Ferrets as Pets

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Ferrets have many appealing characteristics that make them interesting and lively pets. They have a small body size, with manageable exercise requirements and can be litter trained, making them suitable for inhabiting small living spaces. Males are known as ‘hobs’, females as ‘jills’, and their offspring as ‘kits’.

Ferret Facts

Latin name: Mustela putorius
Life span: 8 – 10 (max. 15 years)
Breeding season:  March – Sept.
Puberty: First spring after birth
Litter size: 6 – 9

Is a ferret the pet for you?

Ferrets need something to do, be it work or play, so a ferret-proof room, with lots of activities is ideal. Ferrets also need time to get use to young children, who have higher voices and jerkier movements than adults, and are more likely to frighten ferrets, and possible cause to nip.
Rodents, birds and reptiles may be seen as prey by ferrets, so they should be kept apart. However, ferrets can get on well with cats and dogs, after initial careful introductions.

Background

Ferrets are members of the Mustelidae family, which also includes weasels, stoats, badgers and otters. They are thought to have been kept by the Ancient Egyptians over 3000 years ago, and were brought to Britain almost 2000 years ago by the Romans, originally for the control of vermin. Ferrets are a domesticated species of the polecat, and come in a variety of colours, from albino, through sandy and silver, to the darker polecat markings.

Housing

Ferrets are gregarious, enjoying the company of their own kind, so it is often better to keep more than one ferret if possible. Neutered males and females will usually live together harmoniously and provide companionship and play for each other. If only one ferret is to be kept, you will need to provide extra playtimes and exercise for him to compensate for lack of company.

Ferrets are very active so the more living space that can be provided the better. For one or two ferrets, a cage should be at lest four foot long by tow foot wide, and two foot high. It should have an enclosed sleeping area free from draughts. The whole cage should be weatherproof and placed in a sheltered place away from winds, rain or too much hot sun. Bedding should be straw in the summer and hay for extra warmth in winter.

Another way of housing ferrets, especially if more than two are kept, is to provide them with a shed with an attached outdoor run, similar to an aviary.

Always provide objects for ferrets to play with. Bored ferrets become excellent escape artists so keep them occupied and check the cage regularly for small holes or gaps.

Ferrets are naturally clean animals and use only one area for toilet purposes. They are very easy to house train provided you let them tell you which corner they want to use! Line this corner with a plastic mat and paper and there are few accidents. Cat litter trays can also be used but be warned that ferrets adore throwing cat litter about!

Handling

Ferrets should be handled gently but firmly. Pick your ferret up behind his front legs and support his bottom in your other hand. Like puppies and kittens, ferrets tend to ‘test’ things with their teeth. They are not vicious, but can make one or two experimental nips, so until you have got to know your ferret and established mutual trust, do not allow him too near your face. If your ferret nips fingers at first, try not to alarm him by quick movements or loud shouts, but take things slowly, stroking him gently and offering titbits.

Play

Ferrets are extremely playful. When excited they ‘dance’ sideways, twisting and jumping, their mouths open and making soft hissing sounds or ‘chuckling’. Some even turn somersaults as they throw themselves around. Ferrets love to chase your feet, or jump at a piece of cloth dangled above them. Some also enjoy chasing objects that roll, such as balls or bottle tops, while others like to ambush each other (or you) from behind furniture.

Ferrets also enjoy running through tubes, rummaging around in boxes or bags, and occasionally paddling in water. An old pillowcase makes an excellent plaything, providing something to climb in and ambush from. Suspended by all four corners, it can be made into a hammock, which many ferrets enjoy playing or sleeping in.

Play is important to ferrets, so allow them lots of activity, but make sure that anything you give them is not harmful. Claws can be caught in loose materials, and plastic carrier bags are dangerous to unsupervised ferrets.

Ferrets readily take to being walked on a harness, providing great mental and physical stimulation.

Feeding

Ferrets are carnivores. Their staple diet should be meat in the form of fresh meat (whole carcase wherever possible) or day old chicks. Pet mince can be a useful standby. Clean fresh water must always be available. Complete ferret foods have been introduced on to the pet market, and these make an excellent diet. Ferrets often enjoy foods as treats. Ice cream is especially popular! An occasional egg is appreciated but be careful as too many eggs can cause loss of hair as well as causing diarrhoea. Although it is fine to give ferrets occasional treats, care must be taken not to allow them to be come fat and sluggish!

Neutering

It is strongly recommended that ferrets are neutered. Male ferrets can have a definite smell about them, and non-neutered males will often fight. Castrating a male ferret greatly reduces the smell and allows two or more males to live peacefully together once they have got used to each other.

Female ferrets come into season each spring and stay in season until mated. If allowed to stay in season, they develop a form of anaemia and can become very ill or even die. For this reason it is important to have a female ferret neutered, ideally in late autumn or winter, when they are not in season.

Illness

Ferrets are tough little animals and it is not hard to keep them fit and healthy. However, they can catch human colds and ‘flu’, so be very careful about handling your ferret if you have a cold. This could be fatal to your ferret. They can also catch canine distemper and it is a good idea to get your ferret vaccinated against this. Other health tips include:

  • Ferrets are very susceptible to heat stroke, so avoid direct sun;
  • Damp should also be avoided, as this decreases your ferret’s immunity;
  • Claws should be kept short to avoid catching on bedding or your clothing;
  • Ears should be regularly inspected and cleaned of brown wax;
  • Check regularly for fleas or ticks, especially if you take him out for walks.


Further Information

The British Federation of Ferret Welfare

Ferret First Magazine