Why I Will Probably Never Have Another Ferret

by Tina Blue
October 19, 2000

          The first ferret I ever met was the pet of one of my students. Jonathan had come to my office for a conference, and he was wearing a zipped-up jacket. Something was moving inside the jacket--something small and clearly hyperactive. It ran up and down his arms, around his back, down his chest, and then repeated the trip.

          "What have you got in there--a parakeet?" I asked. There was something about the way the lump in his jacket moved that reminded me of parakeets I'd had as a child.

          He unzipped his jacket a little bit, and out popped the cutest little bandit-masked face I'd ever seen. His ferret's name was Suki, and I was immediately enchanted. When he told me that he was having trouble finding a place to leave her when he went back to Georgia for Thanksgiving (His parents did NOT want a ferret in the house!), I immediately volunteered, and for the next three years, until Jonathan graduated, I kept Suki (and Dinky, the friend he adopted for her) whenever Jonathan had to go home for Thanksgiving or during any other brief hiatus. My two children also loved our part-time ferret friends, of course.

     Almost eight years ago my son spotted an ad for a 5-month-old ferret that someone was having to give up because the landlord didn't want it around. That little ferret became my first actual adopted ferret. Her name was Hopper, but we changed it to Ivy, because it seemed less common and obvious. Ivy was a precious little thing. She followed me everywhere, and cuddled up on my feet whenever I stopped to stand somewhere or sit for any length of time. She also slept with me, curled up in the palm of my hand. Unlike Suky and Dinky she was not a nipper, so I didn't fear a rude awakening.

     I confiscated a one-year-old male ferret from friends who kept him in a solid, molded plastic carrying case all day, except for one hour in the evening. I told them I needed Murray as a companion for Ivy for awhile, and then talked them into letting me keep him, since they had no time to take proper care of him. Murray and Ivy were great friends--so much so that she stopped sleeping with me every night and preferred Murray's company.

    But after ten months, Ivy died at age 15 months. One morning she didn't come out to greet me. After awhile she came slowly to me and lay down, barely moving. I rushed her to the vet, but back then I did not understand that many vets have little expertise in caring for ferrets. The vet kept her overnight, giving her IV fluids, but she died the next day. Murray was depressed--and so was I. A friend took me to Kansas City to find another ferret, because for some reason there were none available in Lawrence at that time. Even in K.C. there was only one pet store that had ferrets. All the others were sold out and had no shipments coming in for awhile. In fact, I ran up a large long-distance bill trying to find a place with ferrets for sale.

     We did finally find a store, and went there to find a new ferret for me. The ferret I chose was a silver-mitt with predominantly white fur, but with ticking at the tips of some of the hairs. She was seven weeks old, so I knew I would be able to make sure she learned not to bite. I named her Ivy, also, because my first Ivy had died so unexpectedly that the name didn't feel as if it had been properly used.

     This Ivy is now six and a half years old. She has both adrenal gland disease and insulinoma, though I've managed to keep her alive and fairly functional since her diagnosis a year ago. She'd suffered from the baldness of adrenal gland disease a year earlier, but I'd managed to get her fur back with supplements, so I was thinking everything was fine--until the day she started vomiting violently and repeatedly. When I took her to the vet, I didn't expect much information, and my expectations were met. The vet suggested I leave her overnight, but I didn't want to. When I'd done that with my first Ivy, she'd died before I ever saw her again.

     I said, "I think she is probably very sick. If she's going to die, I want her with me, not all by herself in a strange place."

     The vet then suggested I not let her have any food for 24 hours, to calm her stomach. But when we got home, Ivy ran frantically to the food dish and started gobbling food desperately. I figured she must need the food if she was gulping it down like that, so I didn't try to stop her. I didn't think this particular vet was an expert on ferrets, so I let Ivy do what she thought she needed to do about eating.

     Then I went out and bought a ferret magazine, and read everything they had about ferret diseases. I also looked up back issues of the magazine for more information. The next day I called the vet and told her I thought Ivy had adrenal gland disease and insulinoma. As it turns out, she had consulted with the ferret specialist at the Kansas State School of Veterinary Medicine, and he had made the same diagnosis. We did a blood test, but I was pretty sure of her condition, even before we got the positive results.

     I have been giving her prednisone daily for a year now, and feeding her as often as she will eat--even if she wants to wake me up five times a night to be fed. As it turns out, with insulinoma, that worst thing you can do is let the ferret go too long without food, since the condition drops blood sugar to a dangerous level, leaving the ferret collapsibly weak. If it gets too low, the ferret will have siezures or slip into a coma and die. I now believe, in fact, that this is exactly how my first Ivy died. If I had let my second Ivy go 24 hours without food, she would almost certainly have died the same way.

     Ivy is a bit thin, and she doesn't have the stamina she once had, but she still insists on going outside and playing with me and our three cats every night--and sometimes she insists on going out to play several times during the day and night. She only lasts for about 5-15 minutes each time, but at least I know she's enjoying herself. I don't know how much longer I have left with her, so I want her to enjoy the rest of her life as much as possible. She got her fur back, but now it's starting to grow thin again in places--unfortunately, just as the weather turns cold

     I won't get another ferret when I lose her. Murray died at four and a half years. Ivy is now six and a half. First Ivy died at 15 months. Ferrets only have a life span of 5-8 years normally, so that even if nothing goes wrong, they will not live all that long. But ferrets are also susceptible to a host of deadly conditions, and many of them die young. In fact, most of the people I know with ferrets lose theirs before the animal reaches five years of age.

     It's almost like having children that never live for more than a few years. People who don't get that attached to their pets have little sympathy for those of us who think of our pets as friends and family, but their scorn doesn't lessen the pain of losing a beloved pet.

     Look at most of the ferret articles on the various ferret websites. Do you realize how many of them are written as memorials to a beloved ferret that has died? I know Ivy's time is limited, though I keep hoping that it won't be too limited. I am not ready to lose her yet. But once she does go, I won't get another ferret. I can't bear to say goodbye to a beloved friend every few years. Instead, I will go to pet stores and play with every ferret I find, and wish I could find one that would live forever.


NOTE: My little Ivy died quietly in the afternoon on Thursday, May 3, 2001.  She had turned seven on March 29.
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~For more ferret stories and information, visit Pam McInnis' website, "Weasel Weekly."