Message Number: YG4930 | New FHL Archives Search
From: RRC
Date: 2001-06-27 14:20:00 UTC
Subject: Re: How to stimulate an intelligent ferret....

Q (from FOB): How can I offer [my ferret] more mental stimulation? I'm
using a plastic cup, placing a treat under that, and he just tips it
over in 0.2 seconds. He has a treatball, but that's already on the
toughest level. He has lots of toys, 3 guys who loves to play with him,
he has me dying to please him - what is he missing???"

A: If you want to dumb him up, just ask him to do a trick in front of a
stranger. Works every time....

Ferrets are very intelligent; some studies have shown their
problem-solving abilities to be at a level as high as primates of the
same size. Yet they are tremendously independent, which is
misinterpreted by some to mean they are not very smart. Nothing is
farther from the truth. However, a ferret is not a dog and does not
respond the same way to commands, so the myth of their stupidity remains
generally accepted.

Ferrets housed in cages basically live in sterile environments
regardless of the number of objects in the cage. This is because ferrets
explore and "learn" new objects so rapidly that they become "background
noise." We humans do the same thing; we memorize our environment and
only notice new things, or items which have been moved (especially in MY
tool room!). Ferrets inherited this knack from their polecat
progenitors, who use the technique to increase the chances of finding
food. Think of it this way; a polecat has learned a particular region of
forest, exploring all possibilities of food procurement. If you assign
probability values to each object in terms of the chances of finding
food, then all explored areas have a very low value (assuming the
polecat has consumed the food which may be hidden there). But new areas,
or new objects in the environment, have an unknown value, which is
potentially higher than the low values which constitute the "background
noise." The polecat explores those areas with the urgency of a person
with Montezuma's Revenge searches for a quarter to enter a pay toilet.
This technique is part of what is loosely termed "optimal foraging
theory", which you are blessed not to learn.

You have seen this same thing in your ferrets at home. Many times I have
walked into a room—no ferrets in sight—and dropped a box or other
unknown object on the floor. Within seconds, I'll find ferrets swarming
the new object, as if they materialized from nowhere. New objects stand
out from the environment like skyscrapers, and are first noticed by
ferrets. Investigation of these new objects cause intellectual
stimulation as the ferret uses its various senses to figure out what
exactly is there. Is it food? Is it a danger? Has it been marked? What
is that strange odor? That sort of thing. The trouble is, how many new
objects can you own? Once they have been scanned by the ferret, they
drop into the background and are no longer intellectual stimulants. Now
you understand why ferrets housed in cages live in sterile environments
even though there may be dozens of toys present?

Ferrets use their nose like primates use their eyes. Have you ever
noticed a small child wants to hold an object when looking at it (ever
hear you look with your eyes, not your fingers?)? That is so they can
turn it in any direction so they can see all parts easily (there is also
a tactile aspect which ferrets also share, only they use their mouths
rather than fingers). Ferrets do the same thing, placing their nose on
everything they investigate. Which is why you should never ask nudists
over to your house when the ferrets are out playing. The point is,
ferrets need to have their SENSE OF SMELL stimulated. Colorful objects
may stimulate the owner, but the ferret is looking for a good stink.
Once everything in the environment takes on the smell of everything
else, it is like looking at a featureless gray wall. In other words, a
sterile environment.

There are four basic ways to get around this problem: 1. Introduction of
odors or objects, 2. Periodic removal and reintroduction of objects, 3.
Extended human-ferret play, and 4. Introduction of new tasks, or
behavior training. The introduction of new odors or objects is
self-explanatory. EVERY time I bring home fast food, the sack is dropped
for the ferrets to explore (they particularly love KFC and Taco Bell
bags). Even when I return home from buying groceries, the boxes or bags
become part of the ferret's environment, duly supervised to prevent
ingestion of plastic. I try to let my ferrets "discover" a new object or
two per day.

Periodic removal and reintroduction of objects is also self-explanatory.
You just take part of their toys outside the room and periodically
return them to the ferret's environment. This always has a stimulating
effect, but it becomes muted after a while. When that happens, I simply
toss the toys into the washing machine (set on cold water, minimal soap,
and even rubber or wooden objects come through ok), then let them air
dry OUTSIDE for a couple days to soak up strange odors. Sometimes I will
spray on some cologne, animal scents, or food concentrates to stimulate
interest. The idea is to create environmental "skyscrapers", easily
visible against background smells.

Extended human-ferret play is one of the best solutions. Play IS mental
stimulation, and playing with the ferret solves most of the problem. I
spend at least an hour per day in ACTIVE play with my group of ferrets,
which does NOT mean I pet them while answering email. Active play means
just that; I actively play with them, rolling them on the floor,
tickling their bellies, whatever. It requires PHYSICAL contact at the
ferret's level, and continuing it until the ferret decides they have had
enough. I have found that a long period of active play usually evolves
into an extended period of grooming. I have found nor better way to
reinforce the ferret-human bond than by extended play, and all my guys
are lap ferrets.

The other best solution is the introduction of new tasks, or behavior
training. Ferrets are just as easy to train as dogs, BUT they come at it
from a different angle. Some of my ferrets can stand up on command,
others fetch objects, most come when verbally called (ALL come when
summoned with a whistle), about half roll over, and several will play
dead. Some of the ferrets have learned these behaviors by watching me
train other ferrets, which is testimony of their intelligence. It would
be relatively easy for me to train ferrets to climb ladders, pull
objects through pipes, ride skateboards, whatever. Not only is learning
the behavior intellectually stimulating, but the time spent with you is
as well. Remember, YOU are not "background noise" to the ferret, but
something of constant new interest.

The stimulation of hunting behaviors IS a form of mental stimulation,
but dropping a mouse on the floor hardly requires much problem solving.
You can do a much better job by creating mazes or obstacle courses for
favored treats. Once or twice a week, I build out of concrete blocks,
boards, boxes and ladders an obstacle course which leads to a treat
area. When a ferret makes it to the winner's circle, I give them a treat
and put them back at the beginning. The course requires some memory and
problem solving skills and lots of physical effort. I have found I have
to remove the ferrets from the room while I am building the maze, or
they will be at the top before I finish.

There are also other things you can do, such as taking your ferret
outside for walks (use a leash), or allow them to dig or swim (I have a
couple of hard plastic infant swimming pools; they cost less than $10 at
K-mart or Walmart. One is used as a swimming pool, and I dump in a load
of ice cubes, floating toys, treats, whatever. Place a couple of bricks
in the bottom of the pool, and a few on the outside so ferrets can climb
in and out when wet. The other is usually filled with a sandy loam and
the ferrets are allowed to dig as long as they desire. Both are LOVED by
my group. Use your imagination; you can safely assume that if your
ferret shows strong interest, they are being mentally stimulated. Just
remember to try to stimulate as many of the ferret's senses as possible
at one time. Most importantly, NEVER forget the importance of odor to
the ferret. Ferrets use their noses like humans use their eyes.

On my soapbox for a moment; the one thing that really bothers me are
ferret owners who spend HOURS on the internet TALKING about their
ferrets, but who have a hard time finding an hour to pull ferts out of
their sterile environments for play. Keeping a ferret in an environment
which offers little or no sensory stimulation is a form of mental
cruelty. It is enforced boredom, which at the very least is a form of
neglect. This is true with free-roaming ferrets, such as at my house,
and is especially true for caged ferrets. At least once a day, play with
your ferrets UNTIL they are tired BEFORE you log online. It's the
ethical and moral thing to do. If you don't have time to PLAY with your
ferrets, WHY do you own them?

Bob C