WINTER WEASELS

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Cold weather doesn't have to be a hassle for you and your ferrets. Winter can even bring special kinds of fun, as long as you're careful. These tips will help keep your fuzzies safe and cozy during the cold winter months.
by Erika Matulich, Ph.D.
Volume 2, Number 6
November/December 1999
 
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Disclaimer:
You should not rely on the veterinary advice or information provided on this site for diagnosis or treatment of any specific situation. Always consult your own veterinarian for specific advice concerning the medical condition or treatment of your own pet or animal.

WINTER WEASELS
 
Nippy nights and frozen noses mean that wintertime has arrived! What do we need to watch out for with our weasels when winter weather awaits?
 
WINTER WEIGHT WATCHERS
Ferrets of both genders can have seasonal weight changes. Wintertime ferrets can get quite fat! In fact, they can weigh 30-40% more in the wintertime than in the summer, according to James Fox and Judi Bell, DVMs. The weight gain typically happens in late November, but is dependent on the temperature and light levels your ferret experiences. At the same time weight gain happens, fur changes are likely to occur.
 
WINTER COAT CHANGES
To prepare for winter, ferrets often grow in a new winter coat. In particular, the fluffy, lighter-colored undercoat grows in much thicker, which may make your ferret appear puffier and paler in color. Also, some of the darker summer guard hairs will be shed, which contributes to a color change. Your ferret may also grow in a mask, or change the configuration of their existing mask. Some of my ferrets have a full mask in the winter and just eye patches in the summer. Others change from a round, full-face winter mask to a pointy widowís-peak mask in summer. Try taking pictures of your ferret at different times of the year and then compare the photos. Youíll be amazed at how different your ferret looks!
 
HAIR BALL PREVENTION
When ferrets shed their coat in spring and fall, there is always the potential of your ferret getting a hairball. When ferrets groom themselves or their buddies, they can accidentally swallow their shedding fur. Unfortunately, ferrets rarely cough up their hairballs like cats do, so the hairballs stay in the stomach, getting larger and larger, and causing potentially dangerous blockages. At this point, the hairball must be surgically removed. To stop a hairball from forming, Dr. Susan Brown, DVM recommends using a cat laxative hairball paste as a preventive. I put a half-inch ribbon of Laxatone paste on a spoon and feed it to my ferrets once a week during shedding periods. My ferrets love the sweet taste and lick it right up! If you have ferrets who seem to shed frequently, or you have a cat in the house, you may want to use hairball preventive all year long and not just seasonally. Ferrets have been reported to have hairballs that are composed entirely of cat hair!
 
WORRIED ABOUT NO WINTER CHANGES?
The amount of winter weight and coat changes can vary from ferret to ferret. Some changes are dramatic, and others very subtle. I have noticed with my ferrets that males and younger ferrets tend to show more obvious fur and weight changes than females and older ferrets. I have also noticed that unaltered ferrets seem to show more dramatic seasonal changes. Also remember that ferret hormones are often triggered by changes in light levels. The amounts of artificial and natural light your ferret is exposed to may affect the amount of seasonal changes. Finally, there are a few ferrets who just "donít get it." My ferret Stevie seems to be backwards, and grows a nice thick fat layer and fur coat just in time for the hot Florida summer, and loses it all again in winter. Stevieís veterinarian has run several tests on him to check for problems, because weight fluctuations out of season could indicate health problems. But Stevie continues to check out as normal, so I have stopped worrying.
 
ACTIVITY LEVELS
Many ferret owners report activity level changes during the winter, but these changes are a hot topic of debate! It seems as though some ferrets greatly reduce their activity during the winter, and owners report a state of semi-hibernation. This lack of activity may be a result of weight gain, because it is more difficult for a ferret to bounce around with all that extra fat. It may also be that the ferret is hot, because your house is kept warm and your ferret has extra fur. I have found that my ferrets are more active in winter, probably because the house is kept at a cooler temperature which is more comfortable for ferrets. Instead of lounging around on the tile floor to keep cool, my ferrets bounce all over the house and then find nice blankets to snuggle in.
 
CRAVING THE COLD INDOORS
Your ferret is actually happier in frostier temperatures. Overall, ferrets are cool-weather animals, and donít handle heat well. If your ferrets are healthy and have a full winter coat, they will be quite happy living in what we would consider chilly indoor temperatures (such as 60 F or 15 C). In even colder temperatures, your ferret will be perfectly happy snuggling in plenty of fleecy sleep sacks, soft blankets, or fluffy towels. In fact, if you need the heat cranked up for your own wintertime comfort, keep your ferrets in a colder room.
 
THE OUTDOOR WINTER WONDERLAND
Healthy ferrets can easily handle going outdoors in cold weather. My ferrets loved going to the park in Wisconsin and would play for several hours at temperatures a few degrees above freezing. Most ferrets will communicate with you when they get too cold: bring them inside when they shiver too much, paw at the door, climb inside your clothing, or stop playing and just sit there. Donít ever force your ferret to stay outside longer than he wants to! On the other hand, Gizmo wanted to play and play and did not want to go inside even when she was starting to turn blue! Outdoor play should be limited to a few minutes (or eliminated) at temperatures below freezing, in windy conditions, or if it is wet. In extremely cold conditions, your ferrets run the risk of having their nose, tongue, or paws frozen to icy or supercold surfaces. Of course any ferret playing outdoors should wear a harness and leash.
 
Some ferrets love to play in snow and ice. Gizmo enjoyed tunneling under and digging through the snow and flipping snow in the air with her nose. Other ferrets run to slide on the ice like an otter. However, most of my ferrets thought that snow and ice was too wet cold and they just wanted to go inside. I also tried taking snow inside and filling my bathtub with it, but again, only Gizmo was interested.
 
WINTER WEATHER FERRET FASHIONS
There are plenty of adorable ferret raincoats, jackets, shirts, and sweaters on the marketplace that have potential for keeping your ferret warm during an outdoor adventure. However, I have not had much luck with any of my ferrets keeping clothing on. Their short legs step right out of the armholes, and off they go into the snow, naked as a jaybird! I have cut up countless knee socks in an attempt to make ferret sweaters with no luck. My mother finally knitted a custom sweater for Gizmoís snow adventures that did not come off easily. Unfortunately, because Gizmo walked close to the ground, the sweater quickly became wet. I finally decided that ferrets donít really have a use for winter clothing, as wet, cold fabric was worse than wet, warm fur.
 
DRY SKIN AND FEET
Whether indoors or out, your ferret can suffer from dry skin in the wintertime, just as you do. Cold temperatures reduce the amount of moisture that the air can carry, and our heating systems further dry out the air in our houses. Dry skin can crack, allowing infections to enter the body. Ferret feet are especially prone to this problem. Rubbing a little petroleum jelly on your ferretís paw pads can help alleviate painful chapped skin conditions. Adding more essential fatty acids to the diet (such as Linatone or Ferretone) can also help. Humans, ferrets, and other pets can benefit from having a humidifier running, at least during the night.
 
BRINGING PLANTS IN
During the winter, we often bring our potted plants indoors to protect them from the cold. However, you need to also protect your plants from your ferrets! Ferrets love to dig up plants, and many houseplants are potentially toxic if your ferret decides to chew on the foliage or roots. Keep your plants out of ferret reach for their protection and your sanity. My ferrets have been able to fling dirt and plant parts as far as 15 feet, and love tracking potting soil all over the house.
 
WINTER WARMING: FIREPLACES and SPACE HEATERS
Ferrets find fireplaces and space heaters fascinating, and will usually insist on investigating. Unfortunately, ferrets have nerve endings that take awhile to communicate pain to their brain. Your ferret can become severely burned by a space heater or flame before figuring out what "hot" means, so donít assume your ferret will back away from the heat of a fireplace or appliance. Because the pain of the burn is delayed, your ferret may not associate the fire or heater with the burn, and therefore will not learn a lesson and leave the heat alone the next time.
 
Glass doors in front of your fireplace are the best safety device, or a heavyweight fireplace screen that ferrets cannot climb or move. The mesh metal fireplace curtains are not adequate protection for your ferret because they can easily open these curtains. Keep your fire and your ferrets supervised, especially when starting or tending a fire. Even when there is no fire burning, fireplaces are dangerous. Ferrets enjoy rolling in ashes which can cause respiratory problems. Ferrets can also get lodged in vent passages, hardware for screen attachments, or dampers and flues.
 
Ferrets should have no access to space heaters. I tried putting a screen around my space heater, but the ferrets managed to climb over or knock it down. When I elevated the space heater on a stool, the ferrets pulled it down by climbing up the power cord in their efforts to investigate. I finally put the space heater on the kitchen counter with the cord plugged in up high, but this did not heat the space I wanted. Heavy socks or slippers have been an easier alternative!
 
COLD and FLU SEASON
Ferret colds or flus are generally somewhat more severe and tend to last longer than they do
in humans, but are usually not life-threatening. Cold and flu viruses thrive in wintertime warm and dry indoor environments. A humidifier could help reduce susceptibility to respiratory diseases, and also make us and our ferrets more comfortable. However, humidifiers may also spread certain bacteria and fungi that like moist environments. Be sure to change the water and wipe out the reservoir daily. If you donít have a humidifier, you can boil water on the top of your stove, or run hot water in your bathroom and sit with your ferret in the steam for five minutes.
 
Most ferret resources state in general terms that ferrets can catch colds and flus from humans. Although studies show that ferrets can catch and transmit influenza viruses, knowledge about "the common cold" is less clear. There is no evidence that ferrets are susceptible to rhinoviruses, adenoviruses and coronaviruses that cause the human cold, according to Bruce Williams, DVM, and Jeff Johnston, epidemiologist. Jeff Johnston, a specialist in infectious diseases, notes that there are hundreds of different strains of cold viruses, which is why you are never totally immune to the common cold. Therefore, these experts are not saying that ferrets cannot get cold viruses, just that it hasn't been scientifically documented if they do, and which specific viruses can be passed between humans and ferrets.
 
However, both Williams and Johnston point out that ferrets are certainly susceptible to the influenza virus, which may masquerade as a cold in humans. Most ferret flus are type A, but Karen Rosenthal, DVM points out that several strains of the human influenza virus can infect ferrets. Ferrets can catch the flu from other infected ferrets or humans, and can transmit the disease back to other ferrets and humans. If you have cold or flu symptoms, avoid handling or breathing on your ferret, or wash your hands before touching your ferret handling ferret food, water, toys, and so on.
 
TREATING COLD/FLU SYMPTOMS
Sick ferrets can cough, wheeze, sneeze, sniffle, and run a fever, just like we do. They also experience lethargy, decreased appetites, runny noses, and irritated mucous membranes. And, just like humans, be sure your ferrets eat, drink plenty of fluids, and get lots of rest while they are recovering. Keep your ferret out of drafts and provide plenty of coverups to snuggle in. Unfortunately, it takes longer for a ferret to get well than a human, about 10-21 days, according to Bruce Williams, DVM. Most ferrets get better within two weeks.
 
If your ferret has decreased appetite, try meat baby food, nutritional supplements, or softened kibble. You can also prevent dehydration by offering your ferret Pedialyte in addition to their water. However, donít substitute the Pedialyte, because if your ferret doesnít want to drink it, even further dehydration will happen instead.
 
You and your veterinarian should consider using antibiotics to prevent secondary bacterial infections while the illness has weakened your ferretís immune system. Amoxicillin (10 mg/lb) is usually the antibiotic of choice.
 
For sneezing and congestion, Susan Brown, DVM recommends the antihistamine product
Chlor-Trimeton at a dosage of 1/4 tablet 2 times daily for sneezing that may interfere with sleeping or eating. An alternative is pediatric Triaminic syrup for colds. Be sure you get the kind for infants that does not have alcohol or added ingredients for symptoms your ferret does not have. Ferrets seem to prefer the orange flavor. You can dose your ferret between 0.10-0.25 cc (3-8 drops) twice a day, depending on the weight of the ferret and the severity of the symptoms. Do NOT use aspirin to reduce fever in your ferret.
 
If you need help with dosages or symptoms persist for more than a few weeks, donít hesitate to contact your veterinarian. Veterinary assistance may also be needed for kits, elderly ferrets, and ferrets who have other diseases that have already weakened their immune systems. The goal is to prevent further respiratory infection that could lead to potentially dangerous pneumonia. Keep checking your ferretís symptoms and temperature (normal is 101-103ļ F).
 
OTHER WINTER WARNINGS
There are several wintertime substances that could also make your ferret sick. Never allow your ferret access to any sort of antifreeze. The substance tastes good to ferrets, but can kill them. Also, if you sprinkle rock salt or other de-icing chemicals outside, be sure not to track in these substances or let your ferrets lick your boots! If you need to store potentially dangerous items inside to protect from winterís cold (such as car batteries, gasoline cans, paint, solvents, or yard chemicals), make sure your ferret cannot access these items.
 
HOLIDAY HINTS
Wintertime holidays can also bring a host of new ferret-proofing challenges. Ferrets need to be kept away from holiday food, drink, and candies. Christmas trees, holiday lighting, gifts, and decorations can all provide ferret folly opportunities. Your ferrets should also be put away when holiday visitors come to your home.
 
WINDING UP THE WINTER
Winter can be both a fun and challenging time for you and your ferrets. Expect some changes in your fuzzies, and let them enjoy the cooler weather. I hope you and your fuzzballs have a wonderful winter!