By Mary Van Dahm
As a member of the family Mustelidae, the Domestic ferret still has a lot in common with its wild cousins as far as nutritional needs are concerned. While the Domestic ferret’s body is no longer as muscular and sleek as his wild ancestors’, and he no longer has to catch his own dinner to survive; he is still an obligate carnivore, which means he must have a meat-based diet.
This doesn’t mean that you should catch mice or birds for him or feed him raw meat or road kill! While these are certainly sources of meat protein, the chances for contamination and disease are very great. Most ferrets wouldn’t know what to do with ‘dinner on the hoof’ anyway. While some ferrets might think it is great fun to chase a mouse if they came upon one, very few would recognize a mouse as ‘dinner.’ A proper dinner for a sophisticated ferret should lie neatly in a bowl and go ‘crunch’ when it is consumed!
But what is a proper dinner for a ferret? There are a lot of foods that go ‘crunch’. Which ones are best for your fuzzy friend? As I mentioned before, domestic ferrets need a meat-based diet, so obviously you need to look for diets that are high in meat protein.
Learn to read the labels on the bags of ferret food in the store. Ingredients are listed in the order of highest percentage of content to least percentage of content. The first item listed should be a meat item – usually poultry, poultry meal or poultry by-products. Fish and fishmeal are acceptable, too, but may give the food a strong fishy smell.
Unfortunately the government does not require that the actual percentage of each item be listed so sometimes it is hard to judge which food is actually better. One food may list only two meat-based proteins out of the first five ingredients, but may be just as good – or better than – a food that has four meat items listed. For example: if food ‘A’ has 15% chicken by-products, 15% chicken, 15% fish meal and 15% liver it could have 4 meat items listed amongst the first 5 ingredients. But if food ‘B’ has 50% chicken and 20% fishmeal, it would still have more meat protein than ‘A’, even though it only has 2 meats listed in the first 5 items.
Proteins are made up of amino acids, which are some of the building blocks of the body. Proteins help manufacture blood cells and help develop muscles and bones. A minimum of 30% protein is necessary for good health in ferrets. Usually 35 – 38% is best. Remember, though, a food can be 35% protein, but if it is all plant protein, your ferret will not be able to digest it and his health will suffer. Ferrets can survive on a lower meat protein diet, but they usually have to eat more to compensate for the lower protein level supplied. Also, there is a big difference between ‘surviving’ and ‘thriving’! On a lower quality diet a ferret’s body must work harder to squeeze all the nutrients it needs from the food. This strain may lower the ferret’s resistance against disease. Lower meat protein foods may seem like a bargain at the checkout counter, but if your ferret has to eat twice as much to get the nutrition he needs, then you may not be saving any money after all. Don’t forget that “garbage in – garbage out” also affects the amount of litter used and you will have twice as much scooping and clean up to do since all of the indigestible filler in the food will pass through the ferret’s intestines and produce more stools. There is a school of thought that promotes occasional high fiber meals for ferrets to help clean out their colons, similar to the new hairball foods promoted for cats; but no studies have been done on ferrets to prove or disprove this train of thought.
In contrast to humans, who are forever trying to diet, fat is very important and essential in a ferret’s diet. Fat is a very concentrated and digestible source of energy for your pet. Most ferrets need a high fat diet – preferably 18% or more. Young, growing kits and very active or nursing adults do best on fat levels of about 22 – 25%. Less active adults and older ferrets can get by with levels closer to 18%. Many ferret owners like to give their ferrets fatty acid supplements, such as Ferretone, or Linatone. If the ferrets are on a high quality diet, they should not need these supplements except as a treat or reward. A few drops (up to1/8 teaspoon) of these products each day can help you bond with your ferret. Too much of these products will just make your ferret obese!
I generally recommend that the fatty acid supplement be given separately out of an eyedropper or on a spoon, rather than pouring it over the food, as some manufacturers recommend. First of all this allows you to measure your ferret’s intake of the supplement so he doesn’t eat too much of it. Too much of a good thing can give your ferret an upset stomach or even diarrhea! Second, giving the supplement to him separately keeps both the food and the supplement fresher. The oil on the food can go rancid in warm weather and it can make dust and dirt stick to the food. Third, feeding our ferret the supplement separately makes it something special between you and your ferret. Food and treats are great bonding tools for people and their pets.
There are two forms of carbohydrates – fiber and starch. Fiber is a complex carbohydrate that is almost indigestible to the ferret. Some fiber is necessary in your ferret’s diet to help give bulk to food in the ferret’s intestines so the food can be pushed through the digestive system. Starches, the second form of carbohydrates, are also called soluble carbohydrates. When cooked, starches are highly digestible, even by ferrets. (Uncooked starches are not digestible at all by ferrets.) Soluble carbohydrates supply energy, but are not as good a source of energy as fats are. The sources for carbohydrates in your ferrets food – rice, corn and soybeans – are also used as ‘binders’ to help hold the food together.
Vitamins are also important in your ferret’s diet. They help your ferret’s body metabolize the food he eats. It has not yet been determined what levels of vitamins are actually needed in a ferret’s diet. Generally speaking, if your ferret is on a premium ferret diet there should be adequate amounts of vitamins in his diet already. Fat soluble vitamins, such as vitamins A, D3, and E, are stored by the body for later use if they are not immediately needed. These three vitamins are found in high levels in most of the fatty acid supplements that are available in many pet stores. Moderation should be the rule when giving supplements to your pet as ferrets may develop vitamin toxicity if constantly overfed high doses of fat-soluble vitamins.
Vitamin C (Ascorbic acid) is a water-soluble vitamin that is needed to prevent diseases such as scurvy. Fortunately ferrets’ bodies are generally able to produce adequate levels of vitamin C on their own. Many people who are into holistic medicine recommend additional doses of vitamin C in the ferret’s cancer prevention or treatment. Whether this additional vitamin C is actually helpful to ferrets has not been clinically proven, but in individual cases it seems to have helped many ferrets. Since vitamin C is water soluble, excess vitamin C in the ferret’s system is usually eliminated through his urine. You usually can’t over-dose a ferret with vitamin C, but why waste it. A few drops (1/4 – 1/2 cc) of liquid vitamin C each day is fine. Most ferrets don’t like the taste of liquid vitamin C so you may have to mix it with a favorite treat to get him to take it.
The ‘B’ vitamins, Thiamin (Bl), Riboflavin (B2), Pyroxidine (B6), Cyanocobalamin (B12), plus Niacin, Pantothenic Acid, Folic Acid, Biotin, and Choline are also water-soluble vitamins. These vitamins are found in adequate quantities in premium ferret foods and no further supplementation is needed.
Minerals are a necessary part of your ferret’s diet, but proper quantities of each mineral can be more critical – and less forgiving – than vitamins. Minerals are usually divided into two classes – Macro minerals and Micro (or trace) minerals.
Macro minerals, as their name implies, are required in larger quantities in the body. These include calcium, phosphorous, potassium, sodium, chloride, magnesium, and sulfur. These macro minerals help your ferret develop strong bones and muscles and control the absorption and release of fluids throughout the ferret’s body. Micro minerals are required in much smaller quantities. The amounts needed are so small that they are referred to in parts per million (ppm). Some micro minerals are: zinc, copper, iron, iodine, manganese, and selenium.
Sub-groupings of trace minerals, sometimes, called ‘micro-trace’ minerals, are measured in parts per billion (ppb). These ‘micro-trace’ minerals include: chromium, fluorine, nickel, vanadium, silica, lithium, and arsenic. Strangely enough, while these minerals are all necessary for the continued health of your ferret, they can also be toxic or life threatening in high or unbalanced doses. Usually, if a ferret is on a high quality food, these minerals will be adequately provided without the addition of mineral supplements. In fact, since these minerals are so delicately balanced, I do not recommend that you add a mineral supplements to your ferret’s diet except under the direct supervision of your veterinarian or a certified animal nutritionist.
Holding it all Together
All pelleted animal foods need a ‘binder’ to hold them together. This allows the product to be shaped and pelleted and keeps it from crumbling into powder after drying. Ferret foods are no exception. The most commonly used binders are rice, corn and soybeans. Rice flour is the best binder to use. It is well tolerated by the digestive tract and the most digestible of the three binders. Unfortunately it is more expensive so many pet food manufacturers pass it up for one of the other two binders.
Corn is the most often used binder. It comes in 4 forms – whole corn, kibbled corn, ground corn and corn gluten meal. Corn is plentiful to come by and therefore cheaper to use. Unfortunately some forms of processed corn – especially corn gluten meal – cause digestive disorders and allergic reactions in some ferrets. Corn gluten allergies are one of the most commonly reported food allergies in ferrets. This can cause a painful gastrointestinal problem in the ferret that is totally preventable.
Signs of a food allergy can be chronic irregular, soft or mucusy stools, gassy bowel or bloating, pawing at the mouth due to an upset stomach (This can also be a sign of a hairball or of insulinoma. Have your ferret checked by a veterinarian to be sure what his problem is if you see him doing this) and sometimes skin rashes or swollen feet. If the situation is not corrected by switching the ferret to another diet, the ferret can develop thick, hardened intestines or ulcerated bowels.
Soybean meat and soy flour are also commonly used. Soybean products are usually well tolerated by ferrets but some veterinarians caution that the high use of soy protein in some of these diets may affect hormonal levels in ferrets after long term use. No formal studies have been done yet to prove or disprove this theory in ferrets, but it is documented in pigs.
Ferret Food vs. Kitten Food
This is a topic with mixed responses from many ferret experts. Logically, since you are feeding a ferret, you would think that ferret food would always be your best selection. With the exception of a few of the lower quality ferret foods on the market; feeding your critter ferret food is usually your best bet. Ferret foods are nutritionally geared toward the needs of your ferret. The protein, fat, vitamin and mineral ratio is balanced for a ferret’s metabolism. Most cat foods may not meet these needs.
Totally Ferret is my ferrets’ favorite ferret food. Dr. Tom Willard and his wife, Trish – the people behind the product – are very dedicated to developing the very best food for ferrets. The quality of their food is the highest on the market and it is very palatable to ferrets. There are other good ferret foods out there, too, and if Totally Ferret ferret diet is not available in your area, don’t despair. If you can’t find a good ferret food at your local pet shop, Totally Ferret is also available through some ferret shelters, veterinarians and mail order companies.
If you are on a road trip with your pet and you suddenly realize that you forgot the bag of ferret food at home; high quality kitten foods may be used instead, lams kitten food or Eucanuba kitten or cat foods (not dog food!) are good in a pinch, lams is the most palatable to ferrets of the three, but they are all good products. You can also offer these foods to your ferret as an occasional treat to get him used to their tastes so he won’t turn his nose up at them during an emergency situation. Stay away from grocery store cat and kitten foods. Your ferret may enjoy these brands just as much as his regular diet, but most grocery store pet foods are high in vegetable fiber and are not digestible or nutritionally sound for ferrets.
Dry vs. Wet Foods
As a general rule, offer your ferret dry foods rather than wet foods. This will help prevent tartar buildup and help keep his teeth cleaner. Dry foods also have the advantage of being able to be left out so your ferret can nibble throughout the day. Wet foods have to be changed several times a day to prevent spoilage and are usually fairly expensive compared to dry foods. Wet foods can be good if your ferret is sick or unable to eat hard foods for some reason. Kits (baby ferrets) should be given moist food from the time that they are first being weaned until about 8 or 9 weeks of age. You can moisten your ferret’s regular food, or use a quality-canned food. This helps prevent constipation and prolapsing of the rectum.
Free Feeding vs. Rationing
Ferrets have a digestive transit time (the time it takes the food to pass through the stomach and the intestines) of only 3 – 4 hours. Because this is such a short time, most ferret experts agree that ferrets should be allowed to free-feed (have food available at all times). If you find that your ferret is getting obese, try switching him to a lower fat diet rather than depriving him of food altogether. If this doesn’t help, consult with your veterinarian first before pulling your ferret’s food away from him. If your ferret has medical problems, then you might not be able to withhold food from him. If he is a young, healthy ferret, you might be able to ration his food and put half of it out in the morning and half out at night. If he runs out of food for an hour or so before his next feeding it shouldn’t hurt him.
Don’t forget that ferrets have seasonal weight gains and losses; so sudden weight gains may not be something to worry about. A ferret is usually considered grossly obese if his stomach drags on the floor. Some ferrets actually wear the hair off of their stomachs because they can’t keep their stomachs lifted off the ground. This is not to be confused with abdominal hair loss on intact male ferrets that mark territory by dragging their stomachs over things. Old or sick ferrets may also drag their stomachs if they have hind leg weakness or enlarged spleens.
Even the best ferret food will fail to sustain your ferret if he doesn’t receive adequate amounts of fresh water. High protein diets require more water to be processed by an animal’s body than lower protein diets. Clean, fresh water should be offered to your ferret daily and should be available at all times. If your local water supply has a high mineral content, especially if it contains calcium, sodium or lead, you should give your ferret bottled water, or at least water from another source. Water with high levels of fluoride, chlorine and other chemicals should also be avoided.
Ferret nutrition doesn’t have to be complicated. A quality diet, plenty of fresh water and regular check ups by your veterinarian should keep your ferret in optimum health. Round out his physical needs by supplying his emotional needs with love, attention and play. Common sense and a moderation of treats should keep your ferret happy and healthy for years to come.