On The Couch - April/May 2003

DR JUNE McNICHOLAS, a senior psychologist and expert on animal behaviour, has opened her case notes exclusively for Ferrets First readers. This time, she reveals the strange case of the collapsing ferrets.

It's always lovely to have rescues you have rehomed come back to stay while their owners are on holiday. It's a chance to get to know the characters they have become, safe in their caring homes, rather than the often scared, dirty and dejected little animals they arrive as. So it was wonderful to hear that Flash and Pogo were coming back for a fortnight while their owners had a well-earned holiday in Turkey.

Flash and Pogo had been found tied in a bin bag and dumped in a ditch beside a lay-by. It was fortunate for them that a lorry driver noticed odd movements in the rubbish bag and took the trouble to investigate. They were in very poor shape. Thin, tick-infested, with infected feet. However, with treatment, food, warmth and, most importantly, TLC, they thrived and became cheeky, confident little characters. Off they went to a new life as house ferrets with every luxery. Having them back for a short stay was an event to be welcomed - or so I thought.

They arrived as if packed for a fortnight's holiday themselves. Food, blankets, hammocks, a huge selection of toys, an array of pet treats that would make any pet shop look impoverished, a day-bed and a separate night bed! Now, with the exception of Ivy Ferret (pronounced 'Furr-ay'), our own ferrets are not strictly house ferrets. They live outside in large pens and come into the house for daily rampages. For house ferrets coming to board with us, it means a different routine from their normal life. In fact, it's like being sent on an outward bound type holiday. In the large outdoor runs they have digging areas, suspended tubes and walkways, bales of straw. ladders and even paddling pools in hot weather.

Flash and Pogo loved the rough and tumble of the outdoor pens but were also very eager to come into the house. Once inside, they ransacked the joint! As both are large strong hobs, cupboard doors were no problem, easily being prised open and the contents sent flying. I was kept busy rescuing pots, pans, bottles of pop and anything else jettisoned in the wake of a rampaging ferret. This became a daily occurrence.

Then disaster struck. I had prised both ferrets out of a cupboard and was carrying them back to the outdoor pen when I felt both go completely floppy, as if lifeless. Putting them down on the ground, I was horrified to see that they were both almost unconscious. Quickly feeling for heartbeats and checking for breathing obstructions, I was about to start emergency resuscitation when they both unsteadily got to their feet. They seemed a bit dazed and uncoordinated but otherwise 'coming round' all right.

June - 3Kb

My first thoughts were that they had picked soemthing up while in the kitchen. I settled them down in a pen and rushed off to investigate. I'm usually very careful where I keep household cleaners, disinfectants and the like, but it obviously needed checking. I emptied all the cupboards as chaotically as any ferret, but there was nothing that I could find that could have caused a problem.

Then it struck me that their behaviour was not like having eaten something nasty, when you often get retching or vomiting or convulsions. It was more like they had inhaled something. I frantically started emptying all the cupboards again, this time sniffing at things to see if I could detect anything that might be giving off fumes. I even stuck my head in the cooker. Fortunately, no one else was around to witness this, although the dog gave me some very strange looks.

Back in the pen, Flash and Pogo were trotting around reasonably normally, although perhaps lacking a bit of their usual bounce. Could it be something in the pens? Poor Flash and Pogo were whipped up and uncermoniously dumped in an indoor holding pen. After blinking up at me a bit, they trundled off to bed while I dived into the pen and started sifting through the straw and shavings looking for the remains of slugs or snails which might have picked up slug pellets, or anything else that could be a possible problem. I must have looked like a demented ferret chucking sawdust and straw everywhere and digging about in the soil.

The dog was beginning to look at me very oddly indeed.

My search revealed nothing remotely suspicious. It seemed a mystery, and, more worryingly, unsolved. I was very concerned about bringing any ferrets into the house, yet nothing had happened before with our own ferrets. I decided I'd take the 'Big Boys', our two enormous hobs, in and watch what they got up to. They were a bit put out at such close scrutiny. After all, every time they rummaged around in anything, my nose was there alongside them. I swear they muttered: 'For God's sake, woman, gerr-off, will you'. The dog was starting to look worried.

Nothing untoward happened with the Big Boys, nor with any of the other groups that came in after them, and Flash and Pogo now seemed perfectly normal.

Next day, I watched them like a hawk. Yes, they were in and out of cupboards, but they weren't finding anything to eat and nothing was being knocked over for them to lap. Then, all of a sudden, Pogo keeled over on his side, eyes glazing a little. I thought my heart would stop, it was such a shock. I'd no sooner got to his side than Flash staggered into view, clearly on the brink of collapse. 'Oh God, what IS it?', I shouted - to no one in particular, except the dog. I placed both ferrets on my lap, checking hearts, breathing and everything else. What were they picking up that didn't affect my ferrets? Did they have a particular allegy? Anaphylactic shock? I started thinking of normally harmless foods that have been known to cause sudden problems, muttering the names of food chemicals as I did so. The dog backed away, nervously.

On my lap, Pogo stirred and tried to get up. I place him unsteadily on the floor. Flash was still out for the count. I raised his head slightly so that I could lift his lips to see his gum colour. As I did so, he gave an almighty belch - he almost blew himself off my lap. The unmistakable smell of alcohol filled the air. They were drunk! But how on earth could they get rat-**sed in a kitchen with no alcohol? There wasn't even any meths or anything under the sink. Out came all the cupboard contents again; and this time the cause was plain to see. The remains of last year's apple crop, wrapped in straw and laid in plywood boxes, had looked perfectly sound, but its bottom layer had started to deteriorate, leaking fermenting apple juice into the straw lining. Flash and Pogo had obviously discovered this and thoroughly enjoyed a good booze-up! I was so relieved that I burst out laughing. At this point, the poor dog had had quite enough and retreated to the far bedroom to await the return of more sane members of the family

Flash and Pogo were respectably sober when their owners came to collect them. I toyed with the idea of not telling them about the escapade but decided that I had better do so.

After all, who knows what might have happened to their duty free otherwise?

(From Ferrets First Issue no. 11 April/May 2003)

Articles from Ferrets First