Where Did Ferrets Come From?

Last Updated on May 6, 2021

Welcome to the Ferret Beginners Guide! This is Chapter 1: Where Did Ferrets Come From?

Going by the scientific and biological evidence, your favorite little pet, the ferret, belongs to the family of carnivorous mammals, Mustelidae. Some of the other common animals belonging to this family are weasels, mink, badgers, polecats, and martens. The common perception about ferrets is that they are from the lineage of the European polecat. An incorrect assumption about ferrets is that they possess extreme wild instincts. This, however, is not the case for the entire breed. It is generally the black footed ferret which has been found to be wild in nature. Others have been quite human friendly, and have been domesticated for a very long time.

Historical accounts estimate that ferrets have been domesticated since around 400 BC. Their role as a “human companion” is believed to have come about primarily because of their utility in vermin control and in hunting small animals. The earliest reference is available in the writings of Pliny, where ferrets have been referred to as viverra. During the reign of Caesar Augustus, several ships carrying these viverra were dispatched to Rome to help the local administration get rid of the abnormal growth in rabbit population. They also became a favorite keep of the elites of the Muslim kingdoms after Spain was conquered in the 8th century. Arabs called them furo, and saw them as useful companions in small hunting games.

Ferrets once again gained popularity in European societies after the return of the crusaders through Italy and Byzantium. Their role was primarily that of rat- catchers and rabbit hunters. Their degree of acceptance is well exemplified by a noted painting of the great Leonardo da Vinci called “Lady with Ermine” (now in the Czartoryski Museum, Krakow). The companion of the noble lady in this painting is a ferret. Ferrets remained a favorite pet for a very long time until cats took over their position to a certain extent around the 18th century. An important reason why cats, once considered as the symbol of evil spirit, became popular at the expense of ferrets is because, unlike ferrets, they do not stink. Because of their large size, they are also easy to control.

A recent excavation of a medieval castle site in Belgium further testifies that ferrets have been domesticated for a long time. Their intermingling with human societies over the centuries has been to such an extent that many pet scholars now find them unfit for a life in the wild. Many are sure that they will not survive for very long on their own. In the wild they are subjected to dehydration and starvation. There is also the threat of being killed by other animals since ferrets do not have a suspicious nature towards other animals.

In the last century or so, ferrets have again somewhat regained their position as a favorite pet. According to an observation, in the United States, ferrets are the third most popular “domestic carnivore” after the dog and the cat. In the rural European societies, they are still considered to be a prized possession because of their use on farms. In the 20th century, ferrets also came into prominence because of their other abilities. For instance, in the USA and Canada, ferrets were also bred for their fur, which was used in making fake mink coats during the forties and fifties. This business has since been banned. Another industrial use of ferret skills is the stringing of electrical and telephone cables. As recent as the late sixties, Boeing Aircraft Corporation in Seattle and British Columbia Telephones used ferrets to lay the guide wires for pulling the heavier cables through conduits.

Ferrets have been a strong element of the human perception of ingredients of life. This is reflected in the fact that several strong superstitious beliefs are attached with them. For instance, according to a Central European belief, if a ferret bites you in the neck, you are going to have a very long life. Similarly, in British and Irish traditions, drinking the left over milk from a ferret’s dish is considered to be a surefire remedy of the whooping cough.

Are you ready to impress your friends with a little zoology knowledge? Check out Chapter 2.

Want to Jump to Another Chapter?

Chapter2: Is a Ferret Right for You?

Chapter3: How to Choose a Ferret?

Chapter4: How to Determine the Sex of Your Ferret?

Chapter5: How Old Should a Ferret be before Bringing it Home?

Chapter6: Why Do Ferrets Sleep So Much?