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Is Your Child Ready for a Pet Ferret?

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Readying kids for pet ferrets. Playful puppies can be irresistible and frisky kittens adorable. But when it comes to pets, there are few as undeniably cute and snuggly as ferrets. And if you have a child who ever gets an opportunity to see or hold a ferret, chances are that you'll be inundated with pleas to own one.

Before heading to the pet store to ferret out the right furry companion for your family, however, experts say it's important to consider the age and maturity of your child first: Is your son or daughter old enough to handle and care for a ferret responsibly?

Age-old question

Ask Shana Savikko, DVM, veterinary advisor for the American Animal Hospital Association, Lakewood, Colo., and she'll tell you that young children and ferrets probably won't make a great match.

"I do not recommend ferrets in household with children under six years of age because of the possibility that they may inadvertently harm the ferret,'' Savikko said. "Ferrets are curious little creatures and tend to bite when startled or handled roughly.''

Troy Lynn Eckart, ferret behavior specialist with Ferret Family Services, Manhattan, Kan., said that while some children as young as six years old can be responsible, "others may not reach that level of care until they are 12. A very activities-involved child, such as with school, groups and church, may not want to devote the necessary time to care for ferrets.''

When children are hungry or thirsty, "they go to their parents and tell them, or they get food or water themselves,'' Eckart said. "But they may not understand that the ferret depends on that same care from the young child.''

Mary McCarty-Houser, director of the Pennsylvania Ferret Rescue Association of Centre County, Boalsburg, Pa., has more stringent standards. She usually recommends that children be at least 10 years old, "unless the family is well-versed with pets or the parent thinks the child is mature enough to be left alone with the ferret at a slightly younger age.''

Critter commitments

Ferrets demand more from their owners than a fresh dish of food, a large, clean cage and a few minutes of fur stroking.

"If a child has chores to do, it isn't a big deal if they miss a day or two. But if they miss a day or two of caring for a ferret, it could be stressful and possibly deadly to the ferret,'' Eckart said. "Ferrets are living, breathing beings that experience emotions and depend on their caretakers for their very lives.''

Single ferrets will need at least one hour a day of play time with you and another hour or so of play time on their own, out of their enclosure, Savikko said.

"Ferrets require a good amount of time for socializing, playing and interacting with their human family every day,'' Eckart said. "The more socialized time, the more relaxed and responsive the ferret is.''

"A routine is necessary for the health and well-being of any ferret, including routines for daily feeding, exercise, cleaning and interaction,'' Savikko said. "Ferrets also need to be groomed on a regular basis. And regular veterinary care needs to be part of your ferret's routine, too.''

A room with a chew

It may also not be a good idea to place the ferret's cage in your child's room, where it can be easily forgotten about, Savikko said.

"If the room is 'ferret-proofed,' the ferret can stay in the child's room as long as a responsible adult frequently checks on the enclosure to make sure it is clean and safe and that the ferret has been fed and watered each day,'' Savikko said.

"I know of a situation where a 10-year-old boy with a ferret cage in his bedroom almost starved his pet to death,'' Eckart said. "He got busy with school and friends and wasn't feeding, watering or cleaning the cage.''

Handle with care

If you've decided to introduce a ferret into your family, it's vital to teach your child how to properly pick up and handle this delicate pet.

"Very young children do not realize their strength and could easily harm a fragile ferret,'' Eckart said. "I know of one case where a two-year-old boy threw a ferret down a flight of stairs and broke its neck while the parents were only a few feet away.''

Savikko offers the following tips for ferret handling:

  • Grasp the animal around its abdomen or chest and carefully pick it up.
  • Always handle the pet gently and calmly.
  • Be aware that ferrets have poor eyesight and should not be put into situations where they could fall from any height or where they feel trapped, to which they can react with aggression.
  • If you do not know the temperament of the ferret, don't bring it close to your face. A nose or ear can look like a wonderful chew toy.

While most socialized ferrets don't present a major biting risk, a startled or roughly handled ferret, however, "will defend itself with its teeth,'' Savikko said. "They need to be kept up to date on their rabies vaccine in case there is a bite that breaks the skin.''

Additionally, teach your children about dangers to ferrets such as reclining or folding furniture, closing doors, and walking carefully to avoid stepping on the animal, Eckart said.

"Children who have been taught to handle a ferret appropriately still need supervision when it comes to the care of these little creatures,'' Savikko said. "I've seen teenagers drop a wiggly ferret, leading to escapes and injury.''

Ultimately, McCarty-Houser said, "I don't think children should have pets -- families should have pets. Children are unable to be completely responsible for pets, so I think parents need to figure out what type of pet they want and then work with the children to be able to be around that pet and handle them appropriately.''

Credit: Reveiwed by Amy I. Attas, V.M.D.
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