You are walking by the petstore, or perhaps buying food for your existing companions – when you come across these absolutely adorable baby ferrets – each about 7 inches long, all wiggly and playful and you are tempted to buy one. But before you buy, you wonder what kind of pet that might be?
Welcome to the world of ferrets…..a tangled thievery of mustelids, more fun than you could imagine and sometimes the most frustrating place to be!
But first – a little history: ferrets are mustelids or in the family Mustela – along with otters, mink, badgers, weasels, stoats, polecats and skunks (somewhat in dispute – some zoologists since 1997 are placing skunks in their own family – Mephitidae). They look a lot like the European polecat, and are similar in size. Female ferrets are jills, males are hobs, and babies are kits. Ferrets have been domesticated since the times of Ancient Greece, and serve similar roles today that they did 2,000 years ago – as hunters and companions.
Ferrets have served many purposes since then: They were used in harnesses to run video cabling for the Wedding of Princess Diana and Prince Charles; they were used in World War II in the United States to run wire in airplane wings; they serve as hunting companions and valuable hunting partners in the control of rabbits and vermin in the United Kingdom and Europe; they controlled rats in sailing ships as they came to the United States; and finally, as a beloved pet.
Ferrets are active, inquisitive and intelligent pets. They require training like all pets – but for the most part are easily trained to use a litter box (in their cages and out), walk on a leash, do tricks like sitting up, begging and rolling over, to recognize their names and come when called. Things that are not easily trained *not* to do are – digging in plants, digging at the carpet in doorways, stealing and hiding everything that isn’t nailed down – truly, ‘little thieves’.
There is some dispute as to whether ferrets can live indoors or outdoors – but a lot depends on the environment and location. In the United States, heartworm disease is common and requires daily treatment as a preventative. Other dangers are exposure to disease like rabies and distemper; other predators, temperature and being ignored. The only ferrets reported to contract rabies (Centers for Disease Control) in the last 8 years were all kept outside or stray. This is not to say that anyone keeping a ferret outdoors is a bad owner – there are many that have safe homes and enclosures and the ferrets are healthy and happy. I personally like my ferrets in the house with me – I can interact with them easier, there is less of a chance of being hurt by another animal and the risk of exposure to disease is lessened. Ferrets do not easily tolerate high temperatures (above 80 degrees Fahrenheit) and can put your ferret at risk for heat exhaustion/stroke. Ferrets do not sweat and panting is an extremely inefficient manner of cooling the body.
So now you have decided where your ferret will live – and now you need to purchase a cage. Again, some dispute whether or not ferrets need to be kept in cages and should instead have free roam like a cat – but it is a rare ferret that is 100% in using the litter box when not in a confined space. In the case of an emergency, knowing exactly where your pet is located might also save his life. If you do decide to keep them in a cage, the smallest recommended size is 2′ L x 18″ W x 2′ H – and usually is multi storied – but in this case, bigger is better! Once you have a cage, its always a good idea to cover the wire with something – self stick linoleum tiles, carpet sample pieces – all can be cut to fit and secured in place. Covering the ramps is also a good idea.
Your ferret will need a food bowl, water bottle, litter box and hammock/sleeping area. I highly recommend securely fastening the water bottle and food bowl to the cage in some way. Water bottles are preferred over bowls, since most ferrets consider a water bowl a play toy – to push around with their feet or nose, dig in and generally make a big mess! Most hanging water bottles work just fine – and there are many varieties of secured food bowls – stainless steel bird bowls or croc-loc bowls and are available. Hammocks, especially those that the ferrets can crawl inside, are very popular with ferrets. So are ‘sleep sacks’ or hanging tubes – available commercially, but also rather inexpensive to make. Setting up multiple hammocks or having more than one ferret often results in strange sleeping positions!
Ferrets are a pretty low maintenance animal – they need their nails trimmed regularly (about every 3 weeks) and ears kept free of debris. Look for the vein in the nail (the quick) and trim about 1/8″ from it. Baths are rare, about 3-4 times per year. Bathing too often produces too much oil in the coat – and causes the ferret to smell! Teeth can be brushed on a weekly basis with a finger brush and they seem to like the cat malt-flavored toothpaste. Flea treatments as needed – use only shampoos and sprays suitable for kittens or ferrets. Advantage and Frontline are two long-term flea treatments that can also be used to control fleas.
Once the cage is set up, time to decide on a food to feed – and there are many choices – from ferret to high quality kitten foods. Its up to you and your ferret to decide – but look for some statistics: The food should be at least 32% protein, 18% fat, less than 4% fiber. The protein should be meat-based, as ferrets are obligate carnivores and have trouble digesting fiber, so some of the cheaper foods will base their proteins on corn and rice. At least the first two ingredients should be meat. Some foods are fish based, and while good, have a stronger odor and produce smellier feces. Food and water should be readily available at all times.
Treats – you have to have treats – if for nothing else to help with training! Acceptable treats are Ferretone, ferret treats, dog biscuits, raisins, grapes, small pieces of meat. Avoid sweet or high fiber treats like sugared cereals, candy or vegetables. Remember that treats are just that – and shouldn’t make up a significant portion of the diet!
A vet is your next step – kits need a series of distemper shots — at 6, 9 and 12 weeks. The only USDA approved vaccine for distemper for ferrets is Fervac-D. Ferrets must have protection against canine distemper – they are highly susceptible and it’s always fatal. A rabies shot can be given as early as 14 weeks, and the vaccine is known as Imrab-3. Because of a possibility of reaction, I recommend separating the distemper and rabies shots by 2 weeks and to stay at the vets a minimum of 30 minutes after any vaccination. Heartworm treatment can also begin at 3 months of age. Research the vet – make sure that he/she has experience dealing with ferrets, not just relying on cat/dog information – this can be deadly to your ferret.
Now for playtime – the joy of a ferret. Toys can be as simple as a paper bag or box, or as complicated as mazes and houses built ferret-sized. Tubing, particularly the clear plastic dryer tubing with a 4″ circumference, is a playtoy of choice – its safe, and they will play for hours. empty film containers filled with dry rice or beans will also amuse for hours. A remote controlled car (under supervision) allows them to chase and mock attack the moving object. Cat fishing toys, cat toys with bells or shakers inside are favorites – your imagination and wallet are the only limits! Toys that should be avoided are any that are made of latex, or have parts that can be chewed and swallowed.
Ferrets have a unique method of playing – called the ‘weasel war dance’. If you are not familiar with this dance, it may startle you. They jump stiff-legged up and down and side to side, running into many fixed objects, often with tail bottle brushed, mouth open and making noises (hissing or dooking – pronounced like duke) leads many to believe that the ferret is being aggressive – but its only an invitation to play!
There are dangers to ferrets that must be addressed and we call it ‘ferret proofing’ – this is going through your house and locating possible places that your ferret can get to where they could be hurt. Recliners top the list – ferrets can get inside the mechanisms and be crushed by the unwary owner. Dishwashers and washer/dryers are another dangerous place – *always* check to make sure your ferret isn’t inside or hiding/sleeping in clothing before starting! The kitchen area in general, if at all possible, should be blocked to prevent your ferret from entering.
Look under your cabinets – both in the bathroom and kitchen – does the kick panel on the bottom of the cabinet have an opening? Yes, you guessed it – the ferret can fit under and be impossible to find. Under your bed – do you have a traditional mattress and boxspring? Your ferret can shred the felt and get inside. Waterbed – well, they can nibble on the bladder and now you have a hole! Go from room to room, starting with the ferrets’ living area and examine it. Bathrooms are another potential problem – toilets — ferrets can jump up to the seat and fall in. Plants – ferrets love them – to dig in them, at least! Are the plants poisonous? You can ferret proof your plants by placing an inch or two of decorative rocks in the pot, or placing screening along the top of the soil. Remote controls? Ferrets love to steal things and they will steal most anything – from remotes to shoes, wallets to toys, socks to bowls, but mostly your heart. Be careful with anything made of soft rubber or foam – blockages are an expensive way to find out that what a ferret can swallow they can’t always pass. Do you want to protect your carpet? Ferrets are natural diggers and will dig your carpet down to the padding, if you are not careful. Protecting the carpet by adding another layer is better than trying to convince your ferret to stop.
Ferrets are fun to own, and they give you a precious gift – they can always make you smile, with their antics and behaviors. Unlike puppies or kittens that “grow up’, ferrets retain a kitten- or puppy- like nature most of their lives. As they age, they do slow down, but for the most part are ready to play and run in a moment’s notice. The average lifespan of a ferret is between 7 and 10 years, so prepare for a long term commitment. Happy Ferreting!