Wily, gregarious, and active, ferrets are challenging, yet lovable companions. Increasingly popular over the last few decades, many owners no longer view ferrets as pets, but as members of the family. Here’s what every potential ferret owner needs to know to properly care for these awesome creatures.
Laws and Licensing
The first step in ferret ownership is knowing the laws and licensing requirements in the city, state, or country of residence. Ferrets are illegal in some areas—California and Hawaii—while others require a permit. Also, even if legal in a home state, some cities may not allow them. For example, ferrets are legal in New York state, but not in New York City.
Step two in ferret ownership is preparing a safe environment, one in which they can get into as little trouble as possible. Ferrets require at least four hours per day out of their cage for exercise and play. That is a lot of potential trouble.
It’s best to designate a single room or area, as safeguarding a single area is easier and more realistic than ferret-proofing an entire home.
- exterior doors.
- unsecured wall or floor vents.
- potted plants—due to digging and accidental ingestion.
- access to large appliances they can crawl behind and into.
- open windows, even those with screens. Ferrets will just chew right through them.
Basic Ferret-Proofing Rules
If a ferret’s head can fit through a gap, the rest of its body can as well. If a toddler shouldn’t have something, a ferret shouldn’t have it either.
If an item is small, soft and chewy, get it out of there. This includes rubber bands, erasers, neoprene, styrofoam packing, and rubber toys. Ferrets are chewers, and they may accidentally ingest something, possibly resulting in an intestinal blockage.
Be cognizant of gaps in furniture, especially adjustable furniture like recliners and sofa beds. A ferret can be crushed while hiding within. Stow away any chemicals, medications, and cleaners and secure cabinetry with child-proofing devices.
Ferret Behavior and Training
1. Sleep Habits
For such active creatures, ferrets actually sleep up to 18 hours per day. This is generally broken up by periods of vigorous play and exploration. It’s as if ferrets have two speeds—full-tilt and dead-to-the-world.
Unfortunately, biting is normal behavior for ferrets, but it is just the way they play. Biting can also be a way to ask for attention. Generally, ferrets only seriously bite as a self-defense mechanism.
3. Litter Training
Like cats, ferrets can learn to use a litter box, pad, or newspaper. For whatever reason, they prefer to relieve themselves in corners, so place litter trays in the corners of their play area and cage.
Again, like cats, ferrets are self-groomers, though unlike cats require water for washing up. Frequent bathing to remove their natural odor is not recommended, as it strips the furs of oils, prompting an even stronger musk secretion to compensate. So, in actuality, bathing causes ferrets to smell worse in the long run. Ferrets also require nail trimming and occasional dental brushing (depending on diet).
Necessary Equipment and Supplies
Ferret cages should be large enough to fit food and water dishes, a sleeping area—preferably with a box or bag the ferret can crawl into—and litter tray, and still have room to run around. Multi-tiered ferret condos are popular and allow a ferret to climb and play on more than just one level.
2. Litter Types
There several types of litter on the market to choose from. Pelleted litter, composed of wood or compressed paper, seems like the wisest choice. It minimizes harmful dust particles and is more absorbent. The more absorption, the better the odor control.
Litters to Avoid
- Clay litter: when wet, clay litter can become cement-like, drying and solidifying on the ferret’s paws, nose, and rectal area.
- Aromatic wood shavings, such as pine and cedar shavings. Essential oils release vapors can damage the respiratory tract.
- Corncob litter: may contain or become susceptible to mold. The ferret may also ingest this litter, possibly leading to intestinal blockages. Dust may also compromise the respiratory tract
3. Ferret Toys
As energetic as they are, ferrets require a good amount of mental stimulation. Providing toys and other activities not only entertains ferrets but also discourages them from getting into trouble elsewhere. Ferrets enjoy:
- tunnels, PVC pipes
- hard plastic baby toys
- ferret balls, play tents
- boxes, paper bags
- balls, squeaky toys
Crucial in ferret care is proper diet. As obligate carnivores, ferrets eat only meat and animal products and lack the ability to metabolize plant matter. Ideally, ferrets should consume, per day, 30 to 40 percent protein, 20 to 30 percent fat, and less than 3 percent carbs and fiber.
Other Foods to Avoid
- Fruits and vegetables
- Sugar and sweetening additives
- Kibble or pellets with plant-based fillers
Three types of diet have emerged in recent years.
- Whole Prey Diet, Offers natural prey items, much like feeding mice to snakes.
- Raw Carnivore Diet, Consists of beef, lamb and chicken products and represents all parts of the animal—muscle meat, organs, bones, and fat.
- Dry, Processed Diet (Kibble or Pellets), Advertised as formulated for ferrets. Still, check labels. The first three ingredients—listed in order of content amount—should be meat-derived.
Food and Water Availability
Due to a fast metabolism and short digestive tract, ferrets must have access to food and water at all times. Replenish fresh water throughout the day, and immediately change out water with items floating in it. Water bottles are also an option. Although baby ferrets may need help recognizing a bottle as a water source.
Another crucial aspect of ferret care is proper health care. Like any other pet, ferrets should have regular veterinary checkups.
Preventative Health Care
Ferrets commonly receive vaccinations for canine distemper and rabies, both requiring a yearly booster. Breeders and pet stores often administer at least the first inoculation of both prior to sale. If not, it is important to see a veterinarian earlier rather than later, as both diseases are lethal.
Because ferrets are prone to biting, it is wise to maintain a record of up-to-date rabies shot. Should they bite someone, they could be subject to long-term quarantine or even euthanasia.
2. Spay/Neuter and De-scenting
Most ferrets sold by breeders and in pet stores undergo spay/neuter and de-scenting—surgical removal of anal scent glans—prior to sale. If not, it is best to do so as soon as possible. The two procedures can commonly occur at the same time.
Un-neutered males develop an oily coat from musk secretions and can become quite aggressive. Un-spayed females experience multiple heat cycles per year and remain in heat until mating. Prolonged heat produces raises the risk of anemia, hair loss, bladder stone and infections, and bacterial infection of the vulva.
3. Ferret Parasites
- Intestinal Parasites: There are three typical—Giardia lamblia, Cryptosporidium parvum, and Coccidia—all belonging to the protozoan family group. Of the three, coccidia is most common, causing bloody stool. Seen mostly in juvenile and baby ferrets, but very rare in adults due to increased immunity with age.
- Heartworms: Introduced into the bloodstream by infected mosquitos. Worms mature in the blood vessels of the heart and lungs, leading to lung compression and heart failure.
Possible Health Issues
Some health issues are less common than others. Still, it is best to remain vigilant for signs or symptoms of possible health conditions.
1. Adrenal Disease (AD)
Enlargement and possible malignancy of the adrenal glands. Contributing factors may include lack of UVB exposure, improper diet, and early spay or neuter
Symptoms: hair loss, itching, behavioral changes (typically aggression)
Drop of blood sugar levels due to the pancreas over-producing insulin.
Symptoms: excessive sleeping, lethargy
3. Gastric Dilation-Volvulus (GDV)
Also known as bloat, GDV is a buildup of gas in the stomach. May cause torsion—twisting—of the stomach. Possible causes include bacterial overgrowth in the GI tract or carbohydrate consumption. GDV is serious and even life-threatening without immediate medical intervention.
Symptoms: lethargy, labored breathing, swollen abdomen, change in gum color
4. Gastrointestinal Blockage
Often due to the ingestion of foreign material while chewing. Requires surgical intervention.
Symptoms: not passing stool, vomiting, lethargy, weight loss, signs of pain when handled
5. Aplastic Anemia
Occurring in unspayed females, anemia develops through due to prolonged heat cycles producing an overabundance of estrogen, which in turn suppresses bone marrow and blood production.
Symptoms: lethargy, pale gums, weakness
Also called Aleutian Disease Virus (ADV), parvovirus attacks the digestive and nervous systems.
Symptoms: chronic weight/muscle loss (wasting), loss of appetite, unhealthy coat, lethargy, pale mucous membranes, tremors, partial hind-leg paralysis, incontinence
Top Selected Ferret Care Products
7 Ferret Care Tips
Great power comes with great responsibility, or at least in that sense. Now that you already have your very own ferret, it is important to know the different ways of taking good care of them. Though they are often mistaken as wild animals, in reality, they are more dependent on human care.
Moderate and balanced diet has always been the key to proper nutrition. Ferrets are naturally carnivores and “require the closest thing to real meat that they can get. Food must be “high in animal protein, high in fat and low in fiber”. Treats are good but make sure that they are not high in sugar and are given in moderation. While they love dairy products, these may result to severe diarrhea.
On Bathing (or Wet Grooming)
They are notoriously smelly, so this means they need to be given a bath at least once a month. Note that some ferrets like bathing, some don’t. If it proves to be challenging, toys may make it easier for both of you. And please, do not leave your pets alone. Accidents may happen when they’re left without supervision.
Nail clipping, coat brushing, ear cleaning, occasional tooth brushing, and flea control are important in making your ferret free from dirt and safe from sickness.
On Veterinary Care
Baby ferrets (kits), upon purchase, need series of shots and general health assessment. Yearly check-ups are also encouraged “to catch common early diseases early when still treatable”. The professional help of a veterinarian is still important in making sure your pet is healthy.
For a ferret, the more playtime, the better. They are considered as social animals. If they don’t get to play with you or if they don’t have a partner to play with, then this may result to depression. Ferrets are very active and playful so put aside an hour or two to make sure that they are given the attention they need.
Ferrets need a spacious cage that is designed for them so they can roam around and play freely. Make sure that it’s always clean and comfortable. When going out or when sleeping, secure the locks of the cage or less, you might be wandering in the middle of the night looking for your pet.
They are intelligent creatures that can be taught easily. As a responsible owner, opt for positive reinforcement rather than punishments. Give them rewards for good behavior. If they don’t get it immediately, just repeat the process. Patience is more important than inflicting even mild pain in training them.
Although ferrets require a lot of time and work, many people with ferrets as pets would say that the reward is worth it. For those looking into purchasing a ferret, take the time, put in the work, and then just reap the reward—a fun, intelligent, and never-boring new member of the family.
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