Part 1: Sex or Death

Fact: Ferrets die if they don’t get enough sex.

“I’m dying for it”. “It’s killing me.” They might be phrases you’ve said in the past, but we shouldn’t be so dramatic: for female ferrets, sex really is a matter of life and death.

Sex is so important to female ferrets because of the nature of their fertility cycle. In humans, the menstrual cycle is driven by time, meaning that once a month a woman will ovulate (or release an egg) regardless of whether she has sex or not. If that egg isn’t fertilised, she simply has her period and the cycle begins again the next month.

However, in ferrets things work a little differently. Female ferrets go into heat (or oestrus) and become fertile multiple times a year, but they are induced ovulators. That means they won’t release an egg until they get the right signal – which in this case is a bit of fun between the sheets. This helps make sure that they release their eggs at a time when they are most likely to be fertilised, giving them the best chance of getting pregnant.

The downside of this clever trick is that if our ferret can’t mind a willing mate, she won’t ovulate. This means she will remain in heat indefinitely, which is characterised by high levels of the hormone oestrogen in her blood. At prolonged high levels, oestrogen causes the breakdown of bone marrow, which is where we make our red and white blood cells.

As she goes longer and longer without sex and her bone marrow deteriorates, our ferret will begin to make fewer and fewer red blood cells. Eventually she will develop aplastic anemia – a severe shortage of red blood cells which, if she doesn’t get treatment (or finally get laid) will eventually kill her.

So sex for ferrets is less of a nice pastime and more of an anxiety-inducing necessity. Just to be absolutely clear, this isn’t the case in humans so you can’t use this argument as a counter to ‘I’ve got an early start in the morning.’

‘Another one of Mr Shaunak’s Little Bites of Science’
Image under Creative Commons license

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