Care Guide for Ferrets
Table of Contents
Introduction to Ferrets
Carpet sharks, fur slinkies, tube cats, etc. What poor animal is known by all of these unflattering names? That honorable European polecat descendent, the ferret. The Western and Eastern polecat species are the most likely ancestors of the modern ferret, Mustela putorious furo. This interesting Latin name hints at the ambivalence with which humans regard this not entirely domesticated species. “Smelly mouse killing thief” is a loose translation.
This animal is probably descended from individuals that traveled westward with Roman and Norman invasions. There isn’t much evidence available from the fossil record of their bones, so it is hard to determine where they are from with 100% certainty.
Ferret domestication appears to have been driven by the need to control vermin, especially on-board ships. Cats and dogs, long domesticated for this same purpose, were often too big to follow rats and mice through the nooks and crannies of seagoing vessels. A smaller and even more limber predator was needed.
Although used as ratters in ancient Greece and Rome, their popularity remained muted. However, by the late 1400’s their numbers and popularity were skyrocketing in Western Europe. They were expensive little items in those days, especially albino varieties which were sought out by the gentry. However, in just a few decades, they became readily available to peasants, who used them for rabbit hunting.
America started using ferrets as work animals in the 18th century. Americans soon realized that ferrets were extremely useful for all sorts of pest extermination applications and so began to import them by the ‘boatload.’ They used them to hunt rats, rabbits, and raccoons. If you didn’t want to own one yourself, extermination professionals would come to your farm with ferrets if you had a pest problem. Ferrets chased the target varmints out of their hidey holes or burrows and dogs and men caught them.
Although seldom used now in any form of hunting, mainly because it is illegal in most places, their popularity and numbers did not decline, mainly due to the pet trade. They are now the 4th most popular mammalian pet in the United States, right after rabbits, ironically.
Ferrets are popular pets around the world. There is even a weird competition in England involving ferrets. Not hunting as you might expect. Although this ‘sport’ nearly died out 30 years ago, it is now making a comeback. It’s called ferret legging. A competitor ties strings on the bottoms of both pant legs. Then he releases a ferret down his pants. His belt is then tightly cinched. The man who can endure the torture the longest is the winner. One recent record holder had ferrets in his pants for almost 6 hours. Contest rules dictate that the ferret’s teeth and claws may NOT be filed, and both participants must be sober, even though originally this ‘sport’ started in pubs. What some folks will do for a cheap thrill!
The strangeness of that activity aside, ferrets do make lovely pets, although they may not be suitable for small children. Although they sleep even more than cats, when awake they are extremely active and entertaining. Ferrets live an average lifespan of 5-7 years, however, although there is a record of a ferret living to be 14.
They are very curious and intelligent little creatures, like most members of the weasel family. They are quite interactive and playful pets. They love to bounce around and their play invitations to their owners are hilarious. They are mad about crawling through just about anything, including cardboard boxes, PVC piping, clothes dryer hoses, paper bags, and even pant legs or long shirt sleeves (voluntarily). They do tend to play rough at first and will often playfully nip in the beginning of a play session, which is why they are a better pet for adults and older teens than for young children.
Illegal Places to own a Ferret
Ferrets are illegal in California and Hawaii. In other places, they are legal only if they are spayed or neutered. Before acquiring one, know your prospective pet’s reproductive status and local laws. Intact male ferrets smell worse than neutered ones and can behave with aggression toward keepers when they decide it’s time to make whoopie. Good reason to neuter them. Female ferrets who are still intact will come into heat between 4 and 6 months of age. Once that happens, they are never out of heat until inseminated. This is very hard on their bodies and will shorten their life span. Most will develop a condition called ‘aplastic anemia.’ This is often fatal, but in rare cases, an expensive course of treatment involving hormone therapy and blood transfusions can save the animal. A smarter course of action is to only acquire spayed or neutered animals.
Are Ferrets Stinky?
Even though ferrets are naturally clean animals, they still exhibit a distinctive musky odor. Even frequent bathing will not alter this and may harm the animal. Bathing should be kept to a minimum – at most, once or twice a month. Bathing a ferret will strip its skin and coat of its oils. In response, the ferret’s body overcompensates and keeps producing more and more. In a vicious cycle, overbathing can cause its odor to get even worse, tempting the owner to bath it more often, and so forth. Left alone, they usually do decent job of cleaning themselves much like a cat. If you give them a bowl of water, they will use it to clean their face. Bathing may be required occasionally for relieving itchiness caused by fleas or dry skin. If you are going to bathe a ferret, make sure you use pet-friendly medicated shampoo that is safe for cats.
Another source of unpleasant odor are their anal glands. They rarely utilize this defense mechanism unless startled or frightened. The scent goes away after a few minutes. Although most ferrets have their glands removed in infancy, it is not required for their health and safety, so if strong odors bother you, it may be best to acquire a pet with the glands removed.
Building a Ferret Habitat
Ferret cages should be a minimum of 18 x 18 x 30 vertical inches for females, bigger for the much larger males. The cage should be vertically oriented and have two or more levels with stairs or ramps they can climb. Wire cages work best. The cage should have very small gaps and a very secure latch to prevent them from escaping. A good rule of thumb is that if a gap is larger than the size of a quarter, your pet will get out, or get in, as the case may be.
Ferret-Proofing your House
In the series of care guides presented on this site, pet-proofing a room has not been addressed. But for ferrets, it is essential that keepers ferret-proof a house or room where the animal will be at liberty, intentionally or not.
For beginning owners, it’s probably easiest and safest to confine your pet to one room, preferably the room the cage is in. Finish the rest of the house later after you have gotten familiar with your new pet’s interests and behaviors. Rooms which are seldom used and which ferrets have no need to be in (laundry rooms, closets, garages, bathrooms) are better kept closed off. They can and will go down drains.
Some of the main areas of concern include the following:
- Cover or Fill Holes or other openings to the home exterior. Unlike cats, ferrets don’t last long in the wild. Plug or tape all known exits. This includes the dryer hose, so either clamp it off or exclude the pet from the room completely.
- Cover or Fill Holes within the home. Holes in interior walls should also be patched. Ferrets have been known to climb in and become trapped inside the wall.
- Close any fireplace clean-outs.
- Windows should be kept closed. Screens are easily scratched through or pushed out.
- Block off the kick plate beneath any cabinets.
- Ferrets are quite capable of opening cabinet doors. Make sure they’re securely latched using child-proof locks.
Also bear in mind that ferrets are speedier than people and will dash through an open door while you are coming or going.
Check carefully when removing things from the house such as bags, laundry baskets — even trash. Ferrets often crawl inside and sleep.
Make sure all poison baits used for bugs or mice, all garden herbicides or pesticides, and all fertilizers are stored safely. They should be either locked away in a secure cabinet or placed on a high shelf. A very high shelf, since they are surprisingly good jumpers.
Other ferret hazards:
Ferrets love to chew and are especially attracted to rubbery surfaces. All electrical wires should be blocked or covered in foil. The ferret won’t enjoy biting the foil and will leave the wires alone.
Recliners and pull-out sofa beds, box springs, rocking chairs and rolling chairs all present safety hazards for loose ferrets.
Now that those cautions are out of the way, back to the design of the enclosure.
More Ferret Habitat Requirements
The floor of the wire cage should be covered in a solid covering such as reptile carpet, linoleum flooring, tiles, etc. Any easily cleaned, impermeable surface that keeps claws and toes out of the wire is fine. On top of this should be bedding. Avoid using newspaper (will turn their feet black), but instead choose materials such as aspen or pine shavings, or cat litter products such as Yesterday’s News or Feline Pine. Ferrets with sensitive skin should not be bedded on pine shavings. Cedar shavings should never be used for any ferret.
Other bedding, such as shredded towels or blankets, are great options for ferret nesting behaviors to be performed, but should be washed often. For furniture, provide objects that accommodate the ferret’s need to burrow or hunt. PVC pipes are always a favorite and easy to clean. For the hunting aspect, they enjoy playing with small balls, feather cat toys, or small cloth baby toys. No foam, latex, or spongy toys should be offered as they will likely shred them and swallow some, causing a potential GI obstruction.
Ferrets can be litter box trained, so a box in their enclosure and a couple in their outside of cage play areas should be provided. They can be trained to use pee pads as well. They should always have a box or pee pad close by because they have a short GI tract and therefore cannot hold it very long. They prefer their toilets to be in the corner of the room the best. Avoid clumping cat litter. Be advised that they don’t cover their messes like a cat does, so scooping of the litter box daily or more will be required.
When deciding where to place the pet’s cage, be aware that ferrets should be kept away from direct sunlight. A cool, shaded area is best. Ambient temperatures between 60- and 70-degrees F will make them most comfortable. Temperatures over 85 F may cause heat stroke. Temperatures below 60 are acceptable as long as the ferret has plenty of nesting material, such as shredded t-shirts, to form into a nest.
Lighting for ferrets is more important than many new owners realize. Ferrets kept in conditions of extremely low light for extremely bright light have been shown to suffer from adrenal tumors, dry skin and coats, and hair loss. Correct daylength appears to be important as well. The current consensus among experienced keepers is to provide opportunities for voluntary exposure to direct sunlight everyday (voluntary, not forced because the ferret’s cage is in the sun and it cannot escape). Moderate artificial light of the sort that would make reading for humans very easy is adequate during the day. At night, unless the animal is in a room where the lights can be turned off and the room darkened, the cage should be covered with a black out fabric.
What do Ferrets Eat?
Ferrets, like cats, are obligate carnivores. A ferret-appropriate diet should have a high level of fat as its main source of calories, and also be rich in highly digestible meat-based protein. A high protein diet (at least 34%), high fat (at least 20%) high quality chicken or lamb based dry ferret diet is best. Chicken or lamb should be listed in some form (poultry, lamb or poultry meal) as the number one ingredient in the list of ingredients on the back of the bag.
Cat Food is Okay. But Never Dog Food.
If a high-quality ferret food is not readily available or you run out for awhile, a high quality canned cat food will do. Never provide them with dog food. Dog food is often high in vegetable protein, which is poorly digested by ferrets, and can actually lead to certain medical issues, such as bladder stones, skin diseases, GI disease and poor growth. Ferrets have no cecum, the part of the digestive tract in many animals that houses the bacteria that breakdown complex carbohydrates such as cellulose (tigers don’t have one either).
Live Food is Best
Ideally, the perfect diet for ferrets is whole prey foods, such as mice, rats, and insects. The second option and probably the most popular is either a specialized ferret diet made specifically for their nutritional requirements or a very high-quality kitten food. They need the best quality muscle meat and organ meat, but not fish based, high protein food available because their very short GI tract and very simple gut bacteria means they only have 3-4 hours for their body to digest their food and absorb its nutrients.
Ferrets will Eat Insects
For a treat and to keep your ferret entertained, they can be offered insects frequently. Crickets and grasshoppers will help them to burn off some energy. Mealworms, night crawlers, silkworms, super worms, and wax worms are nice treats as well, if somewhat less entertaining than things that hop. Fuzzy mice are also a nice addition to a formulated diet.
However, many ferrets have lost the ability to kill swiftly. They have retained the instinct to hunt, but when faced with active prey that may bite back, they are sometimes injured. Offering pre-killed or stunned adult rodents is the safest course of action. These are more nutritious than insects, but often don’t contain quite enough fat. For most ferrets, a high-quality ferret kibble supplemented with high quality canned kitten food, and crickets for entertainment are all that is required. With one exception. Ferrets require large amounts of Omega 3 fatty acids. Freeze dried liver snacks for cats that are dipped in Omega 3 oils such as fish oil are a great option. Do not place Omega 3 dietary supplement capsules in their enclosure, they won’t know what to do with them and the capsules are very hard for them to digest. Avoid the commercial ferret-specific treats on the market, because most of them have no meat in them at all, but rather mostly grains and sweeteners. Feeding this to a ferret can be quite dangerous to their health. Use cat treats instead.
Don’t forget lots of clean, fresh water at all times. Tap water is fine, but if they can smell the chlorine, they may avoid drinking until the odor dissipates.
Houseplants May be Toxic
Your inquisitive pet may decide to nibble on houseplants just for fun. Although this is not a serious threat to their safety, as a rule, certain houseplants varyingly toxic. The common varieties below should be placed where you are certain that your pet cannot access them:
- African Violet
- Azalea, Begonia
- Century Plant
- Dumb Cane
- Elephant’s Ear
- Four o’clock
- Ivy (English and Baltic) Peperomia
- Prayer Plant
- Sago Palm
- Sweet Violets
Just like cats and dogs, ferrets have their own set of potential health issues and should be examined by a vet regularly. Annual check-ups up are recommended until 5 years of age, then as needed after that to ensure the aging ferret is getting the proper care. Vaccination for rabies and distemper is critical. Ferrets suffer from fleas just as dogs and cats do and should be protected from fleas and the heartworms they can transmit. Young ferrets can often harbor coccidiosis. A fecal analysis will determine if a coccidiostat is indicated. Since it can be transmitted to and from other pets, their stools may need to be examined by your vet as well.
Some ordinary maintenance needs can improve your ferret’s health and comfort. Ear wax can build up and really bother your pet. Regular ear cleaning monthly is a good plan. Make sure you use pet-friendly ear cleaner. It is also recommended to regularly trim your ferret’s nails every couple of weeks.
Some of the most common health conditions seen in ferrets include physical injury, adrenal disease, pancreatic cancer, skin tumors, human influenza, foreign bodies in the intestines, epizootic catarrhal enteritis (or “green slime disease”), heart disease, and Aleutian disease. Aleutian disease is a parvovirus harbored in both wild and ranch mink populations. It is important to know that any cage acquired for housing ferrets did not house minks previously, because this disease is often fatal and there is no vaccine or effective course of palliative care.
A note should be made here about COVID-19. Ferrets can suffer from an endemic coronavirus of their own which causes “green slime disease.” However, there is emerging information that ferrets may be susceptible to the strain of coronavirus currently decimating humans worldwide. Many health agencies are delivering warnings about how to interact with your ferret if you are COVID-19 positive or have an animal that is sick and exhibiting respiratory distress. In the UK, where there may be as many as one million pet ferrets, advice from Public Health England's Human Animal Infections and Risk Surveillance group, is to wear a face covering if possible while handling your pet and to wash hands often when handling the animal. Further, if someone living in the same household as a ferret falls ill with COVID-19, health officials recommend for them to "not be involved in the care," saying, "they should self-isolate from their pets, avoid kissing and cuddling them, and avoid sharing food or other items with them."
Good advice that helps keep folks and their ferrets healthy and delighted with each other’s companionship for years to come.