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Ferrets and Musk: What is That Smell?

By: Dr. Dawn Ruben

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Anyone who has had any contact with a ferret will agree that ferrets have a significant odor. Although it is not entirely unpleasant, the smell just never seems to go away, even after bathing. What is this odor and where does it come from?

Ferrets belong to the family Mustelidae, which also includes weasels, minks, badgers and skunks. This group of animals is known for producing a strong odor when scared or alarmed through a secretion released from glands near the anus. This secretion has a pungent odor to scare off potential enemies. The best known for this strategy is the skunk.

Ferrets also have these scent glands that produce a substance with a strong musk odor. Often, these glands are surgical removed to prevent secretions but this procedure is controversial. Many ferret authorities feel that removal of these glands is an unnecessary procedure with risks and potential complications. The glands rarely cause the ferret any problems and if he is not frightened or alarmed, the secretions are not released.

Whether your ferret has his scent glands or not, he will still have a musky odor. Spread throughout the skin are oil glands that also secrete a musky substance and are under the influence of sex hormones, particularly male sex hormones. This results in quite a strong odor in the unneutered adult male ferret. By spaying or neutering your ferret, this musky odor will diminish but not completely go away. These secretions can also cause a yellowing of the fur and a greasy feel, which is most pronounced in the adult intact male.

The purpose of the musk odor is not completely understood. It may be a defense mechanism or to mark territory. It may also be a way ferrets identify each other or announce their presence. Regardless, the odor on your ferret to there to stay.

Is There Anything You Can Do?

Most ferrets sold today already have been spayed or neutered and the scent glands removed. Just because the scent glands have been removed does not mean your ferret will be odor free. The oil glands in their skin will also secrete a musky substance.

Periodic baths can help but too frequent bathing can result in dry skin. Don't bathe your ferret more than one to two times a month. By having your ferret spayed or neutered, the odor will be lessened, especially in the male. Avoid perfumes since these can result in respiratory problems in your ferret. Frequent laundering of bedding can also help reduce some of the odor.

Removing all the musk odor is not possible. Just think of it as yet another endearing quality of your playful, adorable ferret.

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