What is the Best Enrichment for Your Ferret?

New research finds out how hard ferrets will work to access different types of enrichment.

Ferrets' preferences for hammocks, foraging toys, and tunnels as enrichment

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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Providing environmental enrichment is an important part of good animal welfare. For example, cats whose owners play with them regularly have fewer behaviour problems. We know a lot about enrichment for cats. What about ferrets? Earlier research has shown that more play behaviours are reported when there are more enrichment items. But although ferrets are a popular pet, we know little about their personal preferences. A new study by Marsinah Reijgwart (Utrecht University) et al has important tips for ferret owners.

Of course, you can’t just say, “Ferret, what would you like?” One way of testing how much animals value certain things is to put a door between them and the item. By gradually increasing the difficulty of opening the door, we can see how much effort they will put in to reach the item, and therefore how much it is worth to them. This is known as a motivational test, or consumer demand test.

It has even been tried successfully with goldfish, in a study that found goldfish like both real and artificial plants as enrichment.

Reijgwart et al ran a similar experiment with ferrets, in which doors were successively made heavier to find out how hard ferrets would try to reach various enrichment chambers. There were 7 chambers, six containing different types of enrichment, and one that was empty (the control). The corridor contained food, drinking water (via a nipple), and windows into each chamber so the ferrets could see what was inside. Every chamber had a one-way unweighted door to give them access back to the corridor.
As well as measuring the maximum weight of the door that ferrets would push, the scientists also looked at how long the ferret spent interacting with the enrichment item.

Seven spayed female ferrets, approximately one year old, took part. The results show the ferrets like:
  • Sleeping enrichment. This was the most important to them. Given a choice of sleeping items, they preferred a hammock to sleep in rather than a Savic Cocoon.
  • Water bowls. They preferred a large water bowl rather than a small one.
  • Social enrichment. They liked to have a ferret friend to snuggle with.
  • Foraging enrichment. They liked to have foraging toys.
  • Tunnels. They spent more time in the opaque flexible tunnel rather than the see-through rigid tunnel. Some ferrets liked tunnels a lot, while others were less interested in them.
  • As for balls, they preferred a ball with a bell to a golf ball or ferret ball.

Sleeping, tunnels, food toys and water bowls for ferret enrichment
Photos:  Couperfield (top) & Rashid Valitov (Shutterstock)

Ferrets used the items in multiple ways. For example, although the hammock was used for sleeping in, it was also a tug toy. Food obtained from the foraging toys was often eaten immediately, but sometimes the toys were taken away and stored elsewhere (such as in the Savic Coccoon).

The ferrets in this study live in the laboratory. I asked Marsinah Reijgwart what the implications are for people who keep ferrets as pets. Despite limitations, there are important lessons about the kinds of enrichment that should be provided for pet ferrets.

“To start, I have to make some remarks on the limitations with regards to generalizing the results to pet ferrets,” she told me in an email. “The research question (enrichment preferences for laboratory ferrets) has influenced the choices I have made for the enrichments that I have tested. For instance, I have not looked at the ferrets’ motivation for playing or cuddling with a person. Also, intact or male ferrets or ferrets of a different age may have different preferences.

"Next to that, I have tested the ferrets individually, so they might like certain items more or less than I have seen in this test when ferrets can enjoy enrichments together (or with a human). Additionally, life in a research facility is very different from life as a pet, which means that the preferences for enrichment can differ. For instance, my ferrets were housed at a constant temperature and only had limited time to spend with people.

“With my research, I have tried to draw general conclusions on enrichment preferences for the average one-year old female ovariectomized laboratory ferret. You cannot generalize these results to other ferrets, as their preferences might be different.

"This being said, I do think some of the results can be very informative for ferret owners.

“First of all, my ferrets pushed open a door that weighed 1450 grams (150% of their own body weight!) to reach a room with three types of sleeping enrichments: a hammock, a flexible plastic bucket on its side and a Savic Cocoon. In a previous study I have showed that this is the maximum weight the ferrets are able to push: at higher weights the ferrets still tried, but were not able to open the door.

“This, together with the obvious preference for sleeping in the hammock when the ferrets made it into the room, makes it safe to say: give your ferret a hammock!! However, while this is a new discovery for laboratory animal science, ferret owners have been aware of this preference for a while, so I doubt if there is a pet ferret out there without a hammock of some sort.

“Secondly, my ferrets pushed 1075 grams to drink out of a water bowl, while water from a bottle was freely available. They did not touch the water bottle in the days that they gained access to the water bowls. As I don’t think that this is a preference that will be different for pet ferrets, I would advise ferret owners to give their ferret a water bowl. As we all know, ferrets will play with the water and make a mess. Therefore, I would advise to also give your ferrets a water bottle, just in case they are thirsty but have an empty or dirty water bowl.

“Thirdly, my ferrets pushed 950 grams to eat from foraging enrichment while the same food was freely available in a bowl. Think about it: ferrets worked (pushed 950 grams of weight) to work (push around the ball or flip the tumbler) for food while this wasn’t necessary to fulfil their nutritional needs.

“This shows that, as is the case for other animals, you should not make life too easy for your ferret. There are many commercially available foraging toys for cats that ferrets can enjoy just as much. If you are a bit creative, you can save some money by looking up DIY foraging toys online. Mentally stimulating your ferret for just a few minutes can be very enriching!

Enrichment for ferrets. Study shows how hard ferrets will work for different types of enrichment (pictured)
Photo: Marsinah Reijgwart

“For the other enrichments that I have tested (balls, tunnels, ferrets), it is more difficult to draw conclusions for pet ferrets.

“My ferrets were not very motivated to play with the balls, but it is possible that they would like them more when playing together with another ferret or a person.

“The tunnels are a special case, as one ferret pushed to her maximal abilities to get to the tunnels, while other ferrets stopped bothering at very low weights. A tunnel is most probably an enrichment that some ferrets really enjoy playing with, while others would rather play with something else. Not everyone likes the same things, it is up to you as a ferret owner to find out what your ferret enjoys.

“Finally, I am not able to draw conclusions about the big question that many ferret owners have: should ferrets be kept alone or together? My ferrets were separated by wired mesh and pushed quite high weights (995 grams) to visit the other ferrets. When a ferret reached the others, she would snuggle up to the mesh and sleep as close together to the others as possible.

“In a follow-up study where ferrets shared an enclosure, I saw that they often chose to jump into a hammock to huddle up with the other ferrets, while there was also an empty hammock available. But remember: these were ovariectomized female ferrets that were about one year old.

“So as with the tunnels: it is up to you as a ferret owner to see if your ferret fares well with ferret companions or whether he/she prefers to be alone.”

The full paper is available via Marsinah Reijgwart's ResearchGate profile.

What enrichment do you provide for your ferret?

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, writes The Pawsitive Post premium newsletter, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

Useful links:

Reijgwart, M., Vinke, C., Hendriksen, C., Meer, M., Schoemaker, N., & Zeeland, Y. (2016). Ferrets’ (Mustela putorius furo) enrichment priorities and preferences as determined in a seven-chamber consumer demand study Applied Animal Behaviour Science DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2016.04.022
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