Living With A Blind Ferret
By L. Vanessa Gruden. Originally printed in Ferrets Magazine and in Paw Printz, May – June, 2000
Bounce, bounce, bounce…Bam!! into the wall! Hop, hop, hop…Woof!! right off the bed! Young? Overly enthusiastic? Or maybe, just maybe, BLIND? A ferret in the midst of a wild Weasel War Dance leaps about with such abandon, these are common occurrences. How can you tell if your ferret is just carried away with joy, or if a more serious disability is the cause?
How can you tell if your ferret is blind?
Ferrets have relatively poor vision. They are very nearsighted, meaning that they see things that are close far better than they see things farther away. They depend upon their sense of smell and excellent hearing to bolster their sensory information and identify, for example, which human is “Mom” and which is an intriguing stranger. They can become very skilled at utilizing those other senses. Unless an eye is missing or damaged from an accident or birth defect, or a cataract (a white, milky film) is obviously present in the eye, it may be difficult to determine if your pet’s eyesight is impaired. (For a detailed discussion about ferret eyes, their visual acuity, and causes of eye problems, please see Erika Matulich’s article, “Seeing is Believing,” in the July/August 1998 issue of Ferrets.)
A ferret that gradually loses their sight learns to gradually increase dependence upon their other senses very subtly. They will memorize their surroundings, and some have been known to use buddies as “seeing eye” ferrets. Deborah Hazen, an experienced owner who has cared for a number of elderly ferrets, only began to suspect Sammi was blind when “she was running along and slammed right into the wall, or would shake her head right into a piece of furniture.” She could also put Sammi close to her face, and “Sammi wouldn’t turn away.” When Sammi’s friend Cassie began to develop a cataract, Deb could easily see it, but she needed to bring Sammi to a veterinarian to confirm her visual difficulties. He used a light scope to look deep into Sammi’s eyes; the light will illuminate deep-seated cataracts.
What if you’re still not sure if your ferret is blind, or your veterinarian can’t make a definitive diagnosis? There are some additional clues you can use to test your ferret for blindness. If you rearrange furniture or close a door normally kept open, a blind ferret is likely to walk right into it, says Matulich. In the shelter, we will often suspect a ferret that is reluctant to leave their adopted sleepy spot and venture around the room. We learned this from Miss Scarlett, a tiny little chocolate of about 6 years old that was abandoned at the Ferret Association of Connecticut shelter. She had been oddly quiet and shy; thinking all the activity was too much for her, she was moved from the hectic shelter room into my personal living quarters. She promptly walked smack into a wall and nearly fell off the stairs! I felt like an idiot for not realizing her disability sooner. Scarlett was so good at compensating, though, that within weeks of the move, her nickname was changed to “The Scarlett Rampager.”
A ferret that is fearful of coming out of their cage or is startled when you reach to touch them may also be blind. Gingersnap, a blind ferret abandoned at a veterinarian’s office, would bite when technicians tried to remove her from her cage. You may see behavioral changes regarding other ferrets, as well. A blind ferret may become upset when another tries to climb into their sleeping spot. They may turn to bite when another comes up behind them.
How disabling is blindness?
Impaired vision, especially in older ferrets, is quite common. Like elderly people, visual acuity often decreases in an older animal or cataracts may form. If you don’t realize your ferret is going blind, it’s not because you’re a “bad” or inattentive owner. As mentioned above, ferrets compensate so well that many people are unaware of any problem. And, as far as behavioral or physical difficulties go, blindness in ferrets is pretty benign.
Owner after owner tells me, “They [blind ferrets] don’t seem to be bothered one bit.” My own BooBoo, who became blind at about 5 years of age, never stopped his characteristic trot from place to place. If a door was closed or he got a little off-course, he would trot into walls. Like a furry pinball, he cheerfully trotted off in another direction until he found an opening.
With their poor depth perception, most ferrets are uncomfortable climbing off a couch, chair, or going down stairs for the first time. Blind ferrets are even more unsure, and may become “stuck” on your coffee table. However, some intrepid little souls will work around their nervousness about heights. My beloved Cinnamon Stick, who became blind at about 3, LOVED to sleep on my bed. To leave, she learned to back down the side, using her strong front nails in the bedclothes to gently slow her descent. She would climb any clothing pile with aplomb, never fearful for her safety, and would even back down a stair step or two.
While blind ferrets are unlikely to get into as much trouble as sighted animals, there are certain areas in your home that will require different ferret-proofing techniques for them. Poor Miss Scarlett fell off the edge of the stairs twice, early in her life with me. I QUICKLY learned she needed to have a barrier placed in front of the banister. It was only 3” high, but it was enough for her to bump into with her nose and stay away from. Maggie Ciarcia of Peekskill, New York, a ferret owner and wildlife rehabilitator, mentioned that her elderly Grandma Bridget prefers to “hug the wall.” Sammi practices this technique, also. The animal will walk close alongside and use the wall as their guide. More active or younger ferrets that become blind may not be as careful, however, or may try to climb over a short barrier. Be sure your barriers are high enough to avoid any long and dangerous falls.
Care should be taken when you change the animal’s living environment. “Don’t rearrange the furniture!” is the standard advice I give, half-jokingly, when told someone’s pet is blind. Of course, that doesn’t mean you can never buy a new living room set, but it does mean that it will be easier on your pet if you make major changes slowly. Sammi would become upset and frustrated if you suddenly placed a large object in the room. “She’d lay down in front of it with a big sigh,” said Hazen. If you want to move their feeding station, move it a little each day so your pet can easily find food and water. You may want to gently rub your ferret along carpeted ramps in a new cage. Their own scent on the carpet will help teach them the new layout. If you move to a new house let your ferret learn one room at a time rather than setting them loose in the entire house. (This suggestion applies to ALL ferrets in a new home – unless, of course, you actually ENJOY picking up “accidents” while they try to absorb where each litter spot is!) Sammi took about two weeks to readjust when the Hazens moved.
Bright sunshine can be disconcerting to any ferret, whose eyesight is designed to work best at dawn or dusk, according to Fara Shimbo in her book, “A Tao Full of Detours.” Prolonged exposure can actually damage an albino ferret’s eyes. An animal with greatly reduced vision due to injury or disease may be uncomfortable in very bright outdoor light.
Many ferrets that lose their eyesight are older. They may have other, accompanying medical conditions that require special care, as well. (Look for more information on this topic in the next article in this series, Living with an Elderly Ferret.) But just because a ferret is blind, elderly, or both doesn’t necessarily make them fragile when it comes to dealing with others!
Interactions with other ferrets
Ferrets that have lived with other ferrets and enjoyed them before they became blind usually like them just as much afterwards. While they may dislike others coming up behind and startling them, they will continue to pile together like a bunch of tube socks to sleep. If you do find a ferret suddenly becoming aggressive with others he previously liked, you may be seeing the effects of an adrenal tumor, not the effects of blindness.
A ferret that has never been around others, or who comes to you already older and blind, may be very frightened by these strange, four-legged things that try to sniff her. This fear may become defensive and the blind ferret actively attacks. Cinnamon Stick would never accept other ferrets. Grandma Bridget won’t, either. And, while Sammi loved her friend Cassie, anyone else was “meat.” When she became blind, the others actually got a break, because without her sight, it took her a moment longer to tell if that ear was one she wanted to bite. You may be able to allow ferrets together if they have plenty of space (at least a room) and the others are sighted. For example, Cinnamon Stick would chomp Peggy, who also lived in my bedroom, every chance she got. But Peggy soon learned to keep out of her way, and would find hiding places Stickie’s lack of vision would exclude her from. Interestingly, Grandma Bridget LOVES Maggie’s new kitten, who must put up with being nosed and nibbled.
Handling a blind ferret
A blind ferret should always be spoken to before you pick him or her up. If Gingersnap’s caretakers had realized she was blind and spoken to her before reaching to pull her out, they would have had no problems. Any animal that is frightened may bite. You and your sight-impaired pet will be happier if he or she is made aware of your intentions before you grab at them. Deb Hazen was always careful to speak as she was leaning down to pick up Sammi, as Sammi would often not realize how close you were standing to her.
A blind ferret is very responsive to auditory signals. Hazen says that Sammi was far more active when there was a radio, TV, or other noise going on in the house. “Maybe she thought it was daytime?” she wonders. “She was more likely to be asleep when the house was quiet.” Blind ferrets learn to listen for your voice, and, when frightened or suffering “vetaphobia,” your soft reassurances can help calm them. A tip passed along by Ciarcia, is “Hold her close.” Grandma Bridget is nervous being carried but feels more secure if held safe against Maggie’s chest.
Scent becomes even more important to a visually challenged pet. Ciarcia says Bridget “works that nose!” When she first came into Maggie’s life, she would stand, head held high, sniffing the air to try to figure out where she was. Sammi was very sensitive to smells, too. But, Deb Hazen laughs, “that might have been because she lived up to her nickname, Piggi.”
A blind ferret’s dependence upon you may bring you and your pet closer together. They may particularly appreciate the sound of your voice, the touch of your hands, and your scent. “She loves to be around me,” says Ciarcia about Grandma Bridget. Cinnamon Stick and I, too, were closely bonded. In an unfamiliar place, she would climb and cling to me. How can anyone fail to respond with kindness to the affection of an animal that is blind? “She’s spoiled, but she deserves everything I can give her until she passes on,” says Maggie Ciarcia. I agree with her.
This article is dedicated to Miss Scarlett, Cinnamon Stick, Gingersnap, BooBoo, and all the other wonderful little blind ferrets, both sheltered and my own, who have taught me so much. In memory, also, of Sammi, who passed away the day before this article was completed.