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Living With Deaf Ferrets

The different needs and behaviors of ferrets that are deaf require a few changes in expectations and care.

By Rebecca Stout
Posted: April 1, 2011, 9:30 p.m. EDT

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Behavior Differences
Do deaf ferrets interact with other ferrets differently? Each ferret is an individual with different reactions. However, while there are individual differences among all ferrets, some common behaviors exist in deaf ferrets — whether alone or with others. 

1) A deaf ferret may be extreme in its vocalization. The ferret may be nearly mute, or it may vocalize incessantly. When alarmed, upset, angry or extremely excited, either type of deaf ferret can “screech”— not quite a scream, but a screech. It’s a loud, random vocalization that the ferret cannot hear. Hearing ferrets may screech, too, but this is rare and usually only done in emergency situations.

Screeching can be disconcerting to a person who never heard it before. Starhawk Clark, a ferret owner from Georgia told me that he and Patrick kept hearing this screeching after they adopted their little deaf ferret, Faye.

“Faye and Salem had been playing and having a grand ole time” Clark said. “They both scurried behind the sofa and the screaming started. Patrick and I looked over the sofa to find Faye had Salem pinned down on his back, screaming her lungs out at him. Poor Salem. He fled for dear life closely being pursued by Faye. Thus begins the saga of Faye the Deaf Banshee.” Neither ferret was the worse for wear; and only the parent’s nerves suffered. 

Deaf ferrets do not know that they are loud or sounding unusual. I had one ferret that continually hissed. She hissed for no reason. Just walking along she would hiss, hiss, hiss — as any other ferret would chatter a normal dook sound. 

2) When deaf ferrets “talk” to other ferrets, they are often ignored or misunderstood. Such misunderstandings can lead to a skirmish.

3) Deaf ferrets can be popular leaders (alpha ferrets) or they can be loners. Those that are loners do so in an extreme manner. Many people describe these individuals as being in their own little world. Even so, they still get along with the group.

4) Deaf ferrets seek out their world in different ways. They love to mouth things, collect things, protect toys, seek out soft things to touch, play in water, taste things, and watch their world in what looks to be such thoughtful ways. They explore their world with all their senses. 

My husband and I fill our deaf ferrets’ world with smells. Smell is highly important even to hearing ferrets. I think that this sense above all paints pictures of their surroundings for them. You can well imagine how important it is to a deaf ferret. 

A little quirk many owners report to me is that their ferrets love to flip their heads back when they hold them, as if they want to watch their world upside down. Who knows why. Possibly this may have to do with a different development of the vestibular system (part of the inner ear responsible for the sense of balance) in their ear. I like to think it is another way to see the world and stimulate the other keen senses they have. 

5) One thing to beware of is that a deaf ferret cannot hear another ferret cry “surrender,” so they can be quite rough on other ferrets (and their owners). A deaf ferret can learn what is appropriate and what is not from its group, but it takes lots of time and socialization.  

Deafness As A Good Thing
“One of the best things about my deaf ferret is when I take her outdoors,” said Melissa Smith of Ontario, Canada. “Her hearing sister, Okojo, finds the trucks and cars outside our apartment highly disturbing. Itachi, on the other hand, is calm, relaxed, and enjoys herself outside. Unbothered by worries of noisy vehicles and people, she happily putters around in the grass and bushes, in a silent world of her own. Also, unlike many deaf ferrets, Chi has been trained to be undisturbed by being approached or picked up suddenly, though she has this perpetually surprised look on her face [like] ‘Oh, what’s happening now?’ In spite of her deafness, she is a great little ferret and I’m glad we have her.”

Many times deaf ferrets do better outside their homes than hearing ferrets. Jack Smith loves telling others about his outside adventures with his deaf ferret, Beethoven. He describes his ferret as “Having intense focus, making him a great problem solver.” This hyper-focusing may come across as the animal being very stubborn. Smith also describes him as having “a very expressive face.” I hear about this extra spark, focus, persistence and expressiveness all the time from other deaf ferret owners. The disability is more of an ability in these cases.

Research For The Future
What does the future hold for these animals? Researchers at many universities are studying deafness in humans and other mammals. Some of them study the ferret’s hearing in order to learn about our own hearing, such as at Oxford University in the United Kingdom. This information can benefit both species.

But most exciting is the work being done at the Center for Human Genetics at the Boston University School of Medicine. Since 1992, groundbreaking studies have occurred there concerning Waardenburg syndrome, deafness, neural crest defects, and genes associated with them. Their triumphs include independently discovering the Waardenburg syndrome type I PAX3 gene and a mutation of the MITF gene in some forms of Waardenburg syndrome.

Such studies benefit our understanding of human genetics, and may also improve our understanding of other mammal’s genetics, such as ferrets. Locating and identifying genes opens the door to genetic engineering, which could lead to a treatment or cure, if desired. 

However, being deaf is not a disabling problem for ferrets. “Granted owning a deaf ferret can have its drawbacks, and it can take a bit of work,” said Vickie McKimmey, a private breeder and American Ferret Association committee member. “But a deaf ferret can still live a long, healthy life just like fully hearing ferrets.”

Rebecca Stout resides in rural Tennessee with her husband, two sons and beloved pets. Ferrets have been in her heart and life for 35 years. She also enjoys writing, photography, animals and being a strong advocate for her autistic son. Visit her website.

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Reader Comments
Great article! I have had the challenge, and privledge of living with two deaf ferrets. Tobey was deaf on one side and went totally deaf in her old age. Emmett was born deaf. Of the two, Emmett has been the bigger challenge. He is very physical and cues in on visual things much more acutely than my other ferrets ever have. If you put something on a cabinet or the table, he's busy figuring out how to get there to check it out. He also "flings" himself into space off of beds, couches, tables, etc. The ferret axiom of "no fear" seems to be double in this kid. He has, like Tobey, learned basic sign language, so that he and I can work together to make his life easier. He knows when its time for bed, to go to the kitchen, when to find his sister and that his mom (and others) love him. Deaf is not a disabilty for these guys, just a challenge for us to understand.
Kerrie, Albuquerque, NM
Posted: 4/27/2011 8:45:58 AM
I really enjoyed your article. I have a deaf ferret as well. I bought him from a local pet store and could not understand for a few days why he never acknowledged my clapping and calling. I later found out he was deaf and contacted the pet store just to notify them so they could check out the other ferrets. When asked if I wanted to exchange him for another I kept him without a doubt. I thought of how much I grew to love him in such a short time. He was "normal" before when I had assumed he just wasn't listening to me. He is still "normal" in my eyes and I would never give him up for the world.
Kenya, Manchester, CT
Posted: 4/26/2011 10:56:41 AM
Your article was wonderful, however, I have had the hardest time finding info on potty training a deaf ferret!! She goes where she wants when she wants, we have tried rewards for going where she is supposed to, and training her like we did the other two, any info you have would be greatly appreciated!! amandabagnola@aol.com
amanda, canton, OH
Posted: 4/26/2011 7:10:52 AM
My first ferret, Josie, was deaf. She was also a "Panda" colored ferret with 4 white mitts, white tipped tail and belly spots. It is very common that when ferrts have white markings on their head that encompass both ears they are often deaf or hearing impaired. Josie was my constant companion and very quickly learned hand signals to come, sit, stay, stop, sit pretty, play, roll over. She went outdoors daily and even travelled on my motorcycle. Josie was very attentive visually and I taught her to seek me out by pounding in series of threes on the floor or in the vehicle. Being deaf didn't slow her down a bit and it allowed her to be very bold when outdoors!
JosiesMom, Ormond Beach, FL
Posted: 4/10/2011 3:31:37 PM
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