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. There are often misconceptions about whether ferrets are domesticated, and the short answer is that they are. They have been domesticated for probably 2,000 years or more and were brought to America as pets as long as 300 years ago.
Ferrets are playful pets that are also very entertaining to watch. They are smart and very curious and thus require training and lots of interaction with people. A group of ferrets is called a "business of ferrets." Female 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 are called gibs. Most ferrets obtained in North America are spayed or neutered and also de-scented at a very young age before being sold.
Common Name: Ferret
Scientific Name: Mustela putorius furo
Adult Size: 13 to 16 inches long; weighing up to 3 1/2 pounds
Life Expectancy: 8 to 11 years in captivity
Ferret Behavior and Temperament
Ferrets are not totally nocturnal, but they do tend to sleep for a large part of the day; they are most active at dawn and dusk. However, they usually adapt their sleeping and active times to fit the schedules of their owners. Ideally, ferrets should be kept in a pair or a small group. Same-sex litter mates or neutered males and females can be kept happily together.
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 only to hide it in their house. Ferrets have relatively poor eyesight but a keen sense of smell and hearing.
Housing the Ferret
Since they sleep for long stretches during the day, most ferrets don't mind spending time in a cage. But it's recommended that they spend a minimum of four hours outside the cage every day. This means you'll need to ferret-proof your house, then go through and ferret-proof it again! These creatures are smart and curious and can fit through small spaces you might have overlooked. Make sure there are always toys present for your ferret to play with and chew on.
Keep soft bedding on the floor of your ferret's enclosure. Make sure it has a sturdy double-secured latch on the door because these animals are often smart enough to figure out how to open latches and clasps. The temperature near the cage should be free of any drafts but not in an area that gets too warm. The ideal temperature for a ferret is between 50 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit.
Food and Water
Ferrets are known as obligate carnivores and must eat nearly constantly. Since they can't absorb nutrients from plants, these animals need a diet of animal proteins and fat. Meat, eggs, and coldwater fish are excellent foods for ferrets; avoid foods that are high in sugar or fiber. Grains are not recommended for ferrets since they are difficult for the animals to digest.
A ferret's high metabolism means it needs to eat about every three to four hours. Since food passes through a ferret's digestive system relatively quickly, make food readily available to ferrets all the time; unlike many animals, they rarely overeat. Make sure they always have access to fresh, clean, non-chlorinated water as well.
Common Health Problems
Adrenal gland disease is perhaps the most common health concern in ferrets. Symptoms of adrenal gland disease include hair loss, genital inflammation, itchiness, and aggression or irritability. Poor diet and a lack of UVB light are believed to be contributing factors, and some researchers believe the early spaying of ferrets (recommended to prevent aplastic anemia) may also play a role. Other possible health problems with ferrets should be diagnosed by your veterinarian, so note any symptoms that seem abnormal.
- Digestive disorders, including obstructions: Since ferrets put many things in their mouths that don't belong there, including their own fur (which can result in hairballs), gastrointestinal problems are common. If your ferret loses weight, can’t keep food down, or isn’t defecating normally, these may be signs of a potentially life-threatening gastrointestinal obstruction. Seek medical care immediately.
- Dental problems: Tooth issues can plague ferrets, so avoid offering kibble; a ferret's teeth are meant for tearing, and kibble isn’t up to the task. Just like humans, ferrets can develop painful cavities and tooth decay. Brushing the teeth (if you’re brave enough) or providing suitable chew toys are ways to avoid a trip to the dentist. If a ferret gets a diseased tooth, the only remedy is to remove it. This should only be done by a qualified veterinarian.
- Aplastic anemia: in this common ferret disease, symptoms usually include lethargy, weakness, and pale gums. Female ferrets that have been in heat for more than a few weeks without mating are at risk for becoming anemic, which is why it is recommended to spay female ferrets at a young age.
- Ferret lymphoma: This common cancer affects the animal’s lymph nodes. Unfortunately, it’s almost always fatal and there are no preventative treatments.
- Ferret dilated cardiomyopathy: This heart condition can lead to sudden death. A lack of taurine in a ferret’s diet is believed to be responsible. Simply put, this ailment is similar to heart failure; the animal may be weak, lethargic, and wheezing. This is a condition that must be diagnosed by a veterinarian. Some medications are available (if caught in time) but there is no cure for dilated cardiomyopathy in ferrets.
- Distemper: Rabies was once a major threat to ferret health, but it has been mostly eradicated thanks to an effective vaccine. And yet this fatal condition, which is highly contagious to humans and other mammals, still exists in some places. Symptoms include watery eyes and inflammation of the face.
Is It Legal to Own a Pet Ferret?
Before you purchase a ferret, make sure it's legal to own one where you live. In many places, ferrets are still not legally recognized as a domesticated animal for the purposes of keeping one as a pet. Ferrets, like other exotic animals, have been banned as pets in some places.
New York City, for instance, instituted an infamous ferret ban in 1999, and the animals are illegal as pets in most of California as well. Note that the domestic ferret is sometimes confused with its wild cousin, the black-footed ferret; make sure you are researching the right species.
Purchasing Your Ferret
If you do procure a ferret for a pet, be sure you are dealing with a reputable breeder who has records for your animal's vaccinations and any health issues. It may cost a bit more than going to a pet store, but you are more likely to get an animal that has been well cared for and is healthy.
Ferrets and Odor
Ferrets have a reputation for being smelly pets. It is true that they have a distinctive musky odor, but it is neither offensive nor overpowering. This smell comes from glands in their skin and is present whether the ferret is de-scented or not. While occasional baths are recommended, frequent bathing will not reduce the scent and will likely make it worse. As the skin gets dry, the glands will produce more odorous oils in an effort to combat the dryness.
In North America, ferrets are usually de-scented; this procedure involves the removal of the scent glands. Their scent glands are 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 of skunks and the smell dissipates quickly and washes away easily.
Similar Pets to the Ferret
If you're not sure about owning a ferret, or if you live in an area where they are not permitted to be kept as pets, consider these other exotic species:
Otherwise, check out other exotic animals that can be your pet.