Ferrets
Small Pets
 

Ferrets


Ferret information

Ferrets belong to the family Mustilidae; a family where you will also find martins, ermines, weasels, minks, and otters. Ferrets have a long history of being kept by man, since they are ideal for keeping rats, mice and similar pets away. Ferrets have also been used by hunters to ferret out burrowing animals from their dens. 

Note: Today's domesticated ferret is NOT the wild                 
North American Black-Footed Ferret which is now nearly extinct!

Ferrets have shiny and thick fur consisting of two types of hair: guard hairs and undercoat. Guard hairs are long and rough, while the undercoat is soft and keep the animal warm. Guard hairs and undercoat are normally not of the same color.

Ferrets have scent glands all over their bodies, but the smell can be decreased by having the animal spayed / neutered and de-scented by a veterinarian. Never try to bath away the natural smell of a ferret; it will not work and can easily cause skin and fur problems for the animal.

Ferrets taxonomy

Kingdom:      Animalia
Phylum:         Chordata
Class:            Mammalia
Order:           Carnivora
Family:          Mustelidae

The ferret commonly kept as a pet is a domesticated version of the species Mustela putorius. The diverse family Mustelidae contains several other species commonly known as ferrets, such as the Black-footed Ferret (Mustela nigripes). Mustelidae is also the family to which polecats, martens, weasels, minks, otters, and badgers belong.

Ferret care

Ferrets can only be recommended for keepers that appreciate their vivacious and curious nature and provide their pets with suitable outlets for these characteristics in captivity. Ferrets are extremely playful and can learn a lot of tricks. They can also – to a certain degree – learn how to behave indoors in a fashion similar to dogs and cats.

Your ferret needs to be given its own cage or own room to which it can retreat and where it will feel safe. If possible, let your ferret explore other parts of the house as well (under supervision) since it might otherwise grow bored; especially if kept in a small cage. If you want your ferret to stay healthy and happy, it must be given plenty of opportunity to run around. Place litter boxes in a few places in your house to avoid having the ferret pee or poo on the floor. Ferrets also love to play outside and accompany their owners on walks about town. You can purchase a harness and a leash in most pet stores.

A ferret cage should be at least 24L x 24W x 18H inches (60L x 60W x 45H cm), preferably larger. If provided with a litter box, the ferret can be thought to use it which makes daily cleaning much easier. Ferrets must also be given access to fresh water at all times and a designated sleeping area inside the cage. The sleeping area should be similar to a ferret nest, i.e. dark, warm and snuggly. Pet store sell all kinds of ferret nests, such as cloth tubes and tents, and it is also quite easy to build one.     

Ferrets are social creatures and are therefore usually kept in pairs or groups. Un-neutered males should not be housed together since it will result in a lot of fighting. Ferrets are also known for their fondness of playing with other playful pets, such as dogs and cats. Letting your ferret play with small rodents is risky since this is what the ferret would hunt in the wild. Combining ferrets with small hunting dogs is also risky, since many of them perceive the ferret as a pest that should be eradicated from the house or game that should be scared out of its burrow so that you, the human, can shoot it.

Ferrets will turn most items into playthings and it is good idea to provide them with permitted toys to reduce the risk of them turning other household objects into toys. You can for instance give them toys made for cats, dogs and human children. Ferrets are also fond of playing human games like tag, hide-and-seek, and tug-of-war.  

As mentioned above, ferrets can be thought household rules as well as playful tricks. When you bring your kit home, it is very important to teach it not to nip. It might seem cute when it’s a baby, but you don’t want an adult ferret that injures people so commence training right away. You also need to teach the ferret to use the litter box, which is quite easy since ferrets have a naturally tendency to designate one area of their home as bathroom. 

Ferrets can be trained to perform tricks in a fashion similar to dogs, e.g. to come when you call them, sit up and beg for food on command, roll around, and go and hide things that you give them.

Feeding Ferrets

Ferrets are strict carnivores. In the wild, they only receive nutrients from grains, fruits, vegetables etc by eating the belly of herbivore animals – they never eat it directly. They eat whole prey, i.e. the entire animal, which is much more nutritious than eating only muscle tissue. Keeping your ferret on “clean” meat only, e.g. chicken fillets, can therefore lead to malnutrition in the long run.

The diet you give your ferret should mimic that of wild ferrets, i.e. it should be high in protein and animal fat and low in fiber. Food rich in carbohydrates and sugars is not something the ferret would encounter in the wild.

You can for instance give your ferret whole mice, rats and chicks. Raw meat is easier for the ferret to digest than cooked food.

Commercial food intended for dogs normally have too high a vegetable (including grains) content to be healthy for ferrets. Unfortunately, a lot of food labeled “ferret food” or “ferret treats” is also unsuitable, since producers cut down on costs but including other stuff than animal matter in the product, such as sweeteners or grains.  

Wild ferrets eat what they can and then hide any remains of the prey for later, and this might happen in captivity too if you give your ferret more than what it can devour directly.  

If you wish to give your ferret treats while training it, use protein rich ones, e.g. scraps of meat. Meaty freeze dried cat treats are a convenient solution.   

Breeding Ferrets

Male ferrets are generally twice as large as the females; 21-24 in (52-60 cm) from nose to tail-tip compared to the female’s 16-18 in (40-45 cm). Males can weigh up to 5 lbs (2250 g) while females usually weigh less than 3 lbs (1350 g).  

Ferrets are usually bred in outdoor facilities since this makes it more likely for the male and female animal to be ready for mating simultaneously. Also, an un-neutered male ferret is quite smelly. When kept outdoors (in the northern hemisphere), females are normally in heat from March to August. Females reach sexual maturity when they are roughly 6 months of age.

Keep the intended parents in separate cages until the female's vulva becomes swollen and starts to exude a slight discharge. The male's testicles should also be fully extended before you let the ferrets see each other. Even if both animals are ready to breed, the male will act very aggressively towards the female and bite her around the neck. The courting can proceed for several hours and most breeders let the ferrets stay with each other for three days to make sure that successful mating has taken place. If the female gets pregnant, her vulva will become less swollen within a few days.   

The gestation period for ferrets is six week long. Giving birth is sometimes troublesome for the female and you should be prepared to take her to a veterinarian (preferably one with previous ferret experience) if necessary. Glossy eyes and lethargy is two serious signs in birthing ferrets.  

Just like kittens, ferret kits are born with closed eyes and a short covering fur. The mother will feed them milk for about six weeks before weaning them. It is important to provide the kits with suitably small and fairly soft food during the weaning period. 

A nursing ferret should have soft teats; if they become hard she has probably developed mastitis (infected milk glands) and needs veterinary attention.

When the kits are three weeks old it is time to start picking them up and cuddling with them to make them used to humans. Some mothers are very protective and don’t like to have humans near, while others have no problem with their keeper handling the offspring.

Young ferrets can be quite chewy and are therefore usually kept on clean hay or straw; not cloth.

Ferret Health

Ferret grooming
Ferrets will groom their own fur and keep themselves clean, so the keeper normally doesn’t have to groom or bathe a healthy ferret. Too much bathing, especially if shampoo is used, can make the fur dry out and cause skin problems. Ferrets have a naturally musky odour that you shouldn’t try to clean away. If you keep an un-neutered male, having him neutered will make him less smelly. Twice a year, ferrets will shed their coat and gently brushing them during this period will help them get rid of the hair faster.

Unless your ferret wears down its nails on its own, e.g. by using a scratch board, you need to clip them once a month or so. It is better to clip them frequently than remove a large piece once in a while, since the risk of cutting the blood vessel is higher when you cut back a lot. 

Ferret handling
When you pick up your ferret, support the entire length of its body. Grabbing it by the shoulder is unpleasant for the animal and can cause injury.

Ferret health and ferret toys
Latex, rubber and foam rubber toys are not recommended for ferrets since they will tear them apart and may ingest pieces of them, which can cause health problems.

The importance of exercise
Many ailments and undesirable habits in ferrets stem from insufficient amounts of exercise. As mentioned above, ferrets need to be given plenty of opportunity to rummage around, play, run, and explore things. This is a hunting predator, not a docile grazer.                  

Ferret vaccines
You can prevent canine distemper virus (CDV) and rabies in your ferret by having it vaccinated. In many countries, vaccinating against these two contagious diseases is mandatory. Your local veterinarian can provide you with more information. Rabies is especially dangerous since it can spread to humans, while CDV is usually lethal for the ferret.

Common ferret health problems

As mentioned above, ferrets can suffer from both CDV and rabies, but these are not the only health problems affecting ferrets. As ferrets age, particularly over two years of age, they become prone to more and more ailments, such as adrenal disease, heart disease and cancers. General signs of poor health in a ferret are lethargy, loss of appetite, weight loss, changed faeces, blood in the anal region, excessive scratching and biting of the skin, watery eyes, black matter in the ears, short and/or broken whiskers, and abscesses. Regularly check your ferret to spot signs of disease at an early stage. A happy and healthy ferret will have a soft, glossy and clean coat, bright clear eyes, and clean ears.  

Human influenza
When suffering from the flu, you risk spreading it to your ferrets and it is also possible for humans to catch the disease from sick ferrets. When you have a normal cold however, you don’t have to worry about your ferrets falling ill. Just like humans, most ferrets recover from the flue within in week or so but feel really wretched during that time, and just like us they need to rest and drink plenty of fluids.

Diarrhoea in ferrets
Diarrhoea is often a reaction to a sudden change in diet. A ferret suffering from diarrhoea needs to drink plenty of fluids and will normally recover within a few days. Never give ferrets food containing milk.

Constipation in ferrets
A constipated ferret can become exceedingly tired and develop abdominal pains and dehydration. It produces little or no faeces and the condition can lead to seizures and even death. The reasons for constipation in ferrets vary, with the most common ones being improper diet, hair accumulation in the stomach, or foreign objects (e.g. pieces of toys) blocking the digestive tract. Hair accumulation is quite common in ferrets over one year of age that aren’t fed whole prey, since whole prey help ferrets to move hair through the intestines. Serious cases of constipation require veterinary care and possibly surgery, while milder ones can be fixed using vaseline. Commercial laxatives available for ferrets are usually just ordinary vaseline + sweetener, and since sweeteners aren’t really healthy for ferrets it is better (and cheaper!) to use ordinary vaseline instead. Most ferrets will eat non-sweetened vaseline if you put a small amount on a paw for the animal to lick off. If your ferret is still eating despite the constipation, placing the vaselin on food can also work.

Dry fur and skin problems in ferrets
A common reason for dry fur and skin problem in ferrets is too much bathing, especially if shampoo is used. A healthy ferret will keep itself clean and there is normally no need to bathe it. Ferrets kept on a whole prey diet rarely suffer from dry fur and skin problems, unless bathed too frequently. It is however possible for ferrets to develop nutritional deficiencies even when kept on a whole prey diet and if the deficiency concerns a lack of fat it can manifest in the form of skin and fur ailments. In such cases it can be helpful to add extra animal fatty acids to the diet.  

Fleas
Fleas make the ferret scratch a lot and you can usually see little black specks on the skin and under the fur. Flea dips from the store are sometimes detrimental to ferrets, so a flea comb and hot soapy water is a safer alternative. Make sure that no fleas survive in the environment to re-infest your ferret after treatment. Also check other pets in the household and playmates from other homes.

Aplastic anemia
Aplastic anemia occurs in female ferrets that go into heat without being given the opportunity to mate. If you don’t plan on using your female ferret for breeding purposes, have her spayed before she reaches an age of 6 months (this is when female ferrets become sexually mature). Aplastic anemia is common and the fatally rate is really high, so don’t put off spaying your female ferrets.

Ferret Facts

Ferret fact # 1
Some countries, states and municipalities prohibit the keeping of ferrets as pets or require you to obtain a special license before you get a ferret. It is also common for certain vaccinations to be mandatory, to prevent the spread of fatal diseases. Always check local regulations before you get a ferret.

Ferret fact # 2
The early history of the domesticated ferret remains unknown, but ferrets are believed to have been used as hunting companions by man for at least 2,500 years. In some parts of the world, ferrets are still used for hunting rabbits and similar prey.

Ferret fact # 3
The name ferret comes from the Latin word furritus which means "small thief".

Ferret fact # 4
Wild ferrets are nigh active, but captive ferrets will often adapt to the habits of their keeper.

Ferret fact # 5
Ferret coats come in many different patterns and colors, such as dark brown, light brown, reddish, white, cream, and gray. The pattern consisting of a band or V-shape across the eyes of the ferret is one of the most sought after on the pet market and is known as “sable”.

Ferret lifespan

Well cared for ferrets can live to be over 10 years of age, but 5-7 years is the average life span.


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