Ferret Care Guide
Ferret Care Tips: Everything You Need To Know
Ferrets are fireballs! They are entertaining and highly social critters who can easily adapt to most living conditions, making them wonderful housepets especially for those who live in smaller spaces. But they require a lot of care and commitment for their entire lifespans, which can be anywhere from 7-9 or even 10 years, so before you take one home, you want to make sure you’re up for taking care of a pet ferret.
The Natural History of Ferrets
Ferrets are from the Mustelidae family, the same family as otters, badgers, skunks, minks, sables and weasels. Their name comes from a Latin word meaning "little thief."
According to some interpretations of ancient texts, the Greeks and Romans were the first to use ferrets for hunting. Throughout history, and all across Europe, historical references recount how ferrets were used to chase rabbits, either to hunt for pleasure or because they were eating crops.
Later on, they were used to control rabbit and rodent populations in places like New Zealand, Australia, and North America. Today the use of ferrets for rabbit hunting is illegal due to the fear of unbalancing the ecology of an area. This already took place in New Zealand, where the ferret population has increased dramatically since they were introduced to the country in the 1800s. The cuddly little animals have pushed entire bird populations to the brink of extinction.
Ferrets as House Pets
Though they were commonly used to hunt, ferrets have been domesticated for thousands of years. In modern times, they regained popularity as a domestic housepet in the 1970’s, and today there are entire clubs, specialists, events, and competitions dedicated just to ferrets.
Common Breeds of Ferrets
The most common ferret is the sable ferret. They have dark-colored fur with a lighter color underfur, and dark paws and tail. They have a “mask” on their face, similar to a racoon’s coloring.
Other kinds of ferrets are the white-footed sable, white ferret (AKA “albino ferrets” or “red-eyed white ferrets”), black ferret, black-eyed whites (AKA “onyx-eyed white ferrets”), silver-mitt ferrets, silver ferrets, cinnamon ferrets, and chocolate ferrets.
Where Should You Get Your Ferret?
In the United States, ferrets at the pet store usually come from two very large breeding facilities. The factory element of these breeding grounds leads to extreme inbreeding, which can increase the chances of your ferret having certain diseases. The most common inbreeding diseases in ferrets are adrenal gland tumors, and insulinomas. Your other options are to either adopt a ferret from a reputable rescue facility, or to obtain one from a private breeder. These ferrets have significantly less medical issues than the ones available at pet stores. However, in the US, almost all ferrets are coming from one breeding farm.
How to Care for Your Pet Ferret
Ferret Cages and Housing
Not everyone has enough space to give their ferret a spare room. Standard, one-floor cages designed specifically for ferrets do a great job at ensuring a safe environment for your curious friend. There is also a multi-level condo option, providing your ferret with the ability to go up and down the different floors, but this kind of a structure occupies a lot of room. Having a smaller cage is fine as long as you can make up for the lack of space by allowing them to run around the house freely for long time periods. You can let your pet ferret spend time outside, but only if they are properly vaccinated and well-supervised as they tend to get into a lot of trouble. Ferrets are talented escape artists! We suggest starting in the summer months so that the ferret has enough time to adjust to the colder temperatures. Ferrets should not be kept in glass tanks.
No matter what kind of housing you choose, ferrets should never be left in direct sunlight. Also, there must be some kind of roof/barrier on their enclosure to protect them from wind, rain, and sun.
Setting Up Your Ferret’s Home
Your ferret’s cage or enclosure must be set up properly in order to keep your ferret healthy and happy. Two important aspects of their cage setup is the litter box, and a dedicated sleeping area.
For the Litter Box: One side of the box should be lower down to make it easy for the ferret to enter and exit the box. You can use any cat litter in the box.
Ferret Sleeping Area: Ferrets love to hide, sleep, and just hang out in their own private area, away from the open bars. Provide your pet with a dark section within their enclosure, a shelter box, or fabric bag. To make the sleeping area cozy, line it with straw or an old t-shirt. This will encourage the ferret to nest and help your pet stay warm. If you keep your ferret outdoors, make sure you’ve given them plenty of insulation and blankets to keep warm in all four seasons.
Neutering, Spaying, and De-scenting
We recommend that you purchase a ferret who has already been neutered and de-scented. This will spare you a lot of trouble and also prolong the life of your pet ferret. If needed, we can do the ferret surgery at our animal clinic here on Long Island. Note that the surgeries require full anesthesia.
Unneutered male ferrets (hobs) secrete musk at breeding times; this causes them to become overwhelmingly smelly, greasy to the touch, and very aggressive to the point that they will require you to house them separately. Female ferrets (jills) who are not being used for breeding must be spayed as soon as possible otherwise they risk a 90% chance of dying from hormonal complications if kept intact and not allowed to breed. . De-scenting the female will also decrease the chance of scent gland health risks.
Ferrets are equipped with anal scent glands, a natural weapon that they use to spray at enemies, or anytime they feel threatened. The scent and technique resembles that of a skunk, although unlike a skunk, the smell will dissipate after a few hours. Your ferret’s anal glands can be removed safely, and though your ferret will always have that “ferret smell,” it is not as pungent as a ferret who has not been neutered or de-scented.
Ferret Diet and Nutrition
Food and Water
Ferrets eat around every four hours and have fast metabolisms, so food and fresh water must be constantly available. They will only eat what they need. The food and water should be placed away from the litter box to keep it clean of any feces. The receptacles must be the right size for the cage, and of the correct weight (heavy) so that your furry friend doesn’t upturn it and use it as a toy. Change the water twice a day, and anytime you find objects floating in the bowl. Simply dump and refill the water. Note that water bowls are better than bottles, since the bottles can damage your ferret’s teeth.
What Do Ferrets Eat?
In the wild, ferrets eat rodents and other small animals. Ferrets are carnivores! In fact, a diet of fruits and vegetables is detrimental to a ferret’s health, since they cannot digest plant matter. Instead, their diet should consist of high-protein, moderate amounts of fat, and some carbohydrates. The most beneficial and safe way to nurture and feed your ferret is with pellets specifically designed for the ferret diet (not cat food!). If the food is of high standard, there is no need for vitamin supplements.
Some ferret breeders promote a raw meat diet. The problem is that not everyone knows which meat is safe to feed your ferret, and there is a potential for illness. Salmonella bacteria, often found in raw meat, can lead to serious infections, diarrhea, and even death. Therefore it is highly recommended that you avoid the potential danger, and stick to the dry food diet.
Other advantages of dry ferret food is that it lasts longer, cleans and maintains your ferret’s teeth and gums, and stores easily. Since baby ferrets might have a difficult time with the hard texture of the food, you can easily soften it by moistening the food with a little bit of water and letting it sit in the fridge for a few hours.
Ferrets are active and energetic. They love to dig and chew on everything, including electric wires(!). They enjoy a good nap, but most of the time they are scuttling around, sliding into things, having a good time playing. Be sure to watch where you put your wallet, ferrets like to steal items and move them into secret hiding spots (like under the bed, in closets, under piles of laundry…). This is why it’s so important to supervise them when they are out of their cage. Ferrets will put anything in their mouth, and foreign objects can potentially get stuck in their GI tracts and block their system.
If you are new to ferrets, it’s best to start with just one. Some people recommend that you put two ferrets together to keep each other company, and it definitely has its benefits. But keep in mind that this is a big commitment, and though it is highly likely that your two ferrets will get along, not all ferrets like each other.
If you have more than one ferret, supervise their playtime for a few weeks before you decide to leave them alone together in a cage. Give them equal access to food, so that they do not get territorial.
NOTE: Do not get another ferret as a way of avoiding their playtime outside of their cage. Keeping too many ferrets in a confined environment can lead to behavioral problems.
Ferrets are social, and they need to be mentaly stimulated. Playtime is super important; a bored ferret will tend to overeat and become obese. Here are some tips to keep your ferret entertained:
Keep their cage near a kitchen or dining room where it’s often busy, they will enjoy the action.
Let your ferret explore outside his cage when you’re home. (Make sure to supervise him, in a ferret-proof room.)
Supply your ferret with toys for them to play with. (You can make your own toys but check that they are safe for your ferret. Never give them toys that are too small, or can break apart and be easily swallowed, ie: LEGO pieces, marbles, rubber or foam toys.)
Ferrets shed a lot of hair. Brush your pet a few times a week in order to prevent them from ingesting too much hair when they groom themselves.
If too much hair is swallowed, it can cause hairball blockage in their GI tracts, which can be life-threatening. Tell your ferret vet if you notice any changes in your ferret’s shedding habits. Excessive shedding should be treated with hairball laxatives once or twice a week. If your ferret is losing a lot of hair, it can be an indication of adrenal gland tumors.
We recommend trying out a harness or “collar” for your ferret. Ferrets can be trained to wear a harness and be taken outside for walks. Particularly because they are often perceived as wild animals, so a collar on your ferret will indicate that this is a domesticated animal.
For safety reasons, do not attempt to create your own collar or harness. A ferret harness should be lightweight, soft, and small enough so that they cannot escape.
Medical Care for Your Pet Ferret
How Can I Tell When My Ferret Is Sick?
It is good practice to hold your ferret and get to know its normal body size and feel. Here are signs of a healthy ferret:
Clear and bright eyes
Long, soft, whole whiskers
Clean teeth, pink gums
The following signs indicate that your ferret might be sick. If you witness any of these, schedule an appointment with your nearby vet:
Broken whiskers (can be a sign of malnutrition)
Black or brown discharge from their ears (sign of ear mites)
*Ferrets have a lot of earwax in general, so it’s best to monitor them, and know what their normal earwax looks like.
Red gums or tartar
A broken tooth that interferes with eating or seems to cause discomfort
Red irritated spots on their skin (could be fleas)
Weight gain/weight loss
Diarrhea or lack of stools
Not only is it important for ferret care, it is even required by some states that you vaccinate your ferret. Even if your ferret lives indoors, you can expose your pet to viruses that you carry on your footwear and clothing. There are two main types of vaccines that ferrets require: canine distemper vaccine, and rabies vaccine.
Canine Distemper: The initial shots are at 6-8 weeks, and a month later. After that, your ferret requires an annual booster shot for life.
Rabies: The first shot is given at 12 weeks old, and then annually after that for life.
Note that vaccinations can cause adverse reactions in your pet ferret.
If you witness any of these side effects, consult with your veterinarian:
Common Ferret Health Concerns
Concerned about your pet ferret’s health? Here are some tips and things to look out:
The human common cold can be contracted by your ferret. Do not handle your ferret if you are sick or feel something coming on. The common cold for a ferret can be lethal.
Ferrets tend to suffer from heat exhaustion in temperatures over 80 degrees F, or from being in direct sunlight for too long. This is why shade is important in their enclosures.
Though less likely in a private home without other animals, it is a good habit to often check your ferret for fleas and ticks.
Ferrets even as young as one or two-years-old are at great risk for two common ferret diseases, insulinoma, and adrenal disease. Early diagnosis will leave you with more options for treatment.
Ferrets can develop cancer and heart disease. Treating these illnesses can become a financial burden, so it is something to take into account before deciding on a ferret.
Ferrets are also susceptible to the dog heartworm, which is transmitted by a mosquito bite. It is important to prevent this disease by monthly application of revolution (selamectin) by your veterinarian. It is also very effective against other intestinal parasites.
If anything seems out of the ordinary with your ferret, (sluggish, inactive, excessive shedding) it’s best to head in to your vet for a checkup.
When Should You Bring Your Ferret in for a Checkup?
It is important to bring your new ferret in for vaccinations, and to keep up to date with the followup vaccinations. Annual checkups are the best way to ensure a clean bill of health and make sure your pet has all the necessary vaccines. Your vet can also help diagnosis potential illnesses early on. Always bring in your ferret if you have any concerns!
Boarding for Your Pet Ferret
At Long Island Birds and Exotic Pets, we offer boarding for your pet ferret. We have proper cages and the supplies necessary to safely board any ferret. We promise to provide your pet ferret with lots of TLC and space to let him burn out that energy, so you can travel stress-free.