Health Matters 14
Spring's arrived (well, almost!) so it seems a good time to recap on health matters relating to jills, seasons and kits. I don't know how entire jills in your part of the country have reacted to the onset of Spring. I've heard of many who have been in season as early as January whereas up here, despite a very mild, almost balmy winter, the few jills we have left entire were not even showing signs of coming into season in mid-March.
I know I'm preaching to the converted, but think carefully before breeding from your jill. There are still far too many ferrets and not enough good homes. A jill-jab, a visit to a vasectomised hob or a spay operation will make sure your jill does not inadvertently add to an already growing number of homeless ferrets.
However, no matter how many of us warn against unnecessary breeding, it is a simple fact that every year ferret kits will be born. Some will be bred responsibly with due care and attention to the jill and the future of her litter. Others will not - people involved in welfare are increasingly having to take in pregnant or nursing jills. Whatever, the circumstances, it all leads to lots of questions about kits and I've been asked to repeat some of the information I first wrote on kits over three years ago, so here's a potted version.
Gestation (pregnancy) is between 40 and 44 days in ferrets with 42 days being most usual. Over 44 days indicates an urgent need for a visit to the vet to check that there is not a problem preventing birth. Any signs of prolonged pain, contractions that don't seem to help progress delivery, or discharge should also be referred to a vet.
Average litter size is about 8 kits, although up to twelve (and occasionally even more) is not unknown. The kits are near hairless and blind, and will be dependent entirely on the jill for care and feeding. It is worth remembering that jills have only 8 nipples and so not all kits in a large litter will be able to suckle simultaneously. Jills should receive up to double rations of her usual complete ferret food and all the fluids she can take to enable her to produce milk for the kits. It is also a good idea to increase the fat content to about 30% during lactation - try adding poultry fat, beef dripping or a spot of butter to her feed. Obviously the more kits she is feeding the more food she will need for herself.
A common question is "When can I look at the litter?". This usually depends on the individual mum. Some jills are quite happy for you to peek in the nest box a day or so after you first hear the squeaks of kits, others get upset. It is probably best to suspend your curiosity for at least the first few days unless you think there is something amiss, perhaps indicated by continual kit cries. Occasionally, first time mums can seem so overwhelmed that they appear almost frightened of the kits and not at all interested in mothering. Other problems may be that the jill can't cope with a large litter or she is not producing enough milk for the litter. If this is the case you may have to consider finding a foster mother or bottle feeding some or all the litter. You will have to be certain there are problems because bottle feeding is not easy for kits or owner, and you may not successfully raise all the kits. More about fostering and hand rearing kits towards the end of the article.
The kits grow quickly. From birth weights of around 6-10 grams they will be around 75 grams at two weeks of age; 150 grams at four weeks of age, and around 300-350 grams by six weeks. Up to about six weeks kits of both sexes are much the same size but after six weeks the young hobs start to gain in size and weight over the young jills. At eight weeks hobs may weigh around 650 grams against jills at 475 grams; and by 10-11 weeks the hobs may be around 1000 grams with jills averaging about 650-700 grams.
The first downy hair will gradually grow and change in colour over the first couple of weeks of life. It is sometimes possible to identify which kits will be white coated or which will be very dark coated at this early stage but in-between colours such as silvers, sandies and others take longer for the colours to show through.
Another frequently asked question is "when can I start handling the kits?". Again, it's a bit dependent on the mother. If she's happy for you to handle the kits, all well and good. If not, don't upset her by seeming to kidnap her kits. You will just make her insecure and anxious - and possibly aggressively protective. A good mother will keep the kits and the bedding area clean and tidy so there's no need for you to interfere on those grounds. Many owners say that a good sign is when the jill comes out to you for some attention. You can give her some fuss and a dish of treats while you look at the litter. The jill will tell you if she's happy with this! Some even seem proud to show off their litter, but be guided by the jill wherever possible.
"When do I start giving the kits solid food?". One sign many ferret keepers go by is when the kits are moving around for themselves. The kits will leave the nest box for themselves at about three weeks old, even though their eyes are not open and they can only crawl about on their tummies. They can be introduced to solid foods at this time although they will still be mostly reliant on the jill. Finely chopped raw meat; ferret food soaked and mashed to a paste or shredded chicken can be good first foods to introduce to kits at this age. They will enthusiastically flop in it, lie in it and paddle in it as well as learning to eat it! The jill will be very vigilant of her kits and will probably try to return them to the safety of the nest box as quickly as they leave it!
The kits' eyes and ears remain closed until between four and five weeks. By this time the kits are well grown and beginning to try to stand on their feet rather than crawl on their tummies. They will be eating much greater quantities of solid foods and will be nearly ready to wean. Weaning should take place between 6 and 8 weeks. The kits should weigh a minimum of 250 grams before complete weaning. Each kit will need approximately 30 grams of solid food a day and free access to water. It is worth noting that kits tend to drink rather a lot and may easily get through 150 mls of water per kit per day.
Although weaning may seem the final stage before kits can be thought of as independent, there is still an important period for them to go through. It can be best thought of a period of emotional development/confidence formation/temperament development. The kits need a couple of weeks after weaning to mentally grow up. This is seen as vital for dogs, cats and, I believe, is part of good ferret keeping practice too. The playing and interacting with their litter mates, handling by you and others, and experiencing different sounds and happenings in their world will help make for a more confident young ferret - better to home, and better to work.
Finally, a word or two on orphaned and abandoned kits. If it is possible to find a foster mum, this is probably the best option. Ideally the foster-jill's own kits should be close in age to the ones you want her adopt. Remove all the kits and mix them together, preferably in some of the jill's and kits' bedding material, but make sure YOU know which kits are which in case you have do a speedy rescue if the jill rejects them. Then return all to the jill and watch her reaction very carefully. Many jills are quite accommodating and will accept incoming kits. This is much the best solution as the kits will have a completely natural upbringing.
However, if a foster jill will not accept strange kits or there isn't an available foster mother, then you will have to consider hand-rearing is you are going to raise the litter at all. This is difficult with newborns but the chances do get considerably better if the kits are over a week old. Therefore if you do have orphaned newborns it is worth trying your utmost to find a foster mum first. Ferret milk is around 34% fat, 26% protein and 16% carbohydrate. As there is no substitute ferret milk on the market it is necessary to adapt substitute milk available for kitten or puppy rearing (e.g. Cimicat, Whelpi, Esbilac). All have been used as a successful base. Ferret milk has more fat content so it is necessary to add this to the canine or feline milk substitute. This can be done by mixing one part single cream to three parts milk substitute. It's best to consult your vet and/or people who have successfully hand-reared kits for advice.
Using a dropper or a kitten feeding bottle, the kits should be fed every two hours (day and night!) for the first 10-14 days and then gradually reducing the frequency (but increasing the quantities) until about three weeks old by which time the kits can be on four feeds spread throughout the day. Quantities are difficult to recommend so let the kits takes what they want without you coaxing them to take more. There is a fine dividing line between enough and too much, and kits are susceptible to bloat. Be guided by each kit slowing down and probably dozing off when full! It is important to remember that the mother will lick her kits tummy and rear end to stimulate them to pass urine and faeces. Kits cannot do this themselves in the first weeks of life and will die if you do not help in a similar way. The easiest way is to stroke the tummy gently with a warm finger or piece of cloth until the kit urinates and defecates. Clean it up and lay it comfortably in the nest while you deal with the next.
As you will gather, rearing kits is a major task. In the very early days it seems as if no sooner have you finished topping and tailing after one feed and it is almost time to start all over again! But it is worth it. Sometimes a non-lactating jill will take over kit cleaning and bedding down which is a great help and time saver! I even had a large castrated hob voluntarily adopt 13 kits which he cared for as devotedly as any natural mother and helped rear all 13 successfully. Many of these kits have been familiar names at shows and none have shown any signs of being disadvantages by their unconventional family upbringing!
Delightful as kits are, it is a sad fact that so many are bred with no homes to go to. Rescues are as busy as ever with unwanted kits. They deserve better. As always, albinos are the hardest to place. Why? Because people want the colours. It's a shame, the albinos are just as full of character and, for me, every bit as attractive as the fancy colours. In fact, I'd go further and say that an albino in good condition takes some beating for looks, even at top shows. Anyway, before I get on an 'albinos are the best' soapbox again, thanks, as ever, to everyone who rang and contributed to this issue. Keep all your news and views coming!
Dr June McNicholas