Keeping Ferrets as Pets

Ferrets make wonderful pets and companions, as far as the neighbours go ferrets do not bark and they do not use other peoples gardens for their toilet.  With the right feeding regime, accommodation, and care they can live between 6 to 12 years, the oldest known ferret lived to the ripe old age of 13.  So having a ferret is a long-term commitment.  Like cats and dogs, they are carnivores and have many characteristics in common with cats and dogs.

Young ferrets are known as kits and like puppies and kittens, they go through a stage of testing their teeth this can be quite painful at times but with plenty of daily handling, lots of patience and a large quantity of ferrety treats they soon stop biting and begin to realise the handler is not going to hurt them. 

With the right handling, the ferret becomes a bundle of fun and will play with squeaky toys, chase balls, worry at those long snake-like things that cats love, and generally have fun racing around.  Their most favourite toys are simple carrier bags from the supermarket, the more it crackles the better, and the cardboard middles out of carpet rolls or any other tunnel type objects.  Rugs and mats also become toys as the ferret’s tunnel under them and play.  If you decide to have more than one ferret you will soon find out that they spend most of their waking hours play fighting, dancing, and chasing each other round, this constant activity is highly amusing to watch much better than the telly.  Be warned ferrets are very addictive and most ferret owners could not imagine life without them.  Ferrets never seem to grow up and remain playful well into old age, although as they get older they slow down and sleep more

When holding and handling your ferret it is important to make your ferret feel comfortable and secure.  The primary hold is to hold them under their front legs.  In this position, your hand is under the front of the ferret, your thumb under one leg towards the ferrets’ spine, your index finger coming round the neck on the other side of the ferrets body, your middle finger and the rest of your hand should be under the other leg.  Your fingertips should now be towards the back of the ferret in the vicinity of the ferrets shoulder blades.  The spine of the ferret can then be given additional support by your chest wall.  Alternatively using the same handhold, you can support your ferret on your forearm with its back legs on either side of your forearm.  Again, with the same handhold you can support the hindquarters of the ferret with your other hand.  Sometimes, if the ferret is struggling, usually youngsters, you can relax the ferret by using just the handhold as described above without the extra support.  Using your other hand gently stroke down the full length of the ferrets’ body, your thumb, and index fingers going round as much of the ferret as possible.  End the stroke by gently holding its back feet together for a second or two and giving a little gentle sideways shake.  Repeat this as required.  Handling young ferrets do this little and often until they get used to you, as soon as they think about biting you to escape let them go so they don’t feel trapped try to make each session last a little longer.  A ferret that is relaxed and feeling laidback is just as happy being cradled, like you would a baby, in the crook of the arm and will even fall asleep on your lap once you have built up that trust.

Another concern about having a ferret loose in the house or a room is, are they clean.  By habit, the ferret is an exceptionally clean almost fastidious animal and will only use one corner or place to poo.  Let them choose the corner then provide them with a litter tray lined with newspaper or filled with cat litter, one that has a high side on one side.  Make sure that you also keep the litter tray clean because if it becomes too dirty your ferret may decide it is too dirty to use and it will then select another area to poo in and once this has happened you will have two places to clean up.  When it is ready, the ferret will go to its designated poo corner, swing its body round, and reverse into the corner to off load.

Ferrets can sleep up to twenty-two hours a day or more and whilst they are not nocturnal, they are generally active at dawn and dusk in the wild this would probably be their optimum hunting time.  Nice warm sleeping quarters for ferrets come in all shapes and sizes from hammocks to baskets with soft fleecy blankets to ferret sized nesting boxes and fleecy sleeping bags or pouches.  An old fleece jacket is just as good.  Generally, they all curl up together and it is not unusual to see one hammock piled up with little furry body’s, noses poking out and paws all over the place in fact it is sometimes difficult to see where one ferret begins and another one ends.

The ferret is a domesticated polecat – it is generally thought to be descended from the European polecat.  Ferrets are related to weasels, martens, badgers, skunks (NB skunks have recently been reclassified), the wolverine, minks, and polecats these are the ferrets closest relatives next come raccoons, coatimundis, pandas, and bears, viverrids (civets, genets and mongooses,) otters, hyenas, dogs and cats, the cat being its most distant relative.

This genealogy, when it comes to having ferrets inside your house, has to be taken into consideration.  Therefore, it is important to remember that ferrets are natural diggers, have a natural curiosity, and are great escape artists; they can quite easily open doors that are not shut properly.  Ferret proofing may need to be sorted out, if the room has a carpet it could suffer from digging, the areas to watch out for are doorways, which your ferret will perceive as a weak point from which an escape could be made.  Especially, if your ferret sees you opening and going through the door it will want to follow you.  You may wish to protect this area by using a plastic carpet protector cut so that it covers the whole of the doorway carpet including sufficient area either side of the doorway.  Ideally, the room that ferrets are allowed into would have a timber, tile or laminate flooring.  Sofas can also be at risk if the ferret can gain access underneath or behind cushions.  Electrical and phone cables can be treated with bitter bite products if necessary to deter biting and chewing, but putting them out of reach is better.  Make sure that any pot plants are out of reach because of the digging instinct.  Please do not make the mistake of thinking that window bottoms are safe for plants because curtains are made for climbing.  Furniture to a ferret is an assault course to be conquered.  Be prepared to assist your ferret out of any difficulties it might get into, like watching out for it wondering how to get off the top of the bookcase, before it tries to jump.

Nooks and crannies, having bodies like little bendy busses and very flexible ribcages you would be amazed at the tiny holes that ferrets can squeeze though and they are not always very sensible about this and can actually damage internal organs in extreme cases, which could lead to death.  Therefore, it is important that any openings larger than the wire mesh on the door of a cat carrier be sealed up before you let your ferret out.

By reputation ferrets are supposed to have, an awful smell and they are related to the skunk remember.  This only happens when a ferret is very frightened, or the vet has decided to express their anal gland then they can produce a disgusting smell from their anal gland, one that could be likened to tear gas, this is known in the ferret world as skunking.  However, the smell does dissipate after a short while and is not harmful.  The other time when ferrets can smell is in the spring when they come into the breeding season at this time particularly the male (hob) ferrets secret a musky smell that the females (jills) find attractive.  Jill’s secret the same musky aroma as the hobs but not as strongly.  So, if you want to keep ferrets as pets and not for breeding the best way is to have, both the males and the females neutered, the smell that ferret gives off after neutering is minimal and has an almost pleasant,  light musky scent.  Much, much, less offensive than a wet dog smell. 

Alpha Feeds have created a guide on Caring for your Ferret - worth a read, it make take a while to download as its 9MB in size and you'll need Adobe Acrobat to read it

!! Health Alert for Jills !!

It is important point to remember is that jills that are not neutered, either they have to be mated or serviced using a full or vasectomised male or have a hormone injection, known as a jill jab, to take them out of season.  Otherwise, they fall victim to a hormone imbalance that causes them to become anaemic and subsequently die. 

What else do you need to know about looking after your ferrets health and welfare?  It is essential that your ferret has a constant clean supply of water. Ferrets can stand cold weather, high winds, rain and snow provided they have a warm, comfortable, and dry sleeping area with plenty of warm bedding, free of draughts.  However, a ferret that is housed inside a cage or outside in a hutch or shed that gets a lot of sunshine and becomes very hot can suffer heat exhaustion and subsequently die, to help your ferret through periods of hot weather you can add a product called cool ferret to the ferrets water.  This product helps the ferrets to regulate temperature and maintain sufficient electrolytes thus aiding survival.  It is a little bit like an athlete drinking a glucose drink after a race.  Make sure you put the water in a very heavy large pottery bowl, a dog bowl perhaps.  (Ferrets are very strong and the first thing they do to water bowls is tip them over mainly because they appear to want to know where the water has come from so they push the bowl to one side and have a look, silly aren’t they.)  Alternatively give them a large water bottle slung securely on the wire mesh.

Roughly, once a fortnight check your ferrets’ claws the front claws grow very quickly because they are the digging end of the ferret.  Your ferret will probably not get much chance to wear them down by digging it is up to you to clip the claws.  To make claw clipping easier on you and the ferret is to put a little mineral oil, one of the ferret supplement oils used to condition coats is a great thing to use, or alternatively perhaps rapeseed or grape seed oil widely available in the supermarkets, on to the ferrets tummy.  Since ferrets adore these products and view mineral/vegetable oils as treats it will be occupied with licking the oil off its tummy, this gives you the prefect opportunity to sort out the claws.  Look closely at the claw and you can see a red line running so far down the claw this is blood feeding the nerves at the top end of the claw.  It is very very important that you don’t cut this part for one thing it will hurt your ferret and break the trust you have spent so much time building and secondly your ferret will remember what happened and next time its claw clipping time you will not be able to distract the ferret using the oil.  You must leave at least 2-3 millimetres gap between the red part and the cut so that you do not hurt the ferret or damage the claw.  If you are in any doubt about where to cut the claw make the gap bigger and cut less off the length of the claw.

Ferrets ears need a small amount to maintenance because ferrets are prone to waxy build-up and can occasionally succumb to ear mite infections.  To treat this use a good quality ear cleaning preparation for cats available from good pet shops you can get medicated ones and some specify that they will clear ear mite infections as well as waxy build-up.  Using the primary handhold as previously described pop a few drops into your ferrets ear and massage the area so that the solution gets right into the ear.  Repeat for the other ear.  It might be useful to warm the solution before you do this just to a tepid warmth so that it is not such a shock for the ferret when the ear drops make contact with the ear.  Please make sure the you don’t over heat the solution you could permanently damage your ferrets ears.

Feeding your ferret, there are currently quite a number of ready prepared all in one ferret biscuit foods available from a variety of manufacturers, this type food will keep your ferret in good health.  The content, quality, and dietary needs of the ferret are still being researched and that research is bringing improvements to the all in one biscuit food all the time.  If temporarily you are unable to obtain your normal ferret biscuit then you could use a top of the range kitten biscuit, do not use cat biscuit it does not have the right nutrients in it.  Traditionally the ferret would have eaten rabbit prior to its domestication and any other small animals or birds it could catch.  This raw food diet is still probably the best diet that you could give your ferret.  However, it is not always possible to feed a full raw meat diet of just rabbit, small rodents, and birds.  Consequently, a diet that is mixed is probably the one that you will follow.  Chicken wings are particularly good to feed to your ferret they provide some meat and fats but more importantly, they provide a valuable source of calcium from the bone.  Bone should always be fed raw (cooked bone splinters and is brittle because of this it is dangerous and should never be fed to your ferret).  Not only is the bone a good source of calcium it also cleans the teeth and helps to keep them healthy and white.  Other things that you can feed to your ferret are minced beef, liver, kidneys, pheasant, pigeons.  Never, feed things like ham the salt content of ham is so high that it would make your ferret very poorly by affecting major organ function, it could be life threatening.  It is wise to give your ferret a little fruit and veg now and again bananas, grapes, lettuce perhaps, the reason behind this is that if your ferret was eating its traditional diet, part of that diet would also be the intestines of the rabbit it had caught and the intestines would contain all sorts of herbage and vegetable material.  All ferrets have their own favourite fruits and veg so experiment by seeing whether yours has a sweet tooth for fruit or a saviour tooth for vegetables.  Never feed nuts they become stuck in the teeth and cause tooth rot and decay.

Ferret housing it is important that any housing you may purchase for your ferret is escape proof, easy to clean, has a separate sleeping area, and enough room for your ferret to exercise.  Outside it is acceptable for a ferret or two ferrets that are happy living in the same area together to be housed in a very large rabbit hutch.  Provided that they are given the opportunity to exercise by walking on a lead or allowed access to a large room in the house. It is acceptable for ferrets to be housed in an escape proof shed with a run attached and sufficient toys.  If you were thinking about having an inside cage for your ferret/s then a large rat cage, a tall chinchilla cage, or a cage specifically made for ferrets would be acceptable.  Make sure that the wire is welded on the cage and that the spaces in the mesh are too small to allow your ferret to escape.  Make sure that if you are having more than one ferret that the ferrets get along together.  If you need more information then a ferret rescue may be able to help.

Your ferret is now footloose and fancy free in your ferret proof room full of lovely toys, you have taken care of all your ferrets needs and now you want to participate in the fun and interact with your ferret.  One of the ferrets favorite toys is a wand with a squeeky mouse on the end of an elastic string.  Time to get the treats out but not to many because this is really our version of junk food.  They love the cat treats that are available on the supermarket shelves and like dogs once they are used to it ferrets are very gentle when they take treats out of your hand however, be careful at first because also like dogs they can snatch and catch you with their teeth by accident.  It is a good idea to call them by name when you give them a treat talking to them as individuals, using the name repeatedly, in this way eventually you will be able to call them to you (it does take time).  Another good reason for limiting treats is that ferrets are by nature hoarders and if you give them too many they start to hide/store stockpile the treats in hiding places all over the place. 

Remember ferrets like to sleep so if all goes quite suddenly your ferret has probably found its self a nice little corner and curled up for a nap.  They can be very had to find when this happens and some owners put a small harness on them with a bell so that when they move in their sleep the bell will make a noise.

Like dogs, they can be taken for walks on a lead and they love to play in large piles of autumn leaves, but ferrets do not have a homing instinct and could get lost if allowed off the lead, so if you choose to walk them be careful.  Ferrets are also at danger from parvo virus.