|Believe it or not, deafness in ferrets is not all that catastrophic. Many adapt so well, that they get by without their owners ever knowing that they are deaf until a later age. I have two deaf ferrets. Ping is a silver blaze mix. My other ferret, Pong, (thank dear hubby for naming them), doesn't display the typical mannerisms nor the typical markings that are common in most deaf ferrets. I'd like to introduce you to these guys and to the world of special needs ferrets. One thing I'd like you to keep in mind ... is that hearing loss is truly not a big deal to ferrets who are born it, only to those who have had challenging histories (such as medical problems, multiple homes, shelter living, neglect or abuse) or who acquire deafness later in life. Things that may be difficult for a deaf ferret are general comprehension, communication, socialization, and unreasonable expectations of owners. Hearing ferrets can often bounce back from some of these obstacles, but it seems to be all the more difficult for deaf ferrets.
Causes of deafness can be trauma, ear infections, ongoing severe mite infestations, medications, and most commonly, genetic defects. Use of gram negative antibiotics such as Gentomicin, Gentocin, and Streptomicin should be avoided. These drugs have long been proven to not only cause deafness in ferrets, but also in other mammals... human babies included.
Let me clear in stating that I am not a scientist or vet. My information about the genetics of deafness comes from research on the web and from discussions about the topic with geneticists, audiologists and breeders. My evolving understanding of it all does not always keep up with the ever changing scientific discoveries year to year.
The increasing popularity of marked whites, pandas, blazes and other fancies in the ferret world has led to an increase in the presence of deafness. The pretty markings and white patterns in some ferrets are a result of neural crest variants. They can be are disorders or genetic defects to be frank. For instance, the result of the manipulation of such genes as PAX3, MITF, EDNRB, EDN3 and SOX10 can often lead to deafness. KIT most probably results in asymmetrical white splotching on ferrets and possibly piebaldism. Genes, such as the Waardenburg gene, are what gives a ferret white markings typically towards the head region such as with a blaze ferret. When you breed these types of ferrets, the Waardenburg gene can lead to Waardenburg syndrome. It is typified by white markings on the head region (and sometimes elsewhere), wide set eyes, delicate nasal skeletal structure, juvenile appearance, and sometimes deafness. In addition, they may also have a shortened tail (and limbs), a shorter jaw that doesn't open quite as wide as a normal mouth, and GI tract issues. The most common two ferrets that are prone to deafness are blazes (badger type markings of a white stripe down the middle of the head), and pandas (entire head and neck area are white, no mask).
Ping, is a blaze/panda mix.
This is Ping. He is considered a blaze/panda mix. I think he couldn't decide what to do. Typical blazes have a stripe down the middle of their head continuing down to their shoulders. They usually do not have socks nor mitts (though they can), but more typically white toes. It's not uncommon for them to have a white spot on or underneath their tails. Some “fancy white marked ferrets) have more than just a blaze and have white knee patches and even elbow patches. They may or may not have white speckled bellies, and may or may not have a white bib. Most of the time their noses are pink. Their eyes vary from a burgundy to a ruby color, but not pink as with albinos. Blue eyes are very rare in ferrets and I've noted the few I've seen as all being deaf. Ferrets with blue eyes are very difficult to identify. A dark navy blue color surrounds what seems to be a ruby or burgundy colored pupil.
This is Pong. Now, his deafness was hard for me to believe and accept at first. He looks like a bibbed sable. Just a garden variety marked standard ferret pretty much. But upon close examination, Pong has a lot of white hair underneath his paws, and if you look closely... he has two white tipped toes on each foot.
each front foot has snow white hair underneath
He has a large white spot on his tail. He has lots of roan white hairs dispersed all over his body even though he is very young. He has a lot of white on his muzzle, and a pink nose. Now... if you really really look closely, Pong also has a white line of hair that is paper thin between his ears that is about an inch long. Now although these are such minuscule markings ... it is none the less evidence of a Waardensburg gene in him that never really expressed itself visibly. Unfortunately for him the deafness trait did.
Look to see two white tipped toes on each front paw.
Not visible in this pic is a thin white line on top of his head, and obvious white eyebrows. He has a lot of white about his head and the bib you can see here.
He has a white spot underneath his tail that is very visible.
As far as personality goes, Pong is atypical in that he is very alert and acts exactly like a normal ferret, except for when he was growing up we had trouble teaching him not to bite down so hard while playing. Ping is more typical. He tends to act as if he is in a "haze" at times compared to other ferrets. We notice that when he comes out of his cage he seems to go through a ritual of checking everything out first before he will play. He seems to need a lot of structure to feel good. He thrives on regular schedules and he doesn't like you to move his treasures. As a kit Ping didn't make dooking, chucking, hissing, or he-he ferret noises. He was very quiet, and when excited he screeched... sometimes very loudly. He is seven months old right now and is almost mute. He power sniffs constantly, much more than a normal ferret. Socially, he is a bit more "off" than the others... tending to watch and sniff as the others romp. Now don't get me wrong... this boy can play! I'm just saying that I see these differences in comparison to hearing ferrets as a whole. Something other ferret owners of deaf ferrets and I have noticed is that they seem to seek tactile stimulation more than a normal ferret. For instance, as soon as I put a square of different textured surface down on the floor the others check it out and leave, or try to drag it around. Ping will go to it and roll all over it and then finally lay on it and stay there! He tends to want to mouth things a lot, always carrying things around in his mouth. He takes treats more readily than the others. I have also noticed that my deaf ferrets like vibration. They love the feeling the vibration of the carpet around a vacuum cleaner. I can't keep them away from a running vacuum period! Something else we have noticed is that he gets attached to objects, totes them around, hides them, moves them, etc... he gets super attached to stuffed beany animals and actually puts them in a prepared nest of blankies. I actually caught him offering kibble to them once.
Here is Ping carrying his "baby" to the second floor
I notice that my deaf ferrets are less afraid of baths than the others. They are quite the face swimmers! This is a common personality trait in deaf ferrets. Another fun thing about deaf ferrets is that sometimes they are easier to travel with than normal ferrets as they do not have to deal with all the strange new sounds when they are in new environments. They seem to be less nervous and more at ease in traveling situations.
Let's move on to the special needs of deaf ferrets. Some misunderstood ferrets, fear biters, are often found to be deaf. Once they feel safe, learn to trust others, are treated and trained properly, they are just as loving as any other ferret. Deaf ferrets can not hear a ferret or human say ouch when they bite down too hard ... so as you can imagine with this lack of communication even ferrets who have not been abused can tend to bite too hard. Some are nervous from people coming up behind them and just grabbing or scooping them up. That would scare the bazooka out of you wouldn't it? So sometimes a deaf ferret can freak out and bite from being startled like that. I have never ever had a problem. I forget and come up from behind my buddies all the time without warning. But I am aware that there is always a chance of scaring them in such a way they would act out by doing this.
Deaf ferrets are at risk of getting lost a bit more than a normal ferret. So if you want to be safe, have a collar, tag and especially a bell on them when they are out of their cage. Also training them to come to a visual cue such as flicking the lights to a room on and off, or using a laser pointer, along with a treat is helpful for when you need to find them in case of emergencies such as a fire.
three common things to use for finding deaf ferrets
Some ferrets have been trained to come out to a flashlight or laser pointer. You can do this by giving them a treat and lots of positive attention every time they come out to see a flashlight, or chase a laser pointer. So practice these drills daily. Pick a light your ferret is curious about...and every time they follow it to you and come to you quick give them a treat and/or Ferretone, and then lots of hugs and encouragement. If they get lost, then you just take your trusty laser pointer or flashlight with you so they can visually spot you, and an open bottle of Ferretone for them to get a wiff of. This training just may help you find your little one and save a life.
Deaf ferrets can be taught to do things by using sign language. If you choose to try this, you must be consistent with whatever signs you choose to use. Make sure that you start with only one simple command, that you use it all of the time, that everyone uses the same sign, and that the ferret is rewarded with a treat and lots of attention for the accomplished task. Before giving your ferret a sign, it is good to get the attention of the ferret by taking your arm outstretched, palm down, and waving it up and down. We all know they are attracted to waving towels. That will grab their attention. An example of the command "come": put your hand down inches off the floor palm up... and wiggle your fingers vigorously. When I first began training, I took my other hand and in an up and down fashion hit the top of my forearm a few times at the same time as wiggling my fingers on the other hand just to grab their attention a bit more.
a friend can help you train your ferret
in time this is what your ferret will do
Other people have noticed their ferrets to be a bit sensitive to vibration. So they call their ferrets by crouching down, and hitting the floor with both hands simultaneously instead.
One thing is for certain, deaf ferrets need to feel secure. You can ensure this by doing lots of little things to prevent startling your pet. Examples: stomp your feet before you open up the cage to get them or pick them up, lightly blow on their fur if they are asleep before picking them up (never blow in their faces... you wouldn't like that would you?), tap the cage a few times before going in to get them, lightly touch their backs before picking them up, and make sure they are awake and see you. It is best to do an array of these things. For example, when you come up to their cage, stomp twice, open the door, and blow on their fur if they are sleeping, and then gently stroke them before picking them up. I try never to sneak up on them or catch them off guard when my ferrets romp about the house.
This is how my husband securely holds Ping and talks to him. He is holding the ferret securely on the forearm, and he has the ferret's face gently turned so the ferret can see him talking and as well as his facial expressions. He mostly just holds him on his lap and talks, but I personally like holding them to my upper chest, under my neck so they can feel the vibration of me speaking.
Something worth mentioning here is dead ferret sleep. All ferrets are capable of doing this. What is it? It is when a ferret falls into such a deep sleep they can be darn near impossible to wake up. With deaf ferrets this is more common. When Ping was a kit, he went into such a dead ferret sleep that we could NOT wake him. We both tried, and he was like a lifeless dishrag. I had to watch my 6'1" husband on his knees holding his baby paniced and begging me to do something. I couldn't. I had to watch this huge fella break into tears. It was a few minutes, but Ping finally roused. He still does it but not as bad.
Here is Ping at 8 months old...
When I hold my ferrets, I make sure they feel very supported. I hold them securely with both hands and support their back legs. I like to hold them close too. I also like to hold them up to my neck/chest area and talk to them so they can feel the soothing vibration. I went through a lot of trouble when my boys were little babies teaching them to do all of this. But it was worth it! My ferrets are not skittish in the least. They have never gotten scared. They have never bitten anyone either. They are now seven months old and when a child runs up behind them and scoops them up, they are just laid-back as can be. They feel secure from how I raised them. I don't even go through some of the motions too much now as they seem to not need it anymore. Much of what I do is just second nature now. I don't even have to think to tap the cage, swing their hammock, or gently stroke them before waking them up. It's just habit to do so.
Lastly I will go into discipline and communication with a deaf ferret. To teach a ferret no, there are many options. To stop biting there are all sorts of biting training techniques to try. Be patient and handle your ferret as much as possible. First try something pleasant such as putting Ferretone on your hands for them each time so they begin to associate you picking them up with a reward. It can take time for them to realize that 'hands are nice'. If unsuccessful, you can try an opposite approach and cover your hands with bitter apple which is unpleasant to the taste. More aggressively, you can shove your hand towards the back of their mouth while they are biting you if possible... this is very unpleasant especially to a kit and they will stop. Ultimately if nothing works you can do some of the following:
You can clearly see the ferret is held by the looser skin
Hold the ferret up by the scruff and have them able to see your face.
Then you drag your ferret by the scruff on his back on the floor about 24 inches.
I know at this angle the ferret looks hurt or something but he is NOT. He is in a totally relaxed mode, hanging like a trusting kit. This is the same action mother ferrets use on kits when they misbehave. Likewise, alpha leaders of multi-ferret homes use this action to discipline other members of a ferret business.
So as you can see, there are many options to try in training a deaf ferret. Each personality is different, so different methods will work for different ferrets. Pong, for example, is stone deaf, believe me... yet he lacks many of the common stereotypical traits that many deaf ferrets have.
When deaf ferrets feel secure, they frolic and act just as ferrety as any hearing ferret and are wonderful pets!