Posted: May 1, 2011, 5 a.m. EDT
Ferrets are suited for animal-assisted therapy (AAT), which involves professionals such as physical, occupational and speech therapists or staff in residential care facilities utilizing animals in goal-directed work with patients. They are also suited for animal-assisted activities (AAA), which involves using animals to aid recreational therapists and trained volunteers to motivate clients and promote socialization. Visitation animals are brought to homebound patients and establishments like hospitals and nursing homes to aid patients in socialization and psychologically comforting them. In this category, ferrets are top-notch.
Susie Riddle is the director of the Weezle Wings Ferret Sanctuary in Texas. She owns five visitation ferrets. Riddle is in the unique position of enjoying one of them as an emotional support animal for her panic and anxiety disorder and mild agoraphobia. Ferr’ouquea Clarice gives her the psychological comfort and the confidence to live a more normal life. The ferret also helps Riddle be able to do the visitations that help so many people. “It’s a giant circle,” Riddle said. “Ferr helping me to get out, the therapy ferrets helping others by Ferr helping me get them to the resident, homebound people, agoraphobics and social/pet events where they are featured guests, etc. My precious fursnakes help all of those who need love and also those who were tragically separated from their pets when they entered the nursing homes.”
Ferrets make ideal emotional support animals (ESA). They are very social, attentive and bond closely with their owners. Lori Richardson has been disabled by several afflictions including neuropathy and fibromyalgia. Her ferrets help to alleviate depression and anxiety that people often suffer due to chronic health issues. They give her purpose and motivation. Richardson is the director of the ferret rescue Ferrets at Heart in Ohio, and she describes what she considers their most valuable trait, “Ferrets are always happy. They are always interested in what is going on with their human. They need us. What other pet can you put the label of ‘always’ on?”
Scott Myles of North Carolina said that energetic ferrets boost morale and bring laughter to people in need. His wife suffered a stroke resulting in a poor prognosis many years ago. She was unresponsive to therapy dogs, but one day she reacted positively toward a little ferret that was brought in to her. He played a key role in her recovery. Myles said this specific ferret stayed by his wife’s side and was adamant about making her pet him by nipping at her fingers. This motivated her to use her hand and arm again. Later, when she was recovering, the ferret followed her behind her walker; whenever she stopped, he stopped as well. After waiting a bit, if she didn’t move, he nipped at her heel to motivate her to walk again. “She also became more responsive, and we used him for therapy every day until she was released.”
Concern For The Ferrets
Ferrets in general do have some limitations. They have short life spans of 5 to 8 years. And kits (1 year old and younger) make poor candidates for working animals, because they are often too hyper, playful, and unfocused. A ferret enters its senior years at age 5 and becomes limited in what it can do. Other concerns are that ferrets have short attention spans, are highly susceptible to heat (85 degrees Fahrenheit and greater is a danger to ferrets), are difficult to capture if unleashed, potty frequently, and often develop health issues (such as adrenal disease and insulinoma).
Ailigh Vanderbush of Indiana specializes in animal behavior and training and has 10 years of experience with ferrets. She cautioned that animal service is, indeed, work. “A lot is expected of them, and the animal doesn't usually get much from it,” Vanderbush said. “Also, there is not too much time to be a ‘normal’ ferret.” She added that no national or federal organization certifies ferrets, and there is no ferret equivalent of the therapy dog exam.
©Courtesy Nancy Sevier
Nancy Sevier takes her certified therapy ferrets to visit residents of local nursing, and she believes the ferrets enjoy the visits as much as the people.
Can a ferret benefit from its “work”? Proponents say yes. Nancy Sevier is a volunteer that frequents her local nursing home in Louisiana with her certified therapy ferrets. She is the state coordinator for PAWS, and there is no doubt in her mind that her ferrets thrive on the stimulating outings and lavish attention they get during their visits. She has especially seen a very positive effect with one of her ferrets that was hideously abused in the past. “Toast loves doing this and has helped others at this facility come out of their ‘shell,’” Sevier said. “”He has been through so much, being set on fire, you wouldn't think he would be open to people, but it helps him. too! He gets the love from people to see that not all people are mean like the men that set him on fire.”
For now, your rights to bring a service ferret into public areas are still intact in most of the country. However, given the fact that the issued guidelines may cause confusion, it’s best to be prepared. Kris Church, a co-director of the Richmond Ferret Rescue League, vet tech and behaviorist, offers valuable advice, “Check out your state regulations regarding service animals, get some sort of documentation for the animal — i.e. badge with animals picture, name, address, handler info and what service they provide — and have info for yourself — handicap sticker, license or doctor's request — and contact information to the ADA and Department of Justice.”
The loss of ferrets as service animals would be devastating so be vigilant in watching your states laws regarding service animals. You might even want to think about petitioning the DOJ to allow ferrets as service animals.
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.