Ferrets (Mustela putorius furo) are members of the weasel family, which includes weasels, stoats, martins and polecats (the wild species that was selectively bred to produce the domesticated ferret). Ferrets are small carnivorous mammals, adapted to cool environments (< 30 degrees Celsius) and are crepuscular (most active at dawn and dusk).
Ferrets typically live in pairs or small groups, and are well suited to indoor life. They are popular pets in Western Australia, South Australia, New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania, and kept under permit in the Australian Capital Terrier, however are illegal in Queensland and the Northern Territory.
Ferrets are notorious escape artists, able to squeeze through small holes and climb up and under barriers with great athleticism. It is important that enclosures be thoroughly and regularly inspected for any possible escape routes. Ferrets can be kept in well ventilated hutches, but these must be large enough to allow the animals to run and climb, as well as have separate areas for sleeping and toileting. Wire hutches with ramps accessing multiple levels are generally enjoyed by ferrets. Alternatively, a room in the house can be dedicated to housing the ferrets, and ferret-proof gates can be used to contain them in safe areas of the house. Bedding of shredded or pelleted paper or specially prepared wood shavings (which have been kiln dried and had irritating oils removed) are generally well accepted, as are cardboard boxes to play in, and pet hammocks for sleeping. Litter trays should be provided in the corner of each room or area they have access to and should be cleaned frequently to remove wastes. Water and food bowls should be easy to access, difficult to tip and unchewable - ceramic or stainless steel bowls work well. If the temperature is greater the 25 degrees Celsius, air conditioning or frozen water bottles and ice blocks must be available to cool the ferret, as ferrets lack sweat glands and can succumb quickly to heat stress.
Ferrets often enjoy running through the house and interacting with humans, but areas must be thoroughly inspected for exposed electrical cords, foam or rubber (shoes, mats, door stops, weather stripping...), small areas they may become trapped, and reclining chairs - if found, these hazards must be removed, as chewing/ swallowing or becoming entrapped could result in life threatening injury. Laundry, washing machines and dryers should be checked for hidden ferrets before use, and bags examined for stowaways before leaving the house. Ferrets can interact with some pets, such as dogs and fully grown cats, but must be kept away from mice, guinea pigs, rabbits, birds or kittens that these natural hunters may view as prey.
Some people enjoy walking their ferrets outside, and this activity may be preformed with the ferret wearing a harness and lead - never tether your ferret or leave them off lead, as accidents do happen.
Ferrets are carnivores, adapted to hunting a variety of small prey, such as mice and small birds. As pet ferrets are classified as fully domesticated animals, they are dependent on us to provide a diet that fulfills their nutritional and behavioral needs.
Some ferret owners choose to feed their ferrets by providing whole fresh prey, such as mice and baby chicks, which are available frozen from good reptile and pet stores. Food should be freshly thawed before feeding, and any uneaten items removed promptly to prevent spoilage. Live prey should not be fed, as this is inhumane, can injure the ferret, illicits unacceptable aggressive prey drive and can expose the ferret to unwanted disease. Alternatively, raw meaty bones can also be offered, provided there are no bones small enough to be swallowed whole and the items are very fresh. Chewing bony items does help to provide more natural behavior situations for the ferrets, as well as improving dental hygiene.
Many pet owners prefer not to feed whole prey, due to hygiene, nutritional or other concerns, and will seek to feed their pets kibbled dry diets similar to those fed to dogs and cats. In the past, high quality kitten kibbles were offered to young ferrets (those younger then 6 months) and adult cat diets used for adult ferrets. Nowadays, several brands of specialty ferret diets have been developed to address the higher protein and lower carbohydrate requirements of ferrets, when compared to those of dogs and cats. Fresh kibble should be provided daily, and the amount tailored to the energy needs of the individual animal, as obesity can be a problem in under active ferrets.
Fresh water must be available at all times, and the amount of water drunk by the ferrets monitored, as increased or decreased thirst can be early signs of disease in ferrets.
Ferret healthcare is not dissimilar to that of dogs and cats, requiring regular check ups and preventatives targeted at contagious diseases.
- Vaccinations : ferrets are susceptible to the Canine Distemper Virus, and vaccination can prevent this fatal contagious condition. Ferrets are usually vaccinated at 8, 12, and 16 weeks, then yearly thereafter
- Heartworm Prevention : both indoor and outdoor ferrets are susceptible to this untreatable condition, and monthly preventatives, as advised by your veterinarian, should be used for life
- Flea Treatment / Prevention : ferrets are susceptible to fleas - appropriate products can be advised by your veterinarian
- Intestinal Worms : ferrets can be affected by worms, and if detected on a fecal or physical examination, and treatment can be discussed with your veterinarian
- Desexing : pet ferrets are generally desexed (spayed or castrated) at approximately 6 months of age, or earlier if females have come in to oestrus (heat). Female ferrets which are not mated or chemically induced to ovulate will continually stay in oestrus, leading to suppression of their bone marrow and fatal anemia. Spaying females prevents them from having an oestrus cycle, preventing this deadly condition. Additional benefits to desexing include reduced smell and aggression in both males and females, as well as unwanted pregnancies. Desexing is generally a day procedure requiring a general anesthetic, and should be performed by a veterinarian familiar with anesthetic and surgery in ferrets.
- Microchipping : as ferrets have a penchant for escape, implanting a microchip (generally at the time of desexing) can help to reunite owners and pets in the event the ferret strays.
- Dentistry : similar to dogs and cats, ferrets can build up plaque and tarter on their teeth, resulting in gingivitis, diseased teeth, and if left untreated, can lead to more severe health problems, such as kidney and heart disease. The ferret's natural diet of whole prey and meaty bones helps to keep teeth and gums clean and healthy, and chewing hard kibbles can also help to maintain teeth. Soft and sugary foods should be avoided, as these encourage plaque formation. Ferrets can have their teeth mechanically cleaned under a general anaesthetic just like dogs and cats, and this procedure may be advised if dental disease is noted at your pet's annual health check. If any changes are noted in your ferret's eating or chewing habits, or an increase in mouth odor (halitosis), veterinary advice should be sought.
- Grooming : ferrets are relatively low maintenance with regards to grooming, being very fastidious about licking their coats clean. Washing ferrets can help to reduce some of their body odor, but should not be done more then once a month (unless the ferret has covered itself with a noxious substance), as shampooing too frequently can increase the production of skin oils, increasing the source of their smell. Claws will need regular inspection, and are generally trimmed every 2-6 weeks as needed. Ears should be inspected, and if any debris noted, your veterinarian can advise you on an appropriate ear cleaning product.
- Descenting : removal of the scent glands in normal animals is no longer recommended, as the majority of the animal's odor comes from glands with-in the skin, and is generally reduced by desexing the animal.
- Health Checks : ferrets have a typical lifespan of up to 12 years, and annual examination is recommended to booster vaccinations and assess the ferret for early signs of disease. Though generally rather healthy, some ferrets can suffer from hormonal diseases, such as hyperadrenocorticism (over-active adrenal glands), insulinoma (a tumor of the pancreas which produces too much insulin, leading to low blood sugar) as well as more acute diseases, such as viruses, parasites, dental disease and injury. If any changes are noted in your ferret's energy levels, eating habits or demeanor, assessment by a veterinarian familiar with ferrets is strongly recommended.