Ferrets are very inquisitive, playful, affectionate, and intelligent small animals. They make wonderful pets, but they require more care than other small mammals. Their care is more comparable to that of a cat or a dog. Although they should be in a cage when you are unable to supervise them & should be allowed out of the cage for 3-4 hours daily under your supervision. It is important to do plenty of research before purchasing or adopting a ferret to understand their habits, behaviors and proper handling and care requirements so they live a long and healthy life.
Southern Europe & Northern Africa
1 - 5 pounds
5 - 10 years
Ferrets throughout History
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.
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!
Ferrets spend the majority of their day asleep, but are very active for the few hours they are awake. They love to dig, and can be destructive unless you provide a proper outlet in which to satisfy their urge to dig, such as a plastic box with Marshall's ferret balls or ball pit. These pets may not be the best choice for small children. When ferrets play, be aware that they often "play-bite". This is natural behavior, not aggression. Ferrets love to interact and play with their human companions, but they may not like being cuddled or restrained.
Housing Your Ferret
In the wild, ferrets are solitary creatures, but it is recommended that you keep at least 2 ferrets for companionship as pets. If you choose to keep a single ferret, spend extra time each day interacting with your pet to alleviate boredom. They do best in a large, multi-level ferret cage with stairs or ramps that they can climb, and shelves or hammocks where they can rest. Place the cage in a temperature controlled area of your home where your pets will have plenty of contact with you and your family. Ferrets are very accomplished escape artists. Choose a wire cage with bar spacing no larger than 1” x 1” and a secure latch. Add plywood or linoleum tiles to part of the wire bottom of the cage and wire shelves for your ferrets to rest their feet.
Feeding Your Ferret
Ferrets are obligate carnivores, meaning that they lack the physiology required to process vegetation. Provide your ferret with a commercial ferret food, since dog and cat foods often contain grains and other ingredients not suitable for ferrets. We recommend that you choose a food that is at least 35% protein, less than 3% carbohydrates, and at least 20% fat and one that contains taurine for healthy neurological and eye function.
Provide ferret treats in moderation to keep your pets at a healthy weight. Appropriate treat choices include commercially produced ferret treats or supplements, pieces of raw or cooked meat, meat based baby foods, frozen thawed pinkie mice & cooked eggs.
You can save time cleaning your ferret's habitat by teaching them to use a litter box. Choose a low sided litter box and place it in a corner of their cage. Use a pelleted litter since other litters can irritate your pets' eyes and lungs. Place beds, food dishes or other furniture in the other corners of the cage to discourage elimination in these corners. If your ferrets will have the run of a room, place two litter boxes in opposite corners of the play room.
To control odors, remove waste from the litter box or cage daily. Remove and wash any bedding and clean the cage with a mild bleach solution once weekly. If accidents happen in your house, use an enzymatic cleanser (such as Nature's Miracle) to clean the mess and prevent repeat soiling.
Just like a dog or a cat, ferrets need vaccinations and annual vet visits. Veterinarians that practice on small animals are not as common as dog and cat veterinarians, so be sure to find a vet who is familiar with ferrets before bringing your pet home. Your new ferret should be taken to the vet for their vaccinations and check-up soon after adoption.
Ferrets require regular grooming. It is important to get your ferret used to handling and grooming at an early age, and it is helpful to have another person to assist or distract your pet with treats. Clean your ferret's ears gently with a cotton swab and an ear cleaning solution every few weeks to prevent wax build-up and ear mites. Brush your pet's teeth with pet toothpaste and a small bristle brush at least once a week. Their nails will also need to be trimmed every week or two to prevent them getting snagged on fabrics or causing other problems with their feet. You can do this at home with small animal nail clippers or by taking them to a groomer or veterinarian.
Ferrets do not need to be bathed more than once per month, and usually less often than that. Bathing strips away natural oils in your pet's skin and it can become dry, itchy or flaky. When a bath is necessary, use ferret specific shampoo which is pH balanced specially for ferrets. Over bathing will cause their bodies to over produce natural oils, producing the musky scent that ferrets are known for.
Ferrets are notoriously curious animals and precautions need to be taken to keep your pet safe when they are allowed out of their cage. If you are unable to ferret-proof a room in your house, you may want to invest in a small pet playpen to keep them out of trouble.
Ferrets can fit in very small spaces, and they like to explore every inch of their environment. Take care to remove any tube-like objects, such as vacuum cleaner hoses, from the area to prevent them from becoming stuck. Carefully block or restrict access to any room in your house that has appliances, since ferrets can become stuck underneath or inside them. Also keep a watchful eye with recliners and couches. Ferrets are very fast and quiet, and may easily slip through doorways or windows, even if they are only open for a short time.
Ferrets are avid climbers, but they're not always as graceful when trying to climb back down or out of an area of your home. Keep toilets, buckets, and boxes closed or out of reach.
Your pets may also find a comfy place to nap while they're out; under a rug, in a backpack or handbag, or even in a laundry basket, so be watchful to prevent an accident. As with other pets, keep potted plants, household chemicals and other potential dangers away from your ferrets.
It is important to keep up with your pet's annual vet visits and vaccinations in order to prevent or diagnose common health issues. Ferrets are susceptible to different types of tumors, and early detection and removal gives them the best chances for survival. If you notice any changes in your ferret's behavior or body see a veterinarian for testing.
Ferrets are susceptible to most mutations of the flu virus, including strains that can infect humans. If you are experiencing flu-like symptoms it is best to limit your contact with your pets. Watch for nasal discharge, sneezing, decreased appetite, lethargy, and fever. The flu and the highly fatal distemper virus share many common symptoms and can progress rapidly. If you observe any of these symptoms it is recommended that you take your pet to the veterinarian for treatment as soon as possible.
Adrenal gland disease is unfortunately seen often in middle-aged to older pet ferrets. In ferrets, adrenal disease consists of an overactive adrenal gland which results in the overproduction of reproductive hormones. This can be diagnosed with diagnostic testing by your vet. Inquire about this if your ferret exhibits hair loss, excessive itching, aggressiveness or urinary problems.
Another relatively common occurrence in ferrets is a gastrointestinal obstruction. Because of their curious nature, ferrets can ingest any number of inedible objects. Impaction can also be caused by fruits, vegetables, and grains that ferrets cannot digest. Impaction can be very serious, even fatal, if not treated early. The best medicine is prevention. Keep small objects out of reach while ferrets are running free. If your pet becomes lethargic, unwilling to eat, produces darkened stool or green or very thin or diarrhea, take your pet to the vet as soon as possible.
Wash your hands with warm, soapy water before and after handling any animal. This habit will help to prevent the spread of germs, and help to prevent accidental bites by washing away smells that may entice them (if you recently handled food or treats).
We recommend a vet visit for your new ferret and regular visits thereafter. When it comes to your new pet, knowledge is the best way to choose an appropriate addition to your family. Learn as much as you can about your new friend before you bring him home to ensure your pet enjoys a long, healthy life. If you have any questions or concerns, please contact our small animal department at 717-299-5691 ext. 1274 or email@example.com.