Last Updated on November 23, 2020
If you’re a new and upcoming ferret owner, you’ve probably asked yourself the question: “what do ferrets eat”? Ferrets have a varied and colorful diet that includes many do’s and do not’s, and this article will break it down in detail.
Ferrets are true carnivores; they depend on eating meat to survive. So there’s a no-brainer: always include meat in your ferret’s everyday diet. That’s a handy little fact to know, and you can read other exciting facts about ferrets here.
Another important thing to keep in mind is that ferrets have a short-lasting digestive system. It only takes about 3 hours for food to pass through their mouths and be excreted out, compared to 5 or 6 hours for a cat. As such, it’s important to feed your ferret several times throughout the day. We’ll get to the exact number of times to feed him/her in a bit.
The Ferret Diet
Feeding a ferret is not as simple as feeding other animals; ferrets need a special diet. As mentioned before, ferrets are carnivores and need meat. But why is that the case? Let’s get into the science to help you understand your ferret better.
Animal proteins and fats are staples in the ferret diet because the ferret has been domesticated for over 2,000 years, and throughout most of that time, it has been extremely skilled at hunting. Ferrets have a build and nature that make them well-equipped to track down other small animals such as rodents, moles, and rabbits. It’s no surprise that ferrets today have razor sharp teeth and they need animal meat in their diet.
Ferrets have evolved to be nourished by animal protein and fat, but there are also many things they need to avoid for the sake of their health. And this is where it gets tricky in feeding a ferret and why you have to be careful.
On a side note, most domestic ferrets no longer recognize other small animals as prey, so they would not know to eat and devour a mouse or a bird. So it’s best to feed them cooked and packaged food, rather than the wild food they used to live on.
As for what you should avoid feeding your ferret, complex carbohydrates are a big one. Ferrets are not able to digest fibers so it can cause significant digestive problems to them. That’s not to say you should eliminate fibers from their diet, as some of it is necessary for digestion, but please try to keep it to a minimum. Simple carbohydrates, such as sugar, are a little better for ferrets as they are a source of energy and are easily digestible. But the main source of energy for ferrets should come from fats.
For a maintaining, a healthy nutrient balance in your ferret’s diet, follow the nutrient breakdown below. You can also read a more detailed explanation of a ferret’s macronutrient breakdown.
- Keep the protein to between 30% and 40% of their diet. At least a minimum of 30% protein is necessary. It’d acceptable to go slightly above 40% but less acceptable to go below 30%.
- Keep the fats to at least 18%, with a healthy range being from 18% to 25%. Ferrets depend heavily on fats for energy, so it should be their main energy source over carbohydrates. Fats have a higher calorie density so that ferrets can thrive on them at a lower amount than protein.
- Keep the fibers at a maximum of 3%. Ferrets are unable to digest fibers so consuming them will cause health problems. A good rule of thumb is not to give them more than 3% fiber in their diet. If you don’t measure nutrients precisely, then consider not feeding them fibers at all, as it’s not a good scenario if they consume too much of it. Ferrets don’t need fiber to survive, as they can still get their nutrients from the rest of the foods you’ll read about in this article.
Foods to Eat
So what do ferrets eat? They should eat a high supply of protein and fat, with simple, moderate carbohydrates, and very little fibers. Here is a list of the foods you should feed your ferret:
- Pelleted food – This is dry and easily storable, which makes it ideal for feeding ferrets. Kibbles is a great example. You can buy them from some pet stores. They’re also available to buy online, for which I’ll leave a link at the end of this article.
- Cat food – This is one exception where a ferret and another animal can eat an identical food. Cat food works great for ferrets and is much easier to find.
- Cooked meat – Chicken, beef, pork, turkey, etc. Lightly cook them and feed them to your ferret in a simple form.
- Vitamin and mineral supplements – When wild ferrets eat other animals, they eat the meat, bones, and fur, which gives them wholesome nutrition not found in simple cooked pieces of meat. So it’s advised to regularly give them supplements along with the cooked meat to balance their nutrition.
- Raw egg yolks – Eggs are a great food to add to a ferret’s diet because they’re high in protein, fat, and energy, and they contain no carbs. You can feed them egg yolks directly in a bowl or use it in a recipe that I’ll suggest in this article.
Foods to Avoid
And what do ferrets not eat? You should avoid feeding them sugar, complex carbohydrates, non-nutritious food, and junk food. Here is a list:
- Grains – Ferrets are unable to digest fibrous food, so avoid these at all costs! Rice, oats, bread, etc. should be kept out of a ferret’s diet.
- Fruits and vegetables – Ferrets also can’t digest plant-based food as they lack the organ that digests it, a cecum. So vegetables should be avoided, and most of a ferret’s non-protein and fat nutrition should come from supplements or pellets. Fruits contain both sugar and fiber, so they’re a no-no.
- Junk foods – A lot of junk food is high in sugar and starch and can cause problems for ferrets, and some can even be downright toxic, like chocolate. So avoid chocolates, potato chips, fried snacks, ice-cream, soda, coffee, cakes, pizza, etc.
- Dairy products – Ferrets, are lactose intolerant.
- Dog food – This is worth a mention since when some pet owners hear that cat food is good for ferrets, they might be inclined to feed them any other animal’s food out of misinformation or laziness. But this should be avoided as ferrets have very different nutritional needs than most other animals, including dogs. Cat food is a rare exception to the rule.
Ferret Food Chart
Here is a food chart that summarizes what your ferret can and can’t eat. You may save this chart on your computer or print it out so you can look at it whenever. It gives an overview of what ferrets eat, what they don’t eat, how to feed them, and some important tips to keep in mind.
Now let’s get to the fun part. Here are five healthy and nutritious recipes that are perfect for feeding your ferret! You can change around a few things and experiment with these.
|Cooked chunks of meat||A very simple recipe that should consist of the majority of your ferret’s meals. Though beef is pictured here, I like to use chicken as it contains more nutrients and is easier to chew. But any kind of meat is a good choice. Simply boil or bake the meat until it’s cooked.|
|Meat soup with vitamins||Make a wholesome and nutritious treat for your ferret by mixing chunks of cooked meat in water, and adding a vitamin supplement to it. Olive oil can serve as a good substitute for a supplement.|
|Ferret smoothie||Mix 2 raw egg yolks with 1 cup of lactose-free milk to make a smoothie that your ferret will love! You can mix in several things with this smoothie, such as supplements or olive oil.|
|Homemade jerky||Cut your meat up into 1/4th-inch slices and place them on an oven sheet. Heat the oven at 190°F and let the meat make for at least 8 hours. Flip it once to evenly bake both sides. Cook until the meat is dried out.|
|Ferret cake||These are little treats you can feed your ferret on special occasions such as birthdays. They’re tasty and simple to take. Just take a popcorn cake, and add some sugar-free frosting. Then add some meaty treats on tops of it, such as chicken or turkey. That’s it! It agrees with the ferret’s stomach, and he will love it.|
Need some inspiration? Check out these ferret food recipes you can try at home.
Now here’s an example of how you can implement this diet on a typical day.
Sample Meal Plan
Here is a sample meal plan you can try with your ferret. As you’ll see, it covers all the essential nutrients, and it feeds the ferret often to match its fast metabolism and short digestive tract. Another important aspect of this plan is that most of the meals are dry, with a couple of exceptions. It’s good to keep your ferrets hydrated but maintain a mostly dry diet. You’ll have to alter somewhat this plan based on your ferret’s exact needs. For example, some ferret owners feed their ferret eight times a day, and some only five times a day. I find that the following plan works best for my ferret.
|Meal 1||9:00 a.m||A smoothie with one egg yolk and 1 cup of lactose-free milk|
|Meal 2||12:00 p.m||1 bowl of dry ferret food|
|Meal 3||3:00 p.m||5 pieces of beef or chicken jerky|
|Meal 4||6:00 p.m||1 bowl of soup with water, pieces of chicken, and a vitamin supplement|
|Meal 5||8:00 p.m||1 bowl of dry cat or ferret food|
|Meal 6||11:00 p.m||1 bowl of ferret food pellets|
There are other meal plans you can follow. While browsing a forum, I came across this meal plan that looks wholesome and easy to make.
Risks to Watch Out For
Ferrets are at a higher risk of suffering from health problems than most other domestic animals. Part of this is because of their genealogy, but some of it can also be caused by their diet. That’s why as a pet owner, it’s important for you to be informed of the different risk factors that can come about from feeding a ferret the wrong food.
- Insulinoma: Insulinoma is pancreatic cancer that can be caused if a ferret has too many carbs in their diet, so try to avoid this at all costs. A rule of thumb is to always keep the fibers in your ferret’s diet at a 3% maximum.
- Dental abrasion: Dental abrasion is the wear and tear of the ferret’s teeth. It’s caused by excessive chewing of very dry foods. So don’t keep your ferret’s diet too try; mix some kibble or meat in water to make soup occasionally.
- Diarrhea: Diarrhea can occur in ferrets when they eat something they’re not able to digest, so that includes fibrous carbohydrates and dairy products. Ferrets from pet stores are usually healthier than those from rescue shelters and breeders.
- Cardiomyotomy: This is a heart disease that some ferrets have shown to develop, and it can be fatal. It comes from a lack of taurine in the diet. Thankfully, taurine is present in ferrets foods and animal meat. If your ferret shows signs of cardiomyotomy, please take him to a vet and consider giving him a taurine supplement. Symptoms of cardiomyotomy include coughing, lethargy, breathing problems, swollen abdomen, and weakness.
- Dental tartar: Dental tartar can be formed on the teeth if a ferret gets food stuck in his teeth for a long time, especially wet food. So frequently checking your ferret’s dental hygiene is recommended.
- Osteodystrophy: Osteodystrophy is the bottling of the bones, and it’s not a big concern for ferrets nowadays, but if your ferret shows signs of it, giving them a vitamin supplement should do the trick.
Here are some tips to consider when feeding your ferret:
- Ferrets imprint on their food when they’re about six months old. This makes it difficult to introduce new foods to an older ferret as they will be resistant to it, so it’s recommended to let your ferret try the varied food as early as possible!
- Some ferret owners prefer feeding their ferret a raw natural diet that they are used to in the wild. There’s some validity to this as it can provide them with more nutrients and they won’t need supplements. Foods in a natural ferret diet include frozen rats or pieces of raw liver. However, feeding them live wild prey is a bad idea as it can include germs and diseases. Here is a great discussion that I found about feeding ferrets a natural diet.
- Always keep food in your house at all times, as ferrets get hungry frequently. You don’t want a hungry and agitated ferret in your house.
Selecting a Healthy Diet
Ferrets have a very short digestive tract – the time when the food enters the body until the food exits is only a few hours. Therefore, it is very important to make sure you choose a food that is high enough in protein and fat, so your fuzzy can get the most nutrients and nourishment out of the food he eats. The diet you choose should contain no less than 34% animal protein and no less than 20% fat.
Ferrets tend to imprint on the food they are fed – this means that if that food becomes unavailable, you might have one very hungry and stubborn fuzzy on your hands! It is best to feed your ferrets at least two foods in their daily diet.
Having said that, there are some kitten foods out there that are okay to feed your ferret. However, they should only be fed in conjunction with actual ferret diets, and be sure to read the ingredient listing carefully to make sure it has the proper nutrients.
So how can you tell if your ferret is getting the proper nutrition and the diet you have chosen is the right one? Healthy ferrets have soft and shiny fur, bright clear eyes, supple skin, and normal feces. Feces that aren’t normal include the following:
- Weird color – yellowish, greenish, dark brown almost black
- Very strong smell
- Wrong consistency – ferret feces should be firm. If they are very squishy, mucousy, or liquidy, this is a sign that something – either diet or health-related – is wrong.
If you do need to switch your ferret’s food, do so gradually. Switching them too quickly can result in stomach problems and diarrhea. Also, as mentioned before, ferrets imprint on the food they are used to, so you will need to slowly switch them over to a new food so they continue to eat. You can do this by adding only a small amount of the new food to your ferret’s current diet. Gradually increase the ratio of new food to old food over a period of 10 to 14 days. This method works quite well with most ferrets, and allows your ferret to get used to the new food at his or her own pace.
Ferret owners are very lucky that we have so many different foods to choose from, but just because there are a lot of choices now doesn’t mean that all ferret foods are created equal! Remember, when you’re choosing a food, compare ingredient listings, look for the animal protein sources, and avoid foods high in fiber and vegetable protein.
Which Treats Are Best?
Choosing the proper treats for your ferret is just as important as choosing the best diet. While ferrets should only be given treats in moderation, it is still important to make sure that the treats you choose are healthy and have nutritional value.
Ferret treats should be chosen in much the same way that we choose their diets – you want treats that are high in animal protein and low in sugar. Ferret diets and treats that are high in sugar are thought to be a leading factor of insulinoma in ferrets. Some treats can also aggravate the condition of chronic bowel or irritable bowel disease. Treats that are best for your ferret’s health include meat and chicken-based treats.
Some people give their ferrets their regular kibble out of their hand – many ferrets will view this as a treat since they are taking it from your hand, and it has the advantage of keeping them on a fairly strict diet. It is also a good way to acclimate them to a new food.
Avoid giving your ferrets the following treats no matter how much they beg!
- Alcohol and other high-sugar drinks
- Coffee, tea products, and any other caffeine drinks
- Dairy products – they can cause diarrhea
- Seeds & nuts – they are indigestible and can cause blockages
- Sugary foods, such as candy
- Salty foods
- Raw egg whites – they contain a substance that can cause anemia in ferrets
- Processed meats – yes, they are meats, but they also contain a lot of salt and additives.
- Uncooked vegetables – they can get lodged in the intestinal tract.
Find healthy treats that are low in sugar to satisfy your ferret’s treat needs, and give them to your ferret sparingly. No matter what treats you feed your ferret, moderation and common sense are the keys to a healthy and happy fuzzy!
The Sugar Factor
There are many schools of thought as to what is the best diet for a ferret, what treats are the best for ferrets, where treats fit into a ferret diet, but out of all of these opinions and practices, there is one absolute: sugar and other carbohydrates in high doses are not good for ferrets!
Ferrets’ bodies are designed to process animal proteins, and both their diets and treats should be high in protein and low in sugars and carbs. They are carnivores, and you wouldn’t find them munching on sugary treats in the wild! Feeding ferrets sugary treats and food will actually leave you with an undernourished, lethargic ferret, as sugar and other sweets have no nutritional value for them. Too many sugary treats will fill them up with empty calories, causing them to eat less of their kibble and other nutritious foods. For a generally healthy, happy and active ferret, it is best to feed them high protein, meat-based treats and food.
The following is a list of treats that should only be given to ferrets in strict moderation:
- Yogurt treats
- Fruit treats
- Peanut butter treats
- Nonacidic fruits – melons, banana, apples, papaya
- Low salt & low sugar cereals
We all know that certain cereals are a favourite treat of fuzzies everywhere, and although they contain sugar, they are acceptable in strict moderation – this means no more than once or twice a month. Kim Schilling, author of Ferrets for Dummies, suggests that two good cereals are Cheerios and Kix.
Besides the general lethargy and undernourishment that comes from a diet high in sugar, there are other health problems that have been tentatively linked to it. Ferrets are very prone to a disease called insulinoma; it is one of the most prevalent forms of cancer diagnosed in ferrets. Feeding ferrets food and treats that are high in sugar and carbohydrates has not as of yet been proven to cause insulinoma. However, many people believe that the high levels of sugar cause an increase in the level of glucose production, which leads to constant production of insulin. This is similar to the effects of insulinoma – a ferret with insulinoma has tumors of the insulin-secreting pancreatic cells, which cause the pancreas to overproduce insulin. Since a ferret’s pancreas works to release insulin as it is needed to regulate blood sugar levels, this causes rapid drops in blood sugar. A diagnosis of insulinoma requires a reassessment of your ferret’s diet and lifestyle, as things that trigger symptoms include exercise, stress and diet. For these insulinemic ferrets, it is vital that they are given food and treats very high in protein.
It is important that all ferrets – sick or healthy – are provided with the proper food and treats they need to live a long, healthy & happy lifestyle. While treats that contain sugar can be given, it should only be in strict moderation, and only in conjunction with a diet high in protein.
Best Ferret Food
As promised, here I’ll provide you with links to some ferret food you can buy online. Ferret food is becoming increasingly more available in pet stores as more ferret owners want specialized food, but some people still have difficulty finding it in their local pet stores. Here is some excellent ferret food you can buy online: Read Our Review
The foods above contain real, protein-rich meat and are design to be ideal for the ferret’s diet. They also contain essential amino acids and taurine. They’re a great replacement for cooked meat, and many ferret owners use this food as it’s more convenient than cooking for their ferret.
A: Never suddenly switch your ferret’s food. Sudden dietary changes can cause diarrhea, and your ferret may refuse to eat. If you decide to switch diets, do it slowly. Start by mixing in the new food with the old food at a ratio of 1 part new to 9 parts old. Gradually increase the ratio of new to old until the old food is phased out. If done correctly, this should take a few weeks at the least.
If your ferret refuses to eat the new food, here are some things you can try:
Put the new food and old food in a Ziploc bag so the new food will smell like the old food
Grind up either the new food or both foods and make duck soup with it
Drizzle FerreTone on the new food. Make sure to change the food regularly if you are trying this method, as FerreTone left on food too long may turn it rancid
A: Ferrets are obligate carnivores, so not only do they not need fruit, but they can’t digest it either! I would definitely recommend sticking to meat treats with your fuzzies.
If you are going to feed fruit, however, steer clear of acidic fruits, such as grapefruit. Feed only non-acidic fruits, such as banana, papaya, melon, and apple (without the skin). Feed only in the strictest moderation – ie: no more than a small piece once a month or so. Too much sugar in a ferret’s diet has been tentatively linked to the onset of insulinoma.
A: Ferrets “imprint” on the food they are given. This means that they become used to it and refuse to eat other foods. If you are unable to get that one food or if the manufacturer suddenly changes the formula, you can end up with a sick fuzzy on a hunger strike. Ferrets denied their regular food will often refuse other foods, and if they do eat other foods, it can give them diarrhea.
A: While there are some high-quality cat/kitten diets out there that are acceptable for ferrets, it is highly recommended that you feed a good ferret food with it. Cat food is similar to ferret food, but ferrets have unique nutritional requirements that ferret food is made to fulfill. No matter how good cat food is, it’s still made for a cat, not a ferret!
Read Our Other Article If You’re Interested In Studying Ferrets In More Depth: