By Dr. Becker
Ferrets are small, spirited little creatures. As pets, these furry mammals can be affectionate, entertaining and even litter-box trained. But they can’t be compared to more traditional house pets such as dogs or cats; they’re a completely different animal. Members of the weasel family, ferrets are domesticated rather than wild, like the otters, minks and badgers they’re related to. Weighing two or three pounds and measuring approximately 15 inches, ferrets can live to be eight years old or longer. Many have facial markings that some compare to raccoon’s eyes, and their silky fur is typically cinnamon, champagne, white, silver or black.
Historians believe ferrets were the precursor to cats as the preferred pet in ancient Egypt. Later cultures used them to thin out mouse populations and scare game birds into the open for falcons to catch. The original Latin word, “furonem,” meaning “thief,” was first given to ferrets by the Greek playwright Aristophanes. This reference is still as apt as ever, because these wiggly animals are known to abscond with anything small enough to carry.
In recent years, ferret ownership has been banned in certain areas, including New York, California, Hawaii, Salt Lake City and other cities. If you’re thinking about adding a ferret to your household, it would be wise to call the local humane society or wildlife department to make sure ownership is legal where you’re located.
Choosing a Ferret as a Pet
Ferrets appreciate the company of one or two others of their kind. With proper training and socialization, they do well with other non-human members of the household as well, but the introduction process should be gradual and closely supervised, because ferrets are natural hunters.
Make sure to check your local animal shelter and rescue organization first to see if there are any ferrets available for adoption before resorting to buying one. Sadly, ferrets have been overbred for the pet trade and many end up homeless. Please do not buy a ferret from a pet store, mostly likely you are supporting a “ferret mill,” the equivalent of a puppy mill. Younger ferrets, called kits, are ideal if you have the time for training, but they shouldn’t be separated from their mother sooner than eight weeks of age. They’re very playful and fun to watch when young, but older ferrets may already be trained and adaptable to a new household.
Litter box training doesn’t come naturally to ferrets as it does to some cats. You might try a small corner of the cage as a litter box area, using a bit of dirty litter at first to get them used to what it’s there for, and placing food bowls and clean blankets on the other corners. When accidents occur, place the poop in the litter box for the ferret, showing him where the toilet area is. This may take a little practice, but before long, they usually catch on.
Another way ferrets are completely unlike dogs and cats is that more conventional pets can usually be trusted to wander through the house like any other family member. However, many ferret owners can relate anecdotes of times their pet burrowed into dresser drawers, under sofas and anywhere they had access, sometimes getting stuck in the process. Make sure toilet lids are closed, and keep your eye on aquariums and bathtubs, because agile, curious ferrets have a knack for finding mischief. Keeping your car keys, wallets, medicines and food out of sight is also wise.
These busy creatures are known to create havoc with their teeth, so keeping electrical cords, pens, pencils, and children’s toys out of reach is important to prevent ferrets from ingesting something that could cause an intestinal blockage. My record for foreign objects removed from the bellies of ferrets was three in one week: all three ferrets bit the erasers off the tops of pencils and swallowed them.
Health Considerations and Feeding
If you purchase or rescue a ferret, chances are it will already be neutered and have its anal scent glands removed. Keep in mind that even without those glands, ferrets exude a musky scent, although devoted ferret owners say they don’t find it overpowering or offensive.
The early spaying or neutering of young ferrets is not recommended, because 90 percent of them who’ve undergone this procedure develop endocrine issues, such as Cushing’s disease or adrenal disease, due to a sex hormone deficiency.
Ferrets require special food designed just for them – not cat food, dog food or scraps from your own table, which is not just a bad idea – it might even be fatal. Particularly bad for these animals are chocolate, sodas, tea or coffee because of the caffeine, as well as milk, ice cream and onions. They’re essentially carnivorous, and an optimally nutritious diet will consist of the appropriate balance of meats, bones, organs and fat, with very few carbohydrates and no grains.
Thus far, I have not found a commercially available dry ferret food I’m wildly happy about. Dry ferret foods contain too many unnecessary carbohydrates, increasing the risk of obesity and diabetes. And all dry ferret foods on the market have been extruded. Unfortunately, the extrusion process (how crunchy kibbled food is created) results in two carcinogenic substances as byproducts of this processing technique, heterocyclic amines and acrylamides. Because so many ferrets also succumb to insulinomas, a type of pancreas tumor, feeding a small amount of a carcinogenic substance every day isn’t optimal.
As you’ve probably guessed, I’m in favor of feeding these little carnivores a species appropriate, fresh food diet. Their ancestral diet would include mice and other small rodents, so a balanced, raw food diet mimicking their evolutionary diet is optimal. Consult with your integrative exotic vet about how to wean your ferret onto a better quality diet if you find you have a dry food junkie.
Ferrets are indoor pets that are not likely to survive outside for more than a few days. They are completely unaware of the peril they might fall into, so close supervision, diligence and a safe, ferret-proof environment is crucial. They can be placed on a leash and supervised outdoors, but make sure they have plenty of shade and water, because they’re unable to tolerate temperatures exceeding 85 degrees.
Rest, Relaxation and Recreation, Ferret Style
These active pets enjoy multiple-level houses that allow them to run and tunnel and hide, which you can sometimes find in cages exclusively designed with them in mind. Other necessary supplies dedicated to ferrets include a litter pan and ferret litter, and a blanket to burrow in.
Being naturally intelligent and curious, ferrets also thrive on an assortment of toys to stimulate their brains and encourage activity for a trim, active body.
Ferrets have a fondness for sleep – as long as 18 hours a day. They are also able to groom themselves, so baths aren’t recommended more than a few times a year unless on the advice of your exotic veterinarian. Ferrets need to be free of their cages, but in a secure and safe exercise environment, for a minimum of four hours every day, with at least a few of those spent interacting with family members.
There’s a reason why there are ferret devotees all over the world. They can make adorable pets, offering endless entertainment, companionship and fun.