The domestic ferret is believed to be native to Europe, a subspecies of the polecat. They were domesticated about 2,500 years ago to help farmers hunt rabbits by crawling into rabbit burrows and scaring the rabbits out of their holes. In the wild, ferrets feed mainly on mice, small rabbits and small birds.
Most ferrets sleep 18 hours a day, about six hours at a time in between playing and eating for about an hour. They are often most active at dusk and dawn.
Pet stores typically purchase extremely young ferrets, who are as charming as all baby animals, in order to increase their sales. To meet this demand, ferret breeders often prematurely spay, neuter, and de-scent ferrets, which can result in medical problems and even premature death. During shipping, many ferrets die or become ill. In such cases, pet stores merely ask for replacements.
The novelty of having a ferret, often purchased on impulse, can quickly wear off. When ferrets become too difficult to handle, they are often abandoned outside or entrusted to overcrowded animal shelters.
If you are willing to open your home to a ferret, adopt from a shelter or rescue group rather than supporting the inhumane pet industry. Ask your local Wildlife Department, Fish and Game Department, humane society, or veterinarian about the legality of keeping a ferret where you live and whether you will need to obtain a permit if you adopt one.
If you have young children, be sure to monitor their interaction with the ferret as closely as you would with a dog. If more than one ferret will be living in your home, expect “dominance fighting” to take place in the beginning. Fortunately, ferrets can usually coexist peacefully, and even amicably, with cats and dogs. Of course, supervision is a must, for safety reasons. Ferrets aren’t typically compatible with birds, fish, rabbits, reptiles or rodents.
Even for a ferret with free range of the house, a cage is a smart thing to have on hand. A cage or other enclosure can help your ferret learn how to use a litter pan. Although ferrets generally don’t take to using litter as quickly as cats do, they can learn. Start your ferret out in a small area, such as the cage, and expand his or her space gradually as he or she learns. Train ferrets with praise and treats—never use punishment. Once your ferret has learned to use litter pans, place them throughout your home. Don’t use clumping litter, which can easily be inhaled and can also cause rectal blockages.
Ferrets must eat a high-protein cat food, but keep in mind that most ferrets dislike fish flavors. The food must contain at least 32 percent protein and 18 percent fat. Unless your ferret is overweight, make food available to him or her at all times. Vitamin supplements such as ferretone and linatone and small amounts of fresh fruits and vegetables aren’t strictly necessary, especially if you provide a high-quality cat food, but they can contribute to good health if they are supplied in the proper amounts. To help your ferret pass indigestible objects that he or she may ingest, such as rubber bands or Styrofoam, you may also want to give him or her small doses of a cat-hairball remedy regularly. Chocolate, licorice, onions, and dairy products are not recommended for ferrets. Ask your veterinarian for more information about food and supplements.
KEEPING YOUR FERRET HEALTHY
Spaying or neutering soon after your ferret turns 6 months old is a must. Neutering greatly decreases a male’s odor, preventing him from marking his territory in your home and making him less aggressive (males “in season” may kill other ferrets). An unspayed female who doesn’t breed while she is in heat may die of anemia. Do not let your ferret reproduce and add to the overpopulation crisis. De-scenting is not necessary and may be harmful.
Brush your ferret’s teeth twice a week with a small cat toothbrush and an enzymatic toothpaste to control plaque and tartar buildup. Nail-trimming is best left to a veterinarian, unless you are confident that you won’t nick a blood vessel. Do not declaw your ferret.
Ear-cleaning should be done once every month with a cotton swab dipped in sweet oil or an alcohol-based ear cleaner. Ear mites are common parasites. Your veterinarian can recommend treatments. Do not use dips or sprays to combat fleas. These products are very dangerous.
Maintaining a ferret-proof home can be even more arduous than baby or child proofing. Unlike children, ferrets don’t learn to avoid hazards as they grow older. Imagine having to baby-proof your home for 10 years—ferrets can live that long!
Exercise caution, especially with the following tempting, potential dangers in your home:
- Cabinets and drawers, which ferrets can open
- Heaters and furnace ducts
- Recliners and sofa-beds (ferrets have been crushed in their levers and springs)
- Anything spongy or springy, such as kitchen sponges, erasers, shoe insoles, foam earplugs, Silly Putty, foam rubber (including the foam rubber inside a cushion or mattress), Styrofoam, insulation, and rubber door stoppers—swallowing these items will often result in intestinal blockage
- Human food—even ferret-safe human foods, including fruits and vegetables, are harmful in large quantities
- Filled bathtubs, toilets, and water and paint buckets, in which ferrets can drown
- Toilet paper and paper towel rolls, in which ferrets’ heads can easily become wedged, resulting in suffocation
- Plastic bags—if you choose to let your ferret play with bags, cut off the handles and cut a slit in the bottom
- Tiny holes behind refrigerators and other appliances with exposed wires, fans, and insulation
- Your dishwasher, refrigerator, washer, and dryer
- Common—and often poisonous—houseplants
Ferrets love to rip the cloth covering the underside of box springs and climb inside, where they may become trapped or crushed. Put a fitted sheet on the underside of the box springs and anchor it in place with small nails or brads, or attach wire mesh or a thin piece of wood to the underside of the box springs.
When you aren't home to supervise your ferret, you may decide to enclose him or her in a ferret-proof room or in a roomy, metal mesh cage—one that is at least 18 inches long, 18 inches deep, and 30 inches wide, though larger enclosures are preferable. Whatever you decide, your ferret will appreciate ramps, tunnels made from dryer hose or black drainage pipe, a “bedroom” made out of an upside-down box with a cut-out doorway, and hammocks made from old jeans or shirts. Line the cage bottom with linoleum squares, carpet samples, or cloth cage pads, and use old T-shirts and sweatshirts for bedding—never use cedar or pine shavings, which are toxic to small animals. Don’t let the temperature in their living quarters climb too high. Even at 80ºF, ferrets can get sick. They are more comfortable in temperatures around 60ºF.
Don’t forget that ferrets can go for walks on a leash attached to a harness.