Mischievous and curious, ferrets are a hoot to live with, but they have some special needs. Here's what to expect if you're planning to acquire one of the slinky critters
By Kim Campbell Thornton
In love with the furry tube of fun that is the ferret? These members of the mustelid family (hint: that means they're stinkers) are inquisitive and energetic -- think toddler-on-chocolate energetic. Their busy nature makes them entertaining companions, but it also means they get in to everything. As you can imagine, ferrets have some special needs, some that you might not be aware of. Here are 11 tips on living with them.
-- Ferrets are carnivores with higher protein and fat requirements than cats. Feed them a high-protein diet made for ferrets, and avoid sugary treats such as raisins and carrots. In a pinch, you can feed canned kitten food, but it's not appropriate as a full-time diet. Because ferrets can be prone to insulinomas (pancreatic tumors), it's best to avoid high-carbohydrate dry foods, recommends Scott Weldy, DVM, of Serrano Animal and Bird Hospital in Lake Forest, California. Choose a food that's at least 32 percent animal protein and 20 percent fat with minimal amounts of plant-based ingredients.
-- Ferrets are hunters. They can be great friends with cats and dogs, but pocket pets and birds aren't safe around them. On the plus side, you won't have a problem with mice, rats or other vermin in your home.
-- Ferrets have sharp, pointy teeth, and they can be nippy in play. Supervise their interactions with young children, and protect valued items. Grandma's piano can make a fine ferret chew toy if you don't keep Ferdinand away from it and give him acceptable items to play with.
-- Ferrets steal stuff. "They are worse than any 2-year-old," says Kristi Krause, DVM, who also practices at Serrano Animal and Bird Hospital. "They will take off with your car keys. Your wallet is gone. Your slippers are gone."
-- Ferret-proofing a home is a difficult art. Ferrets fit through tiny spaces. Never assume they can't get to something or get in or out of a certain area. If they can squeeze their head through an opening, the body will follow. And of course they can use their paws to manipulate objects. Don't be surprised to find your ferret inside the dishwasher or in the back of your kitchen cabinets.
-- Ferrets need large living quarters for when you're not home to keep them out of trouble. Choose a cage that's at least two feet wide and four feet high with two or more levels. Flooring or bedding can range from carpet or wood to pine shavings or artificial grass, but get rid of anything your ferret chews up.
-- Ferrets are nocturnal, but they will adapt to your schedule. When they're not playing hard, they're sleeping hard, up to 16 hours a day.
-- Ferrets enjoy playing on large exercise wheels and running through tunnels. An easy, inexpensive option for a tunnel is a flexible clothes dryer vent, Dr. Weldy says. Ferrets will play in them all day, especially if you toss treats inside for them to find.
-- Ferrets smell. With their noses, of course, but they also have an odor, unique to each animal, produced by their musk glands. Some people like the scent; some don't. Be sure you can live with it before getting a ferret.
-- Ferrets need distemper and rabies vaccinations as well as flea and heartworm preventives.
-- Ferrets must be spayed or neutered or have birth control implants. Spaying protects a female ferret's health by limiting the secretion of estrogen, which at high levels can cause fatal anemia. Altered ferrets stink less, and neutered males have less aggressive behavior.
Ferrets can bring their people many hours of joy, but they're not for everyone.
"I think you have to be a special person to be tolerant of their behaviors," Dr. Weldy says. "They're unique animals."
Unusual behaviors may
signal health problems
Q: I always hear that when pets are acting out, you should take them to the veterinarian to see if there's anything wrong with them. What kinds of health problems can cause behavior changes? -- via Facebook
A: You name it! Behavioral changes are sometimes the only way we have of knowing there's an underlying health problem. Behavior changes can help us recognize pain, infections, tumors, degenerative conditions, nutritional deficiencies, metabolic diseases, gastrointestinal problems and skin diseases.
For instance, behavior changes that may indicate pain include decreased activity or social interactions; vocalizing more or less than normal; biting or licking at a joint; or breaking housetraining. Cats may groom themselves less often.
Behaviors that might indicate neurological problems include sleeping more than normal, circling, pressing the head against a wall or other solid surface and changes in personality. Many people associate seizures with convulsions and loss of consciousness, but other types of seizures can cause behaviors such as fly biting, chewing, tail chasing and aggression. Pets with neurological symptoms may be suffering from infections, types of cancer, toxins, epilepsy, cognitive dysfunction or metabolic disorders.
Metabolic diseases such as hyperthyroidism in cats can cause pets to be irritable or aggressive, unusually active, unusually hungry or unusually vocal. Dogs with hypothyroidism may seem anxious, eat less and sleep more. Pets with diabetes or kidney disease may have accidents in the home because they're drinking more water than usual.
Pets with painful gastrointestinal problems may show such signs as excessive or unusual licking, sucking, lip smacking, gulping or chewing. Itchy or painful skin diseases and food allergies may cause them to bite or chew at themselves.
If you're lucky, your pet's unusual behavior will turn out to be a one-time aberration, but it never hurts to get it checked out to make sure nothing serious is going on. -- Dr. Marty Becker
Do you have a pet question? Send it to email@example.com or visit Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker.
Missing parrot returns
with new language
-- African grey parrot Nigel was a California bird, but he spoke in the same British accent as his owner, Darren Chick. The bird escaped from his home in 2010, but was found last October and returned to Chick, thanks to his microchip. Chick recognized Nigel immediately, but was surprised by his new vocabulary. Nigel was speaking fluent Spanish, and his British accent was gone. Turns out he'd been found by a Spanish-speaking family, who came forward after seeing news stories about "their" lost bird's return to his original owner. Happy ending: Chick decided to give Nigel to them after hearing how heartbroken they were at his disappearance.
-- Dogs with confirmed mammary cancer and osteosarcoma, as well as some other cancers, may be eligible to enroll in a study of a cancer vaccine at Veterinary Cancer Center in Norwalk, Connecticut. The study is run by Gerald Post, DVM, of VCC, and Mark Mamula, professor of medicine at Yale School of Medicine. They hope the vaccine can be an effective treatment for dogs -- and eventually humans. Use of the vaccine does not interfere with other forms of treatment, such as surgery or chemotherapy. More information is available from clinical trial coordinator Gillian Rothschild, Gillian@VCCHope.com.
-- Watching fish is calming and distracting, boosts your mood and lowers blood pressure and heart rate, research shows. Scientists at Great Britain's National Marine Aquarium, Plymouth University and the University of Exeter measured the heart rate and blood pressure and assessed the mood of volunteers as they watched tanks with gradually increasing numbers of fish. The more fish, the better, they found. "This study has, for the first time, provided robust evidence that 'doses' of exposure to underwater settings could actually have a positive impact on people's well-being," says Deborah Cracknell of the National Marine Aquarium. -- Dr. Marty Becker and Kim Campbell Thornton
ABOUT PET CONNECTION
Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by "The Dr. Oz Show" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Kim Campbell Thornton. They are affiliated with Vetstreet.com and are the authors of many best-selling pet-care books. Joining them is dog trainer and behavior consultant Mikkel Becker. Dr. Becker can be found at Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at Facebook.com/KimCampbellThornton and on Twitter at kkcthornton. Mikkel Becker is at Facebook.com/MikkelBecker and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.
CAPTIONS AND CREDITS
Caption 01: Ferrets can learn to use a litter box and walk on leash. Position: Main Story
Caption 02: Watching fish in aquariums is one way to bring the stress-relieving benefits of nature indoors. Position: Pet Buzz/Item 3