CARE rescues more than just dogs and cats. We often find homes for homeless ferrets, too. Read on to learn more about this exotic pet to see if a ferret might be for you!
Principles Of Ferret Care
Ron Hines DVM PhD 4/24/06care
The domestic version of the common European polecat or ferret makes an excellent urban pet. The scientific name for the domestic ferret is Mustela putorius furo. Ferrets belong to a Class of animals known as Mustella. This group includes weasels, mink, badgers, otters and skunks. Ferrets are strict carnivores (meat eaters). In the wild, they live on mice, bugs and other small prey. There are three types of ferrets, the endangered American black-footed ferret, the European ferret and the Russian steppes.
Ferrets became popular as pets in the United States in the 1970’s chiefly due to the efforts of Mr. George Marshall of Marshall Research Farms located in Wolcott in western New York State. In 1939, he began raising ferrets in the backyard of their family farm. According to his family, it was common practice for many farmers to keep a ferret as a pet for hunting rabbits or for rodent control at that time. I first met Mr. Marshal in 1966. I worked for the National Institutes of Health at the time and Mr. Marshall’s first inclination was to market these animals to us as research subjects. When that fizzled, he concentrated on the pet trade.
Various articles claim that ferrets have been kept as pets and hunters since as early as 1000 - 400 BC. As I read many articles, I never see the evidence on which this claim is based. We do know that they were used extensively in medieval times to hunt rabbits. European hares dig burrows or warrens and ferrets were used to flush them out.
ferret pet care
It is normal for a ferret to have a wobbly, unstable gait. Ferrets are fearless, very curious, and have short attention spans. Unlike dogs and cats they seem to rely more on tactile sense (touch) rather than scent or vision as they explore new objects. Their love for exploration and squeezing themselves into tight spaces often lead to dangerous situations such as becoming wedged inside the mechanisms of dryers, televisions and HVAC systems. When they are awake, they are constantly busy checking out their environment. These periods do not last long, however, since ferrets sleep up to 18 hours a day. Their attributes make it hard to rate their intelligence as one would a cat or a dog.
Ferrets reach sexual maturity at 5-8 months. As occurs in all the Mustella, ferrets are “induced ovulators” that must mate in order to release eggs from their ovaries. When unsprayed female ferrets are not bred they become “stuck” in estrus with disastrous results. Pregnancy lasts a little over one month.
Ferrets normally have two litters a year — one in spring and the other in the fall. Not only female ferrets cycle. Unaltered male ferrets testicle size and body weight also increases twice a year. Unaltered male and female ferret’s weights can vary as much as 45% depending on the season of the year. Their hair coats also become sparse or thick depending on their point in the estrus cycle. Neutered ferrets do not show as pronounced changes. Old time ferret breeders would pluck a portion of hair from the jills back. When it began to re-grow they knew the Jill was pregnant.
Baby ferrets are born very immature with little body fur and their eyes shut. Their eyes open by the time the babies are one month old and they usually wean themselves between 6-8 weeks.
Over the years many color variations have been bred. These include cinnamon, chocolate sable, silver, white with black eyes, panda, Shetland sable, sterling, butterscotch, champagne, blaze, black-eyed white, marked whites and albino.
Ferrets hair coats darken and thicken in the winter — especially if they are exposed to natural lighting. They also often “blow” their coats (molt) in the fall and spring.
Most large commercial breeders now neuter, spay and descent their ferrets before they are sold. Spaying female ferrets is critical if they are not bred because if they are not bred they become locked in estrus and the resulting high levels of estrogen cause them to become deathly anemic. It is said that neutered male ferrets are less aggressive. I have found that aggression is more common in ferrets that were not handled when they were small. Most people find the scent of ferrets objectionable so it is probably good that they are sold de-scented. Washing them weekly in baby shampoo and using a cream rinse after bathing keeps this odor to a minimum.
Traditional Ferret Terminology
Unspayed female ferrets are called Jill’s.
Spayed female ferrets are called sprites.
Unaltered male ferrets are referred to as hobs.
Neutered males are called Gibbs.
Baby ferrets are called Kits.
Traditional coat color is called Fitch (sable).
Ferrets have a lifespan of eight to twelve years. Unfortunately a small group of all-to-common diseases abbreviate the lives of many ferrets.
Setting up a ferret-friendly home is quite different than arranging for a family dog, cat or new toddler. Ferrets just love nooks and crannies. It is best to set up some safe ones rather than let your ferret choose its own. Small cardboard boxes, milk crates, flower pots, Christmas stockings, dryer vent hose and portions of 4-6 inch PVC pipe make good, safe nooks. Things that unravel, collapse or can be chewed up make bad nooks.
Ferrets love toys too. The best ferret toys are infant rattles and toys, ping-pong balls, paper bags, key rings and toys designed for pet birds or ferrets.
Ferrets are escape artists who can squeeze through the smallest holes. If their head gets through the rest of them will follow. They also have a talent for wedging themselves into the chassis of televisions, refrigerators, washers and dryers, which can cause them serious injury.
Ferrets need fresh water at all times. They easily overheat and become thirsty. Many owners use a food-grade crock. I like to adapt them to using a stainless steel ball bearing sipper tube and bottle. When this device is new to the ferret I rub some cream cheese on the end to get them used to licking it and keep the crock as a back up for a week or two.
Ferret-size hammocks are available to sleep in but canvas backpacks, empty cartons or old hats work equally well. Be very careful that no string or small objects that can be swallowed are present.
Ferrets can be trained easily to use a cat litter box. Training works best when the ferret is confined for a week or two in a cage no larger than three or four times the size of his litter box with the litter box inside. Use a pellet cellulose litter and not a self-clumping silica clay litter. The silica makes them sneeze.
Most ferrets get along well with a partner. They can be the same or different sexes. If you do not have considerable time to spend with your ferret you may consider purchasing a partner so that they can entertain each other. They should be approximately the same age.
Although many articles state that ferrets can be housed in outdoor cages as well as indoors; I find that outdoor ferrets generally do not do as well as those kept indoors as part of the family. I strongly recommend that ferrets not be kept in outside cages. If you want outside pets, get a bird feeder. When ferrets are kept outside they can tolerate temperatures as low as 20F and as high as 85F. At low temperature their food consumption doubles. Ferrets housed out of doors need to be given monthly heartworm preventative (Heartgard for small dogs, Ivermectin). Even when given heartworm preventative outside ferrets rarely live as long as indoor pets.
Ferrets do like to go for out of doors strolls. This is perfectly fine as long as strange dogs are not present. Ferrets are not territorial and quickly wander off and become lost. So you need to supervise loose ferrets closely or, better still, walk them on a harness and leash.
When they are not under your supervision indoors keep ferrets in a cage constructed of vinyl-dipped or powder-coated wire. Do not use galvanized mesh — it is too rough on their tender noses and footpads and the zinc plating is not healthy. A cage 24 inches by 35 inches by 18 inches high will house two ferrets comfortably. Larger cages with multiple levels are even better.
The Positives and Negatives Of Ferrets As Pets
Ferrets sold in the United States begin their human contact as soon as their eyes open. Because of this and genetics, they tend to be gentle and rarely bite. They are less prone to biting children than are dogs and cats.
Ferrets are not very expensive and are readily available.
Ferrets do not require much space. They are economical to keep and do not require exotic diets or habitats. Males weigh two and a half to three pounds. Females are half as heavy as males.
Ferrets rarely make noise unless accidentally stepped on.
Ferrets interact closely with their owners and return affection.
Ferrets are not messy or destructive pets.
Ferrets do not do well in heat and high humidity. They prefer a centrally air conditioned home.
Ferrets do not generally live as long as dogs and cats. This is because they are very prone to cancer. Therefore, older ferrets can run up large veterinary bills.
Ferrets normally have a musky odor that some people find annoying. Females are less pungent than males but females still have a distinctive ferret odor. I actually like the odor of ferrets. De-scenting surgery does not remove all this odor. Purchasing de-scented ferrets and bathing them weekly in baby shampoo and then applying a cream rinse minimizes this odor.
At last reading, ferrets were still illegal pets in California and Hawaii. Those laws need to be changed.
Some might consider ferrets hyperactive — if they are sitting still they are probably asleep.
Ferrets tend to hoard food and toys, which I suppose, could be considered an annoyance. With regular cleaning of their cages pockets of old food should not be a problem.
Ferrets love to get into tight spots and are often difficult to extricate. So it is necessary to “ferret proof” your house.
Characteristics of A Good Ferret Owner
Ferrets make good pets for families where both individuals work. In pairs, ferrets are good at entertaining themselves. Having a ferret is not an all-consuming activity as are some larger breeds of dogs and parrots. Yet ferrets require a high degree of commitment and responsibility. Owning a ferret is a major responsibility. They should never be purchased by a child or on a whim or fancy.
Because of their small space requirements ferrets make good apartment pets. They also make good pets for the elderly because of their small size and manageable needs. Ferret owners tend to have traits somewhere between cat owners and dog owners. In fact, many ferret owners also own dogs and cats. Ferret owners tend to appreciate the comical side of life in the topsy-turvy behavior of their pets.
Several brands of ferret chow are available at pet stores. (Marshall, Kaytee, L&M, Mazuri, Sheppard & Green, Totally Ferret). They all have 32-38% protein and 10-20% fat. I prefer diets with 35% protein or greater and 18% animal fat or greater. Many of these diets derive much of their protein from fish meal. I do not recommend that ferrets receive fish meal-containing products. Fish meals can contains too many rancid (free radical) oils and thiamine’s, an enzyme that destroys vitamin B-1. Try to feed a diet that is chiefly made of poultry and poultry or beef by-product along with animal fat, rice and brewer’s yeast. Try not to feed excessive amounts of food so that your ferrets do not become obese. For dental health, feed a dry kibble rather than a canned diet. The kibble can be moistened when ferrets are less than 11 weeks of age. Food should be available at all times. Ferrets also thrive on chicken or beef-based kitten chow that does not contain fish, fish-meal or vegetable oils. I also suggest that ferrets be given supplemental vitamin E (100mg alpha tocopherol acetate/day) and vitamin C (50mg ascorbic acid/day).
Ferrets do not do well when their diets change frequently. Find one good food and keep them on that food their entire life. If you need to give them treats such as egg be sure the egg is well cooked. Ferrets will eat and enjoy items that are really not good for them such as candy, pasta, table foods and high fiber items. Dietary supplements are not necessary unless a ferret is ill.
Ferrets kept indoors need their toenails clipped occasionally. I use human toenail clippers to do this. The blood vein of the nail is quite easy to see. If a toenail should bleed it can be pressed into a soft bar of Ivory soap to stop it from bleeding.
Ferrets shed their coats (molt) twice a year. In some animals this is more pronounced than others. During this period, they are susceptible to hairballs. Treat them with an over the counter cat hairball remedy (petrolatum).
Ferrets — particularly young ferrets — love to eat spongy and stringy material, which often blocks their intestine becoming a life-threatening illness. Eating foam rubber, insulation and rubber bands are particularly common problems. Obstructed ferrets become depressed, stop eating and drinking and may show diarrhea, vomiting or abdominal pain and fever. A ferret’s normal body temperature is about 103F.
Ferrets in the US are extraordinarily prone to cancers. There is much controversy as to why this occurs. Genetics, diet and early neutering may all be factors involved. Tumors of the adrenal glands, pancreas (insulinoma) and lymphatic system (lymphomas) are all too common in ferrets.
Ferrets are susceptible to dog distemper and human influenza. The Merial Drug Company makes two good vaccines for ferrets, their PureVax Ferret distemper vaccine and their Emrab-3 rabies vaccine. Ferrets usually arrive having had an initial vaccination of PureVax and receive a second booster injection at 12-14 weeks of age. Most veterinarians revaccinate for distemper yearly but I have never seen the disease in a ferret that ever received this product or a prior competitive product (Fervac-D).
Ferrets are quite susceptible to problems that are related to stress and introduction to new environments and new diets. These often express themselves as vomiting and diarrhea. They can become dehydrated and weak quite rapidly. It is best to make husbandry changes gradually and not all at once. Cases of diarrhea and vomiting need to be treated by your veterinarian. This usually includes subcutaneous fluids, a high caloric paste, a bland diet, systemic antibiotics and antacids.
Ferrets are quite susceptible to the ear mites of cats and dogs. Generally, ear mites are not present when ferrets are purchased from reputable breeders. Ferret’s ears are normally quite collapsed and so need periodic cleaning with baby or mineral oil. Just massage in the oil and the ferret will sling out wax and debris when you release it. Then use a Q-tip to gently clean the outer portion of the ear.
Do Ferrets bite?
A healthy, well-trained pet ferret should not bite. Like cats and dogs, ferrets need to be gently but firmly taught what is acceptable behavior. Any animal that is frightened, injured or in any type of pain may bite. NEVER put fingers into a ferret's cage as one may take a nip mistakenly thinking your finger is an edible treat.
Are Ferrets nocturnal?
NO! They will adjust their schedule to yours and be eager and ready to play when you are! (Ferrets can become depressed if left alone or caged for long periods of time.)
Don’t Ferrets have an odor?
Ferrets have a natural light musky odor. The odor is greatly minimized when the ferret is spayed or neutered. Bathing and diet also have an impact on their scent.
Are Ferrets cage animals?
For their protection, it is recommended that your ferret be kept in a ferret-proofed area of the house or a cage when your are not at home. Wire cages with multiple floors are what ferrets prefer. DO NOT USE AQUARIUMS (no ventilation; bacterial buildup) OR CEDAR CHIPS (respiratory problems)!!! Ferrets are inquisitive, fearless, and capable of getting into places that you never imagined. Ferrets should not be left in a cage for an extended period of time. The need exercise, affection and human companionship to keep them happy and healthy!
High heat and humidity can be a killer. Ferrets should be housed in a climate controlled environment (indoors). Ferrets have poorly developed sweat glands and will die very quickly from heat exhaustion/stroke. Do not place your ferret's cage directly in front of an A/C unit or a window with direct sunlight.
What are proper caging requirements for Ferrets?
Select a roomy (18"Wx36"LX24"H), well-ventilated, (preferably wire mesh no more than l"x2"), cage with two levels as you will need room for a litter box as well as separate areas for sleeping, eating and playing. Water bottles are suggested as many ferrets enjoy "playing" with (or IN!) water dishes and easily tip the bowls over. Towels or old sweatshirts/t-shirts are fine for ferrets to curl up inside. They all love HAMMOCKS! Since ferrets do not cover their feces, a small amount of the new recycled newspaper pelleted litter (or unscented, clay litter) is plenty. Be sure to place the litter box in a corner! Additionally, a small cat sized carrier should be purchased for trips to the vet. Never leave your ferret in the car on a hot day and always provide a hanging water bottle in the carrier during transport. It is extremely dangerous--to both YOU and YOUR PET--to leave your ferret loose when traveling by car.
Are Ferrets trainable?
Ferrets are very clever. They can recognize their name and with patience be taught to respond to verbal commands. They can be successfully trained to use a litter box or "paper trained", but be prepared for occasional "mistakes". Many ferrets have learned a few simple tricks.
Should Ferrets be Neutered or Spayed?
Many ferrets sold are already neutered/spayed. (MARSHALL FARMS, the largest ferret breeding facility in the U.S., tattoos two small blue/black dots in the right ear of ferrets already altered and descented before shipping to pet shops). If your ferret is not neutered/spayed, it is strongly recommended that this surgery be done by an experienced ferret vet. Having a ferret spayed or neutered will not alter his/her personality. The stress and strong, pungent odor of intact males (hobs) is not desirable for a household pet. For this reason, neutering is strongly recommended.
Besides, due to over breeding, there are already too many great ferrets in shelters across the country waiting for a good home. WARNING: Females (Jill’s) may go into heat as early as four months of age and stay "in heat". If a female is not brought out of heat, she can develop an infection due to the enlargement of the vulva. additionally a hormonal suppression of bone marrow causes "aplastic anemia" and the ferret can die.
What do Ferrets eat?
Good nutrition means good health! A dry commercial ferret food (such as TOTALLY FERRET, MAZURI) sold by pet shops, veterinarians or feed stores is preferable. There are new ferret diets appearing on the market all the time, but the ones that are fish-based are not liked very well by ferrets. Most ferrets prefer shaped pieces of food and do not care for pelleted foods for this reason. Alternatively, a high quality (at least 32% protein), meat-based cat food (like WYSONG NURTURE or VITALITY; IAMS KITTEN; PRO-PLAN GROWTH) is acceptable. Although ferrets do require added fat in their diet, consult with your veterinarian before providing fatty acid supplements such as LINATONE or FERRETONE. DO NOT USE ANY GROCERY STORE KITTEN/CAT FOODS BECAUSE THEY DO NOT HAVE ENOUGH MEAT PROTEIN REQUIRED FOR A FERRET'S DIET AND SUPERMARKET BRAND FOOD CONTAIN DYES, FILLERS AND PRESERVATIVES NOT GOOD FOR FERRETS. Since ferrets have a 3 hour digestive system, CLEAN, FRESH WATER AND DRY FOOD SHOULD BE AVAILABLE AT ALL TIMES. Treats such as fruits or vegetables should be given sparingly. Ferrets should not be fed dog food, chocolate, sweets, raw meat or dairy products!
Do Ferrets get along with other pets?
Since ferrets are so playful, they get along well with most larger animals. When introducing your ferrets to another pet, LIKE A CAT OR DOG, a proper period of supervision is necessary. INTERACTIONS WITH BIRDS, RODENTS, RABBITS OR REPTILES IS NOT RECOMMENDED.
What health care do Ferrets require?
Ferrets should be vaccinated against canine distemper every year WITHOUT FAIL! Canine distemper is always fatal, and as it is an airborne virus, you can bring it to your ferrets from almost anywhere. FERVAC-Dâ„¢ and Merial's PureVax are the approved distemper vaccines for ferrets. Many states and municipalities require a rabies vaccination as well. (On February 7, 1990, the USDA licensed the first rabies vaccine for use in ferrets. It is known as IMRAB-3â„¢, a killed virus vaccine and is approved for use in dogs and cats as well.) Your ferret should be examined by a veterinarian at least once a year, which should include a dental checkup, fecal (stool) exam, and ears should be examined for ear mites. Annual heartworm exam and preventatives are a must in many areas.
What Grooming is required for Ferrets?
Proper grooming and maintenance are vital to a happy, healthy ferret. Ferrets are naturally clean creatures but their nails should be trimmed and ears cleaned on a regular basis. Baths can be given if necessary--try to keep shampoo out of their eyes and noses. (When bathing beware: Ferrets like the taste of soap--don't let them eat any!) Ferrets will shed twice a year and should be combed to help remove loose fur. They can suffer from hairballs during shedding periods--give a hairball remover twice a week as a precaution.
What about fleas?
Ferrets should be kept free of external parasites such as fleas, which they usually acquire from other household pets that go outdoors. If a ferret is subjected to a major flea infestation over a period of time, he/she can get "flea-induced anemia" and possibly die. Any product that is labeled safe for use in kittens is usually safe for ferrets as well. Use of shampoos containing pyrethrins is recommended. NEVER DIP A FERRET! CAUTION: All flea collars and canine (dog) flea products are TOXIC to ferrets!
What diseases can Ferrets get?
Ferrets are susceptible to canine distemper, ringworm, sarcoptic mange, flea bite dermatitis, and Aleutian disease. Cancer and urinary tract stones are also seen in ferrets. In addition, they can catch the flu from humans, so exercise caution when you are ill.
What about Ferrets and children?
Children and ferrets can make wonderful playmates with proper supervision by a responsible adult. If your family has a baby or a small child (under 6 years of age), a ferret may not be a good pet choice as ferrets can sometimes play rough and nip tender skin, much like puppies/kittens do, until trained not to do so. Also, a small child could inadvertently mishandle a ferret. And lastly, children often lack the sense of responsibility required to care for a pet. A child should be taught respect for all animals and, specifically how to hold and care for a ferret. Small children should never be left unsupervised with ANY animals, no matter how trusted the pet, even for a few seconds.
How much time will I need to spend with my Ferret?
Two or more ferrets will have a blast playing with each other all day long, but if you only have one ferret, you should spend at least an hour with him/her, and then give the ferret another hour or two of play on its own.
How do I prepare my house for a Ferret?
Ferrets are curious by nature and can crawl through any hole the width of its head. Contact your local ferret Club or Shelter for helpful hints on "ferretproofing" your house. Reclining chairs and sleeper sofas are responsible for high incidence of accidental deaths in ferrets before their 5th birthday, as ferrets are crushed in the mechanisms. These pieces of furniture cannot be ferret-proofed, nor can you rely on children or guests to refrain from using them when ferrets are about. Ferrets love to dig in dirt, so potted plants should be placed out of their reach. Ferrets can not climb as cats do. They are able to jump and get a grip on something, then will either pull themselves up...or objects will come down with them. Items such as trash cans, tablecloths, laundry baskets, drink glasses, etc. are fair game. Ferrets enjoy tossing pillows off sofas, pushing papers off desks, knocking over wastebaskets, stealing dirty socks, and hiding anything they can carry under furniture. RUBBER TOYS (and even chewing on certain types of rags, cloth, rubber bands, pencil erasers, or Styrofoam "packing peanuts" ARE VERY DANGEROUS AS THEY CAN BE CHEWED AND SWALLOWED BY A FERRET! All these items can cause an obstruction in the intestinal tract and may require LIFE-SAVING surgery.
The Four Basic Colors
Sable: The guard hairs are dark in color, ranging from darkest brown to black.
The undercoat on the neck, belly, back is cream colored, and it may show through.
The tail and legs are the same color as the body, but with no undercoat.
The mask is a full band across their eyes.
Silver: There are several different silver patterns.
Some silvers have guard hairs that are white and silvery everywhere on the body,
and some silvers are sometimes confused with DEWS because some silvers have all
white guard hairs everywhere except their tail, which has only a few silver guard hairs.
The silver ferret lacks a full mask and usually only has a few smudges of silver around the eyes.
Dark Eyed White (DEW): The guard hairs are all white
and the eyes are brown or black.
Albino: The guard hairs are all white
and the eyes are red or pink.
Mitt: This pattern includes white feet and a white bib.
Badger or Shetland: This pattern usually has smudges around the eyes instead of a mask.
All feet are white or tipped with white, they have white bibs, and sometimes the knees are white also.
This type of ferret is prone to deafness.
Blaze: This type of ferret has a white strip that comes from the face and goes down the head and neck.
It also has white feet, bib, and sometimes white knees.
This type of ferret is prone to deafness.
Hooded: This type of pattern refers to the ferret with
a raccoon face mask that extends up and over the head.
Roan: This type of pattern refers to any color ferret
that has white guard hairs sprinkled in with darker guard hairs.
Siamese or Pointed Patterned: This pattern refers to the ferret that has a V shaped mask
that is darker or lighter than the rest of the body.
This ferret also has a line of color running through the length of the underside,
this is called a zipper.
Panda: This pattern refers to the ferret that has a white head,
reaching all the way down to their shoulders.
This type of ferret also has a white bib, belly and feet.
Chocolate: Like a sable, but more chocolate color.
Chocolate's have darker feet and tails than the rest of their body.
Dark: Like a sable, but the fur is much darker, sometimes black.
Cinnamon: Reddish, brown, guard hairs.
True Black: Completely black under hairs and guard hairs with no mask, no mitts and no bib.
Angora: This is a completely different breed of a domestic ferret,
just recently introduced on the “market”.
Its hair is much longer than the domestic ferret.
Dalmatian: Primarily white with spots or blotches of darker colored hairs.