits and possibly contaminate them. It’s not that the kids are purposely trying to contaminate the kits, it’s just that they (and adults, too!) don’t stop to think about the fact that they could be carrying the virus on their hands or clothes.

Many pet shops are now keeping antibacterial hand wash dispensers near their ferrets so people can sanitize their hands before or after handling the kits on display, but there’s no proof yet that these lotions are effective against the ECE virus.

You can also check the newspapers for ads by people needing to give up ferrets. Generally, if they are giving up a ferret that is over 2 years old and hasn’t been around other ferrets, the chances of infection are lower.

[intlink id=”fair”]This article originally appeared in the May/June 1999 issue of “The F.A.I.R. Report”.[/intlink]

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