A Beginner's Guide to Ferrets

And are they really that smelly?

Caring for the Farm Animals Together
SolStock / Getty Images

Ferrets are playful and they are very entertaining to watch. They are also smart and very curious and thus require training and lots of interaction with people to bond with them.


Ferrets live about 6 to 8 years on average, though sometimes up to 11 or 12. They tend to sleep a large part of the day, usually around 18 hours and are active at dawn and dusk. However, they usually adapt their sleeping and active times to the fit the schedules of their owners.​

Males tend to be larger than females in length and weight. Females are 13 to 14 inches long and weigh anywhere from 0.75 to 2.5 lbs, whereas males are on average 15 to 16 inches long and weigh 2 to 3.5 lbs if neutered and are even larger (4 or more lbs) if not neutered.

Females ferrets are called jills, and males are hobs. Baby ferrets are called kits. In North America, spayed females are sometimes called sprites and neutered males called gibs. A group of ferrets is a "business of ferrets." Most ferrets obtained in North America are spayed or neutered and descented at a very young age before being sold.

Are Ferrets Domestic Animals?

There are often misconceptions and debate about whether ferrets are domesticated, and the short answer is they are. They have been domesticated for probably 2000 years or more and were brought to America as pets as long as 300 years ago. Nevertheless, in many places, they are still not recognized as a domestic animal for the purposes of laws pertaining to animals kept in captivity. The domestic ferret is sometimes also confused with its wild cousin, the black-footed ferret.

Ferrets and Odor

Ferrets have an undeserved reputation for being smelly. It is true that they have a distinctive musky odor, but it is neither offensive nor overpowering. This smell comes from their skin glands and is present whether the ferret is descented or not. While occasional baths are recommended, frequent bathing will not reduce the scent, and will likely make it worse as the skin will get too dry and the glands will produce more oils in an effort to combat the dryness.

Ferrets are usually descented in North America, which involved removal of the scent glands. Their scent glands similar to that of a skunk, and they will release (not spray) the contents if threatened. However, ferret scent gland secretions are milder than those from skunks and the smell dissipates quickly and washes away easily. The routine removal of scent glands, which is most commonly done in North America, is now being questioned since the musky odor of ferrets is not due to the scent glands and discharge of their scent glands is not a big problem.

Fun Facts About Ferrets

  • The name ferret is derived from the latin furonem, which means "thief." Ferret owners can attest that this is a well-deserved name, as they will happily steal anything they can get their paws on and hide it in their house.
  • Ferrets come from the same family ("Mustelidae") as badgers, wolverines, otters, mink, weasels, black-footed ferrets, and polecats.
  • The distant ancestry of the domestic ferret is somewhat of a mystery, although they are very closely related to the European polecat.
  • The scientific name for ferrets is a somewhat controversial topic -- Mustela putorius furo is traditionally used, although recent scientific evidence has suggested they should have a name of their own, Mustela furo.
  • Ferrets have relatively poor eyesight but a keen sense of smell and hearing.
  • Ferret owners have a variety of fun nicknames for ferrets: ferts, fuzzies, carpet sharks, furballs, and more.