McBride, E. Anne
Ferrets : preventing behaviour problems.
In, BVNA 36th Annual Congress , Birmingham, GB,
09 - 11 Oct 2009.
Ferrets have had a long association with man. Originally used as a working companion in the elimination of agricultural pests, in particular rabbits and rats, they have become increasingly popular as pets and more latterly as a show animal. Regardless of the reason why they are kept, owners need to be knowledgeable of the behavioural needs of ferrets. This is not only a requirement under the Animal Welfare Act, but will reduce the likelihood of problem behaviour developing. Problem behaviours can adversely affect the human-animal relationship and can lead to animals being given up for rescue or even euthanized.
In order to minimise the development of behaviour problems one needs to have an understanding of the species and its natural behaviour and environment. The ferret is first and foremost a predator. The ferret’s role as pest controller was based on its behaviour and characteristics; being agile, small and supple and prepared to fight and kill either rabbits that can kick or bite or mobs of rats. These features have been preserved for many hundreds of generations of domestic ferrets. Though there is a trend for selecting for looks in the show ferret world, little has changed with respect to behaviour and little from its ancestral species the European polecat.
The ferret is sociable and can be kept in groups, which have a hierarchical structure. Ferrets, like cats and dogs, need to be socialised to people, other ferrets and other species they are expected to live with. Whilst the socialisation period is not known, it is likely to occur around the age when kits become exploratory and more independent, between 14-56 days of age. Ferrets also need to be introduced to environments they may need to cope with as adults. For the pet ferret kept indoors this will include everyday household noises and objects.
Like most predators the ferret is not an active animal. Though lively when awake, this may be for as little as 3-4 hours a day, around dusk and dawn, and overnight. They are extremely curious animals and very playful both with objects and with people and each other. Toys that relate to the hunting and eating behaviours, such as cat fishing toys and activity food balls, are appropriate as are new objects to explore, and destroy, such as cardboard boxes. Ferrets have a good spatial sense and require complex environments which include tunnels and resting places. Their eyes being adapted to low light levels they must have the opportunities to avoid bright and direct light.
Ferrets are intelligent animals and can easily learn tricks using training methods such as clicker training. Providing secure and interesting environments, appropriate handling and opportunities to be mentally stimulated can mean that owners can look forward to a companion that can live for 8 – 10 years.
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