On The Couch - October/November 2003
DR JUNE McNICOLAS, a senior psychologist and expert on animal behaviour, has opened her case notes exclusively for Ferrets First readers. This time she examines the bizarre case of the ferret with his own F-plan diet.
When the call about a biting ferret came I was poised to immediately start asking the usual questions - how long had they had the ferret, could he be ill? etc. However, instead of: 'My ferret's biting me, what can I do?', I got: 'My ferret's biting everything in my wardrobe'.
I didn't quite know what to say. Actually, I didn't have to say anything just then, the caller continued: 'and he's biting everything in the drawers, the airing cupboard, and he'll have a go at my jumpers, my jacket, my husband's...' I felt I had to break in before we had an entire inventory of the house.
'What do you mean, biting? What does he do with it?', I asked.
'He EATS it', wailed the reply. It seemed the ferret spent most of his time 'hunting' for articles of fabric to chew up, making large sized holes in them and actually eating the pieces. Attempts to confine him to his cage had made him miserable - and he'd eaten a chunk of his bedding. Putting him on straw and shredded paper had turned him into a demented creature, pacing and weaving (no pun intended) at the door of his cage as if her desperate to get out to find something to chew. Once out of his cage, he would race around frantically looking for something to satisfy his obsession.
I really wasn't sure what I could do to help or advise but I agreed to visit and see for myself. I was introduced to a good looking silver-mitt hob called Buddy. He was about four years old and had been a working lad before being rehomed to his present pet home about three months before. Buddy was well handled, friendly and had been well cared for in both his previous and present homes. He had been vasectomised some time before but his new owners wanted him to spend time in the house and so had him castrated so that he was more socially acceptable.
Several jumpers were laid out for Buddy's inspection, each bearing several holes about the size of a 50p piece. Then came cushion covers, blankets, gloves (Buddy never destroyed one pair, just took one from each available pair so that the whole household was reduced to odd gloves), a towel, a scarf - the items just went on. We were surrounded by something looking very like a pile from a jumble sale.
Apparently, Buddy had never shown any behaviour like it in his previous home so the first place to look for clues was in the changes from his previous to his previous home. In his last home he'd been a working ferret, out on regular rabbiting trips, and having fresh rabbit as part of his diet, although his main complete food was unchanged. He had been cuddled and handled affectionately but not permitted much time in the family home. He had lived alone for most of the time, apart from when he was bringing jills out of season. When he moved home, he brought his large airy pen with an attached hutch with him, so there was no change there. The main changes were that he was not working, he'd been castrated and he was allowed in the house a lot - well up to the time he started eating it, that is. Could we extract anything out of that?
Then there were the types of things he was chewing. Buddy had a definite preference for woolly things. It wasn't exclusive, but it was a preference. Any clues in that? What about WHEN Buddy chose to chew? Could he deliberately be doing it as an attention seeking device? Perhaps - but perhaps not, it did seem more of an obsessive need than a conscious decision. One thing was clear, though, Buddy really enjoyed his chewing. During the time his owners and I were talking over his behaviour, he'd joined us in the jumble pile and was blissfully sucking and chewing away at one of the jumpers. His eyes closed in ecstasy and he dribbled with pleasure. He looked just like a suckling kit. It almost seemed a shame to deprive him but there were obvious worries about his odd habit, especially about what happened to the pieces he swallowed. His owner had already said that it seemed that whatever went in came out OK but what if something caused a blockage? Besides, no one can really put up with a ferret who is so destructive. As if to emphasise that, Buddy climbed on his owner's lap and started to chew the very jumper she was wearing!
So what was the solution? I suspected that maybe Buddy might want some fur and roughage in his diet but, quite honestly, I didn't know what the answer was. However, just like the AA, I knew a man who did - at least I hoped he did! On of my colleagues in the pet behaviour world has come across many odd behaviours and I hoped that he might shed some light, although I knew he'd had very little contact with ferrets. Several emails and phone calls later we started to form some ideaa'
We agreed that Buddy had some form of 'pica' - the medical name for the obsessive desire to eat something strange. It's what drives pregnant women to eat coal or crave kippers with custard. My colleague had come across similar cases in cats obsessed with eating particular fabrics. Wool was a special favourite, but some preferred cotton. Most significantly, the stress of rehoming often triggered the onset of the behaviour. Pica in cats can be attributable to cats who seem 'stuck' in kittenhood and lack various adult behaviours. This seemed unlikely in Buddy's case. After all, he'd been an adult working ferret and his efficiency with in-season jills certainly proclaimed adulthood! Another cause of pica in cats is thought to be when they are deprived of activities that mimic hunting behaviour. That was a possibility, as was a simple enjoyment of chewing and a need for 'something extra' in the diet.
Taking my colleague's advice, I advised Buddy's owner to change his diet to a larger sized kibble that meant he had to chew more and to introduce chunks of rabbit carcass (fur and all), chicken wings and similar into his diet. We also bought him an 'activity ball' for rabbits (supplied from Supreme) which we filled with Dentabits (chewy treats for cats, that clean teeth as well) for him to chase around to mimic hunting behaviour. This proved so successful that we bought several to fill with different sized and different textured treats and hid them around the house. Although we did not really think that attention-seeking was the motive for Buddy's behaviour, we decided that a fairly strict routine of playtimes was advisable so that Buddy's owner could monitor his behaviour and Buddy could spend his time seeking out the activity balls.
Over the next few weeks, the programme did bring about quite dramatic changes. Buddy no longer stalks the house looking for his 'fix' of fabric and he is more contented in himself. However, few cures for addiction are total and Buddy is not above swiping a carelessly discarded jumper if given a chance.
Maybe the real testing time is this winter - watch out for a family who are all wearing odd gloves! Then you'll know if Buddy really has overcome his obsession!