Furry ferrets, not for everyone, can make unusual pets

Pausing with pets

April 22, 1992|By Ellen Hawks | Ellen Hawks,Staff Writer

Ferrets in the shower, ferrets as guests for dinner and breakfast, and ferrets as housekeepers are the routine for Diane and John Rogers. They own eight of the furry creatures.

Every morning when the ferrets are let out of their cages, Mrs. Rogers says, "They scurry around, running in and out of the shower with us -- and coming downstairs to share breakfast before going back to their cages. And, when we come home at night, they are out until bedtime," she says.

A ferret will train a family to stay neat, Mrs. Rogers says. "Suddenly you begin to pick up. Or your car keys, clothing, papers, shoes and anything left around Pausing with pets ends up in one of their special hiding places. Our daughter, Virginia, who no longer lives at home, became very neat after she saw her best piece of underwear suddenly go flying across the floor and disappear."

President of the Metropolitan Ferret Friends organization, which is holding a competition next month, the Baltimore County woman is a ferret booster. She says her family's ferrets are as intelligent or "even more intelligent than cats or dogs. One study equated the ferret's problem-solving ability to that of a primate."

Ferrets are lovely, congenial little pets, she says. The female, called a jill, weighs up to 2 pounds; the male, a hob, up to twice that much. Most people allergic to cats and dogs can own ferrets comfortably. And they need little room to roam and are easy to maintain on high-protein cat food.

If the 17-year cicadas could appear every year, they might replace the cat food for the family's ferrets, Mrs. Rogers jokes. "We live in an old house with an open chimney, and the cicadas came down that chimney by the dozens. Our little ferrets would gather at the fireplace, and we'd hear a loud zap after zap which ended a buzzing bug. They were like children popping malted balls in their mouths," she explained.

Ferrets have been domesticated as far back as 1000 B.C., says Mrs. Rogers.

"The only wild ferret -- and it is practically extinct -- is the blackfooted ferret of the Northwest, which is in a breeding program for return to the wild," she says.

Sandy Kempske, curator of mammals at the Baltimore Zoo, says the zoo has no ferrets because they are domesticated. "Most of our animals are European or need a management breeding program," she says.

"We do not encourage ferrets as pets," she says. "The ferret is no different from any other animal with teeth; it will bite,"

Ms. Kempske notes.

Mrs. Rogers says that ferrets may bite if they smell food on a person's hand. An unneutered male may put out a scent if it is in heat or frightened. "The ferret scent is easily washed off and far from the acrid scent a cat puts out," she says.

When unspayed, a ferret female will stay in heat until bred. If not bred, she will die from aplastic anemia. An owner, therefore, must do one of three things: spay the female, give her hormone shots which may be dangerous, or put her with a vasectomized male ferret with whom she could mate but not become pregnant.

Mrs. Rogers jokes that she is going to market used ferret litter and call it Mole-Be-Gone.

"Ferrets use a litter box just as a cat does. The odor is much less strong than the cats'. Each spring my co-workers at the Social Security Administration count on me to bring them in a bag of used ferret litter," she says. "They claim that just a little bit of the litter sprinkled in a mole hole will make the mole go away within 24 hours. No one can explain why -- except that it is some inborn fear of the ferret. Yet there are no wild ferrets here," she says.

Laws governing ferret ownership vary among area jurisdictions.

In Baltimore County, they are considered exotic pets; owners must obtain a permit, says Sewell Price, of the county's animal control division. "There is question as to whether rabies vaccine for them is as effective as it should be," says Mr. Price.

Earl Watson, acting director of the city's animal control division, says that the city considers them wild animals; ferrets are not allowed as pets.

Mrs. Rogers finds the laws unreasonable chiefly because "it is assumed the ferret is wild, and it is not, and that it may have rabies, and this is almost impossible. Ferrets do not run outside like a cat or a dog. They are given good veterinary care and have rabies shots and other inoculations necessary for any small animal."

(For details of laws governing ferrets where you live, contact your local health department or animal control bureau.)

The Metropolitan Ferret Friends will hold a two-ring championship show from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. May 16 in the Corner Kick Sports Arena in Gaithersburg. Males will be judged in one ring, females in the other.

Competitions include best decorated cage, best coat, biggest baby, darkest nose, longest tail, best dressed, fastest ferret through a tube and fastest paper bag escape.

Show admission is $3 for adults, $1.50 children ages 12 to 18 and free for those under 12.

For information about keeping ferrets as pets or about the ferret show, call Mrs. Rogers at (410) 448-1281.

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