Posted: March 26, 2013, 10:17 p.m. EDT
© Courtesy Sara Bellani
Most ferrets don't need much encouragement to exercise.
Some pets move slowly and some move quickly. Ferrets? They’re usually quick. In fact, healthy ferrets are high-energy pets when awake. Boundless curiosity tempts them into exploring everything around them. A new item in the room? They’ll find it! New person? They’re there!
Ferret owner Lisa Cox said she lets her ferret play with her kitten. "They exhaust me just watching them.”
With their endless energy, exercise should never be a problem for ferrets, right? Well, that depends.
Ferrets Need Space
Ferrets cannot live their whole lives in a cage. Sleeping or even spending a majority of a day in a cage is OK, as long as a ferret gets daily playtime outside the cage. Many ferret owners opt to offer a fully accessorized cage with an open door inside a playpen or ferret-proofed room. That way the ferret can retreat to the cage when he wishes, and run and play outside when he wishes. Other owners offer a truly spacious cage that the ferret is confined to along with daily supervised playtime or time in a playpen for several hours.
"Ours are out at least two hours a day, more on the weekends,” said ferret owner Lynn Clark. "We play chase and other games with them; and since there are three, they wrestle and chase each other, too. They have tubes and a dig box, too. They are content to sleep in their cages and actually ask to go in.”
Another option is free-roam. Any of these options allows plenty of time for a ferret to stretch his legs, bounce, explore, play and just be a ferret. This video of ferrets playing gives an idea of why ferret playtime requires space.
So with the proper habitat, can a ferret ever get too little or too much exercise? Karen Rosenthal, DVM, MS, who is dean of the School of Veterinary Medicine at St. Matthew’s University in The Cayman Islands, doesn’t think there’s such a thing as too much exercise for healthy ferrets.
"Ferrets have a very fast metabolism and are meant to be very active,” she said.
Ferret owner Ashlee Danielle does a lot to encourage her ferrets to exercise. "Playing, giving them different toys and even free-roaming time,” she said. "My three get at least four hours of play a day.”
Jerry Murray, DVM, of the Animal Clinic of Farmers Branch near Dallas, said not many problems or signs are associated with healthy ferrets that get too much exercise, adding that, "a thin body condition and lean muscle tone could be signs of too much exercise.”
Murray said that some medical problems, such as hypothyroidism or being overweight, could require more exercise. "Most of the time,” he said, "more exercise can be achieved by simply increasing playtime out of the cage.”
Getting too little exercise is easier to recognize. "Signs of too little exercise are common,” Murray said, "and can include an overweight to obese body condition, an enlarged abdomen from internal fat pads, enlarged fat pads on the side of the neck, lack of muscle tone in the legs and lack of cardiovascular fitness.”
Having high energy doesn’t mean that ferrets should always be on-the-go. "For a healthy ferret, they will let you know if they have had too much, as they will just stop running around or participating in the activity,” Rosenthal said. She cautioned that owners should be alert for signals from their ferret.
"Let your ferret ‘tell’ you when there has been too much exercise,” she said. "When your ferret is no longer interested or gets up more slowly or needs to be prodded with treats to be involved, then it is time to stop.”
Rosenthal said that the proper amount of playtime or exercise depends on a ferret’s medical condition. "A ferret with heart disease should not be exercised unless your veterinarian has given an OK for moderate or even mild exercise,” she said. "A heart condition that is well-regulated while your ferret is non-athletic could become dangerously out of control if the heart is asked to work harder.” She added that playing or exercising requires the heart to pump more blood and work harder.
"Medical conditions that may require less exercise can include heart disease, insulinoma and arthritis from previous knee or elbow injuries,” Murray said. "In cases of insulinoma, the ferret can be fed prior to exercise and treats can be given during extended playtime. In heart cases, exercise time usually needs to be of shorter duration. Arthritis can usually be controlled with a glucosamine and chondroitin supplement and pain medications if needed.”
If your ferret has any sort of medical condition, consult your veterinarian about the amount and type of playtime that’s best for your pet.
Decreased Activity And Illness
Knowing that some ailments can affect a ferret’s energy level, exercise can actually be used to help alert owners spot possible medical problems sooner. Murray said that one sign of heart disease is reduced activity. "Frequently these ferrets do not have a heart murmur, so diagnosis can be hard in the early stages,” he said. "Radiographs and ultrasound of the heart are usually needed to diagnose the heart problem.”
Rosenthal described how activity level can help diagnose insulinoma. "The most common scenario was this: the ferret no longer wanted to leave its cage, its hammock, its den, etc., to run around the house. Owners would attribute that to a ferret getting older, whereas the real culprit was an undiagnosed or early insulinoma causing the ferret’s blood glucose to be lower than normal.”
See more information about ferret health