While most commercially bred ferrets ferrets have no hunting instincts and are unaccustomed to whole prey, many privately bred ferrets are raised on whole prey and/or raw meat. Ferrets are domestic in the truest sense of the word. Ferrets come in a variety of colors, ranging from albino and champagne to sable (with a racoon-like mask), chocolate, black roan mitts, and variations of these. Then there are various color patterns, including mitts, panda, badger, and points. Male ferrets, referred to as hobs, average 3-6 pounds in weight. Their female counterparts, called jills, average between 1-3 pounds. Baby ferrets are called kits, and are not considered adults until 10-12 months old. A group of ferrets is known as a "business" of ferrets.
When handling very young or unfamiliar ferrets, make sure that they aren't hungry. Wash your hands if you've recently handled their food, so your fingers aren't mistaken for a tasty morsel! Keep them away from your face until they're used to you. Ferrets explore new things with their mouth and teeth – and that can include you nose and ears! Ferret kits can be nippy (just like kittens and puppies) and must be trained not to bite. Usually a soft tap on the nose – just to get their attention – or grabbing the skin under their chin, along with a loud "NO!", will work. Some people push their fingers into the ferret's mouth, and others actually bite the ferret back (like Mom). With a little training and time, they will grow out of the nipping stage. When any animal and a young child are together, they should be supervised at all times. Children may be too rough and hurt the ferret, and cause it to bite in self-defense. Ferrets are much like 2-year-old children. They're unendingly inquisitive, with short bursts of high energy.
A good wire cage with carpeting or linoleum on the floor to protect their feet is best. You need room for a litter box, hammock, and food & water dishes, with enough space left over for them to move around easily and stretch up on their hind legs. As a general guide, a 24"x36"x24" cage would be a good starting size for a couple of ferrets, with a hammock hanging from the top. Ferret Nation and Kritter Koncepts are both good cage brands. For food, a heavy crock-type bowl, or one that attaches to the side of the cage, is best. They will move their bowl otherwise, and dump their food. Don't ever underestimate their determination! For water, even with a crock or attached bowl, many ferrets will dig out, snorkel, or kick litter/food into the bowl, leaving them without any fresh water and likely wet bedding. A large-sized water bottle, which contains enough for two days, is a good idea in place of or in combination with a water bowl. Attaching a small bowl to the side of the cage underneath the water bottle catches drips, and holds more water for drinking. You should, of course, change the water every day. Leaving a two-day supply out is just a good idea, as that will ensure that your ferret won't run out of water unexpectedly. No, water bottles DO NOT harm ferrets' teeth! This is a myth! In addition to a hammock, you can use old t-shirts or sweats for bedding. Even if you use a hammock, it's a good idea to give your ferret a choice of sleeping areas. They like to burrow, and will enjoy snuggling under the bedding in their cage. Under no circumstances should an aquarium be used as housing, as they do not permit sufficient circulation of fresh air. Ideal temperatures for ferrets are between 65 to 76 degrees. They handle the cold much better than the heat. Heat in excess of 85 degrees can cause heat stroke and death.
While a balanced raw and whole prey is the most natural to feed. Keeping the proper ratio of muscle/organ/bone is not easy and the whole prey should vary. A high-quality dry kibble food is next best. We recommend a variety of at least 3 different high-quality cat/kitten or ferret foods mixed. Stella an Chewy's Freeze Dried Cat is a great treat and can actually be a complete meal. Many are available through several on-line stores, like Chewy.com, as well as pet stores. There should be 35-55% (animal) protein, at least 18-20% fat, and very little fiber (under 3%). Look for foods without peas, or at least peas no higher than the 5th ingredient. Milk and other dairy products can cause problems such as salmonella and coccidiosis, so avoid these. Ferrets love chocolate, but just as in dogs, chocolate is toxic to ferrets. Raw pieces of muscle and organ meats are great healthy treats, instead. There are several freeze-dried raw meat foods/treats like Stella and Chewys if you're uncomfortable with raw. Some private breeders also feed whole prey such as mice, rats, and chicks. I highly recommend these as snacks. Even my 4-week-old kits love mice. I feed all my kits a wide variety of foods so they're used to raw, whole prey, freeze dried, and several kinds of dry kibble. Variety is the spice of life!
Spaying & Neutering
If you bought your ferret from a pet store, it has more than likely already been spayed or neutered. If not, upon reaching maturity all pet ferrets should be fixed. Hobs have a strong musky smell until neutered. Descenting will not remove this smell. It's caused by their hormones, and secreted through the oils in their skin. Descenting is not necessary, and is not recommended unless for very rare medical reasons. A jill should be spayed before she comes into her first season – usually the first spring after her birth, at 6 to 8 months old. Jills, when they come into season, can die from aplastic anemia if not taken out by spaying, a hormone shot, vasectomized hob, or breeding. Breeding should not be taken lightly, and is best left to an experienced breeder. Ferret kits are a lot of work, and you can't guarantee being able to find good homes for them. You put your Jill at risk of mastitis and vaginitis, and some jills will eat their kits or just let them die.
Health & Maintenance
Ferrets have nails like a dog, which need to be trimmed regularly. The easiest way to do this is by putting your ferret in your lap in a sitting position. Put a few drops of salmon oil (available at pet stores) on his tummy. While he's busy licking it off, you can trim both the front and back nails. Use cat nail trimmers or regular people nail trimmers. Be sure you don't cut into the pink area of the nail, which is called the cuticle. If you do, use flour, cornstarch, or baby powder to stop the bleeding. Ears should be cleaned regularly, at least once a month. A Q-Tip moistened with water or mineral oil works well. Be sure to get all the little pockets, but avoid sticking the Q-Tip down the ear canal. If you feel the need to bathe your ferret, a tearless baby shampoo works well. Or, there are products available that are designed specifically for a ferret's coat. Don't bathe more than every 4 to 6 weeks. If you do, he will produce more skin oils, which will make his odor increase. This is because bathing too often is very drying to your ferret's skin. For periodic teeth cleaning, a cat toothbrush and toothpaste is available at most pet stores. The back teeth can accumulate tartar, and should be cleaned by your vet at checkups, or by someone experienced. If your ferret gets fleas, use only a flea product that's safe for cats and kittens. We recommend Frontline Plus or Advantage Kitten, which you can get from your vet. Scratching doesn't always mean your ferret has fleas. Dry skin in the winter, or coat change in the spring can cause skin irritation, leading to scratching. A few drops of salmon oil every couple of days may help. Also, to avoid hairballs during coat changes, the use of a cat hairball remedy or a ferret-specific one may be useful.
If your kit's mother used a litter box, chances are she taught her kit to use one too. If your ferret hasn't had any litter training, it's best to start in a small area. Place a rectangular litter box in the corner of the cage. You may have to drill holes in the box so you can secure it to the cage bars. A ferret WILL try and move the box! For litter, you can use a dust free, non-clumping cat litter, or recycled newspaper pellets. An excellent and inexpensive litter is hardwood fuel pellets. They are bio-degradable, and can be used for mulching after the ferret has finished with them. Don't use clumping litters or cedar chips. Clumping litter can be ingested causing a blockage, and cedar chips can cause respiratory problems. Your ferret may well decide to play in the litter at first. This is normal! Don't put too much litter in the pan, and add a previous "deposit" to let your pet know what the box is for. To help prevent accidents, put lots of bedding, like soft t-shirts or towels, in any problem spots. Ferrets don't like to dirty their bedding. So if you use enough bedding materials, it almost forces your pet to use just the box. Most ferrets won't return to the cage to use the box during playtime. You'll need to put a couple of litter boxes in the room where your ferret plays, even placing them in the box every 15 minutes or so to see if they "need to go." Always reward use of the box with a little treat, but NEVER punish your ferret for accidents. Simply pick him up and place him in the box. If your ferret has an accident that you didn't notice right away, clean the area thoroughly to remove any smell. A vinegar-and-water solution works well. Remember, just because you can't smell the accident doesn't mean your ferret can't! If it smells like a bathroom, then it IS a bathroom as far as he's concerned. If your pet always chooses to go in one particular place, simply move the litter box to that place. It's easiest to let them choose their own bathroom areas! And always remember the golden rule: be consistent. The more you work with your ferret, the better litter trained he will become.
Playtime & Toys
Ferrets are very social animals and love to play. It's important for their well-being that they get out of the cage EVERY day for play time. If they don't, they'll lose muscle tone and can become depressed. When frequently handled with lots of TLC, they're less prone to nipping and will become the loving pet you wanted! As for toys, many things a ferret likes to play with can actually be dangerous. Avoid rubber, plastic, ribbons, or any item that can be swallowed and cause an intestinal blockage. This can be fatal, and at the very least requires expensive surgery to remove the obstruction. Safe, inexpensive toys include ping-pong balls, plastic practice golf balls, small balls with bells in them, milk jugs with holes cut in them, boxes, stuffed animals (with nothing loose on them), and dryer vent tubing.
Ferrets require two vaccinations, one for canine distemper and another for rabies. The distemper vaccines available for ferrets include Merial's Purvax and Nobivac Puppy. IMRAB 3 is the only rabies vaccine approved for ferret use. Please note that in order for your pet to be legal in Franklin County, as well as many other large municipalities, he must have a current rabies vaccination from a vet. If the pet store says that your ferret has been vaccinated, please be aware that's just his first week-8 dose of distemper. He'll need two further distemper shots three weeks apart once you take him home (at 11 and 14 weeks). He'll also need his rabies shot no earlier than 12 weeks of age. Do not give the distemper vaccine and the rabies vaccine on the same day. If your ferret should have a reaction, that makes it impossible to tell which vaccine he's reacting to. Yearly boosters are also required for both canine distemper and rabies, along with a yearly vet exam to make sure that everything's fine with your pet's health.
A Brief History
Mustela furo, the European ferret is a member of the weasel family, which includes polecats, minks, skunks, ermine, otters, and fishers. Ferrets were domesticated before the cat.
Domesticated ferrets first came to the United States over 300 years ago on ships, where they were used for rodent control.
There are no "wild ferrets" left in the United States. The closest is the black-footed ferret (mustela nigra), which is an endangered species in a captive breeding program.