Posted: January 1, 2011, 5 a.m. EST
The Power Of Keeping Records
Most owners know their ferrets very well and can rapidly discern behavioral changes. Dedicate a small notebook to information about your ferret or ferrets. Record their behavior from the day you get them until their behavior stabilizes and stops changing. That’s usually the point when a ferret’s behavior normalizes.
These records are helpful tools in identifying a ferret’s pain and distress. First, the initial introduction provides an idea of individual stress behaviors. Second, it presents an idea of how fast the ferret adapts; I’ve found those that take longer are usually easily distressed. Third, once behaviors are stabilized, they should be “normal” for the ferret. For instance, a newbie ferret may hide, hardly eat and nip aggressively, but a month later is playful, eating well and no longer nipping. The first behaviors are “distressed;” the later ones are “normal.”
You now have a baseline for comparison. If a ferret suddenly starts showing its stress behaviors, suspect injury or distress. If a ferret shows a gradual change in normal behaviors, look for disease or distress. It is helpful to consider rapid changes to be acute problems and slow changes to be chronic ones. I consider any acute change to be cause for an immediate veterinary consultation. If a vet cannot find cause, it’s a good rule of thumb to assume stress is triggering change.
Clues To Ferret Pain And Distress
Check out this list of other signs that could indicate your ferret is in pain or distress. Click Here>>
Treating Ferret Pain And Distress
Dealing with ferrets in pain is obvious; regardless of the cause, pain treatment needs to be initiated and closely monitored by a qualified veterinarian. There are NO effective over-the-counter pain medications for ferrets; even aspirin can cause dangerous bleeding. Most causes of ferret pain probably require vet care anyway.
Distress is another matter. Stress is an integral aspect of life and cannot — and probably shouldn’t — be completely removed. Some people divide stress into two types, good and bad; other people divide it into four categories: eustress, distress, hyperstress and hypostress.
Eustress, considered positive, is the stress ferrets feel when exploring strange areas, play fighting, investigating novelty or entering fight-or-flight situations. Eustress is motivating, is short-term, and improves physical and mental performance; it causes an excited feeling. A dooking ferret is probably feeling eustress.
Distress, considered negative, can be acute or chronic. Acute distress is immediate stress felt when a ferret experiences a sudden stressor, such as a vet visit or an aggressive animal. It gets a ferret ready for action and is a short-term event closely related to eustress, except the situation is frightening rather than exciting. Fear biting can be caused by acute distress.
Chronic distress is a constant negative stress caused by long-term stressors, such as light or noise pollution, boredom, overcrowding or constant aggression by other animals. Studies have shown chronic distress is linked to a deterioration in health, including (but not limited to) negative or compulsory behaviors, and dental, immune, heart and gastrointestinal problems. Distress is discouraging, can be short- or long-term, and deteriorates physical and mental performance; it causes an anxious feeling. Chronically stressed ferrets can display all the symptoms of adrenal disease, perform stereotypic behaviors or develop ulcers.
Hyperstress is a repeated negative stress that overwhelms the ferret, often leading to sudden or unexpected negative behaviors. Like chronic stress, it can cause health problems if allowed to become chronic. Hyperstress is frustrating, usually short-term, and exaggerates responses; it causes a fearful or frustrated feeling. The repeated poking of a ferret by a curious child or the constant stimulation at a ferret show can overwhelm a ferret with frustration, resulting in bites or other aggressive behavior.
It doesn’t seem possible that a ferret might experience hypostress due to their excitable nature, but because it is a type of stress that comes from boredom, it is more than applicable. Hypostressed ferrets can have similar health and behavioral problems seen in chronic distress. Hypostress can reduce activity or cause stereotypical behaviors, is usually long-term and results in restlessness or lethargy. A hypostressed ferret might pace, chew or eat bedding, and fight or bite the cage; some ferrets lose all interest and just lie around.
The body cannot physiologically distinguish between types of stress, so it is the duration of stress that becomes important. The longer the period of stress, the more negative the health impact. Enrichment programs, allowing instinctual behaviors, encouraging exploration, human-ferret bonding activities, physical play and exercise, long out-of-cage times, and interesting diets are all effective ways to reduce stress in ferrets.
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Bob Church is a former photojournalist and current zooarcheologist with degrees in biology (zoology) and anthropology (archaeology). He resides in Missouri with 19 ferrets that keep his chicken blender overheated and his heart overfull.