Ferrets are fascinating creatures that have moved their way into more than 395,000 American households over the past several years according to a recent study by the American Veterinary Medical Association. Popular because of their small size, their playfulness, and their friendly disposition, ferrets can be great companions. They do however require a lot of care and supervised attention.
Members of the Mustelidae family, ferrets are related to minks, polecats, weasels, and otters. It is believed that ferrets were domesticated 2,000 years ago in Europe when they were used for hunting small game or controlling rodents. Domestic ferrets should not be confused with the North American black-footed ferret, which is an endangered species.
Choosing a Ferret
Ferrets are very dependent upon their human companions for survival. Because ferrets require continuous care and supervision, potential owners should evaluate their ability to commit. The commitment is long term since the lifespan of ferrets is six to 10 years.
Ferrets may not be the best pet for families with small children. Although ferrets are very social animals, they may bite or nip if mishandled. Never leave a ferret and a small child alone together. Ferrets generally get along with dogs and cats if they are introduced carefully, but they should not interact with birds, rodents, or small reptiles.
When selecting a ferret from a shelter, a pet store or a breeder, choose one that is bright-eyed and alert. The presence of crusty eyes or nasal discharge that is full of mucus indicate illness. If you handle a sick ferret, be sure to wash your hands thoroughly so as not to infect yourself or the next batch of animals.
Whether you select a male ferret, known as a hob, or a female, known as a jill, you should get a spayed/neutered ferret. Breeding is not recommended. Most ferrets from farms or pet stores will already be altered. If not, it is best to have the ferret altered at the age of six months. Neutering is a must for jills because they can develop aplastic anemia when in heat if they aren’t breed. The result could be death. Altering a ferret may actually improve its disposition since it will not be as aggressive or territorial.
Descenting a ferret helps reduce the animal’s musky body odor. This surgery can be performed at the same time as spaying or neutering.
Ferrets are carnivores and therefore require a high meat protein diet. Quality cat or kitten foods may be used or specialty ferret foods are recommended. Water is needed at all times, and is best served in a bottle since ferrets may enjoy playing with water in a bowl. Food should be available at all times. Fruits and vegetables may be used as treats on occasion.
Bathing is recommended once or twice a month and can be used to relieve itching due to dry skin or fleas. Never dip a ferret. Bath water should be warm but not uncomfortable to human hands. There are several ferret shampoos on the market. Begin behind the neck and lather up onto the top of the head and under the chin. Be careful not to get water in the ferret’s eyes or nose. Shampoo the ears massaging the suds in before moving on to the rest of the body. General ear cleaning to remove wax build-up may need to be done weekly or monthly with an ear wash depending on the ferret. It is also important to check for ear mites on a regular basis. Symptoms include a coffee-grind type of discharge and as well as scratching at the ears and head. After rinsing, rub the ferret dry with a towel. A cream rinse or conditioner can also be used. Blow drying is not necessary since ferrets will dry on their own within ten minutes.
Nail trimming is recommended at least every other week. If left unattended, a ferret’s nails will splinter, get caught in bedding, in carpet, or on cage wire and be pulled out. Nail clippers or cat claw trimmers will work fine. Trim nails to within an eighth or sixteenth of an inch of the quick, the pink part of the nail. A drop of Linatone, a vitamin supplement, may be used as a treat to hold a ferret still while trimming.
Ferrets should also have dental care. Have a vet check for possible cavities, excessive plaque or tartar build-up.Home cleaning can be done with a cloth and baking soda. Do not use human toothpaste. Your veterinarian can supply you with finger brushes and flavored, digestible pastes that may make brushing an easier task.
Ferrets require a lot of freedom and exercise, but should be caged when not directly supervised. A clean cage will help make maintenance of your ferret easier. Wire cages are best and should be a minimum of two ft. x two ft. x 14 inches for one ferret provided the ferret has plenty of play time outside the cage. For multiple ferrets or if playtime is limited, a larger cage is better. Spacing on the bars must be such that the ferret can’t escape. A blanket or towel will serve as a comfortable place for your ferret to curl up and sleep while a litter pan placed in one corner will serve as a relief area. The cage may be kept indoors or outdoors. If kept outside, shade should be provided to avoid heat exhaustion. Supplemental heat is needed if temperatures fall below the freezing point. Inside the house ferrets should be caged when not directly supervised. Owners should "ferret proof" at least one room in the house for play time. Eliminate loose boards, open drains or air ducts or other holes that ferrets will investigate.
Exercise and Play
Ferrets will jump, run around, slide, do somersaults and play games. They are very curious and like to investigate just about everything. The best toys for ferrets are those made of hard plastic. Don’t give them anything that can be pulled apart when chewed. Ferrets may nip or grab onto people with their teeth during play. A loud, firm "NO" is the best disciplinary action. You may also try making a noise maker out of an aluminum can and coins. The rattling noise is disturbing and, combined with the "NO" can be used to correct negative behavior.
Vaccinations and Routine Care
Ferrets like dogs and cats are susceptible to rabies and should be vaccinated. They should also be vaccinated for canine distemper virus which can be fatal. Consult your veterinarian for recommended schedules. Ferrets are not immune to health problems, and should receive regular preventative health care through regular check-ups.
This information was compiled by AAHA from materials supplied by the Shelters That Adopt and Rescue Ferrets, The Humane Society of the United States, Ferret Adoption, Information and Rescue, the Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine, and Dr. Merry Crimi, an AAHA member veterinarian.