By L. Vanessa Gruden
So often, ferret owners ask – whether they are new or experienced – “What food should I use?”
Food choices often provoke controversy. Lots of owners have a favorite that they endorse – and for some, woe to anyone who does not feed the “right” food!
I’ve spoken to people who thought they should give up their ferret because they couldn’t afford to feed the expensive diet they were told was the ONLY option. Recently I spoke with a shelter operator who was embarrassed to admit that, due to a layoff and financial difficulties, she’d temporarily been feeding her ferrets a less expensive cat food based on – horrors! – vegetable protein.
I’m no expert on nutrition, but I’d like to bring some perspective to the subject.
It’s important to remember the nutritional studies on what domestic ferrets SHOULD eat have not been done. So no one knows, with certainty, what percent protein or fat they require. We know they are true carnivores, meaning that their diet should be meat-based. Vegetable protein (like corn meal) takes longer to process, so isn’t in their short digestive system long enough to extract the protein.
Holistic nutritionists often refer back to what an animal would eat in the wild. Since ferrets are domestic, the closest is to look at the diet of their nearest wild relative, the European polecat. Polecats eat small rodents such as moles, mice & rats; birds, chickens & eggs; rabbits; and occasionally small reptiles & amphibians (frogs and toads). Farther apart genetically, the Marbled Polecat eats rodents like gerbils & hamsters, and the Black Footed Ferret has a diet primarily restricted to prairie dogs. All these mustelids eat almost the whole body, so they also eat whatever vegetable matter is in their prey’s stomach, partially digested.
Given a ferret’s high metabolism, most nutritionists agree their diet should have higher meat-based protein and fat than the average cat food. And since fish is a pretty minor part of any of these animals’ diet (compared to mink, who eat a lot of fish), fish should be a small part of the meat source.
Does this mean you should spend your time in the woods catching mice and baby birds and toss ‘em into the cage? I don’t know about you, but I’m not about to listen to murder and pick up leftover body parts! Wild-caught animals might have worms – and will almost certainly have fleas. What do you do in the winter when they hibernate?
Are those who purchase raw diets of frozen mice or other small mammals feeding the ideal diet? I’m not sure. Do the baby mice contain enough vegetable matter inside to satisfy that nutritional need? There’s also a pretty big “ick” quotient here, too…a friend feeding mice to her ferrets reported finding dead ones stashed around the house – once in her pillowcase!
What the Ferrets Want
There’s also the Ferret Factor – many domestic ferrets have lost most hunting instinct. My sister, who lives near a wooded area, suffered through mice sneaking up from the garage into where her ferrets slept, stealing ferret food without any of the “predators” even noticing! Another Ferret Factor? Their notorious love of dairy and sweets. One of the earliest recorded texts that mentions a ferret-like animal talks about “putting out milk to catch the weasels.” Given the choice of a wonderful, expensive ferret kibble and a piece of cookie, guess which your ferret will grab first?
So your ferrets may actually prefer “junk” food to the high-priced diets. This does NOT mean that’s the most optimal base diet, but if that’s all you can afford, that’s certainly better than letting your pet go hungry.
I always recommend people feed more than one brand of food. I don’t eat the same thing every day and neither do you; why should they? A couple different foods, either mixed together or in separate bowls, is fine – and if for some reason you run out of one food, your ferret’s more willing to eat another.
While I use specific ferret diets, my opinion is premium-quality kitten foods are acceptable, also. There are several that have high protein counts and are based on meat. They are readily available and usually less expensive – running a shelter, money always matters. FACT feeds a mix of foods; this way, our ferrets are accustomed to different diets and adopters can easily switch to their preferred brand.
I don’t find many ferrets suffering digestive problems from eating different foods. If yours does, of course, you may need an exclusive diet. For animals that have issues with diarrhea, those foods containing fish protein sometimes work well, offering more “bulking” fiber. Elderly animals may have trouble processing protein, so lower-protein diets (like adult cat food) can help.
Mostly, I find my ferrets will pick their own food if given options…some eat one brand, some another, and some will chow down on whatever is in the closest bowl. In a shelter, it’s unwise to argue with an elderly ferret that arrives and only wants cat food. Whatever they want to eat, as long as they eat well and are happy and thriving, is fine with me. I just try to make sure they’re eating the best meat-based cat food possible.
Don’t Be a Food Fanatic
Sometimes I think experienced owners just get too overwrought about ferret food. Subconsciously, perhaps some imagine they can ward off cancer or other illnesses by feeding “the best.” But even humans with terrific diets get sick. How many people who feed their ferrets the “best” food also brush their ferret’s teeth every week? Or take their ferrets on daily walks? Turn off all lights at sundown so their animals live strictly in natural light? All are wonderful things you can also do to improve your pet’s longevity. Food is only one variable; many other things influence overall health.
If you meet someone using an inappropriate food, freaking out about it isn’t helpful. If they could use guidance, gently explain what a ferret’s food should contain and encourage them to upgrade, but don’t insist your recommended choice is the only option. Everyone was a new owner once, and learns over time. And not everyone has the economic resources to feed more expensive foods. That doesn’t mean they don’t care about their ferrets; they may just be going through hard times. What’s preferable, feeding a poorer quality food (within reason, of course!) or abandoning their ferret? In the end, love and a permanent home are the VERY best things an owner can give their pets.