Recent years have seen an increase in the number of deaf ferrets. Many ferret owners bring home their new kit and find themselves dealing with a ferret that “ignores” them or displays different behaviors from their other ferrets. He may be playing too rough with your other ferrets. You wonder if perhaps it was a mistake to get a new ferret.
This has happened to countless ferret owners, including me. When I first brought Bonk home, he seemed very different from my other ferrets. He was very vocal, dooking and screaming in his cage, while he was running around, or during supervised playtimes with his new friends. We weren’t having any luck with his bite training, and we started to wonder if the other ferrets would ever accept him. Then one day while he was running around, we called to him and didn’t get the slightest response. Not even the perfunctory “What do you want” glance. That’s when we first thought, “Could our ferret be deaf?”
Parenting a deaf ferret isn’t all that different than parenting a regular ferret. Their lives don’t suffer any for not being able to hear, and they can still be the loving, playful ferrets that hearing ferrets can be. There are just a few things you should know if you are the parent of a deaf ferret.
Waardenburg Syndrome – Causes of deafness in ferrets
There are a variety of causes of deafness in ferrets – infection, medication, traumatic injury, untreated ear mites, disease. But the most common cause is genetic defect due to Waardenburg Syndrome. Ferrets that have Waardenburg usually have an abundance of white fur around their heads. Dark-Eyed Whites (DEWs), Pandas (white heads reaching down to their shoulders), and Blazes (a white stripe running down the middle of their head to their neck) most commonly have Waardenburg Syndrome. The disease causes the hearing mechanism of the inner ear to develop improperly, which leads to varying levels of deafness. Some ferrets are completely deaf, others can hear certain pitches. If your ferret is a panda or a blaze, chances are more than 70% that he is at least partially deaf.
Testing for Deafness
Don’t rely on testing your ferret in the veterinarian’s office, do it yourself at home first. Testing your ferret’s hearing in the veterinarian’s office is kind of like trying to get a little kid to sit still at an amusement park – there are just way too many new and interesting things to pay attention to besides you! Test your ferret at home, preferably in a room without any other animals so the potentially deaf ferret can’t get any cues from his friends. Don’t just do one test and diagnose him. Make different noises at different volumes to see if he is completely deaf or only partially deaf.
Some tests that you can do are:
- Shake a can of pennies
- Squeak a squeaky toy
- Make your cell phone ring
- Turn on a vacuum cleaner
This last test is actually better done in the room with all of your ferrets. Most ferrets will scatter if they hear the vacuum, but the deaf ferret would just stand there looking around for the source of the neat vibrations he’s feeling!
Always make sure that you are out of your ferret’s line of sight when you do these tests. If he can see you, you won’t know if he’s reacting to your movement or the sound. Test him a few days in a row, just to be positive.
Training & Behavioral Issues
So now that you know your ferret is deaf, how will this affect how you interact with him? For starters, you will have to figure out different training methods. You can’t just say “No,” and expect him to do anything. Some training methods I found helpful were exaggerated facial gestures and scruffing. For instance, when Bonk would bite, I would scruff him and make a mad face. I would still say no, just because it was force of habit, but it was the expression on my face that told him he was in trouble. For litter training, every time Bonk would go in the litter box, I would stand there giving him a big smile and a thumbs up. Then when he finished, he would immediately get a treat. He caught on very quickly, and to this day, over 2 years after we brought him home, he still looks at me for the reassurance that he’s being a “good boy!” Figure out which method works with your ferret, and stick to it!
Training deaf ferrets to come to you can be a little trickier. Obviously they can’t hear you calling them, so you will need to figure out what works best with your ferret. To get Bonk to come, we bang on the floor to get his attention. Then I curl my fingers towards myself to get him to come over. When we were first training him to do this, he received a treat every time he came over. Now he gets treats occasionally just to reinforce the training, but mostly he gets cuddles.
Unfortunately, deaf ferrets are often thought to be problem biters, but this is simply because their owners startle them. Imagine – you’re just walking around, doing ferrety things, and all of a sudden you’re whisked four feet into the air with no warning. You would bite too! Always let your deaf ferret know that you’re there; warn him of your presence before you pick him up or interact with him in any way. You can do this by gently touching his back, blowing gently across his fur (but not in his face – that’s not very pleasant), or tap lightly on the cage or on the floor. You can use these methods to gently wake him up too.
Some ferret owners have seen different behaviors in their deaf ferrets. These are by no means indicative of deafness, but they are some of the behaviors I have seen in Bonk:
- Flipping his head around a lot, especially when being held
- No fear of water – Bonk loves to snorkel (dip his head under the water)
- Much more vocal than the other ferrets
- Explores and sniffs his surroundings more
Every deaf ferret is going to have his own little quirks. These are just a few of the ones that Bonk displays!
If your ferrets have free roam of a large area, you might find it helpful to put a bell collar on your deaf fuzzy. Make sure to use a breakaway collar, so if he gets hung up on anything, he won’t hurt himself. A bell collar will allow you to know where he is, which is definitely a useful thing with a ferret that can’t hear you calling him!
While it’s true that deaf ferrets won’t hear your verbal cues during training, that doesn’t mean that you can’t still talk to them. For instance I like to pick Bonk up and snuggles him into my chest with his head under my chin. Then I talk to him, making my voice as deep as possible. He feels the vibrations, and he seems to find it soothing.
It’s easy to form a special bond with a deaf ferret, and my relationship with Bonk is different than my relationship with my other ferrets. I wouldn’t give him up for anything, and once you bond with your deaf fuzzy, I guarantee you will feel the same!