Ferrets can make wonderful pets. They were originally domesticated for helping with hunting, particularly rabbits, which they are still used for in the UK. Their body is ideal for this, being long and lean, ideal for going down narrow underground burrows. Most domestic ferrets are now kept as pets, numbering 800,000 in the United States.
The male ferret is substantially bigger than the female and have an average length of 50cm (20 inches) including their 13cm (5 inch) tail. They weigh 1-2 kgs (2-4lbs) and typically live for 8-10 years.
The name ferret comes from the Latin furittus meaning “little thief” after their habit of squirreling away small items.
They can go wild and colonies of feral ferrets can establish themselves if there is no competition from similar sized predators. This has occurred in the Shetland Islands and elsewhere. The largest feral communities are in New Zealand, resulting in restrictions for importation and even prohibition from keeping ferrets in certain countries. New Zealand’s problems date back to 1877 when farmers wanted them introduced to control the rabbit population, which we humans also introduced. Nature certainly knows best! Once the rabbit population dropped, they preyed on the indigenous wildlife, devastating some bird species which had no mammalian predators.
Ferrets arrived in the Americas in the 17th century, but it was not until the 1980s that they took off as a pet, following the ownership of ferrets by celebrities such as Dick Smothers and David Carradine.
Ferrets are great sleepers, typically spending 14 to 18 hours a day sleeping. They break their sleep up into two to six hour chunks during the day. However, when awake, they are very active and love to be released from their cage to explore and exercise. This ferret curiosity and need to explore has led to the term “ferret out”.
Ferrets appeal to people because of their energy and interest in their environment. You either love their interest or hate it. As always, it is a good idea to offer to ferret-sit, to understand their behavior and see how this would fit in with your lifestyle first. Their play is often of the hide and seek type , which is based on their natural predator and prey behaviour. They like nesting and will often carry small objects or food and store them in secluded locations.
In their movements they will often do strange dances and movements – know as the weasel war dance. Whilst doing this they can get carried away and have accidents, tripping up etc.
Ferrets have a tendency to nip as juveniles, known as kits. This is natural as part of their growing up with mock fighting. Whilst their teeth are sharp, they do not normally hurt each other as they have tough skin. When older, ferrets chew far less and, when trained and treated correctly, will rarely nip a human hand, if at all. Ferrets in pain, or those that have been abused, may bite a human which can be quite painful and break through the skin.
It is a good idea to have multiple litter boxes, as they have a tendency to spread their scent around. This is a natural tendency which makes it difficult to litter box train them. For this reason, clean the litter box frequently
Ferrets’ natural food is whole small prey, the meat the bones, organs, skin, fur and feathers. This can be the base of commercial ferret food in the States. In the UK, kitten food is often a good substitute, though it should, according to a study, have a minimum of 30% meat protein and 18% fat, with a maximum of 3% fibre.
Ferrets are fond of sugary products, but according to vets, they should only be given them occasionally as a treat as it may lead to ferret insulinoma and other diseases. However, products such as medicine and added vitamins are often sugary, which also act as a distraction, so you can give some to them whilst you clean the cage or any other activity that would be difficult to do whilst they are active.
Because of the ferret’s curiosity, you need to ferret-proof your house. Covering up drains, boarding up around appliances, stiffening the underneath of kitchen cupboard, any holes they will find with the resultant dangers. Be especially careful with exits to the house such as air vents and windows. They are also very quick so be careful when they are out and when people are coming in or leaving. Domestic ferrets, if they escape, will be in a bad way as they have poor survival instincts and still show curiosity which is not a good idea with large animals and cars, and they show little in homing instincts There are cases where they have chewed on electric cables and died. Be careful when putting the laundry in the washing machine as they may have crawled in.
Another danger to ferrets is chewing items that they cannot digest, leading to intestinal blockage and potential death. So keep an eye on what is out when they are out of their cage. You can reduce the risk by giving them edible chew / toys as a tastier alternative.
Ferrets can be susceptible to diseases carried by mosquitoes and ticks in certain countries such as heart worms and west nile virus. Fleas can cause irritation and bee and wasp stings can be serious due to their size.
So, Pet Sitters are often asked whether ferrets make good pets for children. They can for older children who can handle them responsibly. They have a powerful bite that can pierce the skin. As with all pets, never leave ferrets alone with young children. Relatively speaking, in the US, reported dogs bite injuries were five times higher for dogs than ferrets.
Ferrets help run cables through small pipes, especially running TV cables and in London were used for the cabelling of Prince Charles’ and Lady Diana’s wedding.
Many ferrets do not mind water, though they do not need to be bathed. Ferrets are likely to need their nails to be clipped about once a month. Ferrets shed their fur in spring and autumn.
Ferrets have a scent gland which they use to scent mark their territory. This identifies the individual and is what gives them a typical musty smell, not unpleasant, which is similar to some male deodorants. In the US, the anal scent glands are removed which many would consider as unnecessary mutilation, including ourselves.
Males, if not neutered, particularly scent their area. Ferrets are best neutered after they reach sexual maturity at around 6-8 months. After neutering they are almost scent free.
Females should also be spayed, unless you are planning to breed from them. Otherwise, there is a risk they may go into extended heat and, if she does not mate or get medical attention, she can go into and die of aplactic anemia caused by estogen toxicity.
Ferrets can suffer from adrenal, pancreatic and lymph cancers.
A common ferret ailment to keep an eye open for is foot or cage rot. This is a fungal infection which attacks the feet and sometimes the tail. This small, yellow, scab-like infection, if untreated, can grow and cover the feet and then the body. As foot rot is often caused by poor cage hygiene, keep on top of clearing the litter.
Hairballs can be a problem in ferrets, particularly during molting. They do not deal with them as effectively as cats so it is a good idea to brush ferrets regularly and especially during the spring and autumn.
Ferrets have four types of twelve small teeth, incisors, located in the front of the mouth between the canines that are used for grooming. Then four large canines that are used for killing prey, twelve premolars for chewing food and six molars for crushing the food. Tartar can be a problem for domestic ferrets as they do not get whole natural food. This can lead to gingvitis and infection. The vet can remove it under anesthetic, but the use of gelatin treats and a small toothbrush is a good preventative measure. Teeth wear can be a problem caused by abrasion with food, such as solid kibbles.
Dental abrasion can also be caused by excessive chewing on fabrics or toys and cage biting. If the ferret engages in these activities a lot, it might be a sign of boredom and more stimulating activities (such as play) should rectify the situation.
“Hobs” are unneutered male ferrets, and neutered ones are “gibs”. An unneutered female is a “jill” and a spayed ferret is a “sprite”. Young ferrets under one year old are known as kits. A group of ferrets is a “business”.
Ferrets come in a wide range of colors and patterns.
White ferrets were historically favoured by hunters as they are easily seen in thick undergrowth. Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting, ‘Lady with an Ermine’, is more likely to be a ferret rather than a stoat.
There are some countries which have strict regulations on keeping ferrets, including some where it is illegal to keep them, sell them and, in some countries, special licenses are required. These countries include Australia, Brazil, Iceland, New Zealand and Portugal. Keeping ferrets is still illegal in California. There are also import regulations that have to be met which are similar to cats and dogs, ie pet passport and microchip. Please check well in advance before travelling.
So, in summary, ferrets are a great alternative to rats and hamsters for those who require a more stimulating, active animal and who have older children.
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