On The Couch - Saving Polecat Ryan!

June 10k Dr June McNicholas, a senior psychologist and expert on animal behaviour, reopens her casebook to tell us the story of the polecat hob addicted to junk food.

Don't ask me why he was called Ryan. The way people name their pets has always fascinated me.

Ryan's owner went in for rhyming pairs. There was Ryan and Brian, Vicky and Ricky, Beano and Deano and a host of other couplets to make a poet weep (for various reasons, I suspect!)

My first encounter with Ryan was (with Brian) in a carrying box on a rather malodorous trip to the vet. They were rescues going to be neutered and, hopefully, found loving permanent homes.

Brian was a lovely, cuddly, albino. Ryan was a large cheeky polecat with a grin to melt your heart. Despite them being named as a pair, Ryan did not want to have anything to do with other ferrets whatsoever. We hoped that castration would solve this, but, to cut a long story short, Ryan never took to other ferrets. He remained on his own, preferring human company. It seemed he would need a home where he was to be an only ferret, probably living in the house.

Then a possible home did arise. A keen teenage lad had eventually persuaded his family to allow him to have a ferret - just one. It was to be a house ferret and his responsibility. Since he was 17 or 18 this seemed reasonable and, after Ryan's owner had done the various checks, off he went to his new life.

For several months all was well. Then came the news that Ryan's new owner was going to college and that Ryan was going with him. All was relatively quiet until a call came Ryan was acting strangely. He was becoming nippy and unsociable. The rescue advised on various solutions, assuming that Ryan's behaviour was associated with the move - new rooms, new cage etc. The suggestions didn't work. Finally, Ryan's young owner asked to return him. He had badly bitten a flatmate.

Ryan was returned to his rescue. The changes in his character were dramatic. He was no longer the cheeky grinning polecat who couldn't wait to play with you. He was a tense agitated animal who couldn't wait to be let out of his cage. His coat was dull and staring; his eyes were wide and anxious. He paced interminably in front of the cage door. He did not want to eat any of his usual ferret food and he did not want to play with people. He was like a coiled spring and not at all happy.

The people at the rescue did their best to calm him but he did not want to be handled, he did not want ferret treats. They persevered but one day, when a young visitor was sipping a glass of coke, Ryan leapt at her and bit her very hard. Poor Ryan was more than half way to a trip to the vet with no return ticket unless a solution could be found for his change in behaviour.

I was baffled. It looked as if Ryan was so desperate for something that his feelings over-rode his usual sociability, but what? I wondered about drugs. Had he been given something that he now craved? It was beyond my experience with ferrets but I realised how crucial it was to try to discover what had brought abut this complete character change. I called in a colleague who works as a professional animal behaviour consultant. Although she had little experience with ferrets, I hoped she would be able to detect some similarities to cases she had dealt with in other animals.

Together we sat and watched agitated pre-occupied Ryan pace around the room. Then he noticed her open handbag and, with almost manic behaviour, threw himself at it and seized a small bar of chocolate from inside. At first we thought this amusing - until we tried to take it away from him. He went completely crazy, hissing, squealing and trying to bite us. It was as if his life depended on having that bar of chocolate.

It was really quite frightening and very disturbing. I hadn't seen anything like it apart from the competitive feeding behaviour you get with previously starved ferrets when they first come across a bowl of food. Yet Ryan hadn't been starved. However, my colleague had seen similar behaviour in dogs. Hyperactivity, disinterested in usual food, almost anxious, desperate, behaviour to get into bins, food cupboards or anywhere where they could get sweets, biscuits, chocolate or fizzy drinks. As soon as she said that I could see the similarities between Ryan's behaviour and that of children with hyperactivity problems related to eating patterns.

Ryan was a junk food addict! It turned out that his young owner had done what many students do in early days - eat whatever was easiest and closest to hand. Sadly, this had extended to Ryan's diet too. He had existed on whatever burgers, takeaways, pop, and sweets that his owner was eating. It had reached the stage where Ryan was hooked on E-numbers and additives totally unsuitable for a carnivore. I kicked myself. I had heard of something similar. A person who worked closely with Broadway Ferret Welfare had once described a very similar instance. I just hadn't recognised it when I came across it.

Ryan had to undergo a period of 'de-tox' to help get his diet back on an even keel. His vet even prescribed a mild sedative to help his anxiety and craving for junk food. Eventually he was tempted by the old, tried and trusted, ferret delicacies such as 'duck soup'. It took several weeks for his tastes to return to normal and his behaviour to become more placid. Even then the craving for junk food occasionally sent him rummaging through bins and you had to keep all sweets and such like well away from him.

Provided Ryan is kept on a suitable ferret diet he has returned to his happy, sociable, playful self. He still dislikes other ferrets and he still has to have a home of his own where his diet can be regulated. Maybe that's the best part of his story. He has now become the treasured pet of an 11 year old girl, a reward for her being brave through several medical tests she had to undergo for diabetes.

His new young owners has to learn to regulate her own diet and, in doing so, become the best owner possible for this ferret. Indeed, this young girl can truly be said to be Saving Polecat Ryan!

(From Ferrets First Issue #24 June/July 2005)

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