Allure of the Weasel – ferrets

Animals, Jan, 2000 by Pamela H. Sacks

The pet ferret is here to stay–with the right owners, we hope!

Ann Rudich laughs when she recalls the time she arrived home from work to find her ferret, Jagger, lying exhausted in the middle of a huge pile of socks and pantyhose. He had spent the day collecting clothing from the laundry room and from every dresser drawer. “Jagger rolls over, begs, and fetches. His biggest problem is, he loves socks,” says Rudich, who lives in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts.

Another aficionado, James Pembroke Scott, has had ferrets for more than a decade but still gets a kick out of their inquisitive nature. He says that if one of his pets is walking with him on a leash and becomes wound around a pole, the clever creature will invariably figure out how to get free. Scott, a lawyer in Crownsville, Maryland, who serves as general counsel to the American Ferret Association, notes that the animals always want to be where they aren’t, and hate closed doors.

Mischievous, humorous, curious, and loving, the domesticated ferret is soaring in popularity. It is now a legal pet in every state except California and Hawaii, although New York City added the ferret to its list of prohibited animals last June. Marshall’s Pets, a leading breeder of domesticated ferrets, estimates that half a million people now own a total of 750,000 to 900,000 ferrets in the United States alone. Indeed, the slinky mammal is widely thought to be the third most common companion animal, behind the cat and the dog. “They definitely are a pet that is here to stay,” says Connie J. Orcutt, staff clinician in avian and exotic-pet medicine at Angell Memorial Animal Hospital in Boston.

Not surprisingly, numerous organizations and Web sites have popped up to offer advice and support for ferret fanciers. Pet stores carry not only the animals themselves but specially designed leashes, sweaters, and other items.

At heart, though, the ferret is a denizen of the countryside, a weasel closely related to the European polecat and the mink. There are both wild and domesticated ferrets, each with distinctive biological and genetic traits. The wild black-footed ferret, indigenous to North America, is an endangered species.

The ancestors of today’s pet ferret, also called the domesticated polecat, were bred at least 2,000 years ago by Romans, and possibly before that by Egyptians and Greeks. For centuries, hunters in the British Isles placed them in rabbit holes to “ferret out” their prey, which were then caught in a net.

The domesticated ferret is believed to have arrived in the United States in the 1870s, but by the 1930s possession of the species had been declared illegal in a handful of states. In the intervening years, authorities had decided that the use of ferrets in rabbit hunting was inhumane. Concerns also surfaced that feral colonies could develop that would feed on, and eventually wipe out, whole populations of field mice, rabbits, birds, and snakes, thus altering the ecosystem.

It was not until the 1960s, after several books were published on the domesticated ferret’s appealing qualities, that its reputation as a desirable pet started to spread. Although efforts had been made to legalize ferrets in states where they had been outlawed, the big push began in 1990, after the U.S. Department of Agriculture approved a rabies vaccine for them.

Six years later, Rudich was among a group of committed owners who won the battle to legalize ferrets in Massachusetts. She had become a fan back in the mid-1980s, when her husband, who is now deceased, arrived home from a business trip. to Washington, D.C., with a carrier holding a baby ferret that had caught his fancy in a pet store. The couple quickly settled on the name Bandit because the tiny creature had a black face with a white mask. “He was adorable,” Rudich says. “He liked to take things that aroused his curiosity, and hide them under the couch. He was like a puppy who never grew up. He just loved life.”

The engaging qualities that Bandit exhibited undoubtedly have propelled demand for his relations, near and distant. Yet both owners and animal-welfare advocates warn that ferrets, like their feline and canine counterparts, should be carefully considered before they are invited to join the family. It is important, they agree, that prospective owners acquaint themselves with the animals’ special characteristics and household requirements.

The danger of people buying ferrets on a whim led the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals/American Humane Education Society (MSPCA/AHES), which supported legalizing their possession in its home state, to oppose allowing pet shops to sell them. But the Massachusetts legislature struck this prohibition from the final measure, giving rise to concern about what Carter Luke, vice president of humane services for the MSPCA/AHES, calls “impulsive acquisition.”

Indeed, failure of the human-weasel bond is all too common. Donna M. Spirito, who operates one of two private ferret shelters in Massachusetts, estimates that as many as 50 percent of pet ferrets are ultimately surrendered by their owners. Luke says that anyone who likes the idea of getting a ferret needs to know that it is a high-energy, high-maintenance animal that often gives off a musky odor. “People should not be getting them because they are cool,” he cautions.

Ferrets have been known to bite, and they should not be left alone with infants or small children. At the same time, they cannot live entirely in a cage; they must be let out, and they need both freedom and companionship. “They enjoy our presence,” Luke says, “and the more opportunities they have to interact with people, the more sociable they are.”

His principal advice? “Think before you leap.”

He adds, “It’s important for people to remember that although they can make great companions, ferrets are not dogs or cats in funny-shaped bodies. They are, in essence, domesticated weasels.”

Such reservations, coupled with fears–totally unfounded, says Orcutt–that some of the pets could get loose, band together, and begin preying on wildlife, have helped to keep ferrets outlawed in California, where humane officials sometimes find themselves in the position of providing relocation services. “We are obliged to confiscate them when we come across them,” says John Reese, a spokesman for the Marin Humane Society, which works with rescue organizations to locate suitable homes for the contraband ferrets in states where they are allowed.

While the controversies are not likely to go away, there is little question that ferrets can be pure pleasure for people such as Spirito. Standing near the doorway of her home in South Hadley, Massachusetts, she glances into a small room off the kitchen, where her five ferrets sleep soundly, several of them snuggled up together. An adult pet typically whiles away iS to 20 hours a day in this fashion–but once awake, the ferret makes up for lost time. Because ferrets enjoy each other’s company, it is better to have at least two of them so that they can play and doze together, advises Spirito.

A ferret thrives on a meat-based diet, which can include either commercially prepared pellets or cat food. With its quick intelligence, it has no trouble learning its name and how to use a litter box. Spirito calls to each of her ferrets as they scamper en masse into the room. Three of them head into their tunnel, a piece of tubing that resembles a dryer hose. It is their favorite toy, and they follow one another nose to tail as they snake through the narrow cylinder. Despite the tight quarters, a particularly amusing female called Merry Mary flips over in an instant and heads back the other way. Near the kitchen sink, one of Mary’s energetic companions hops up on his back legs at Spirito’s feet, prompting the owner to join in. “This is called the weasel war dance,” she explains as the two gyrate around the room. “He wants me to play with him, chase him, or toss a ball.”

All the fun notwithstanding, protecting a ferret from becoming injured or lost requires considerable vigilance. A female ferret weighs from one and a half to three pounds, a male from three to five pounds. But even these diminutive numbers tend to belie the extremely small spaces into which a ferret can fit. Rudich’s pet, Jagger, stole all those socks, for example, by climbing up the back of the bureaus and squeezing his malleable body into the small opening at the rear of the drawers. A ferret also has an inbred inclination to burrow. Rudich often finds her pets nestled in the corner of a couch, in a laundry basket, under clothing, or in bedding, where they run the risk of being smothered or crushed. When a ferret is awake and playing, it can easily get underfoot and be stepped on. “You need to keep track of them and call them,” Rudich says. “You can’t just forget about them.”

Many owners ferret-proof their homes, plugging holes in cabinets and walls and closing off paths to the basement. This keeps their pets from disappearing into inaccessible places or ending up outside, where, in most cases, they cannot fend for themselves. Scott says that even a reclining chair can pose a danger, because a ferret can easily be crushed in the mechanism. Meanwhile, it is no easy task to keep track of the clothing, trinkets and household items that the typical ferret loves to stash in its favorite hiding places.

Although a ferret confronts a variety of dangers in everyday life, other companion animals often do not pose a problem. When Rudich got her first ferret, she had two German shepherds, and the three became fast friends. “The dogs would let him climb on their backs and ride them,” she remembers. “Bandit would get under the couch, and they’d play hide and seek.” Luke knows of households that exist peacefully with a dog, a cat, and a ferret, but he says that the three species do not always reside together in harmony. Remember that weasels are famous for catching and eating small mammals and birds, even animals bigger than themselves.

And there are other facts to figure into the equation.

The domesticated ferret in this country lives from seven to eight years on average. Before being sold as a pet, it usually has been sterilized and has had its anal sacs removed to reduce odor.

The emphasis on spaying females is critically important. Ferrets are induced ovulators. “A ferret in estrus (heat),” explains Orcutt, “will not ovulate unless she is bred. Prolonged estrus with continuous estrogen production can lead to severe, often fatal, bone marrow suppression.”

And Orcutt notes, even after the anal sacs are removed, the animal’s scent will not completely go away because some of it emanates from skin glands. “In general, you should expect some of that smell,” she says.

As it ages, a ferret is prone to adrenal disease, pancreatic cancer, and lymphoma. Orcutt, who treats from five to seven of the animals a day, reports that because of the high incidence of these diseases, an older ferret often requires a significant amount of medical care. “It is something that should be planned on expense-wise,” she says. “A lot of people are unpleasantly surprised.”

Spirito, for her part, is exceedingly cautious about urging people to take on responsibility for the playful, demanding creatures, since she often suffers the fallout when the human-ferret relationship does not succeed. Conducting a brief tour of her home, she climbs the stairs to the second floor, where 35 ferrets are sleeping in blankets or suspended from little hammocks in half a dozen large cages with landings. They are in a bedroom that Spirito has converted into a ferret shelter serving central and western Massachusetts. A complete history of each animal’s on a white index card attached to its “condo.” All have been either surrendered by an owner or placed in Spirito’s care by the MSPCA/AHES.

Pointing to a pair of ferrets brought in by a couple, Spirito explains that the wife has returned to work and so neither she nor the husband has time for the pets anymore. She points out that a ferret that has bonded closely to its human goes through a difficult period when the person breaks the tie. “I get them through it,” she says. “I have to feed them by hand and get them into a home as soon as possible.” As she holds a fluffy white form against her and massages it gently, Spirito offers a few words of wisdom to those who would latch onto ferrets without fully understanding the commitment. “Many, many people get them and are not educated ahead of time and don’t know what they are getting into,” she says. “They are like toddlers, and you have to take care of them and protect them.”

Pam Sacks is a freelance writer based in Worcester, Massachusetts. COPYRIGHT 2000 Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group

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