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Tuesday, January 11, 2005; Page C10

Dear Dr. Fox:

I was hoping you could let your readers in on a little secret: Ferrets do, indeed, make ideal pets as long as you follow a few very simple rules.

Ferrets are not supposed to be kept in cages 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and played with for only a few minutes now and then, no matter how large a cage you provide for them. They still know it's a cage. You wouldn't keep your dog or cat in a cage that way, and ferrets are more like these animals than they are like rabbits and guinea pigs. The best solution for everyone involved is to place their cage in the room where you and your family spend most of the time. This room should also be "ferret-proofed" exactly as if you were baby-proofing it.

When you are home, your ferrets should be out of the cage and allowed to live with and react to you. You might want to attach a bell to their collar so that you don't step on them and so that they're easier to find. We just got our second ferret and have found that they behave much more responsibly if you give them free range.

Ferrets are illegal in California, New York City and the District of Columbia (and probably other places as well, but these are the ones I've found on the Internet).

Ferrets prefer rags for their bedding, and if you keep them clean you can almost eliminate their distinctive odor -- just don't overpower their sensitive sense of smell with powerfully scented detergents. Also, use cotton as much as possible.

Use newspaper bedding for their litter box (it's not as dusty as cat litter, but if you already have a cat, your ferret will probably share the same litter box).

D.S., Bethesda

I occasionally receive letters from people with ferrets, and your advice will be helpful to those who have them and (as is so often the case with various species kept as pets) are not providing optimal care. A lack of understanding often results in much animal suffering.

Some people believe that pet-store ferrets are a wild species, but they are not related to the American black-footed ferret (which is now almost extinct thanks to wildlife- and habitat-destroying non-sustainable cattle ranching activities and other misguided land uses). They were domesticated in Europe centuries ago, but, being carnivorous, must be given rabies vaccinations that, until recently, were not approved for use in ferrets, hence their ownership was prohibited by certain local health authorities. Dear Dr. Fox:

This is in reference to my female dog Sabrina, who is 2 1/2 years old. There are three humans (two children and one adult) in my household, but the family dog only follows me around the house. She likes to sleep and come into my bedroom when I'm home. Could you please tell me why she follows only me?

S.S., Houston

As a single mom, you are the primary caregiver and the leader of the "pack" (your family), and your devoted dog is acknowledging this by being your shadow. In addition, she may be interested in what you are doing and want to be involved, even though she may be a pest who's always under your feet.

Don't be too harsh with her when she gets in the way, because she may be fearful of being separated from you. Separation anxiety is common in dogs who have experienced family upsets (divorce, the death of a spouse or other family member) or who have been abandoned earlier in life and put up for adoption in an animal shelter.

Michael Fox is a veterinarian with doctoral degrees in medicine and animal behavior. Write to him in care of United Feature Syndicate, 200 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10016. The volume of mail received prohibits personal replies, but questions and comments of general interest will be discussed in future columns.

© 2005, United Feature Syndicate Inc.

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