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Learn what to expect when mixing children and ferrets, and how to ensure harmony in your home. Follow these tips during both your children's and fuzzies' formative years.
by Erika Matulich, Ph.D.
Volume 3, Number 3
May/June 2000
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So you have a house full of ferrets and now you’re expecting a baby? Most parents-to-be who are already owned by ferrets are concerned about the possible interaction between their ferrets and the future human family member. And what will the future hold? Remember that ferrets live 6-10 years, so there is a long-term commitment to both your ferret family and the new one on the way. Let’s walk through the life of your child growing up and the interaction with ferrets in your family.
REDECORATING. Does the ferret room need to be turned into the baby’s room? Normally when a baby is expected, some amount of redecorating and rearranging will be necessary, especially to make sure the baby and the ferrets don’t have unsupervised access to each other. Try and finish these arrangements several months before the baby is due to arrive so the ferrets can get used to their new environment and territory. Ferrets dislike changes in their routine and space, so you don’t want them to associate the change with the baby’s arrival. Debra and Scott Thomason from Texas, new parents of baby Julianna, have had ferrets for years. They recarpeted the baby’s room-to-be and decreased the number of rooms the ferrets had access to long before the baby’s arrival. The Thomasons also got their ferrets used to a new routine of times outside of the cage. Debra says, "I feel guilty about their restricted runs, but most of the time the ferrets seem pretty happy."
TOXOPLASMOSIS. One important area of concern is toxoplasmosis. Toxoplasmosis is a disease which is sometimes spread through animal feces, especially that of cats. Toxoplasmosis is fairly rare in ferrets, but it has been reported, and has a higher probability if your ferret is exposed to cat feces. People are actually at more risk from Toxo from eating rare beef than from cleaning a litterbox, but take no chances. Dr. Bruce Williams, DVM, says that because of the devastating effects that Toxoplasma can have on a developing human fetus in the first trimester, you don't want to take ANY chance at all on exposing a pregnant woman. So someone else in the household inherits all ferret litterbox duties for the next nine months!
CRYING IN THE NIGHT. Your ferrets may react to the baby’s crying, so prepare them for this before the baby arrives. Debra Thomason noticed that her ferrets were distressed at the sound of the baby crying when she was brought home. Thomason says, "I wish I could have found a tape of a baby crying and making baby noises to expose the ferrets to before Julianna came home. You know how some ferrets react to loud, squeaky, or shrieking noises, and I wish I'd had a way to prepare them a little. I tried a lot of places, and though I'd see recommendations of using this sort of acclimation, no one could provide a source of such a tape!" If you can make this type of recording on your own, try and get your ferrets used to these noises before the baby arrives.
DON’T FORGET THE FERRETS. When the baby is due to arrive, don’t forget about your furry friends. Make sure they have plenty of food and water, and you try and stick to their play routine as much as you can. If this is not possible, ask a friend, neighbor or relative to look after your ferrets’ needs. You might want to line someone up in case a problem keeps you in the hospital longer than you expected. If your ferrets have medical needs, consider boarding them with a veterinarian until everything is settled.
Try and pay as much attention to your ferrets as you always have. Kimberly Burkard from New York has been a ferret owner for seven years and a mother for one. She advises: "Your lives and schedules will be changing. Your ferrets are all individuals and some may handle the anxiety of those life changes better than others. Be sensitive to the fact that their lives are being altered too. They may initially have some adjustment problems, but give them lots of cuddles and hugs and I'm sure they'll cope fine."
INTRODUCTIONS. Ferrets will react in a variety of ways when meeting the new baby. Amy Seyler says, "my ferrets pretty much took both children in stride (especially the second child)." When I asked Debra Thomason what her ferrets thought of the new baby, she told me, "For the most part, they give her a quick sniff and move on to the next interesting item!" Kimberly Burkard said, "Our son Robin is just over a year old. The ferrets all initially had different reactions - Squirt had mild interest, Pippi would come up on the bed to greet him all the time until Robin got to the flailing arms age, Atlas ignored him most of the time, Jinx ignored him, and Rosie tried to get him to play with her. They all are okay with him now and take varying degrees of interest in him or avoid him."
The key to interaction with ferrets and infants is constant supervision and restriction of motion. Don’t let your ferrets run loose around your infant -- they may want to play, which is often invited by a friendly nip! Ferrets have very tough skin, so what is a gentle grab to a ferret could be a painful bite to the sensitive skin of a baby. Thomason says "We occasionally hold the ferrets one at a time and let them sniff the baby over, just out of tooth range. Then we show the ferret to the baby and allow her to rub her hand on the back. She sometimes pets and sometimes grabs. With her small size and the shape of the presented ferret part, she can only get hair and a little skin, but can’t squeeze innards. The ferrets seem to ignore this hair pulling for the most part. I assume they don't feel it much given the toughness of their hides and the way they play with one another. We quickly detach baby hands if she's pulling on the fuzzies just to be sure she doesn't cause them any discomfort."
Another safety tip might be to keep your ferret in a harness around an infant. You may have better control over the ferret, and if baby grabs, he might just grab harness instead of hair! As your baby becomes more mobile, you will have to control your baby’s movements as well – make sure the child isn’t tumbling loose around the ferrets where flailing arms could hurt a ferret. Amy Seyler commented: "My son is still learning about how we treat animals. He's just a baby so of course he hits and pulls and grabs at the ferrets, but he loves watching them and will chase them around when he sees them. The key is monitoring the ferret/child interaction. To me that's the most critical part -- at first for the safety of the child; later on for the safety of the ferrets!"
Ferret safety becomes a more critical issue as your child develops. Toddlers lack the coordination and motor skills to control many of their actions, and they don’t know their own strength! Don’t ever assume your child is too small to harm a ferret. A toddler has a grip strong enough to strangle, suffocate, or break bones of a ferret (or other pet). Kimberly Burkard says, "I've been working with Robin to teach him how to be nice to animals - how to pet them and not bop them or grab their ears. It's a learning process that has to be carefully supervised." Again, constant supervision is the key, and not letting your toddler have uncontrolled access to the ferret. Even an accidental fall or "sit" by your toddler on a ferret could cause serious injury.
There are quite a few things you can teach your toddler during this stage. First, they should never pick up an animal by themselves, and they should always be sitting down quietly when handling an animal. It’s hard for a toddler to fall down into his own lap! Another good thing to teach to your toddler (and friends) is the concept of the "petting finger" which is also the pinkie. Instruct the child to make a fist and then extend only the petting finger. Use this finger to gently stroke the ferret. It is more difficult for a child to grab or hurt with this small finger and restricted movement of the rest of the hand.
TODDLER TOYS. One common problem with toddlers and ferrets is the constant competition over toys. Toddlers can be very possessive, and play "Mine!" with their toys. Ferrets, on the other hand, think that toys are meant to steal and stash. Neither party wants to share! I once had my friend visit with her 2-year-old son Jonathon, who spread his entire play farm set on the living room floor. My seven ferrets woke up and began to explore the farm, and Jonathon responded with delighted giggles. The giggling turned into horrified shrieks as the ferrets simultaneously grabbed all the farm animals and raced off with them. Thomason advises, "they love all the small things, but mine especially like to steal the little stuffed Winnie-the-Pooh characters with rattles and bells inside."
Another problem with a toddler may be that he perceives the ferret as being a toy and play the grabbing "Mine!" game. To help your toddler learn about ferrets, give him or her a stuffed ferret to play with. That way your child always has a ferret that is completely theirs, and the live ferrets are strictly yours to play with.
Thomason says her ferrets will have "brief supervised interactions with Julianna until she's four or older. The playtimes and interactions will get longer as she gets older, and maybe at four or beyond she'll be ready to handle the ferrets on her own, though still supervised and only when she is sitting (to prevent dropping or tripping over ferrets). I've had a friend's daughter handling the ferrets at about that age very successfully. We'll also start her "helping" with caring for them once she's that age... bringing us a scoop of food or litter or carrying waterbottles to and from the sink. We want her to learn to respect the animals and enjoy their company."
You should also teach your child to ask permission to touch any animal – yours or that cute wild one outside! This will keep your child safe from other potential hazards. Also, enforce the rule to leave the ferrets alone when they are eating, sleeping, or using the litterbox. A startled ferret could nip or scratch if interrupted! You will also have to spend time with your child’s friends to train them about ferret handling rules when they are in your home, and supervise all contact. A ferret who is hurt, even accidentally, can respond by biting or scratching (as can any animal). Unfortunately, in many cities and townships, any animal that bites or scratches a child, regardless of how it was provoked, is seized and destroyed. Avoid this possibility (or even the possibility of a lawsuit) by strictly supervising all ferret-child interactions and teaching all children the "rules."
At about the age of 8 or 9, your child may be ready for his or her "own" ferret. However, don’t expect your child to be completely responsible for their pet – it will still mean a lot of work on your part. However, this is part of being a parent, and shared pet responsibilities can be highly rewarding down the road. At this age, your child also possesses sufficient motor skills to handle ferrets without your constant supervision. It is very important that you allow your child to choose their own ferret. An 8-year-old’s ferret ideals (in terms of size, color, or gender) may be very different from yours. By making a personal selection, your child is more likely to bond with the ferret and assume more responsibilities.
However, don’t buy your child a ferret kit. Young ferrets (under the age of two) are really not appropriate pets for a child. Ferret kits are bouncy, rambunctious critters that must be litterbox trained, nip-trained, and socialized into proper behavior. Young ferrets can be difficult for an adult to take care of, let alone a child. Don’t set your child up for frustration or failure with the first ferret! Avoid the petstores with the cute kits and instead take your child to a nearby ferret shelter or reputable breeder who might have mature ferrets for sale. Ferrets over the age of two are more mellow, more forgiving, and get into less trouble. The shelter operator or breeder knows the personality of their ferrets and should be able to recommend some good matches for your child.
Teenagers lead busy lives with demands from school, work, and peers. They may have difficulty managing their free time, which may include caring for their ferret. Be prepared to enforce a caregiving regimen and don’t let the ferret suffer because of your teen’s shift in priorities. Responsibility and commitment to a pet are just as important (or more!) as time spent on schoolwork, on the job, or with friends. Many teens are excellent ferret caregivers, but now is not the time to bring brand new ferrets into the family, because your teen may be off to college shortly!
However much your teen loves the ferret, it’s not likely that the ferret can join the college crowd. A common reason for ferrets being turned over to shelters is that the owner is going off to college. Most dormitory and student apartments do not allow pets. Don’t let your son or daughter "smuggle" an illegal ferret off to school, either. This just puts the ferret in danger. Even if student housing does allow pets, the ferret may become the target of lowered care standards, practical jokes, or even abuse by other students. Assume that when your child leaves for college, you will return to being a ferret caregiver (think of it as preparation for being a grandparent!) If you will be unable to care for the ferret, work with your teen to select a good ferret shelter or adoptive home before the college departure.
Children and ferrets can be a challenge! However, if you are prepared to face the challenge forewarned and armed with preparation knowledge, there is no reason to give up your ferrets if you plan to have children. Amy Seyler says it best: "I must say, I had people who couldn't believe I was bringing children into a ferret household, and I couldn't be happier that I did. My daughter really loves the little ferrets and is learning to help take care of them. She loves to give them treats and play with them. I love watching her with them and am so glad we did it this way. I think in the long run you'll be glad you kept your ferrets -- and so will your child(ren)!"