Every year thousands of ferrets are surrendered to animal shelters and ferret rescue organizations. These unique animals are high maintenance pets so by knowing in advance their needs and quirks, potential owners may become more prepared to welcome one into their homes and hearts. A good place to start is to confer with a veterinarian who treats these unique pets to learn about their health, dietary needs , common health problems, spay/neutering, appropriate equipment to house a ferret, appropriate toys and exercise needs. The vet may direct potential owners to reliable websites to conduct research.
Ferrets are comical, high-energy mammals that are related to weasels, otters and skunks. Like skunks, they produce and retain a musky odor even if their anal musk glands have been surgically removed. According to the Lafeber Vet website ferrets have a lifespan of 6 to 8 years. Females usually weigh between 1.1 to 2 pounds and males weigh 1.7 to 2.6 pounds. Ferrets are predatory animals and may not be suitable to share a home with pets like rabbits, birds, lizards or rodents. They might get along with dogs and cats. (I have witnessed Labrador retrievers go out of their way to avoid being in the same room with these frenetic little creatures!)
Ferrets may not be the right pet for everyone especially a family with young children because ferrets can bite. As with any interaction between kids and pets, close parental supervision is a must. Owners should avoid face-to-face contact with their ferret because they could bite. It should be noted that ferrets are banned as pets in some cities (like Washington DC and New York City) and in states. In California potential owners are required to obtain a permit to own a ferret.
Inoculations and regular veterinary care
Ferrets need to be vaccinated against canine distemper virus and the rabies virus annually. They are susceptible to heartworm and may need preventive medication if the ferret routinely spends time outdoors or lives in a warm climate. They are also susceptible to the human flu virus and a ferret with the flu can transmit the flu virus to humans. The Lafeber Vet website recommends owners not to handle a ferret until they have recovered from their illness or to wash their hands first and not hold the ferret near their face or allow anyone with a cold to handle the pet.
Healthy ferrets should look bright and alert, active, inquisitive, have a shiny lush hair coat and be plump both on sides of the body looking and feeling the same according to the American Veterinary Medical Association’s informative pamphlet “Selecting a Ferret.” It lists the following signs of a sick ferret: a “dull rough hair coat, an animal that is too thin, potbellied, or sluggish.” If the area below the tail is damp it may indicate the animal has diarrhea. Also check for parasites like fleas.
Ferrets are strictly carnivores and require a diet rich in animal protein and fat according to the Lafeber Vet website. Most commercial ferret foods or high quality dry cat foods (like science diet, or Iams) meet a ferret’s nutritional requirements. Generally ferrets eat many small meals during the day so owners are advised to have food available at all times. Owners may offer (in small amounts as treats) cooked meat, poultry, or fish. The website warns that “carbohydrates should never be an important part of the diet since ferrets cannot digest fiber.” Also dog food and vegetarian-type pet foods are not appropriate for ferrets due to their high levels of fiber and vegetable protein. Ferrets should never be offered bones or foods containing bones because they can injure a ferret’s digestive tract. Clean water should always be available and served from a sturdy ceramic crock or a water bottle attached to the ferret’s cage.
A safe environment
Ferrets are notorious for their “home demolition” skills! Their paws almost function like a human’s hands as they are capable of opening and emptying drawers, cabinets, and refrigerators! Their slender bodies allow them to squeeze into tight spaces making it difficult to locate and remove them. Ferrets benefit from living in a large multi-leveled cage with ramps located in a room away from direct sunlight, drafts or cold damp areas. The Lafeber Vet Website recommends that the minimum cage size for one or two ferrets is 24x24x18 inches. An aquarium is not appropriate because of inadequate space and poor air circulation.
The cage should be constructed from materials that are easy to clean and strong enough to withstand digging. The cage floor may be solid or wire mesh with squares no larger than 0.25 inches to prevent foot injury. The doors must be securely latched and bar spacing should be no wider than one inch but 0.5 inch is preferable.
Burrowing and hiding are favorite ferret activities. Owners can provide bedding materials like old shirts and towels for their ferret’s cozy naptimes. There are commercially available sleeping products like tubes, tents and hammocks. It is very amusing to witness a ferret lounging on its back in a hammock! The Lafeber Vet website warns owners not to use bedding materials that have loops, holes, or loose string to prevent the ferret’s nails from getting caught. If the ferret chews on cloth, remove these items and provide a small cardboard or wooden box filled with clean straw or hay as a sleeping area.
Ferrets should be allowed to have 2 to 4 hours of closely supervised time out of their cage in a “ferret proofed” exercise area. Though they are nocturnal creatures they can adapt to their human’s schedule. To “ferret proof” your home, the Lafeber Vet website recommends the following method to protect ferrets from household dangers so get down on your hands and knees and think like an active and curious ferret!
Ferrets can squeeze into narrow places so seal any opening with wire mesh or wood. This includes holes as small as 2x2 inches. (Be sure to leave ventilation around appliances intact).
Remove recliners and sofa beds from ferret-proofed areas. The levers and springs underneath can crush curious ferrets.
Remove all items that have rubber or foam parts like sponges, rubber bands, toys, erasers, balls, headphones, and rubber-soled shoes off the floor and out of a ferret’s reach. When ingested these items can cause potentially deadly intestinal blockages. Also prevent access to stereo speakers, and pipe insulation.
Prevent your ferret from burrowing into the bottom of furniture or mattresses by covering these areas with thin plywood or Plexiglas. Burrowing damages furniture and the ferret can develop an intestinal blockage from eating the foam rubber.
Remove potentially toxic or irritating substances such as, household cleaners, insecticides, or rodenticides.
Always double-check the dishwasher, refrigerator, clothes washer and dryer before shutting the door and turning them on.
Ferrets usually select a potty area by backing up to a vertical surface to relieve themselves but most can be litter-pan trained especially when started at a young age. The Lafeber Vet website recommends the following:
Place a low-sided pan in the cage corner that the ferret has already chosen as its latrine.
Place a second pan in the corner of the ferret-proofed exercise room.
Provide a thin layer of pelleted litter such as recycled newspaper products or natural fiber litters. that are cleaner and non-toxic if swallowed. Note that ferrets do not cover their waste so spot clean daily and change the litter several times a week to reduce odor. Several litter boxes may be needed if the ferret is allowed to exercise in larger areas of the home.
Ferrets love toys but don’t give them latex rubber or foam toys that could be ingested. Do provide tunnel-type toys like large cardboard mailing tubes, paper bags and PVC piping that stimulates burrowing behaviors. If the ferret does not chew cloth toys, offer them but do remove the toy’s buttons and eyes.
Ferrets may need toenail trimming if their nails become long and sharp, and can get caught in carpeting or cloth. Trimming can be performed by a groomer or veterinary technician who can teach the owner how to perform this task. Ferrets need bathing no more than 2 to 4 times a year. More frequent bathing actually increases the ferret’s naturally pungent odor and dries out its skin and coat.
Handling and managing behavior
Ferrets are usually easy to handle but they can bite when overly stimulated or frightened.
Don’t hold a ferret near your face if you are not familiar with its behavior because a bite could result.
Ferrets have poor eyesight. Don’t place it where it might fall from a high surface.
Ferrets play roughly with each other. As young “kits” they nip each other and it isn’t painful for them thanks to their thick skin and fur coat. Kits eventually outgrow this nipping stage but some adults may nip to get attention, a treat, or to show dominance. A young ferret should not be allowed to nip because this could encourage it to bite progressively harder. The Lafeber Vet website recommends the following method to correct this behavior:
Grasp the ferret by the loose scruff of fur over the neck.
Calmly “detatch” the ferret, say “no” firmly and clearly while looking into the ferret’s eyes.
Then divert the ferret’s attention elsewhere.
This procedure may need to be repeated several times before the ferret understands what is expected of him.
Another suggestion is to spray Bitter Apple on your hands before handling the ferret or on your socks and shoes to deter an “ankle biter.” Owners must never hit or flick at a ferret for nipping because this action may cause the ferret to bite out of fear.
I thank veterinarian Dr. Thomas Ryan of Feathers, Tails &Scales Animal Hospital for directing me to reliable sources of information for this topic.