Playful, energetic, and inquisitive; these are the hallmarks of a pet ferret. Many people lump these animals in with pet rodents, but they aren't rodents, and their care requirements are a bit different. With the right diet, housing, and care, these fascinating creatures can live five to eight years, so it's worth your time and effort to learn as much about them as you can before you bring one home.
A Healthy Diet for Your Ferret
Feeding your ferret the right kind of food is essential to his health and well being.
A Staple Diet of Protein and Fat
According to Susan Brown, DVM, ferrets are carnivores. Their digestive tracts are quite short, and whatever they eat is digested and eliminated in about three to four hours. She recommends feeding a high protein, high fat diet with minimal carbohydrates. A whole prey diet is most natural for ferrets, but she recommends Ferret Archtype Diet from Wysong as a good alternative.
Foods to Avoid
UC Davis recommends that you avoid feeding vegetables and fruits to ferrets because they are high in fiber and carbohydrates, and these animals don't have the intestinal flora to break them down. They can actually be bad for your pet's health. The university also recommends that you don't feed cat or dog food, which used to be a common practice years ago.
The Humane Society further recommends that you don't feed your pet egg whites or onions because they can cause hemolytic anemia, and junk foods like candy are definitely off the list as well, especially anything that's sugary or contains Xylitol.
Your ferret's housing is where he'll spend the majority of his time. The following guidelines will help you create a healthy habitat.
The Humane Society recommends housing a ferret in a cage that is at least 30" L x 18" D x 18" H. However, you can easily find multi-level commercial cages that are much larger, and they offer the space necessary to create a nicer environment for your pet. In fact, a multi-level cage usually offers enough space for two ferrets to live together.
Ferrets are great at escaping, so make sure the cage wires are spaced no more than one inch apart, and the doors need secure locking mechanisms. The cage should also have a solid floor rather than a wire one to protect the animal's feet.
Recycled newspaper makes a safe cage bedding, but you can also use aspen shavings. Cover the cage floor with several inches of whichever bedding you choose.
As with most small pets, avoid using pine or cedar shavings since they emit fumes that can cause respiratory problems.
Ferrets can't tolerate extreme cold or heat very well, so place the cage in a draft-free area out of direct sunlight. Bright, indirect lighting is best.
Once you have the right cage, it's time to add accessories that will make your pet's home more comfortable.
- Hammock or sleeping bag: Ferrets like a comfy place to sleep, and if it's secluded, that's even better. They can sleep away the better part of the day, so consider giving your own pet a hammock or a special sleeping bag to rest in.
- Sturdy food crock: These animals are very active, so they need a heavy crock that won't tip over.
- Water bottle: A water bottle is a better choice than a crock because it keeps the water much cleaner. This also means you won't have to change the water as often. Simply dump old water daily and refill with fresh. A bottle that has a double ball bearing drinking tube is also less likely to leak.
- Litter pan: Like many small pets, ferrets usually relieve themselves in a particular corner of their cage. Once you know which corner that is, put a litter pan there to make clean up easier. This can also become a prelude to house training.
Handling Your Ferret
Ferrets are somewhat fragile, so always lift them with one hand under the chest and the other hand supporting the rear. Speak softly to your pet first so you don't startle him, and then gently pick him up.
Frequent handling will help keep him tame and bonded to you, which will also cut down on nipping. You can offer him a little piece of chicken or turkey as a treat for letting you hold him, and he'll quickly come to associate you with something pleasant.
Ferrets don't need baths, but you can bathe them with ferret or kitten shampoo to reduce their natural musky odor if it bothers you. UC Davis recommends that you bathe no more often than once a month. You should also clean your pets ears every few weeks to remove excess wax and reduce the chance of developing an ear mite infestation.
Ferrets need a lot of exercise, so it's good to give them time out of their cage in a supervised setting. They will run and explore every area they can reach, so make sure they don't chew any wires or crawl into any areas you can't reach. You can encourage them to play by giving them a ball to roll and chase. They also love playing in tunnels.
House training isn't a formal process with ferrets. They naturally seek out quiet corners to relieve themselves. Once your ferret becomes accustomed to using a litter pan in his cage, place one or more similar pans in the corners of the room where you let him exercise, and place a few of his droppings in them to help draw him there to relieve himself. Eventually, he might use them on a regular basis.
Ferrets are happier if they live with at least one other ferret, but don't keep a female and male together unless you have them spayed and neutered. Otherwise, you'll end up with babies, also known as kits.
As for other pets in the home, it's safer to keep them separated from your ferret. According to Judith A. Bell, DVM, ferrets are carnivorous predators, so they aren't the best companions for other small pets such as rodents and birds. They also tend to nip when they play, and this could cause problems with cats and dogs. At the very least, you should supervise your ferret very closely if you let him interact with them. One bite or scratch could potentially lead to his death.
Health and Veterinary Care
According to Greg Rich, DVM, ferrets need to be vaccinated against distemper and rabies on the following schedule.
- First distemper vaccination at six to eight weeks
- Second distemper vaccination at eight to ten weeks
- Third distemper vaccination at sixteen weeks, plus a rabies vaccination
Dr. Rich also recommends having routine blood work done every two to three years to look for undetected problems, as well as seeing your veterinarian if you notice any signs of poor health, including:
- Swollen abdomen
- Nasal discharge
- Hair loss
- Skin irritation
Give Your Pet Your Best
Your ferret deserves the very best you can give him. Keep his environment clean, feed him only the recommended diet, and provide him with routine veterinary care. Last but not least, show him kindness and affection, and the two of you will have a wonderful relationship. Take care of him well, and he'll thank you for your great care by providing years of fun and entertainment.