The ferret boasts a long history as a companion and even a working animal, observed all the way back to Genghis Khan and beyond. Despite centuries of partnership, a ferret remains one of the most challenging pets to live with and adopting one warrants serious consideration. The masked, whiskered face and inquisitive nature are endearing to pet owners worldwide. But is this fun and furry member of the weasel family right for you?
There is no information about who first concocted the idea to tame ferrets, but they are mentioned as far back as 450 BC, through Aristophanes and then later Aristotle.
The sport of hunting with ferrets is known, not surprisingly, as “ferreting.” The frisky and fierce little creatures would chase a burrowing rabbit underground or through the thickest brush, flushing out the prey so that a trained falcon could swoop down and grab it. This combination of falconry and ferreting was popular in the Middle Ages. However, the practice of using ferrets to find game extends even further back.
Historians say that around 200 AD, ferrets helped control a rabbit plague in the Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean. The history of ferrets extends throughout Europe as well as Asia. In 1221, the great conqueror Genghis Khan hunted with ferrets. German emperor Frederick II used them in 1245.
When not working in the fields, ferrets commonly were found romping underfoot in castles and dining halls, entertaining guests with their antics. They offered the added benefit of controlling mice and rats. They were the adored pets of royalty, and ladies would carry them around in the sleeves of their gowns. Queen Elizabeth I even had her portrait painted with a beloved ferret.
In America, the black-footed ferret remains on the endangered species list, after being reintroduced to the wild in 1991. It is a close relative of the domestic ferret and similar in appearance. However, it is a different species from the European-bred ferrets kept as pets.
Adopting a Ferret
A ferret typically lives 5 to 10 years, so adopting a young one requires commitment. Ferrets must be raised with great care and consistent training, as some are inclined to bite if they are not handled correctly. They are not considered the best pet for small children. No small child should ever be left alone with a ferret.
When adopting a ferret, select one that is alert and has bright eyes. Look for any nasal discharge. If this is your first ferret, try to find a reputable breeder who will spend plenty of time giving you help and suggestions for a successful and happy life together.
Everyone loves a baby, but young ferrets come with their own unique challenges. They must be rigorously socialized and fed the correct diet. It is best to leave this handling to experts and to adopt one that is already sterilized and well on its way to good citizenship. Young ferrets who are handled correctly are less prone to bite and make better pets.
A baby ferret will require a distemper vaccination at 8 weeks and then a booster a few months later. An annual immunization follows every year after that.
A male ferret is called a hob, and a female is called a jill. When adopting a ferret, choose one that is spayed or neutered. The surgery can be done around 6 months of age. This will spare you a myriad of behavioral issues, and it is best for the health of the ferret.
Dogs and Cats and Ferrets, Oh My!
Ferrets must be introduced to other family pets with care. If you have a large dog, the smaller animal could easily be injured during play. Therefore, it is best not to encourage roughhousing, especially with a large dog.
Ferrets and cats often make good companions for each other, but it depends entirely on the temperament of each. If a small kitten grows up with a ferret, it is usually the best-case scenario. However, adult cats can be amenable to a ferret buddy. All interactions should be closely supervised.
A ferret is not the best choice of companion for birds or, obviously, smaller pets, such as anything in the rodent family. Ferrets are hunters by nature, and even after 2,500 years of domestication, the prey drive remains strong in them.
Since they are carnivores, ferrets require a diet that is meat based and high in protein. Some ferret owners feed them quality kitten food. However, there are commercial foods available for ferrets. Like many carnivores, ferrets like an occasional snack of meat off the bone, such as chicken pieces. Other treats include pureed meat baby food and cooked or raw egg.
Foods you should avoid giving your ferret include:
- Dog Food
- Adult Cat Food
- Fruits and Vegetables
- Dairy Products
- Cooked Bones
Be aware that ferrets are natural hoarders, so anything you give them may later turn up under the cushions on your couch. Therefore, during periods when they are not confined, it’s best to make sure they consume whatever you give them.
Fresh water must be available at all times. It is best served in a bottle since ferrets will often play vigorously in a water bowl. To train their furry friends to drink from the bottle, some ferret owners will put a tiny dab of honey on the nozzle for the ferret to lick off.
One of the most common complaints about ferrets is their odor. Here are a few tips to keep the smell down.
- Spay or Neuter Your Ferrets
Hormonal ferrets, especially intact males, smell very bad.
- Proper Diet
Just like with people, feeding your ferret junk food can lead to gastrointestinal upset and smelly results. A good rule of thumb is remembering that the worse the food smells, the worse the waste is going to smell. A good diet also manifests itself in fewer problems with body odor.
- Poop Pickup
Ferrets have a short digestive tract, taking only three hours to process food. This means two things:
- They should be fed a diet that is highly digestible.
- They produce an inordinate amount of poop.
Fortunately, cleanup is relatively easy, as ferrets are easily trained to use a litter pan. The pan should be relatively deep. Ferrets prefer to defecate in corners, so there will be some “skid marks” on the sides.
Commercial cat litter can be useful, but the ideal type of litter for ferrets is made of recycled paper, as it tends to be most absorbent and is free of dust. Anything dusty can cause respiratory issues down the road. Clean the litter pan on a daily basis to keep the odor down and prevent the ferret from developing a habit of looking for another place to go.
Watering Down the Weasel
Besides keeping his litter box well maintained, another way to keep a ferret odor free is to maintain his hygiene. To give a ferret a bath, he should be sprayed down rather than dipped in standing water. He should have a bath every two to four weeks. The water should be lukewarm. There are some commercial shampoos available in stores. Take care not to get soap in his eyes. Rinse him thoroughly to keep any residual shampoo from drying out his skin. Towel him dry, and then set him free in a warm room to watch his post-bath crazies! Many animals love to romp when their skin feels clean. Ferret fur typically dries within a mere 10 minutes.
- Bad Breath, Smelly Ears, Smelly Feet
Ferrets can be prone to wax build-up in their ears, so regular ear cleaning is a must. They also can contract ear mites just as a dog or cat will. Check his ears regularly for any signs of dark crust, and be watchful for excessive itching.
A ferret’s teeth can be cleaned with baking soda and a cloth. You can get special ferret paste from your vet, but do not use human toothpaste on your ferret.
Trimming your ferret’s nails is a must. Since a ferret cannot retract his claws as a cat does, they will splinter or get caught on things if allowed to grow unchecked. Long nails will also drag litter and refuse around his habitat. Trimming should be done once every two weeks. Cat claw trimmers or even human nail clippers will work.
- Habitat Scat
A clean, roomy cage will help keep odors down. Keep food in deep bowls that are only half-full, to prevent spillage. Change the ferret’s bedding every week.
A ferret needs a lot of exercise and time outside of the cage. However, he should be confined when you aren’t watching him. The cage for one ferret should be, at a minimum, 2 feet by 2 feet and at least 14 inches high. If there are multiple ferrets or limited time outside of the cage, then the habitat should be larger. Obviously, the more animals, the more smell is involved. It is a good idea to have one litter box per animal. This will help to keep the cumulative fecal odor to a minimum.
Bars should be spaced close together so the ferret cannot escape. The environment should be cleaned on a regular basis.
- It’s Your Ferret – Don’t Scare It
One of the most important factors in maintaining an odor-free home is to remember that ferrets are “scent-sitive.” They will emit a strong musky odor when frightened or stressed. Therefore, a happy environment is ideal. And, after all, isn’t that what we strive for, anyway?
The Fast and the Ferret-ish
One of the ferret’s greatest charms is his joie de vivre: his joy of living. He will jump and run and climb. He is busy and likes to investigate every nook and corner.
An arsenal of toys will offer a ferret the best quality of life. Put toys away and change them up on a weekly basis. Offer fresh new ones on occasion and old favorites he hasn’t seen for a while. Keep his life animated and interesting.
Be careful not to give him anything he can dismantle or chew to bits. Also, be aware that a ferret who is in the throes of hard play may grab you by accident, and he has very sharp teeth. It is best not to wrestle with him using your hands. Give him toys made of hard plastic and provide him with tunnels and obstacles to climb and jump on.
Are Ferrets Good Pets?
The word “ferret” originates from the Latin word “furittus,” or “little thief.” If you are missing items like keys, your coin purse, or anything that is of a size easily lugged by a ferret, you will want to start checking their favorite hiding spots.
This tells you many things about the personality of the ferret. Are you prepared for a lifestyle with lively surprises? Or would you prefer a couch potato companion who will peacefully curl up with you at night?
Here are some other questions to ask yourself before jumping aboard the Ferret Train:
- What is the lifestyle of your household?
Do you have a myriad of small children and other active pets? Even those who mean well can easily harm ferrets. They can be dropped, tripped over and stepped on. They can be shut in doors and cabinets. A loose ferret can move at top speed and requires constant awareness on the part of those who live with him.
Do you take long vacations? Who will care for your ferret when you travel?
- How much time do you have?
Ferrets demand rigorous cleaning and maintenance. They need at least two hours of time out of the cage every day.
The litter and cage need to be cleaned daily, and the ferret must be fed and given fresh water.
Beyond that, your ferret will require interaction and daily handling, so good behavior is encouraged. The more you handle your ferret, the more he will grow to accept and even enjoy it. You may find him becoming less squirmy and preoccupied and more inclined to seek you out for a cuddle. A ferret who feels loved, just like any other pet, will respond in kind.