Posted: August 8, 2012, 1:40 p.m. EDT
© Isabelle Francais/I-5 Publishing
Use toys that make different sounds to test your ferret's hearing.
One obstacle ferret owners face is the identification of deaf ferrets. All ferrets are naturally stubborn, curious, mischievous and have short attention spans. Like 2-year-old children, they hear when and what they want to hear. Also, some ferrets are too busy to learn their names. Therefore, it can be difficult to pick up on the cues that a deaf ferret displays. Ferrets do so well when they are deaf that it’s nearly impossible to tell just on first glance.
Deafness In Ferrets: It's Important To Know
If ferrets do so well and are so happy when they are deaf, why is it important to know if they can hear? The obvious reason is for their safety during emergencies. If your ferret escapes outside or if there is an emergency in your home such as a fire, how would you call your ferret or get its attention? How would you find it quickly? A diligent owner can train their ferret to come to visual stimuli, such as flashing lights or waving hands, as well as tactile stimuli, such as thumping floors — and many other creative options.
Another reason is so that you can communicate with your ferret. Ferrets can learn a few hand signals (sign language) as well as respond to other cues. Communicating with your ferret on various levels increases your bond with your pet.
Realizing that your pet is deaf can prevent heartache for the animal and frustration in yourself. When people expect an animal to hear, they expect it to behave. It can be a hard, and even cruel, life for any animal that is "expected” to hear and to act accordingly. Imagine being disciplined chronically for something beyond your scope of ability.
"It concerns me that the most common response to these innocent creatures is often violence,” said Renee Downs, an audiologist and deaf ferret owner. "It is easy and natural to verbally respond to a child — or a ferret — when they are doing something to disturb us. We might say, ‘Stop that!’ or ‘Don’t’ or even ‘Wait a minute.’ It may not occur to us that they don’t hear us. Instead, we label them as disobedient. And, doesn’t a disobedient child or pet deserve to be punished?”
Finally, if a ferret hasn’t adapted well to the world due to its deafness, it might become skittish. This can lead to fear biting.
Deaf ferrets that survive abusive or neglectful situations or endure chaotic lives (completely unstructured, or bouncing from one home to another) also can evolve into skittish ferrets or severe biters. However, a stable, loving environment does not guarantee that a deaf ferret will adapt and socialize well.
Testing For Deafness
Hearing tests help identify deaf ferrets. I find home tests to be a bit more reliable than testing a ferret at a vet’s office. When a ferret is in a new environment, it is highly unlikely to pay attention to any sounds or tests that you do. Sometimes the ferret is so involved in smelling, seeing the new sights and such that it doesn’t even react to loud noise. With home tests, a ferret feels comfortable in the environment and, therefore, more alert and attentive.
In addition, the average vet has usually never been asked to test for deafness in a ferret. Medical tests such as the BAER (an evoked brainstem response test) and behavioral studies (done at length in labs) can be conducted to test a ferret’s hearing, but such tests can be stressful and even invasive to ferrets, often involving sedatives or anesthesia. Also, these tests are usually expensive and only a scant number of universities have equipment to test ferrets.
So how do you test for ferret deafness? A good place to start is at home. With these tests, it is just as important to consider what to do as what not to do.
Living With Deaf Ferrets
Five Don’ts For Ferret Deafness Testing
1. Do not do anything that will allow the ferret to feel a vibration when testing it, such as: using a vacuum cleaner, hitting the cage or stomping on the ground.
2. Do not allow any visual cues to distract your ferret, such as seeing the object you test with (toys, bells, etc), moving arms and hands, etc.
3. Do not allow other animals to give your ferret cues as you test (they will copy other’s reactions).
4. Do not allow smells or wind to tip off your ferret.
5. Do not take a ferret to an unfamiliar environment to test it around new stimuli, such as new smells, new people and animals, new rooms, new sights, etc.
Five Do’s For Ferret Deafness Testing
1. Do stand near the ferret and have a noisemaker (squeak toy, horn, can of pennies, clicker, keys to jangle, bell, etc.) behind your back. Don’t let the ferret know you have it. Once your ferret’s head/back is turned, use the noisemaker and see if your ferret reacts in any way.
2. Do the same thing again, only try using a different sound, like clapping. Wait until your ferret turns its back and clap loudly right behind it. Don’t clap too closely, because your ferret will feel the breeze from your hands, or see your movement.
3. Do take turns with various noisemakers. Be sure that you try different frequencies, such as the high pitch of a squeaky toy and the low pitch of a car horn. Your ferret may be able to hear low pitches, but not high ones, making it partially hearing.
4. Do the testing over a course of days, or even weeks, to be sure of what you are observing. Ferrets have good and bad days.
5. If you decide that your ferret may be deaf, take it to a vet for a checkup to allow him or her to evaluate the situation as well.