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The holidays bring special ferret dangers and ferret-proofing challenges. Let's explore some of these issues in more detail.
by Erika Matulich, Ph.D.
Volume 1, Number 6
November/December 1998
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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.

The holidays usually bring more people traffic into your home, inviting more opportunities for your ferrets to escape outdoors, be stepped on, or be handled too much. Too many people and too much attention can cause stress for 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 may behave unexpectedly around your guests and give the wrong impression about what ferrets are like. Protect your ferret family by keeping them quietly in their cage or room when company arrives. Keep the door to the ferret room closed (or even locked). Do not allow anyone to visit with or handle your ferret without your supervision. Under no circumstances should a ferret be let loose during a party. Non-ferret owners do not habitually look down to see where they are stepping or sitting, or who is running past their ankles when a door is opened. Your guests may also try to feed your ferret party foods, which can be harmful, as explained further in the next section.
Food and Drink
During the holiday season, people usually have extra food and drink around for parties or guests. Food is also brought to the house as gifts. 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 in particular can cause life-threatening blockages, and salty snacks can disrupt the electrolyte balance in your ferret’s system. Some ferret owners have reported turkey bones stuck in throats as well. Furthermore, many ferrets politely accept treats, and then run off to hide their treasure, which may or may not be eaten. Spoiled food can attract insects and germs long before your nose leads you to the hidden item. Remember to clean up thoroughly after a party before letting your ferrets out so they don’t find dropped food morsels.
Also be sure to clean up all beverage containers. Many ferrets like the taste of alcohol, and will drink leftovers. Never let your ferret have access to beer, wine, or liquor, and never allow your guests to offer these items to your ferrets. Even small amounts of alcohol can cause severe blood sugar regulation problems for a ferret. Soft drinks are also attractive to ferrets, but the acids and sugars in sodas can cause rapid tooth decay.
During the holidays we may have more candies around the house, hang candy canes on the tree, exhibit decorator bowls of candy, or be given gifts of edible holiday treats. Your ferret may be just as attracted to the taste of chocolate, mint, or sugar as you are, but this is a problem. Too much sugar can cause serious dental problems and contributes to insulinoma onset, according to Dr. 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 that her ferret was climbing the tree, sliding down each branch and catching the candy cane on the way to the floor. The ferret had partially eaten several candy canes through the wrappers, and stashed the sticky treasures under the couch. Don't be tempted to share your extra holiday treats with your ferrets. Their culture does not know the difference between holidays and celebrating life on an everyday basis, so keep extra treats away from your ferrets! They won't know the difference.
Bruce S. Levine, DVM and Dr. Fred Soifer, DVM cannot recommend chocolate as a safe treat. 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. Anecdotal evidence reports some ferrets consuming large quantities of chocolate (like a few dozen Hershey kisses) with no apparent ill effect, and other ferrets dying from apparent chocolate toxicity. The ferrets who died may have had underlying heart disease or other medical problems, including intolerance. Never give chocolate to a ferret with heart disease (and the same goes for any stimulants or depressants, or licorice). Additionally, theobromine might make problems worse for ferrets who already suffer seizures. Note that the theobromine should not cause convulsions, but could make existing problems worse.
Baking chocolate has the highest concentration of theobromine and is the most likely to cause a toxic reaction. Semi-sweet chocolate has less theobromine, and milk chocolate has the least. Unfortunately, as the amount of theobromine decreases, the amount of sugars and polyunsaturated fat increases, contributing to indigestion and future medical problems. It seems that for many ferrets, eating small amounts of semi-sweet chocolate does not cause problems. However, chocolate is addictive to ferrets, and the holidays present enhanced chocolate stealing opportunities, so keep an eye on your ferrets and your chocolate.
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 the heat of a fire. I have seen ferrets walk right over hot coals and into flames. The burn receptors in ferret skin takes awhile to register pain -- enough time for your ferret to become severely burned before figuring out the fire was too hot! Make sure you have glass doors in front of your fireplace, or a heavyweight fireplace screen that ferrets cannot climb or move. The mesh metal fireplace curtains are not adequate protection for your ferret. Ferrets can easily open these curtains and will get burned in the process. Keep your fire and your ferrets supervised! Be especially cautious when starting or tending a fire. While you are concentrating on your task, your ferret may take the opportunity to slip past you and help you out.
Even when there is no fire burning, fireplaces can pose hazards to your ferret. Ferrets enjoy rolling around in the ashes, and these can cause respiratory problems when inhaled. Ferrets can also get lodged in vent passages for some fireplace screens, or caught on the hardware for screen attachments. Some ferrets have been reported to get stuck in dampers and flues.
Holiday Lighting
Many of us decorate our homes for the holiday with lights. Ferrets are fascinated by electrical mini-lights. Ferrets may try to chew on light cords, which poses the possibility of electrical shock, or even an electrical fire. Try spraying cords with bitter apple or hot pepper spray to deter chewing. A ground fault plug may be a helpful addition. Ferrets seem especially attracted to flashing lights. Some ferrets will attack and bite flashing lights, causing glass embedding problems in their mouths. For these ferrets, flashing lights should be avoided. Supervise your ferrets when any sort of lights are turned on, or do not hang lights on the lowest levels within ferret reach.
Some holiday lights have special decorative covers, which the ferrets may steal and chew on. My family once had a tree decorated in Southwestern style, with red and green chili pepper lights. These lights were really plastic covers over standard mini-lights. Within hours, most of the plastic chili pepper covers on the lower branches had been removed by a pair of industrious ferrets and hidden away. Some of these decorator covers could cause serious blockages if ingested.
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 the 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. Keep candles well out of your ferret’s reach.
Christmas Trees
Christmas trees pose a multitude of hazards for ferrets. Consider putting your tree up in a room that is not accessible to ferrets. If this is not possible, put your tree up on a table that your ferrets cannot climb onto. Some ferret owners do without trees altogether, a few suspend trees from the ceiling, and others have traditional floor trees but follow a variety of safety precautions.
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 does. Weighting down 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. 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.
Do not have a flocked tree. Tree flocking produces minute gases that ferrets’ lungs are particularly sensitive to. Additionally, ferrets may eat the flocking, which is toxic, according to Dr. Bruce Williams, DVM. Tinsel is another no-no. One memorable holiday x-ray was of my ferret Bobbin, who had lost her appetite. Her radiograph showed that her system was loaded with tinsel. Fortunately, a large dose of Laxatone took care of this problem. Interestingly, we had hung no tinsel in the house; apparently Bobbin unpacked some from a box all by herself. Garland could also cause these problems, and should be avoided.
If you have a live tree, there are additional dangers. Do not let ferrets drink the tree's water! Tree preservative water additives (even aspirin) can be fatal if ingested. Even if you do not add preservatives, standing tree water can become a breeding ground for germs that can make your ferret sick. Additionally, the tannic acid that leaches from the tree into the water can cause anemia and heart problems in ferrets. You can 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. If your live tree is potted, also use wire screen to keep ferrets from digging the tree up.
Some ferrets are afraid of trees and will not bother ornaments. Others ignore them. Usually, the 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 unbreakable, or at least you do not mind them falling down, getting chewed on, or stolen. Do not hang edibles from the tree; they will be stolen. Do not hang breakable or chewable ornaments on lower branches where ferrets can pull them off. I have had ferrets pull or shake down glass ornaments, hide them, break them, and run through the shards! When I replaced the glass ornaments with satin-covered Styrofoam, the ferrets shredded off the satin and ate the Styrofoam! Now only plastic and metal ornaments hang from lower branches. Additionally, avoid wire hooks to hang ornaments. Ferrets have received eye and mouth injuries from these hooks, as well as the wire loop and cap covers on the tops of ornaments. 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.
Other Decorations
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.
Small holiday decorations may appear to be treasures ripe for stealing to your ferrets. I know of a ferret, Thor, who 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.
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!
Ferrets like presents too, but they can't read the labels and think all gifts are for them. They may run off with ribbon, remove bows, shred wrapping paper, or steal smaller boxes to stash away. One couple once had a "mystery" gift exchange because their ferret had removed all the nametags from each present. Consider putting gifts on a ferret-proof table instead of on the floor or under the tree. Additionally, ferrets may eat wrapping paper. Other items that may be eaten include gift decorations such as ribbons, bows, balloons, or confetti. These can all cause life-threatening blockages if swallowed.
Unwrapped gifts can pose hazards as well. Piles of wrapping paper make great ferret hiding places. Don’t step on 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, do not 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!
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.