Caring for your FIRST Ferret
Whether you are considering adopting a ferret from the Ferret Information Rescue
Shelter & Trust Society, are planning to purchase one from a pet store, or have
one of your own, FIRST wants to help you provide the best possible home and care
for your pet. To this end, we have prepared this brochure to explain briefly some
of the habits and concerns of these active and affectionate animals.
The average life span of a ferret is 6 to 8 years. When fully grown, females weigh
about 800 grams (1.5 lbs) while males are generally about 1.2 kg (2.5 lbs). A female's length is about 30 cm (12 inches) nose to tail and the males are about 45 cm (16
Ferrets come in many colour variations: Most are shades of brown, gray and black
with the mask, feet and tail ("points") generally being the darkest in colour.
The red-eyed white breed of ferret, commonly called an "albino", was bred
for the trait of eye colour. These animals suffer from some vision
problems due to this breeding,
mostly related to difficulties with bright light.
Ferrets have powerful, distinct and engaging personalities, with a playful and fastidious
nature. They are very gregarious and are happiest in pairs or larger groups.
Ferrets are half-light creatures with their periods of greatest activity just before
sunrise and shortly after sunset. They sleep about eighteen to twenty hours of the
day, waking up twice a day for very active periods of about two hours. Due to their
very high metabolism, ferrets also awaken roughly every four hours for a few minutes
to eat, relieve themselves and play briefly. When they wake, ferrets shiver
noticeably for periods up to twenty minutes. This is normal as the ferret is increasing
his body temperature after sleep due to his high metabolism and inherently higher
As burrow-living animals, ferrets require a dark, quiet place to sleep. The most
suitable places are boxes and drawers with bedding of old towels, sweaters, pants and the like in which they can
roll up or bury themselves.
Ferrets are extremely curious and will investigate anything and everything. This
curiosity is the leading cause of accidents amongst ferrets. It is important
to supervise your ferret at all times when he is at play. When you allow your ferrets
to roam about your home, never close refrigerators, washers, driers, etc. without
first ensuring no ferrets are exploring or roosting within.
Ferrets are latrine animals and prefer to use specific areas for this purpose.
Generally, a ferret will relieve himself within a few minutes of waking up. Being
small predators, ferrets would be in the middle of the food chain in the wild, so
their instinct is to find a sheltered corner as a latrine. This makes
it possible to litter train a ferret with considerable success.
The ferret should have a litter box or paper placed in a corner near his nest or
in his cage and be confined to the nest/litter area until after he has relieved
himself. Afterwards, he can be released to play in the rest of the home, as he will
not relieve himself again until after his next sleep. The size of the training
area can slowly be expanded as the ferret learns to use a specific area,
much like paper training a puppy. A litter box can be placed in
a secluded, out-of-sight corner with a piece of furniture providing cover on the third side of the box. Place a
litter box in each room for the ferret's use, and his natural preferences should
guide him to it. The use of a fine, dust-free, clumping litter in a litter box
or newspapers is suggested. Remember to clean up daily.
Play & Nipping
Ferrets are very playful animals, much like kittens or puppies that never grow up.
They have many behaviours related to play and play "hunting" which confuse
or even frighten people unfamiliar with ferret body language.
The most common action is the "war dance," where the ferret arches his back,
throws his head back with fangs bared, often bushing up his tail, and maniacally
bounces forward, backwards, sideways, all the while chittering happily away. As seemingly mad as
this dance may seem, it is only a challenge to come down to his level and play.
If you imitate his actions, he will become more frenzied (hard to imagine though
this may be) and start chasing you, stop suddenly, turn and run.
Now it's your
turn to chase him.
Another common message is pawing the ground while semiprone: This is a challenge
to a play fight. Paw the ground yourself, and he will jump at you, and then retreat.
A few more bouts of pawing and jumping, and he will attack your hand or wrist, wrestling
it down and attempting to "kill" it.
All ferrets have an affinity for people and want to include their parents in their
play. This is a major bounding component in a ferret's life. Due to his extremely
strong jaws and small, sharp teeth, a young ferret easily can break a person's skin during
these games. The ferrets' thick fur and skin protects them when they play
together. It takes a while for them to realize that humans have only thin skin and
no fur, which is no protection against bites. When the ferret bites or nips too
hard, simply do what is natural and yelp in pain. Once they recognize that they are hurting us, ferrets
modify their play so as not to do damage. This rough play is an essential part of a ferret's
life, especially when young.
Nipping, that is pinching the skin hard without breaking it, is another invitation to play.
Some kits never nip, but most do and, though they do mellow with age, this
is a normal communication process with ferrets.
Ferrets are active, curious animals that should be allowed to run free when awake
and be caged only when required for safety. Should you not be able to allow the animals a large
area with toys to roam about freely and explore, then ferrets are not the pet for
When it is necessary to confine your pets, they should be kept
in a cage large enough to allow separate sleeping, eating, litter and play areas.
Generally, a cage of 1 metre by 1/2 metre (40 inches by 20 inches) can house one to three ferrets comfortably
for a short period of time or for travel. If confined for too long, they become
frustrated and claw or gnaw at the cage, resulting in dental damage. When it is necessary to keep the animals caged, exercise in a large area conducive to exploration for periods of two
to three hours twice a day is advised. Remember that a cage is
a dangerous place for animals that roughhouse when playing. Make sure that there
are no exposed wires, gaps between wires that could catch toes and nails, loose
doors or panels that can catch a head, or perch-like shelves that the ferrets can
fall from when playing.
Ferrets love to tunnel, so their favourite beddings are sheets, towels, blankets,
sweaters and such. These items are ideal for ferrets to snuggle into, but ensure
sweaters and blankets do not have decorations on them that the ferret can pull off
SSmall cardboard boxes, bags of plastic and paper, throw rugs and towels, white socks
and clean linen: These are some of a ferret's favorite things. Fancy toys are nice
for humans, but the child in the ferret enjoys the things he can crawl into, under,
and through, like drainage pipe and box lids. The leavings of the latest shopping
expedition (bags, boxes, etc.) are the greatest gift mankind can bestow upon a ferret.
Ferrets are exceptionally playful, so expect your ferret to tip over his food and
water bowls. Check on them often, tape them down, use a heavy dish or place a rubber
mat underneath for spillage.
Do not use
water bottles for ferrets: These are unsanitary, damage teeth and do
not allow a dehydrating ferret to get enough water to survive. Ferrets also wash
their faces in water, so an open source is necessary for their hygiene.
Because ferrets have such rapid metabolisms, they awaken to eat about every four
hours. Fresh water and food should always be available to them. Ferrets eat only
what they need and leave excess food for later, so one need not worry about over
Ferrets must be fed a high quality dry ferret or kitten food. Hard food keeps the
ferrets teeth clean and makes their feces less smelly. The food should contain from
32% to 36% protein (half of which should be derived from meat), at
least 18% fat,
minimal ash and the supplement taurine to prevent urinary tract problems. There
is no need to change diet for older ferrets. Be aware that some ferret foods contain
high quantities of fish meal, oil and by-products. These types of food are based
on mink feed and do not meet the nutritional needs of ferrets, who are not aquatic
and will shun them (a hint). They are generally soft, causing
plaque and tartar buildup on the teeth, and also give the animal an unpleasant smell. Also to be avoided
are foods with added flavours or gimmicks, like raisins, to induce the ferret to
Like all carnivores, ferrets enjoy fruit and sweet vegetables such as grapes, bananas,
carrots, cucumber, etc. as a dietary complement. Every ferret has
it's own preferences. Remove skins that are tougher than a grape peel and slice
stringy items like celery into thin slices rather than sticks to avoid intestinal
Dog biscuits (for small dogs) also make a healthy snack. Give dairy products
and dried fruits sparingly as ferrets are somewhat lactose intolerant and dried
fruit is difficult to digest. Avoid nuts and grain products, as the animals cannot
digest these, and treats that could be swallowed whole, as ferrets do not have grinding molars like us. Milk and milk products in small amounts are also acceptable.
Vitamin supplements are not necessary if the ferrets are fed high quality food and
fresh fruit. However, many ferrets love Linatone or Ferritone
which are given as
reward for good behavior or a distraction when clipping nails and such. No more
that 3 drops per day should be given to your ferret as an excess of
certain vitamins can cause medical problems including fur loss and blindness. We recommend feeding fresh fruit rather than using a supplement. Nutri-Cal and Ferretvite
are other supplements used mostly for ill or undernourished ferrets, though they
can be used as healthier treats for ferrets instead of Linatone or Ferritone.
Yearly Veterinary Visit
As a ferret year is the equivalent of a decade in a human's life, you will need
to take your ferret to your veterinarian two or three times a year for a medical
checkup, with yearly vaccinations once a year. Ferrets require yearly inoculations against canine distemper to which they are highly susceptible and it is always fatal.
Given the frequency of distemper outbreaks, do not forget to inoculate against this every year!
If your ferret is outside for any length of time or exposed to other animals that
are, a rabies vaccination is also suggested.
Be aware that proof of a valid rabies inoculation
is required when taking your pet across international borders.
Include a dental examination for your pet also. Though ferrets seldom develop cavities,
check your ferret's teeth regularly as many ferrets break their fangs when playing.
This can cause excruciating pain and make the animal cranky and bitey. Supplementing
your ferret's diet with a food formulated to clean teeth and massage gums (e.g.
Hill's Prescription Diet Feline T/D) will reduce the likelihood of dental problems.
Such foods are available only through veterinarians.
Spaying & Neutering
All ferrets should be fixed before they reach sexual maturity as this will drastically
reduce their odour and it will extend their lives. Female ferrets go into heat in
their first spring (generally in February) and they will remain in season until
successfully mated. If mating does not occur, the females can succumb to aplastic
anemia and die a most unpleasant death. You will greatly increase your female ferret's
life span if you have her fixed before she goes into season.
As ferrets are very difficult to breed successfully and the risk of losing
the jill, her kits or both is very high, the breeding of ferrets should be left to experts
with on-site veterinary support.
Ferrets attract mates through the use of pheromones, giving the unaltered animals
a very pungent aroma which most people find unpleasant. Unfixed males have a strong
musky odour and will mark their territory with urine.
When a ferret is altered (spayed or neutered) its odour will be eliminated almost
entirely. Thereafter, bathing when the scent becomes strong (once every month to
six months, depending on the weather, activity level, food, etc.) should be all
that is required. However, ferrets, like all animals, will retain a slight odour.
Be a responsible pet owner and have your pets neutered or spayed. This increases
your pleasure in your pets and makes them more attractive to others.
Odor and De-scenting
One of the most common statements about ferrets is that they have a bad smell. Most
of a ferret's odour results from the influence of sex hormones on normal skin secretions.
These secretions are drastically reduced when the ferret is altered.
Being distantly related to skunks, ferrets also have anal scent glands that they
can release at will, though they rarely spray unless they are fighting, mating or
frightened. Descenting involves the removal of these scent glands, which are
located at the base of the tail. Although ferrets do not need to be descented, if you wish to eliminate the possibility
of an unpleasant experience should your pet be frightened in a public place, consider
having this done. It is a minor operation roughly equivalent to a human appendectomy
in seriousness and discomfort. Your ferret will be back to his active self in two
or three days and he will never miss this natural defense. This increases your pleasure
in your pet and makes him more attractive to others.
If your ferret is altered and descented and still has a strong odour, the cause
is usually the food. Change your ferrets diet - remember, if the food smells bad,
so will the animal.
Once your ferret has been fixed and descented, your ferret will require a bath only
every few months. Use a good quality "no-tears" human shampoo,
preferably with a conditioner, which allows you to wash the ferret from nose to tail without
causing any discomfort to the eyes. Be sure to wash around your ferret's neck and face,
as there are additional scent glands located on the cheeks.
A common cause of premature death in ferrets is the intestinal obstruction. Many
ferrets will chew on soft rubber and other small objects. Objects can become lodged in the ferret's intestine, causing an
agonizing and slow death unless surgery is performed immediately to remove the obstruction.
Many other items can be just as deadly: Doll feet or hands,
erasers, ear plugs, sponges,
coffee beans, small buttons, shoe inserts and other foam rubber items, etc. Be careful and use your
common sense as you would if you had a toddler at home. Fortunately, most ferrets
outgrow this rubber fetish once they have left kithood, but it is best to take
Do not feed your ferret grain-based foods (breads, cakes, cookies, cereals, noodles,
etc.), nuts, or fibrous fruits and vegetables. These items are indigestible to ferrets
and can result in various digestive problems, including blockages.
Warning signs of a blockage are listlessness, problems passing a stool,
passing a thin and/or mucousy stool, refusal to eat or drink, and vomiting after eating
or especially drinking. If you suspect a blockage, take your pet to your veterinarian immediately!
Ferrets can catch the human influenza and cold viruses and they can pass them back.
If you have a cold or the flu, be sure to wash your hands before touching your ferret.
Keep the ferret away from your face and do your best not to give your cold to your
Ferrets are also susceptible to canine distemper and rabies (see above). Other common
diseases are adrenal and pancreatic tumors, cardiomyopathy, Aleutian disease, bronchial pneumonia
and other viral infections. Most can be effectively treated given early diagnosis.
As ferrets tend to deteriorate quickly if they become ill due to their high metabolic rate, it is important to provide proper veterinary care immediately.
Ferrets are dry, temperate climate creatures who suffer from warm temperatures and
damp. They should be kept indoors rather than outside and when the temperature
exceeds 20ø C (72ø F) they should be kept in a cool, shaded place with fresh water
in bowls. Ferrets
do have sweat glands, but their thick fur prevents body cooling by evaporation,
making them very susceptible to heatstroke and dehydration. Even if temperatures
do not reach such an extreme, the ferrets are often left damp from sweat and sensitive to chills from sudden cooling afterwards. Leave your pets at home with
lots of water on hot days.
For further information please contact:
113 - 3495 Cambie Street
Vancouver, B.C. V5Z 4R3