No one knows when the first ferret crawled up in the first human lap for a nap, but it’s a good bet that first ferret owner was wearing a toga.
The exact date of the domestication of the European ferret (Mustela furo) is lost to recorded history. But historians say that when the ancient Greeks wrote fondly 2,500 years ago of a weasel-like animal they’d made a pet, they may well have been referring to a ferret. Others suggest ferrets hunted mice in ancient Egyptian homes even before that, at least 500 years before cats were domesticated.
In any case, these entertaining, sociable animals, descendants of wild European polecats, spread across Europe with conquering Roman soldiers and came to the New World aboard the ships of early explorers. Legend even has it that some ferrets, offspring of ferrets belonging to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, were aboard the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria when Christopher Columbus made his historic voyage in 1492.
The number of pet ferrets in the United States today is disputed, though all agree their numbers have grown dramatically since the 1980s. Some ferret enthusiast organizations claim that as many as eight to 10 million ferrets roam the nation’s households. A 1997 survey of pet ownership done by the American Veterinary Medical Association put the number of pet ferrets at something less than 1 million.
Not counted in any pet ferret census are the endangered black-footed ferrets (Mustela nigripes). These wild ferrets, native to western North America, are smaller than their domestic cousins, and much more aggressive. They do NOT make good pets – in fact, keeping a wild black-footed ferret is illegal. (It’s illegal some places to own a domestic ferret, too.)
Modern domestic ferrets come in a range of colors, from pure white albinos to sable, chocolate brown, silver and cinnamon. Markings include mitts (white feet), pandas (white body coat and dark head and legs) and Siamese (similar to a Siamese cat, with dark legs and tail).
Male ferrets, called hobs, weigh an average of 2 1/2 to 3 pounds, though some highly-prized males tilt the scales at more than five pounds. Females, called jills, are almost always substantially smaller than males, averaging about 1 1/2 pounds. Length varies, but few ferrets exceed 24 inches.
Adequate diets for ferrets include commercial ferret diets (Totally Ferret and Marshall Premium Ferret diet, Purina/Mazuri Ferret Chow), and premium kitten foods such as Science Diet and Iams. Meat or poultry, or meat and poultry meals and other by-products should appear first on the list of ingredients on the diet packaging. High levels of plant protein have been associated with urinary stones in ferrets. Unfortunately many inexpensive grocery store brand cat foods contain plant protein and should therefore be avoided.
Leave dry food out at all times to allow the ferret to eat when he wants. Ferrets typically do not overeat so obesity is not a common problem.
Since ferrets are so inquisitive and always getting into things, the MUST be confined to a cage when their activities cannot be adequately supervised. They can be maintained in a wire cage measuring 24 by 24 by 18 inches or larger. The floor may be either solid or wire. Glass tanks are not suitable because they do not allow for adequate ventilation. Custom built cages can be constructed, but the corners and lower third of the wall must be protected from urine and fecal absorption. Many owners line their home-built cages with self-adhesive floor tile or linoleum and plastic molding. It is imperative that your ferret does not chew on any of this material.
The life span of ferrets is growing longer, as breeders and ferret owners learn more about proper health and nutrition. Domestic ferrets have been known to live as long as 17 years, though many fall victim to cancer and other diseases well before their 10th birthday.
Ferrets that are neutered or spayed usually live longer than intact animals, Horton says. He recommends neutering males as soon as their testicles drop, at about six months of age; and spaying females right after their first estrus cycle, usually at four to six months of age, depending on what time of year they’re born.
Like other members of the mustelid family (which includes skunks, minks, weasels, badgers and wolverines), ferrets secrete a musky odor when frightened, excited or marking territory. Many ferret owners opt to have these scent glands removed, usually at the same time the animal is spayed or neutered.
While ferrets spend up to 20 hours a day sleeping, they tend to regulate their sleep cycles so they are awake and playful when their owners are around. They usually wake up four to eight times a day, ready to play, relieve themselves, eat and get into things.