Ferret Mini-Guide – English
Caring For A Ferret
Mustela putorius furo, the European domestic ferret, is a member of the weasel family — polecats, minks, skunks, ermine, etc. — and was domesticated before the cat, probably by the Egyptians. Ferrets first came to the U.S. over 300 years ago on ships and were used for rat control. There are no populations of “wild” ferrets in the USA. The North American Black-footed Ferret, which is an endangered species and just recently reintroduced to Wyoming, is a separate species and distantly related to the domestic ferret. Pet ferrets have no hunting instinct. They may chase and catch rodents, but don’t know how to survive on them.
Ferrets are domestic in the truest sense of the word. They come in a variety of colors, with albino being the “purest” form of ferret, followed closely by sable (with raccoon mask), chocolate (brown), silver (white with sprinkling of black hairs and black eyes), cinnamon and patterns, such as mitts (white feet), panda (white head), badger (white blaze), and siamese (dark legs and tail). Male ferrets (hobs) can weigh from 2 to 4 pounds. Female ferrets (jills) are half the size of the males. Babies (kits) are considered adult at 6-7 months of age.
Ferrets are fun to watch. They like to play until they drop. Pairs are as easy to care for and are more fun to watch than a barrel of monkeys. (Ferrets need and want human interaction. We recommend a minimum of one to two hours play time daily.) They live between seven and ten years and are lively the whole time. If a ferret becomes lethargic for more than a day, something is wrong. Consult your veterinarian.
Ferrets need a high protein diet consisting mainly of animal by-products rather than grain. The amino acids in vegetable protein are not utilized by a ferret’s 3 hour digestive system. Low ash and low magnesium are important to a healthy diet as well. Quality dry kitten-formulated foods — such as IAMS, Science Diet, Purina ProPlan, etc. — can be purchased at feed stores, a pet shop or your veterinarian’s office (Avoid “grocery store” dry foods which are mainly corn meal or grain). Most ferrets seem to prefer shaped pieces of food rather than pellets such as certain chows and ferret foods (Moist or canned foods are inappropriate & can cause dental problems over time).
Ferrets like treats such as raisins, grapes — peel or cut in half — unsalted popcorn, peanut butter and an occasional veggie. Try different things out in very small quantities and remember this is a treat, not an alternate to quality cat food. Nutri-Cal™ is a vitamin supplement available from your vet. We use it for ill ferrets, mothers and their 4+ week old litters. It can be a treat for healthy and active ferrets as well. Do not feed your ferret dairy products which causes diarrhea, chocolate or caffeine products. Ever curious, ferrets may beg for these, but what doesn’t bother our system an kill a ferret.
We suggest that you keep your ferret caged (one that is both roomy and well ventilated — please, never house a ferret in an aquarium) or confined to a single room while no one is home. This protects the ferret as well as your house. Ferrets are inquisitive, fearless, and capable of getting into places that you never imagined. If their head can fit, then the body can follow. Begin ferret proofing your home by keeping potted plants out of their reach. Ferrets love to dig in dirt. Ferrets can not climb as well as cats, but they can jump short spaces, get a grip on something, and either pull themselves up or pull objects over and down — trash cans, tablecloths, laundry baskets, glasses, etc. Ferrets are not destructive, but they do like to toss pillows off sofas, steal socks, and hide things. Sometimes they think the sock on your foot is fair game so watch your toes!
Linatone® or Ferretone™, available at pet and feed stores, is good as a treat and to occupy the ferret as you clip nails. Seat your ferret belly up and pour a little on its stomach. Show it to him, and while he’s licking it up, clip the nails on all four feet to within a little bit of the quick — the pink part of the nail. Do not cut the quick as this may result in bleeding (If you do cut into the quick, cornstarch and water will stop the bleeding). Baths are recommended at least once a month but no more than once a week. Any baby shampoo will do. Try to keep it out of their eyes and nose. (Ears should be checked and cleaned, if necessary, with a Q-Tip™ and hydrogen peroxide or mineral oil.) When flea season arrives, we suggest that you use a formula for kittens that contains Pyrethrins. Never dip a ferret.
To discipline your ferret, a stern NO with a tap on the nose is usually sufficient. If biting or nipping is a problem, there is a product in pet shops called Bitter Apple that tastes bad to pets and helps teach them. Spraying it into corners where the ferret is not supposed to potty can sometimes work, but ferrets have poor eye-sight. If they can’t see the litter box right off, any corner is fair game. We suggest you handle your ferret for five minutes after it awakens — the ferret may shiver right after waking — place him back in the cage to use the litter box, and then let him out to play, or use newspaper in the corners. Use plain clay or unscented litters. Perfumes can cause reactions in ferrets or make them not wish to use the litter box. Do not use wood shavings as litter or bedding (the dust can cause respiratory problems. Ferrets can also be trained to use newspaper). Unlike cats, ferret urine does not have a strong odor and if stools are left to dry, can be picked up and tossed in the trash the next day. The quantity is quite small.
Ferrets can catch and give the common cold. Plenty of rest and water is the cure, but sometimes a trip to the vet is needed to prevent complications. (Ferrets are susceptible to pneumonia. Watch for reduced activity — one sure sign of any illness). Protect your ferret from temperature extremes. Over 90 degrees and the ferret should be in shade with lots of ventilation and water. If a ferret becomes dehydrated, mix Karo syrup, honey or Linatone with water, get the animal to drink and then to a vet. Ferrets can also get heartworms from mosquitoes. (See your vet for a heartworm preventative.) Please house your ferret indoors for fewer problems and healthier pets.
Ferrets require a Canine Distemper shot annually. Canine Distemper has been considered 100% fatal in ferrets (see notes below!), so this is a serious health concern. One shot will usually do for a year, but if the ferret has not been on a regular vaccine program, you should consider following the first shot with a booster in three to four weeks. The important thing to tell a vet unfamiliar with ferrets is that a ferret based vaccine can NOT be used. A ferret specific distemper vaccine — PURVAX® Ferret Distemper Vaccine (by Merial) — is widely available.
Two rabies vaccines have been licensed by the U.S.D.A. for use in ferrets. Even so, there is no guarantee that if your ferret bites someone that he will not be decapitated for testing in some communities — brain tissue is tested for the virus. This is, in most cases, because non-US studies of the shedding period in ferrets for rabies have not been accepted in a number of states and because the first vaccine — IMRAB® — was only approved for use in ferrets in late 1990/early 1991. It has been used in cats and dogs for years. A ferret receives 1 ML dose under the skin once a year. A ferret can be vaccinated as early as three months of age.
Alter your ferrets. The smell of an intact male is usually not desirable for a household pet. If a female is not brought out of heat, she can easily develop aplastic anemia or an infection and die. If you do get an intact ferret, it should be altered no earlier than six months of age to ensure that it’s had time to develop physically. Having a ferret spayed/neutered will not alter its personality. It just makes it more social and minimizes most odor. As long as ferrets are fixed, it does not matter what combinations of sexes you keep.
Descenting is not necessary for a ferret, it only adds the trauma and expense of an operation. Ferrets use their scent glands only when startled or threatened, then it’s like a bad “passing of wind” and airs out in five minutes. (A bath will eliminate any musky smell from their fur. In most areas of the country, ferrets sold in pet stores are usually already neutered. Most are also descented.)
Be careful where you sit/walk when the ferret is out — he might be under a pillow, blanket, pile of laundry, etc. Sleep sofas and recliners are places where ferrets can get caught in the mechanics. Block off refrigerators, washers, dryers and dishwashers. Ferrets can easily slip under them. Ferrets have no sense of direction in large areas. DO NOT allow them outdoors unless on a leash and under close supervision. Swallowed items are very dangerous. Some ferrets chew latex rubber. (Rubber toys designed for babies are usually safe. Ferrets enjoy “squeak” toys, but be sure the “squeaker” is not the “inserted” type. Those built right into the rubber are safe , but check all toys periodically for signs of chewing. If so, discard it immediately). Some ferrets will chew and ingest certain types of cloth. Any of these items can cause an intestinal obstruction (and an expensive removal operation – if it’s discovered in time. Also, watch for anything made of Styrofoam, like the “peanuts” in packaging or the foam rubber in cushions).
If you have any other questions, problems or concerns, please contact us. Enjoy your ferret(s). They can be the best of friends.
Written by: Pamela Grant, Director, Pet Pals Ferret Rescue & Adoption Service. Reprinted with the permission of the author. Editorial comment by FACT, Inc.
Copies of this Mini-Guide are available in small quantities without cost to veterinarians, pet stores, nature centers, and other groups involved with ferrets and companion pet education. Please contact us for information.