Ferret Friendly Facts and Advice by Erika Matulich, Ph.D.

 Back to Article Index

Ferret Hearing

Sweet Pea (hearing) & Bobbin (deaf)
These articles and images are copyrighted and may not be reprinted, re-used, reposted, copied, or otherwise distributed without permission from the author.

You should not rely on the veterinary advice or information provided on this site for diagnosis or treatment of any specific situation. Always consult your own veterinarian for specific advice concerning the medical condition or treatment of your own pet or animal.

I Swear, Mom, I Didn't Hear You Say No

© Erika Matulich, Ph.D.

Has it ever happened that you heard a sound and were not quite sure where it came from? This happens to humans a lot—but not to ferrets! If I even so much as rustle a cereal box, Little Bear comes running from anywhere in the house to get a treat of Kix. Rascal can somehow hear the sound of bananas dropping into the treat bowl (I've tried dropping similar-sounding foods, like cucumbers, and got no response). Zodiac races to the door to greet me when she hears the garage door open.

Superior ears
Ferrets have a highly developed sense of hearing. They are unusually skilled at knowing the direction and distance of a sound source, because the hearing receptors in their ears can "map" auditory space better than the receptors of other animals. Ferrets also have more "connections" between their ears and their brain, so there is a lot of auditory information being sent to the brain all the time. And because the information is of higher quality (in terms of source, direction, and distance), a ferret can more readily filter out what he doesn't need to pay attention to.

Wild ferrets (such as the American black-footed ferret, an endangered cousin of the domestic ferret) typically hunt in the dark and sleep underground in burrows. A keen sense of hearing (and smell) is necessary to find food, sense danger, and navigate rabbit or prairie dog tunnels. The auditory mapping ability, in particular, is necessary for getting around in a maze of tunnels.

Though baby ferrets can't hear until they are about 30 days old—when the ear canals open— the hearing system grows quickly after that, reaching full development by the time the ferret is about 6 weeks old.

Normal ferret hearing is tuned to a higher range of pitch than human hearing is. While humans hear sounds between 20 Hz and 17 kHz, ferrets can hear sounds between 36 Hz and 44 kHz. (By comparison, dogs can also hear sounds up to 44 kHz, and bats can hear only those sounds above 44 kHz.) Because of the higher hearing range, it's possible that ferrets may react less to the deeper voices of human males. So guys, you may have to call your ferrets in falsetto!

Squeak! Squeak! Squeak!
When a ferret mom is nursing her kits, her hearing range will temporarily increase to include higher-pitched sounds so that she can hear the squeaks of her babies. How a ferret's hearing changes as a result of aging has not been well documented, but older ferrets may rely more on what they hear as their eyesight worsens. My senior ferrets, Misty and Sasha, seem to hear quite well.

Ferrets react strongly to the sound of squeaky toys because squeaks are in the range that a ferret can hear best: 8 to 12 kHz. Many ferret owners (including me!) train their ferrets to "come" to the sound of a squeaky toy. In fact, my ferrets get very agitated and try to attack the squeaker and the person squeaking. Some people think that the reason ferrets react so strongly to squeaky toys is that the toy sounds like a kit in distress.

I use the squeaky toys only in emergencies—when I can't locate one of my crew—or when I have to gather everyone up quickly (like when we are late for our vet appointment!). I don't want to upset the ferrets (especially since several of them will attack my ankles or try to shinny up my leg to get at the squeaky), and I don't want to lose effectiveness over time. I always reward them when they come.

Listening is something else entirely
Of course, ferrets' highly developed sense of hearing seems also to be highly selective: Just because they can hear well doesn't mean they pay attention. Ferrets are curious critters who react to the most interesting thing in their environment, which may be a potted plant to dig up rather than the sound of your voice shouting "No!" A ferret may seem to come when you call his name, but that may be because you are more interesting than whatever he was doing at the time you called.

And sometimes no amount of sound can dissuade a ferret from an interesting task at hand, such as hiding your socks. Additionally, when ferrets are in deep sleep, sounds may not rouse them (or their brains may map the sound as unimportant). When Little Bear, Rascal, and Zodiac are in the "zone" (extremely comfortable sleep mode), no amount of noise bothers these guys. I can vacuum, run the garbage disposal, play loud music, and they just snooze away.

Ferrets (even adults) are like human children: They may have excellent hearing (though some ferrets are deaf), but they can be annoyingly deficient when it comes to listening.