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Feeding Your Ferret

By: Rebecca Jones

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A ferret's optimum diet is enough to make a child smile: lots of protein and fat, and absolutely NO yucky vegetables. Fruit? Only in very small quantities and only if it's mashed.

The dietary requirements for domestic ferrets are a matter of some controversy, with no single diet being recommended by all veterinarians as the "best". Ferrets are strict carnivores which means they depend on lots of protein and fat in their daily requirements. They generally do not need carbohydrates or fiber in any quantities.

Veterinarians recommend dry rations as your ferret's main food, as opposed to canned food, because of the high metabolic rate of ferrets. When shopping for ferret chow, be a wise consumer. Some brands of cat or kitten food are acceptable for ferrets, but read the labels carefully. Many, especially the cheaper brands, do not contain the nutrients a ferret needs to thrive – and even some commercially-marketed ferret foods do not contain the recommended percentages of protein and fats. High quality dry kitten or ferret food is ideal.

Ferrets Need Meat

Ferrets need food with a protein level of 32 to 38 percent, and a minimum 20 percent fat content. The first ingredient listed on the label should always be meat. Avoid foods that have soy or plant protein, as well as fish. Fish oil makes for one smelly ferret.

"I've been in pet stores and found pieces of apples, broccoli, lettuce and carrots in the ferrets' food bowls," says Randy Horton, director of Especially Ferrets, the nation's largest ferret shelter, located in suburban Denver. "Dried fruit can get stuck in a ferret's throat and cause it to choke. The other problem is, they're carnivores and cannot digest plant matter."

At Especially Ferrets, only one brand of food is served to residents: Totally Ferret, made by Performance Foods. The premium quality ferret food is also endorsed by a number of ferret clubs.

"When we first tried Totally Ferret, kids in our sickroom who'd been sick for months got well within two weeks. The results have been outstanding," says Horton.

While premium quality food is not cheap – Horton estimates it costs him about 50 cents a day to feed two ferrets-it may save money in the long run, given the lower veterinary bills a healthy ferret racks up.

Feeding Ferrets

  • Serving size. Ferrets should be allowed to free-feed. Fill their bowl and let them eat as much as they want, unless they're noticeably overweight. Ferrets typically do not gorge.

  • Snacks. The treat of choice is Ferretone, a fatty acids supplement that not only pleases ferrets but makes their coats shiny. A few drops a day is plenty. Too much can lead to a buildup of vitamin A. As mentioned earlier, small helpings of mashed or liquefied fruits are okay, but avoid starchy foods such as cereals. Ferrets love sweets, but limit their intake. A bite of cooked chicken is a special treat, but never feed ferrets raw meat, which runs the risk of bacterial infection.

  • Supplements. Laxatives such as Laxatone or Ferretlax are an absolute necessity during spring and fall, when ferrets are shedding. They lick themselves to groom their coats and frequently develop hairballs, which can be a health hazard. Laxatives help move the hair smoothly through the digestive system. "Just a little dab on your finger once a week during hairball season is all you need," Horton says. Added fat can be supplemented using a fatty acid supplement such as Linatone (Lambert Kay, Cranbury, NJ), egg yolk or raw meat fat.

  • Liquids. Ferrets always need access to fresh water – and if you live in the Rocky Mountains, it should be bottled water, because of the threat of giardia, an intestinal parasite, in tap water. Some ferrets prefer to drink from a bowl, others from a water bottle. Horton recommends supplying both: "If you don't get it right, they may not drink and will become dehydrated, and then you'll have a serious problem."

  • Older ferrets. After age four, ferrets begin to slow down and need less fat and protein in their diets. As with humans, overweight ferrets are at higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease. Some premium ferret foods are available in formulations with 50 percent less fat and protein and are recommended for older ferrets.


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