Bathing ferrets is a somewhat controversial topic, especially with regards to how often. People who are more sensitive to the naturally musky scent of a ferret may be tempted or advised to bathe their ferret often, but this often backfires. The ferret's scent is partially due to the natural oils from the ferret's skin, so a bath may temporarily reduce the musky scent. However, because the bath strips the skin and fur of these oils, the bath actually stimulates an increase in the production of these skin oils, so the musky scent may actually become stronger for a couple of days after the bath. Keeping the cage and litter clean will go farther to keeping your ferret smelling fresh.
Because bathing tends to dry out the skin and coat, avoid bathing too frequently. I would suggest once a month as a maximum, but unless your ferret has gotten into something that needs to be washed off, a bath every 2-3 months is probably plenty.
You will need a gentle shampoo for your ferret. Your best bet is a shampoo made specifically for ferrets; there are several brands available. If you can't find a ferret shampoo, use one formulated for kittens or even a tearless baby shampoo.
The Bath Itself
Some ferrets take quite naturally to water while others are very reluctant to take a bath. The first few experiences with bath time will set the tone of baths in the future, so if your ferret is afraid of water, go slow and be patient. If your ferret is fearful of the water, try to keep it as stress-free as possible. If you get stressed your ferret will pick up on this -- keep your tone upbeat, offer some favorite treats, and maybe get some fun water proof toys. Making bath time more like a special playtime might help make it go more smoothly.
You can bathe your ferret in a bathtub or kitchen sink or any other convenient location. Fill the tub or sink with just enough water that the ferret will be mostly submerged but still able to touch the bottom. Be careful to support your ferret well, and you may want to use a rubber mat or towel on the bottom to give your ferret firm footing. Use water that feels slightly warm to your touch, but not too hot. Lather up the body well, but make sure not to get shampoo in the eyes or ears (if you accidentally do, rinse well with fresh water). Rinse all of the shampoo out, since any left in the coat could be drying or irritating. It is a good idea to refill the tub with fresh water, maybe even a couple of times, to make sure the rinse is as complete as possible.
Towel drying is usually sufficient and ferrets usually dry out pretty quickly, but it is important to make sure they do not become chilled when still damp. Unless their cage is freshly cleaned, that is not the best place to put them while still damp as a romp through a dirty cage and/or litter box will undo the work of the bath. Some owners put some clean towels in the tub and let their ferrets dry themselves off by burrowing in the towels. Some ferrets are okay with a blow dryer, but if you choose to try this keep the dryer on a low setting and keep it at least a foot from the ferret.
If your ferret has fleas, consult your veterinarian before using a flea shampoo. Your vet will recommend the best program of treatment for fleas for your household, including a ferret-safe flea shampoo if indicated.
The Proper Tools
Nail clippers meant meant for cats that look like small scissors with a little notch in the blade work well for ferrets. You can also use a small pair of human nail clippers. However, sometimes these pinch the nail before cutting and your ferret may find this uncomfortable.
Where to Cut
The trick to nail clipping is to cut the sharp tip off the nail without cutting into the quick. The quick is the part inside the nail where the blood vessel and nerve endings are located, and if you cut into the quick, the nail will bleed and it will hurt your ferret.
Most ferrets have light or translucent nails, and the quick is visible as the pink part inside the nail. Make your cut a bit in front of the quick; if you get too close it may still be a bit painful.
If your pet has dark nails, you can sometimes "guess" where it is safe to cut based on the shape of the nail, especially with practice. The tip of the nail is usually quite narrow and may almost appear hollow when viewed from the bottom. Otherwise, it is safest to just clip off about 1/4 inch of the nail tip.
If you have any doubts, it is wise to get a professional (groomer, veterinarian) or other experienced owner to demonstrate nail clipping for you before you attempt it on your own.
- It is best to do nail clipping frequently: if it becomes part of your routine your ferret will get better used to the procedure (and so will you), and you will just have to trim a little bit of the tip of the nail each time.
- Make sure your ferret is restrained well - get help if necessary. You may need to scruff your ferret, but also make sure his/her rear end is supported as well. Distracting your ferret with a favorite treat might help too.
- Have something handy to stop bleeding, just in case (more on that below)
When Accidents Happen
No matter how careful you are, you will likely accidentally hit a nail quick and cause some bleeding at some point. Don't panic. Just make sure you have something on hand to stop the bleeding:
- Kwik-Stop powder or other commercial styptic powder product. These sometimes sting but are highly effective. Take a pinch of powder and press onto the tip of the affected nail after wiping away the blood.
- Cornstarch or flour can also be used in a similar manner
- You can try pressing the nail into a bar of soap or bees wax.
- For minor bleeding, simply applying pressure to the tip of the nail may be effective.
No matter which method you use, make sure the bleeding has stopped before placing the animal back in its cage, or leaving the animal unattended.
Regular brushing is a great way to keep the coat in good condition and is especially useful when ferrets are shedding to minimize the amount of hair ingested by ferrets, thus preventing hairballs. Many ferrets are not keen on staying still long enough for brushing, so get in the habit of doing a very quick brushing frequently, rather than trying to get your ferret to sit still for a prolonged grooming session. Use a soft, short-bristled brush meant for cats or kittens, or try one of the newer rubber grooming tools which are great at quickly picking up loose hair from the coat (e.g. the Kong Zoom Groom)
Even with regular brushing, it is a good idea to give a hair ball preventative to your ferret regularly, especially when they are shedding. Preventatives are available in a a malt-flavored gel in a tube, and many ferrets learn to look a the preventatives as a treat.
Ferrets do tend to have waxy ears, and keeping them clean will help prevent problems and infections. Normally, their ear wax is light brown or reddish in color. Regular cleaning will help you spot a change in the amount or texture of ear wax which could indicate an infection or ear mites.
To clean the ears, get a mild ear cleaning solution from your vet or pet store - something safe for kittens should be okay for ferrets. My recommended method is to put a few drops in the ear, massage the ear for a bit, then let the ferret shake his/her head like crazy. This is great for dislodging wax, but it can be messy so you want to do this in an area that is easily cleaned such as the bathroom. A cotton-tipped swab moistened with the cleaner can be used to wipe out the external part of the ear. Never push a cotton swab into the ear canal! If your ferret is particularly squirmy, be extra cautious to avoid pushing wax down into the ear canal.
Note: Ear mites are quite common, and ear infections can occur as well. If your ferret has copious ear wax or discharge, dark brown or black wax, bad-smelling ears, or if your ferret is shaking his or her head, scratching at the ears, or tilting his or her head to the side, a trip to the vet is in order as soon as possible to rule out problems.
This is not the easiest part of the grooming routine, but getting in the habit can prevent dental problems down the road. Brushing the teeth is a good preventative measure and also gives you a chance to spot any developing problems early.
To make this easiest, use a toothbrush meant for cats that consists of a set of short bristles on a rubber tube that fits over your finger, or even just a piece of gauze wrapped around your finger. You can make it more agreeable but using a drop of your ferrets favorite liquid/gel vitamin supplement, but never use human toothpaste. Then simply wipe the teeth with the brush or gauze. Aim for doing the outside surfaces of the teeth and gums at first, paying particular attention to the gum line. As with many other grooming procedures, your ferret may object strenuously at first, but if you are patient and gently persist, slowly increasing the amount you do, chances are your ferret will come to accept tooth brushing as a part of his or her routine. Try to brush the teeth at least once a week.