(do not introduce your ferret to your dog without close supervision)
Ron Hines DVM PhD
Do Ferrets Make Good Pets?
Ferrets makes excellent household pets. That is, provided their musky odor does not bother you. Their personalities are completely unlike dogs and cats. So spent plenty of time with a ferret to see if this appeals to you before buying one. Their attributes make it hard to rate ferret intelligence as one would a cat or a dog. However, they are no Einsteins. If ability to learn new behaviors and tricks is high on your list of needs in a pet, perhaps ferrets are not for you. Ferrets will always behave like ferrets.
The scientific name for a 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 you might see in a zoo, the European ferret we keep as pets and the Russian steppes.
How Did Ferrets Come To Be Pets?
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 in Washington DC. 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.
Ferrets were used extensively in medieval times to hunt rabbits. European hares dig burrows or warrens and ferrets were used to flush them out.
How Do I Care For A Ferret?
First You Need To Know What They Are Like:
Ferrets normally have a wobbly, unstable gait. They are are fearless, very curious, and have very short attention spans. Unlike dogs and cats they seem to rely more on tactile sense (touch) rather than odor 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.
Pet Owners should purchase a ferret that is already descented and neutered.
Un-neutered 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 (heat) with disastrous results. Ferret pregnancies 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. Un neutered male ferrets testicle size and body weight also increases twice a year. Un neutered 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. Spayed and neutered ferrets do not show as pronounced changes. Old time ferret breeders would pluck a portion of hair from the jills (females) back. When it began to re grow they knew the females were 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. No matter what color you choose, there will still be the same ferret personality inside.
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 in response to the changing light.
Most large commercial breeders neuter, spay, and descent their ferrets before they are sold. They also vaccinate the for distemper.
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 die of anemia.
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. I have not noticed that neutering affects this. Most people find the scent of ferrets objectionable so it is probably good that they are usually sold de scented. Washing them weekly in baby shampoo and using a cream rinse after bathing keeps this odor to a minimum. Just be sure you do not dry out their coats too much.
Traditional Ferret Terminology:
Ferret lovers like to talk using special insider language. The animals have been around so long that a whole vocabulary of words developed around them.
Jill is not the name of someone’s girlfriend. Unsprayed female ferrets are called jills. Spayed female ferrets are called sprites.
Not Calvin and Hobs – un neutered male ferrets are referred to as hobs and neutered males are called gibs.
Baby ferrets, like foxes, are called kits.
The natural brown coat color of ferrets is called fitch (sable).
How Long Do Ferrets Live?
Ferrets have a life span of 8 – 12 years, occasionally a bit longer. Unfortunately a small group of all-to-common diseases shorten the lives of many ferrets.
Getting Their Home Ready:
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 great, safe nooks. Things that unravel, collapse or can be chewed up make bad nooks.
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 are not territorial. So they don’t find their way home if they escape from the house. Every little escape rout must be plugged.
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.
What Toys Do Ferrets Like?
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 notorious for swallowing items that plug them up! This can be fatal. Do not leave anything loose or available in your home that a toddler might eat.
Can They Be House-trained?
Yes, 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 pelleted cellulose litter and not a self-clumping silica clay litter. The silica makes them sneeze.
Can I Keep More Than One Ferret?
Yes, most ferrets get along well with a partner – or even two. 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.
How Much Space Does My Ferret Need?
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. 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 (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 good judges of location 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.
What Kind Of Cage Should I Get?
When they are not under your supervision indoors, most owners 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. Ferrets naturally prefer confined spaces. So their caging requirement are not as great as other pets.
The Positives and Negatives Off 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. If the ferret you see bites, or shows fear, do not purchase it.
Ferrets are not very expensive and are readily available.
Ferrets do not require much space. They are economical to keep they do not require exotic diets or habitats.
Ferrets are not too large. Males weigh 2.5 – 3 pounds 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 and endocrine gland disease. 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. Descenting surgery does not remove all this odor. Purchasing descented ferrets and bathing them weekly in baby shampoo and then applying a gentle, unscented cream rinse minimizes this odor. Do not bathe them to the point where their hair coat dries out.
At last reading, there were still some ridiculous laws on the books. Ferrets were still illegal pets in California, Hawaii and Puerto Rico. They were also restricted by Washington DC and New York City. A few States still have special regulations for ferrets and require permits. I am told that It is also illegal to keep ferrets in parts of Australia and New Zealand as well as some other countries. So check before you buy one.
Some people 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 – they are not “needy” pets 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 for 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.
What About Food And Water?
Ferrets need fresh water at all times. They easily overheat and become thirsty. Many owners use a food-grade crocks designed for cats. I like to teach them to use stainless steel ball bearing sipper tubes and bottles. When this device is new to my ferret, I rub some cream cheese on the end to get them used to licking it and I keep the crock as a back up for a week or two.
What Should I Feed My Ferret?
Ferrets have such a short intestinal tract so they can’t eat very much at a time. Many brands of ferret chow are available from pet supply outlets. Most 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 thiaminase, an enzyme that destroys vitamin B-1.
Try to feed a diet that is chiefly composed of poultry and beef, rice and brewer’s yeast. I have always been content with diets produced by Mazuri . Their Zupreem diet for Ferrets is a good choice. Wysong also makes excellent diets for ferrets. Marshall also produces a good, more reasonably-priced ferret food. Do not purchase your food from small pet shops unless it is kept refrigerated. They do not sell enough of it for it to remain fresh. Rancid oils in old ferret food are toxic to your pet. Keep your pet’s food containers refrigerated.
Do not 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 can also be maintained on premium brands of , chicken or beef-based kitten chows that do not contain fish, fish-meal or vegetable oils and are grain-free – but I do not suggest them because they were not specifically designed for ferrets. Ferrets are little creatures and feeding them a good ferret-designed diet is not that expensive.
I also suggest that ferrets be given supplemental vitamin E (25 iu alpha tocopherol acetate/day) and vitamin C (20 mg ascorbic acid/day) and Omega-3 fatty acids. I like to purchase these products in capsule form from drugstores – not pet supply outlets. In the USA, government quality control and freshness for human products is better than it is for animals.
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 must give them treats stay with products designed for ferrets that have no sugar or fruit in them. Ferrets will eat and enjoy items that are really not good for them such as candy, pasta, table foods and high fiber items.
What Kinds Of Health Care Will My Ferret Need?
Ferrets 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. Roll your ferret up in a towel and take off only a little of the nail a time.
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 hairball remedy (petrolatum) designed for cats.
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 (39.4C). Anything above or much under that is cause for concern. Ferrets showing these signs must be taken to a veterinarian immediately.
Ferrets in the USA 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. They should be vaccinated against distemper with a vaccine that is approved for use in ferrets. Ferrets usually arrive having had an initial vaccination. They should receive a second booster distemper vaccination 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 an approved product even once after 12 weeks of age so I do not recommend yearly revaccination. Over-vaccination is bad for the health of pets. It is highly unlikely from all that we know that ferrets need to be re vaccinated more frequently than every three years after they receive their initial vaccine series as kits. If you are cautious, you can have your pet’s distemper titer checked yearly.
Ferrets are quite susceptible to problems that are related to stress such s change in their environment, and new diets. These things often cause vomiting and diarrhea. Sometimes the diarrhea is very severe. These pets can become dehydrated and weak quite rapidly. It is best to make husbandry changes gradually and not all at once. Cases of diarrhea and vomission 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. But they do pick them up in pet shops. 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 not put anything down the ear canal.