Effect of captivity and management on behaviour of the domestic ferret (Mustela putorius furo)

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The domestic ferret (Mustela putorius furo) is becoming an increasingly popular companion animal in Australia and overseas yet very little is currently known about the effects of different management factors (such as housing and enrichment) on domestic ferret behaviour and welfare. Hence, the aims of this study were to investigate the relationship between housing and management and the incidence of play and undesirable behaviours in order to ultimately improve welfare in the domestic ferret. An online survey was constructed which focused on different housing and management strategies utilised by ferret owners and required owners to score the frequency of a range of behaviours observed. Ferret owners were also able to report what behavioural aspects they believed particular ferret behaviours were associated with. There were 466 ferret owners who participated in this survey study. Generalised linear mixed models (GLMMs) were used to identify significant relationships between sex, de-sexing, housing, enrichment, and the frequency of behaviours reported by owners. It was found that the overall frequency of undesirable behaviours, on a scale of 0 (never) to 4 (always), was quite low, with ferret owners reporting that these behaviours ‘rarely’ to ‘never’ occurred (mean score (MS) = 0.73). In contrast, the frequency of overall play behaviours was reported as ‘frequently’ to ‘occasionally’ (MS = 2.35). It was also found that male ferrets showed more play behaviour (weasel war dance) than females (male MS = 2.66; female MS = 2.61; P = 0.04) and that de-sexed ferrets had a lower incidence of repetitive behaviour compared to entire ferrets (de-sexed MS = 0.54; entire MS = 0.79; P = 0.01). Ferrets provided with a higher level of enrichment demonstrated a higher occurrence of play behaviour such as dooking (MS for less than two enrichment items = 1.47; MS for three to five enrichment items = 1.96; MS for more than six enrichment items = 2.18; P = 0.01) and weasel war dance (MS for less than two enrichment items = 2.34; MS for three to five enrichment items = 2.59; MS for more than six enrichment items = 2.70; P < 0.01). There was also a significant interaction between number of hours ferrets spent confined and number of enrichment items (GLMM, F4.329 = 10.2, P = 0.03) on the incidence of bite-hurt (an undesirable behaviour) suggesting that generally, higher levels of enrichment in conjunction with less hours spent confined results in less bite-hurt behaviour. Surprisingly, size of enclosure had no significant effect on any behaviour (all P > 0.1). Although ferrets display a higher incidence of play behaviour than undesirable behaviour, which may be seen as a positive sign, factors such as the level of enrichment provided, amount of time ferrets are confined and de-sexing should be carefully considered when implementing management plans for this companion animal as they exert an influence on ferret behaviour.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)94-101
Number of pages8
JournalApplied Animal Behaviour Science
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2014


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