Fancy a ferret as a pet?
Ferrets are lively, curious and fun-loving pets. They are part of the Mustelidae family, which includes otters, stoats, weasels and badgers and are a domesticated version of the European polecat.
They have been used for hunting and pest control since ancient times and are still kept for this purpose today though are becoming increasing popular as pets. They are crepuscular, so are naturally active during dawn and dusk and can sleep for 18-20 hours a day.
Pet ferrets can live for five to 15 years but the average lifespan is between eight and ten years. Both sexes become sexually mature in their first spring, usually when they are around nine months old. Females are called jills and males are hobs. Males are usually larger than females and, if they haven’t been neutered, will have a strong, pungent smell.
Ferrets don’t have varying breeds but they do have different colours – the five recognised ones are poley/fitch, dew (dark eyed white), sandy, silver and albino.
Traditionally, because of their strong smell, ferrets often live outdoors but they can be kept as indoor pets too. Lots of housing options are available but always buy the largest enclosure you can so they have plenty of room to exercise and play.
Ferrets love to dig and are very good at escaping through small holes. To stop them disappearing from outdoor runs, wire mesh can be fitted to the underside but this should be covered with something like turf or carpet to prevent injury and it is always a good idea to put bolts on hutch doors.
The wire or bars used for the hutch should be strong and the spaces between them too small for ferrets to fit their heads through. You can buy special wooden hutch-type enclosures with built in runs. If they are kept indoors, you can use tall ferret cages, like those available for chinchillas, with solid platforms and multiple levels.
Ferrets need an insulated sleeping area, large enough for them to huddle together or sleep separately if they want. It should be wind and rainproof and out of direct sunlight. Ferrets don’t like extreme weather, particularly temperatures over 26ºC (ferrets can suffer and die if exposed to temperatures of 30ºC and above).
Good quality hay or shredded paper can be used for bedding and the floor should be lined with newspaper and wood shavings. Many pet ferret owners now favour fleece blankets, hammocks and fabric nesting boxes for bedding as this makes less mess and also adds a little comfort.
Ferrets love tunnelling and climbing so using drainpipes and shelves in the enclosure is a good way of keeping them happy (but don’t have the shelves too high as ferrets can fall and hurt themselves). They also like to sleep in hammocks which can be hung inside their enclosure.
Ferrets can be litter trained, although they may still have occasional accidents. A high-sided, corner litter tray is available from pet suppliers but cat litter trays can also be used, filled with wood shavings or unscented cat litter. It’s generally best to place the litter tray where the ferret likes to go to the toilet rather than put it where you want it to be, as they probably won’t use it!
Litter trays should be cleaned every day and the rest of the ferret’s enclosure should be cleaned at least weekly. Ferrets will hide food, so it’s important to remove this when cleaning them out so it doesn’t go mouldy.
Ferrets can be kept on their own (providing they get lots of human interaction and environmental enrichment) or in small groups, ideally littermates of the same sex or neutered males and females. If they are on their own, they should be played with regularly – lonely and bored ferrets can develop behavioural problems and may find it difficult later to mix with other ferrets.
Ferrets can become friends with other household pets, like dogs and cats, but they should always be supervised if playing together. Even the scent of a ferret can be really stressful for prey species, like rabbits or rodents, so keep them away.
Handling your ferret
Young ferrets (kits) can be prone to biting so it’s always advisable for first time owners to look for ferrets that are at least a year old, have already been handled a lot and are friendly and less likely to bite.
Ferrets that are handled a lot from a young age can form strong bonds with their owners. They have poor eyesight, so they may bite by mistake if you reach in to get them out of a sleeping box or pet carrier. It’s better to let them come out and then pick them up. They should be picked up around the shoulders from above and have their hindquarters supported with the other hand. They are very wriggly, so should be handled with care in case they are dropped!
Ferrets aren’t the easiest to handle and they can bite hard if startled so they don’t always make ideal pets for young children.
Ferrets, like cats, are obligate carnivores. This means that they must have meat in their diet. High protein commercial ferret food (kibble) or a raw diet (including skin, organs and raw bones) or mix of the two is best. Don’t give them processed meats like ham, or cat and dog food. Whole raw eggs in their shells can be given as occasional treats and ferrets will also enjoy breaking through the shell.
Fresh water should always be available. Ferrets can be trained to drink from drinker bottles or you can use a heavy bowl. This should be placed away from the litter tray.
Remember – chocolate, grapes and raisins are poisonous to ferrets and they are also lactose intolerant so should not be fed dairy products such as cows milk.
You should get your ferret checked out by a vet every year. Vaccinations against distemper are also advised because this disease is usually fatal to ferrets. Ferrets can be microchipped to permanently identify them and help to reunite them with their owners if they go missing.
Males and females can be neutered but there are increased risks of adrenal gland disease in neutered ferrets so it’s best to discuss the options with your vet.
Jills come into season in the spring and will stay in season unless mated or the season is stopped using drugs given by your vet. Females that are allowed to stay in season can develop anaemia and even die so this is something that all ferret owners need to address by discussing the options with their vet.
Usually options include spaying, a hormone implant every 18-24 months, a hormone injection (a jill-jab) every few months, a combination of these methods or using a sterile male ferret that has had a vasectomy for a infertile mating. This isn’t recommended due to the risk of spreading disease or potential injury to the female.
Although all ferrets have an odour, unneutered male ferrets have a very strong smell that many people find too strong. They can also have a greasy or sticky feel to their coat. Neutering can reduce the strength of the smell, make the coat less greasy and enable them to mix socially with other males. They are still at risk of adrenal problems after neutering, so some vets advise hormonal implants every 18-24 months to prevent this.
Ferrets can get fleas and ticks in the same way as dogs and cats. They are also prone to ear mites. There are no products manufactured especially for ferrets but your vet can advise on products which are both safe and effective.
Ferrets don’t need regular bathing – although some owners think this will reduce their smell it can actually strip their coat of natural oils and cause skin problems.
Claws may need to be trimmed regularly; this doesn’t have to be a chore as many ferrets like the taste of oil (wheat germ, soya, olive, linseed) and, when drizzled on their bellies, this can make claw trimming with small claw scissors very easy.
Ferrets can catch and pass on human influenza viruses to other ferrets and to humans. They can easily get into scrapes or eat something they shouldn’t, leading to a costly vet bill, so it’s always a good idea to insure your pet.
Ferrets are naturally curious and interact readily with their owners. Dry food can be scattered around their enclosure to encourage foraging or it can be placed in feeding toys available from pet suppliers.
Ferrets aren’t natural chewers but they can eat things they shouldn’t and may swallow small objects (especially rubber) which cause their bowel to become blocked. If they are allowed loose in the house make sure you remove any potentially dangerous objects first. They also like to sleep in dark and enclosed places, so check washing machines, tumble dryers and cupboards before closing or using them.
They should have daily exercise either in the house or in a large run. They can also be trained to walk with a harness and lead.
*Information courtesy of the Blue Cross animal charity.