Genus: Mustela .
Species: M. putorius.
Maintenance: Medium. Ferrets are not an easy pet to have, however they are not that hard to keep providing the human does the appropriate research and has an understanding on basic ferret husbandry.
The ferret is a small predatory mammal belonging to the Mustelidae family along with the otter, weasel, badger, marten, mink and the wolverine. The body of a ferret is long and slender with the average length being around 50cm including a 13cm tail. Their legs are short, making their bodies very close to the ground. They have 5 non- retractable claws on all four paws, which are perfect for digging and tunneling. The ferret’s body shape and short limbs enable it to chase its prey through small holes or burrows large enough for a rat. They could weigh anywhere between 0.7kg to 2kg on average.They are sexually dimorphic; Males are much larger in body size than the females.
An adult ferret has a total of 34 permanent adult teeth which consist of the incisors, canines, premolars, and molars. Kits, baby ferrets, have 30 teeth which should be in by 3 months of age and then replaced with adult teeth by 9 months of age. Each of these teeth plays a specific role in helping the ferret to catch and consume its prey. Read more about teeth here.
The ferret is a seasonally polyestrous species. Females reach puberty around the ages of 8-12 months and males around 6-8 months. Natural breeding seasons for ferrets in Australia is usually around September / December. Those in the northern hemisphere it is around March / August. Naturally, ferrets can have 1 to 2 litters in a year. Mill ferrets, such as Marshalls, are bred all year round by altering the light so that Jills are induced into
oestrus and can produce more frequently. Breeding ferrets is not recommended for the inexperienced pet owner.
Colours & Coats:
Ferrets can have two types of coats; The classic standard coat of short guard hairs and a thick undercoat and then the Angora coat who has long guard hairs, but lacks a proper under- coat. Normal standard coated ferrets will shed twice a year. Usually that is during spring and autumn as they prepare for winter and summer. Their winter coats are longer and fluffier compared to their short and sleek summer coats.
The standard colours are Sable & Albino, while other colours have been altered through breeding and are simply variations of Sable and Albino.
Common behaviour in all types of ferrets, is when a ferret is brought into a new environment, they will often test their surroundings regardless of what age they are.The younger the ferret, the more boisterous they are. Kits especially are known for being “hard to handle.” Like all children, they need love, patience and clear boundaries put in place.
- Weasel War Dance – A ferret may do this to express joy through jumping or hopping around sideways and backwards with an arched back, while shaking its head from side to side with its mouth open. Sometimes the ferret may be vocal during these amusing dances.
- Ferret Dead Sleep – A really freaky behaviour that scares the living daylights out of any ferret owner. A ferret that goes into a deep sleep to recuperate after a playing really hard. When a ferret is in a real FDS, you can shake them, yell or scream and they won’t wake up. It really appears like they are dead, but they are very much alive. Just completely out of it. They will come out of the sleep on their own. Really common among deaf ferrets.
- Digging – Digging is a natural behaviour for ferrets because they are burrowing and tunneling animals. Some ferrets enjoy digging in rice or sand boxes .
- Cage Bar Biting – Typically done by ferrets who are bored or frustrated from being cooped up in a small cage or been in a cage for a prolonged time. More common in kits. It can be very damaging to their canines.
- Cage rage – A frustrated or upset ferret will literally chuck a tantrum by digging at the cage floor, knocking over food / water bowls, dig and scatter their litter from the litter box, bite at cage bars, scratch at the cage door and anything that will get the human attention. When this behaviour occurs, it is best to cover the cage or leave the cage in darkness, walk out of the room and wait 5 to 10 minutes. Once the ferret calms down, return and let them out for a playtime. Never give in when they have a cage rage fit as they will associate it with getting their own way. “If I behave like this, human will let me out.”
- Nipping – Ferrets unfortunately are likely to “nip”, however they rarely bite unless they lack social skills or haven’t been handled by the breeder. It is common for first time ferret owners to confuse a bite with a nip, especially when young kits tend to nip a little hard. Rescue ferrets, or those who come from a bad past may also be very nippy or bite, and so should be left for experienced ferret owners. They really do get a bad name due to the fact that they “nip”, however they are no different to a cat or a dog in this case. All animals with teeth have capabilities of nipping/biting. Like other animals, ferrets explore and communicate with their mouths. It doesn’t mean they are out to hurt someone, they just don’t realise their own strength. Ferrets naturally have thick coats, and their humans have thin skin so it is up to us to help them understand.A majority of the time, they only wish to engage in play by nipping on the toes, or feet, or may nip to get the attention of the human. You cannot out train nipping behaviour, however you can teach ferrets to be softer when they play. Never put them in the cage whenever they nip. They will associate the nipping with getting a human to put them to bed. Instead do 2 minute time outs in a boring empty carrier. They have a short attention span, so longer than 5 minutes will not help to get them to understand that they were too rough. Other ways to combat the nipping would be to say “Be soft, no.” or ignore, walk away. They won’t like it since they want to play, but persistence with time out or ignoring will give them the idea that they get no play every time they get rough.
More info on nipping and biting here.
- Hissing – Ferrets hiss when they are upset or scared. Usually during two ferrets playing, if one was to get too rough, the other ferret would let them know through hissing. Deaf ferrets may be more vocal and may not necessarily mean that they are upset or scared.
- Stashing – Nothing is safe from a ferret. If they decide they like something, they take it and stash it away somewhere. From socks, to bath plugs, even a mobile phone or a teddy bear 50 x their size, ferrets will find a way to stash their favourite things. It’s also not uncommon for ferrets to attempt to stash their human (This is a huge compliment.)
- Tail Wagging – Ferrets don’t wag their tails all the time, however they do it sometimes and it is usually a sign that they are enjoying themselves. It’s also really melt-your-heart adorable.
- Dooking – A clucking vocalization ferrets do that normally indicate it’s happiness or joy. Snorkeling – A ferret dunking its head into water and swirling around in a circular motion. It’s a fun activity that some ferrets really enjoy. Putting some fresh prawn in a tub of water for them to snorkel for is a great activity to keep them cool during the aussie summer heat. Itchiness – Ferrets are itchy creatures and sometimes may randomly stop doing something to fall back and itch a spot. It doesn’t necessarily mean they have any skin conditions or fleas. It is more intense during shedding.
Australian Capital Territory, ferrets must be licensed. It is a good idea to contact the local council if you are interested in getting or keeping ferrets.
[I plan on adding some other info on legalities for my US and UK readers soon.]
Diet, Health & Common Diseases:
Despite the common misconception, ferrets are NOT rodents. They are not related to rats, or even rabbits. They are related to weasels, more closely to the polecat. Ferrets are not herbivores, they are not omnivores either. They are obligate carnivores (like cats), this means that they are strict meat eaters. They are designed to eat whole, small prey animals including: small to medium-sized mammals (Mice, Rats, Guinea Pig, etc), birds, eggs, frogs, crustaceans, fish, worms, and insects. It is biologically essential for obligate carnivores to consume a species appropriate diet in order for them to thrive and live a long healthy life.
Nutritional deficiencies and even food based allergies or Irritable Bowel Syndrome, seems common these days among ferrets fed kibble or unbalanced raw diets. Ferrets should be fed a balanced diet, with a variety of proteins for optimal health. They should not be fed any “Human Foods”, such as processed meats, or fruit and vegetable. Ferrets are lactose intolerant. They should not be fed any kind of milk. Goats milk should also be avoided as it contains around the same lactose content to that of cows milk. Lactose free milk should be avoided as well as it contains an enzyme called lactase. This enzyme splits the larger sugar molecule “lactose” into two smaller sugar groups “glucose” and “galactose”. That basically makes milk easier to digest and makes the sugar ready to digest beforehand. Sugar is linked to insulinoma, so this is not a smart idea.
The most common health issues ferrets may encounter are as followed:
- Aplastic Anemia: A common cause of death of unspayed, non-breeding Jills. Aplastic Anemia occurs when high levels of estrogen are produced during prolonged Oestrous cycle and it suppresses the production of red and white blood cells in the bone marrow. If not treated as soon as possible, the effects of Aplastic Anemia may be irreversible or even result in death.
- Anal Gland Impaction: In un-descented ferrets the opening of the anal gland is blocked or there is a bacterial infection has caused the glands to produce thick, turgid material that is difficult to pass. Cardiomyopathy: A condition that is usually seen in ferrets over the age of 3 and consists of either the thinning or thickening of the walls of the heart. This affects the blood flow to the heart.
- Blockages: Blockages happen when an object (rubber, plastic, fabric, even hair or fur) becomes lodged in the intestinal tract of the ferret. It then becomes a bowel obstruction: prevents any food or fluids from passing the blocked point. This is an emergency and can be life threatening.
- Cataracts: Ferret’s eye lens becomes cloudy or opaque. Usually it leads to blindness in ferrets, however ferret don’t seem all that bothered and adjust fine. Cataracts can be in one or both eyes and can be either due to injury, or hereditary. Some cataracts can be due to taurine deficiencies.
- Heat Stroke: Ferrets are unable to sweat and are unable to tolerate high temperatures. (over 25°C)
- Influenza: Ferrets can catch the flu from humans and vice versa. Ferrets have been a research model for the Influenza vaccine for humans.
- Distemper: Canine distemper is very contagious to ferrets and almost 100% fatal if they contract it. There is a vaccine for Distemper that can be done annually.
- E.C.E.(Epizootic Catarrhal Enteritis.) Virus:
Also known as the “green slime” virus. It is a highly contagious diarrheal virus that attacks the intestinal lining causing poor fluid and nutrient absorption which may result in extreme dehydration, anorexia, and sometimes death. Adrenal Disease: Tumors on the adrenal glands which are located in front of the kidneys and generally starts affecting ferrets over the age of 2.
- Insulinoma: Tumors of the pancreas that can cause excess secretion of insulin, thus lowering the blood glucose (sugar) level to a point that a ferret can become ill.
- Vaccine Reactions: Chances of a ferret having a reaction to a vaccine such as canine distemper are relatively low, however they do happen. Reactions can be quite serious, life threatening even.
Ferrets need around at least 7 hours or more per day to get out and play. The younger the ferret, or a single ferret, may require more time out of the cage compared to ferrets in larger “businesses” They love to play, so enriching them can be quite easy with things such as tunnels, sand or rice boxes, toys that make noises, roll across the ground, dangle above their heads, even the best toy of all which is the human.
When they don’t get out for a good amount of hours per day or have enough enriching activities to do, they may become bored, frustrated and upset. Ferret can adapt to human schedules, so finding the right play “times” should be fairly easy. Every time a ferret is out of the cage, the entire room(s) or area that the ferret has access to, should be ferret proofed. Removing any potential hazards is always best. Anything breakable should be put away and anything that may be a chew / blockage hazard should also be put out of ferret reach.
Ferrets should not be bathed often, if at all. Bathing strip the natural oils in the ferret’s skin, this causes their skin to produce more which may make the ferret seem oily and slightly smelly. Yearly check up at the vet is also recommended. Ferrets around senior age 6-7+ or ferrets with an illness such as Insulinoma may require 2 or more trips to the vet a year.
➤ Ferrets are crepuscular; active more during dawn/dusk. (This is when polecats tend to hunt, note that rabbits are also crepuscular.)
➤ Ferrets are the third most popular pet in the US.
➤ They are not naturally occuring in the wild.
➤ Feral ferrets in NZ are most likely Ferret/Polecat hybrids.
➤ Ferrets have poor eyesight, but a really good sense of smell (relates to being naturally crepuscular.)
➤ They can be litter trained but may not be too great. Accidents happen due to their fast digestive tract so have many pans or litter pads around.
➤ Ferrets have short attention spans, so any form of training should be kept to 1-2 minutes at a time. (This includes time outs in carriers, maximum of 2 minutes at any given time for best results.)
➤ Ferrets are well known hoarders. Anything that catches their interest will be taken and hidden in a pile somewhere.
- References & Further Reading:
- Biology and Diseases of the Ferret, 3rd Edition James G. Fox (Editor), Robert P. Marini (Editor)
- A TAO FULL OF DETOURS The Behavior of the Domestic Ferret 2nd Edition, Revised and Expanded By F. Shimbo.