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

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Walking Your Ferret

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Take a Walk on the Wild Side

© Erika Matulich, Ph.D.

Want to get some attention from the neighbors? Put your ferret on a leash and take him for a walk! (Well, in truth, he'll probably take you for a walk.) Though the typical ferret isn't a natural at walking on a leash, most can be trained and will enjoy getting to explore outdoors.

Some ferrets are scared of being constrained, or of being in the great outdoors, and will freeze up. Others will fight the leash. A few ferrets (like my Critter) heel for their owners, but most explore on their own terms with the leash acting as a safety device.

Before you set out, check local animal control ordinances. Some areas prohibit ferrets from being outside a home, and others require proof of rabies vaccination attached to the leash or harness.

Harness that energy
Never walk your ferret in just a collar with an attached lead—the ferret will choke or slip out of the collar. You must use a harness, which provides support around the neck and rib cage.

Leash training, then, begins with harness training (no leash attached). Make sure you get the right harness, and start by placing it on the ferret for a few minutes and then rewarding the ferret with a treat. At first, your ferret may fight the harness, pretend to collapse, or try to escape. Gradually increase the time the ferret spends in the harness, and always reward her for wearing it. After a few weeks, your ferret will probably get used to her harness. Never leave the harness on your ferret when she is unsupervised or in her cage.

Start leash work indoors, and let the ferret drag the leash around without you attached to it. Always supervise, because the leash will get tangled quickly! After rewarding your ferret for each loose-leash session, hold the leash and follow the ferret around, giving him his choice of direction. This time, add gentle restraint by tugging the leash a little bit to teach your ferret about resistance. After several of these training sessions, try adding some directional guidance with the leash. Never jerk on a leash or pick your ferret up by the leash, except in an emergency.

Weasel workout
Start outdoor training close to home, a few feet from your door. Let the ferret find his way back to the door. Try walking farther out, but keep coming back to the door and rewarding your ferret. Should your ferret ever get loose, hopefully he'll know how to get home!

You can then venture into things ferrets find fun: a pile of leaves, freshly cut grass, or some dirt to dig in. Let your ferret take the lead in exploring. Don't try to direct the ferret down a straight line or a sidewalk—this inherently goes against the exploratory nature of the ferret. Use the leash to restrict the ferret from getting into dangerous areas (Gizmo once ran up a drainpipe!).

Ferrets need conditioning for exercise, just as humans do. The first walks should be only a few minutes, and then you can gradually build up. Most ferrets in peak condition can't handle a walk longer than 15 or 20 minutes. Bring along water for your ferret and offer it frequently, because ferrets can easily get dehydrated.

Ferrets don't tolerate heat well and should not be walked in temperatures above 80 degrees Fahrenheit, and they can't sweat, so walks in hot and humid conditions should be very short. Some ferrets enjoy walking and playing in snow, but many are uncomfortable in temperatures below 40 degrees. In hot and cold weather, walk your ferrets on dirt or grass, avoiding pavement.

Safe strolling
Make triple sure the harness is securely adjusted (snug but not binding) and the leash is well fastened. Check the fit of your ferret's harness every time you take a walk. Note that as your ferret grows or has seasonal weight fluctuations, a different size harness may be needed. Attach a bell and ID tag to the harness. And watch where you step—ferrets may dart around your feet or crisscross in front of you as you walk!

Immediately pick up your ferret if a dog approaches. Avoid having other people pick up and pet your ferret; if your ferret is tired, she may be cranky and could nip a stranger. Make sure your ferret's canine distemper and rabies shots are current, because he could be exposed to these diseases while out on a walk.

After you walk your ferret, offer water, treats, and food. Check her feet for broken toenails, splinters, pebbles, or sore spots. Check her skin for fleas or ticks. Remember to take the harness and leash off and wash these accessories (if needed). Then put them away so your ferret doesn't hide them!

The right gear

The harness should be made of a strong, flat material such as nylon webbing or leather. H-type harnesses seem to work better than "figure eight" harnesses. With figure eights, one loop may be too loose while the other painfully squeezes or even injures your ferret.

Plastic quick-snap clasps are best for outdoor use; metal buckles are difficult to adjust (especially on a squirming ferret) and can get hot in the sun. Harnesses with Velcro tabs are great for indoor training or use, because they're easy to put on. But a strong ferret can escape from a Velcro harness, and Velcro can lose its clasping power over time, so these are not recommended for outdoor walks.

Flat nylon-web leashes are good for ferrets, and there are various "reel-in" leashes made for cats or small dogs that are also suitable. Chain or leather leashes are often too heavy for ferrets, and cotton leashes may deteriorate or break.