Posted: September 1, 2010, 5 a.m. EDT
© Courtesy of Jennifer Griffin and Paula Baker
Every ferret reacts in its own way to different items or situations, so observe your ferrets to know what might stress them.
What a life! Ferrets lounge in a hammock, snooze in a sleep sack, munch on tasty kibble or play with a favorite toy. Who could ask for a more relaxing life? Is it even possible for a ferret to have stress in its life? Unfortunately, like the rest of us, ferrets aren’t immune to the pressures of the world around them.
So what stresses a ferret? And how can we, as their caretakers, help them cope with stress? This article discusses some of these stressors and how to help alleviate stress in your ferret’s life. Not all ferrets are affected by the same stressors, so watch your ferret’s reactions to different situations to learn which stressors may affect it.
Three categories of stressors affect ferrets: environmental, social and physical/medical.
Poor Living Conditions
No one likes to live in a crowded, dirty home — not even your ferret. Make sure that the cage you get for your pet is as spacious as possible. You ferret not only needs room to sleep and eat, but also enough room to stretch and even play a bit. This does not mean you don’t have to let your ferret out to play; your ferret needs that, too! But if you are away all day and you don’t have a room that you can just let your ferret run around in while you are gone, then you must give your ferret as big of a cage as you possibly can. Ferrets that are constantly caged become depressed, and depression comes from emotional stress.
Keeping the cage clean is important, too. A clean cage harbors fewer odors and is healthier for your pet. Ferrets can develop urine burns and sores on their feet if they have to walk on filthy wires and can develop respiratory problems from breathing in bacteria-laden air.
Loud Or Sudden Noises
While some ferrets don’t seem to mind noise in general, some sudden noises can startle them, and constant loud noises can hurt their ears. Noises such as vacuum cleaners, loud music, home remodeling, barking dogs, crying babies or screaming kids can stress your pet.
Don’t put your ferret’s cage in front of your stereo speakers or next to the TV. If the vacuum cleaner seems to bother your ferret, put your ferret in another room while you vacuum the room its cage is in. Keep small children and babies away from your ferret. Some ferrets get very stressed out by the sound of a baby crying. While most ferrets just express an interest in the sound, a few go into an attack mode. No one is really sure why this happens – whether the cries sound like a source of prey or if the pitch of the baby’s cry hurts the ferret’s ears. Based on what I know, I would never recommend that someone with a baby have ferrets in the same house unless extreme precautions are taken. This is not only for the safety of the child, but for the safety of the ferret. Some squeaky toys elicit the same response.
If you grab your ferret unexpectedly, especially from above, it can alarm and stress your ferret. Deaf ferrets that don’t hear you coming are the most affected. Imagine a hawk swooping down on you, and you will understand why ferrets are uneasy about this type of motion! If they don’t see or hear you coming, it can frighten them very much.
Playing roughly with your pet can be stressful if your ferret doesn’t understand your intentions. Your ferret may not know if you are truly trying to play with it or if you are trying to attack it. While ferrets are fairly hearty and can withstand a lot, they are definitely not as strong as a human and can sustain broken bones, sprains or internal injuries from roughhousing. Play gently with your pet, and it will play gently with you!
Noisy Or Unsafe Living Conditions
Is your ferret in an area of the house that is potentially dangerous to it? Are a lot of people walking or running through the room and almost stepping on your ferret? Keep your pet out of harm’s way. A ferret that gets its toes or tail stepped on can become fearful if it happens frequently. The ferret also can be seriously injured or even die from an encounter with a foot. Give your ferret a safe place to play!
Lack Of Privacy
Ferrets need "down time.” They need a place both in and out of their cages where they can go to be left alone. A sleep sack or tube of some kind, or a hanging sleep cube can provide your ferret with some privacy in its cage. Doctors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology actually found that ferrets that they kept there were developing stomach ulcers until they started providing them with sleep tubes in their cages.
Hammocks can be OK for sleeping in, too, but these do not provide your ferret with any privacy. To correct this, cover the part of your ferret’s cage that is near the hammock with a towel or small blanket to offer your ferret some privacy. A nest box attached to the cage also works well. Get one with a lid that lifts up to make it easier to clean and to make it easier for you to get to your ferret inside if needed.
Also be sure to tell any children in your household that if the ferret is sleeping or hiding, they must leave it alone until it wakes up on its own.
Signs Of Stress In Ferrets
Some of the following signs can also be the result of other problems, too, so don't hesitate to take your ferret in to see your veterinarian if any of these symptoms are present, especially the last two.
1. Your ferret hides a lot, especially from other ferrets or pets.
2. Your ferret hisses frequently.
3. Your ferret cowers away from people or other pets.
4. Your ferret trembles when people or other pets come near.
5. Your ferret is not using its litter box, especially when other ferrets are near.
6. Your ferret has runny stools.
7. Your ferret has black or tarry stools (a sign of ulcers).
I Want To Be Alone
Having one ferret is fun! Having more ferrets should be even more fun, right? It may be for you, but not always for your pet. Some ferrets are loners and get stressed if they encounter other ferrets or even other animals. Most members of the weasel family are solitary creatures, except during mating season or if the jill is raising her kits.
Ferrets that are raised together will usually get along, but introducing a new friend to an established pet is not always a welcoming experience. Some ferrets are afraid of a newcomer or consider it to be an intruder. This can stress the ferrets quite a bit. Some ferrets may run away from a newcomer and others may attack it. If you are determined to keep both ferrets, give them plenty of space so they can get away from each other and socialize them slowly. You will probably need to cage them separately for a while.
Some people take the attitude of "toss them together and let them work it out.” If there is just light scuffling or hissing, that might be OK to try. If the animals are actually going after each other and fighting, then a slower introduction is warranted. Ferrets that are pushed into an unwanted relationship too quickly can develop stomach ulcers and intestinal problems, such as loose stools.
Some ferrets never learn to get along with other ferrets and just have to have human interaction for company. Fortunately, most ferrets eventually get along. They usually establish a pecking order, and as long as everybody knows their place, there is peace between them.
Another cause of stress can be the opposite of the above situation. A ferret that has been with other ferrets or other animals its whole life and suddenly finds itself alone can become stressed. For instance, a ferret that has had a lifelong companion may grieve and be stressed if the companion passes away. Or if your roommate or sibling moves out and takes his or her ferret with them, your ferret may miss the other ferret. Your ferret may also grieve at the loss of a cat or dog that was a companion to it or even the other person.
Don’t automatically assume that the surviving ferret will rejoice if you bring another ferret home to keep it company, though. The surviving ferret may think that the new ferret is the cause of its friend’s disappearance. Introduce them slowly, and hopefully they will adjust to each other.
If you are lucky enough to have ferrets that get along, know when to stop. Even ferrets that get along in groups have their limits. Most ferrets tolerate groups of five to eight ferrets. In other words, the size of an average ferret litter. After that, the stress kicks in.
If you have a larger group, you may notice that one or two ferrets in the group get picked on by the others or they don’t play as a group and wander off from each other. This is their way of dealing with the stress of being crowded. You may want to break your ferrets into two groups and let each group play in a different room. Switch the rooms each day so they have someplace new to explore. Variety can help reduce stress and boredom, too. Plenty of toys and tubes to play with help ease tension.
Physical stress can cause emotional stress, too. Stress on the body creates stress on the mind.
Adjust The Thermostat
Extreme temperatures can be stressful to your ferret as well as life-threatening. While ferrets can tolerate cool temperatures for extended periods of time, a ferret that has been kept indoors cannot adapt immediately to living out in the cold. With the exception of short playtimes (a few minutes for instance), a ferret should not be taken outside without a blanket or towel if the weather drops below freezing.
If you want your ferret to experience snow, take it outside to let it explore, but don’t stay out there too long. Your ferret might be too excited to realize, but the chill will set in. This can stress your ferret’s body and make your pet more susceptible to the flu. You are better off bringing a cake pan full of snow into the house for your ferret to explore.
Heat is very dangerous to ferrets. While a ferret can survive for several hours outside in the cold, it can die in minutes from excessive heat. Ferrets do not have well developed sweat glands and cannot cool themselves by perspiring. Ferrets can get heatstroke at temperatures as low as 85 degrees if they don’t have a way to cool themselves off. Heat-related stress can cause lethargy and even death.
Don’t take your ferret outside on hot days, if possible, and never leave your ferret in a car unattended. Even on relatively cool days, the temperature inside of your car can reach 110 degrees Fahrenheit or more. The general rule to remember is that for every 10 degrees of air temperature, your car will be about 40 degrees hotter. On a 70-degree day, your car can reach 110 degrees even with the windows "cracked open.”
Handicaps And Injuries
Handicaps and injuries can stress your ferret, too. Ferrets are stoic little animals and generally put on a brave demeanor, so you may not realize that they are feeling stressed. They know that they are not at their best and the pressure is on to fool those around them.
If you have a ferret with a recently acquired handicap or that is recovering from an injury or surgery, show it a lot of love and make sure that other pets in the house don’t pester it or pick on it. Likewise, a ferret that is sick or on medication may also want to be left alone from its usual play group.
If your ferret is shying away from its buddies or is unusually aggressive toward them, give your pet a space where it can be alone for a while if it wishes. Depending on the injury or surgery, you may even need to keep your ferret caged separately from its friends for a while to avoid additional trauma caused by the other ferrets walking on their injured comrade.
Ferrets are very complex creatures and what stresses one ferret may not affect another ferret at all. Get to know your ferret, and find out what causes it stress so you can eliminate as much of it as possible and help it live a long and happy life.
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