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Caring for Baby Ferrets

By Dr. Louise Bauck, DVM

Caring for Baby Ferrets -- By Dr. Louise Bauck, DVM

Being a ferret pediatrician definitely has its high points. Since my employer has shipped thousands of baby ferrets from our breeder to pet retailers from coast to coast, I get to take care of these adorable youngsters while they stay with us; checking on their health and safety as new shipments come in.

Actually, I rarely do anything other than examine them. Ferrets are hardy little creatures. But that doesn’t mean that problems can’t happen.

During a recent visit to my local pet retailer, I vowed not to get carried away – or behave like the sentimental lingerer the staff has come to know. Under no circumstances would I be side-tracked by the dachshund puppies, or the new chinchillas, or the baby Rex rabbit. I would stay away from the baby blue-tongued skinks. No, this time I would zip in and out, with no diversions.

I had gotten halfway down the dog food aisle when a staff member rushed up to me with a very strange request. “Dr. Bauck! Help! Would you come and see one of the baby ferrets that just fainted?”

In fact, as I later discovered, the baby had an inherited condition called narcolepsy, a disorder similar to epilepsy, which causes the ferret to collapse in sleep without warning. Luckily, it is not a life-threatening condition – as long as the pet is kept away from water dishes – and the ferret (“Beauty”) ended up going home with me.

Because this disorder can resemble other problems such as congenital heart defects or low blood sugar, I went over some of the basics of baby medicine and care with the staff to reassure them. What follows is an extended version of the pointers I gave to the staff that day on the weaning, nutrition, housing and exercise of juvenile ferrets.

Back to the Beginning

It is a good idea to understand the circumstances of a ferret’s birth. A pregnant jill requires more sleep and more food throughout gestation, which lasts about 42 days. She usually is kept with the hob until she shows signs of restlessness or starts to make a nest.

Two weeks before the kits are born, the female usually is transferred to a dark, secluded pen with fresh paper bedding or pine shavings. At this time, she may pluck some of her fur to use in constructing the nest. Owners should ensure that the animal remains warm and undisturbed, and supply her with abundant food and water.

During whelping, the mother and her newborns should not be touched or handled except in emergency situations. After the litter is born, the jill may eat the placenta, and the hormones in the afterbirth may stimulate the production of milk. The nursing jill should be monitored unobtrusively and provided with a constant supply of calorically dense food, along with plenty of water.

A normal-sized litter usually is made up of 7 or 8 kits. Baby ferrets are blind, pink-skinned and mostly hairless at birth, and unbelievably tiny. Kits spend most of their time suckling, sleeping and growing.

In about 20 days, the kit’s colors will be evident and their eyes will begin to open. Ferrets mature extremely quickly: In four months, the juvenile kit will look almost exactly the same as it will in four years.

In our area, most of the kits arrive at the store when they are approximately 7 weeks old. By then, they have had their first vaccination and most have already been descented and neutered.

Feeding Ferrets

The kits can be weaned at approximately 6 weeks. At this point, the rapidly growing youngsters need adult nourishment. A special kit or growth food is not required if you are offering a high-quality, calorically dense ferret food. Think of the situation in nature: Once a baby is weaned, it eats the same food as an adult animal does. Furthermore, most ferrets complete their skeletal growth very quickly.

For newly arrived store kits, I recommend soaking the food in warm water for 5 or 10 minutes before offering it. Talk to your breeder about which brand he or she is using before you consider a gradual switch. Feeding cat food to ferrets or recommending it to new owners is not a good idea. Even though some of my veterinary colleagues occasionally still OK the feeding of cat food, there is no need to do so now that high-quality ferret food is available in the pet industry.

Ferrets need more fat, and higher-quality fat, than kittens or cats. Ferrets also need more protein, and higher quality protein, than their feline friends. In addition, ferrets need fewer carbohydrates than kittens or cats. All of this is because ferrets have such a short gastrointestinal tract and a rapid intestinal transit time [The time it takes for the food to pass from the stomach through the intestines]. This is even more true for the growing kit than for the adult ferret.

A good brand of ferret food is usually more costly than a feline diet. However, because ferrets eat such small amounts, there is no excuse not to buy the best. As with any pet food, the truth about quality lies in the ingredient list, not in the guaranteed analysis. However, to start with, look for products that show at least 35% protein and 20% fat.

Ferret kits need balanced fats such as poultry fat (a better blend of essential fatty acids is found here when compared to unspecified animal fat sources). For ferrets of any age, the dominant protein should always come from high-quality animal sources, never soy or corn gluten meal. This will result in better growth and a lower risk of urinary tract obstructions later in life (due to the more acidic nature of urine pH). The highest-quality animal proteins usually are eggs and poultry meal. Byproduct meals can vary in quality, and do not essentially contain more organ meats than chicken feet.

Fresh water should always be available (and changed daily!) in a dish and/or a water bottle. Ferrets drink less water from bottles than bowls. However, they tend to flip over or contaminate bowls unless the bowls are raised off the floor of the cage and secured.

As for treats, avoid them until it is time to housebreak the ferret. Young ferrets love dairy products such as milk and ice cream, but wilt get diarrhea from such treats. Raisins and bananas, which are relished, can be offered in tiny amounts without harm. [current thinking indicates that raisins may not be healthy due to the high sugar content in them so it’s probably best to avoid them – editor] Sugary treats may promote pancreatic problems later in life. Avoid them!

Providing Safe Housing

The top three considerations for a ferret cage are obvious: roominess, safety and ease of cleaning. Bar spacing usually determines safety, although door closings also should be evaluated. If the ferret can force its bullet-like head through any part of that cage, it is in danger.

The cage should have a large door, offering easy access to a ferret sleeping in its nest box. A large, multilevel cage can be an excellent option for older pet ferrets if it is sturdy enough, with safe spacings for all doors and platforms. (Beware of narrow spaces that can entrap feet or toes, or larger ones that can trap a head.) Young ferrets do better in solid-bottomed enclosures.

Commercially produced wire cages with plastic bottoms are particularly easy to clean, and are roomy enough when purchased in the extra-large size. No ferret cage is ever going to be roomy enough unless the ferret comes out to play at least twice daily.

Bedding material must be disposed of or laundered weekly. A towel can be used, but the ferret may become tangled in the cloth if you let its nails grow too long. Hammocks, sleep sacks and other bedding are now commercially available for ferrets, or, if you are handy with a sewing machine, you can make your own ferret bedding.

Introduce kits to the litter box as soon as they are used to their new environment and have picked a corner for defecation. Begin with a corner (triangular) litter box and keep it filled with clean (non-clumping) cat litter or one of the many paper litters available.

Place a small amount of waste in the new litter to remind the babies what to do and where to do it. Soon they’ll get the picture and you can change the box as usual.

Choosing Toys

To a young ferret, a toy is just about the best thing that life has to offer, but be cautious about what you use. Commercial cat toys that are sturdy enough to withstand ferrets’ needle-sharp teeth and small, sturdy balls are fine if the kits are supervised during play. [Some baby toys and rattles made for human babies can also be fun for baby ferrets.]

I rarely recommend leaving toys in the cage because sooner or later, the ferret finds a way to eat most of them. This can result in an obstruction and a costly surgical procedure. Foam toys and squeaky rubber toys are particularly prone to creating this problem. Avoid them!

Neutering and Descenting

To some extent, the trait of discharging distinctive odors is probably true of all members of the mustelid (weasel and mink) family. For this reason, the anal glands are usually removed during castration or spaying – usually when the kits are 6 to 7 weeks old. The incisions from these procedures are so tiny that they are rarely visible by the time the kits are sold.

However, if the incision sites are still visible, simply check them daily and clean them with a little peroxide if necessary. A female will have a tiny incision on what looks like the center of her tummy (through which the ovaries and uterus are removed), as well as a pair under her tail (through which the scent glands are removed). A male will have an additional site nearby through which the testicles are removed.

Early neutering is becoming somewhat controversial, as some authorities are concerned about a possible link between pediatric neutering and adrenal gland abnormalities later in life. However, without the early surgery, many female ferrets will develop dangerous estrogen toxicity and many males will be abandoned by owners unwilling or unable to neuter and descent them.

Vaccinations and Exams

Most kits have received only their first distemper vaccination by the time they arrive at the store. Check the date on the papers that came with the ferrets [If there is no paper listing this, have the pet shop contact the breeder]. The second shot should be given 3 weeks after the first, and a third one should be given about 3 weeks after that. An ideal schedule would start at 6 to 7 weeks for the first shot, then 10 to 11 weeks for the second shot, then 13 to 14 weeks for the third shot. [Distemper shots need to be given annually after that.]

Contracting distemper is a disaster for any kit, as this is a terminal illness in all ferrets. Remind your veterinarian to order special ferret distemper vaccines well before you need to have the shots administered. [Most veterinarians who see a lot of ferrets keep these vaccines in stock, but it doesn’t hurt to check.] Ferrets should NOT be given cat distemper vaccines, parvovirus vaccines (canine combination vaccines) or any dog distemper vaccine derived from a ferret cell line.

There are two vaccines currently licensed for use in ferrets which are readily available in the United States and Canada. These are Fervac-D, by United Vaccine and Purevax, a high-tech, ultra-safe and effective distemper vaccine by Merial, Ltd. Ferrets are sometimes sensitive to Fervac, so it is a good idea to watch ferrets closely after the booster vaccinations are given just to make sure they do not experience adverse reactions. Ask your veterinarian for details.

At the time of vaccination, your veterinarian should also check the baby ferrets for any problems, such as fleas, ear mites, coccidial parasites, virus diarrhea or congenital defects.

Coccidia are single-celled parasites that occasionally cause intermittent diarrhea and straining in young ferrets. Occasionally straining caused by this or other types of diarrhea results in a small amount of prolapsed tissue under the tail. [Not enough fluids in the diet can also cause straining and prolapsed rectums in kits.] Because coccidia eggs are not always being shed when the kit is having problems, this can be very hard to diagnose. Luckily, your veterinarian can easily treat coccidiosis.

Ferret kits also can suffer from diarrhea caused by bacteria. The resulting liquid feces often are greenish in color [from excess bile]. Antibiotics (such as erythromyacin or chloramphenicol), isolation and good nursing care will be needed.

Rotavirus is another common cause of diarrhea in young kits. Breeders often see this soiling the babies while they are still in the nest box. Good hygiene and care of the jill usually results in the kits improving quickly as well.

Young kits also can develop respiratory infections (“colds” and pneumonia) in the store or new home. Ferrets are the only pet animals that can catch the human influenza virus, so affected family members and friends should not handle baby ferrets. However, most ferret respiratory infections are caused by bacteria.

Signs of respiratory infection include lethargy, rapid breathing, sneezing and a nasal discharge. These signs can also resemble distemper, so be sure to consult your veterinarian. Most ferret respiratory infections respond well to oral antibiotics, such as amoxicillan or cephalsoporin-type drugs.

Other Health Concerns

Important congenital defects that your veterinarian should be aware of include deafness, “undershot” jaws, cataracts and brain disorders, including narcolepsy. Baby ferrets also can collapse when blood glucose levels are too low, or when a heart defect is present.

Defects such as deafness can be difficult to detect in the kit. We use a tin can filled with pebbles to try to assess hearing if we note that one of the ferret kits is unresponsive, or continues to sleep after the others are engaged in play.

Abnormal gaits in the kits also should be investigated. A brain problem affecting the cerebellum can cause a bobbing, halting walk in a kit. The cause of this problem in ferrets is unknown. Fortunately the vast majority of ferret kits are perfectly normal – well, as normal as a ferret can be! – and extremely healthy.

Socializing Ferrets

Begin socializing kits when they are about 30 days old. They may not see well yet, but they are not too young to learn that human caregivers will be a significant part of their lives and that it feels good to be cuddled and petted.

To help minimize problems, such as nipping, make sure you have a clearly defined daily schedule for handling and training your kits. I recommend physical contact with kits no less than 6 times a day, for periods of 5 to 10 minutes. Ferret kits that are not handled frequently will take longer to get over their “nipping phase”.

When a kit tries to nip, scruff the baby gently, and say “NO” clearly. No physical punishment is needed or recommended. If done consistently, the baby will stop nipping as it matures and gets to know its human family. The most important piece of advice: Children must be supervised by adults anytime they are handling ferrets.

Most young ferrets thrive on gentle stroking, tickling, game playing and all sorts of mild human interaction. Maturing ferrets want and need loving attention – they must never be ignored or confined to a cage for days at a time.

Picking up a baby ferret is easy, as most kits seem to sleep constantly when they are young. (Some sleep very soundly. I have had more than one person call me about a baby ferret that “died”, only to have it wake up while we were on the telephone!)

Speaking softly to the sleeping baby, lift the kit with one hand supporting its belly, and then settle the kit’s body along your hand or arm. After the kit begins to get active and enjoy its surroundings, let it investigate the nearby floor area, and/or play with a toy.

Continue your quiet conversation, but keep a sharp eye out at all times. After all, ferrets are nature’s scamps! One minute they’re gamboling happily on the floor, and the next minute they’ve found trouble!

As the young ferret gets to know its caregivers and its environment, its owners will be delighted with the kit’s typical vocalizations – the “chook-chook” noise that’ means that all is well in the ferret world!

Louise Bauck, BSc, D.V.M., MVSc, is the director of veterinary services for the Hagen Avicultural Research Institute in Montreal, Canada.

[intlink id=”fair”]This article originally appeared in the May/June 2002 issue of "The F.A.I.R. Report".[/intlink]