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In this article, a ferret named Zodiac helps us humans understand why toys are so important in a ferret’s life.
by Erika Matulich, Ph.D.
Volume 5, Number 2
March/April, 2002
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Hi! My name is Zodiac. I am a ferret who lives with my Mom and Dad and a ton of other ferrets. My mother tells me all the time how beautiful, smart, fast and wonderful I am (when she is not scolding me for also being too smart and too fast). I am getting ready for my second birthday, although Mom says I will be in the “terrible twos” forever. I can’t wait for my birthday, because I deserve lots of presents in the form of TOYS! Toys, toys, toys, a ferret can never have too many toys!
Why Ferrets Need Toys
Ferrets are extremely intelligent animals with excellent problem solving skills. They enjoy being challenged with new situations and absolutely love to play. These personality characteristics make toys a necessity for ferrets to make sure they don’t get bored. A bored ferret is an unhappy, unhealthy, and often destructive ferret. If you don’t give a ferret something to do, they will discover their own source of amusement, such as eating their hammock or digging up a potted plant. Toys are a tremendous therapy for ferrets and will hopefully keep them out of trouble with the items in your household that you would rather NOT be a ferret toy.
In this article Zodiac and I will explore favorite ferret toys and toy management. Hopefully, both of us can offer insight into the reasons why ferrets enjoy their toys.
Instinctive Ferret Fun
I am a very busy ferret. From the nanosecond I wake up, I have many, many things to do. C’mon, Mom, let me outta this cage! I’m on a schedule! Okay, now I can get busy. Let’s go and PLAY!
Even though ferrets have been domesticated for thousands of years, much of their play drive is still driven by age-old instincts. For example, the hunting drive makes ferrets want to chase things that move – potential prey is now a ball instead of a mouse. Because wild ferret cousins dig burrows, a digging and tunneling instinct remains strong.
Toys in motion.
Hey, what was that? I have to catch it! Run, run, run, bounce and POUNCE! Oops, missed. Double back, quick, gotta get it! Almost made it that time, another back flip and – GOT IT! Wait, wait, it’s getting away again! Whew, I’ll just run faster this time! I just have to catch it! And then make it stop!
Toys that move are great fun for ferrets to chase. Some toys, like lightweight plastic balls, roll around when a ferret bumps the ball either accidentally or when checking it out with a good nose sniff. My ferrets play enthusiastically with these balls, batting them around, chasing the escaping ball, and pouncing on the “prey.” When the ball stops by getting wedged under a chair, the ferret may lose interest.  There are many toys that can be put into motion with human power. Ferret Fly Fishing is a favorite game with “fishing rods” with ferret toys tied to the end. Casting out and reeling a ferret in is tremendous fun for both you and the ferret. Even a simple stick with a string or elastic bungee cord attached can make a great ferret teaser. There are also wind-up toys that hop, crawl, wriggle, or spin. And finally, there are a number of balls that are battery powered and will roll about crazily to entice your furry friend. A favorite of mine is one that has a fake raccoon tail attached that flops around engagingly (or it did until Zodiac tore off the tail and hid it). My husband also bought a radio-controlled toy car and zooms it around while the ferrets chase it.
Noise Toys.
Hey! What’s that noise? Where is it? Gotta find it and silence it! Where? Where? Oh, THERE! Get it, get it, GOT IT! Ahhh, peace and quiet again. I’ve done my job and I’m ready for the next one.  Ooooh, looky! There’s Dad! Let’s see if I can get him to make some noise too – I’ll just run by and grab his ankle with my teeth in a friendly invitation – CHOMP! Ha ha ha! Look at Dad yelling and jumping around! That’s so funny I will jump around too!
When ferrets are awake and alert, sounds can really get their attention! Providing your ferret is not in a deep sleep (or deaf), the noise that a toy makes can be ferret bait. My ferrets think their toys have more pizzazz when they rattle, jingle, or crackle. Ferrets enjoy provoking reactions, so the fact that a Krinkle sack crunches when jumped on, or a ball rattles when rocked and rolled, is an attractive feature for a ferret. (This same reaction response desire entices Zodiac to nip my husband smartly on the ankle and wait for the jumping and yelling. John does not understand that if he displayed no reaction, Zodiac would find him boring and leave him alone as a toy).
Ferrets are quite responsive to squeaky toys. Some ferret researchers theorize that the pitch of the typical squeaker sounds like a ferret kit crying (who must be protected from the evil danger), or like a predator attacking another ferret (who must be saved). In any case, most ferrets rush to the sound of a squeaker and may attack either the toy or the person holding it. I save squeaky toys for emergencies when I have to gather up my fur-kids quickly or I can’t locate a ferret in a good hiding place. A squeaky carrot was successful in locating Stevie when he slipped outside to play in the yard.
Tooth Toys.
You know, it’s too bad I can’t talk, or I’d be running my mouth all the time! So instead, I’ll have to find another way to work out my jaws and keep them fit! I must be ready at all times for carrying heavy toys, eating food, and grabbing my buddies by the neck to drag them around. I just have to find something to chew on! If only I could find some rubber….
Ferrets of any age love to chew – and not just when they are teething. Chewing keeps the jaw muscles in good shape, and can help keep teeth clean. Ferrets may also like to chew for the same reason people like to chew gum: a release of endorphins makes us feel better. Ferrets are particularly fond of rubbery items to chew on, perhaps because of the sensation of giving and springing back (a resistance response). However, most rubbery items around the house are a big ferret no-no (pencil erasers, remote control buttons, ear plugs, telephone cords, and the rubber “feet” on many small electronic appliances). Chewing on and ingesting any of these items can cause intestinal blockages. Instead of these dangers, offer your ferret safe chew toys to distract them from seeking out and destroying your property.
The Kong Company makes a hard rubber chew toy especially designed for ferrets (the Kong Ferret Treasure). Joe Markham of the Kong Company says his products allow for ferret “jawrobics” – a workout that promotes a muscle tone, conditions the gums, and cleans the teeth. My ferrets love their Kong Treasure. The rubber is flexible enough to give them chewing pleasure, but it is too hard to bite off a piece and swallow it accidentally. (Some ferret owners have expressed concern with the small rubber nubbin end of the Kong – if this concerns you, cut it off with a very sharp knife).
There are also edible chew toys that are lots of fun for ferrets. Because ferrets should not eat rawhide, substitute an edible toy treat especially made for ferrets. My ferrets like Cheweasels, which is a star-shaped ferret treat made of rubbery protein. The hole in the Cheweasel lets me tie the treat onto a door with a piece of elastic, providing even more fun. A similar product is Marshall’s Super Chew Ferret Toy. A new favorite chew treat for my gang is the N-Bone Ferret Chew Treat. We call these “hissing sticks” because Morgan likes his so much that he hisses constantly while chewing to make sure no other ferret will come by and steal his toothsome toy! Some people take dried pig ears (a common dog treat) and boil them to soften them and cut them in chewing strips for their ferrets.
My ferrets also show great interest in chewing either leather or Velcro. To keep them away from gloves, purses, wallets, and Velcro closures, I have purchased unfinished leather scraps from craft stores and Velcro pieces from sewing stores and sewed them together. My ferrets love cleaning their teeth on the Velcro (I alternate the hook and the loop side for fun). For ferrets that like to chew and eat cloth, provide a safe substitute like a Ragg or cotton rope “bone.”
Tube ‘n Tunnel Toys.
Over there! A hole to go into! Any and all holes must be explored! The long holes are best – they go on and on and twist and turn and – POP! Goes the weasel! I’m out of the hole! Let’s try that again!
Ferrets love tunnels. Wild ferret cousins live in burrows and go hunting in other animals’ tunnels (such as rabbit warrens or prairie dog lairs). So our domestic ferrets instinctively want to go into any hole and down any tunnel. Ferrets are very adept at twisting and turning, and doubling back to try it again! Their long bodies and flexible spines are especially built for tunnel travels, so providing a tunnel toy is a great treat.
One fun kind of tunnel is flexible dryer hose. Be sure there are no exposed wires at the ends to injure your ferret. You can purchase ferret-safe hose from pet suppliers (Sheppard and Greene makes the Ferret Freeway, Marshall’s makes the Super Thru-Way, and Super Pet makes the Ferretrail Flex-E Fun-nels). You can connect segments together to make long tunnels with twists, turns, loops, and knots. Another alternative is sewer pipe from your local hardware store. I also have 8-foot long fleece tubes that combine to make a fun tunnel and a very long sleep sack!
Digging for Gold. My little dancing feet just can’t keep still! I run, I jump, I climb, but I must do even more with my feet! I must dig and dig and dig! I just love the new litterbox days where I can root through the fresh wood pellets and scratch and scrabble and fling them every which way! I can’t wait for visitors who bring over a potted plant for me to rescue – there is nothing more satisfying than freeing the plant and its roots from all that dirt! I have tried tunneling through the carpet, but it’s too hard. There must be something for me to dig!
Along with the instinct to run through tunnels comes the instinct to dig them, or to dig up prey (Sweet Pea digs and eats grubs out of my mother’s flowerbeds). Ferrets love to dig, but to keep them out of your potted plants and their own litter box, you’ll have to give them their own digging area. For safe, indoor fun, give your ferrets a digging box. This can be a large box with tall sides (to keep in the mess) filled with digging material, such as dirt, sand, pebbles, etc. My ferrets also enjoy digging in giant boxes of Styrofoam peanuts, but I have to supervise them closely to make sure they aren’t eating the foam. Another fun digging box is enclosed. Fill a large plastic tub (preferably clear) with dried rice, peas, or beans. Cut a round hole in the lid of the tub and attach a tube or dryer hose (this will keep the materials inside the box). Let your ferrets in for the fun! Always supervise these digging activities to make sure a ferret doesn’t eat the materials, poop in them, or somehow get stuck.
Ferrets also like to dig in dirt, leaves, and sand outdoors, but they should always be on a harness and leash and supervised. Ferrets can dig surprisingly quickly – as fast as a foot every two minutes. It doesn’t take long for your furry friend to disappear down a tunnel, so you must be ready to reel them in on their leash. After this exercise it’s usually bath time!
Treasure Toys and Territory. 
Why can’t everyone understand that these are MY teeny-weeny Beanie Babies! Nobody else should touch them! I had them all nicely placed just so in my special hidey hole under the filing drawer, and now somebody moved them! Well, I guess I’ll have to work all day long for the next hour to move all my treasures to a new hidey hole in that box on the closet shelf. These are MINE!
Ferrets can be very possessive about a favorite toy. These toys are their personal treasures and are carefully stashed away in a special hiding place. To keep the treasures safe, ferrets will periodically move their stash to a new place, and woe to any other ferret that disturbs the treasure!
Ferrets have unique personalities, and each ferret will choose their own favorite toy. Slinky took sole ownership of the first ferret Kong, so I bought some more. But he got all of those, too! Gizmo loved a shrink-wrapped sponge bigger than she was, and every morning she would transport it to the day hidey-hole, and every evening would carry it back to the night hidey-hole. Stevie hoards all the small plastic noisy balls, while Tito has a penchant for shoe liners and keeps them neatly stored under the bed. Compton and Socks both adored the same plastic hamburger, except Compton thought it belonged in a box beside my desk, and Socks thought it should be kept behind the dresser in the bedroom. That hamburger traveled for miles as each ferret would retrieve the toy from the wrong place and carry it to the proper location – back and forth for hours, days, and years.
Puzzle Toys.
I am a very smart ferret, but I just can’t figure out how to get the treat out of this toy! I can smell it, but I can’t get it! What should I do? I have already stolen the toy, but that didn’t help. I chewed on the toy, but nothing happened. Wow, look at Morgan! He figured it out and got the raisin – how did he do that? I had better watch this more closely!
Ferrets love to solve problems, and they are some of the best logisticians in the animal kingdom. The favorite toys in my household are the ones that keep my ferrets busy trying to figure out how to retrieve the treat. Jason Casto, the Marketing Manager for Super Pet, let my ferrets “test drive” a new line of treat-puzzlers that really entertain my critters. Mr. Casto pointed out that it is very important to have toys designed with the ferret’s needs in mind, and these toys not only provide a puzzle, they also provide a rewarding treat when the puzzle is solved. The Squeak-N-Treat toy is a washable, plush ferret that has a tummy pouch for treats and a squeaker to get their attention. The Tug-N-Tumble is a ferret-shaped plastic rolling toy with a treat holder in the middle that also carries a jingle bell. Various balls can be filled with treats and the ferret has to roll it around properly to let the treat fall out of the dispenser. The all-around favorite is the Bounce Back, a treat-filled ferret that bounces back to the ferret when pushed or pulled because of a weighted bottom. My ferrets play with their Bounce Backs all day long, and it really saves me time from getting up 25 times a day for each poor pitiful ferret begging for a treat! Thor has not yet figured out how to get treats from the Bounce Back, but he at least is smart enough to wait for Little Bear to work the toy and then steal the treats from Little Bear!
Toy Management
Now that we’ve talked about different types of toys, let’s now talk about how to manage your toy collection before the ferrets start their own form of management. First, we’ll discuss the importance of toy rotation. Then we’ll talk about toy maintenance, and finally about bad toys.
My first task of the day is to check everything out to see if everything I know is still the same. Yup, yup, same furniture, same floor plan, same … ooh wait! There’s a new something over there – what is it? Ah HA! It’s a box that simply must be checked out. What is it? How big? Dark enough? Hey! There’s another ferret in here! Get out! This is my box now! I think I’ll chew on this neato stuffed ferret while I’m in here. Keen! The stuffing is coming out! Now this is a great toy! And so is this keen pack of gum I stole out of that purse over there!
Toy Rotation.  Part of good toy management is toy rotation. Don’t put out all your toys at once, and for the toys that are out, move them around to provide new challenges. Ferrets are very good at “mapping” out their space, including the location of all toys. Once items are “mapped,” they become boring – and this process takes less than a week. To keep your ferrets challenged, try moving toys around to new locations so they can play hide and seek. On a weekly basis, “retire” part of the toy collection to storage, and replace them with toys that you were saving in storage. This weekly toy rotation will keep your ferrets busy and entertained because old toys will be suddenly new again. I try to keep out several toys per ferret each week.
Toy Maintenance.  Good toy management also includes constant vigilance to see how worn, dirty, or damaged a toy has become. I only use toys that are washable, so everything, whether plastic or cloth, can be easily cleaned. But both ferret play and washing can cause wear and tear on a toy, making them potentially unsafe. Look for worn seams where the stuffing can come out of a plush toy and be eaten. Look for cracks in plastic that could turn into sharp shards or small, ingestible pieces. Check to be sure that small parts (squeakers in particular) are not coming out of or off a toy. By regularly cleaning your toys as you rotate them, you can easily inspect them for damage. At the first signs of damage, throw the toy away (and don’t let your critters retrieve them back out of the trash like Zodiac does!).
Terrible Toys. There are lots of toys on the market that may be great for other pets, but are not good for ferrets. Soft rubber toys, rawhide, latex, or toys with small parts (eyes, tails, and feet) are all potentially dangerous for ferrets because of their love of chewing and swallowing everything. Choose toys that are ferret-specific and pass your own safety inspection. Also remember that bored ferrets may choose their own household items for playthings (dishrags, bars of soap, extension cords, dirty socks, kitchen utensils, rubber bands, etc.). Most household toys are potentially dangerous, so keep your ferret busy with a rotating stock of toys that you have pre-selected.
Ooooh! Mom has the toybox out! More toys! Better toys! New toys! What’s in the box? I can’t SEE! Oh boyoboyoboy! There’s a plastic lobster! That’s mine! I’ve got it! I’m running as fast as I can! Where should I take it? Over here? Over there? Around the corner? I think it belongs under the computer keyboard, so I’ll wedge it in really well and hope mom doesn’t notice I’m doing this while she is typing….
I hope that Zodiac and I have helped you be prepared for Toy Time! Get ready for lots of laughs and some very happy and healthy ferrets!