By Samantha Drake
Ferrets are often compared to cats and dogs. Like cats, they sleep a lot and can be trained to use a litter box. Like dogs, ferrets are social and crave the company of people. But the truth is, ferrets are in a category all their own. With their friendly, inquisitive natures and furry, cuddly bodies, ferrets make great pets, given the right pet parents. If you’re considering purchasing a ferret, learn more about their care needs, including what you’ll need and how to keep your ferret healthy, below.
Ferrets are a member of the weasel family that weigh between one and a half and five pounds as adults and can live between six and ten years, according to the American Ferret Association (AFA). They tend to sleep a lot—18 to 20 hours a day—and are most active in the early morning and evening.
Male ferrets are called “hobs,” while female ferrets are called “jills” and baby ferrets are called “kits.” A group of ferrets is known as a “business.” They come in shades of tans, browns and blacks, with various color combinations and patterns and are usually neutered or spayed and de-scented when they are between five and six weeks old to reduce odor and aggression.
Ferrets have a friendly, playful nature, enjoy being around people and love attention. Ferrets are very intelligent and can be trained to come when called, use a litter box and even perform a few tricks, according to the AFA. They require constant supervision when outside their cage, however, and are not recommended for children under six years old as they can bite. Ferrets also like to steal things and hide them, and enjoy exploring (particularly when there’s an opportunity to squeeze into a tight space).
Ferrets are also prone to a variety of health problems, which can make them an expensive pet, and will often chew things and swallow foreign objects, making ferret-proofing essential, said Dr. Dan Johnson of Avian and Exotic Animal Care in Raleigh, North Carolina.
While ferrets make good companions for larger house pets with careful introductions and supervised interactions, ferrets should be kept away from birds, rabbits, hamsters, gerbils, guinea pigs and reptiles, according to the AFA.
Life with Ferrets
Consider the following details as you determine whether or not to purchase a pet ferret:
- Their environment: ferrets have a reputation for being escape artists, and Johnson recommends single- or multi-level, open wire cage designed for ferrets with a solid floor and a secure door for your ferret’s home. Due to lack of ventilation, glass enclosures (such a fish tanks) are not recommended. The cage should be located in a quiet area where the temperature can be kept between 60 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit and should include bedding (like a towel, blanket or old shirt) that should be washed a minimum of once per week. A litter box that fits in the cage should be filled with recycled newspaper products or aspen shavings. Avoid cedar and pine shavings, which can irritate the respiratory tract, and clay or clumping cat litter, which may be ingested by ferrets, Johnson said. Clean the litter box daily.
- Their diet: ferrets are carnivores and should eat premium commercial food that is high in fat and protein and specifically formulated for ferrets. They should not be fed dairy products, fruits, vegetables, or foods high in fiber, carbohydrates, or sugar, Johnson said. And, of course, ferrets should have fresh water every day.
- Their activity: because ferrets like to chew and swallow things, their toys must be sturdy and have no small parts that can be broken or pulled off. Toys made of foam rubber, latex, or plastic that might be chewed should be avoided, Johnson said. If possible, create “ferret-proofed” area for playtime by covering openings into walls, blocking spaces behind cabinets and removing any appliances or breakable items. Ferrets love interacting with their people, so be sure to spend time at least one hour with them every day and consider having more than one ferret to help keep them entertained.
- Their coats: ferrets are naturally clean animals and groom themselves often. They shed twice a year, however, and should be combed during these times to remove loose fur, in addition to regular nail trimmings and monthly teeth-brushing, according to the AFA. Regular baths with shampoo made for ferrets can help tame a ferret’s naturally musky odor but should not be given too frequently.
Health Issues for Ferrets
Johnson says the biggest misconception about ferrets is that because they’re small and live in a cage, they won’t be expensive, but ferrets are susceptible to variety of health problems, including ulcers, gastric problems due to ingesting foreign objects, and diseases of the adrenal glands and pancreas.
Adrenal gland disease can also occur in ferrets over two and the cause is unknown. The most common signs of the disease are hair loss, particularly on the tail, hips and shoulders, Johnson said. Adrenal gland disease can be treated by surgery to remove the gland or through hormone therapy.
Insulinoma (a tumor of the pancreas that produces excessive amounts of insulin) is common in older ferrets, the most obvious sign of which is the animal’s sudden collapse that can last minutes or hours and, in severe cases, seizures, Johnson said. The progression of insulinoma can be slowed with drugs including the steroid prednisolone or surgery to remove a portion of the pancreas followed by drug therapy.
Preventive Care for Ferrets
Ferrets should have a complete physical examination every 6 to 12 months from a veterinarian who has experience with ferrets, in addition to the following preventive care:
- Annual vaccinations for canine distemper virus and rabies
- Annual fecal examination for parasites
- Examination for ear mites as recommended
- Year-round use of heartworm and flea preventives year-round
- Annual dental cleaning
- Routine blood tests and measurement of fasting glucose level as recommended
- Toenails trimming as needed
Ferret rescue organizations take in many ferrets whose owners surrendered them because of their health issues, particularly adrenal gland disease, Johnson says. Others are surrendered because of behavior problems, like biting. Therefore, it’s important to understand upfront what it takes to take care of a ferret on a daily basis and the costs that could be incurred over its lifetime.