If you own a ferret, you know that they can be absolutely adorable but insanely tricky to keep, and part of that has to do with the fact that they are insanely good at slipping into and out of tight places.
Part of that is due to the fact that ferrets are typically pretty slender, but that alone doesn’t account for their ability to wriggle into and out of danger (and cages) like few other animals.
The big secret to a ferret’s flexibility is just how flexible their spine is, which begs the question – well, just how flexible is a ferret’s spine, anyway? What can you do to make sure that your flexible little ferret doesn’t bend and slip its way out of its cage?
A Deep Dive Down Your Ferret’s Spine
The big secret to ferret flexibility is usually seen as the fact that their spine is specially constructed to allow for a great deal of bending and twisting. Dig a little deeper, however, and you’ll find that it’s not just their spine but a ferret’s whole body from head to tail that is designed for maximum bendiness.
A ferret’s skeleton is composed of 200 bones, like most other mammals, and weighs just around 2 kg as an adult. Even before we get into the special construction and flexibility of these components, the sheer lightweight nature of their skeleton provides a vital clue – after all, it’s hard to be bendy and flexible when your skeletal structure is heavy and not built for quick, agile movements.
A ferret’s skeleton can be further divided into three main sections – the axial skeleton (skull, vertebrae, sternum, and ribs), the appendicular skeleton (legs, shoulders, and pelvis), and heterotopic skeleton (the kneecaps, fabella, and other parts of the rear legs and pelvic region). It is the variations in each of these skeletal regions that help give a ferret its flexibility.
For starters, a ferret’s skull is longer and flatter than many others. Its slender design helps it slip through gaps that would otherwise be too large for other mammals’ heads.
In addition, it can be hard to tell the bones in a ferret’s skull apart from one another because there are no fusion lines between them.
Ferrets tend to be about twice as long as they are wide. Once again, the fact they are so slender is a big reason why they are so flexible compared to other animals.
It is the ferret’s vertebral column, however, that’s really the star of the show when it comes to explaining ferret flexibility.
A ferret’s vertebral column starts with its neck. Just like the head, this is longer than the necks of many mammals.
The neck has 7 vertebrae while the chest has 15, the lumbar region has 6, and the tail has a whopping 18. In fact, the tail alone accounts for a third of a grown ferret’s body.
All of those vertebral bones come together to give a ferret a longer and more flexible vertebral column than most mammals. Their spine’s flexibility and body’s compactness are huge factors in making ferrets one of the most flexible mammals on the planet.
It is this flexibility that allows them to bend and twist while they run, transforming their flexibility into true agility.
There are still more secrets held within a ferret’s skeleton, starting with the fact that their front arms are short and light. That lightweight design extends to their rear legs, though these are longer than the frontal ones.
As stated, ferrets tend to be very lightweight, and this is another reason why.
The claws on their paws are also well-suited for digging.
A ferret’s knee is constructed similar to a human’s knee, with two menisci, caudal cruciate, and cranial ligaments as well as two collateral ligaments.
The end result of that well-connected, articulation-heavy, easily-compressed spinal and overall skeletal structure is an animal that’s able to bend its body seemingly at will to squeeze into tight areas, wrap itself tight, or twist and turn while on the run.
While ferrets’ spines and tails do most of the heavy lifting, their whole lightweight skeletal and muscular system contribute to their famous flexibility.
Ferret Spinal Issues
Unfortunately, all that flexibility comes at a cost, and ferrets can be subject to a wide range of spinal issues. Whether or not these are due to their flexibility varies on a case by case basis, but it does mean that their spines are often the site of some of the most life-threatening conditions they can face later in life.
They are especially vulnerable to chordomas, which are a common type of malignant cancer that can appear at the tip of their tail as well as any part of the spinal column. Chordomas are typically characterized by an enlarged lump in these areas.
They can also fall prey to osteomas and osteosarcomas, which are likewise cancers that attack an animal’s system. Osteomas are typically benign, and are most often seen around the flat bones of their skull, including their jaw, while osteosarcomas are more likely to be malignant but are thankfully comparatively rare for ferrets.
Ferrets can also suffer elbow and knee injuries if they are not careful and fall from high areas, which is one more reason why you’ll need to find a way to stop your ferrets from slipping out of their cage, especially if you’ve placed them on an elevated surface.
Remember, ferret bones are very thin and lightweight, so they are much more vulnerable to breaking than those of other, bigger mammals.
Ferret-Proofing Your Cage and Home
For as remarkable as a ferret’s flexibility may be, it can also make them maddeningly difficult to keep as pets. You may think that you have a ferret well-contained within a cage, but all it can take is a few nimble twists and turns of its rubber-like spine for them to wriggle free and get into mischief.
Naturally, you don’t want that to happen, both for their own safety and the integrity of your home décor. Thankfully, there are plenty of steps you as a responsible ferret owner can take to ferret-proof its cage and hope to keep it from escaping.
Before you secure your ferret’s cage itself, you’ll need to make sure that its options for escape in the event it does break out are limited.
You don’t want it to get anywhere dangerous, such as the air conditioning, your toilet or the general piping for your plumbing, sinks, drains, dishwashers, or similar spaces, so make sure all of these are sealed, have grills, or another means of keeping your ferret out.
Childproof gates have gaps that are too large as ferrets can still escape through them, so you’ll need to either choose something else or be creative in modifying them with sheet plastic or something else to cover those holes. Any gap larger than one or two centimeters is practically daring your ferret to try and slip through.
Finally, we come to ferret-proofing your ferret cage itself. The easiest way to keep your ferret from escaping and causing problems for itself and your home is to keep it in its cage, and there are thankfully, plenty of ways to achieve this.
First and foremost, you need to make sure that you have a cage that has proper bar spacing. As intimated above, you need to ensure that the bars are extremely close together so as not to give your ferret any room to wriggle free.
In addition, your cage should always have a lid. This may seem obvious, but you would be surprised at how often ferrets are able to escape over the top of lidless cages.
This is true even for tall cages. Remember, ferrets are natural escape artists, so even if you put them in a cage that you think is too tall for them to be able to crawl out of, you’re still asking for trouble.
Part of that is due to the fact that ferret cages obviously aren’t barren, nor should they be. Your ferret will get depressed, dehydrated, and be miserable in a cage that doesn’t have water tubes, feeders, wheels, hideouts, and other fun things.
Unfortunately, any one of those things can also be a prime stepping stone for them to climb up on and then out of the cage. In addition, these features can also mask structural weaknesses in the cage.
You must therefore always check your cage carefully to make sure there are no weak points or holes.
When feeding your ferret, you should be very aware of its movements. All it takes is one quick movement for your ferret to dash past your hand and free of the cage when you open it to feed it.
Finally, if you are keeping a ferret with children, make sure that they know and understand these rules, lest they unwittingly or willingly become an accomplice to your ferret’s next escape plan.
By keeping all of these ferret flexibility facts and escape precautions in mind, you can ferret-proof its cage and your home and enjoy the furry flexible fun it can bring to your life for years to come.
I have a bachelor’s degree in Computer Information Systems and over 10 years of experience working in IT. I have a wife and two children and love taking them to the zoo to see all the animals. I grew up with dogs and fish and now have two dogs and two cats. I’ve also played guitar for almost 20 years and love writing music, although it’s hard to find the time these days.