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Sunday, January 29, 2012

Ferrets as Pets

I was talking to a 7th grade girl a few days ago about having a ferret for a pet. She said she wanted one, but she wasn’t serious about getting one. I told her she’d probably be better off with a rabbit or rat or something else, explaining that ferrets can be somewhat complicated. I don’t want to discourage anyone from buying one or better yet, rescuing one from a shelter, but one should learn all they can about ferrets before becoming a keeper.

Young ferrets are cute as can be and I understand the attraction, but I personally have never kept a ferret. Having worked at Midwest Bird and Exotic Animal Hospital for nine years, I learned just how popular they had become and how expensive they can be to keep for the duration of their 5 to 9 year lifespan. I remember a veterinarian telling me that it’s almost guaranteed that a ferret will have a major illness or disease after it turns three years. This can certainly cause some grief and a significant monetary investment. Ferrets of this age are actually considered “senior” ferrets by veterinarians.

If you’re thinking of getting a ferret, there is much to consider. These pets love attention and cannot be left in a cage all day. They are very entertaining and loving so they must come out to play and interact. While playing and interacting, there’s a good chance of a ferret getting into trouble so they need to be supervised. We used to see a good many ferrets that came in very sick and ultimately in need of surgery to remove a foreign object they’d swallowed. It’s recommended that a home or designated play area be made ferret proof before any free play or exploration is permitted.

Ferrets bite. Most well handled ferrets know the difference between a nip and an outright bite, but either one has to be tolerated, though there are various non-violent approaches to curb biting behavior. Ferrets are carnivores and require a specialized diet. Ferrets are from the Mustelidae family, which includes skunks, weasels, fishers, martens, wolverines and otters. Mustelids have well developed anal scent glands. This is another aspect of ferret keeping that must be tolerated. There are ways to curb ferret odors, but even a ferret that’s had its anal glands removed (known as descenting) will still produce odor through its skin.

The considerations I’ve mentioned are just a few to mull over. I highly recommend prospective ferret keepers do some research first. While there are numerous websites with good advice about ferret keeping, I visited two that I like for the honest information they provided:

I also recommend visiting a ferret shelter and trying to rescue one. Some ferret shelters are so full that they have a need for foster ferret keepers. In this case, you’re caring for the ferret in your home, but the shelter will incur any medical costs. This also means that the shelter gets the final say on medical decisions. This option is a great way to learn about all that’s involved in ferret keeping. I’ve had ferret owners tell me that once they’ve had one, it’s hard to keep just one and another will often be added. I’ve also been told it’s hard to give up the ferret habit, even after pets have died. I kind of feel the same way about my pet rats, but their life spans are shorter (3 years) and they don’t incur substantial medical costs.

Since I’ve never kept a ferret, I don’t have any good stories to tell. They are smart animals and can be trained if a keeper is dedicated to teaching and shaping various behaviors. This is another facet of what makes ferrets fun and you may have seen such training in a few movies and TV shows. All I ask is that you think things through before taking one on as a pet. Too many ferret shelters have their hands full. And for goodness sake, if you do end up leaving your ferret with a shelter, do make a significant monetary donation then and there because they will need it. I welcome ferret keepers to share their comments or stories.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Cockatiel Saves Family from Fire

My neighbor’s cockatiel died a few weeks ago, likely from natural causes that come with being 16 years old. He might have had a fatty liver or an upper respiratory infection, but they hadn’t noticed any change in his eating or anything. It’s a fact that wild animals and many exotics will mask an illness, making it hard to tell if they’re sick. This is an innate survival mechanism, even in some domesticated pets.

So when my neighbor came over to offer me her remaining cockatiel seed and other supplies, we talked a little about her long-time pet bird, Glister. She and her husband had gotten him well before they had kids so he was like their first child together. They named him after a popular Amway product, Glister toothpaste. When she told me how the bird may have saved their family of four from a house fire, I had to share the story.

She and her husband, Tony, and their two young daughters were in bed for the night when they heard Glister whistling and making distress noises. Of course, this was highly unusual so they went down to check. At that point, Tony smelled smoke and knew something was wrong. Glister’s cage happened to be right next to the television at the time and that’s where the smoke was coming from. Apparently, the cat had a urinary problem and had relieved herself right on the surge protector, on the floor, behind the TV. This started a reaction that caused sparks and heat. When Tony discovered the problem, the cords and surge protector were beginning to melt into the carpet which would have surely hastened the fire’s progress.

While it’s not likely the bird was thinking, “There’s a problem here. I have to warn the others,” it is possible that his natural instinct to warn the flock was at work. What’s more likely is the bird was scared and feared for his own life so he naturally gave a call of alarm since he was trapped in a cage and had no other recourse. The result was his successful rescue and the consequent avoidance of a possible disaster.  

The lesson in this is not to ignore something your pet’s doing that seems out of the ordinary or just weird. At least take the time to study the animal and its environment for a minute before passing it off as just one of those odd things that our pets do from time to time. While exotics can be especially hard to figure, some of them do have a way of demanding our attention.

When a bird is in immediate distress, he'll squawk, whistle loudly, flap his wings and just carry on until something changes. 

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Second Time Trickle Flew Away

Yes, it happened a second time, but this one was very brief. In warm weather, we occasionally bring the bird cages outside onto the driveway so the birds can get a dose of natural sunlight and vitamin D3. Since then I’ve added daylight type bulbs to our bird room in the basement. These lights have a 5500 Kelvin rating which makes them appropriate for the lighting needs of birds.

I’m not even sure what happened this time. I believe I opened the cage to grab Trickle for some reason. His wings were trimmed so I only expected that he might hop down to the ground and that was it. Before I knew it, both birds were in the air. I immediately ran to follow in the direction they flew. Westin quickly landed on the ground in the back yard, but Trickle continued to fly. Thankfully, the homes in our neighborhood were just a few years old at the time and no fences stood in my way. I cut through the yards behind my house running in my sock feet. I had the bird in sight as he kept going down a street to the right before landing on somebody’s screen door at the front of their house. He was making a lot of noise whistling repeatedly so the homeowners were drawn to the front door which was open. I got there about the same time they did and apologized for the commotion. They were surprised of course, but made sure to mention that I should have my bird’s wings trimmed. “We have two cats,” the man added.

I thanked them and walked home quickly with Trickle to return him to his cage with Westin, who had been picked up by one of the kids. Someone told me after this that cockatiels are known to fly well with trimmed wings. Another lesson learned. I was just glad he hadn’t flown very far this time. Another lucky break. How many would we have left?