What you Need to Know Before buying a Ferret
Is a ferret right for you?
The decision to add a ferret to your family must never be made on impulse. Prospective owners are encouraged to learn everything they can before deciding to purchase. To many people, ferrets make the perfect pet, but as with cats and dogs and birds and iguanas etc.., ferrets are not for everyone. Please, for the sake of the ferret, consider the following information before you make a decision.
Most unwanted ferrets are bought from pet stores which do not provide their customers with adequate information. This leads new owners to become “disconnected” from their new companion and doomed to failure from the start. These people become frustrated with their ferret and either give it away to someone else who has no knowledge of ferrets or they abandon it to a Humane Society. Even worse, many ferrets are locked in cages for the rest of their lives, completely isolated from human interaction while others are simply dumped outdoors to fend for themselves. Please remember, ferrets cannot survive in the wild and will die within days if not found.
Anyone who sells ferrets should have knowledge and in-depth experience with ferrets of all ages. Only people who have lived with ferrets can offer advice on keeping ferrets. Sales clerks in pet stores who have never lived with a ferret cannot offer personal advice or answer questions regarding ferret behavior.
Ferrets are not a child’s pet nor a bedroom pet.
Parents should not consider buying a ferret for a child unless it is a wanted pet by the entire family. Too often ferrets are given away because “the thrill” has worn off for the child and the parents have no interest in the animal. It is our belief that no child is mature enough to care for another creature’s daily needs. Sooner or later the child will fail in his or her duties and the parent’s threat to get rid of the animal will be carried out. As with all animals, children must be supervised when playing with ferrets.
Are you willing to meet the financial obligations?
As with any animal, the cost of upkeep will far exceed the initial cost. You must be prepared to supply your ferret with premium cat food and a good quality litter. Ferrets require annual trips to the veterinary clinic for a check-up and a distemper shot (canine distemper is 100% fatal in ferrets).
As with all animals, ferrets are susceptible to certain diseases such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes, dental disease, pneumonia and colds, to name a few. It is important to take time out each day to observe your pet’s physical condition and behavior. Any changes in your ferret’s health should be dealt with promptly. Intestinal blockages in ferrets are serious and can lead to death if surgery is not performed. Would you be willing to provide your ferret with the necessary medical care should expensive surgery be required?
Do you have time for a ferret?
Ferrets are delightful, social creatures who crave human attention. They must not be confined to a cage without the opportunity for exercise and interaction with you at least twice a day for several hours. You must be prepared to make adjustments in your daily life to accommodate the needs of your ferret. If you do not allow your ferret the exercise and companionship that it needs on a daily basis, it will become unhappy and stressed and will suffer from physiological and mental problems.
Are you willing to house your ferrets properly?
Ferrets do not mind being housed in a cage as long as they are allowed out for daily regular exercise. A proper cage is a must and should be big enough to hold a large litter box, food and water dishes and plenty of room for bedding. (Rabbit cages are too small for ferrets). On the other hand, an ideal living arrangement for ferrets is to house them in a small ferret-proofed room. This does not mean that they should be confined to the room for their entire existence. Ferrets are people-oriented. They must have human contact every day and become depressed when constantly left alone. They must be allowed to run and romp with you at least twice a day.
All areas where ferrets are allowed to play must be ferret-proofed.
Most ferrets love the company of other ferrets and will spend hours chasing and wrestling each other. Says one ferret owner, “I can’t imagine having only one ferret. In fact, even though many sources say that one ferret alone will be very happy if you give it attention, compared to the fun of two (or three) can have, a single ferret owner is missing out big time. In fact the tactics used by ferrets when three of them are playing at the same time are quite amusing. (Probably because of the amount of backstabbing used). ” Writes an experienced ferret fancier, “I have maintained for many, many years that the worst number of ferrets one could have in terms of demand on your time and patience is one. ”
Although some books indicate that an adult ferret will accept another after a short adjustment period, our experience has shown that this is not always the case. Some ferrets, when introduced to each other, become friends immediately, yet for others it takes weeks and even months of patience on the part of the humans before the ferrets will accept each other. In other cases, some ferrets will simply never learn to accept another. The bottom line is that it is much easier to integrate ferrets when they are younger rather than later after one has established territory.
If you are away from home all day, a pair of ferrets will keep each other company.
Ferrets are part of the Mustelidae family – their relatives include otters, minks, weasels and ermines. Unlike other members of their family, ferrets are not wild animals. In fact, ferrets have been so thoroughly domesticated that their ability to survive in the wild is virtually non-existent. They are intelligent, curious and joyful animals who love to run and romp and play throughout their entire lives. The males generally weigh 3-4 pounds and the females 1-3 pounds. Their average life span is 5-7 years. Ferrets spend 18-20 hours a day sleeping regardless of their age. For this reason they make perfect pets for people who are not home during the day. Many people who are allergic to cats and dogs will find that they are not allergic to ferrets.
Because ferrets have a high metabolic rate and eat 9-10 small meals a day, food and a constant supply of fresh water must be made available at all times. Water is essential as ferrets are prone to dehydration. The bulk of a ferret’s diet should include a premium quality low ash dry cat food. Cow’s milk should not be given as it will cause diarrhea. (Lactose-reduced milk can be given in small quantities and is especially good for older ferrets). All ferrets love Ferretone but it should be given in moderation, a few drops a day because it is a vitamin supplement. Linatone is not recommended as it contains too much Vitamin A, which is toxic in large doses. Fruits and vegetables (including raisins) should be should be given only as an occasional treat; ferrets are not able to digest fiber. Dog biscuits broken into very small pieces can be given in limited quantities. Sweets and sugar should be avoided. Heavy ceramic dishes make the best containers for food and water as they cannot be easily overturned.
Note: Ferrets do not like pellet shaped ‘ferret food’ but will eat it if it is the only food made available. They prefer food which is flat-shaped which can be held in their mouths without rolling out giving them time to chew the food.
Neutering and Descenting
Along with the obvious reason to neuter or spay pets (i.e. to control the number of unwanted animals), ferrets require this procedure for health reasons. If females are not spayed they can develop uterine infections or aplastic anemia (caused by constant heats) which is usually lifethreatening. If males are not neutered they can become aggressive and are harder to litter train. Descenting is necessary because ferrets have anal scent glands which give off a strong odor. The odor of a descented ferret comes from oils in the skin. Neutering and descenting should be done at about six months of age.
Canine distemper is 100% fatal in ferrets – the only protection is vaccination. Never assume because your ferret never goes outside that it cannot contact canine distemper. You can bring the virus into your home on your clothes, shoes, etc. and not even know it. Your ferret does not need to come in contact with another infected animal to contact the disease (as is the case with rabies). Ferrets should be vaccinated against the disease at 6-8 weeks and again at 10-12 weeks. Booster vaccinations must be given annually. Since your ferret lives indoors with the occasional excursion outdoors on a leash, there is very little chance of it being exposed to rabies. But should your ferret nip someone, its life could be on the line, not because of rabies but due to the overreaction of hysterical humans. The surest protection is a documented history of annual rabies vaccinations. All ferrets should have an annual check-up.
Ferrets should be housed in a ferret-proofed room or a proper sized cage at night or during the day when no one is home. It is of utmost importance to ferret-proof all areas where a ferret will be allowed to play. Ferret cages can be made of 1″ welded wire mesh (never soldered) and should be large enough to provide adequate space for a litter box, sleeping area and food and water dishes (2′ x 1 1/2′). Two doors are a must – one in the front and one on top to facilitate litter cleaning. The floor must be solid as ferrets’ feet are not equipped to walking on a wire bottom. Ferrets love to burrow themselves in layers of soft blankets to sleep in (old sweatshirts are a favorite). Wood chips must never be used as they are hazardous to a ferret’s health. It is a good idea to cover the outside of the cage with a large towel or blanket to prevent injuries caused from rough edges and this will also provide privacy. Ferrets do not object to sleeping in a cage as long as they are let out for play and exercise several times a day.
Ferrets should have their nails clipped about every three to four weeks. Regular nail clippers can be used or you can buy clippers designed for pets. Extreme care must be taken not to cut the veins (the red part). Ears can be cleaned periodically with a Q-tip dipped in hydrogen peroxide or mineral oil. Ferrets ears are very complex and again care must be taken. Your veterinarian can clean your ferret’s ears during its regular annual check-up. A bath is normally not required but should you feel it necessary, two or three times a year is more than enough. One should use ferret shampoo, and not overdo it, as too much bathing will dry out their skin. Ferrets shed only twice a year (in spring and in the fall when their coats change). These are good times to bathe to help prevent hairballs. Prevention is the key thing to dealing with hairballs since ferret do not vomit them up as cats do. Talk to your vet about a hairball remedy during shedding seasons. Brushing your ferret with a soft brush will also help. Hairballs in ferrets can lead to intestinal blockages which can result in life-saving surgery. It is therefore extremely important to make sure the hair your ferret swallows passes safely through the intestinal tract.
Taking ferrets outdoors
Ferrets cannot be permitted outdoors on their own. Because of their natural curiosity they may wander away and not be able to find their way home. Since they are domesticated, they are not equipped to deal with the outdoors. For this reason, they can be allowed outside but only when wearing a harness or leach. When traveling in a car, your ferret should be confined to a pet carrier so it does not distract the driver or end up under the brake pedal.
Ferrets and snow go very well together provided you have climatized them previously by continuing to take them outside as the weather slowly gets colder. The same cannot be said of hot weather, unfortunately in some cases it can kill a ferret. Taking the precautions outline in the below article will help protect your ferret. The frozen bottles of water (such as plastic pop bottles) should always be wrapped in a towel, sweatshirt, etc. to keep the ferret from direct contact.
Hot Ferret by Dick Bossart
With summer and hot, humid weather at hand, I’d like to clear up one misconception about keeping ferrets cool. A fan by itself will not cool a ferret. A fan merely blows air. It feels cool to a human because the air blowing over sweaty skin causes evaporation and evaporation causes cooling. Ferrets don’t sweat, therefore blowing air over a ferret will not cool the ferret. There are a couple of things that you might try if you don’t like the frozen water bottles. Blowing a fan over a pan of ice can blow the cold air around the ice over the ferret. If you put a bucket of water near the cage and drape a towel over the cage with one end of the towel in the bucket and aim the air from the fan at the wet towel, the moving air will evaporate the water and cool the air (if the air is not too humid). Personally, I like the idea of frozen water bottles – cheap, easy and the ferrets can curl up around them or not, depending on how they feel about it.
Discipline: Nose flicking – A Definite No No!
Several ferret books and many individuals claim that you can discipline a ferret by flicking its nose with your forefinger. I hope that anyone using this method will think twice before using it again. It is not unheard of to be rushing a ferret to the vet because of a nosebleed. Injuries such as this are avoidable.
Safer methods should be employed such as scruffing the ferret for a time-out or squirting it with water from a plant mister (set on stream) and using a forceful “NO”. The water startles them and generally they do not like getting wet. Aim for the back of the neck or the hind end near the base of the tail being very careful not to squirt in their eyes or ears. Should the problem persist, try placing the ferret back in its cage for a short time.
Remember that they are ferrets and it is their nature to be inquisitive and get into trouble. Be patient and enjoy them for who they are and not what you want them to be.
Ferrets are intensely curious animals. For their protection and your peace of mind, it is important that your home, or where ever you allow your ferrets to play, be ferret-proofed. When looking for potential dangers, remember that ferrets will try and get into everything. The cardinal rule is “if the head fits, the body will follow”. Never assume that any hole is too small. Unfortunately, you cannot tell them that some of their explorations will lead to dangers like furnaces, electrical wiring or a crushing mechanism inside a sofa bed. Ferrets also like to hide themselves in hard to reach areas and if injured or in trouble, cannot call out for your help. it is up to you therefore, as a responsible ferret owner, to make your home safe for your ferret.
Reclining Chairs and Sofa Beds
Being crushed in the mechanism of a reclining chair or a sofa bed accounts for 50% of ferret deaths under five years of age. You cannot keep ferrets out from under them, or expect guests or children to remember not to sit in them. If you own a ferret and a reclining chair, the only safe thing to do is to get rid of the chair. Never open or close a sofa bed unless you are absolutely certain where your ferret is.
Ferrets must not be allowed behind or under refrigerators and stoves, where they can be injured by the fan, chew on live wires or choke on insulation. Be very careful when opening or closing refrigerator and freezer doors – your ferret could accidentally be locked inside. Never turn on the dishwasher until you are absolutely sure that it is ferret free. Check your dryer vent installation. Many ferrets have availed themselves of a loose or cracked tube to escape.
Ferrets love to burrow in cushions, rugs, blankets and piles or clothing and laundry left on the floor. Be very careful – a lump under the rug could be a sleeping ferret. Always check your laundry before putting it into the washing machine or dryer. We know of more than one ferret who has died in a washing machine. Ferrets are known to scratch their way through liners on the underside of couches. An easy solution is to staple chicken wire to the bottom of your couch.
Kitchen and Bathroom Cabinets
Ferrets are extremely clever in figuring out how to open cupboard doors. Use child-proof latches or magnets (place around the bottom corner of the door if they are not solid wood) to secure cabinets, especially those containing cleaning products.
Ferrets are natural diggers and if plants are accessible, you are asking for trouble. A simple solution is to place large smooth stones on top of the soil. If this does not work, then relocate the plants to a place which is inaccessible to the ferret. Don’t blame the ferret if you find a favorite plant dug up, it’s only natural.
Ferrets rarely chew on wires but if you have one that does, the best way to solve this problem is to pick the ferret up while it is chewing and spray the wire with bitter apple. Return the ferret to the wire and it will not like the taste. You may have to do this several times before it learns to stay away. Never spray bitter apple on your ferret.
Open Doors and Windows
We cannot stress the importance of being very careful when opening and closing doors. A ferret can be outside in a split second with the door closed behind it. Ensure that the door catches work and that the doors are closed properly each time you open them. This is especially important if you have children who are constantly coming and going. One solution might be to put up a barrier at areas of entry leaving enough space for people to enter. Windows should be kept secure and screens checked for holes. Some ferrets will climb up window and door screens and can fall and injure themselves. Some screen doors you can reverse the screen portion and the glass so that the screen is actually on the top. This idea is even good for the small two-legged kids. Remember, if you ferret gets out you may never see it again.
Ferrets love to keep souvenirs from their expeditions. They will usually make off with all manner of items such as shoes (they are especially fond of insoles), eyeglass cases, car keys, vinyl cheque books or anything made from vinyl, rubber or soft chewy items such as foam and rubber. Keep erasers, balloons, rubber gloves, sponges, rubber bands, styrofoam, etc. away from ferrets. They love to chew on such things and can ingest them with often fatal consequences. Intestinal blockages are far too often a cause of death. Rubber toys that are suitable for cats and dogs are not suitable for ferrets. Only purchase latex rubber toys.
Note Re: Intestinal Blockages: If your ferret becomes listless, will not eat or drink, tries to vomit repeatedly but cannot and has not had a bowel movement for several hours, you must take it to a vet immediately. It is important that your veterinarian has experience with ferrets. Intestinal blockages are very serious and can lead to death. Remember, it is better to be safe than sorry – the longer you wait, the less chance your ferret has of surviving. These symptoms can of course, be indicative of other ailments, but an intestinal blockage should never be ruled out, especially in the case of younger ferrets.
Do not keep ferrets in wood chips of any kind. Wood shavings are harmful to ferrets and can cause respiratory problems, gastrointestinal disorders due to ingestion and eye irritations. Bedding should consist of soft cotton blankets (old sweatshirts are a favorite). Be careful when using towels as they can easily get their nails caught in the loops or fraying.
Ferrets make wonderful pets. If you look at your home from a ferret’s prospective, you can easily prevent your ferret from accidentally harming itself. Do not expect your ferret to keep out of things. You must make things and places that your ferret is trying to get into inaccessible, or safe (or just remove the source of temptation). Remember that the curiosity of a ferret’s behavior is natural and prepare accordingly. Your ferret will then be a happy, safe and special companion.
One of the allures of owning a ferret is that it is comprehended to be a low maintenance pet. This is true ONLY if you do the initial training up front, like teaching the ferret not to nip and use the litter box. The number one mistake most people make are told or assume is that ferrets are like cats and will naturally use the litter box. This is not true. Ferrets are caged and separated from their mothers very early at the ferret farms. Because of this, they miss the important stage of mom teaching them to use the “latrine”.
First off, remember, a ferret is NOT a cat. Yes, they can eat dry cat food and can receive a rabies shot, but they do not return to the box every time to relieve themselves. Ferrets have to have several boxes in a confined area and then at best, a 90% hit rate can be achieved. The good news about ferret accidents is that they are small, do not penetrate the carpet or floor, and if left to dry, their stools are odorless and dry in 24 hours. A ferret’s philosophy is this, “Oh – I see a litter box, do I have to go potty? Yes, then I will use the box.” or “Oh – I need to go potty – I don’t see a box. I guess this corner will do just fine.” Fortunately, very few ferrets leave presents in the middle of the floor.
Like a small kitten, a ferret needs to get used to a small area and become good at using the box, before expanding their play and roam area.
- Avoid clumping sand and scented litters until the digging stage is over. Place a little bit of soiled litter back into the clean pan to discourage kits from using the litter box as a sand or play box. DO NOT USE CEDAR OR WOOD SHAVINGS IN A FERRET’S CAGE.
- Use a litter box in the cage which covers at least two corners, and secure it in place so the ferret can not rearrange its location or tip it over.
- Make sure the ferrets are using their potty in the cage well before giving them free run of a room. Place litter boxes in their chosen corners or use newspapers in hard to reach or smaller areas.
- When you get them out to play, wake them up and cuddle them for five minutes, put them BACK into the cage and insist that they use the potty. Watch carefully – sometimes ferrets will go through the motions and not really do anything, in a hurry to get out.
- Allow free run time to be in two hour stages. Put them back in their cage to rest and use the facilities, then let them out again if you wish.
- Use a newspaper where the litter boxes wont work (under furniture, beds, behind doors, etc.) Paper training your ferret is a little easier than box training outside the cage, and it is easy to pick up and dispose of in a jiffy.
- If you have a cat in the house, try paper training outside the cage for the ferrets. Otherwise, the cat will use the ferret boxes and you will have more to clean up in more places. Furthermore, ferrets wont always use a box after a cat has blessed it. Cats wont usually use paper.
- Clean the litter boxes with detergent – nothing harsh! Always save a little of the old litter to put back in a clean box if the ferret is still in the digging stage.
The diet of a ferret will pass from intake to output in about three to four hours. The higher the meat protein in the ferret’s diet, the less waste it will produce. A ferret cannot process vegetable protein, hence feeding low grade foods will just result in larger bowel movements. Suggest to ferret owners that they buy cat diets with chicken as the first ingredient and a minimum of 32% protein. Avoid ferret diets containing fish meal.
Traditional training aids for cats and dogs do not work with ferrets. Rewarding the ferret with some run time or a treat is the best way to reinforce good litter habits.
The number one cause of premature death in ferrets is intestinal blockages. Ferrets love to chew on rubber and other small objects. This is extremely dangerous because swallowed bits can become lodged in a ferret’s intestines. Intestinal blockages are very serious and can lead to death unless surgery is performed to remove the obstruction.
The most commonly ingested items (but not limited to) are:
- latex or rubber pet toys sponges
- foam rubber insoles of shoes
- rubber bath or sink plugs
- refrigerator insulation
- rubber bands
- styrofoam or packing material
- vinyl cheque books
- rubber gloves
- doll hands and feet
- anything made from vinyl, rubber or plastic
A blockage can occur in several ways. In some cases an item will float in the ferret’s stomach and will lodge and dislodge at the opening of the intestine. This will cause serious illness and eventually the ferret will die. Other items will become totally dislodged in the intestine and although the ferret may still have a bowel movement, the excrement will simply be that which is after the blockage, further down the intestinal track.
Because a blockage is often caused by soft material, it cannot always be defected with an x-ray. Often a series of barium tests are performed to confirm the presence of a foreign object. However in most cases, especially in younger ferrets, the best course of action is to have surgery performed immediately. The longer you wait, the less chance your ferret has of surviving.
Warning signs of a possible blockage:
- loss of appetite
- will not drink
- ferret goes in the litter box often but does not have a bowel movement vomits after eating
- vomits after drinking
- pawing at mouth (can be a sign of nausea)
- drooling (can be a sign of nausea)
If your ferret has any or all of these symptoms, you must take it to a veterinarian immediately.
Note: If your ferret vomits once, it may have eaten too quickly. However, a ferret who vomits should be put in a cage and watched closely. Measure the amount of water you put in the bowl and count out a certain number of pieces of food. If the ferret eats and drinks and passes a stool, then it probably does not have an intestinal blockage. If the ferret vomits repeatedly, a trip to the vet is strongly recommended.
Note: These symptoms can be indicative of many other ailments, but an intestinal blockage must never be ruled out. It is important to ensure that your vet has a lot of experience treating ferrets.
Article modified by Eric Rudy. Original author unknown
Eric Rudy runs the non-profit Refuge de Furets du Quebec (Quebec Ferret Refuge)
Tel no: 514-909-2632
Donations are gratefully accepted.