Domestic ferrets have distinctive personalities and are highly intelligent, curious, playful creatures.
They have a largely undeserved negative image, but for the right owner, they make wonderful pets. Young ferrets tend to nip playfully, just as puppies do, and it takes much patience and persistence to train them not to bite. Biting is their natural play behavior with other ferrets, but they can learn that human skin is more delicate! Since young children and young ferrets both love excitement and rough play, the child and pet should be carefully supervised while they play, and an infant should never be left alone with a ferret. Ferrets make excellent pets for calmer, older children, but willing adults should be the primary caregiver.
Ferrets are crepuscular animals; they are most active at dawn and dusk. Otherwise, they will sleep about 18 hours a day. Over time they usually adapt to their owner’s schedule. They need to be let out of their cages for three or four hours a day for exercise. Ferrets become bored easily, and too much cage time may depress them or give them time to think of all sorts of unruly antics to perform when they’re finally released.
You may give your ferret the house run while you are home, but when you are gone, he should be caged for his safety. Choose a metal mesh cage with about six square feet of floor space and at least two feet high. Cages designed especially for ferrets are tall and don’t occupy much floor space. Multi-level cat cages also will work. Avoid wooden cages, which will absorb odors, and aquariums, which are usually not roomy enough and won’t allow adequate air circulation.
He will need a small “bedroom,” a cardboard box or basket big enough for him to sleep in, food and water pans, and a litter box (ferrets can be litter-trained, both inside and outside the cage, but they are not as reliable as cats and there will be accidents), bedding, and toys to keep him entertained when he’s not sleeping. Cover the cage floor with linoleum, carpet samples, or cloth cage pads. Old T-shirt or sweatshirt material makes great bedding. He will enjoy a hammock made out of old jeans and metal eyelets fastened to the sides of the cage.
A piece of dryer vent hose (exposed wires taped over) or black drainage hose will be fun for him to crawl through. Don’t give him cardboard paper towels or tissue paper tubes, though. They are small enough for him to get his head stuck in and possibly choke. Some cat toys work well for ferrets, but they’re harder on them than cats would be. Avoid spongy or stuffed toys that can be torn apart or toys with small pieces that can be removed and swallowed.
Ferrets love to be chased and wrestled with and will do the “weasel war dance,” hopping back and forth and jumping around you, nipping at your toes, to entice you to play with them. Usually very quiet, they make soft chucking sounds as they play (ferret owners call it “dooking”). It is recommended to have more than one ferret. Sociable creatures, they will keep each other exercised and entertained but still crave attention from their owner. Squabbling over a toy or special territory may occur, which is natural, but an aggressive ferret will make a high-pitched squealing noise which should not be tolerated. Like people and other pets, most will get along with others, but some won’t. Introduce them gradually to other pets (cats, dogs, other ferrets) in the family. They may not want to make friends until they are comfortable in their new surroundings, but their extreme curiosity makes them almost fearless. They may be dangerous to rodents, birds, and fish, but some have been known to make “pets” out of mice.
Their curiosity and playfulness can entertain their owners but also get the ferret into all kinds of mischief. As intelligent as they are, they don’t seem to use much common sense! They can open cabinet doors and drawers, get into walls, crawl behind appliances, inside recliners or sleeper sofas, or dig their way from beneath into the stuffing of regular sofas and upholstered chairs and many other places where they could be in danger of electric shock, being caught in fans, or being crushed. They love to chew on foam, soft rubber, and sponge, which can cause intestinal blockages or may chew on your houseplants which may be toxic.
Your house must be carefully “ferret-proofed.” Put childproof latches on cabinet doors and drawers and keep cleaning products in a high, safe place the ferret can’t reach. Get down on the floor and look for any openings around plumbing, heating, or air-conditioning vents they may crawl into and plug holes larger than one inch. Keep electrical cords and extension cords out of reach. They move silently and may turn up underfoot or may tunnel beneath a rug to sleep, in danger of being stepped on. They may crawl into a dryer, be tossed into the washer with a load of laundry they were sleeping under, or sneak into the refrigerator. Ferret owners must be especially vigilant to keep their mischievous pets from harm!
These feisty little animals are natural thieves who hide toys and whatever suits their fancy. Socks, jewelry, tv remotes, wallets, makeup, or anything else that isn’t nailed down may be fair game! They have incredible problem-solving skills and will figure out how to open zipped purses, pockets, and sealed bags. An open pocketbook is an invitation to help themselves! When you take their stolen goodies away from them, they may pout and grumble.
When taken outside to play, the ferret should be on a halter leash especially designed for them. They will crawl into any small hole they can find, and if they become lost, they can’t find their way home the way cats and dogs do.
A common misconception is that ferrets have a bad odor. They have scent glands similar to a skunk’s, but they will release the substance and not spray it. The odor is milder, dissipates faster, and washes away more easily. Most ferrets sold as pets in North America have had their scent glands removed. They have skin glands that emit a mild musky odor that is not overpowering. The smell associated with them usually comes from the bedding and litter box in the cage, which should be cleaned often.
Ferrets should only be bathed about every six months. Bathing too often will dry out their skin which will cause the skin glands to produce more oil, adding to the odor. Some enjoy a bath or shower, and you can get special ferret shampoos that will return some of the natural oil to their skin. They should have their nails clipped and their ears cleaned regularly.
On average, ferrets will have a life span of six to eight years but may live to be 12 years old. Females will grow to about 13″ long and weigh three-fourths to two and a half pounds. The male will grow to about 15″ long and two to three and a half pounds. Most ferrets sold in North America are neutered or spayed and descended at a young age.
Being carnivorous animals, ferrets need a diet high in meat protein. In the past, many ferret owners fed their pets a cat food diet, but modern information about their dietary requirements says that a cat food diet may not be adequate. Commercial ferret foods are on the market now, some better quality than others. Read the nutritional analysis label on the package; a good quality ferret food will be meat-based, high in fat, and low in fiber, carbohydrates, and sugar. Ferrets have a high metabolism, and food quickly passes through their digestive system. They will not derive much nutrition from protein in plant matter. The food should contain at least 34% protein and 20% fat.
Ferrets need to eat often, every three to four hours, so dry food should be left out for them for convenience. Ferrets will only eat enough to satisfy their nutritional needs. ( An obese ferret may have a medical problem that the vet needs to evaluate, and he will give you advice on feeding your pet a proper diet while maintaining a healthy weight). Canned food can be given occasionally as a treat. They may also be given very small amounts of hard-boiled egg or cooked meat. Some like fruit, but they should be given fruit treats very infrequently and avoid giving them sugary foods altogether.
Spotting a seriously ill ferret is easy if the owner is aware of his behavior patterns; he will play less and become withdrawn. Even the most docile ferret may bite if he’s in pain. Don’t assume an older ferret is less playful just because he’s getting on. A veterinary evaluation may uncover underlying health problems.
Ferrets are loving, entertaining, and engaging pets when the owner makes a commitment to their proper care including feeding, training, exercise, and veterinary care. They may steal more than your jewelry; they may also steal your heart!