As you probably know, ferrets are very intelligent animals! They have a high capacity for learning that lends itself to a natural curiosity, and their various senses give them a wealth of information. Unfortunately, domesticated ferrets don’t have nearly the amount of stimuli in their environment that they need, which is where the concept of “ferret enrichment” comes into play. But what is ferret enrichment? Why is it important, and what can we as ferret owners do to enrich our ferrets’ lives?
The main purpose of enrichment is to simulate your ferret’s natural habitat and activities, thereby stimulating its natural instincts, innate intelligence and curiosity. To understand what this means, it’s important to understand the nature of your ferret’s intelligence. Ferrets over the years have been bred to be curious, to have amazing problem-solving abilities and memory, and to be able to focus on the task at hand. (Anyone who has watched their ferret attempt to escape from a room can attest to this!) This means that the world they live in day after day can be very boring for them. There are no new situations to test them and stimulate them. They eat the same food, live in the same cage, play with the same toys – if you were a ferret, you’d be bored in this situation too!
Without anything to challenge them, ferrets become bored and stressed and begin to engage in some of the behaviors you see in caged ferrets – moving around or digging at the litter box and the food dish, rearranging bedding, etc. These actions are just their desperate attempts to entertain themselves. But nothing changes (except now their litter box is fastened down and their food bowl is higher up), and the boredom leads to depression, stress, and a decrease in intelligence, all of which can lead to illness and shorten your ferret’s lifespan!
After reading this information, you might be saying, “My ferrets are free roam, so this isn’t a problem for me.” Wrong! Your ferrets may have a larger space to play in, but they still encounter the same things every day. The size of the cage is not as important as some make it out to be; a ferret can be just as bored and depressed in a large room as it can in small cage. It’s what’s in the ferret’s environment that makes the difference.
So now that you know how important it is, what are you supposed to do about it? In what way can you provide enrichment?
Turn your ferret’s cage into a real habitat
As mentioned above, a small cage with the proper enrichment can be better than a large room with nothing to stimulate your ferret! One of the main causes of stress for ferrets is being caged without anything to entertain and stimulate them.
There is a common misconception that ferrets sleep when they’re in their cage, so what’s in the cage doesn’t matter. This is completely untrue! The amount a ferret sleeps isn’t just a matter of age or habits, it’s also a matter of environment as well. If you were bored, you’d sleep all the time too!
Here are some things you can try to make their cage more interesting and stimulating:
- Provide a nest box – this should be a small, dark box that has room for all of your ferrets and is filled with blankets or other bedding material for them to sleep in. Ferrets in the wild would have a burrow, and this simulates that.
- Make sure to have the bathroom area as far away as possible from the sleeping and eating areas. You wouldn’t want to eat next to an unflushed toilet, and your ferret doesn’t either!
- Provide places for your ferret to go for privacy or when it is startled. This can be a nest box, a hanging sleep sack that has closing flaps – really anything dark and quiet will work well.
- Make sure the cage has lots of toys in it, and don’t always leave the same toys. Ferrets need more than a couple things to play with, as their high intelligence causes them to tire of the same toys quickly.
- Use different bedding – have a few sets of different hammocks, sleep sacks, etc that you rotate.
Make sure your ferrets experience something new everyday
Introducing new things into your ferret’s daily routine will help to stimulate them and keep them from getting bored. Because they are so intelligent, ferrets quickly learn their surroundings and daily happenings. They know that they will sleep in the same bedding until you get home, at which point you’ll probably let them out. Then they’ll play with the same things, smell the same scents, eat the same food, and so on.
The key to successfully introducing new things is to do it randomly. You can’t have a schedule for novelty – it needs to happen at different times and in different places every day to be effective.
For example, take them out in the morning one day, allowing them access to a different room or a different toy. Then take them out in the evening the next day into an entirely different environment. Take them outside in your backyard or to a park. Rearrange their play space frequently. Group their various toys into a few groups, and rotate those groups at random to make sure that they retain interest in the various toys. Make or purchase a dig box, but only have it out for them to play with occasionally throughout the week.
The concept of novelty can also include new tastes, smells, sights, textures, etc. Take one of their toys, and spray it with a scent such as lavender or vanilla, or put it in a Ziploc bag with your dirty socks or some potting soil. Ferrets have an amazing sense of smell, and changing the odor of a toy or blanket is enough to make it new for them. Try taking a rubber tub and filling it with soil to let them play in it – they’ll love the smell and the feel of it. If it’s winter, fill the tub with snow. If it’s fall, fill the tub with leaves.
Random interactions with people and other ferrets are also a good way to keep your fuzzies happy and entertained. Have friends’ ferrets over for ferret play dates. (Make sure the other ferrets vaccinated and healthy before inviting them over of course!) Play with your ferrets daily – there’s nothing more spontaneous than playing with your ferret yourself! Find a game that your ferret loves (towel rides, chasing mommy, etc), and play it a few times a week, then not again for 2 weeks.
The point of being so random is that if your ferret never knows when something new and exciting is going to happen, so it remains more interested in what is happening around it. It will help to combat the boredom that your ferret feels, as it is comparable to the spontaneity of the ferret’s natural environment in the wild.
Plan activities that stimulate your ferret’s mind
Because ferrets are so smart, they are great problem solvers, which is why they quickly memorize and become bored with unchanging environments. Aside from introducing random new items and experiences, it’s also important to come up with activities that will cause your ferret to use its natural intelligence to solve problems.
Try hiding treats around the room and in tubes (dryer tubes, Super Thru-Ways, Super pet Ferretrail Fun-nels) before you let your ferret out. Your ferret will realize that there are goodies stashed around, and will have to hunt for them.
Build your ferret a maze by gluing cardboard boxed together and cutting holes between them. Hide treats in some and toys in others. Always switch up which ones contain treats, and which contain toys.
Try clicker training your ferret. You’ll end up with a better trained ferret, while at the same time engaging in an activity that challenges your ferret and helps it to exercise its problem solving abilities.
Keep in mind that because ferrets are so intelligent, they will soon work through the complexities of the activities you make up. This means you will have to make these activities increasingly more difficult to continually challenge your ferret, or come up with new activities all together.
These simple tips and examples outlined here are not even close to the limit of ferret enrichment – there are hundreds of things that you can do to make your ferret’s life a little more interesting. Enrichment just takes a little creativity and time! It is our responsibility to keep our ferrets happy and healthy, and that means making sure they have a stimulating environment and daily life. Don’t let them down!