On The Couch - June/July 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 tackles the perplexing problem of the ferret with bad dreams.
You wouldn't believe the sort of reasons we are given when someone contacts us to take their ferret into rescue. We have all the usual reasons like allergies to ferrets, childrens' asthma, the smell, ferrets being 'untidy', temperament problems and so forth. A lot really just boil down to the fact that ferrets are ferrets and can't help behaving like one. However, the most bizarre reason we have ever been given was when Toby was handed over.
Toby, his owners told us, was given to bad dreams which upset him and made him spiteful!
To say I was sceptical is a masterly overstatement. However, I have learned over the years that no matter what people say, you ask no questions and make no comment. The important thing is that a ferret who is no longer wanted is taken in without making anyone feel guilty or irresponsible. I actually managed to keep a straight face and just accept what they told me.
Toby, they said, was usually an affectionate lad who loved a cuddle and a snooze on a lap. The problem was that he had recently started to bite. Just as he curled up on a lap and seemed to be settling down, he suddenly became vicious and sank his teeth into an arm or a leg with real fervour. Attempts to 'unlock' him usually only made him worse and provoked other bites in other places.
Toby was a nice looking poley hob in good condition but with the most terrible pong! He was entire and, quite frankly, stank like a stairway to a particularly bad downtown multi-storey car park. This, I felt sure, was the real reason for him being handed into rescue. No problem, I thought. Give him a couple of days to settle and then book him in for castration. After a few weeks the smell would go and his biting - presumably his testosterone was making him touchy - would also subside. He'd make a super pet for someone in just a few short weeks.
How wrong can you get? I suppose I was intrigued by the description of him having bad dreams, as well as wondering how on earth someone could arrive at such and ingenious excuse for giving up a very nice ferret. Anyway, I decided I'd play him and see if he'd settle on my lap and if any of his 'bad dreams' would materialise.
Playing with Toby required considerable stamina and the need for a gasmask. He was the bounciest, most boisterous hob I'd ever come across - and undoubtedly the smelliest. He left trails of evil miasmic clouds behind him wherever he went. A cartoonist would have shown it as a sinister fog in the shape of a hand gripping someone's throat, the smell was so tangible.
Before I actually passed out with the pong, Toby decided that a nap was in order. He climbed into my lap, smiled cheerfully out of his malodorous haze, and curled up as if to have a snooze. I gently stroked his neck as he relaxed and began to fall asleep. Then, suddenly, as if electrified, he went rigid and locked on to my hand, sinking his teeth in very very hard. He also began to scrabble at my wrist with claws that I wished I'd had the foresight to clip.
I tried to prise him off my hand. It was just as his owners had said, he let go but immediately locked on to my other hand. It was if he was in a frenzy. I was beginning to look a bit bloody, but then he let go and looked up at me, as if a bit dazed. I was rather hesitant to touch him but I needed to put him down to see to my bites. He was fine, no aggression whatsoever, in fact he seemed vaguely interested in my bites, as if to say: 'What happened here, then?'
Whatever had possessed him to bite had vapourised as suddenly as it had appeared. Had he had a bad dream? 'Oh Lord', I thought: 'How Freudian can you get?' I've never been the sort of psychologist to fit the rather inaccurate stereotype image of analysing people's dreams or asking about their relationships with their mothers but suddenly I was confronted with a ferret who genuinely seemed to have had a bad dream! What other reason could there be for falling asleep and then suddenly changing character? More important, what could anyone do?
I don't know anything about dreams but I do know a little about the physiology of sleep and what happens to the body chemistry during sleep, so I thought I'd look up some texts on the subject. Since (unsurprisingly) no one has come up with any publication on ferret sleep patterns, I had to start on information about what happened to people when they start to sleep. Actually, I was looking for something about 'clonic jerks', the sort of start or jolt you give sometimes just as you are falling asleep. It tends to wake you up and provoke arguments with your partner as to why you have suddenly just kicked them out of bed. I wondered if Toby was having a more violent form of this and maybe he was being frightened by it.
It was while I was skimming through the texts that I found myself reading a report of a form of epilepsy that tends to provoke seizures just as the body starts to sleep, triggered by changes in brain chemistry. It was a possibly diagnosis. However, it's a far cry to generalise from reading about human seizures to ferret seizures. But just because something hasn't been reported, it doesn't mean that it has never existed. Since few people used to take ferrets to vets, there are huge gaps in knowledge. In contrast, there's an enormous amount written about feline health. Cat and ferret health are not dissimilar and sometimes the wealth of research into feline health problems can be a very useful start for investigating ferret health problems. Sure enough, I found, cats do indeed occasionally get a form of epilepsy that manifests itself as seizures during, or at the onset of sleep.
The next port of call was the vet. Not that this is very conclusive in epilepsy, simply because the chances of the ferret (or any other animal for that matter) conveniently having a seizure for the vet's benefit are even less than winning the lottery.
Our vet is well used to me and our ferrets and puts up with me and my potty ideas with incredible tolerance. After a bit of a chat (not to mention reviving him from Toby's still pungent personal aura) our vet decided it would be worth trying some drugs to control epilepsy.
Over the next few weeks, we had a few more episodes when Toby would suddenly seem to be startled out of rest and into bite mode. We were desperate for the drugs to work because Toby was becoming frightened of getting on to my lap, presumably because he was associating it with unpleasant feelings during his fits. Then his problem subsided. Provided he had his daily medication, Toby no longer had sudden starts or biting fits and he lost he fearfulness of being cuddled. However, he still stank to high heaven! While he was being investigated for epilepsy, I had been afraid of booking him in for castration, not knowing what might happen when he was put under anaesthetic. After a few more trouble-free weeks, he went in for his op, with no problem whatsoever
Today, Toby lives with his new family. He is a single ferret but a much loved member of his family. He has only once had a reoccurrence of his 'bad dream' behaviour. His family were both prepared and understanding. A quick trip to the vet, and an arrangement for regular checks and 'fine tuning' of his medication has meant that he now leads a happy, healthy life.
In fact, you could say that both he and his family can sleep easy!