The ferret is a domesticated mammal that belongs to the carnivorous Mustelidae family of animals, along with otters, badgers, skunks and weasels. The ferret is a very close relative of the polecat. It is likely that ferrets were first domesticated thousands of years ago, as they were commonly used for rabbit or rat catching. Although ferrets are still used for rodent catching today, they are increasingly kept simply as pets.
A pet ferret that is properly fed and cared for can live for up to 12 years. The average length of a ferret is 20 inches, including a five-inch tail, although males are significantly larger than females. They sleep for around 14 to 18 hours a day and are most active around dawn and dusk.
Is a Ferret Right for You?
Ferrets are very energetic and make very entertaining pets. A couple of common myths are that ferrets give a nasty bite (if properly handled, ferrets shouldn’t bite at all) and are very smelly (like a skunk, they can secrete odour via their anal glands when scared) but this isn’t necessarily the case as long as they are handled well and neutered at a young age.
Ferrets are quite similar to cats in that they bond very closely with their owners and will really enjoy a cuddle. Provided that you socialise your ferret properly and provide him with the right care and environment, he will make a lovely family pet.
Before Buying a Ferret
Things to consider before becoming a ferret owner:
Are you fully committed to becoming a ferret owner?
Ferrets can live for up to 12 years, are you sure you are fully committed to caring for a ferret for that amount of time?
Do you have enough space for a ferret?
A ferret needs plenty of space to run about and climb as they are very active and like to charge around.
Can you afford to care for two ferrets?
Ferrets should be kept in pairs or ideally small groups of three or four. They love to have another ferret who they can play with and cuddle up to for a sleep.
Can you afford a ferret?
Have you considered the costs involved in owning a ferret? Setting up suitable accommodation for your ferret can cost hundreds of pounds, then there’s neutering costs, food, annual vaccinations, flea treatment, vet check-ups, pet insurance, money for purchasing new toys and the cost for microchipping too.
Do you have time for a ferret?
Ferrets benefit from regular walks out on the lead so they can stretch their legs and run about. They also need daily health checks and cleaning out. That’s a big time commitment.
Domestic ferrets come in a variety of different colours including:
Albino — white coat with red eyes
Sable — dark brown body, black feet and masked face
Dark eyed white — all white with dark eyes
Black — black coat with no patterns
Topaz — light taupe colour
Champagne — golden colour
Siamese/chocolate — lighter colour of sable, with brown feet
Red — mahogany coloured.
Caring for Your Ferret
Do ferrets need an annual vaccination?
Yes, ferrets should be inoculated annually against Canine distemper, a virus that has is often fatal in ferrets.
Do you have to worm a ferret?
Yes, your ferret should be wormed and treated for fleas every three months.
In the wild, ferrets would naturally wear their claws down by digging in the soil. Ferrets kept in captivity don’t get the chance to do this so will need their claws checking and trimming regularly.
Should you microchip a ferret?
Many of the ferrets that are currently looking for new homes in rescue are strays. If your ferret is microchipped and manages to escape from his enclosure or slip his lead while out walking, then he is much more likely to be reunited with you. Prices vary but it is generally around £30 to microchip your ferret. There are often schemes running at veterinary practices or rescue centre which means you may be able to get this done at a reduced price.
Is it true that ferrets smell?
Like skunks, ferrets can secrete a scent from their anal glands when scared or startled, although this is not as pungent or lingering as the skunk’s scent. Getting your ferret neutered can also help to prevent the typical ferret smell.
Should you neuter a ferret?
Yes, ferrets should be neutered once they are fully mature (at around six months of age for males and eight months for females). Neutering prevents unwanted litters, protects against disease and can make your ferret less smelly.
Do ferrets enjoy being handled?
Yes, ferrets are highly sociable animals and enjoy interaction with people. They tend to become very closely bonded with their owners, but should never be considered completely child friendly. There is always a chance that you might be the victim of a playful bite, especially when handling young ferrets.
Handling sessions with your ferret should start from a young age, keep handling and play sessions to a short periods only to begin with so your ferret can become used to the process. Ensure that you are handling your ferret in a safe, secure place, either inside in a ferret-proof room or outside in your garden on a well-fitted harness.
It’s best to play games with your ferrets using toys — cat toys are ideal. This way, your ferret will not associate your hands with something to be played with and nipped. Ferrets can be slightly short-sighted so it’s important that you make sure that they know you are there before you approach or they may nip or become startled.
When picking a ferret up:
- Approach confidently and be sure of what you are doing
- Place your hand on your ferret’s shoulder blades, placing two fingers in front of his front legs. Wrap your fingers firmly around him but don’t grip him too tight. Keep your fingers away from his head and mouth
- Once you have picked him up, hold him to your body so that he feels secure and support his back end with your other hand. Alternatively, let him rest his body on your folded arm
- To relax your ferret, gently swing him from side to side
- Remember to always supervise children handling ferrets.
- Ferrets will also enjoy regular walks on a harness to run about, play games and explore new places. Being such mischievous charactors, they will attempt escape from the harnesses so it’s important to ensure that your use a well-fitted harness that is specifically designed for ferrets.
Ferrets don’t have a great homing system and, unlike dogs, are not likely come when called. It’s important to always keep your ferret on a harness when he is outside and to make sure that he cannot slip it off easily and get loose. Remember to have your ferret microchipped should he escape and become lost.
Do Ferrets Bite?
Yes, ferrets can and do bite but this is rarely out of agression, they more commonly bite when they are young and new to being handled or when they have become over excited.
Ferrets are carnivores and we feed our ferrets on a special complete food. This is either fed from a bowl or using a feeding ball to make it more interesting for the ferrets.
Providing your ferret with a good-quality ferret food will ensure he receives all the necessary nutrition, vitamins and minerals he needs. Ferrets eat small amounts regularly. Split this daily ratio into smaller feeds which can be offered at various times during the day to ensure that he gets all the nutrition he needs and that the food stays fresh. Remember to feed your ferret the correct amount according to the food manufacturer’s guidelines to stop your ferret becoming overweight.
Treating your Ferret
The following items can be added to your ferret’s diet as an occasional treat or a nice reward after completing your ferret’s health check or trimming claws:
- Raw egg
- Boiled chicken off the bone (cooked bones can splinter and are dangerous to feed)
- Ferret Vit (a tasty vitamin supplement)
- Kitten food.
- Giving ferrets water
- Water should be available at all times for your ferret in a large heavy dog bowl that cannot be tipped over. Water should be replenished every day. In the summer you can also give them a large plastic paddling pool filled with shallow water, they will enjoy splashing about in this and it will also encourage them to drink.
Housing your Ferret
While ferrets may sleep for up to 20 hours in a day, when they are awake they are very active.
Your ferrets will need lots of space — your ferret’s outdoor enclosure should be at least 12-feet long and include warm areas for him to sleep. A large avery, a converted dog kennel or a garden shed with a run attached make ideal ferret enclosures. This should be full of enrichment items for him to play on, the most important of these being another ferret. Ferrets should be kept in pairs or ideally small groups of three or four so they have someone to play with and cuddle up to.
Ferrets are amazingly flexible and will be able to squeeze out of the smallest of spaces so your housing will need to be very secure. Remember too that ferrets like to dig so your enclosure will need a soild base. Provide a digging tray for your ferret so he has somewhere to display his natural digging behaviour.
Your ferret’s sleeping quarters can come in all shapes and sizes, during the summer months he may enjoy a hammock outside or a basket lined with an old rug, while in the winter a nesting box stuffed with plenty of shredded paper, a fleece blanket, old clothes or dust-free hay will be very welcome. Ensure that there is enough space in the sleeping areas for your ferrets to curl up and sleep together.
Covering the floor of your ferret’s enclosure with shredded paper makes it fun and interesting for him.
Enriching your Ferret’s Environment
Ferrets are eternal children and love to play. Their environment should be full of enrichment that is changed regularly. They love things to climb on, run through, and wrestle with. There are loads of things you can include in your ferret’s environment; shelving to climb on, hammocks to swing in, tubes and tunnels to run through, digging trays or sandpits, old boxes and buckets, old children’s toys, cat toys, cat towers and scratching posts, even toilet roll holders and paper bags can be fun for a ferret. Be inventive, something doesn’t necessarily need to cost loads to be a great source of fun to a ferret.
Litter Training Your Ferret
Ferrets are very clean animals. They will choose one area of their enclosure for toileting and use that space only. A litter tray filled with cat litter or newspaper and placed in this area is the best way to keep your ferret’s enclosure clean and fresh. Remember to clean the litter tray out every day. Remember to remove any soiled litter from the tray every day and thoroughly clean it out every week.
Cleaning out a Ferret Enclosure
Your ferret’s enclosure should be fully cleaned out once a week. You should:
Remove and wash all the enrichment items and any blankets that your ferret has been sleeping in
Remove all the bedding and wash the floor and surfaces with a pet-safe disinfectant
Thoroughly clean out the litter tray, replacing the cat litter
Refresh your ferret’s bedding throughout his enclosure.
Is Your Ferret Healthy?
How can you tell if a ferret is healthy?
It’s important to conduct a daily visual health check and a thorough health check once a week to ensure that any health issues are identified quickly. Check that:
- The ears and eyes should be clean. Ferrets are prone to wax build-up in the ear which can lead to ear mites
- Your ferret’s coats should be clean and shiny. Check the coat for signs of ticks and fleas, especially if you have a multi-pet household or you take your ferret out on walks regularly
- Check for any wounds, lumps and bumps on your ferret being so playful and energetic, they can be prone to injuries
- Check and trim claws when necessary
- Check that your ferret is eating a normal amount
- Check your ferrets teeth to ensure that they are in good shape.
- Common ferret illnesses
A ferret kept in the correct environment and on the right diet should be a very healthy pet with few health issues. Some of the conditions occasionally seen include: Parasites including ear mites, ticks, fleas and worms are reasonably common in ferrets and should be checked for regularly. Ear mites are particularly prevalent and present in your ferret as scratching around the head area, shaking the head and a build up of wax in the ear canal. If any of these symptoms present themselves take your ferret straight to the vet. Treat your ferret for worms and fleas every three months with a product suitable for ferrets that is recommended by your vet. Canine distemper. Ferrets should be inoculated against canine distemper and a booster vaccination is needed annually.
Symptoms of distemper include loss of appetite, nasal discharge, blinking of the eyes and a fever.
Dehydration. Ferrets can become dehydrated easily so access to plenty of fresh, clean drinking water at all times is essential. Paddling pools in the summer are ideal to encourage your ferret to drink and to help him to keep cool in the summer months. Diarrhoea can be fatal in ferrets. Changes in diet can be the cause but green or black diarrhoea can indicate a serious issue. Monitor your ferret’s faeces production and if you notice any changes, consult your vet immediately.
Hair loss. Middle-aged ferrets often lose hair on their tail but the reasons for this remains unknown. Hair should grow back within a few months. If it does not, or if the hair loss spreads to other parts of your ferret’s body, take your ferret to visit the vet. Overgrown claws can be very painful for a ferret and can cause issues when your ferret is walking. Claws should be clipped every four to six weeks in order to keep them comfortable and in shape.
Flu. Just like us, ferrets can get the flu. There is no treatment for this and your ferret should get over it on his own between five to seven days. Symptoms include sneezing, coughing, a fever, lethargy, wheezing, diarrhoea and a lack of appetite. If you suspect that your ferret has the flu, pay close attention to his symptoms, if they persist for longer than five days consult your vet. Ensure that during this time your ferret drinks lots of water to avoid dehydration.
Hairballs and blockages. Ferrets love to chew and blockages caused by the items he has chewed can be common. Ferrets can also suffer from hair balls, especially when moulting. Signs of a blockage include difficultly toileting, coughing, a lack of appetite and pawing at the mouth. If you suspect a problem visit your vet.
REMEMBER: If you are in any doubt at all about the health of your ferret, contact your vet immediately.