The ferret has been domesticated for over 2000 years. It was originally used for pest control and hunting in Europe (the polecat). They are members of the weasel family (Mustelidae), which includes skunks, otters, mink, weasels, and badgers.
Ferret coats have several different color patterns. The fitch or sable ferret is the most popular. Fitch ferrets have a buff-colored coat with black markings on the face, feet, and tails. Albino ferrets are white with pink eyes. Some ferrets have a buff coat with light markings. Other types and color variations include the silver mitt, Siamese, cinnamon, panda, black-eyed white, blaze, and butterscotch.
The female ferret is called a jill, the male is a hob, and the infants are called kits. Like puppies and kittens, kits are born deaf and with their eyes closed. They begin walking by about three weeks of age, which is also when their eyes and ears open. At about six weeks of age, they can be weaned onto ferret food.
Ferrets are true carnivores and the best diet for a pet is commercial ferret food (see “Ferrets – Feeding” handout for more information).
The average life span is five to eight years, though ferrets are considered geriatric pets at three to four years of age.
What are ferrets like as pets?
Ferrets are generally good-natured, inquisitive, playful animals that enjoy the company of humans. They can make great pets and can easily learn to use a litter box. As with all animals, socialization is important. If not properly trained, they can be aggressive and nippy. Check with your veterinarian prior to purchasing a ferret if you have small children.
"Due to their curious nature, ferrets are great escape artists."
Due to their curious nature, ferrets are great escape artists. All holes, no matter how small, leading to inaccessible areas MUST be blocked off to prevent escape or injury. If a ferret can put his head into it, his body will fit, too. Ferrets will burrow into the foam of couches, chairs, and mattresses, and climb into the back of stereo speakers, closets, and drawers. These areas should be blocked or sealed off with thin plywood or hardware cloth.
Ferrets love to chew, so ALL FOAM, PLASTIC, and RUBBER objects MUST be kept out of harm's way, including shoe inserts, earplugs, children or pet toys, erasers, rubber bands, balloons, speaker foam, headphone foam, swim goggle liners, etc. If a ferret does swallow one of these materials or objects, it can cause a gastrointestinal obstruction (blockage), which may require surgery to remove or, in prolonged cases, cause the death of the ferret.
Some people have their ferret wear a collar with a bell so that it can be easily found if it escapes their sight (make sure the bell is firmly secured to the collar and, in case it detaches, it cannot be swallowed.)
Should pet ferrets be spayed or neutered?
Ferrets are usually spayed or neutered and de-scented prior to purchase. Unless you want to breed your prospective pet, surgical sterilization is highly recommended. Intact (un-neutered) male ferrets have a STRONG musky odor, and they can be more aggressive. Once female ferrets reach sexual maturity, they will remain in estrus (heat), unless bred. This prolonged heat may result in bone marrow suppression from high levels of estrogen. If this condition is not treated early and aggressively, it can be fatal (see "Ferrets - Reproductive Disease" handout for more information).
What is de-scenting in ferrets?
The anal sacs (anal glands) of ferrets secrete a foul-smelling, musky liquid. De-scented ferrets (who have had these sacs removed) make more aesthetically appealing pets. Even after de-scenting, ferrets still have a slightly musky odor. You can bathe your ferret weekly or every other week, using a gentle moisturizing shampoo as recommended by your veterinarian.
"You can bathe your ferret weekly or every other week, using a gentle moisturizing shampoo..."
Selecting Your Pet Ferret
In some municipalities, it is illegal to own a pet ferret due to the potential for attacks on people (specifically young children, as ferrets can be aggressive and nippy) and due to the chance of escaped ferrets becoming established in the wild. If ferret ownership is legal in your area, one can be purchased from a pet store or a breeder, or adopted from an animal rescue.
Ideally, you should purchase a young ferret because it will adapt more readily to its new home. The eyes and nose should be clear and free of any discharge that might indicate distemper or respiratory infection. The ferret should be curious and inquisitive. It should not be thin or emaciated. Check for the presence of wetness around the anus, which might indicate diarrhea. Check for the presence of external parasites, such as fleas. If possible, examine the ferret's mouth for broken teeth, discolored gums (they should be light pink), or any obvious sores around the mouth, any of which could suggest disease. Inquire as to whether the ferret has been spayed/neutered and de-scented.
Your ferret should be examined by a veterinarian within 48 hours of purchase or adoption (this is often required by the seller, or the guarantee is voided). At this visit, your veterinarian will discuss proper diet, housing, and enrichment for your ferret. Your veterinarian may check your ferret’s ears for ear mites. A fecal sample should be checked for worms and other intestinal parasites. Your ferret may be started on heartworm preventative, depending on risk factors.
Just like dogs and cats, ferrets require a series of vaccinations as youngsters. Ferrets are usually vaccinated against canine distemper at 8, 12, and 16 weeks of age. There is also an approved vaccine for rabies in ferrets. Depending on local municipal laws, rabies vaccination may be mandatory.
"At least once per year, your ferret will require a veterinary examination, a fecal test for internal parasites, and booster vaccinations."
At least once per year, your ferret will require a veterinary examination, a fecal test for internal parasites, and booster vaccinations. For ferrets three years of age and older, a complete geriatric workup, which includes an EKG, urinalysis, blood testing, and radiographs (X-rays), is highly recommended on at least an annual basis. This will allow for the early detection of diseases commonly seen in older ferrets, such as cardiomyopathy, hypoglycemia, and cancer.
What else should I know about keeping a pet ferret?
Ferrets are very susceptible to hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). For this reason, they are only fasted for a few hours (rather than overnight) prior to surgery or blood sampling. They are also very susceptible to heatstroke. Their environmental temperature must be kept below 90oF (32oC). Keeping ferrets outdoors during the summer months may expose them to dangerously high temperatures. This also exposes them to mosquitos that may transmit heartworms to your ferret.
Ferrets should have their sharp claws trimmed regularly. Your veterinarian can teach you how to do this safely. Ferrets should never be declawed.