Ferrets as Pets
The Family Ferret - Fast, Feisty, Furry, and Fun!
The third most common uncaged pet in North America today, after
dogs and cats, is the ferret. Most people have heard tales of ferrets
wherein they often are described either as a vicious weasel-like
beast used for hunting rabbits and rats, or as some strange, smelly
creature Englishmen tend to place down their trousers for wagers.
Some people have seen ferrets in a pet store, were they are either
sleeping angelically or rambunctiously rampaging about their cage
with other ferret friends. But what are ferrets and what are they
The origin of ferrets as a domestic animal is unclear. Ferrets
belong to the weasel family (Mustelidae) and are related to mink,
skunks, weasels, otters and badgers. Ferrets are the only domestic
subspecies in this family and they should not be confused with the
Blackfooted Ferret, an endangered species which is only distantly
related. Ferrets are dry temperate climate creatures - they have
a summer and winter coat, tolerate cold well but suffer when temperatures
exceed 20C, and have a breeding cycle attuned to the length of day.
Their closest wild relatives, those with which they can interbreed,
are the European polecat and the Steppe polecat, found in Eastern
European forests southwards into the Balkans and the Caucasus. The
ferret's ancestors likely were encouraged as residents around granaries
somewhere in the southern range of these animals 2500 or more years
ago and gradually were tamed for vermin control and hunting. Thus
ferrets have been associated with man not as long as dogs, but perhaps
as long as cats.
The average life span of a ferret, barring accidents or serious
illness, is 8-10 years. Full grown females weigh about two pounds
while males are larger, generally about twice the weight of females.
The most common colour variations are shades of brown, grey and
black, with the mask, feet and tails being the darkest in colour.
Some ferrets are white or pale yellow with black eyes, and "albino"
ferrets are white with pink eyes.
It is especially important that ferrets should be spayed or neutered
before they reach sexual maturity, and descenting is recommended.
Females will succumb to aplastic anemia and die a most painful death
if they are not spayed or if mating does not occur (Note: There
is no money in breeding ferrets). Altering and descenting the ferret
reduces the animal's odour, extends its life, and increases its
suitability as a companion. Ferrets require semi-annual check-ups
and yearly inoculations against canine distemper.
Ferrets must be fed a high quality, dry ferret or kitten food.
They enjoy fruit or sweet vegetables as treats. Dairy products,
grains and breads, nuts, or similar items must be avoided.
Ferrets as pets, as with any small animal, are not recommended
for homes with very young children due to the excessive exuberance
on both sides of the equation.
Ferrets have distinctive, engaging personalities and a playful,
fastidious nature. They are active animals and should not be caged
unless required, though a cage used as a "safe haven"
is highly recommended. They are very gregarious and are usually
happiest in groups of two or more. Ferrets are extremely curious
creatures and will investigate anything and everything. Unfortunately,
this curiosity is the leading cause of premature death amongst ferrets.
Ferrets sleep eighteen to twenty hours of the day, waking up several
times to eat, check their domain, and tend to other needs. Greatest
activity pccurs during two periods of about two hours beginning
just before sunrise and sunset, when they play virtually tirelessly.
Once settled in, ferrets quickly establish their territory and
set the house rules: What's theirs is theirs, what's yours is up
for grabs. They explore; find and make nests; select and hide treasures.
Life's simple pleasures, like bags and boxes, socks (with or without
feet), or any rubbery item, appeal to ferrets most. Anything that
can be turned over, inside-out, or dragged off, no matter the size,
is fair game. In pairs, they prance, dance, wrestle, and hunt down
each other, dogs, cats, and people with gleeful chittering. They
are there to inspect every activity and supervise every undertaking.
A ferret's greatest delight is to outwit a human. When these tiny
whirling dervishes tire, they enjoy a warm place to rest, a human
lap will do, piling up in groups if possible, with angelic little
smiles on their faces which belie the previous hours of mad mayhem.
In nature, a ferret acts and reacts like a child of two to four
years of age.
Is a ferret the right for pet for you? Before getting a ferret,
research the animal: Talk to people who own them and read a variety
of books about them. Ferrets are not "just like cats"
and have many special needs which are not obvious to a first-time
owner. For example, a ferret's high metabolism and frenetic energy
makes him prone to sudden illnesses and accidents. You must have
a knowledgeable vet and a reserve for emergency veterinary fees
of at least $500 for such possibilities as, when seriously sick
or injured, the ferret doesn't have the luxury of waiting a day
for a vet's office to open. Ferrets also often suffer from broken
fangs as a result of their intensive play and these need to be fixed
or the animal will be in pain.
Consider your lifestyle - if you aren't home much, have children
under the age of ten, don't enjoy chaos, or have a busy lifestyle
which would prevent a ferret from roaming freely, then these little
beasts are not for you.
However, if you like young children but have none, have little
household in-and-out traffic, don't mind occassional accidents,
and thrive on turmoil, then you will probably get along well with
a ferret. Ferrets do not chew or claw furniture, mark territory,
or make loud noises. Being indoor pets which use a litter box, they
do not require daily walks in the park. They are ideal pets for
apartment dwellers and most allergy sufferers.
Should you decide to parent a ferret, be a responsible owner -
protect your pet and yourself by getting a ferret, or any other
pet, only from a rescue organization or pet store that provides
animals which are fixed and vaccinated, and provide him with proper
home and veterinary care. Beware of "cheap" ferrets (less
than $100 each) offered by "breeders" and pet stores:
Altering and descenting costs range from $250 upwards and the ferrets
from these sources, either breeding stock or offspring, only rarely
have had proper handling or any medical care, making them untrusting
of humans, and likely carriers of parasites and genetic defects.
If you can provide for a ferret's needs, you will have a wonderful,
loving, furry, little companion who lives his life to its fullest
and will help you enjoy your own even more.