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Resource-Saving Tips For Ferret Owners

Bob Church offers tips to help ferret owners conserve water and ferret food.

By Bob Church
Posted: September 1, 2011, 5. a.m. EDT

ferret being bathed
Courtesy of Heath and Jaime Graham
Ferrets don't usually need a bath very often.

In today’s economy, it is tough for ferret shelters — and even ferret owners — to make ends meet. One way to help insure adequate funds is to conserve resources; every dollar saved is one that can be applied to better ferret food, vet bills, or many other expenses. In some cases, conserving resources can result in a significant increase in funds.

Saving Water With Ferrets
Bathing: If a ferret is having surgery, is slimed with poo or another noxious substance, or if it is about to participate in a ferret show, it needs a bath. Otherwise, ferrets usually don’t need baths. Ferrets spend a considerable amount of time grooming, and they do it excellently. Soapy baths remove skin and fur oils along with dirt, making skin dry and itchy. Frequent bathing can stimulate production of skin oils to increase ferrety odors. Older or sick ferrets can become chilled as moisture evaporates and cools the skin. However, ferrets new to your home should always be bathed immediately to assist in looking for fleas and skin problems.

Whenever possible, use a baby-approved cleansing cloth to spot-clean fur rather than dunking a ferret into soapy water. This facilitates human-ferret bonding by mimicking the jill licking the kit. When you do bathe a ferret, use a plastic tub so you can recycle the water for your plants.
• Fewer Ferret Baths Pro: A lot of time and resources can be saved; ferret skin and fur do much better; old or sick ferrets don’t get chilled.
• Fewer Ferret Baths Con: Bath time is bonding and handling time; recycling water is a pain.

Laundry: Excluding veterinary care, perhaps the largest consumer of ferret-oriented resources is laundry. For eight ferrets, I do about four normal-sized loads of washing per week. Water, time and money are saved with each load eliminated from the laundry cycle. Eliminating short loads and using cold water saves a bundle.
• Ferret Laundry Pro: Cold-water detergent works well and saves hot water; poo dissolves if pre-soaked prior to the wash cycle.
• Ferret Laundry Con: Saved laundry can be stinky; cold water allows staining; pre-soaking can limit access to the washing machine.

Paper Bedding: Compostable paper, such as newspaper and some junk mail, can be turned into bedding, especially when used in nest boxes or for sick ferrets. You can tear the paper or run it through a shredder. Wet or dirty paper can be added to the compost heap or placed into garden litter.
• Ferret Paper Bedding Pro: Dirty bedding can be thrown away; bedding is virtually free; paper bedding is very comfortable and insulating; you are recycling and composting rather than consuming.
• Ferret Paper Bedding Con: Loose paper shreds can be a fire hazard; wet bedding is nasty and cold; sick or aged ferrets might need frequent monitoring to insure clean bedding.

Water Dish and Bottle: Ferrets using a water bowl frequently drop food and dip parts of their body into it, so water must be changed daily. Water bottles prevent body parts or large food particles from contaminating water, but ferret saliva — and the microscopic food and bugs in it — cling to the metal ball and roll into the water reserve above it. Thus, water bottles should be changed frequently as well. Rather than dump the water into the sink, recycle it to help out your plants, or add ¾ cups of bleach per gallon of water and use it to clean cage furniture. Be sure to rinse well and let air dry before use.
• Ferret Water Dish And Bottle Pro: Water saved is money saved and aquifer preserved.
• Ferret Water Dish And Bottle Con: Time spent changing water.

Water Play: Ferrets sometimes play or dig in water, or soak themselves if warm or feisty. Not a lot can be done to prevent this, other than switching to a bottle. A water-loving ferret might be enticed to soak in a tub of shallow water, but it still might play in the water bowl. This is frequently boredom play, so using enrichments might help. If a ferret clearly shows it enjoys water play, it might be better to add a water bottle, but leave the water bowl and accept spills.
• Ferret Water Play Pro: Switching to a water bottle prevents problems.
• Ferret Water Play Con: Eliminating play opportunities might increase stress and boredom.

Saving Ferret Food
Solution To Ferret Food Spillage By Digging: All ferrets occasionally dig in kibble. Kibble can drop to the floor, fall onto the yucky part of the cage or become spoiled in a myriad of other ways. Some bowls are designed to save food from being dug out, which might be the best solution for a few ferrets. I’ve found older or sick ferrets sometimes have difficultly eating from such bowls.

Another way to reduce spillage is to simply limit the amount of kibble to a day’s worth of food. This amount is easily determined by filling the bowl with kibble, weighing it and then weighing it again 24 hours later. Repeat this for a week, and the average weight lost per day is the weight of food your ferrets are consuming in 24 hours. Add an extra ounce for the daily allotment. If the bowl is consistently empty once you fill to this limit, then add another ounce of food; if full, subtract one.

If your ferret has insulinoma, it is better to waste food rather than risk low blood sugar, so don’t limit kibble. In addition, if you place the food bowl on a tray or dinner plate, a good part of spilled kibble can be salvaged.
• Pro: Waste is limited to a single serving; you can monitor food intake.
• Con: The bowl must be monitored to insure food wasn’t wasted early and ferrets are hungry; shouldn’t be used with insulinomic ferrets.

Solution To Ferret Food Spillage By Other Means: A poorly designed dish can tip or fall off the cage wire, or can tilt under the ferret. Some dishes are lightweight and ferrets purposely tip them over. Switching to a heavy ceramic bowl eliminates such problems. Use two, so one can be washed while the other is in use.
• Pro: Eliminates the problem; easily kept clean.
• Con: Heavy dishes are generally big and not space effective.

Ferret Food Waste Contamination Solution: Nothing is worse than checking on your ferret’s food and seeing it contaminated by fecal material or urine. Sometimes a sick or old ferret just poops anywhere, but usually contamination occurs because of bad placement within a cage. A ferret might try to use a higher corner of the cage and waste plops into the bowl. If food and litter are at the same cage level and near each other, the bowl can be accidentally used instead of the litter box.

If ferrets are territorially stressed, they might defecate onto food to claim it, or poo can be flung while fighting. Place food and water at the top of the cage and on opposite sides from the litter box and you will solve most problems, but only time resolves territorial disputes.
• Pro: Moving food usually works.
• Con: May not work with sick or old ferrets; may fail in territorial disputes or fighting; may not be feasible in smaller cages.

Wet Ferret Food Solution: Food is dampened by urine or water. For the former, read the "waste contamination” tip. Food spoiled by water is generally due to splashing from a bowl or dripping from a bottle, which is solved by moving it away from the source.
• Pro: Keeps the food dry.
• Con: Takes more room; may not be feasible in smaller cages.

Ferret Food Caching Solution: Ferrets instinctually cache food in safe locations for lean times. Unfortunately, they might not use the food because they have plenty. Cached food can become rancid or moldy, stink or attract pests. Limiting the amount of ferret food in the dish helps limit problems, but might not solve the caching behavior; see the "spoilage by digging” tip. In cases where food limitation fails, the only solution is to periodically search for caches and remove them.
• Pro: Food limitations generally eliminate caching; removing food discourages pests.
• Con: Looking for and cleaning up food caches.

Ferret Food Boredom Solution: Destructive ferrets are generally bored ferrets and might dig food out of a bowl simply for something to do. This is especially true in Spartan environments that exacerbate boredom. The only real solution is to enrich the environment with a number of interactive objects. For some ferrets, even this isn’t enough and only frequent human-ferret enrichment helps.
• Pro: Toys can reduce destructive behaviors; enrichment is always a good thing.
• Con: Non-human enrichment only works to a point; the best solution is human-ferret enrichment (which really isn’t a con).

Ferret Food Oral Contaminants Solutions: Have you ever emptied a bowl of kibble that ferrets have been eating from for some time and noticed the tiny particles of kibble at the bottom? The vast majority of those particles were dropped from the ferret’s mouth. When a ferret eats kibble, it tongues the kibble to the cutting teeth at the side of the mouth. As kibble is cut, tiny particles fall from the mouth, into the bowl and slowly sift down to the bottom. Those particles are contaminated with ferret saliva and can facilitate bacterial and mold growth, fungus, rancidity and other types of spoilage. This problem is due to the biomechanics of the ferret’s jaw and cannot be prevented. The only solution is to periodically dump out the kibble dish and wash it; I recommend several times per week minimally.
• Pro: Lowers risks of oral contaminants spoiling the bowl of kibble.
• Con: Can cause food wastage.

To see all of Bob Church's columns, click here>>

Posted: September 1, 2011, 5. a.m. EDT

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Resource-Saving Tips For Ferret Owners

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Reader Comments
Vilanong, Toronto, ON
Posted: 12/29/2013 7:56:04 PM
my ferrets love to play in water too. they have a water bottle in their cage, but i find that placing a shallow bucket or container of water on the kitchen floor for them to play in during free time is as fun and entertaining for them as it is for me to watch.
Becky, Rocky Mount, NC
Posted: 12/14/2011 12:56:36 PM
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