How to Keep Your Ferrets Happy
Most ferrets must be caged for at least part of the day. To keep them happy and stimulated, try these tips to liven up their day.
Ferrets are very smart critters. If you have one, you've probably learned that already by watching him solve problems like how to get to the treats on that high shelf. If you don't have a ferret, this is a factor to consider before buying one. Ferrets are problem solvers and they'll usually spend a while trying to get something or do something they want. While this is often endearing (watching a chubby ferret jump and jump and jump trying to get to the bag of treats that you know he can't get), it can also be very frustrating (walking in a room to find that the plant you put up on that high shelf was not so safe after all).
Most of us have a need to keep our ferrets caged at least part of the day. Sure, it would be great if they could be let loose 24 hours a day in a completely ferret proofed room, but that's not possible for most people. I know I would spend all day worrying about my ferrets if I left them out while I was at work. There's just too much risk. So, how do you keep a very smart creature happy while caged?
Ferrets love tubes, to the point of being obsessive. Can you manage to put some tubing in their cage? It doesn't have to be those fancy Super Pet tubes, although those are great if you have a Super Pet cage. You can cut lengths of dryer hose and tie them to the side of the cage with some cords or wire. Our ferrets' cage is set up right now so that the top level of the cage (which is covered with a heavy blanket to provide a dark nesting spot) is only accessible through a 8 foot length of tube that winds around the next-to-top level.
I use either wire or thin string (don't forget to check often that the ferrets aren't chewing it) to secure the tube up high and to bring it around corners, so that way it stay in place.
And the above idea brings me to another idea for cage enrichment. There are many many varieties of bedding available for ferrets. Different shapes, different textures, different thicknesses, different padding, etc.. it all makes for variation. Our ferrets have cotton t-shirts in one section, old sweatshirts in another, fleece blankets, thick berber cushions, not to mention hammocks made of fleece and lambswool, flat hammocks and pocketed hammocks, a basket with snuggly bedding in it, and two of those sort-of hammocks at PetCo, the catepillar one and the lobster one. Sometimes I'll find all four in the lambswool-lined pocketed hammock, and other times I'll fine one in the catepillar, one wrapped in a fleece blanket, one stretched out on the berber, and another curled up in the basket.
Another trick is to hide food in the cage. You can use one of those specially designed balls that dispenses treats out of a small opening when the ferrets roll it around. I try and make sure that any toys I put in the cage are on a full level, so it can't fall down to the litterbox level. Fill the ball with some of their regular food (you can put some of their kibble in a separate container with their treats, and the kibble will take on the smell of the treats), and the ferrets can work to get healthy food that smells/tastes like treats.
Another variation of that is to have two food bowls: one that always stays in the same spot, and another smaller one that I put in different places in the cage. I keep one in the same spot because I worry that my ferrets will lapse into stupidity and not be able to find the other food bowl.. I know, not likely.. but you never know. If you feed your ferrets a combination of foods (mine get Totally Ferret, Iams Kitten, Eukanuba Kitten, and Nutromax Kitten), you can fill the little bowl with just one kind of food.. though you should probably remember to set some aside before mixing the bags together - otherwise you'll end up picking out kibble piece by piece. And if you're lazy, you can always sprinkle a few treats in amongst their bedding and tubes for them to find.
If your ferrets like Cheweasels, you can secure one to the side of the cage using a metal shower ring. They'll probably pull and pull at it, trying to bring it to their favorite hiding spot. Some other toys can be dangled from the cage, but be very cautious. Some ferrets are okay with those types of things, but others aren't. I've gotten a few dangling toys from the bird section in the petstore (avoid anything that they can chew a piece off of), and I also use some McDonald's Happy Meal toys - keychain sized stuffed Furbies and Winnie the Pooh characters with plastic hooks. My ferrets are perfectly reliable around stuffed animals, though yours may not be. Until you're sure, check stuffed items every day.. and even when you are sure, still check them frequently. Super Pet makes the toy that has a bell inside and hangs from the top of the cage, dispensing treats.
The key to keeping your ferrets happy and "enriched" is to keep things changing. Moving bedding from one floor to another, rotating sets of bedding, and washing bedding frequently all gives the appearance of newness. If your ferrets like to stash their favorite toys, raid their hidey holes every now and then, and place all their toys in one spot so that they have to hide them again. If they're used to a water bottle on one level, move it to another. If their dark hidey spot is always the top floor, see if you can make it another floor instead. Be creative. Working to keep your ferrets actively interested in things while caged not only helps them, but makes you feel less guilty about caging them when necessary.