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Swear, Mom, I Didn't Hear You Say No
Has it ever happened that you heard a
sound and were not quite sure where it came from? This happens to humans
a lot—but not to ferrets! If I even so much as rustle a cereal box,
Little Bear comes running from anywhere in the house to get a treat of
Kix. Rascal can somehow hear the sound of bananas dropping into the
treat bowl (I've tried dropping similar-sounding foods, like cucumbers,
and got no response). Zodiac races to the door to greet me when she
hears the garage door open.
Ferrets have a highly developed sense of
hearing. They are unusually skilled at knowing the direction and
distance of a sound source, because the hearing receptors in their ears
can "map" auditory space better than the receptors of other
animals. Ferrets also have more "connections" between their
ears and their brain, so there is a lot of auditory information being
sent to the brain all the time. And because the information is of higher
quality (in terms of source, direction, and distance), a ferret can more
readily filter out what he doesn't need to pay attention to.
Wild ferrets (such as the American black-footed ferret, an endangered
cousin of the domestic ferret) typically hunt in the dark and sleep
underground in burrows. A keen sense of hearing (and smell) is necessary
to find food, sense danger, and navigate rabbit or prairie dog tunnels.
The auditory mapping ability, in particular, is necessary for getting
around in a maze of tunnels.
Though baby ferrets can't hear until they are about 30 days old—when
the ear canals open— the hearing system grows quickly after that,
reaching full development by the time the ferret is about 6 weeks old.
Normal ferret hearing is tuned to a higher range of pitch than human
hearing is. While humans hear sounds between 20 Hz and 17 kHz, ferrets
can hear sounds between 36 Hz and 44 kHz. (By comparison, dogs can also
hear sounds up to 44 kHz, and bats can hear only those sounds above
44 kHz.) Because of the higher hearing range, it's possible that ferrets
may react less to the deeper voices of human males. So guys, you may
have to call your ferrets in falsetto!
When a ferret mom is nursing her kits, her
hearing range will temporarily increase to include higher-pitched sounds
so that she can hear the squeaks of her babies. How a ferret's hearing
changes as a result of aging has not been well documented, but older
ferrets may rely more on what they hear as their eyesight worsens. My
senior ferrets, Misty and Sasha, seem to hear quite well.
Ferrets react strongly to the sound of squeaky toys because squeaks are
in the range that a ferret can hear best: 8 to 12 kHz. Many ferret
owners (including me!) train their ferrets to "come" to the
sound of a squeaky toy. In fact, my ferrets get very agitated and try to
attack the squeaker and the person squeaking. Some people think that the
reason ferrets react so strongly to squeaky toys is that the toy sounds
like a kit in distress.
I use the squeaky toys only in emergencies—when I can't locate one of
my crew—or when I have to gather everyone up quickly (like when we are
late for our vet appointment!). I don't want to upset the ferrets
(especially since several of them will attack my ankles or try to shinny
up my leg to get at the squeaky), and I don't want to lose effectiveness
over time. I always reward them when they come.
Of course, ferrets' highly developed sense
of hearing seems also to be highly selective: Just because they can hear
well doesn't mean they pay attention. Ferrets are curious critters who
react to the most interesting thing in their environment, which may be a
potted plant to dig up rather than the sound of your voice shouting
"No!" A ferret may seem to come when you call his name, but
that may be because you are more interesting than whatever he was doing
at the time you called.
And sometimes no amount of sound can dissuade a ferret from an
interesting task at hand, such as hiding your socks. Additionally, when
ferrets are in deep sleep, sounds may not rouse them (or their brains
may map the sound as unimportant). When Little Bear, Rascal, and Zodiac
are in the "zone" (extremely comfortable sleep mode), no
amount of noise bothers these guys. I can vacuum, run the garbage
disposal, play loud music, and they just snooze away.
Ferrets (even adults) are like human children: They may have excellent
hearing (though some ferrets are deaf), but they can be annoyingly
deficient when it comes to listening.