Back to Basics - Happy Families

June 15k Dr June McNicholas, a psychologist and expert animal behaviourist, takes a look at how ferrets might interact with other family pets

One of the most common questions asked by potential ferret owners is ‘Will a ferret get on with the other pets in my family?’ There’s no definite ‘yes’ or ‘no’ type answer to such a question but there are sensible approaches to coping with a multiple species household.

Usually the question refers to how ferrets will interact with dogs and cats (or vice-versa) and what any potential problems might be, but when you consider the variety of pets kept by people nowadays, the question may just as often involve chinchillas, chipmunks, rabbits, rats, hamsters and other small furries, along with birds, snakes, horned dragons, goats, llamas and pot-bellied pigs!

It would be impossible to take every species of pet for a list of do’s and don’ts, but a sensible rule would be to make sure you know your pet’s natural behaviour and instincts. Is it a predator or a prey species? Is it a species that prefers to be mainly solitary or is it a social species? How does it play (if at all) and what does it do to indicate fear, aggression, or simply a wish to be left alone. Such clues are vital when mixing animals even of the same species, and especially more so between different species.

Some species, like dogs, have breed characteristics, and these can be very important when anticipating reactions to a creature such as a ferret. In general, dogs and ferrets can be compatible, indeed many people work dogs and ferrets together. However, you should take the time to read about the characteristics and behaviour of your dog’s breed type. For example, terriers are super little feisty dogs but often act first and think later – it’s what makes them such good ratters. Sadly there have been several cases where a sudden reflex reaction to snap has led to the end of a ferret. There was probably no aggression involved, maybe the ferret was just having a boisterous moment but it can trigger a dog’s reaction to lunge or snap. Sight hounds which chase their quarry can also just suddenly be triggered into hunt mode at the sight of a smaller, furry animal running ahead of them. Gundogs may just want to pick them up and carry them (a problem encountered by a vet friend whose Labrador was under the bizarre illusion that the pet ferret was an animated form of his ‘dummy’ used in his gundog trials!). This may not be exactly life threatening to the ferret but it can make them a bit indignant, resulting a sharp bite to the dog’s nose or mouth! And on the subject of ferrets causing any damage to a dog, I well remember talking to a lady in a vet’s surgery about successful ferret-dog relationships without noticing that she carried a tiny Chihuahua under her arm! It was about half the size of a rather aggressive hob I was taking for neutering, and rather smaller than an average sized rabbit. Possibly not a friendship made in heaven!

Striker, the lurcher and Fred Bear meet for the first time -12kb

Striker, the lurcher, and Fred Bear meet for the first time. Owners are just out of the shot.

Ride 'em Cowboy 15k My own view is that dogs and ferrets should be supervised at all times, no matter how sweet tempered and tolerant their natures. After all, how can any of us be sure that either of the animals are feeling well and happy and want to interact with each other? What if one animal is feeling ill or is in pain, or has been upset or angered by something else? What if the ferret suddenly does something unusual which triggers an equally unusual and perhaps aggressive reaction on the part of the dog? Here a sad case comes to mind where an elderly ferret had a seizure and the family dog simply responded by killing it, even though they had lived together and met daily for several years. The owner’s vet believes it was the oddness of the ferret’s behaviour that suddenly caused a fear or aggression response in the dog. Apparently he had had to deal with similar instances where cats had been injured by dogs they had co-existed peacefully with for years. It makes sense, therefore, to never trust to luck or fate and always be there to keep an eye on ferrets and dogs when together.

Cats and ferrets can be amusing to watch together. I often get the impression that they are definitely interested in each other and would like to play. The problem is that they play by different rules! Ferrets like to chase and wrestle and play-bite, a sort of close-contact sport, whereas cats may take part in short chases but like to pounce and pat things with their paws. Despite some similarities in the types of play behaviour, they just don’t seem to click! Usually it ends with the cat jumping to a position where it cannot be reached by the ferret so it can sit and watch. The ferret simply finds this a boring part of the game and wanders off to find something really worthwhile trashing. Both ferrets and cats are formidable predators in their right so maybe they observe a respectful state of armed neutrality most of the time. However, it should not be forgotten that cats can and do inflict quite serious bite wounds to ferrets on occasions. Some cats are perfectly willing and able to tackle prey as large as rabbits and as aggressive as rats and stoats. Small ferrets and kits would not present a problem to a such a hunter. Cat bites are also notorious for leading to secondary infections.

Most ferret rescues have had to deal with ferrets brought in with bites inflicted by cats, often resulting in head and neck wounds. Admittedly these are not usually caused by the family cat but it is a sharp reminder of potential injuries that could occur. Ferrets may not always be the victim, though. Ferrets are just as likely to see a small kitten in the same way they would view a rabbit - lunch.

Ferrets themselves are natural predators, inheriting from their wild polecat ancestors the instinct to regard small mammals and birds as potential prey, even if they have never seen a rabbit or a vole before. It’s exactly the same as with feline kittens. They may have been born and brought up in a house but it does not take them long to recognise mice and birds in the outside world as something they want to catch and kill, even when there is no mum to show them. Ferrets may not be as effective predators as their wild ancestors but the recognition and the inclination remains. This means that ferrets are not natural companions for small pet species or birds such poultry species. Even if a ferret shows no interest or even recognition most of the time, how can anyone be sure that ‘instinct’ may one day resurface? Equally, most small animals that are prey species will have the instinct to be fearful of ferrets and other potential predators, again even without ever having encountered one before. There are lots of tragic cases of ferrets attacking pet rabbits, guinea-pigs, hamsters and so on, as well as killing chickens, ducklings and pigeons. This does not automatically mean that anyone who keeps ferrets should not keep small mammals or birds, but is it fair to expect them to live in close contact? It would seem to be inviting a disaster and can we be sure there is no distress to the potential prey species? I know many people who do keep small furries and birds as well as their beloved ferrets but most, if not all, do not let them ever come into contact. Personally, I do not see the point in even letting them meet, let alone interact. Maybe some people like to try to demonstrate that they have mastery of animal instinct, I don’t know. If that’s a reason, it seems to have more to do with a personal agenda than with responsible ownership. I’m all in favour of the lion lying down with the lamb and so forth, but I would not presume to be the one powerful or knowledgeable enough to put it to the test! It was traumatic enough for me when Ivy Ferret (pronounced Fur-ray) found a straying stick insect and, forgetting her usual gentle nature, found it greatly to her taste!

When discussing whether species can live together, it’s also worth a brief mention that illness can be transmitted from one species to another so it is important to find out what health precautions should be taken. Ferrets can pick up fleas, worms and other parasites from dogs and cats whilst canine distemper can be fatal to ferrets. Preventative health care important at the best of times but probably even more so when multiple species are owned.

In summary, it is possible for a variety of species to be kept as pets in the same household, but it comes down to the owner’s responsibility to understand the basic behaviour and temperament of the species of animals with whom they choose to share their lives, and not to deliberately put those animals into situations where there could be risk of physical or psychological harm. With a bit of careful thought and some basic knowledge of animal behaviour, it’s not too difficult to have a happy family - amongst the pets at least!

(From Ferrets First Issue no. 26 - October 2005)

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