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Advice From The Answer Ferret For February 2012: Sleep Habits

The Answer Ferret tackles tough questions about sleep behavior in ferrets and people.

By Alexandra Sargent-Colburn
Posted: February 1, 2012, 2:25 p.m. EST

two ferrets sleeping
Ferrets Sneezy and Bashy/Courtesy L. Stephenson
Wise as they are, ferrets choose to sleep whenever they wish, wherever it's safe and in any position that's comfortable.

Ferrets Laughed At In Their Sleep
Dear Answer Ferret: Our hoomins laugh and take lots of photos of us while we're trying to sleep. We don't understand what's so funny. Doesn't everyone sleep curled into a ball with their legs sticking straight up, or hanging halfway out of their hammies or in big piles? Is this one of those silly hoomin inside jokes?
— Curious Ferrets in Kansas

Dear Curious Ferrets in Kansas: Many ferrets have noticed that hoomins have a number of rigidly observed, ritualized behaviors that center around sleep. First, keep in mind that hoomins are overwhelmingly diurnal. Up in the daytime, asleep at night regardless of how tiring the demands of the day are. It is the rare hoomin indeed who, during a stressful day simply lies down for a short nap. This does seem the most sensible course of action, but only hoomin kits are actively encouraged to sleep during the day. An adult who sleeps by day is apparently shamed by the activity, deemed "lazy" by the other hoomins.

When a ferret sleeps by day we are measured against that hoomin yardstick. We are "lazy" creatures. We are behaving like kits. The very fact of our sleeping by day is interesting and amusing, as we clearly do so with no shame at all. It is amusing enough that hoomins enjoy pointing us out to one another when we are reasonably asleep due to exhaustion from hard play.

Napping by night also violates the hoomin standard. Hoomins lie down at night and, ideally, do not get up again until the sun has risen. Ferrets, reasonably, sleep when we are tired and play when there is opportunity to do so. The hoomin, by comparison, is essentially locked into the same pattern over and over again. Sleep at night. Wake in the morning. If they feel pressured to wake up during the middle of the night and feel active, this makes them tremendously unhappy. They even go to their “vets” and take sedating medications so that they will sleep through the night. It is tragic, the lengths they will go to in order to force themselves into a socially mandated conformity with one another.

And so, now, we come to the issue of the bed. Nothing, but nothing, exemplifies those "rigidly observed, ritualized behaviors" more clearly than matters pertaining to the relationship between the hoomin and the bed. In this geographic region (modern-day North America) hoomins expect virtually all sleeping in the home to be done in the bed. Yes, I know. This is utterly bizarre. Any rational creature sleeps where it is safe, and where it happens to be tired. Speaking purely for myself, I enjoy changing the locations where I sleep simply for the sake of variety. But not the North American hoomin. He or she sleeps in a bed, possibly on a sofa, very rarely on a futon or in a hammie. And here is a further curiosity, virtually without exception, hoomins align themselves with the long axis of the surface that they are sleeping upon. Head at one end, feet at the bottom. They try very hard not to sleep as you wrote, "curled into a ball with their legs sticking straight up, or hanging halfway out of their hammies or in big piles."

Ferret philosophers have long tried to understand how these strange sleep behaviors came to be, and how they affect our hoomins in a practical, day-to-day fashion. I have to believe that some jealousy is involved. Jealousy that they can't simply sleep with abandon, as you and I might leap with abandon to catch a falling feather or one another. So do not be alarmed when they take their photos. Instead, feel a little bit of compassion for humanity. I think that they see us, and, for just an instant they, too, want to sleep with their back legs flung over their snouts.

The Answer Ferret Glossary
Business = group of ferrets
Ferret Math = Owning one ferret   leads to owning more
Hammies = hammocks
Hoomins = humans
Kits = baby ferrets

Why Can't Ferrets Share The Bed? 
Dear Answer Ferret: I do not understand why my mommy does not let me sleep with her all night. I rest with her in her soft, warm bed while she works on the computer and watches the news, then she picks me up and tucks me into my own bed in my ferret condo. She kisses and hugs me and tells me sweet dreams, then the lights go out and she falls asleep. I rattle the cage and toss my stuff around and she says, “Go to sleep. Mommy has to work in the AM.” I really don't care if she has to work; I just want to sleep in her bed. Why? Why can't I?
— Jenny-Mae, Getting impatient with the bed thing!

Dear Jenny-Mae: My, but we do have a theme-edition today! Hoomins and their peculiar sleeping habits.

Well. One of the peculiarities of hoomins is the whole issue of who they sleep with, who they do not sleep with and why. Your Humble Answer Ferret is part of a ferret business, and I find that I prefer to sleep with the fattest member of the business, as she is the warmest. But I have slept with every member of my ferret business, sometimes all at once in a great pile, especially during the winter months. But during the hottest part of the summer we sleep long and flat. We are near one another for comfort and smell, of course, but certainly not in a great pile. It's a very practical arrangement.

Your hoomin may have a practical reason for not wanting you in her bed. She may be afraid that she could roll on top of you in the night without awakening, and suffocate you accidentally. I know it seems unlikely, but hoomins are exceptionally good at worrying.

This "work" concept that you mentioned is only poorly understood by ferrets, but it unquestionably generates a great deal of worry for them. As I mentioned in my first answer, hoomins have enough challenges related to sleep, so the fewer the better!

There may also be concern on her part that you might use her bed as a corner-pan. Remember, hoomin beds are made from many layers of fabric. These absorb liquids, stains and odors. It is a simple fact that hoomins do not potty where they sleep. They devote an entire room of their homes just to that purpose and they never, ever sleep in that room. They are obsessed with stains and odors, even though their poor snouts are terribly ineffective. They have machines in their homes that do nothing more than remove stains and odors, even the most pleasant aromas of kinship and health.

Hoomins also appear to reserve the bed for mating, but hoomin mating behavior is incredibly complex and will not be addressed here. I bring it up only to give one more example of the variety of social expectations and taboos that hoomins attach to their sleeping places.

All in all, I think it best that you allow your hoomin her privacy in the bed. You may never understand her motive for wishing to sleep without you, but it is best that you respect her wishes. It's not as if she will feel deprived of your kinship aroma by night; she cannot detect it at all! Thus, she does not miss its comforting presence.

Now, the proper answer for your disappointment here is, of course, ferret math. You are without the touch and sweep and comfort of another ferret's tail. You are deprived of the aroma of kinship as you lie down to sleep. Clearly, the hoomin must obtain another ferret. Soon.

Do you have a question for The Answer Ferret? The Inbox is always open! Send your question to ferrets@bowtieinc.com (mark the subject line: The Answer Ferret).

See Alexandra Sargent-Colburn's author bio>>

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Advice From The Answer Ferret For February 2012: Sleep Habits

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