Waardenburg Syndrome In Ferrets

Boisterous, cheeky ferrets are among the most loving and entertaining of all pets, but any ferret owner will know that they can also be very stubborn and persistent! While a ferret that is up to no good or that is in the middle of a game may occasionally suffer from “selective deafness,” there is a ferret condition that can cause actual genuine deafness as one of its main traits, as well as various other symptoms too. This is Waardenburg syndrome, a genetic disorder that is also found in other mammals, including humans.

Not sure what this means, or how to tell if your ferret has the condition? Read on for more information.

What is Waardenburg syndrome?

Waardenburg syndrome causes minor defects of the neural crest pathways of affected ferrets, and is related to certain colour and pattern combinations of the fur, which often indicate the presence of the condition. Deafness is the most common characteristic of the condition (usually, but not always, total deafness affecting both ears) and around three quarters of all ferrets that carry the specific colour and pattern markings that signify the condition will be deaf.

The colour markings that accompany Waardenburg syndrome in the ferret consist of a small white stripe (known as a blaze) on the back of the head, or an all-white head right from the tip of the nose to the back of the head, known as a panda pattern. Ferrets with the condition may also have rather widely set eyes, and a slightly flattened appearance to the skull.

Indicators that your ferret might be deaf

If you are unsure whether or not your ferret has good hearing, and particularly if they display the head shape and markings that accompany the condition, you might have noticed some of the following clues in their behaviour:

  • Mute or almost mute vocalisations.
  • Extremely loud vocalisations, as the ferret does not realise how loud they are being!
  • Particularly rough play with other ferrets, and not responding to squeals as a cue to stop, as they are not gaining the auditory feedback from their friends that they are going too far.
  • Craning the head backwards or holding the head back in a tilted position are also sometimes signs of the condition.

Testing your ferret’s hearing

Not all ferrets with Waardenburg syndrome are totally deaf, and not all ferrets with Waardenburg syndrome will display a marked deafness at all. If you are not sure if your ferret is deaf or not, there are a few tests that you can perform at home to try to find out. Look out for obvious signs that your ferret is deaf, such as not responding to loud noises but reacting to movement and vibration, and see if your ferret appears to respond to very loud noises but not sounds at a quieter volume.

  • Does your ferret become startled easily if you creep up on them unawares?
  • If you clap or make a loud noise, does your ferret jump, or at least look towards the source of the sound?
  • If you have more than one ferret, try to compare their reactions to each other, and observe if one ferret fails to respond to sound cues that the other ferrets catch.

How to manage deafness in the ferret

While there are naturally some disadvantages that accompany deafness in any situation, in the domestic ferret living within a home environment, it is not a huge problem, as the survival of the ferret does not rely upon them being aware of approaching predators.

However, it is important to adjust the ways in which you communicate with and train your ferret, to ensure that they understand what you are asking of them and can respond to learned commands.

  • While lots of human to ferret communication is generally verbal, ferrets are clever animals that will soon pick up other cues. Ferrets are adept at reading facial expressions, so instead of saying “no” when your ferret does something that they shouldn’t, make a frowning or angry face at them to discourage them.
  • If you would usually call your ferret’s name or make a sound to let them know that you are approaching, substitute this for knocking or tapping on the floor with your feet, so that your ferret can tell from the vibration produced that someone is trying to get their attention.
  • Remember that if you startle your ferret from close quarters, they might nip or bite; avoid creeping up on your deaf ferret, and always try to approach them from the front, or alert them to your presence from a safe distance before you come into range or try to pick them up.

Breeding

Waardenburg syndrome is a genetically inherited condition, and one that has become more prevalent in modern times due to selective breeding for certain colour and pattern traits.

As Waardenburg syndrome can be passed on to the offspring of affected ferrets, ferrets with the condition should not be used for breeding.


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