Ferret Care


Introduction

  • Live 6-8 years on average (sometimes up to 11 or 12)
  • Females are called jills, and males are hobs. Baby ferrets are called kits. In North America, spayed females are sometimes called sprites and neutered males called gibs. A group of ferrets is a "business of ferrets."
  • Males tend to be larger than females in length and weight. Females are 13-14 inches long and weigh anywhere from 0.75 to 2.5 lbs, whereas males are on average 15-16 inches long and weigh 2-3.5 lbs if neutered and are even larger (4 or more lbs) if not neutered.
  • Most ferrets obtained in North America are spayed or neutered and descented at a very young age before being sold.
  • Ferrets sleep a large part of the day, commonly around 18 hours. They naturally tend to be active at dawn and dusk, but usually adapt their sleeping and active times to the fit the schedules of their owners.
  • Ferrets are very playful, and are very entertaining to watch.
  • Ferrets have relatively poor eyesight but a keen sense of smell and hearing.

Are Ferrets Domestic Animals? 
There are often misconceptions and debate about whether ferrets are domesticated animals, and the short answer is yes, they are domesticated. They have been domesticated for probably 2000 years or more, and were brought to America as pets as long as 300 years ago. Nevertheless, in many places they are still not recognized as a domestic animal for the purposes of laws pertaining to animals kept in captivity. The domestic ferret is sometimes also confused with its wild cousin, the black footed ferret.

What about the Odor? 
Ferrets have an undeserved reputation of being smelly. It is true that they have a distinctly musky odor about them, but it is neither offensive nor overpowering. This musky odor comes from their skin glands and is present whether the ferret is descented or not. While occasional baths are recommended, frequent bathing will not reduce the scent, and will likely make it worse as the skin will get too dry and the skin glands will produce more oils in an effort to combat the dryness.

As mentioned above ferrets are usually descented in North America, which involved removal of the scent glands. They do have scent glands similar to skunk scent glands, and they will release (not spray) the contents if threatened. However, ferret scent gland secretions are milder than that of skunks and the smell dissipates quickly and washes away easily. The routine removal of scent glands, which is most commonly done in North America, is now being questioned since the musky odor of ferrets is not due to the scent glands and discharge of their scent glands is not a big problem.

Did you Know?

  • The name ferret is derived from the latin furonem, which means "thief." Ferret owners can attest that this is a well deserved name, as they will happily steal anything they can get their paws on and hide it in their house.
  • Ferrets come from the same family ("Mustelidae") as badgers, wolverines, otters, mink, weasels, black footed ferrets and polecats.
  • The distant ancestry of the domestic ferret is somewhat of a mystery, although they are very closely related to the European polecat.
  • The scientific name for ferrets is a somewhat controversial area - Mustela putorius furo is traditionally used, although recent scientific evidence has suggested they should have a name of their own, Mustela furo.
  • Ferret owners have a variety of fun nicknames for ferrets: ferts, fuzzies, carpet sharks, furballs, and more!



feeding

Ferrets have unique feeding requirements, which are now finally being addressed by commercial pet food manufacturers, though with varying success.

Ferrets are obligate carnivores, and food passes through the digestive system of a ferret very quickly. They also lack the ability to derive nutrition from plant matter. For this reason, a ferret diet must be high in animal protein, high in fat, and low in fiber. All foods, including foods intended solely for ferrets, are not created equally, so be careful what you are feeding your ferret.

Have Food Available at all Times 
Ferrets have a quick metabolism along with a short digestive system, so need to eat frequently (usually every 3-4 hours). It is best to have food available constantly. Most ferrets will eat only enough to meet their needs, and will not become obese if allowed constant access to good quality food. Fresh, clean water is also a necessity at all times. If you are having a problem with your ferret gaining too much weight, check with a vet to rule out a medical problem and for advice on meeting their diet needs while maintaining a good weight. Increased exercise is usually the best way to approach obesity once health problems are ruled out, rather than diet restrictions.

Dry foods are the most convenient choice, as they can be left available at all times without concern of spoilage. Canned ferret food can be given as a treat or supplement, but only occasionally.

Basic Requirements for a Ferret Diet:

  • High in protein - 30-40 percent on the label nutrition analysis
  • Protein must be high quality, highly digestible, and be animal-based (not plant-based)
  • High in fat (at least 20 percent, perhaps up to 30 percent on the label analysis)
  • Very low in carbohydrates and fiber (less than 3 percent fiber)

Analyzing Processed Dry Foods 
Unfortunately, the nutritional analysis doesn't tell the whole story. You must also analyze the ingredient list as the quality and availability of the proteins and fats can vary widely. However, even ingredient lists can be misleading. The foods listed first are the highest proportion of the diet, but you have no idea exactly what proportion. Be aware of ingredient splitting, which can push similar but less desirable items down the list, but if added together might make up a high proportion of the diet (e.g. soy flour and soy meal).

Protein Sources 
Look for meat and meat meals as opposed to "by-products." Meat and poultry by-products are the bits that don't make it into human foods, and may be low in digestibility and therefore not really a useful protein source. Eggs are also a high quality protein source. Look for meat or meat meals or eggs to make up the first three ingredients (you'll find very few foods that make this requirement - but definitely avoid any that do not have high quality proteins or fats as at least most of the first 6 ingredients). Beware the use of corn gluten, soy meal, rice gluten and other vegetable or grain based proteins that may boost the protein content, but are not useful to ferrets. Also watch for added sugars (sucrose, fructose, corn syrup, etc). Just a note: ferrets may not like the taste of foods high in fish (and they may make the litter box pretty smelly too), though some cold water fish such as salmon are an excellent source of fat.

Fats 
Look for hight quality sources balanced in omega 6 and omega 3 fatty acids (poultry fat is usually considered a good source). This can be hard to determine from an ingredient list or nutritional analysis, however, and the fatty acid quality and balance is affected by processing as well.

Ferret Foods

There are several ferret diets available now, and some are better than others. Good diets tend to be expensive, but are worth it. To see the importance of comparing labels, MD Ferret PAWS, Inc. provides a nice comparison chart to allow you to compare a huge range of foods. The chart is long, but ranks foods for you. You can see from the chart that there is no perfect diet - very few foods come close to meeting the requirements set out above. It is really a matter of picking foods that you can readily get that are as close to ideal as possible. The lack of truly ideal ferret foods is one reason there is growing interest in more natural diets for ferrets.

Any diet changes should be made gradually, mixing in the new food with the old and gradually reducing the amount of the old diet. It is often a good idea to use a mixture of foods starting when ferrets are young, as some can be stubborn about trying new foods, which may create problems if their current food becomes unavailable. Try to make sure you have two quality foods your ferret will eat

A Word on Cat Food

For many years, the common recommendation was to feed premium dry cat or kitten food, but that recommendation is now considered out-of-date. As the science of ferret nutrition improves, there is little doubt that premium ferret diets are the best to feed ferrets. Still, if you are unable to find a good quality ferret food (consider ordering online if nothing else) you may have to settle for cat food. If so, make sure it is a premium diet (e.g. Eukanuba, Innova). Use a kitten food, high in protein, but as your ferret gets a bit older (4 years or so), switch to an adult food. Again, you must check labels, and pick foods with only high quality animal proteins at the top of the ingredient list, and make sure they are high in fat and very low in grains, sugar, and fiber. Avoid generic or "grocery store" brands at all costs, as these are typically very poor for ferrets.

Treats

Treat should be given in moderation. There are vitamin supplements for ferrets and hairball remedies which ferrets generally love, and they provide some benefits. These make good training aids and treats, but should be used sparingly. Other treats include eggs (hard boiled, scrambled), bits of cooked meats, or freeze dried liver treats. Commercial ferret treats should only be used if they are meat based - avoid those with grains, vegetables or sugars at all costs. Ferrets have a sweet tooth but do not give in -- avoid sweet treats (including raisins and other fruits).


housing 


Your ferret should always have a large, clean, comfortable, ferret specific cage  or "kitty condo"  type cage available to keep him or her safe when you are not at home or in the event of an illness or emergency.  Ferrets should be caged or kept in a "ferret proofed" area of your home  when you are not home to supervise them and at night when you are asleep.  They should be kept indoors in a temperature controlled environment if outdoor temperatures are hotter than 80 degrees F and colder than 45 degrees F.  Ferrets should never be housed in a glass fish aquarium due to lack of air circulation and moisture buildup on the glass bottom. This excess moisture can lead to bacterial and fungal infections on the skin and in the lungs (can lead to death).  

Fortunately, there are a variety of  fun ferret cages to choose from .  You can spend any where from seventy-five to one thousand dollars on a ferret cage.  My advice is to start with a multilevel cage that has "easy cleaning" features.  I own two ferret cages - one with a plastic bottom and coated wire that easily lifts out for cleaning, and one with a metal bottom that is easy to clean as well.  Cages with metal bottoms may have the potential to rust and corrode if exposed to urine, feces or water.  However, if you purchase food and water dishes that attach to the cage, litter boxes and throw rugs to cover the bottom of the cage,  rust shouldn't be too much of a problem.

> If you are purchasing a cage with coated wire, keep an eye on your ferrets to make sure they are not chewing the coating off of the wire.  This can lead to a gastrointestinal blockage or poisoning.  Also, make sure your ferret cannot fit through the slats of the cage.  
    
It is important to note that you should never line the bottom of your ferret's cage with cedar or pine chips .  Some research has found that Pine and cedar chips contain oils that may be very harmful to your ferret's respiratory system (and liver).  You will often see ferrets housed in a large aquarium with cedar chips in the pet store.  Please be aware that this is wrongand you should not house your ferret in that fashion. Rather, use a ferret specific cage and cover the bottom of the cage and any wire mesh with a throw rug or soft (and durable) pieces of fabric .  Ferrets should not walk on wire grating alone.  Put  a corner litter pan on one side of the cage and  food and water on  the opposite side of the cage.  This will encourage them to use the litter pans. Ferrets will generally not use the bathroom around their food.   

    
Your ferret will also need soft places to sleep and hide (the more the better- dark places to hide are necessary for good ferret mental health).  You should also cover the outside of the top (or sleeping level) of the cage with a sheet or blanket to make it dark and private. Good choices for sleeping materials are ferret hammocks or sleep sacks that hang from the cage.  You can also put durable fabric on the different levels of the cage.  My ferrets love to curl up in my old sweat shirts.  I pull the arms of the sweat shirt through the slats of the cage and tie them together outside of the cage.  This keeps the shirt stationary.  Then, I put an old tee-shirt inside of the sweat shirt to add more padding.  Ferrets love to crawl inside soft materials.  Always opt for tougher fabrics.  Some ferrets may chew on fabric and can get blockages if they swallow pieces of material.  Keep an eye on your ferret and make sure his or her bedding is not being chewed or is missing pieces (if they are, remove them right away).  Ferrets should not be walking on wire grating or wire mesh alone.  Be sure to cover the bottom of the cage and any wire mesh levels with  throw rugs, fabric, old clothes or pieces of tough vinyl (such as pieces of vinyl flooring).  


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