Life of the Single Female Ferret
My general veterinary practice was busy. That might sound like a good problem but despite meticulous preparation I was seldom caught up. There seemed to be more going on with every pet I saw than what it came in for. My patiently waiting clients knew I’d spend all the time necessary to help their dog or cat. Or ferret.
Ferrets, lumped into the pocket pet category, are more popular than you may realize. They can be a bit odiferous but they have playful, engaging personalities. They spend little time in pockets but they generally do well as indoor pets. And, fortunately for all involved, they don’t seem mind bathing.
Midway through this particular over-scheduled Monday there was a new client, Sue and Davie Davenport with their ferret Miss Ellie. As I hustled in to the exam room I looked up – way up – at 6’ 8”, roughly 260 pound Davie. Cradled in the crook of his arm, at about my eye level, was Miss Ellie. Average-sized Sue stood nearby. All 3 were polite and friendly young adults, in fact Davey called me ‘sir’ – repeatedly. I didn’t know yet if that was a good sign. I smiled and took it in stride.
If you are a female pet ferret you want to be spayed. An au naturale life in the absence of gentleman callers is dangerous for celibate “jills” because they can die of estrogen toxicosis. Unlike many other mammals, lady ferrets don’t ovulate on a schedule but only when bred. In the wild, between March and August, they are induced ovulators, meaning that just about every mating puts them in a family way. They are happy for male company during those long summer days. The rest of the year they will not accept this rose, invitations for coffee, or even idle chit chat.
If left unspayed, the indoor Miss Ellie would stay perpetually in heat. Her estrogen levels would remain elevated, gradually shutting down her bone marrow and causing blood cell production to plummet. She would be vulnerable to anemia, infection, or uncontrolled bleeding. She needed an ovariohysterectomy.
Surgery Was a Success but we Misplaced the Patient
Avoiding the perils of female ferret fertility is simple nowadays; nearly all young jills are spayed prior to sale. Back in the day, they were adopted “intact”, meaning that they had all of their original equipment. We strongly advised spaying but not everybody listened. Our desperate attempts to save severely anemic never-bred girl ferrets often led to heartbreak.
Miss Ellie’s people, Sue and Davie, knew this and wanted only the best for their chaste pet. I explained our anesthesia, surgery, and recovery protocols. I promised to call them as soon as their slinky snuggler was awake. She’d be ready to go home at 5:30 that day.
Ferret anesthesia in the early ‘90s was initiated with oxygen mixed with halothane gas piped into a modified fish tank. We carefully watched Miss Ellie slip into unconsciousness. When her breathing was slow and steady I lifted her onto the prep table. Under a bright light my excellent veterinary nurse Amos held her mouth open as I slid a narrow endotracheal tube into her windpipe. He connected her to the anesthetic machine, clipped her tummy, completed a sterile prep, and carried her to surgery.
Ferrets are not challenging to spay, nothing like a rotund St. Bernard. I had the ovaries and uterus clamped off and removed and the blood vessels ligated in just a few minutes. After suturing Miss Ellie’s abdominal muscle layer I used adhesive to close the skin incision so there would be no need for her to return for suture removal. Amos switched off the halothane gas and monitored our patient as she breathed pure oxygen. In just 20 minutes she was staggering around the recovery cage. At 1:30 I phoned Sue and Davie with the good news. Davie said, “Thank you, sir.”
I saw a few appointments and breezed into the treatment room for a peek at Miss Ellie. The cage door was still securely latched, her bedding was messed up, but our ferret was absent. No problem. Amos or Martha were probably baby sitting her elsewhere in the clinic. So I checked. Nobody, in fact, had seen Miss Ellie. She was MIA. We had 4 hours to find her. I fought back my rising panic. The staff was mobilized for search and rescue.
Ferret on the Lam; No One was having Fun
One fine day, early in my career, a colleague called in a panic. A staff member carrying trash to the dumpster had left their rear door open – just long enough. At the same moment a Lhasa Apso, being led to surgery prep for neutering, slammed on his brakes, backed out of his collar, and bolted outside. OMG! He ran around the building to the front door and was about to scoot inside, just as a German shepherd was exiting with his person. Well the big guy just had to lunge at the Lhasa who, of course, abandoned the whole scene just as fast as his little legs could carry him.
A pet on the run near a busy street is a disaster in the making. There was no time to waste. We jumped in my car and started a careful and efficient search of the surrounding neighborhoods. We eventually spotted the fuzzy fugitive across a 6 lane busy road, sitting serenely in front of a garage. At first I didn’t believe our luck. I was assured that this was our boy. When I quietly squatted and called him by name he happily trotted into my lap. It was like winning the lottery. Meanwhile, his person had lawyered up in anticipation of our failure to apprehend. We got off clean. Everybody walked away, uninjured. A hydraulic door closer was quickly installed on the back door of my friend’s clinic.
Miss Ellie’s adventure, we hoped, would end with less drama. Amos had checked on her only a few minutes prior to my intended monitoring exam. I checked with him, Martha, and the rest of the staff. During that window of time no one had opened the cage nor our facility’s exterior doors. I had no idea how that rascally ferret escaped; we’d figure that out later. We went into lockdown; it was all hands on deck.
Ferrets can be sneaky little devils, capable of slipping unseen through interior doorways as they are opened. Every cabinet in every room was methodically checked. We soon grew frustrated and worried. It was time to make the call.
Davie picked up on the second ring. Doing my best to keep my tone even, I intoned, “Hello Mr. Davenport? This is Dr. Nichol. Miss Ellie has continued to recover well from her surgery but she has somehow gone missing – but I assure you that we’ll find her.”
Davie, the formerly effusively polite pet parent of half my age and twice my size, exploded with a veritable torrent of invective. My character, integrity, and competence were verbally savaged. I was sure that my mother’s virtue would be next. Holding the receiver away from my ear, just to reduce the pain, my staff watched in shock. When Davie slammed down his phone I jumped. Amos offered to check me for injuries. I was “OK” I assured him. Verbal battering wouldn’t impact our commitment to find Miss Ellie – fast.
A Ferret in a Haystack
Following her uneventful spay procedure, and prior to her mysterious disappearance, our ferret patient had been resting in a cage in the treatment room. Martha and Amos divided that big space, moving equipment and emptying cabinets. I slithered around the floor of the x-ray and dark room as I investigated the interior of the control panel and behind the film processor. Next we headed to the hospital ward and laundry. The pharmacy, exam rooms, and reception office were equally upended. Was this a Harry Potter movie? Can ferrets disapparate?
It felt like hours but about 20 minutes further into our search I heard Martha’s gentle voice, “Well, what have we here?” On her hands and knees, slowly opening the rarely used space beneath the surgery scrub sink, she discovered Miss Ellie serenely peering at her from around a paint can. It was as though napping in a dark hidden burrow was normal for her. Which, of course, is what her species actually does during quiet afternoons.
A thorough exam revealed a healthy young girl ferret who Martha securely managed as I phoned the agitated pet parents. I worked hard to keep the overwhelming relief out of my delivery as I shared the good news. Davie’s response almost broke my brain all over again as he launched more salvos of derision. I should have worn a helmet that day.
I had mere minutes to answer the burning question. Slowly advancing our little runaway’s head toward the cage door I found that her spade-shaped noggin was just a little too wide to pass. Then, by rotating her body 45 degrees, I was able to slip her head between the bars, followed by her supple shoulders and hips. Lesson learned; there would be no more escapes. We quickly modified that cage door for future ferrets in our care.
With Miss Ellie secured in her carrier at the front desk, Martha was ready. Davie barged in, veritably snatching his pet, and stormed out without a word. Our bromance was over. I would live to spay another day.