Every couple of months, I get phone calls from sad and desperate people
asking, "When should I have my ferret put to sleep? How do I know when the right
time is?" There's no simple or easy answer for anyone. Often, it's people I've
previously spoken to at length while their pet battled an illness. We'll already
have gone through all the symptoms, all the treatments I've heard of, all the
tricks to get them to eat. They've been back and forth to the vet, and
frequently have consulted with a specialist as well. The doctors have
contributed their knowledge and done the best they can to treat the animal. And,
eventually, it comes down to the last days, and our pet must say goodbye.
Is there ever a right time to lose a beloved friend? No, of course not, but
death is a reality we all must face. In some ways our pets are luckier than us;
people must fight for the right to die in dignity and without pain. We're free
to release our pets from their pain without lawyers getting involved. There may
be people who believe it is wrong to end any creature's life before nature does
so herself. Maybe they've forgotten the cruelty of nature - would we condemn
anyone we loved to suffer the final stages of an illness without painkilling
medication because it was "unnatural?" Although there are now pharmaceutical
companies researching medication for pets, they still cannot tell us how much it
hurts and how much medicine is needed to dull the pain. I believe it is far
kinder to our pet to take on the difficult burden of releasing them from
suffering when it is necessary.
Please remember that I am discussing animals with terminal illnesses that are
already nearing death. We have taken into the shelter ferrets that were left to
be put down because they were "suffering." Although these animals did have an
illness, with medication and care they were in no discomfort and had many more
months of happily pottering about. It is possible to want to put an animal to
sleep way too early! However, I suspect these cases had less to do with the
animal's needs than they did with the owner's selfishness.
Putting these issues aside, the question of the "right time" still remains.
Everyone seems to agonize whether it may be too soon to let them pass on, and we
are hampered by the understandable desire to put off this difficult task as long
as possible and to keep our dear friend with us as long as possible. Other than
the unpleasant people noted above who really were having their animal put down
too early, it's very hard to say when "too soon" is. You know your animal best.
Whether you realize it or not, you have learned to read his/her body language
and expressions to know when they're happy, bored, excited, upset, or simply
tired. Over the time you've spent together, you've watched them grow older and
slow down, and perhaps have seen them lethargic from a cold or other illness.
Maybe one of your ferrets has had surgery in the past - think back to the
groggy, clearly uncomfortable way they acted right afterwards. When an animal is
terminally ill, that discomfort is not going to go away. It will become worse
If there has been a protracted illness, like some cancers, you should be
aware of the probable unhappy ending and can look for the signs. Unfortunately,
some illnesses, even cancers, can strike suddenly. There may have been a barely
noticeable drop in their health when they become rapidly very ill. Liver or
kidney failure, brought on by old age or completely some underlying disease, is
a common cause of death in elderly ferrets. With this type of health problem,
you may only have a day or two left with your friend.
If your animal has insulinoma, extremely low blood sugar may cause them to go
into convulsions. A convulsion is characterized by periodic convulsive twitching
and screams lasting for a minute or two at a time. Contact a veterinarian
immediately! Karo syrup, molasses, Ensure, Sustacal, or a dose of their
currently prescribed steroid may help raise the blood sugar and lessen the
reactions. Animals more deeply in trouble may need Valium, which a vet can
administer. Do not delay bringing your animal to a vet! The longer the
convulsions go on, the more brain damage will result. While the underlying
illness will not go away, it is possible for an animal to recover from
convulsions, as frightening as they are to see. Ferrets can also suffer
convulsions from epilepsy and a vet familiar with the animal can advise what
course of action to undertake until you can get to their office.
Your veterinarian is always a helpful guide. He or she can help you determine
what the possibility of recovery is - if this may be a temporary setback or if
all avenues of treatment have been tried and there is nothing more to be done.
Some doctors are as reluctant as we are to give up and may try every last
measure available. Ask what the chances are of a procedure being successful
before submitting your pet to any more discomfort. Ask that they be honest with
you, and be honest yourself. It's no kindness to prolong your animal's pain
unless there is a good chance of recovery or significant improvement. If you
must indeed face the worst, here are some things to look for that may help you
determine when to let your ferret pass on.
Most people choose to keep their pet with them for the last days, if
possible. You can probably keep a closer eye on them than the vet, and it is
less stressful for them to be in their own home during this time. Segregate them
in a small area away from other ferrets (unless it seems to upset them); usually
they want no part of others any more. We use an old baby bassinet, which is
small, plastic-lined for easy cleaning, and high enough so they can't fall out.
A heating pad or heated lizard rock will help keep them warm and old, soft
blankets or towels can be cut into 2' squares, then thrown out when soiled. Be
sure the heating unit doesn't get too warm. You can try putting a low dish of
food and water inside, as they may drink a bit, but be sure it is off to the
side so they don't fall into it. If you have children, this will be the time to
sit them down and explain what is happening and let them say goodbye. Young
children shouldn't be allowed to run in and out petting the animal. Your ferret
can't enjoy it any longer; it will only be disturbing.
Most ferrets will begin to refuse food. This is different, again, from the
temporary anorexia associated with the green virus, the flu, or other lesser
illnesses. While force-feeding is necessary - sometimes for weeks - with these
diseases, a terminally ill ferret should not be further stressed by forcing
food. You can try for a day or so, but if they have a terminal illness, not
eating is one of the signs they are ready to pass on. The muscles in their
hindquarters weaken and they can barely stand on all legs and must crawl to
their litter pans. (And many will! It's amazing how even the very ill will try
not to soil themselves or their bedding.) Being unable to get to their litter is
another signal of the end coming.
Carefully observe and interpret your ferret's movements and reactions. A
healthy ferret enjoys being petted and responds positively to ear scratches, rib
rubs, or back massages. Even an ill animal will show signs of comfort being held
quietly in your lap. An extremely ill ferret will be unresponsive - will not
pick up their head, or may even try to move away as if your touch was too tiring
for them. If they can no longer even enjoy the basic pleasures that bind your
pet to you, the quality of their life has severely deteriorated.
When death is rapidly approaching, you may find your ferret collapsed, taking
deep breaths. Their body temperature will drop to 97 degrees or less. If they
are moaning or wheezing with each breath, they are near to death. If they are
comatose, with their back arched and their head stiffly pointing up, the muscle
contractions prior to death have begun. There is nothing you or anyone can do to
revive them at this point.
Internal cancers like Lymphosarcoma may grow to the point where the major
organs just collapse, suddenly causing your pet to hemorrhage internally. Black,
tarry poop is usually caused by blood in the stool (unless you've been feeding
too many raisins!) and should always be carefully monitored. However, a severe
loss of blood, either eliminated or vomited, is irreversible. Bring your animal
to a vet at once.
Your vet will be able to offer advice and counsel, but the decision to put
your animal down must be made by you. It's natural to hope for a miracle and put
off what must be done. However, I can tell you from experience that I have
regretted the times I waited until the ferret was obviously already half gone
far more than the times I let them go a little earlier. In a terminal illness,
the inevitable must be faced. It's kinder to them to spare them suffering, and
it will be easier for you to look back without self-recrimination.
There are a couple of methods a veterinarian may use to put an animal to
sleep. They administer a lethal dosage of adrenaline, which over stimulates the
heart and causes it to stop beating. If they are able to find a vein in the leg,
the medication can be inserted into the bloodstream and will cause death within
a very few moments without any pain. If the veins have collapsed, it may be
necessary to inject it directly into the heart, making for a speedier, but
possibly more uncomfortable end. An experience ferret vet will have a better
chance of finding the heart the first time, but be aware of the possibility that
a second try may be necessary. If the animal is deeply comatose, it is unlikely
they will feel anything in this instance.
You can always ask to be present. It is an extremely difficult, sometimes
heartbreaking, and very personal decision. There have been studies that show
comatose humans can sense their surroundings and hear people speaking. Your pet
will at least inhale your comforting scent if you stay with them. Myself, I
believe it is the last debt we owe our beloved friends, to be with them and ease
their stress at the last moments. No matter how hard I personally find it, it is
reassuring afterwards to know you gave as much comfort as possible to a pet that
gave you so much love and laughter during its lifetime.
Don't forget the furry friends your ferret may have had, particularly if he
or she had a special buddy. This can be a very confusing and upsetting time for
them, and we have seen case after case of ferrets who became severely depressed
or only survived the loss of their friend by weeks or months. They will need
extra attention now. I once read a recommendation that you allow the survivor to
see their dead partner; they may show little interest in the body, but this may
help them understand what has happened. Sometimes animals are more aware of
things than we may realize, and while it might sound odd, it can't really hurt
In our society, we use the ritual of a funeral, wake, memorials and flowers
to structure our time after losing a loved one and keep us busy until we are
able to better deal with the pain. Many people don't realize how hard it can be
to lose a pet and are unprepared, and other people may not understand your
grief. It is entirely natural to be upset. We form close ties with our pets;
sometimes our animals have been with us for years, although it can be just as
hard with one that has only been with us a short time. We can create our own
ritual to ease this difficult time. We may bury our friend in a special place or
donate to an animal charity in our pet's honor, and many people place memorials
in the newsletter.
I often recommend people adopt another ferret soon. This is not out of
self-interest because I run a shelter! I honestly believe the most generous way
to honor the memory of your pet is to take in another who has been lost or
abandoned. People who refuse to get another ferret after losing one are being
selfish. You can never replace a ferret - each one is too individual and
special. But you can translate all the hurt you're feeling into love and give it
to an animal that desperately needs it. In return, I can guarantee you'll get
more back than you ever could have expected. And when you meet your friends at
the Rainbow Bridge, you'll be greeted not only with thanks for all the care you
gave them, but with their thanks for caring for others, too.
If you would like to contact the author she may be reached at
This article is writen by Vanessa Gruden, Shelter Director, FACT.
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