Posted: May 1, 2011, 5 a.m. EDT
Ferret Zoe/© Courtesy Sharon Woolley
Ferret owners can help their ferrets beat the indoor heat by providing ways for their pet to cool off.
How A Ferret’s Environment Can Add To Heat Stress
Ferret housing can contribute to overheating in two ways: it can limit the number of opportunities for a ferret to cool itself, and it can act as a radiator. An elevated cage can hold the ferret up in the air column where it is warmer. A habitat that lacks flat surfaces doesn’t allow conductive cooling. Habitats with sleeping areas filled with heat-holding materials keep a ferret warm in winter, but may contribute to overheating in summer. If in direct sunlight, a habitat can prevent a ferret from escaping to a cooler area. Habitats with heat-holding materials like metal can get very hot, even hot enough to burn feet. All these reasons and more may contribute to a ferret’s heat stress.
Assume if the temperature and conditions are uncomfortable for you, they are just as bad — or worse — for your ferret. Remember, ferrets typically do not show signs of distress until they can no longer cope with the problem. By the time a problem is obvious, it is already serious. You need to recognize the signs of heat stress in order to combat it.
Signs Of Heat Stress In Ferrets
A list of symptoms cannot predict how rapidly a ferret will progress from minor heat stress to heat exhaustion or stroke. Assume you need to take rapid action if a ferret in warm temperatures shows a single symptom. Symptoms of heat stress include:
Breathing difficulty: air gulping, gasping or other drastic changes in breathing
Dehydration: sunken eyes, dry tongue, skin “tenting,” concentrated urine
Drooling: Excessive, thick or stringy drool
High temperature: body hot to the touch, temperature exceeding 103 degrees Fahrenheit
Lack of activity or interest: a marked decline in play and exploration
Level of consciousness: difficulty or inability to wake
Loss of balance: a stumbling or clumsy gait
Mental awareness: a confused or trance-like state
Mucous membranes: reddened or darkened tongue, gums and under eyelids
Panting: rapid, frantic or excessive breathing
Paw licking: repeated footpad licking
Poor appetite: eats little or refuses food
Prone position: sustained flattened or sprawled position
Thirst: generally increased, but some might stop drinking under severe stress
Vomiting and/or diarrhea: a bad sign, get to a vet!
Weakness: trembling, difficulty of movement or falling
14 Tips To Help Ferrets Beat The Heat
The best cure for heat stress is prevention. While there are no guarantees that the following recommendations will prevent heat stress, they can help lessen the impact. Always consult your veterinarian if you have any doubts or questions about your ferret’s health.
1. Bath: A tepid (not cold) bath cools a heat-stressed ferret. If your ferret is frightened by water, use a wet washcloth to cool it down.
2. Cooler: Cut an access hole in the side of that old plastic cooler wasting space in your garage and attach about 2 feet of dryer duct tubing to “plug” the hole. Toss in couple of ice packs or frozen water bottles and some light cotton bedding to provide a cool place to sleep.
3. Damp soil bath: A pan or small child’s wading pool filled with damp potting soil or sand allows ferrets to cool themselves naturally.
4. Electrolytes: Ask your vet the concentration and product you should use for your ferret and when you should use it.
5. Fan: Good air circulation is very important; one or two fans dedicated to blowing air through the cage, but not directly on the ferrets, can help.
6. Frozen treat: A bowl of ice cubes or frozen chicken broth is a cooling hot-weather treat.
7. Heat sink: The best I’ve found is a thick piece of metal plate, roughly a foot square, but heavy ceramic floor tiles work, too. A water-soaked, terra cotta dish or low-sided pan also works. Store a couple of any of these items in your refrigerator and place them in the cage as necessary.
8. Ice: Fill plastic soda or milk bottles with water and freeze. Cut down one side of a cardboard box, toss in a couple frozen water bottles, and cover with a layer of towels. You can fill a resealable plastic bag with ice cubes, which always seem to leak, or fill a hot water bottle with ice.
9. Misting spray: This is especially good used in conjunction with a fan. Just spray a mist in the air stream and it will drop the air temperature several degrees.
10. Shade: Car window reflectors can be attached to the sides of the cage facing a window to prevent the sun from directly heating the cage and its contents.
11. Small A/C unit: A small window unit costs about a hundred dollars, but a vet bill for a sick ferret can cost more. Just perch it in a window and push the cage near it, but out of the sun’s rays.
12. Splashing pool: About an inch of water in a low-sided pan or child’s plastic wading pool works well if the ferret is open to water play. If not, mist it with a water sprayer.
13. Water: Don’t rely on just one water bottle for your ferret to drink from; it can leak or run out. During hot weather, add extra water bottles and even water dishes.
14. Wet towel: A wet towel in a plastic tub is a great approximation of a mud wallow. I’ve only had a few ferrets that didn’t enjoy the experience — and they don’t track up the house with mud when they leave.
Heat Emergencies Can Happen Anytime
A sudden power loss, a broken air conditioner, or even a brownout or blackout can rapidly become a serious threat to your ferrets. Knowing what to do — and the rapidity in which you should do it — is a skill every ferret owner needs to possess. If you have a ferret that has become heat stressed and you see symptoms, it is likely the condition is worse than the ferret is letting on. Please, immediately cool it down and call your vet. If a ferret is showing any sign of distress, it is already in danger.
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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.