Ferrets are members of the weasel family that have been domesticated for over 2000 years. They are highly intelligent and social pets and, even though they seem just like a small, easy to care for a pocket pet, they are a big responsibility and often require just as much care as a cat or dog, if not more!
Ferrets live an average lifespan of 5-7 years, however, the current record for the oldest ferret is 14 years old! They are very curious little creatures. Because they are social animals, if you are going to adopt a ferret, please consider taking in a pair so they will never be lonely. It is recommended to avoid adopting a ferret if you have small children in the home. They are very fragile animals and can be easily injured if handled inappropriately or dropped.
Like a cat, they love to nap and usually sleep up to 20 hours a day. When they are awake, however, they are very active and playful pets! They love to bounce around and invite you to play with them. If you start bouncing around with them, this will often make them happy. They love crawling through just about anything, including cardboard boxes, PVC piping, clothes dryer hoses, paper bags, and even pant legs or long shirt sleeves. They tend to play rough and will often playfully nip in the beginning, so it is important to teach them not to.
Even though ferrets are naturally clean animals, they are very well known for their musky odour. No matter how many times you bathe a ferret, the odour will never completely go away. This scent is much worse in unneutered ferrets, but luckily almost all of the domestic ferrets in North America are neutered at the time of weaning, so we don’t really have to worry about this.
They also have a pair of anal glands similar to cats and dogs, with very strong-smelling secretions. They rarely express these anal glands unless very scared and the scent often goes away after a few minutes. Again, most ferrets you find around here have already had these glands surgically removed, so you only have to deal with a mild musky odour from the oils in the skin.
Bathing should be kept to a minimum – at most, once or twice a month. Bathing a ferret will strip its skin and coat of all of the natural (mildly stinky) oils, which will cause the body to overcompensate and keep producing more and more. Basically, over-bathing a ferret can cause its odour to get even worse. They usually do a pretty good job of cleaning themselves much like a cat. If you give them a bowl of water, they will use it to clean their face. Bathing is, however, good for relieving itchiness caused by fleas or dry skin. If you are going to bathe a ferret, make sure you use pet-friendly shampoo and warm bath water.
Ferrets, like cats, are obligate carnivores. This means they absolutely require meat in their diet. A ferret-appropriate diet should have a high level of fat as its main source of calories, and also be rich in highly digestible meat-based protein. Vegetable protein is poorly digested by ferrets, and can actually lead to certain medical issues, such as bladder stones, skin diseases, GI disease and poor growth. It is also important to note that ferrets cannot digest fibre, so high levels of grains should also be avoided when choosing a diet for your new pet.
The absolute best diet for a ferret is whole prey foods, such as mice and rats, similar to a snake. Understandably, many owners may not feel comfortable feeding that to their pet, so the next best option would be either a specialized ferret diet made specifically for their nutritional requirements or a high-quality kitten food you would find at a vet clinic. If you do buy a special ferret diet, make sure to check the ingredient list that it is appropriate and isn’t fish based. They need the best quality nutrients because they have a very short GI tract and simple gut bacteria, or “flora”, so there are only 3-4 hours for their body to digest their food and absorb its nutrients.
If you want to give your ferret a treat, the best option would be a small piece of high-quality meat, such as chicken or turkey. Avoid the ferret-specific treats on the market, because most of them have no meat in them at all, but rather mostly grains and sweeteners. Feeding this to a ferret can be quite dangerous to their health. Even though they may like the taste of sweet foods like fruits, it is best not to feed them those as treats either.
It is a very good idea to allow your ferret to experience a variety of different foods at an early age so they become accustomed to different flavours and diets. If you change food or flavours abruptly with an adult ferret, that could potentially make them sick.
If ferrets are being fed an appropriate high-quality diet, they likely won’t require any supplements other than maybe a fatty acid supplement to help with dry coat and flaky skin.
Fresh water should be available to your ferret at all times and changed regularly.
Ferret cages should be a minimum of 18 x 18 x 30 inches and have two or more levels with stairs or ramps they can climb. Wire cages work best. Avoid using aquariums as they have very poor ventilation. The cage should have very small gaps and a secured latch to prevent them from escaping – you would be surprised how small of an opening they can squeeze through! The floor should be covered in washable carpet, linoleum flooring, etc. as the wires can hurt their little feet. For flooring, avoid using newspaper (will turn their feet black), wood flooring (difficult to disinfect) and cedar or pine chips (may cause respiratory issues, holds in bad odors).
You should provide your ferrets with hammocks or shelves to perch on, as well as some sort of dark enclosure they can nest in. Bedding, such as towels or blankets, should be washed often. As for toys, stick to the ones that encourage the ferret’s need to burrow or hunt. As previously mentioned, they love items they can tunnel through. For the hunting aspect, they enjoy playing with small balls, feather cat toys, or small cloth baby toys. Avoid foam or latex rubber toys as they will likely chew on them and swallow some, causing a GI obstruction.
Ferrets need exercise and mental enrichment and therefore should not be caged 24 hours a day. They should always be supervised when outside of their cage. The areas you allow your ferret to explore should be very strictly “ferret-proofed”. For example, you should make sure they can not reach any electrical wires, dangerous substances or breakable items. Cover any gaps they can fit through, such as under doors, windows and dryer vents. They have been known to escape the house this way. Check all clothing before purring in the washing machine. Check the dishwasher before turning it on. Make sure you know where the ferret is before reclining a chair’s foot rest.
Ferrets can be litter box trained! You should provide them with several litter boxes – one in the cage and multiple boxes in their playing area. They should always have a box, pee pad or newspaper close by because, as mentioned under “DIET”, they have a short GI tract and therefore cannot hold it in very long. They like it in the corner of the room the best. Do not use clumping cat litter, but instead pelleted litter products, such as Yesterday’s News, or even shredded paper. They don’t cover their messes like a cat does, so you will have to scoop their litter boxes more often.
Ferrets should be kept away from direct sunlight. A cool, shaded area is best. Hot weather can be a worry, so if you know the temperature is above 27C, be sure to check on the ferret often and point a fan at the cage if possible.
Just like with every other pet, ferrets have their own set of potential health issues and should be examined by a vet regularly. The exact recommendations are annual check-ups up until 5 years of age, and then every 6 months after that. Vaccines are highly recommended, specifically for rabies and distemper. They are also at a pretty high risk for fleas and should always be treated with a monthly preventive. Speak to your veterinarian about the best choice for your ferret.
It is very important for ferrets to be spayed and neutered before reaching sexual maturity, which can be anytime between 6-12 months. This is especially crucial for females because once they are in heat, they stay in heat until mated, which can lead to a few different fatal conditions like pyometra and aplastic anemia. Fortunately, as mentioned earlier, almost all ferrets you find in North America have already been altered at a young age.
It’s also important to note that their ears tend to get quite waxy and they would benefit from a regular ear cleaning every two weeks to a month. Make sure you use pet-friendly ear cleaner. It is also recommended to regularly trim your ferret’s nails every couple of weeks at least, as they can get quite long and sharp and potentially get caught in bedding, carpet, etc. and cause injury. You should ask a veterinarian to show you the proper way to clean your ferret’s ears and trim its nails to prevent any unintentional damage or harm.
Some of the most common conditions we see in ferrets include physical injury, adrenal disease, insulinoma (or pancreatic cancer), skin tumors, human influenza, foreign bodies (or blockages) in the stomach or intestines, epizootic catarrhal enteritis (or “green slime disease”), heart disease, Aleutian disease, and other cancers. If you are concerned your ferret may have a medical condition or would like to learn more about the ones I listed, please call your veterinarian (don’t trust Dr. Google!).
Written by Stephanie, RVT