Back to Article Index

With the necessary precautions, this holiday season can be enjoyable, memorable, and ferret friendly! A ferret named Zodiac helps us see the holidays from her ferrety perspective.
by Erika Matulich, Ph.D.
Volume 4, Number 6
November/December, 2001
These articles and images are copyrighted and may not be reprinted, re-used, reposted, copied, or otherwise distributed without permission from the author and publisher.

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.

“Hi, my name is Zodiac. I am a ferret who lives with my Mom and Dad and a ton of other ferrets, but none of them are as smart or as fast as I am! When I was just a few months old, everything in the house changed, and I heard Mom and Dad talking about ‘the holidays.’ It was a wild and crazy time! I’ll tell you all about it, and my mom will help explain.”
The holiday season poses many ferret challenges. Let's explore these issues in more detail. We’ll start off with home and hearth, and then move onto the greatest challenge of all – the tree!
Company’s Coming!
“Oh Wowee! Lots of extra people! Look at all the feet! Can I dodge all these feet? Look, the door is open! Oops, now it is shut again. Maybe if I wait by the door I can go outside to play! Hey! Don’t pick me up! I am a very busy ferret! Quit squeezing me! I’m going to nip you if you don’t put me down. Maybe I’ll poop on you instead!”
Extra guests invite opportunities for ferrets to escape outdoors, be stepped on, or be over-handled. Too many people and too much attention can stress out your ferret! Your ferrets may not appreciate visiting with strangers, or being handled by young children. In particular, children who have no pets in their own homes may treat your ferrets too roughly because they are not used to handling animals. Toddlers often do not have sufficiently developed motor skills to handle ferrets gently unless the child has been carefully taught not to grab and squeeze. Cranky ferrets can behave unexpectedly around guests, so protect your ferret family by keeping them quietly in their cage or room when company arrives. Keep the door to the ferret room locked and only allow supervised ferret visits. Never let ferrets loose during a people party. Non-ferret owners don’t habitually look down to see where they are stepping or sitting, or who is zipping past their ankles when the front door is opened.
Eat, Drink, and Be Merry!
 “Look at all these neat bowls and plates of yummy-smelling playthings! Maybe they are good to eat! I’ll try anything! That is my job as a ferret, to go forth and conquer all these things that are begging to be stolen, hidden, and possibly eaten!”
Don’t be tempted to treat your ferrets with inappropriate people food. Restrain your guests from feeding ferrets any hors d’oeuvres, chips, nuts, or other snacks. Nuts can cause life-threatening blockages, and salty snacks can disrupt a ferret’s electrolyte balance. Many of my ferrets don’t eat these treats, but politely accept them and run off to hide their treasure. A trail of ants once led me to a pile of hoarded cocktail shrimp behind a door!
Soft drinks are also attractive to ferrets, but the acids and sugars in sodas can cause rapid tooth decay. Many ferrets like the taste of alcohol (Sweet Pea begs incessantly for eggnog). Never let your ferret have access to beer, wine, or liquor. Even small amounts of alcohol can cause severe blood sugar regulation problems for a ferret. Remember to clean up thoroughly after a party before letting your ferrets out so they don’t find dropped food morsels.
Candy, Candy Everywhere
During the holidays we hang candy canes on the tree, exhibit decorator bowls of candy, or are given gifts of edible holiday treats. Don't be tempted to share holiday treats with ferrets – they don’t know the difference between holidays and celebrating life on an everyday basis. Not only does sugar cause dental problems, it can also contribute to insulinoma onset, according to Susan Brown, DVM. And half-eaten treats embedded in your carpet and furniture are no fun to clean up! One ferret owner noticed candy canes disappearing from her tree, and found out her ferret was climbing the tree, sliding down each branch and catching the candy cane on the way to the floor. The ferret had stashed the sticky half-eaten treasures under the couch.
Chock Full of Chocolate
Chocolate is addictive to ferrets, and the holidays present enhanced chocolate-stealing opportunities. Chocolate contains a caffeine-like substance called theobromine that dogs are particularly sensitive to. No definitive studies exist at this time to determine how toxic theobromine is to ferrets. However, never give chocolate to a ferret with heart disease or who suffers from seizures (and the same goes for any stimulants or depressants, or licorice). It seems that for many ferrets, eating small amounts of semi-sweet chocolate does not cause problems, but to be safe, avoid chocolate. There is some evidence that large amounts of chocolate (such as half a dozen Hershey’s kisses) can cause a fatal reaction in some ferrets.
Fired Up Ferrets
 “There is this nifty box in the wall that is usually full of grey powder that I like to roll in. The powder makes me sneeze and turns my white paws black. But now there are orange and yellow stripes dancing around and begging to be chased and caught! Ooops, someone put a glass barrier in front of this new playtoy. Hmmm, it’s a little warm around here…”
The holiday season usually brings on increased use of fireplaces. Unfortunately, ferrets find fires fascinating, and most feel compelled to investigate the action more thoroughly. Never assume your ferret will back away from heat. I have seen ferrets (my own Gizmo, for one) walk right over hot coals and into fireplace flames. The receptors in ferret skin take awhile to register pain -- enough time for your ferret to become burned before figuring out the fire was too hot! Make sure you have glass fireplace doors or a heavyweight screen that ferrets can’t climb or move. Ferrets also enjoy rolling around in ashes (especially Misty, who of course is a white ferret), and these can cause respiratory problems. Some ferrets have been reported to get stuck in dampers and flues.
Candles also pose hazards -- ferrets may try to bite or play with the flame. Other ferrets enjoy snacking on wax (scented candles are especially tasty). One ferret got particularly frustrated during Hanukkah when her family paid so much attention to the Menorah each night. By the seventh night of candle lighting, the ferret took a flying leap at the Menorah, knocking it over. The tablecloth caught on fire and hot wax splashed the carpet. Fortunately, the family was right there to handle the accident and the ferret was not hurt.
House Decorations
 “Oh boyohboyohboy! Extra-big socks! Socks are my favorite things to steal, and mom and dad just hung these great, big red and white ones around the hot box (I think the humans called it a fireplace). If I jump up really high, I’ll bet I can steal those big socks! But wait – now there are sparkly stars across the fireplace and sticks with dancing lights on them that smell good! I’ll just take a flying leap and see what I can play with! Or maybe even eat! I just ate something called a “Christmas Cactus” and mom wasn’t too happy, so I’ll just dig it up instead next time!”
The Stockings were Hung by the Chimney with Care…
Hang your stockings a little higher, or your ferrets may be tempted to practice the high jump. Eventually you may end up with stockings pulled down, or holes in the toes. Alternatively, hang your stockings low enough for the ferrets to climb in easily and take a nap, but don’t expect to fill the stocking with other items!
Holiday Lighting
Ferrets are fascinated by electrical mini-lights and may chew on light cords, which poses the possibility of electrical shock or fire. Try spraying cords with bitter apple or hot pepper spray. A ground fault plug may be a helpful addition. My ferrets seem especially attracted to flashing lights, and attack and bite the bulbs! Socks industriously crunched up a number of flashing bulbs before we caught him -- no flashers in our house anymore! Supervise your ferrets when any sort of lights are turned on, or hang lights out of ferret reach.
Some holiday lights have special decorative covers, which the ferrets may steal and chew on. For example, my family decorated with Southwestern red and green chili-pepper lights. Within hours, most of the plastic chili-pepper covers on the lower levels had been removed by a pair of industrious ferrets (Sasha and Stevie). Some of these decorator covers could cause serious blockages if ingested. Fortunately, all my peppers were found in a favorite hidey-hole under the guest bed.
Candles can also pose hazards. As with fireplaces, ferrets are attracted to the flame, and may try to bite the flame or play with it. Other ferrets enjoy snacking on wax, and scented candles may be especially attractive. One family’s ferret got particularly frustrated during Hanukkah when her family devoted their attention to the Menorah each night. By the seventh night of candle lighting, the ferret took a flying leap at the Menorah, knocking it over. The tablecloth caught on fire and hot wax splashed the carpet. Fortunately, the family was right there to handle the accident and the ferret was not hurt. Keep candles well out of your ferret’s reach.
Holiday Plants
Holiday plants can pose serious dangers. Poinsettias, in particular, are toxic to ferrets (and children as well). Holly berries are also poisonous, as are eucalyptus leaves and mistletoe berries. Avoid having these plants in your house. For those other holiday plants and floral arrangements that do arrive at your home, keep them away from your ferrets, or the ferrets may have a holiday treat of digging them up.
Oh Christmas Tree, Oh Christmas Tree…
 “My mom and dad must really love me and know I am the best ferret in the world. They just brought home the biggest playtoy ever – a towering tree thing that goes up to the sky and is covered with twinkly toys that must all be mine too. It will take me at least a week to get everything placed just right….”
One of the biggest holiday challenges for ferret owners is the Christmas tree. Consider putting your tree up in a room that is not accessible to ferrets. If this isn’t possible, put your tree on a table that ferrets can’t climb. Some ferret owners do without trees altogether, and a few even suspend trees from the ceiling! However, for you ferret folk who have a traditional floor tree, let’s look at a variety of safety precautions.
Live Trees
If you have a live tree, don’t let ferrets drink the tree's water! Tree preservative water additives can be fatal if ingested. Even “just plain water” becomes a breeding ground for germs that make ferrets sick. Additionally, the tannic acid that leaches from the tree into the water can cause anemia and heart problems in ferrets. Ferret-proof your tree stand with wire screening, which keeps ferrets out but lets you have access for watering. Ferrets may also get pine pitch or sap stuck in their fur. Remove this sticky mess with a light vegetable oil or linatone/ferretone. Note that as a live tree dries out, needles become brittle and can cause injury to a ferret nose, eyes, paws or skin as the sharp needle ends pierce rather than flex. Vacuum often! Don’t have a flocked tree; the flocking produces gases that ferrets’ lungs are particularly sensitive to. Additionally, ferrets may eat the flocking, which is toxic. If you have a potted tree, screen over the dirt to prevent your ferret from digging up your holiday plant!
Falling Ferrets
Some ferrets may climb up Christmas trees, so make sure the tree will not tip if there is a ferret hanging from a top branch. Ferrets who fall are likely to get hurt because they don’t have the ability to right themselves during a fall like a cat. Weighting the tree stand with paving stones or cinder blocks may help stabilize the trees. Putting a squirrel guard partway up the trunk may prevent climbing past safe levels.
Decorations on the Tree
One memorable holiday x-ray was of my ferret Bobbin, who suddenly had lost her appetite. Her radiograph showed a sparkly load of tinsel running through her stomach and intestines. Fortunately, a large dose of Laxatone took care of this problem. Avoid tinsel and tinsel garland.
A few ferrets ignore trees and their ornaments, but usually holidays are a humorous nightmare as the ferrets turn themselves into living tree decorations or play with every ornament hung within ferret reach. Be sure that ornaments hung on the lower levels are not edible, breakable, or chewable. One year I tried satin-covered Styrofoam, thinking these were a safe alternative, but the ferrets shredded off the satin and ate the Styrofoam! Now only plastic and metal ornaments hang from lower branches. Avoid wire ornament hooks to prevent eye and mouth injuries; use soft yarn for hanging instead. Finally, some ferret owners simply hang ornaments from chandeliers or elevated strings, and keep the ornaments completely out of ferret reach.
Decorations Under the Tree
Most ferrets love to tunnel under tree skirts; some owners have tried heavier fabric, safety pins or velcro to keep the skirt in place with some success. Small holiday decorations under the tree may appear to be treasures ripe for stealing to your ferrets. Thor religiously steals all barnyard animal figurines out of any nativity scene. Another ferret, Rachel, ends up with a sleep sack full of dreidels after Hanukkah celebrations. A bunch of bouncing ferrets can wreak havoc on train sets and miniature holiday villages. Moving parts, in particular, must be hunted down, so don’t expect to see animated skaters, sledders, or train cars to last for long around your ferrets.
Ferrets like presents too, but they can't read labels and think all gifts are for them! They remove ribbons and bows, spill confetti, shred wrapping paper, and steal smaller boxes to stash away. We once had a “mystery” gift exchange because Stevie had removed the nametags from every present. Consider putting gifts on a ferret-proof table instead of on the floor or under the tree. Additionally, ferrets may eat wrapping paper and gift decorations, which can cause life-threatening blockages if swallowed. Balloons are especially dangerous.
Unwrapped gifts can pose hazards as well. Piles of wrapping paper make great ferret hiding places. Don’t step on (or throw away) any paper unless you are sure there are no ferrets under it. Gift packaging materials like plastic or Styrofoam may also seem like a tasty ferret snack. Foam peanuts are highly sought-after treats for many ferrets, but should not be eaten. Desiccant packages are another potential problem. These are small packets of pellets or crystals that come with gift items to reduce humidity. Desiccants should not be consumed by ferrets! Finally, don’t throw away any trash without first knowing where all your ferrets are. You may accidentally throw out a gift box that has a ferret curled up in it!
Have a Tree-mendously Wonderful Holiday!
 “Grandma came and helped all the humans take away all my toys – the tree, the papers, the toys, the stockings – everything! I am always a very good ferret (well, except for knocking the tree over just one time), so I don’t know why it all had to go away. But the other, older ferrets tell me that it will happen all over again soon, right after my first birthday! I can’t wait!”
I hope these holiday and tree tips will help you and your ferrets have a safe and happy holiday! The holidays can be an enjoyable time. By taking some precautions, changing a few traditions, and using common sense, you and your ferrets can have a safe and happy holiday season. And be prepared for lots of laughs when your ferrets help you decorate your home!