An Introduction to Ferrets
By Mary Van Dahm
Ferrets are curious, playful, and often very mischievous. They are never ordinary, and are by no means the pet for everyone!
Ferrets are small quiet, and great companions for apartment dwellers. A member of the family Mustelidae, they are identified as mustela putorius furo. They are related to minks, polecats, weasels, and otters. They are not related to rodents such as rats or mice! Ferrets are not a “new” animal. In fact, they have been domesticated for more than 2,000 years. For most of this time they were considered “working ” animals and were used for hunting and ratting. Now they are kept primarily as house pets, in fact, it is illegal to use them for hunting in the United States, although some Europeans still do so. The ferret we know cannot exist on it’s own and should never be turned loose because it will not survive more than a few days. They are totally dependent upon their human companions for survival.
Is a Ferret Right For You?
The normal life span of a ferret is currently 7- 8 years (although a few have lived as long as 12-13 yrs.) This means that when choosing a ferret you must not only consider your lifestyle as it is now, but as it will be 7 years from now. In addition, ferrets need personal attention, including playtime, from their human companions daily. Ferrets need freedom and should not be caged all of the time, but we do recommend a cage for when there are long periods of time without supervision available.
Initially, costs for veterinary care will be minimal, but may be slightly higher than the same services for dogs and cats. Annual check ups and vaccinations are a must to monitor the well being of your pet. As your pet ages, these costs will increase. Unfortunately ferrets are prone to many geriatric health problems, including cancer. Fortunately most of these problems can be controlled through preventative health care and veterinary supervision.
We do not recommend ferrets for households with very young children. Ferrets have tough skin and can play roughly with each other and cause no damage. The same playful action aimed at a child can result in a painful encounter, frightening the child which may retaliate by hitting the ferret. We also don’t recommend ferrets around birds, rodents, or small reptiles, due to the natural prey situation. Most ferrets will get along with dogs and cats if they are introduced carefully.
If any of these issues are a potential problem, then a ferret may not be right pet for you.
Selecting a Ferret
Choose and animal that is bright eyed and alert. Ferrets can sleep very soundly so do not be alarmed if it takes a while for you to roust a napping animal, but once it is awake it should be responsive. Any ferrets with crusty eyes or moth or having a nasal discharge that is full of mucus or yellow, green or brown in color is probably sick. We do not recommend that you pick any ferret form that group since if one is sick, the rest are likely to come down with the same thing shortly. If you have handled any of the sick ferrets, be sure to wash your hands thoroughly before going elsewhere to look at others or you may take the virus or flu bug with you and infect the next batch of animals!
Should I Choose a Male or Female Ferret?
Males (hobs) grow to be somewhat larger than females (jills), and may tend to have a more relaxed disposition. Personality varies with each animal, however, and many jills can be sweethearts, too. Hobs will average 3-4 lbs as adults and jills 1-2 lbs. Some breeders specialize in larger animals and have produced hobs up to 9 lbs and jills up to 5 lbs. Most of the ones you buy from pet shops will not grow that big.
As hobs and jills mature, they develop a strong musk scent which can be easily controlled in nearly all cases by neutering or spaying them. Ferrets produce musk to attract a mate, and once they are neutered or spayed, the hormones that activate the musk glands are gone and hardly any musk is produced.
Spaying is an absolute must for all female ferrets unless the animal is to be bred. A jill generally comes into estrus (heat) the first spring following her birth. Her vulva becomes pink and swollen, and she will remain in heat until she is bred or treated with a hormone injection to terminate estrus. This injection is only to be used as a short term solution as the jill will slowly come out of heat and then come into heat again within a very short time. These conditions are frequently fatal.
Neutering of hobs is also recommended. Not only does this reduce their musky odor, as previously mentioned, it can curb some of their aggressive tendencies towards other ferrets if they are to be housed communally. Unneutered hobs can be territorial and may fight with other unneutered hobs quite viciously.
Should I have my Ferret Descented?
Ferrets have anal glands which can exude drops of a pungent smelling liquid if the animal is frightened or angry. It is not as strong as a skunk’s odor and it dissipates in a few minutes. Baby ferrets will sometimes go through a sage of “poofing” for fun (similar to human children belching or making rude noises with their armpits!) Many pet shops sell ferrets already descented at 5-6 weeks of age, but we feel this is too young and can cause rectal problems later. Sometimes older ferrets get impacted anal glands – where the external opening gets plugged. If the gland becomes infected, or this becomes a chronic condition with your ferret, you may need to have the glands removed to ensure the comfort and health of you pet.
What Should I feed my ferret?
Ferrets are carnivores and therefore require a diet high in meat proteins. High quality cat or kitten foods, such as IAMS or Innova Feline or a quality ferret food such as 8 in 1 Ultimate, Totally Ferret, Innova EVO Ferret, or Natural Gold Ferret Diet are some good choices. DO NOT FEED FERRETS DOG FOOD OR ANY CAT/FERRET FOODS THAT ARE MOSTLY VEGETABLE PROTEIN. A ferret has a very short digestive tract and vegetable proteins are hard to digest so most of the lower quality food will be passed out of the ferrets system before the ferret’s body has had a chance to process it. The higher quality foods may cost more, but the ferret will get more nutrition per once and won’t have to eat as much. As the ferret matures and reaches its geriatric years, you veterinarian may recommend a lower protein diet which is less taxing on older kidneys. Ferrets do not tend to be obese and should be allowed to “free Feed” ( have food available constantly) unless your ferret has a medical problem and your veterinarian tells you otherwise.
Treats may be given in moderation. Since it is now theorized that sugary treats may later cause health problems such as insulinoma, it is best to avoid giving them to ferrets. When giving treats look for meat based products that are low in sugar. For this reason, due to their high sugar content, fruit and raisins should also be avoided. Dairy products are also a no-no as they can cause diarrhea. Strangely enough, hairball remedys, such as malt flavor Petromalt, can also be given as a treat with a purpose. Most ferrets love the sweet taste of these products and see them as a “treat”. While these products do contain sugar, they do help prevent dangerous hairballs from forming which is especially important during shedding season.
Ferrets should have plenty of fresh water available at all times. This can be given from a water bottle or a heavy crock style bowl. The advantage of the bottle is that the water will stay cleaner and the ferret can’t play in it, as they might with the bowl.
Editor’s Note: the preceding food and treat recommendations where altered by this site to reflect current thoughts on feeding ferrets.
How Should I House My Ferret?
An all wire cage is your best bet for your ferret’s home. Wood and wire may be used if the wood is well sealed with a high gloss paint or several coats of verithane (polyurethane). Do not use an aquarium to house your ferret as it will not allow the proper ventilation that a ferret needs and your pet can develop respiratory problems. The cage should be at least 2ft x 2ft x 14in high for one ferret – provided the ferret has plenty of play time outside of the cage. For multiple ferrets, or if your pet’s play time is more restricted, get as large of a cage as you can afford, or if the floor space is limited, try building a multilevel cage. An important thing to remember is that the spacing on the bars of the cage must be close enough so your ferret cannot escape. Ferrets can slip through bar that are only one and a quarter inch wide!
Furnishing the cage can be as simple or elaborate as you please. An old towel or sweatshirt can make a soft comfortable bed or you can buy a fancy cat bed to suit you tastes. A litter pan with a dust free litter, a heavy crock or a cage cup for food and a water bottle complete the set up.
Exercise and Play
Ferrets need exercise, and they should be allowed to play in at least a portion of the house where children and other pets won’t interfere. Be sure that your house if fully “ferret proofed”. This means no holes, air ducts, loose boards, open drains, doors that are easy to open, soft plastic or rubber items to chew on (watch out especially for rubber bands!), no toxic cleaners in low places, and no plants to dig in! Ferrets are very curious, so supervision is always a good idea. Litterboxes should be placed in several corners around the play area to help avoid accidents. Ferrets’ feces are usually not odoriferous and if the pans are cleaned regularly there shouldn’t be an odor problem.
Some people get startled the first time they see a ferret play. Ferrets jump up and down, turn somersaults, run sideways and even backwards! This is normal and should not be construed as a sick or seizuring animal! Ferrets slide, play tag, hide and seek, and attack and chase with other ferrets, with you, or with other pets, too. They may grab onto you with teeth in play, but this does not mean that they are trying to hurt you. Young ferrets (kits) go through a nipping stage and this must be discouraged very early. A light tap on the nose and a loud, firm “NO!” combined with patience and a lot of handling should eventually be sufficient. Remember that a ferret should not be hit or slapped in any situation. It is not necessary, usually makes the situation worse, and they can easily be hurt. If a kit tends to be especially nippy and hyper, try letting it out to play and run around for a while first before you interact with it. This allows it to work off some of its pent up energy so it doesn’t direct it at you. Reward your ferret with a treat when it is good to encourage proper behavior.
Ferrets are very imaginative and kittenish in their play. They like to push things, roll things, drag things and run through things! Ferrets will play with almost anything so it is up to you to make sure that what they play with is sake for them. Hard plastic balls with bells inside (not the weak lattice ball type), whiffle balls, tennis balls, ping pong balls, wooden spools from thread, nylabones, some baby toys and durable cloth toys are fine. Do NOT give them soft rubber squeaky toys, foam rubber toys, or toys that have parts that can easily be pulled or chewed off. Another favorite plaything is a large piece of 4″ or %” plastic drainage pipe or a piece of dryer duct. Ferrets love to run through these and you will be amazed to watch them double back on themselves and pop back out the very same hole they ran into! The dryer duct usually does not hold up as well and has to be replaced frequently.
Walking Your Ferret
Many ferret owners walk their ferrets outdoors on a harness and leash. Males especially seem to like to walk and keep pace with you – if you are heading in the direction they want to go! It’s a bit like walking a cat and should be practiced inside the house before trying it outdoors. Be sure your ferret is wearing a harness – not just a collar – when you walk it. A frightened or mischievous ferret can slip out of a collar and be very hard to retrieve. A harness also allows you to safely lift a ferret out of harms way should an unknown dog or cat approach you. An “H” harness is the most secure for ferrets, but a figure 8 harness can be adequate if secured properly.
Some words of caution: Ferrets being walked attract much attention. People, and especially children, will come up to you and reach out to touch your ferret very quickly. Warn people before they approach that the ferret may nip, even though you may be certain that it won’t. Ferrets frequently respond very quickly to a situation that they perceive as dangerous. If your ferret does nip someone, you are responsible. While there is now a rabies vaccine available, it is still very new and to some extend unproven. If the person who is bitten demands that a rabies test be done on your ferret, your ferret must be destroyed (euthanized and beheaded) to obtain the tissue required for testing. While it is very unlikely that a ferret maintained in a household as a pet could contract rabies, you may not be able to convince someone of this if they or their child has just been nipped by your ferret and is adamantly requesting proof that they have not contracted rabies from your ferret.
Other precautions: Do not walk your ferret if it is very hot or cold out. Ferrets suffer heat exhaustion very easily (Do not leave your ferret in a parked car for this reason, also!) and can suffer a chill if the temperatures are too cold. Ferrets do have fur coats, but most ferrets kept indoors do not develop the heavy coat that an outdoor animal would have.
Parasites can be a danger to pets walked outside, too. Fleas and ticks can be picked up from thick grassy areas and ferrets are susceptible to heartworm, which is carried by mosquitoes. Your veterinarian can give a heartworm preventative medicine to protect your ferret against that deadly parasite and spaying or dusting your pet with a flea and tick product safe for cats and kittens before you go out can help keep those pests from dining on your pet.
Make sure your ferret is up to date on its vaccinations. Ferrets are very susceptible to canine and raccoon distemper. Distemper is 100% fatal to ferrets if they pick it up, and they don’t have to come in direct contact with a sick animal to get it. Distemper is an aerosol virus and can be picked up easily by an unvaccinated ferret walking outside in the grass or on the sidewalk.
Also remember that once a ferret gets used to walks, it is more apt to attempt to get out of the house on its own. If this happens, ferret will not purposely run away, but its curiosity will probably get it beyond its familiar range and your ferret will be lost. If it is not found, it can die a horrible death from starvation or being attacked by a dog, cat, or other animal.