Preparing for your ferret dying
By Stephanie Warzecha
Yuki in her final hour before crossing over to the rainbow bridge.
There is no life without death. Ferrets lifespans are fairly short, so every ferret lover will experience their ferret passing. It’s never easy. You hope that with more experience of death, it will get easier. But the truth is, it always hurts to lose a ferret.
When I saw the signs of aging in Yuki–when she started to slow down, sleep more, play less, and was diagnosed with lymphoma–I thought I could prepare myself for her death. After all, I had done it five times before. I knew what the process was; I knew how to handle it. But it still hit me like a ton of bricks when she passed. Even ferret shelter owners who deal with hundreds of ferret deaths every year still tell us that the death of a ferret is one of the most painful experiences of running a shelter. Waiting for your ferret to die is an emotional time, no matter what.
Signs that your ferret is getting ready to cross the rainbow bridge
These signs might start up to a week before your ferret passes, but every ferret is different. If you are confused or uncertain about what you should do, talk to your vet. They can help you determine whether you should put your ferret to sleep or let them die at home.
- Sleeping more – As the organs slowly start to shut down, the body produces less energy and therefore ferrets will sleep much more. They may be harder to wake up from their sleep and be lethargic when handling or out of the cage.
- Reduced appetite – As the ferret nears the end of its life, she may eat less.
- Squinty eyes – If a ferret is in pain, you might notice that it has a permanent squint in its eyes.
- Not interested in playing or spending time outside of their cage – The older a ferret gets, the less they are likely to play. Right before their passing, they may give up on playing altogether. Dying ferrets may explore a bit outside of their cage, but they most likely won’t be able to maintain the energy for very long.
- Easier to handle – A ferret that is about to pass is usually more OK with being cuddled and handled. A healthy ferret generally is too squirmy and full of energy to put up with this. Some ferrets might even seek out your company and body warmth as they get older.
How to spend your last week and days together
If you notice any of the signs above, take your ferret to the vet for confirmation that it is in its final stages of life and not something that can be treated. If the vet confirms that there is nothing else that can be done, you should:
- Make your ferret comfortable – Make sure there are lots of clean, fresh blankets in the ferret’s cage to snuggle up in. Make their cage as cozy and snuggly as you possibly can. You want them to feel comfortable in the environment they will be spending their last days in. Provide them with fresh water and food (you might want to try a bone broth if they are not eating). At this time it might be a little difficult for them to be getting in and out of a litter box so you might want to consider using puppy pads instead or pouring the litter in one of the corners (without the litter box) to make it as easy for them to go to the toilet as possible. They may also start to have problems with defecation, where they make a mess of their bums; make sure to wash any poop off their fur and keep them clean.
- Spoil them with love – Stroke their heads gently while they sleep, let them sleep in your sweater against your body for warmth, give them gentle kisses, and tell them how much you love them and how much you appreciate them being in your life. Let them know that you are there for them during the biggest transition anyone goes through in life. They are loved and not alone. Spend as much time with them as you can.
- Prepare yourself emotionally…as much as you can – Seeing your ferret transition is not going to be easy. You will ugly cry, your heart will hurt, you will feel the absence of their presence. Seeing a beloved family member die is one of the most painful experiences there is. However, it is an honor to be with them at the end of their journey. They have been there for you throughout your life, now it’s your turn to be there for them at the end of their journey.
- You might need to make a tough decision – Depending on whether your ferret is suffering a lot, you might need to make the decision to have them euthanized. You will need to trust yourself on this or consult your vet for advice if you are not sure. While it can be beautiful to let the ferret die in the comfort of their own home, sometimes it can be kinder to let them go before they suffer more pain.
Me and my ex-husband Doug, comforting our beautiful boy Sammy while he was passing over the rainbow bridge
Comforting your ferret in its final hours
The final hours will be the most emotionally draining hours for you. However, it’s important to remember that even though it is hard for you, it’s not about you. It’s about your ferret. During this time, they really will need you to hold space for them, tell them that it’s IK to let go, tell them you love them, and just be there for them while they slip away.
If possible, tuck your ferret in a blanket or under your sweater in order to maintain a warm body temperature and keep them cosy and comfortable. Offer them some water off your fingertip in case they might have a dry mouth, but don’t force it. In some instances, the ferret’s jaw will clench right before death and they are unable to drink or eat. It’s just a part of their body shutting down.
You may find that the ferrets breathing starts to become louder or irregular. This is because it’s organs are shutting down, resulting in fluid build up in their lungs. This is a tell-tale sign that death is near.
As the heart, lungs, and other organs start to fail, you might notice that your ferret’s body temperature starts to fall and the color might drain out of their nose, eyes, paws, and tongue. Their nervous system will start to shut down which will inhibit their ability to blink or swallow. They will start to go limp in your arms.
During this time, continue to hold space for them, wrap them in the blanket or position them in their favorite sleeping position. Give them kisses, talk to them. It is believed that the hearing is the last sense to fail, so they will most likely hear what you are saying to them. When my ferrets die, I like to tell them that it is OK to let go, that they are safe and loved, and that they will soon be reunited with all their brothers and sisters across the rainbow bridge.
You may experience their last breath and their last heartbeat. All of a sudden, their body becomes an empty shell that once housed your beautiful, mischievous ferret’s spirit.
Don’t feel the need to keep in your emotions, allow yourself to grieve and let it all go. Then, when you are ready, you will need to bury your ferret or have it cremated.
Know that you did the best you could for your ferret throughout her life and in her death. Now she will become another one of your little angels that guide you through life.
Doug comforting Binxi in her final hours. We decided to put her down at the vet as she seemed to be in too much pain. That was one of the hardest decisions to make.
This article originally appeared in Dook Dook Ferret Magazine (Issue 13). To receive 6 new Dook Dook Ferret Magazines per year + get access to other bonuses then join the Ferret-World Membership.