by Bill Beck
I have flown in an aeroplane many times but I have never jumped out of one, even with a parachute. This is because I consider some risks to be acceptable but not others. Make no mistake about it; ferret walking can be a risky business. The risks can however be substantially reduced by a little planning and forethought. It is my intention in this article to pass on some of our thoughts and experiences to you, the responsible ferret owner, so that you can make up your own mind about the benefits versus risks of ferret walking.
Why should I walk my ferret?
If ferret walking is such a risky business, why do it at all? The answer to this lies in the mental and physical stimulation that it affords both ferret and owner. Surely there can be nothing worse for an otherwise well cared for ferret to be stuck in a tiny hutch all day with nothing to do. Your ferret is a very intelligent creature and requires a stimulating environment for its proper mental health. Our three ferrets live indoors with us and have free access to most of our bungalow for most of the time during the day but they still enjoy their two or three walks each week. They love to explore new environments and enjoy walking, running, digging and even swimming.
Exposure to the huge variety of scents, sounds and sights experienced on a walk can help desensitise your pet to sudden or strange stimuli and make them a more relaxed and confident animal.
You and your pet will also benefit from the fresh air and exercise provided by ferret walking.
One thing we can promise you is that you will meet and talk to a lot of other people, some of whom will think that both you and your ferrets should be locked up, but most of whom will be both fascinated by and delighted to see these charming and endearing little creatures out and about.
How do I walk my ferret?
Firstly, let us consider the equipment required. Do not try to walk your ferret with a collar and lead, you must use a proper harness with a strap or straps going both around the neck and behind the front legs. This is because a ferret can easily slip out of a collar.
We have experimented with both nylon fabric and leather harnesses. The nylon types have a number of advantages. They are infinity adjustable and have snap-together clasps, which are both secure and easy to use. They are also available in a range of colours and patterns so that if you are walking more than one ferret at once, you can easily see whose lead and harness is who's when they get in a tangle. Their main disadvantage is that they quickly become dirty and are not easy to clean. Leather harnesses on the other hand are trickier to fit as they have buckles and straps, the holes in which are never in the right places. This can be very frustrating if your ferret has an attack of 'the squirms' whilst you are trying to put it on. They are easier to keep clean then the nylon type however. We tend to use the nylon type indoors and the leather type outdoors.
We have not got on well with the figure-of-eight one-piece harnesses and much prefer the three-piece 'H'-type; they are easier to fit and more secure. If the connecting ring for the lead is not fitted centrally on the cross bar of the 'H', then we would recommend that this be place over the shoulders rather than over the neck as this will be more comfortable for the ferret. Right-handed people will find it easiest to have the buckles on the right hand side of the harness.
When the harness is secure check that you can get your little finger between the straps and the ferret's body.
Next we need to consider the types of lead available. The coloured nylon harnesses come with their own matching leads. These look smart and can help you keep track of who has hold of which ferret. However they are on the short side at around 45 inches (115cms) long and they do tend to get caught in brambles etc. very easily.
In our experience by far the best material for a ferret lead is a kind of synthetic cord used by rock-climbers and mountaineers. This is made in various thicknesses (3 millimetres is best) is perfectly round in cross-section and has a very smooth non-snagging finish. It costs around 30 pence per metre. We make up our leads around 70 inches (180 cms) long. Heat the cut ends of the cord to melt the fibres and prevent fraying.
A word about flexi-leads. We have experimented with these but have found that they have one major disadvantage. This is the handle, which contains the spool on which the lead is wound. At some point during the outing your ferret will decide that he wants to come up for a ride and/or have a snooze. He will climb up your trouser leg and then under your jacket or coat. No problem thus far, unless you object to the muddy paw prints of course. However, when he decides to come out again, which is usually about 20 seconds later, he will almost invariably come up out of the next of the jacket or down your sleeve. If you are using a flexi-lead this will leave your ferret dangling in mid-air while you frantically fumble around trying to get the handle disentangled from your clothing: been there, done that! A simple lead can, of course, just be pulled through.
Next we must consider the most critical piece of the equipment, the joint between lead and harness. Whatever you do, do not rely on a 'G'-clip to do the job. This is because they can quickly become undone when your pet starts charging through the undergrowth. We have removed all the 'G'-clips from our leads and have replaced them with spring links and, as a back-up, a special kind of screw-clip. Like our leads, these also come from specialist outdoor sports suppliers. Each clip consists of an oval of thin stainless steel rod with a knurled brass barrel on one side. This barrel can be screwed down to reveal a gap in the oval, which is closed by screwing the barrel back up again. These are the most secure clips we have found.
Our ferrets each have a three-quarter inch (20mm) diameter engraved brass disc on their harness bearing their name on one side and our full telephone number on the reverse. They have also all been micro-chipped.
Finally, each ferret has a small bell attached to its harness. This is useful for locating your pet in the undergrowth, or to let you know that he is underfoot!
What else will you need? Remember to take some water with you and offer it to your animal regularly throughout the walk. You will probably find however that your pet will prefer to drink from puddles, the muddier the better.
You should also take a two ton JCB with you to dig him out when he dives down some especially attractive hole. If you can't get one of these in your pocket then take along something to dig with, such as one of those curved tools designed for getting weeds out from between paving stones, or a small trowel. Take a squeaker toy along if you have trained your ferret to come to this sound, and a sharp knife in case you need to cut him free from a tangle.
You might want to walk your animal somewhere other than in the immediate locality. In this case you will want a secure carrying box. We have found the 'Cityhoppa' carrier to be excellent as it is strong, light in weight and easy to clean.
We have never tried taking our ferrets on a bus or a train so we have no idea what kind of reception you would get if you tried it. It would be best to contact the carrying company before you attempt the journey.
We transport our ferrets in our car. We put the 'Cityhoppa' carrier on the back seat and fix it in place using a luggage strap. This is passed over and under the carrier and a loop pushed into the gap between the seat pad and the back of the seat and into the boot space. A block of wood inserted into the loop prevents the strap from being pulled back through the gap.
Don't expect walking a ferret to be like walking a dog. Your ferret will not walk to heel, or even stay on one side of you for that matter. He will constantly be stopping to sniff or dig at something or, at the other extreme, bounding along at full tilt. He may also be doing a lot of 'upping and downing' as we call it: that is climbing up your trousers (or asking to be picked up) only to go down again ten seconds later.
You will find it much easier to 'go with the flow' and let your ferret take you to where he wants to go than to try to force him to meet your desires. It is, after all, his walk. You can train your pet to go around the same side of obstruction as yourself. We have even had some success in getting our boys to go over rather under stiles.
Walking one ferret is difficult, two is extremely hard and three is well-nigh impossible - you will end up looking like a maypole!
A ferret-walkers greatest asset is patience. You will need this 'in spades' when he has wrapped his lead around your ankles, or when he has dived down a tiny hole and won't come out, or when he simply decides that he isn't going anywhere just now, thank you. Resist the temptation to drag him away, he will just dig his heels in both literally and metaphorically. Instead, reduce the tension on his lead and wait for him to become bored. Ferrets are so nosey that they just cannot stay in one spot for too long. On this topic, I once saw a young boy taking a poley for a 'walk' at an indoor ferret show some years ago. The unfortunate ferret was sat on its haunches being dragged along the polished wooden floor of the school hall on its bottom. I offered up a prayer that there would be no splinters en route!
Where should I walk my ferret?
So now we are all set to go on our first outing. Where should we go? Do not be overly ambitious. A stroll round the garden is quite enough for starters. Once you and your ferret have got used to the idea you can progress to walks off your property. This is where the problems begin. These can be categorised thus:
The average dog owner has about as much control over their animal as you have over the weather. Possibly less. We have heard harrowing tales of ferrets being bitten in two by marauding dogs which can appear as if by magic, and we have every reason to believe that they are true.
There are two extremes of possibility when meeting a dog whilst out walking your ferret. Scenario A is where dog owner spots you coming some distance away. Stops and attaches lead to dog before proceeding. Animals and owners pass with polite greetings on all sides. Dog let off lead again some distance away. Scenario B is where the dog comes up to you barking and growling its head off. Owner ignores this behaviour. You end up on tip-toe holding your ferret high above your head while dog and owner snap and snarl at you for taking such a 'stupid' animal for a walk in the first place.
We have experienced both extremes and just about everything in-between. What you have to do is to be prepared for scenario B at any time and without any warning. How do you do this? Years ago when I learnt to ride a motorcycle my instructor taught me the concept of 'defensive riding'. You just assume that everyone is out to get you and will, given half the chance. The idea is that you observe closely what is going on around you, always signal your intentions to others, look before you leap and always leave yourself room for manoeuvre. This all applies perfectly to ferret walking, especially the most important point - anticipate the actions of others. Someone is walking towards you carrying a lead? Then there is a loose dog (or dogs!) nearby. Someone is calling or whistling for a dog half a mile away? Their dog is about to explode out of the bracken four feet in front of you at any moment. It pays to think ahead.
A favourite trouble spot is car parks. Even if a dog walker is thoughtful and responsible elsewhere, his or her brain usually slips into neutral in the car park: the dog gets let off the lead to wander around unsupervised and/or get itself run over while the owner takes his or her wellies off etc. etc.
Before I finish on the topic of dogs, and in case there are any owners out there that I have not managed to offend yet, remember that many are too mean, lazy, stupid or inconsiderate to get their dogs vaccinated against canine distemper. This disease is almost invariably fatal for ferrets, so have your pet immunised at least two weeks before taking him anywhere dogs might roam, the two week period allows sufficient time for the level of antibodies to develop in the ferret's body.
There are some other animal hazards to be considered as well. Most cats disappear at warp 9 at first sight or scent of a ferret so they are not usually a problem. Be wary of horses: many are highly strung and could be frightened of your pet with unfortunate results for a rider! Our Boo Boo has invented his own version of Russian roulette which we call bee-sniffing. If he spots a bee buzzing about at ground level he will stick his nose right at it and sniff loudly. A bee sting in the mouth could be fatal if the throat swelled sufficiently to block the airways.
Under the heading of man made hazards we can consider the following: broken glass, discarded tins, discarded plastic strapping or indeed any item where your ferret could get caught or cut. Watch out also for discarded food items which could be scavenged.
If you have just driven to a particular spot to walk your ferrets remember that the car engine and exhaust will still be very hot so don't let your pets disappear under your, or anyone else's car. In addition the car next to you might be about to drive away with possibly dire consequences! Finally, check where everyone is before you slam the car door.
So where do ferrets like to walk? Yogi and Boo Boo shun the wide open spaces. They like to explore wooded areas and I don't mean just at ground level. Ferrets can and do climb trees but, like cats, they are much better at getting up them than coming down.
Our Rupert fell out of the first tree he tried to climb and ended up dangling from a low branch by his lead. After rescuing him he hid in my coat for twenty minutes before he would come out again, poor thing.
Ferrets also like to explore sandy banks where they can dig, and also rocky areas. The latter includes a firm favourite with our boys, ruined castles. We have had some odd looks though, and for some strange reason English Heritage are not geared up to issue admission tickets for ferrets.
Small streams and shallow, stony rivers are another favourite spot and your ferret might even enjoy a closely supervised swim (whilst still on the lead, of course). There may be a hidden hazard here. Some watercourses are inhabited by feral mink which could carry Aleutian Disease. This is an incurable, AIDS - like immunodeficiency disease which could be picked up by your ferret. I cannot judge what degree of risk there is of your animal actually contracting Aleutian Disease in this way. I would recommend that you contact your local vet and/or ferret club for advice, as we have heard that this disease is much more common in some parts of Britain than in others.
Before we got Rupert our experience was that ferrets disliked walking in open spaces and that if confronted with one, they would only cross it if there was a suitable feature to follow such as a sunken path, ditch or a line of stones. Rupert however confounded our theories completely by recently climbing to the top of Gummers How, a large hill overlooking Lake Windermere. The upper part of this peak consists of short turf and bare rock with views for many miles in all directions, but this did not faze Rupert one bit. Yogi and Boo Boo skipped this bit of the walk by climbing up into our jackets for a snooze: ferrets are nothing if not individuals.
Finally, remember your responsibilities as a pet owner and scoop the poop if the situation requires it.
When to walk your ferret
You will know your own and your pet's routines best and so will know when is a good time for you. We find that most dog owners take their animals out before 9.30 am and after 3.30 pm so between these times is a good idea if you can manage it. Weekdays are less busy than weekends.
Do not walk your ferret in heavy rain: light rain and drizzle does not seem to bother them. Some ferrets like to play in the snow.
At the other end of the temperature spectrum avoid hot sunny days because of the risk of heatstroke. In hot weather, try walking first thing in the morning or, better still, at dusk which is the time when the ferret's wild ancestor, the polecat, is most active. Boo Boo loves to chase moths at dusk, but he has not caught one yet.
Well, after all that 'watch out for this' and 'don't do that' it's time for some light relief with a few golden moments from our many ferret walks just to show you what to can expect!
Food for thought… Our top local spot for ferret walking is Wilderswood which is situated between Bolton and Horwich. It has everything that a ferret could want: dry stone walls to explore, sandy banks to dig in, a rocky stream to swim in, drifts of pine needles to 'snowplough' through and even a small quarry.
We were there one Sunday morning, being dragged through some dry bracken by Yogi and Boo Boo, when we emerged onto a path in front of a young couple out walking with a little girl, presumably their daughter. On seeing the ferrets the man looked highly alarmed and retreated to a position of safety which put his wife and daughter between him and them.
"What do they eat?" he asked.
Now of course I know all about people's fears of ferrets (everyone it seems has seen that famous video clip of Richard Whitely being nipped) and normally I would try to convince them what gentle and loving little creatures they can be. On this occasion however the man's behaviour was so bizarre that I found myself saying, "Oh, you know, they eat small children, cows, horses anything they can bring down really."
At least the man seemed suitably abashed at this and the normal introductions followed although, as we find it almost always the case, the wife and daughter were much more inclined to touch our pets than he was.
To boldly go… We had not long had our first ferret, Yogi, and I was walking him down a nearby street when a middle-aged lady working in a garden spotted him approaching.
"Oh, what a beautiful animal!" she said. "Just let me get my daughter, I know that she would love to see him!"
Yogi proved to be a great hit as predicted.
"Could I hold him for a moment please?" she asked. Normally I am reluctant to let non-owners of ferrets hold ours but for some reason I acquiesced and for a minute or so Yogi relaxed in her arms with a dopy expression on his face. At this point the daughter's husband came out of the house and stood looking at Yogi with an expression that was half disgust, half fear and half loathing. (If that adds up to an expression and a half, well that is just what it was!)
Fate now took a hand in the proceedings by setting off a car alarm on the other side of the street HEE-HAW, HEE-HAW, HEEE-HAW! Yogi's eyes flew open and he dived for the nearest cover - inside the daughter's low-cut blouse, and disappeared from view!
"Oooh!" she exclaimed in a loud voice as a huge grin spread across her face, "It's a long time since there's been a male in there!"
At this point her husband's expression became utterly indescribable: he turned smartly on his heel and strode back indoors. I was just wondering whether I should have to roll up my sleeves and 'boldly go where no man has gone before' - well, for some time apparently at any rate, when the car alarm stopped. Shortly afterward Yogi's head appeared in the daughter's cleavage, swiftly followed by the rest of him. He was handed back to me and we both made a swift exit with me desperately trying not to explode with a mixture of laughter and embarrassment.
Out of the mouths of babes… We often go for short breaks at the Scarisbrook Hotel, a ferret friendly establishment in Southport. During one such stay we took Yogi and Boo Boo to the nearby Botanic Gardens at Churchtown for a walk.
Yogi had climbed up inside Ann's jacket for a rest but Boo Boo was boinging along in characteristic ferret fashion, with arched back and the hind-legs moving without apparent reference to what the fore-legs are doing. We passed a lady sat on a park bench with a little girl beside her.
"Do you know what sort of animal that is, Jane?" the lady asked as we drew level with them.
The little girl watched the sleek and supple body of the dark polecat for a moment or two before giving the perfect reply.
"A sealion!" she said.