Living With An Elderly Ferret

By L. Vanessa Gruden in Paw Printz, January – February, 2002

The joys – and hardships – of living with a furry senior citizen.

Lying on the floor, in a shaft of sunlight, was a thin, sparsely furred little form. For one awful moment, I thought, “oh no, is she…?” But with a stretch and a soft “gurk,” the little body rolled over to let the hot sun warm her belly. Six year old Bear was perfectly happy. Such are the nerve-wracking moments you may experience as the owner of an elderly ferret. But owners who love these gentle survivors insist the pleasure of their company is well worth it.

How Old is Old?

A ferret is considered “late middle aged” at 4 to 5 years. A ferret is elderly at 6 years of age. An animal that reaches 8 – 9 years old is quite old. But what if you don’t know how old you ferret is? Even many vets are unsure how to age a ferret.

Experts determine a ferret’s age by looking carefully at their two long, upper canine teeth. (You’ll need to scruff them to get a good look.) A ferret under 1 year has bright, solid white canine teeth. At 1.5 to 2.5 years, you will start to see the tip of the tooth beginning to become a little yellowed, and almost translucent. At 3 – 4 that translucency will be more pronounced and continue farther up the tooth. By 6 years old the tooth may be distinctly yellowed all the way to the gum, and you may begin to see that some of the small teeth in their bottom jaw are missing. If you can, compare your ferret’s teeth to another ferret of whose age you are sure, and you will see the differences.

Physical Changes

There are definite physical differences between an older ferret and a youngster. An older ferret sleeps far more, and plays for a much shorter period of time. When a ferret becomes very old, he or she may sleep almost all the time.

Elderly ferrets lose muscle tone and may feel frail when you lift them. They may rarely run and no longer be able to climb. Ann Baker Salafia, an experienced ferret owner who lives in Fairfield, Connecticut, says “I could put plants on the top of their cage if I wanted to!” She notes, however, that she still wouldn’t dare put a plant on the floor – not a plant she wanted to keep, anyway!

Like older people, an older animal’s hair may thin, although I like to say, “We lose it on our heads, they lose it on their back ends.” Their skin, especially if they’ve lost fur, may become dryer and more sensitive. Tails may go bald. They may begin to develop dental problems and have trouble eating hard food. Arthritis may set in, causing difficulty standing and walking. They may go blind or become hard of hearing. Between the ages of 4 to 6 is when you are most likely to see serious illnesses, like adrenal disease, insulinoma, or heart disease, develop.

I can’t emphasize enough how important YOUR knowledge and commitment is to helping ease your pet into a comfortable old age. Recognizing a physical change that might be a disease symptom is the most important first step. Learn as much as you can, and save medical articles! Though your ferret may not have a particular problem right now, eventually they will become ill, and this information will be invaluable.

Adjusting for Disability

You need to match your pet’s housing to their physical ability. Previous articles in this series on living with deaf and with blind ferrets discuss ways to make handicapped animals’ lives easier. An elderly ferret’s environment needs careful planning. Carol Levy, co-founder of the Concerned Ferret Owners club now living in Tupper Lake, New York, says living with an elderly ferret is “an on-going learning experience.”

They may no longer be able to climb cage ramps. They may not be able to climb into a favorite basket and may have a lot of trouble walking on slippery floors. You may need to arrange their cage so everything the oldie needs is on the ground floor, and make sure it is easy to enter. Look for very low baskets that are a little “scratchy” – an older animal may have trouble scratching an itch, and something they can rub against feels great. Infant play mats provide extra padding for them to sleep upon. Throw rugs will help them walk steadily, and don’t put too much distance between those important food, sleep, and litter spots.

While you’re at it, make sure those rugs are washable! An older animal’s weaker hindquarters may make it very difficult to stand upright when eliminating. They may very well begin to use those easy to stand on rugs. I use large pieces of rubber-backed bathroom carpeting. It can be cut smaller if needed, and cleans well in your washing machine. (To avoid ruining the rubber backing, let it air dry or use a cool dryer setting.)

Even if your oldie is determined to use the litter box, he or she may have trouble getting into it – or making it there in time. Make sure your litter box has a short side – cut it down, if you have to – and put more litter boxes wherever they live. I use flat newspapers for litter – if the animal is very old, placing paper toweling on top gives them more leverage. Be forgiving of your oldtimer; they can’t help their “mistakes,” and we can only hope if we become old and incontinent, someone will treat us with similar patience and kindness.

Levy mentions that older ferrets are far more sensitive to heat and cold. While they enjoy sleeping next to a radiator in the winter, care should be taken to keep them cool in the summer. “They are more susceptible than young ferrets to heatstroke,” and should not be kept in temperatures over 85 degrees. She also mentions that natural light is wonderful for all ferrets, not just elderly ones. If they must be in artificial light in your home, purchase full spectrum light bulbs. “The ferrets go right to them,” she says, “as if they can feel the difference.”

Warmth, light, and cleanliness are just as important to an old ferret as it is to an older human. Please, don’t house an animal that may have arthritis in a damp basement or, worse, outdoors. Would you make Granny live in a tent or in the garage? If so, I hope she hits you with her cane! An elderly animal can’t tell you when they are uncomfortable – YOU must think about their comfort.

Emotional Changes

An elderly ferret’s level of energy is hugely different from a kit. At the Ferret Association of Connecticut shelter, we have two separate shelter rooms. One is for the young animals. The other, warm and sun-filled, is the “Old Lady Room.” Regular volunteers constantly remark on the “whole different feeling” in each area. People always play with the youngsters first, exhausting both. Then they move on to the oldies, where everyone is happy to sit quietly with a little lap-warmer. It’s a calm, peaceful, and pleasant place.

The two groups are separate deliberately to avoid stressing the elderly animals. “They can’t keep up with youngsters,” says Salafia. Young ferrets may play too rough and upset the old ones. However, another quiet ferret can give them the companionship many crave, as well as providing a warm sleep buddy. Even ferrets that actively dislike others are, I believe, better off with nearby company. A LITTLE stress can be beneficial; they may still enjoy new things and new places. But watch carefully that their activity or eating patterns aren’t disrupted by major changes in their environment.

It is very difficult on an elderly ferret to lose his or her home or be abandoned by their owner. When a ferret over 5 enters the shelter, they look so sad and confused. Worse, any underlying illness they might have often erupts out of their distress and a previously healthy animal become ill.

Elderly ferrets become set in their ways. Says Salafia, “They’ve decided what they do and don’t like and won’t compromise.” You’ll be rewarded, though, for your flexibility. “An older ferret is grateful for what you do for them,” according to Salafia. Carol Levy agrees, “They really respond to your love.” Elderly animals we’ve taken into the shelter bear out these observations. For all the myths about “bonding with babies” that people entertain, it’s my experience that no ferret will bond closer to you than an older one for whom you care.

Cuddling is one of the greatest charms of the elderly ferret. People inexperienced with ferrets often tell me, “Oh, I want a baby I can cuddle!” Knowledgeable owners laugh – HARD – at that comment. Like furry hummingbirds, baby ferrets are On The Move whenever they’re awake. The last thing they want is to be held. While each ferret is different, many will become the cherished “lap rat” as they age. Little, elderly Bear will sleep on my lap for hours, wrapped in a flannel blanket, while I write, sort paperwork, or watch a movie. If I need to get up, I just put her on a pillow and when I return she’s transferred, with nary a wiggle, back onto my lap. How many young ferrets will do THAT?

A Time to Commit

Elderly ferrets can be a lot of extra work. Ann Salafia spends far more time with her older ferrets than with her younger ones. Carol Levy also feels you must pay far closer attention to any changes in their habits or physical health. In the FACT shelter, while the youngsters live in a room on our first floor offices, the “Old Lady Room” is located right off our living quarters so the animals can get the careful monitoring they need. You may find your own lifestyle restricted. An ill older animal may need their medicine on a careful schedule. One who is having difficulty eating hard food, or who has hypoglycemia or insulinoma, may need regular supplemental feedings. I can never leave home for more than eight hours without having a volunteer or sitter come in to feed ill ferrets – and there were times, with a particularly ill animal, when one had to be fed every 4 hours! If you work fulltime (and don’t have an understanding boss like mine), this can be a serious problem. Salafia adds that you must be more careful to find an experienced and careful sitter to care for elderly animals in your absence.

Your vet should be carefully chosen, also. Your veterinarian should be knowledgeable about common diseases found in aging ferrets. When a ferret is 4 years or older, they should be seen by a veterinarian at least twice a year, to help catch any developing illness early.

The monetary expense of caring for an elderly ferret can be hard. Levy believes “You can expect a $400 surgery in your older ferret almost as a given.” I tell owners of young ferrets, “Start a bank account for them now!” While a ferret’s medical conditions are rarely as expensive as some other pet illnesses, the bills can add up. Every so often, I receive calls from owners asking, “Isn’t there a fund somewhere that can help me pay vet bills?” No, there isn’t. YOU must have the forethought to put a few dollars aside, or work out payment arrangements with a willing veterinarian. (Most pet insurance plans do not cover ferrets.)

The Good Stuff

There are experienced owners who are “hooked” on older ferrets. Several of FACT’s Foster Parents, who care for elderly animals in our Foster Program, say they can’t be without an oldie in the house. They grieve when one passes on…but within weeks (sometimes days!) they arrive on my doorstep, sheepishly looking for another little cuddle bunny. They are brave and wonderful people – but they also know that older ferrets can be the very best of all.

Elderly ferrets often make a number of adorable little sounds. Bear says “gurk” whenever she has something to say, which is often. Like some human old ladies, ferret old ladies sometimes have quite a talkative streak. They will “urk,” chirp, or almost purr softly. Like Bear, your oldtimer may sit quietly on a lap for hours, asking nothing more than your company.

The older he or she gets, the less trouble your ferret will cause. Ferret-proofing becomes a breeze. If you have barriers in your house, you can lower them. You may even be able to get rid of your cage completely – your oldie is unlikely to come chomping on your toes in the middle of the night. Nor are they likely to start eating your sneakers. You can have plants again! And you may never have a sock become Missing In Action in the few seconds between pulling it out of a drawer and pulling it on your foot. Well…maybe never. After all, they may be old, but they’re still ferrets!

Elderly ferrets can be sweet and gentle beyond belief. Often, those of us who love them, love them even more than those bouncy youngsters. “There’s so much YOU can do to help them live longer and better,” says Levy. “You can really make a difference in their lives.” Yet people are often uninformed or oblivious to their delights. A friend who used to run a ferret shelter once had someone call and want to “trade” an old ferret for two young ones! I can’t think of anything sadder or more heartless than someone who abandons their pet in its old age, after enjoying their youth and vigor. Ann Salafia, Carol Levy, and I ALL agree – no matter how much it may cost you, caring for your elderly ferret will be repaid many times over.

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