home : 2. ferret care : room to move

room to move

Ferrets have two major physical faults that work against them. They are small and they are furry!

While these traits endear them to us, it also often leads them to suffer from less than ideal care.

Despite years of domestication, ferrets have not evolved from their wild state as polecats in any meaningful way. In the wild, a polecat’s natural range can be as large as 2,500 hectares. In this natural habitat they are very active and dig, hunt for prey, eat, run, play and sleep as the season and time of day dictate. Although they can sleep many hours per day, it is not continuous, it is in short bursts throughout the day and night.

As domestic pets, despite having the same needs (except for hunting) as their wild relatives, ferrets’ basic rights are often not provided for.

The RSPCA describes the “Five Freedoms” which all animals should be able to live their lives with:

* Freedom from hunger and thirst
* Freedom from discomfort
* Freedom from pain, injury or disease
* Freedom to express normal behaviour
* Freedom from fear and distress

Normal behaviour for a ferret includes running, playing, jumping and sleeping, so they need the freedom to do any one of these things at any time of day, not just when their owner’s schedule dictates.

Humans see small furry ferrets and equate them to animals that can live most of their lives in cages like guinea pigs or rats. To further compound this belief, we are exposed to ferret web sites and magazines which feature advertisements for “ferret condos” that promise to provide your ferrets with happiness and safety or, even worse, rabbit hutches that can be used to house several ferrets.

(On the note of safety, most accidents that occur to ferrets in the US are caused by, or occur in, cages and in Australia, most ferrets that escape, do so from cages.) We also see ferrets in cages in pet shops or at breeders’ homes and that also compounds our belief that this type of housing is suitable.

This is from an ad in a ferret magazine:

“The Ultimate Accommodation for Your Ferret Family! The Mansion easily houses up to six ferrets. It has a lockable slide out pan for safety & easy cleaning. The Mansion features swivel casters for mobility, two doors, three adjustable ramps and balconies. “

Advertising hype such as “Ultimate Accommodation” and “Mansion” are often used to convince owners that the product is designed for the animal’s needs rather than for profit and convenience. Can you imagine 6 Jack Russell’s living in a cage?

What damage are we doing to ferrets by confining them to small living areas? Ferrets are intelligent, inquisitive and playful, but in cages, they have no chance to explore, run, play or otherwise exercise at will. Even if only caged overnight, or allowed out for a few hours per day, this is a very large percentage of a “life behind bars”, and a large percentage of their life where their basic needs aren’t met.

The area a ferret lives in needs to meet 4 basic needs:

* Large enough to run, play & wrestle in, to keep them physically healthy

* Interesting enough to keep them mentally healthy

* Ferret-proofed to prevent injuries and escapes
(and minimise the housekeeping you for!)

* Protection from high and low temperatures so they remain comfortable

You may be surprised to know that ferrets are very active at night if given the chance (this is often the very time that many ferret owners make sure to cage their ferrets!). This lack of exercise will impact on muscles and, therefore, bones (loss of muscle mass causes a decrease in bone density).

Probably of equal or greater importance is the effect on the ferret’s mental health. At one end of the spectrum, a ferret will soon get used to the fact that there is nothing to do in a cage other than sleep, and will sleep more as a result. At the other end, a ferret may develop “cage psychosis” and begin to bite its owner as well as other people (possibly because it equates being picked up with being put back in its cage).

So how can we provide a better life for our ferrets? Firstly, look around and see what areas of your home and/or land can be made ferret-proof and provide space and a safe, stimulating environment for them. Think big! Ferrets need about the same living space as a small dog. Aim for an area where you can join them in their play or relax with your favourite tipple and watch their activities. Joining in their war-dancing, or otherwise being accessible to your ferrets, will make them a much more rewarding pet!

Be innovative! My heart dropped one day when I saw that a person was so proud of providing her ferrets with a “giant enclosure 1.2m x 1.2m x 1.5m”. Sorry, not much room for exercise there. Another time, my heart soared when a person described how she had overcome the problem of joining an upstairs ferret room to a large outdoor area by making tubing out of steel mesh that wound through the trees from the window to ground level. The ferrets were then free to come and go as they wished. Brilliant!

Depending on the type of area available to you, providing a large and enriching environment may be as simple as installing a cat door between house and ferret-proofed yard, or part of the yard, or ramp from window to yard.

If no land is available to you, judicious use of perspex or some other type of door barriers can increase the area for you ferrets to roam freely while keeping them from ferret “no-go” rooms.

On her web site, Christie Keith includes a paragraph that I find particularly inspiring:

“When humans take predatory carnivores into our homes as companion animals, there is a tremendous burden on us to provide them with the diet and lifestyle they evolved on. To fail to do so will often lead to avoidable health problems, and heartbreak for anyone who really loves their pets. Don't let the convenience of kibble and cages blind you to the true nature of your domesticated polecats, wolves, or cats; all are carnivores, all are hunters, and all need an active lifestyle and species-appropriate diet to reach their full potential.”

I’d love you to write to this newsletter to share how you have improved the space and enrichment of your ferrets’ lives or any other ideas you have.

Written by Shirley Hewett

Ferret Society of Canberra

 For more information or to make comments please email mail@ferretclub.org.au