Ferreting Out Good Husbandry
The scientific name for a ferret is Mustela putorious furo, which translates to “mouse-eating smelly thief.” This is a fairly apt description of the domestic ferret — a musky scented, mischievous carnivore.
Ferrets are lively, curious animals, and have also been described as “perpetual kittens. Because of these qualities, they can make entertaining, interactive pets.
They are also excellent at getting into trouble,
and require significant interaction and attention.
Ferrets typically live between six and ten years. They are members of the Mustelidae family, and are related to weasels, minks, and stoats. Most ferrets in the United States are already spayed or neutered when they are sold, and are typically descented as well. Descenting is a surgical procedure in which the anal sacs are removed. This decreases their scent, however; a significant portion of their characteristic odor is due to sebaceous glands throughout the skin. Therefore, ferrets will always have a recognizable smell. For many ferret owners, this is not offensive, but it is important to recognize prior to obtaining a ferret.
Even if they spend a significant amount of time out in the house, ferrets should have a cage to use as a home base. Due to their insatiable curiosity and strong drive to chew, they should be confined when not supervised.
And since ferrets typically sleep fourteen to eighteen hours a day, confinement is not particularly onerous for part of the day. There are many excellent commercial cages available.
At a minimum, one or two ferrets should have a cage at least 24 by 24 by 18 inches. Bigger is better!
Multi-level cages also give additional opportunities for climbing and stimulation.
An ideal cage should have a solid bottom, as opposed to wire. Aquariums should be avoided, as they do not have sufficient ventilation.
The cage should also not have any openings bigger than about one by two inches, as ferrets are excellent escape artists.
Anywhere a ferret’s head can fit, his body can follow!
Ferrets are typically comfortable at similar temperatures to humans. The cage should be placed in an area free from drafts, excessive moistures, or direct sunlight. Ferrets also appreciate having a dark, enclosed sleeping are, such as a hide box, sleep sack, or hammock. The floor can be covered in fleeces or blankets as bedding material, although some owners prefer wood shavings. If shavings are used, avoid cedar or pine, as the aromatic oils present can cause respiratory issues. Instead, opt for aspen, or even better, recycled newspaper bedding.
Many ferrets can be successfully litterbox trained. They tend to instinctively eliminate in corners of the enclosure, so placing a litter pan in the corner is ideal. Use a low pan, with sides about three to five inches high, with pelleted litter.
While many ferrets will use the box in their cage, they may require additional training in order to decrease accidents while out of the cage.
Regardless of the size of the cage or enclosure, ferrets require at least two hours a day of exercise.
This means being allowed to roam outside of the cage in a “ferret-proofed” area. Small openings in the room should be sealed with mesh or wood. The bottoms of chairs, couches, or mattresses may also need to be covered with a thin layer of wood to prevent the ferret from burrowing inside them. Ferrets should not be allowed to play in a room with a recliner, as they can become crushed if caught in the mechanism of the chair.
Additionally, items that could be chewed or swallowed should be removed, especially if made of foam, latex, or rubber (such as electrical cords, insulation, rubber bands, or shoes).
If a ferret has been out in the house,
be sure to double check the washing machine or dryer before turning it on, and close toilet seats. Ferrets have an amazing ability to get into areas that they shouldn’t!
Ferrets can enjoy a wide range of toys. Tunnels, such as cardboard or PVC tubes, are usually a hit.
Choose toys that are difficult to destroy, such as hard plastic, and too large to swallow. Some ferrets can enjoy cloth or fabric toys, while others may be likely to ingest portions.
When not playing or sleeping, ferrets can usually eating. They are obligate carnivores, and have very limited ability to digest carbohydrates or fiber. An ideal ferret diet contains about 30-35% protein and 15-20% fat. There are several well balanced ferret specific commercial diets available, typically in a pelleted format. Their diet can also be supplemented with a high quality canned cat food. Avoid feeding sweets or starches. Although ferrets seem to have a sweet tooth, these types of food are not appropriate for their digestive tract.
Small amounts of cooked meat can be offered as treats. Some ferrets owners feed a whole prey diet, such as entire mice or chicks. While this replicates a ferret’s natural diet very closely, it can also increase the risk of certain foodborne illnesses, such as Salmonella and Campylobacter. In order to provide additional enrichment with a more traditional diet, owners can hide food in different areas of the cage or inside toys.
A ferret’s natural prey drive can also cause some behavior issues. Although most ferrets are gentle and easily handled, they can become biters if not appropriately trained. Most ferrets will begin play biting when very young. If they are not redirected, this can become a problem towards humans. If a young ferret starts to nip, respond with a sharp sound or “no!”, then divert their attention to something else, such as a toy. If the behavior persists, the handling session should be stopped, and the ferret may be temporarily placed in a time out zone, such as a carrier with no toys. They will learn that aggressive behavior results in decreased social interaction. Ferrets should never be physically punished, as this is likely to lead to fear aggression. Additionally, rough play with humans (such as play biting and tug of war) should be avoided.
Ferrets require very little in the way of grooming. Most will need the occasional toenail trim, but not much besides that. They should not be bathed more than two to four times a year, as excessive bathing can cause dry skin.
Additionally, bathing does little or nothing to change a ferret’s musky odor. Changing their bedding more frequently is likely to produce a better response, as their skin oils become deposited on it.
It is also important for ferrets to receive regular veterinary care. They should be vaccinated for both rabies and canine distemper. In areas where heartworm is endemic, ferrets that go outside should also receive heartworm prevention.
Even an apparently healthy, regularly vaccinated ferret should have at least a yearly physical. Ferrets are susceptible to many diseases, such as certain types of cancer and endocrine disorder, and prompt veterinary care can be life saving. With appropriate care and husbandry, owners can look forward to many years of watching ferret hijinks!
Pollock, C. (2014, February 19). Care of the Pet Ferret. Retrieved from https://lafeber.com/vet/wp-content/uploads/Ferret-Care-of-the.pdf
Quesenberry, K. (2012). Ferrets, rabbits and rodents: Clinical medicine and surgery. St Louis, MO: Elsevier Saunders.