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Ferret Nutrition Articles

Why is Chocolate Poisonous to Ferrets?

By Dr. Gary Brummett, DVM

Why is Chocolate Poisonous to Ferrets? - By Dr. Gary Brummett, DVM

Most pet owners don’t realize that chocolate can be poisonous to their pet. The primary toxic agent is theobromide, which excites the heart and causes abnormal heart rhythms. Other clinical signs include vomiting, muscle tremors, depression, and increased urination. Death may occur from cardiac arrest. [Chocolate can also affect the kidneys and liver].

Although tolerance varies in small animals, the minimum lethal dose is about .1 oz [1/10 of an ounce] of baking chocolate or 2 oz. of milk chocolate for a ferret weighing 2 lbs. Treatment by your veterinarian is necessary when clinical signs are present, and are based on delaying absorption, hastening elimination, and providing supportive treatment.

As is often the case, prevention is the best path to follow – so keep chocolates out of the reach of your pet!

[intlink id=”fair”]This article originally appeared in the May/June 2001 issue of "The F.A.I.R. Report".[/intlink]

New Ideas in Feeding Ferrets

By Dr. Louise Bauck, DVM

New Ideas in Feeding Ferrets -- By Dr. Louise Bauck, DVM

The domestic ferret requires only small quantities of food, so high-quality, premium diets are a reasonable option for ferret owners. However, there’s more to know about ferret nutrition than recommending or feeding a high-quality, premium ferret diet.

If you own these fascinating carnivores, you owe it to yourself – and your pets – to learn more about their dietary requirements. Although we have scant research on the science of pet ferret nutrition, we have some new findings extrapolated from nutritional research about black-footed ferrets in zoos, as well as mink and cats.

Ferret veterinarians are particularly interested in the relationship between diet and common health problems such as obesity, stunting, urinary tract obstructions, trichobezoars (hairballs) and pancreatic cancer, as well as the relationship between taurine and cardiomyopathy (heart disease). Other areas of interest include omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids and factors that affect oxidation (rancidity).

Free Choice Feeding

Normally, adult ferrets consume 30 to 40 grams (1 to 1-1/2 oz) of a quality dry ration each day. To promote ‘free choice’ feeding, you may leave dry food out alt day. However, ferrets tend to ignore stale food, so don’t put out more than the animals will eat in a single day.

Ready access to food is particularly important to young ferrets. First, baby ferrets may be more likely to nip or bite when hungry. Second, young ferrets can suffer from hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) if deprived of food. Recently weaned ferrets do best on a dry premium ferret food that has been mixed with warm water. To ensure freshness, replace this moistened food several times a day.

It can be a challenge to provide adequate nutrition for pregnant ferrets, which may suffer from complications such as toxemia or small litter size. Rations for pregnant ferrets must contain more than 35% high-quality protein and more than 22% fat.

Extended fasts are not recommended even for surgical patients. Most surgical patients should be fasted for a minimum of four hours but not longer than eight hours.

High Protein Requirements

Ferrets should not be fed like cats: They need higher levels of quality protein, more fat and less fiber than cats do. However, the guaranteed analysis printed on the food bag is not very helpful in determining protein levels in the food. The protein must have high ‘biological value’ and high digestibility, and the amino acid balance must be suitable for an obligate carnivore with a very short digestive tract and a rapid intestinal transit time. Most reference texts suggest that levels of quality protein for non-breeding ferrets should be 34% to 40% on a dry matter basis.

In 1995, investigators at the Toronto Zoo found that the feral diet of the black-footed ferret is approximately 42.5% protein on a dry matter basis – with prairie dogs serving as the primary protein source. Although the domestic ferret originated in Europe, where it certainly did not eat prairie dogs, its original carcass diet probably consisted of similar, but smaller, rodents.

Because ferrets are not plant eaters in nature, the protein in their diets should be derived primarily from animal sources rather than plant sources, such as soy or corn gluten meal. Some experts suggest that excess plant protein in the ferret’s diet can lead to alkaline urine and urinary stone formation. Urolithiasis, seen in North American pet ferrets, is particularly difficult to deal with in male ferrets, which can develop serious obstructions and infections.

Based on this information, the primary or first listed ingredient in a ferret food should be protein with a high biological value, such as chicken or poultry meal. Poultry meals generally cost more than poultry by-product meals, so they are more likely to be used in ‘premium’ diets. Egg also is a high-cost protein ingredient with a very high biological value.

Good-quality poultry meals for ferrets probably should be bone-reduced grades (low ash). This information does not appear on the ingredient list, but may be obtained from the manufacturer. Meals made from poultry byproducts or other byproducts are difficult for consumers to evaluate because their ingredients vary greatly and are not graded or controlled. Sometimes, desirable organ meats, such as liver, are included. In other cases, all useful items have been removed already. The inclusion of heads and feet usually lowers the biological value of protein in byproduct meals.

Unlike minks, ferrets in the wild do not eat fish. In our experience, some ferrets find fish-based diets less palatable. Unless very high in quality, fish meal may be prone to increased rancidity or oxidation problems. However, some ingredients derived from cold water fish contain oils that are high in valuable fatty acids, and sometimes are given as part of a dietary supplement.

It is important to remember that two similar ingredients may be made to look less prominent in an ingredient list if they have been ‘split’. Common examples include herring meal and whitefish meal, or soya meal and soya flour. Ingredients must be listed by weight, so they move farther down the ingredient list when split. This may make it difficult to determine whether fish or soy might be the principal ingredient. Some manufacturers may have good reasons for using two similar ingredients – contact the manufacturer for more information.

According to the investigators at the Toronto Zoo, the apparent requirements for amino acids (relative amounts) in the black-footed ferret are substantially similar to those of other carnivores. For example, arginine deficiency had been reported in ferrets while taurine deficiency has not. Taurine problems have been studied in the cat, but have not been described in the ferret.

Because dilated cardiomyopathy, a heart problem, has been reported in ferrets, some researchers have become interested in the role of taurine in the ferret’s diet. Feline cardiomyopathies sometime respond to taurine supplementation, but this effect apparently has not been seen in the ferret. Taurine generally is present in premium ferret rations, even though it usually is not listed as a separate ingredient.

High Fat Requirements

Ferret owners should pay close attention to the fat content of any ferret ration. Ferrets have high requirements for dietary fat compared with cats or dogs. In fact, levels of up to 30% have been suggested for normal ferrets!

The quality of the fat is a deciding factor in determining whether fat levels are adequate. For the best fatty acid balance, select diets that use high-quality, fat sources. For example, poultry fat is considered to be high in quality with approximately 60% unsaturated fatty acids and 22% linoleic acid. Beef fat has 52% unsaturated fatty acids and only 4% linoleic acid. ‘Animal fat’ is derived from an unspecified source, usually beef or pork.

Fat and oil substances can be broken down into dozens of saturated and unsaturated fatty acids. Unoleic acid is a fatty acid that is sometimes called an omega 6 type. Often, the terms linoleic acid’ and ‘omega 6′ are used synonymously – as are the terms linolenic acid’ and ‘omega 3’. However, the omega 6 and omega 3 families include many different fatty acids.

What is important is the ratio of total omega 6 fatty acids to total omega 3 fatty acids ingested. Many standard carnivore diets have an unbalanced omega 6 to omega 3 ratio – as high as 20-to-l or 30-to-l. First, fat sources used in prepared foods differ in content. Second, the heat of the extrusion process destroys many beneficial fatty acids.

Several manufacturers have devised solutions to the problem of balancing fatty acids. For example, many diets feature poultry fat – which has a naturally good balance of fatty acids – or special fatty acid additives. In addition, several companies offer fatty acid liquid supplements. Other ferret owners can tell you how much their pets adore products such as Dermacare, FerretDerm, Nutriderm, [Ferretone, Linatone, etc.]. I let my ferret lick a few drops right from the bottle as a treat.

There’s another good reason to pay attention to fat: The sources of fat and their relative amounts affect the food’s shelf stability. Rancidity (oxidation) of fats is an ever-present problem in commercial ferret diets because they contain higher levels of fat than canine or feline diets. Thus, preservatives of some kind are recommended. Ascorbic acid and tocopherols (vitamin E) may not be sufficient to preserve the food if it is stored for a prolonged period or is stored in less-than-ideal conditions.

The use of gas-impermeable materials and low-oxygen packaging techniques as well as storage in cool conditions may significantly preserve the quality of the diet. I recommend storing all ferret foods in the refrigerator after purchase.

Look for an expiration date on any high-quality ferret diet. Buy only what you can use by that date [even if it is on sale!].

Minimal Fiber Requirements

Ferrets probably eat little fiber in the wild, and do not require it in their diets. With shorter digestive tracts than cats, they seem to do better on diets containing fewer carbohydrates than are found in most cat or kitten foods. In fact, one reference has suggested that ferrets may be maintained without carbohydrates if sufficient fat is present. Therefore, grains and fiber ingredients should be minimized in good-quality ferret diets.

Pet ferrets can develop trichobezoars (hairballs), but this is not thought to be related to diet or fiber intake. Because ferrets have low fiber requirements, it may not be appropriate to increase cellulose levels in their diets in an attempt to flush out hairballs, as we do with felines. Grooming our ferrets regularly is a much better approach.

Pancreatic problems (endocrine neoplastic disease or cancer) are common in pet ferrets in North America. Although there is no evidence linking these conditions directly with an increase in dietary carbohydrates, it would seem logical to mimic a natural diet as closely as possible. This means less grain and less fiber in the rations. This also means cautioning owners to severely limit candy treats or high sugar items such as fruit juice, cookies, ice cream, chocolate (also likely toxic), and raisins.

Although many ferret rations contain ingredients such as fruit juices to increase palatability, these additives should be present in very small quantities to avoid introducing unneeded sugar into the diet. Sugars are simple carbohydrates and are not part of the ferret’s natural diet.

Controlling a Ferret’s Weight

Ferrets can become obese. Do not try to manage a ferret’s weight by controlling food portions, increasing the diet’s fiber content or decreasing the diet’s fat content. Instead, the best way to manage a ferret’s weight probably is by exercise.

Let’s look at the link between obesity and exercise. Recently, I was involved in an informal study by a ferret food manufacturer to examine the effects of cage-living versus liberty on a ferret’s weight. Over the course of two years, we studied six ferrets at a time, being careful to rotate their housing situations to minimize the effects of seasonal weight loss or gain. (Many authorities believe that some ferrets tend to gain weight in the fall.)

For the cage-living portion of the trial, we confined six ferrets, in pairs, in three commonly used commercial cages over a period of approximately six months. Although they were allowed out for occasional exercise, the ferrets spent most of their time in the 4′ x 2′ cages. They were fed a high-quality commercial dry ration of 38% protein and 20% fat, offered free-choice in multiple feeding stations. Several of these ferrets experienced obvious weight gains during the trial period.

For the liberty or exercise portion of the trial, we confined the ferrets, one pair at a time, in a room without cages for a six-week trial period. They had access to numerous toys, boxes and tunnels, which were exchanged with novel items each week. They were fed the same ration, still offered freechoice in multiple feeding stations. These ferrets frequently engaged in vigorous play activity, particularly in the morning and evening.

At least 3 of the ferrets were considered to be obese at the start of the exercise portion of the trial. Five of the six ferrets lost significant amounts of body mass and changed markedly in appearance. Although they showed significant weight loss in a short time period, the animals showed no signs of metabolic distress or problems associated with the rapid change.

Apparently it is not necessary to reduce caloric density to cause weight loss in ferrets – even if the diet is relatively high in fat. Increasing the level of exercise may be a safer and more nutritionally sound method for weight control.

Promoting Ferret Food

It is important to remember that feeding kitten food to ferrets is a poor strategy. In my experience, few owners can make a clear distinction on an ongoing basis between a true premium kitten food (sometimes suitable for ferret maintenance if it meets all the criteria discussed in this article) and a ‘regular’ or grocery store kitten food. Rather than take the chance that the owner will switch to a regular kitten food, I simply recommend that all ferret owners feed a high quality ferret food as described here.

At present, we do not have enough research to justify any formal recommendations regarding a special ‘kit’ food for young ferrets. However, experience at one food manufacturer’s holding facility in Canada has suggested that young ferrets achieve excellent growth and health on ferret diets with at least 38% protein and 22% fat.

Canned cat foods and soft-moist cat foods are used less commonly to feed ferrets. First, it is difficult to achieve a sufficiently high caloric density to meet the ferret’s needs when using ordinary canned foods. Second, it is very difficult to keep moist foods fresh – a problem made worse by the fact that ferrets tend to eat small meals throughout the day. Theoretically, these problems can be negated. However, more research is needed on the practicality of using canned diets on an extended basis.

Carcass Diets Versus Commercial Diets

Experts suggest that we mimic the ferret’s natural diet as closely as possible. So why not choose ‘carcass diets’ over commercially prepared diets?

In Europe, it is common to provide pet ferrets a diet consisting of fresh or frozen thawed carcasses, including culled mice, chicks and even fresh road kill. In North America, commercial fur farmers often feed ferrets frozen raw meat and fish diets designed for mink. However, hygiene concerns and the need to purchase large quantities of raw or frozen meat tend to preclude the use of these diets by the average pet owner in the United States. Besides, ferrets raised on dry commercial diets may be reluctant to sample fresh carcasses.

Pet owners will probably have more practical success if they stick with premium-quality dry ferret foods – as long as they remember to critically evaluate the ingredient list and guaranteed analysis information on the packages.

Ferrets are fascinating carnivores that deserve additional research as to their dietary needs. It is my hope that manufacturers will sponsor new research as pet ferrets continue to gain in popularity!

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 March/April 2002 issue of "The F.A.I.R. Report".[/intlink]

Ferret Nutrition

By Mary Van Dahm

Ferret Nutrition -- 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.

Product Labeling

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.

Essential Proteins

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.

[intlink id=”fair”]This article originally appeared in the March/April 2000 issue of "The F.A.I.R. Report".[/intlink]

By-Products, What are They?

By Thomas R. Willard, Ph.D.

By-Products, What are They? -- By Thomas R. Willard, Ph.D.

The companion animal and pet food industry the world over owes its very existence to the use of by-products from the human food processing chain. Without by-products, our pets would not receive the level of nutrition they enjoy today. The food would simply be too expensive and only the wealthiest individuals could afford to own pets. Before going further, we need to understand what by-products are, where they come from and how they are used to make healthful, nutritionally balanced, complete foods for our closest companions – our pets.

By-products, as a category, are not only misunderstood by most pet food consumers, but by most sales and marketing personnel within the pet food industry. Unfortunately, this lack of understanding is used to confuse consumers. Why would any pet food company want to confuse or mislead consumers when it comes to ingredients? The only reason is to try to give their own products a competitive edge over other products by making misleading claims concerning their product attributes. The use of the words such as ‘tastier’, ‘more appealing’, ‘safer’, or ‘no by-products’ are often used. Some companies base their entire marketing strategy on making by-products sound or appear unappealing at best, or, even worse, dangerous!

Regulatory Requirements

The fact is, the pet food industry is governed and monitored by the food or agriculture departments within each state. Each state publishes regulations which follow the guidelines of the Association of American Feed Control Officers, known as AAFCO. AAFCO is a regulatory body which is made up of state agriculture officials, who then form the AAFCO Pet Food Committee. Both the FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are represented on this committee.

Every state requires registration of all animal and pet food products sold within their individual territory. Before selling a food, the regulatory personnel of the state reviews the label for proper format, guarantees, as well as the proper definition of ingredients in the food. It is not only unethical, but illegal to use an ingredient that does not follow AAFCO approved definitions.

By-Products Defined

There are over 700 ingredients defined in the AAFCO manual, more than half of these are various derivatives and forms of vitamins, minerals or amino acids. Of the remaining 200+ actual feed ingredients, there are less than 20 that include the word ‘by-product’ in their name. However, the majority of the ingredients are by definition ‘by-products’. For example, there are 27 different corn or corn-derived products listed in the AAFCO manual, yet none have the word ‘by-product’ in their name. Ingredients such as corn grits, corn gluten feed, corn gluten meal, corn feed meal, corn bran, and corn cobs are all by-products of the various corn milling operations which make human food products. The official AAFCO definition of ‘by-products’ is: “…Secondary products produced in addition to the principal products.” Lamb meal, chicken meal, chicken, chicken by-products, fish meal, chicken fat, beef tallow, beet pulp, dehydrated cheese, brewers yeast, along with over 100 additional ingredients are all by-products. All are produced from the human food processing chain. No matter what other pet food manufacturers, sales people or advertising brochures might claim, almost all of the ingredients used in their foods are by-products and are not meant for human consumption!

Chicken, chicken meal, chicken by-products and chicken by-product meal are all by-products which come from plants processing chickens for human consumption. Chicken is defined as the clean combination of flesh and skin, with or without accompanying bone, derived from parts or whole carcasses of chicken or a combination thereof, exclusive of feathers, heads, feet and entrails. It should be suitable for use in animal feed”. Chicken meal is the rendered (cooking to remove water and fat from fresh meats) dried meal from flesh, skin and parts such as bruised legs, thighs, breasts and whole deboned carcases of chickens, all of these different ingredients are defined by FDA and AAFCO as, “not for human consumption”. On the other hand, chicken by product meal is the rendered, dry product of chicken by-products, such as the intestinal tracts, spleens pancreas, livers, gizzards and hearts. All of these come from the same production plants at the same time as the chicken parts listed above, which go into chicken meal.

By definition, both chicken and chicken meal that is used in pet foods are by-products, even though these ingredients may come from a human food processing plant and technically were at one time human grade food. No pet food company uses the whole chicken or the chicken parts intended for human consumption in their food. Why? COST! I Human grade food will cost 5 to 20 times more than “not for human consumption” food. Does this mean that by-products are not safe or possibly dangerous for our pets? NO!! All fresh meats, animal by-products, fats and even cereal grains must be further processed and handled in such a manner as to prevent them from spoiling. Drying, cooking, freezing, canning or adding antioxidants are all methods used to preserve the nutritional quality of various ingredients.

By-Product Grades

Poultry, by definition, may include chicken, turkey and geese. In the U.S., most processing plants can only handle either chicken or turkey, due to the size differences of the birds. Poultry processing plants are required to separate the feathers and the blood from the other by-products. In addition, many of these plants further separate the heads and feet from the internal organs and “not for human consumption” meat. The reason is two-fold. First, the chicken and turkey feet can be exported to Asian countries as a ‘delicacy food’ for human consumption, even though in the U.S. chicken feet are not recognized for authorized by the FDA to be sold for human consumption. Secondly, since the introduction of super-premium dry pet foods in the mid-70’s, manufacturers of super-premium pet foods demand a super-premium grade of poultry or chicken by-product meal. These higher-grade meals generally have higher nutrient levels and improved nutrient digestibility. To make these higher-grade meals, it is necessary to omit the heads, feet and birds that died prior to processing. Though the heads and feet do contain a great deal of protein and fat, they also contain a great deal of connective tissue, which is poorly digested by most carnivores. Totally Ferret® uses only super premium grades of chicken by-product meal in all our foods. As stated above, this increases the overall nutrient quantity and quality of the food, compared to the less expensive, lower grade products, even those that claim to use chicken meal rather than chicken by-product meal.

Those lower quality grade chicken and chicken by-product meals may contain heads and feet, along with the connective tissue left on the deboned chicken carcass. These parts reduce the digestible nutrients and may lack the balance of the essential amino acids necessary for proper nutrition for carnivore pets like the ferret. The super-premium quality chicken by-product meals used in Totally Ferret® do contain the intestinal tract and internal organs, as described above, because it provides the very highest nutritional quality for carnivores. Unfortunately, some of the American public, from an aesthetic point of view, may not like the idea of using chicken by-products, such as guts, hearts, livers, etc., in pet foods. But from a nutritional point, it is one of the best sources of nutrients for carnivore pets.

To Summarize

It is unfortunate that certain companies try to make themselves and their products sound better than they are by attempting to make others sound bad through negative advertising. This type of misleading and untrue advertising, however, is alive and well in the pet food industry.

Performance Foods, Inc., makers of Totally Ferret®, is committed to making the best, most nutritionally complete ferret food on the market. We use quality chicken by-product meal, eggs and liver meal as our major sources of protein and all are by-products. We hope you will by our foods based on the premise of quality nutrition for your ferrets, but let your ferrets be the judge. How they look, feel and act are the true measure of quality, not marketing or sales hype.

Thomas R. Willard, Ph.D. is an international consultant, speaker and nutritionist. He is the founder and president of Performance Foods, Inc. Dr. Willard holds a degree in Animal Science plus a doctorate in Animal Nutrition and Bio-chemistry. He has over 30 years of hands-on experience within the pet food industry. He has been actively working with ferret nutritional research since 1992, and has written many published articles.

[intlink id=”fair”]This article originally appeared in the July /August 2000 issue of "The F.A.I.R. Report".[/intlink]

An Introduction to Ferrets

By Mary Van Dahm

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.

[intlink id=”fair”]This article originally appeared in a pamphlet published by F.A.I.R.[/intlink]

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