Domestic ferret – originally classified as Mustela putorius furo, a subspecies of the European polecat (M. putorius), from which it likely originated. The International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature recommends that it be given species status – M. furo.
Likely wild ancestor is the European polecat, but the steppe polecat (M. eversmanni) may have contributed genes at some point. The domestic ferret can breed with both, and the offspring are fertile. In contrast to wild descendents, female domestic ferrets can produce 2-3 litters yearly.
The genus Mustela contains 16-20 species of weasels, polecats, ermine and mink; other members of the family (Mustelidae) include badgers, skunks, otters, zorillas, tayra and grison.
Uses Throughout History
Both domestic ferrets and polecats were released in New Zealand from 1879-1886, as a rabbit control measure. Today a huge feral population of hybrid animals occupies the island. They have depleted populations of many species of flightless birds (the rabbits remain unfazed!). Stoats and weasels were also introduced, but these relatives do not likely hybridize with ferrets. Ferrets were also released in Australia for the same purpose, but introduced dingoes, red foxes and cats apparently prevented their becoming established.
Egypt is usually given in the literature as the site of the domestication of the ferret, but this is likely in error. Most early accounts of domestic ferrets, circa the 3rd century BC, are from Egypt, which may explain the mix-up. Ferrets likely began their journey to domestication as European polecats taken into captivity by the Greeks or Phoenicians, and were later brought to Egypt, where they gained great favor. Roman soldiers used them to hunt rabbits.
They are mentioned in early Greek plays and Roman documents; in 63 BC a ferret-like animal is described as being used to help control a rabbit plague on the Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean. Domestic ferrets were known in Germany by 1200, and Genghis Khan apparently used them circa 1221. They are first referenced in England (“court ferreter” in 1223) and grew in popularity as rabbit and rodent hunters throughout the Middle Ages. By the 1700’s, they were often used on ships for rat control.
Imported to USA in 1700’s (rodent control); used widely in early 1900’s; often released in warehouses, barns; ferret scent is said to deter rats and mice. Promoted at one point by the USDA. Often paired with terriers or other dogs, which caught the rodents as they ran from their tunnels. Use declined with advent of rodenticides.
Long used on ships for rat control, as more effective than dogs or cats; named official mascot of the Mass. Colonial Navy for this service.
Farmed for fur in Europe for centuries (wild color type, labeled “fitch”). Efforts to establish industry in US in early 1900’s failed.
Used to run wire and cables (attached to harness) by oil workers, telephone companies, film companies and in airline repair…now largely replaced by mechanical runners.
Biomed research…first used to study human influenza virus, to which they are susceptible. Also in endocrinology, virology, toxicology, many other areas.
Most common as pets in USA, Japan, South Africa and Europe.
Used to perfect breeding techniques for the endangered US native black-footed ferret, M. nigripes. All remaining animals were taken into captivity at one point, species now reintroduced to wild and thriving in several locations.
The Sport of “Ferret Legging”
In the sport of ferret legging participants wear baggy pants, the legs of which are tied at the bottom and 2 angry ferrets are introduced, after which pants are secured at the top. The ferrets may be “dissuaded” from biting only from outside the pants. This bizarre activity is known to be practiced only by patrons (long-term, quite regular patrons, one would assume) of pubs in England…I imagine alcohol figures not only in inducing one to participate, but even more so as an anesthetic (I’ve been bitten on the hand by ferrets, cannot imagine it elsewhere!). The ferret legging record of 5 hours and 26 minutes (1983) is held by a 72 year old Englishman…I don’t foresee it being broken anytime soon!