On The Couch - Growing Old Disgracefully
Dr June McNicholas, a psychologist and expert on animal behaviour, relates how Perry's problem with aggression was resolved
The phone rang at 2am. There were no pre-ambles or introductions only the anguished cry of 'My hob's scrotum's purple!'
I defy anyone to come up with a suitable response at that time of night, let alone after a long-haul flight from South America which had left me feeling somewhat jet-lagged and not quite sure where I was anyway!
After a few moments it became clear that the caller had had her hob castrated the previous day and that he had spent the night having a bit of a rummage around the vet's handiwork, resulting in some bleeding and bruising. It also became clear that she'd rung the wrong number! It seems she'd had two phone numbers given to her, one was the vet and the other was me if she needed any advice on having a hob castrated. In her panic she'd rung my number instead of the vet's! However, I was able to reassure her that we'd had hobs that had done the same and that it generally looked worse than it actually was, but a quick check-up at the vet's in the morning might be advisable. The caller rang off - I didn't even get her name or the ferret's name!
At a more civilised hour during the day she rang again, this time rather embarrassed by the previous night's call. 'What on earth must you have thought?!' she said apologetically, 'Fancy telling a complete stranger in the middle of the night that my ferret had a purple scrotum!' I assured her that she had no need to apologise and that I'd said some pretty bizarre things too! It's true. I don't know what it is about ferrets that leads us into odd situations but I know that the first words I ever uttered to the man who became my partner were 'You'll have to wait, there's a polecat in my butter.' Poor Jeff had arrived at my front door to examine a nearby badger sett I'd found but, arriving early, I still had a number of ferrets out and intent on wrecking the house, including the infamous Harry Polecat whose love of butter and his ability to scale vertical surfaces to get at it was legendary. Oddly, Jeff didn't appear to think this an odd greeting or even an odd occurrence, which perhaps explains why we are still together many years later!
And so it was with Paula, as I later found out my nocturnal caller was named. Over the following months and years we regularly talked on the phone. Her hob, Perry, then three years old, was a handsome albino who had taken exception to the vet's administrations and had obviously tried to re-arrange a few things himself! The vet had cleaned him up and was happy that no major disruption had been caused. I only ever met Perry and Paula once but over the next five years we forged a phone friendship, swapping news about our ferrets. Perry was a very happy and affectionate chap until he was about 8 years old. Then Paula became concerned about his temperament. He was gradually eating less and sleeping more but, more disturbingly, he was becoming quite aggressive when she went to handle him.
Perry simply wasn't the same loving, affectionate ferret he had been. Paula was devastated and worried. Her long-time friend didn't seem well or happy, and he didn't seem to want to know her. Why?
One of the first things any pet owner should do when their pet shows sudden changes in mood or behaviour is to get a vet to do a physical check that there is nothing amiss. Many episodes of aggression, lack of playfulness, loss of appetite and similar can be due to feeling ill or being in physical pain. Animals, unlike people, often hide their pain and withdraw into themselves, making it harder for anyone to detect that they have a physical problem.
I suggested that this might be the case with Perry. Also, at his age, he could be experiencing various aches and pains associated with old age, or even some loss of eyesight or hearing. This could make him more prone to being startled, possibly enough to bite. Paula admitted that the main times Perry had tried to bite her was when she woke him up, or when she went to pick him up from behind. She agreed that his problem could have a physical basis, so she and Perry went off to their vet for an 'MOT'.
The vet, a self-confessed ferret fan, came up with a veritable catalogue of ailments for poor old Perry. His teeth were not good and he had the start of gum disease, probably accounting for his lack of appetite. He had some stiffness and pain in his shoulders; his kidneys were not quite functioning in the same way as a two-year-old's, and he was probably almost deaf. No wonder poor Perry was feeling out of sorts.
Basically, all Perry was experiencing were the symptoms of ageing, but that doesn't mean that he or his owner had to put up with them. It's all too easy to simply shrug off ailments as simply 'growing old', but there is a lot that can be done to ease the problems of ageing. Firstly, Perry was booked in for some dental treatment to remove a couple of decaying teeth and to treat the onset of gum disease. Paula was then given a number of suggestions on how his diet could be changed to make it more suitable for an elderly ferret. This included more 'wet food' and more easily digestible sources of protein. Paula found that liquidised chicken made a tasty main meal and that fluid intake could be encouraged by a few drops of Ferretone in Perry's water or through giving low-lactose kitten milk. This seemed to ease any stress on his ageing kidneys. Finally, the vet prescribed some treatment for joint stiffness that had been successful in cats.
Paula also ordered a 'Magnapulse' collar for Perry to wear. This 'magnet therapy' was (and continues to be) a popular form of alternative therapy to reduce muscular pain and stiffness in joints, both in humans and a variety of animals. I'd always been sceptical but I have to admit it worked for one of my old line-hobs who had rheumaticky hips, giving him a whole new lease of life, so I wasn't going to criticise Paula for trying it with Perry.
Within a few weeks Perry was a changed ferret. He'd almost gone back to the way he had been - loveable, playful and always ready for a cuddle - except for his biting when he was woken up or approached from behind. The vet had thought that Perry was almost completely deaf but that there was nothing that could be done to help. Being an albino, eyesight wasn't hugely important to Perry, but his hearing was. Loss of this sense meant that he was very startled whenever Paula woke him up and reached into his bed. He wasn’t being nasty, it was just making him jump! All that was needed was a routine of knocking on the side of his bed to signal to him - via vibration - that Paula was there, a sort of polite 'Excuse me' before picking him up. Similarly, a tapping of the ground beside Perry before picking him served the same signal and stopped him being startled.
As humans, we are arrogantly unaware of the senses that many other species rely on. Ferrets respond to vibrations in their environment to know when something (food or predator) is approaching. Once we understand the importance of these senses we can help modify OUR behaviour to fit in with that of our ferrets. If we cannot compromise with the animals we keep, maybe we should not keep any animals at all.
Perry's case highlights the fact that not all seemingly behavioural problems are purely down to behaviour. Many can be down to a need for physical treatment. Paula and Perry did not really need me to help, they most needed their vet to sort out physical problems. Maybe the only way I helped was to advise on coping with Perry's deafness.
I also look on Perry's case as an example of how old ferrets can be helped, rather than consigned to the scrap heap. Getting old for any animal (or human!) may mean slowing down a little, but it shouldn't be an excuse to ignore every ailment or infirmity. A lot can be done for older animals to improve their quality of life, whether this is to ease aches and pains, dental problems or a change of diet. After years of companionship or work, our ferrets owe us nothing, it is up to us to make sure we give them as much comfort and ease as we can their later years.
Perry went on live for a further two years, every bit as much of a loveable rogue as he was in earlier life with little reduction in mischief or fun. He was succeeded in Paula's life by two rescued kits, Benny and Penny, but that's another story!
(From Ferrets First Issue no. 28e January 2006)