Welcome to this page about these wonderful and fascinating pets.
I'll start out with an article about basic Ferret information. Later, I'll add "What To Expect When You Go To The Vet" and also add additional articles about common ferret problems and diseases as well as details about reproduction, diet, showing, and so forth.
Here we go:
Basic Ferret Information
Roger Ross, DVM
We’re seeing a lot more ferrets in our practice lately. They’re interesting little pets. Let me introduce the subject with a list of basic information:
Mustela putoriusfuro: the domestic ferret is a member of the family mustelid that includes skunks, otters, and mink.
Male ferrets are called hobs
Female ferrets are called jills
Baby ferrets are called kits
Historical records mentioned ferrets as pets at the time of Christ.
In addition to being pets, they have been used to hunt rabbits and rats, and more recently, have been trained to run wire through pipes!
Life span is typically about 7 years but up to 10 plus
They are very active and fun when awake, but sleep soundly for long periods of the day.
The vast majority of pet ferrets are spayed and neutered because:
1. females, once they go into heat ...stay in heat until bred...and if not bred all that estrogen leads to bone marrow suppression, anemia, and death.
2. Spaying in females and castrating in males greatly reduces the strong scent that otherwise associated with ferrets.
Ferrets do not need to have their anal glands removed or “descented”.
Neutering remove the odor problem and ferrets don’t release their scent (unlike skunks) unless extremely frightened.
Males are normally twice the body size of females. The average male ranges in weight from 1 to 2 kg (2 - 5 pounds) Uncastrated males become even bigger.
Females weights range from 0.5 to 1.0 kg (1 - 2.5 pounds).
In addition to normal changes in weight, it’s also normal shed, sometimes it seems almost at once.
I don’t know much about all the different colors of coat, but pet ferrets have been bred to produce a bunch of different shades and combinations. I do know, that it can take several months to regrow hair if a ferret is shaved for surgery.
Most cages meant for cats are about the right size for ferrets. The flooring of the cage should be easy to clean, but solid plastic seems to lead to paw irritation.
Ferrets do fine outdoors as long as they have a cozy draft free area for cold weather, shade from the sun, and a water source that won’ freeze. Straw is okay for bedding. We use pieces of old quilts that we cut up small enough to go in the washing machine easily.
Whether indoors or out, ferrets like to burrow into boxes, bags, purses, knapsacks, old sweat shirts and so forth to sleep.
Like cats, most ferrets readily use litter boxes, but in addition to burrowing in purses and bags, ferrets love to dig through bedding and litter, so be cautious about using a deep litter box full of litter. If you let your ferret roam the house, you may need to have several litter boxes placed around.
Provide lots of toys. Part of the joy of having a ferret is watching them play, BUT BEWARE:
Ferrets will steal your jewelry, your watches and keys, and anything else that catches their fancy and hide this stuff in tiny little places you didn’t even know existed.
They can squeeze into very tiny holes and cracks behind cabinets, under doors, poorly fitted windows, and minute openings near window air conditioners and so forth. It takes some effort to seal up your house from escape and hiding places.
Be a little careful about certain toys: ferrets love to chew soft rubber toys, but sometimes those swallowed bits of rubber get stuck in the intestinal system. Another dangerous material to play with is foam and insulation. Some ferrets chew and swallow the foam padding from under couches and chairs...you may need to staple heavy plastic over the bottoms of foam furniture. Speaking of furniture, be careful when you use your lazy-boy not to squish a hidden ferret.
What ferrets love most, I think, is running through pipes and tubes; set up some plastic 3 or 4 inch plumbing tubes for them to run through behind your couch or something.
Most pet ferrets are already neutered when you get them, but if not, should be castrated or spayed before 6 months of age.
I won’t get into the details of ferret breeding and reproduction in this introduction article, but ferret sex is rough and frequent with the female being quite submissive while the male roughly holds her down and drags her around by the scruff of the neck.
The female is pregnant for about 41 days plus or minus a few days.
The average litter size is 9, but range from 0-20! Did I say zero? Well, like dogs, ferrets fairly often become falsely pregnant, meaning because of high hormone levels, they bloat enough to appear pregnant.
The babies are called kits and are born blind, deaf, and hairless.
You can’t tell what color the kits will be until about 3 weeks of age because their coats start out whitish.
3 weeks old is also about the time you can introduce soft food to baby kits. The goal is to wean them by about 6 weeks of age
Let’s talk about diet:
Ferrets need a high quality, high protein, high fat diet. Typical choices that usually work well are high quality dry cat foods, commercial dry ferret food, or home prepared raw or cooked diets.
Ferrets need to eat often, so usually it’s best to just leave dry food out and available all the time unless your vet tells you otherwise...usually for obesity.
Ferrets are carnivores and don’t do well on soy diets. They have a famously short and sensitive digestive tract.
Cannabalism is not unheard of in ferrets, and pregnant females are super sensitive to starvation and death if underfed. (Pregnancy Toxemia)
Water availability is very important. Really important. Ferrets are prone to fatty liver disease if they dehydrate.
Another diet related problem ferrets are prone to is bladder stones.
These stones are prevented by keeping the urine pH acidic...another reason not to feed less expensive diets that contain a large amount of corn and other plant proteins that are associated with basic or non-acid urine.
Poor skin health and coats are also related to diet in ferrets. Ferrets need a high fat diet. There are other causes of poor hair coats, of course, but frequently you can get good results from increasing the amount of fat in the diet and/or supplementing with omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids.
Basic health care involves:
Vaccinations for distemper in young kits at 8 weeks, 12 weeks, and 16 weeks of age. We also give these young kits dewormer at these ages. Boosters should be given annually. Your vet will check for ear mites at these times.
Rabies vaccine should be given at 12-16 weeks of age and then boostered annually.
Heartworm prevention should be considered for outdoor ferrets.
In addition, your ferret should be examined several times as a baby and then once a year. Ferrets are prone to respiratory, intestinal, skin, and heart diseases. Your vet will be aware and ready to help you with these problems.
My favorite product to recommend is Revolution. Revolution is not approved for ferrets, but as far as I know, there aren't any studies or journal articles indicating that ferrets are sensitive, and compared to any other pesticide, Revolution seems to be super safe, super effective, and very convenient. And very broad spectrum; Revolution probably works in ferrets about as well as it does in cats at effectively controlling fleas, flea larvae, pupae, and eggs, heartworms, ear mites, sarcoptic skin mange, ticks, and intestinal worms (with the exception of tape worms). I'd recommend using the cat dose and applying monthly for 2-3 months in a row if treating fleas, mange, or earmites. If just using as a preventive, I think applying 2-4 times a year would be adequate. It's a great product.
Middle-aged (4 to 5 years old) ferrets frequently develop insulinoma.
This is a growth of tissue in the pancreas that causes the insulin concentration in the blood to be abnormally high, which in turn causes the glucose (blood sugar) in the blood to drop.
Signs of low blood sugar include lethargy, increased salivation, seizures, and comas. Most clients notice that they act "drunk".
Emergency first aid, is, of course, to force a teaspoonful or so of pancake syrup or anything else similar in your ferret's mouth and then get to a vet. The syrup won't hurt anything if it's not needed and might save a life.
Once at the vet, blood work is in order to confirm the suspected low blood sugar levels. Treatment options include surgery and/or medical management.
Another common problem in ferrets is adrenal disease. The adrenal gland(s) grow in size and cause abnormal amounts of adrenal hormones (cortisol) to enter the bloodstream.
Symptoms include skin problems, hair loss, itching, and in females, a swollen vulva.
Blood work is needed to confirm the suspected diagnosis.
Treatment usually involves surgical removal or partial removal of one or both adrenal glands.
I've written a fair amount about adrenal gland diseases in dogs and cats on the metabolic disease page if you're interested in more details.
FERRET Links (Contributed by prevet student Rachel Wessel)
This site talks about the different types of ferrets available for adoption as well as basic diseases and infections that ferrets are known for.
This site gives a good background on how ferrets originated and how they came to be pets. It also has a special section for ferret lingo and how to ferret proof your home.
This site gives many links to other sites about ferrets as well as certain groups in the US and Europe that are dedicated to the care of ferrets and some frequently asked questions about ferret care.