The domestic ferret or Mustela putorius furo is a pet that descended from the European polecat. They were domesticated for use as working pets as early as 4 BC. Ferrets are not wild animals, and have become very popular pets over the last decade.
A variety of color variations exist. The most popular is the fitch (also called sable) ferret. They are buff in color with black guard hairs, feet and tail and have black masks on their face. Ferrets may also be albino, silver, cinnamon or Siamese. Over 30 color variations are recognized in the US.
The female ferret is called a “jill”, the male a “hob”, and the babies are called “kits.” Sexual maturity is reached at 4-8 months of age. (Usually the first spring after birth.) The average life span of ferrets in the United States is three to eight years. Males are often two to three times the size of the female ferret.
Ferrets are wonderful pets because of their captivating and comical personalities and playful behavior. They make chuckles, hisses and giggles during play. They occasionally whine or cry if they want something or if they are uncomfortable or ill. Ferrets will normally walk or run with their back in a hunched position. They will also run and jump backwards with their front legs outstretched when excited or when enticing someone to play. They play intensely for short periods of time, and then sleep for several hours until their next time of play. It seems ferrets are active for 20-30 percent of the day, and sleeping the rest of the day.
Ferrets depend strongly on their sense of smell. They spend a lot of time with their noses to the floor investigating their surroundings. This behavior often results in the inhalation of dust and debris and a loud sneeze. Unless the sneezing is frequent, or is associated with other signs of illness, you need not be alarmed.
Due to their inquisitive nature, ferrets are notorious for getting into things. They love to tunnel and hide and can squeeze through very small places. If their head can fit, the rest of their body can fit. It is important to ferret proof your house before bringing your pet home. All openings to dangerous areas should be sealed. Check closely, and seal the openings around the pipes and ducts in your home. Unfortunately, their desire for tunneling and their curiosity may put them in dangerous situations. They will crawl under refrigerators, behind stoves or into the bottom broiler, and into the components of recliner chairs and sofa beds to name a few.
Ferrets are not destructive to most household items, but do love to chew on hard and soft rubber. This behavior is dangerous because pieces of tennis shoes, slippers, and rubber squeak toys, dolls, crayons, and doorstoppers can become impacted in your ferret’s intestines and lead to serious illness.
Avoid any accidents or injury by becoming familiar with your ferret’s habits and be constantly vigilant. To protect your ferret when it is out of the cage, apply a lightweight adjustable ferret or cat collar and add a small bell. The bell will signal that your ferret is under foot or going somewhere he/she shouldn’t be!
All ferrets have a fondness for people. The older the ferret, the more laid back it becomes. As young kits, ferrets may nip playfully and with lots of enthusiasm. This behavior is no different than that of a young puppy or kitten and early discipline and training will eliminate biting and nipping when they get older. The nip may seem harder than that by a kitten or puppy because their teeth are razor sharp and their skin is naturally tough. The roughhousing a kit may do with its littermates may not feel appropriate to an owner’s hand. Don’t mistake this behavior for viciousness…this is the same playful, acceptable behavior a puppy or kitten will often show.
Since ferrets are so inquisitive and always getting into things, they MUST be confined to a cage when their activities cannot be adequately supervised. They can be maintained in a wire cage measuring 24 X 24 X 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.
Cage furniture should include some type of sleeping enclosure. Ferrets love to tunnel and burrow in enclosed spaces. Specific products designed for ferrets to sleep and play in are now commercially available. Alternately, towels and sweatshirts, cloth hats and PVC tubing may be used as cage furniture.
Ferrets can be trained to use a litter box. One should always be available in their cage. Since ferrets have a short gastrointestinal tract, and often don’t make it back to their cage to use the litter box, litter boxes should be available in several rooms of the house for use when your pet is out of the cage. Ferrets preferentially use corners to defecate and urinate; therefore place litter boxes in the corners of rooms.
Ferrets are quite sensitive to heat and should be maintained in an environmental temperature between 59 and 77 degrees Fahrenheit. Humidity should not be greater than 55 percent. High temperature and high humidity will surely lead to heat exhaustion in your pet.
Food and water dishes should be made out of a heavy crock material. Ferrets tend to stand on the edges of their dishes while eating or drinking, and anything other than a heavy dish will tip. Ferrets may also use a sipper water bottle for drinking. Be sure give fresh water daily. Clean the components of the water bottle daily as well.
The strong odor of ferrets is primarily due to the influence of sex hormones on the glands in their skin. Castrating males and spaying females will usually control this odor, but your ferret may still have a slight musky scent.
Bathing your ferrets once or twice a month, as well as frequent laundering of their bedclothes will help control this odor. Use a mild cat or ferret shampoo no more frequently than once or twice a month. Bathing in excess will strip their hair coat of its natural oils and shine, and will not control the odor any better.
Another very objectionable, but short-lived odor is excreted from the ferrets’ scent (anal) glands during times of excitement or fright (as occurs with dogs and cats). These glands may be removed if deemed necessary. The removal of these glands (descenting) WILL NOT make your ferret odor free. This surgical procedure may also have complications such as fecal incontinence. Most ferrets sold in pet stores in the United States are already neutered and descented. Some breeders will put one or two tattoo “dots” on the flap part (pinna) of one of their ears to indicate the procedure has been done. Other breeders do not. Just because your ferret does not have the tattoo dots does not mean he/she has not been neutered/spayed or descented.
The exact nutritional requirements of ferrets have not been determined as has been done through feeding trials with other pets. We do know that ferrets are strict carnivores that depend primarily on digestible meat protein and fats for their dietary requirements. A pet ferret’s maintenance diet should be 18-20 percent fat, 30 – 35 percent crude animal protein with minimal complex carbohydrates and fiber.
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.
A dry ration of high quality food is preferred over a canned product. For added fat, use a commercially available fatty acid supplement such as Linatone. This can be given daily at 1 ml per ferret. Domestic ferrets are often prone to hairballs. A cat hairball laxative paste may be given every two to three days as a preventive.
Female ferrets that are not actively breeding must be spayed. If they go into “heat,” they won’t go out of heat until they are bred. During this period of heat, the influence of the female hormones on the marrow of their bones will cause a very serious and often fatal disease (Pancytopenia). With the implementation of early spays before being sold to pet stores; this problem is not as frequently seen. Be sure to have your ferrets’ spay status checked by a ferret veterinarian. Ferrets should receive a health examination on an annual basis until they are 3 or 4 years of age. Twice yearly examinations are recommended thereafter due to the high incidence of metabolic disease, cardiac disease and cancer.
Ferrets are prone to the deadly canine distemper virus. Nearly 100 percent of all ferrets that contract this virus will die. Kits should receive a series of vaccines 3 to 4 weeks apart beginning at 6 weeks of age and ending after they are 14 weeks old. They should be vaccinated annually after their “kit” vaccine series. A rabies vaccine should also be administered on an annual basis. Only certain vaccines are safe and approved for use in ferrets. Be sure your veterinarian is familiar with the unique needs of your pet. An anaphylactic-like reaction (vomiting, diarrhea and occasionally difficulty breathing) may occur with the repeated (booster) distemper vaccination. As a precaution, your veterinarian may request that your ferret remain at the clinic for a period of time after the vaccine has been given. This way, appropriate treatment may be instituted if your pet has an adverse reaction to the vaccine.
Ferrets are susceptible to heartworm disease and should be put on prevention. Your veterinarian may make a liquid suspension of the heartworm prevention, or use the cat approved heartworm prevention. These products should be given orally every 30 days. Also, ferrets do get fleas, and your veterinarian can suggest a safe flea product to use on your ferret.
In comparison to dogs and cats, gastrointestinal parasites are uncommon in ferrets. Nonetheless routine fecal examinations should be performed. Be sure to provide a fresh sample of your pets’ feces for your veterinarian to test.
Frequent brushing of your ferrets’ teeth is recommended. Do not use human toothpaste products; these will make your ferret sick. Use products formulated for cats. Most ferrets don’t like fish products, so avoid the tuna flavor.
Your ferret can catch the human common cold. During the flu season, use common sense in avoiding the spread of the common cold.
Common Diseases and Disorders
- Adrenal gland disease
- Dilated cardiomyopathy
- ECE (“green slime disease”)
- Gastrointestinal foreign bodies
- Helicobacter mustelae gastritis
- Valvular heart disease