Ferrets are playful pets that are very entertaining to watch. These long, slender animals are smart and curious and thus require training and lots of interaction with people. Some say they are like a combination of having a cat and a dog. They like attention and can bond closely with their humans. Their diet is pretty straightforward, and their housing is fairly easy to set up. But you will have to ferret-proof your house for out-of-cage time.
Common Name: Ferret
Scientific Name: Mustela putorius furo
Adult Size: 13 to 16 inches long, weighing around 1.5 to 4.5 pounds
Lifespan: 5 to 8 years in captivity
Ferret Behavior and Temperament
Ferrets require a moderate amount of maintenance as pets. They 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, but they can adapt their sleeping and active times to fit the schedules of their owners. Many ferrets enjoy being handled and playing with their humans when they're socialized from a young age. However, ferrets do tend to be a little nippy, especially if they're fearful or aggravated.
Ideally, ferrets should be kept in a pair or small group. Same-sex littermates or neutered males and females can be kept happily together. Ferrets and other household pets are another consideration. Some ferrets can get along with cats on an individual basis, as well as certain dogs with a low hunting drive. But as predators, ferrets typically shouldn't be around other small animals that they might see as prey.
The name ferret is derived from the Latin furonem, which means "thief." Ferret owners can attest that this is a well-deserved name, as ferrets will happily steal anything they can get their paws on only to hide it in their house. Thus, they require a lot of supervision. Ferrets have relatively poor eyesight but a keen sense of smell and hearing. Moreover, ferrets do make noises, but they are relatively quiet pets.
Ferrets stretch between 13 to 16 inches long on average and weigh around 1.5 to 4.5 pounds. Male ferrets are generally larger than female ferrets.
Because they sleep for long stretches, most ferrets don't mind spending time in a cage. The best option is a large, multilevel, wire cage. At minimum, it should be two feet by two feet by three feet, but providing as large of an enclosure as you can fit and afford is always best. Some items to include are a sleeping hammock, shelves, a hiding hut, tunnels, and a litter box.
These animals are escape artists. So ensure that the cage door latches securely (a double latch is ideal) and the space between the wires is narrow enough that the ferret can’t squeeze through. 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 60 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit.
It's recommended that ferrets spend a minimum of four hours outside the cage every day. This means you'll need to ferret-proof your house. These creatures are smart and curious and can fit through small spaces you might have overlooked, so always keep an eye on them. Keep them away from dangerous appliances, cords, furniture they can get stuck in, trash cans, and more. Make sure there are always toys present for your ferret to play with and chew on.
Specific Substrate Needs
Keep soft bedding on the floor of your ferret's enclosure. Some owners use towels or blankets, as long as the ferret doesn’t chew on them and they don’t have potentially dangerous strings hanging off. A 1- to 2-inch layer of paper bedding with no dye is also an option. Do not use wood shavings, as they can be harmful to the ferret’s respiratory system.
What Do Ferrets Eat & Drink?
Ferrets are known as obligate carnivores. Because they can't absorb nutrients from plants, these animals need a diet of animal proteins and fat. Occasional treats of cooked lean meats and eggs are excellent foods for ferrets; avoid foods that are high in sugar or fiber. Grains are not recommended for ferrets, because they are difficult for the animals to digest.
A ferret's high metabolism means it needs to eat about every three to four hours. Make food readily available to ferrets all the time; unlike many animals, they rarely overeat. Offer a quality commercial diet made for ferrets in a small but sturdy dish, as they tend to tip over dishes. Also, make sure they always have access to clean water. Using a water bottle is best, but also provide a dish until you're certain the ferret is drinking from the bottle.
Common Health Problems
Ferrets do require vaccinations and should be seen regularly by a vet. Some health problems with ferrets include:
- Adrenal gland disease: This is perhaps the most common health concern in ferrets. Symptoms of adrenal gland disease include hair loss, genital inflammation, itchiness, and aggression or irritability.
- Digestive disorders, including obstructions: Because 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.
- Dental problems: 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.
- Lymphoma: This common cancer affects the animal’s lymph nodes. Unfortunately, it’s almost always fatal, and there are no preventative treatments.
- Heart disease: Heart disease is often seen in older ferrets, and symptoms can include lethargy, weakness, and decreased appetite.
Training Your Ferret
Ferrets can be trained to walk on a harness and leash, so they can get exercise and mental stimulation outside safely. Start putting a ferret harness on your pet from a young age for progressively longer time periods, and reward it with a treat to give it a positive association with the harness. Make sure to purchase a harness specifically for ferrets, as they can easily slip out of ill-fitting harnesses. Have your vet show you how to properly fit it.
Like cats, most ferrets take well to using a litter box. Place a litter box in your ferret’s cage where it already has shown a preference to relieve itself. If the cage has multiple levels, try including a litter box on each level. Use a litter box that is made especially for ferrets, as cat litter boxes typically have sides that are too high. When you catch your ferret using the box, praise it and/or treat it to positively reinforce the behavior.
To help prevent obesity and other health issues, make sure your ferret gets at least a few hours per day outside of its cage to run around and play. Ferrets love playing in tubes, so you can set some up in your home for their enjoyment. There's also a variety of ferret toys on the market, such as balls.
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 descented (has had its anal glands removed) or not. You can give your ferret an occasional bath to remove dirt and debris; about every two to three months is often sufficient. But regular bathing won't reduce its natural scent and might even make it worse. Drying out the skin through baths can result in the production of more odorous oils.
Beyond periodic baths, you can help a ferret stay well-groomed by keeping its nails trimmed. A vet can either do this for you or show you how. Plus, it's ideal to brush your ferret a few times a week, even though they self-groom. That way, they won't ingest as much loose fur that could cause a blockage.
Your primary regular costs for a ferret will be its diet and litter. Expect to pay around $10 to $50 per month. You also might periodically have to replace toys and bedding. And you should budget for an annual veterinary checkup, as well as emergency vet care.
Pros & Cons of Keeping a Ferret as a Pet
Ferrets are quite entertaining pets, and many enjoy playing with their humans. They also don't make a lot of noise. But they do notoriously get into things they shouldn't, so their space must be carefully ferret-proofed. And their cage must be very secure for the times when you can't watch them.
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Purchasing or Adopting Your Ferret
You can find a ferret through a reputable breeder or adoption agency. These places should be able to give you information about the animal’s history, temperament, and health, including vaccine records. It might 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. Expect to pay around $100 to $500, though this can vary depending on factors such as the animal's age and coloring.
A local exotic veterinarian often can recommend a good breeder. You are more likely to find a wider selection of young animals at a breeder, though there are some small animal and even ferret-specific rescues that also will offer a good selection. To avoid accidentally becoming a breeder yourself, either keep same-sex littermates or neutered males and females.
Does a ferret make a good pet for kids?
Ferrets can make good pets for older children who can handle them gently and make sure they don't get into anything they shouldn't.
Are ferrets hard to take care of?
Ferrets require a moderate amount of care, and their needs are pretty straightforward. Feeding and cleaning their enclosure, as well as playing with them daily, will be your main tasks.
Do ferrets like to be held?
Ferrets can learn to be comfortable with handling, especially if you start from a young age.