Ferrets are one of the more popular exotic pets and perhaps also one of the most misunderstood. Surprisingly to many people, ferrets are illegal to keep as pets in many areas, including New York City and California.
Reasons for banning ferrets include concerns about biting, as well as rabies, and escapees colonizing and threatening native wildlife. Is there truly a threat or is this just hype? There are families all over the country that have this pet with no incidents. So, what is the truth of the matter?
A Misunderstood Animal
Many people have a negative view of ferrets. Perhaps it is their appearance since they do superficially resemble weasels (and are part of the weasel family). As with some other exotic and domestic pets, some bad press has hurt their reputation.
It all comes down to responsible pet ownership. Ferrets must be provided with proper care, training, safety, and supervision. They should also have vaccinations for rabies and distemper (ferret approved vaccines only). They are not low maintenance pets and need attention and training to prevent behavior problems, just like most other pets that do not live strictly in a cage. That being said, most ferret owners will tell you they are wonderful pets and they do not deserve the bad reputation or to be banned.
New York City Ban
In June 1999, New York City's Health Department decided to uphold its ban on ferrets. This is a quote from the Health Department's press release explaining the decision:
"Ferrets are known for their unpredictable behavior, and they are prone to vicious, unprovoked attacks on humans. Ferret attacks reported nationwide over time have become notorious for their severity and capriciousness, causing serious injuries to some infants and young children in particular... In New York City's multiple dwelling residences, which are not natural habitats of ferrets, a ferret could crawl through holes in walls or travel along risers or ducts to other apartments, with potentially tragic consequences for the neighbor of a ferret owner." —New York City Department of Health
This description paints a picture of vicious creatures just looking for a chance to escape and wreak havoc on the city, while others consider this animal an adventurous, cuddly animal that has been domesticated for hundreds (perhaps thousands) of years.
Other places that have banned ferrets include the states of California and Hawaii, Washington, DC, Dallas, Texas, and Columbia, Missouri.
Ferrets and Children
Unfortunately, there have been reported incidents of injuries to infants and children. Such incidents are extremely rare, however, especially compared to the estimated millions of dog bites every year in the U.S. Comparatively, the risk of ferret bites is very small.
Ferrets, though, may not be the best choice for families with small children, a topic discussed in "A Ferret in the Family." The reasons why, though, are the same for all pets. Small children can be excitable, unpredictable, and rough at times. These behaviors may, in turn, excite or startle a ferret, causing it to nip the child. Just as important, small children might inadvertently injure a ferret. Of course, children should not be left unsupervised with any pet.
Ferrets are pretty flexible and do have the ability to fit through small spaces. The responsible owner must ferret-proof their home to prevent ferrets from harming themselves or escaping from their safe environments. Ferrets can be caged part of the time, as long as they are let out of that cage as often as possible (at least a few times a day) for exercise and fun.