Studies show that stress can contribute to an array of health problems in humans and our companion animals have been proven to help reduce it! Our ferrets are amazing companion animals; many are considered Emotional Support Animals due to the positive impact they have on their human companions. Simply petting a ferret (or other animals) can increase levels of the stress-reducing hormone oxytocin and decrease production of the stress hormone cortisol, thus making you feel more relaxed.
Did you know that even our lovely ferrets can experience stress just like we do? Stress— even though fairly common, is a real problem as it can contribute to ill health. Our ferrets are unable to verbally tell us that they are stressing out, and they are even pretty well adapted to hiding their stress from us! However, there are many signs to physically show us that the ferret may be stressed. It is up to us as responsible ferret owners to learn, understand and recognize these signs in order to minimize or prevent unnecessary stress to our ferrets. Limit, reduce and prevent the stress, and you will have happier, and even healthier ferrets!
What is Stress?
Stress may is mental, emotional and/or a physical tension that is caused by factors outside of our ferret’s control. Good examples would be: changes to the environment or lifestyle, grief, exposure to unfamiliar sights and sounds, etc. Even simply using medications can put stress on the ferrets body as many of the medications we may give are substances that are not natural to our ferret’s bodies. A little bit of stress is normal and in fact, our ferrets face stress at least daily in minimal ways. Excessive stress however, will cause issues and so it is best to prevent unnecessary stress when and where possible for promotion of good health and well being.
Effects of Stress
Excessive and long term stress can weaken the immune system and cause a host of emotional and physical problems not only in ferrets, but many other animals as well. When the stress levels rise, our ferrets will instinctively try to blow off steam; often in undesirable ways, such as destructive behaviour, cage raging, and vigorous play. Stress compromises the health of our ferrets, making them more susceptible to disease. It may worsen, or increase risk of various conditions such as gastrointestinal problems, loss/lack of appetite, Increased risk of heart disease, depression and so on. Ferrets who are stressed may have a harder time to physically heal from injuries or illnesses such as influenza, even Canine Distemper. This is why often, ferrets will be given an immune boosting supplement such as L-Lysine if they contract a potentially deadly disease.
So what exactly could cause our ferrets to become stressed?
LIFESTYLE CHANGE & ENRICHMENT
Suddenly changing daily routines which may result in your ferret(s) being left alone for longer periods of time either caged or confined, may cause mental and emotional stress, even for those who may free roam can experience some stress due to lack of human to ferret interaction. Less playtime, especially for younger ferrets (Under 1 years old) may cause great stress to younger ferrets as the energy is not adequately dispersed and may result in a very upset, bored ferret. Boredom will often lead to depression and hyperactivity. This is a common cause of behavioural issues in ferrets and may be seen through constant cage raging and destructive behaviour. Often these ferrets will release their frustrations in forms of vigorous play, and/or nipping and biting quite harder than usual. New people, family members, new animals, may all cause stress and will be quite unsettling for ferrets and so introductions should be done gradually.
Moving houses, a sudden change in the environment or a move from a familiar to unfamiliar environment (eg. Vet Clinic), even a simple renovation, or sudden redecoration, will often result in some unsettled ferrets. Sometimes even getting a new animal (not necessarily a ferret) can cause some stress in our ferrets. Remember, new sights, and smells.
One of the most difficult causes of stress in our companion animals. The loss of a companion, either human, ferret, or other animal may lead to symptoms of grief in our ferrets. It’s a very stressful time for ferrets as they need to learn to adjust being without their companion. It can often take some time to recover and will influence the behaviour of the ferret throughout the grieving process.
Often loud sounds will be quite a stress for our ferrets, especially unfamiliar sounds such as storms, thunder and fireworks. Noisy children, or loud humans, even music playing loudly, may also cause stress. Another good example would be a family quarrel. Some noises are simply unintentional stress factors and we humans may not entirely realize that they may be causing some stress to our ferrets. Something to keep in mind also, is that even toys we give to our ferrets that squeak or rattle, may be startling and stressful to some ferrets. If you find a certain toy is causing stress, it is best to remove it once it gets out of control. Even if the ferret looks adorable with it’s constant reactions, it still does cause emotional stress and long term stress is not healthy; it should never be encouraged.
Believe it or not, but our ferrets are sensitive to our emotions. They can sense and feel when we ourselves are stressed or upset and in turn, this can have an undesirable effect on our beloved ferrets.
DIET / FOOD
Ferrets can get Hangry too! Ferrets should be fed adequate amounts of food daily and should never be intentionally fasted unless under veterinary supervision as this may cause some stress, especially if for a prolonged period of time. Ferrets fed an unbalanced diet or lack of diet, can be a huge stress factor to our ferrets. Diet is one of the most common cause of stress in our ferrets. They need to be fed a diet that provides essential nutrients in appropriate amounts for their little bodies to function. When their needs are met, diet can help the body fight stress! The gastrointestinal tract of our ferret can become stressed when a new food is introduced, especially if done too fast, and generally if the food is introduced gradually the stress should be minimal and go away within a few days. However, many ferrets who have Irritable Bowel Disease may have sensitivities to certain types of foods or certain proteins, and the frequent feeding of this food may cause stress and upset. Unlike other stress factors mentioned at this stage which can be seen physically or behaviourally, Stress caused by diet is often indicative through ferret’s stool.
Excessive breeding, back to back breeding and so on, will put stress on the ferrets body. Weaning ferrets too early, may cause of stress in ferrets. Those who are not experienced or knowledgeable in proper breeding & husbandry, are advised to avoid doing so until they come to a stage where they can undertake the breeding and be confident in minimising any unnecessary stress to the ferrets involved.
Ventral wiping in neutered ferrets outside breeding season may be linked to stress, (but also boredom and excitement.)
Socialization is the process whereby a ferret learns to recognise and interact with other ferrets and humans. During this stage, ferrets learn essential skills passed on to them from their mothers and how to play and interact with other ferrets with their siblings. Ferrets lacking socialisation skills may be more prone to being rough during play and may have some unpleasant (though unintentional) behavioural issues. The critical period for socialisation is around approximately 7 1/2 and 8 1/2 weeks of age for ferrets. Many “mill” bred ferrets, such as Marshall Farms, may be taken away from their mothers before this critical period and may not have adequate socialisation skills. If the ferret does not receive enough exposure to people and other ferrets within a normal domestic environment in the early weeks of the critical period of socialisation, it will be more susceptible to stress. These ferrets may feel more threatened by things around them such as vacuum cleaning, new visitors, or even new ferrets. If they are socially deprived (eg. lone ferrets) from other ferrets from a young age, they may find it more difficult as well as very stressful when being introduced to new ferrets at an older age. This is why it is recommended to get ferrets in pairs if you buy them young from a petstore, so that they can interact with other ferrets and learn socialisation skills. Those who learn socialisation after the critical period will be slower at learning, but they will get there as long as the human is persistent and patient. Always introduce ferrets gradually and take as long as needed to ensure stress levels are never excessive.
It is true that ferrets were domesticated from solitary animals, however ferrets have since then been domesticated and thrive in at least pairs with an animal of the same species. A ferret who has been alone all it’s life and then introduced to another ferret may put him/her in an incredible amount of stress. These ferrets may become hysterical at the very site of another ferret. Isolation produces problems other than play and behaviour. This stress can and often does affect health in some form. Deprivation of social interaction may cause behavioural difficulties by actively degrading or destroying preciously organized mental processes partly by tuning the animal to respond to extremely little stimulation.
Older ferrets are more likely to have separation anxiety compared to younger ferrets as they tend to form extremely close friendships with other ferrets their own age and so when one dies or one is separated, they may grieve, go off their food and lose an interest in everything. Separation anxiety is seen to a somewhat lesser extent in blind ferrets separated from their seeing eye ferrets, but in any case, separation anxiety can happen to closely bonded ferrets, and even ferrets bonded to their human.
Seizures, vomiting, blockages, cancers and many diseases, anything that really should not be occuring in the body will cause stress to the body. Many Allopathic Treatments (eg. Pred for Insulinoma) will cause stress and so it is best to try and be as natural as you can be when ever possible to avoid any excessive medicating. There are alternatives to things such as Pepto Bismol for Stomach Ulcers and other minor problems. If the animal MUST have an allopathic medication, which at times, we will have no other choice, then you can introduce a supplement or natural aid to support the entire body and promote good health. Support the body, and the body will be able to combat stress more easily.
Ferrets who have gone through some kind of traumatic event, such as a house fire, or abuse/neglect, abandonment and starvation, may be more prone to stress. When dealing with an animal who has gone through trauma, it is always best to treat them with kindness, compassion and understanding. Commit to the potential for long term rehabilitation and help keep the stress down by providing a quiet, safe environment for them.
Making sure that your ferret is socialised and getting him/her used to the sounds and actions going on in your world at an early age will help towards reducing any unnecessary stresses later on in their lives. If you find that your ferret is nervous by certain things, you can remove, modify or control exposure to ensure stress reduced and potentially eliminated. Many stresses will be minor and some exposure is natural for our ferrets, but eliminating anything that will cause a long term issue is recommended for optimal health. For blind ferrets, do not suddenly change something in the home and try to avoid moving any of its seeing eye ferrets to avoid stress. Provide adequate nutrition, supportive supplementation when and where needed such as an omega fatty acid blend, diet is a major preventative for stress as it will provide essential nutrients to help combat poor health and in turn, will help cut back on stress within the body when the animal becomes sick or undergoes a treatment. Diffusing an AnimalEO blend such as Calm-a-Mile NEAT is recommended as a preventative against stress, especially for ferrets who have gone through a traumatic event or will be soon (eg. going to the vet, or introducing a new animal.) There are also homeopathic remedies such as Bach Rescue Remedy or Homeopet which can be used orally to help against stress. Provide adequate enrichment, adequate out of cage time, lots of play and stimulating games to keep your ferret happy and healthy, free of stress.
SIGNS OF STRESS
Ferrets will show stress in their own way, Sometimes general health may deteriorate as a result of the immune system’s reduced ability to fight infection. They may show refusal to eat or groom, alterations in sleeping patterns, lack of interest in the environment or increase in reactivity, Inability to face challenges, even in a comfortable environment, changes in normal behaviour (eg. confident or boisterous ferrets may begin to hide or cower away), they may have gastrointestinal upset, diarrhoea, constipation or other digestive Issues, Aggression towards other ferrets or humans, and so on.
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