Ferrets are exceptionally playful, so expect your ferret to tip over his food and water bowls. Check on them often, tape them down, or use an unspillable bowl. Rodent water bottles are not recommended as a ferret may damage his teeth on the spout. Because ferrets have such rapid metabolism, they awaken to eat about every four hours. Fresh water and food should always be available to them. Ferrets eat only what they need and leave excess food for later, so one need not worry about over-feeding. Ferrets must be fed a high quality dry ferret or kitten food. Hard food keeps the ferrets teeth clean and makes their feces less smelly. The food should contain at least 32% protein, primarily meat, and 18% fat. Older ferrets can be fed dry cat food as they become less active due to age. Be aware that some ferret foods contain high quantities of fish oil and by-products. These types of food are soft, causing plaque and tartar build-up on the teeth, and also give the animal an unpleasant smell. Avoid dairy products (most ferrets are lactose intolerant) and nuts or similar items which the animals would swallow whole as ferrets do not have grinding molars like us.
Vitamin supplements are not necessary if the ferrets are fed high quality food. However, many ferrets love “Linatone” and it is an excellent reward for good behavior or a distraction when clipping nails and such. No more than 3-5 drops of Linatone should be given to your ferret per day as an excess of certain vitamins can cause medical problems including fur loss and blindness. Ferritone is a similar vitamin supplement designed specifically for ferrets. Once again no more than a few drops per day should be given to your ferret. Nutri-Cal is another acceptable supplement (and is especially recommended for ill or malnourished animals.)
Ferrets are active, curious animals that should be allowed to run free when awake and be caged only when required. Should you not be able to allow the animals a large area with toys to roam about freely and explore, then ferrets are not the pet for you. If it is necessary to confine your pets periodically, they should always be kept in a cage large enough to allow separate sleeping, eating, litter and play areas. Generally, a cage of 30 inches by 18 inches can house one to three ferrets comfortably for a few days or for travel. If confined for too long, clawing and gnawing at the cage occurs and dental damage often results. When it is necessary to keep the animals in a cage, exercise in a large area conducive to exploration for periods of two to three hours twice a day is advised.
Ferrets love to tunnel, so their favorite beddings are sheets, towels, blankets, sweaters and such. These items are ideal for ferrets to snuggle into (ensure that sweaters and blankets do not have decorations on them that the ferret can pull off and swallow). Small cardboard boxes, bags of plastic and paper, throw rugs and towels, white socks and clean linen: These are a few of a ferret’s favorite things. Fancy toys are nice for humans, but the child in the ferret enjoys the things he can crawl into, under, and through, like drainage pipe and box lids. The leavings of the latest shopping expedition are the greatest gift mankind can bestow upon a ferret.
Ferrets have powerful, distinct and engaging personalities, and a playful and fastidious nature. Ferrets are diurnal creatures with their periods of greatest activity just before sunrise and shortly after sunset. They sleep about eighteen to twenty hours of the day, waking up twice a day for very active periods of about two hours. Due to their very high metabolism, ferrets also awaken roughly every four hours for a few minutes to eat, relieve themselves, and play briefly. When they wake, ferrets shiver very noticeably for periods up to twenty minutes. This is normal as the ferret is increasing his body temperature after sleep due to his higher metabolism and inherently higher body temperature. As burrow-living animals, ferrets require a dark, quiet place to sleep. The most suitable bedding are old towels, sweaters, pants and the like in which they can roll up or bury themselves.
Ferrets are extremely curious and will investigate anything and everything. This curiosity is the leading cause of premature death among ferrets. It is important to supervise your ferret at all times when he is at play. If you allow your ferrets to roam about your home, never close refrigerators, washers, driers, etc. without first ensuring no ferrets are exploring the interior or roosting within.
Ferrets are latrine animals and prefer to use a specific area for this purpose. Generally, a ferret will relieve himself within a few minutes of waking up. Being small predators, ferrets would be in the middle of the food chain in the wild, so their instinct is to find a sheltered corner as a latrine. All these things make it possible to litter train a ferret with considerable success.
The ferret should have a litter box or paper placed in a corner near his nest or in his cage and be confined to the nest/litter area until after he has relieved himself. Afterwards, he can be released to play in the rest of the home as he will not relieve himself again until after his next sleep. The size of the nest/litter area can slowly be expanded as the ferret learns to use a specific area for a latrine, much like paper training a puppy. As a precaution, a litter box can be placed in a secluded, out-of-sight corner of each room for the ferret’s use as these are his natural preferences. The use of a fine, dust-free, clumping litter in a litter box or newspapers is suggested. Remember to clean up daily.
Ferrets are very playful animals, much like kittens or puppies who never grow up. They have many behaviors related to play and play “hunting” which confuse or even frighten people unfamiliar with ferret body language. The most common action is a “war dance” where the ferret arches his back, throws his head back with fangs bared, often bushing up his tail, and maniacally bounces forward, backwards, sideways, while chittering away. As seemingly mad as this dance may seem, it is only a challenge to come down to his level and play. If you imitate his actions, he will become more frenzied (hard to imagine though this may seem) and start chasing you, stop suddenly, turn, and run: Now its your turn to chase him. Another common message is pawing the ground while semiprone: This is a challenge to a fight or hunt. Paw the ground yourself, and he will jump at you, then retreat. A few more bouts of pawing and jumping, and he will attack your hand or wrist, wrestling it down and attempting to kill it.
All ferrets have an affinity for people and want to include their parents in their play which is a major bounding component in a ferret’s life. Due to his extremely strong jaws and small, sharp teeth, a young ferret can break a person’s skin during these games. Ferrets have thick fur and skin which protects them when they play together and it takes a while for them to realize that we have no fur and only thin skin which is no protection. Once they realize that they are hurting us, ferrets modify their play so as not to do any damage. This rough play is part of a ferret’s life, especially when young. Nipping, pinching the skin hard without breaking it, is another invitation to play. Some kits never nip at all, but most that do will eventually outgrow this tendency as ferrets do mellow with age.
You will need to take your ferret in to your veterinarian twice a year for a medical checkup and yearly vaccinations. Ferrets require yearly inoculations against canine distemper. They are highly susceptible to canine distemper and it is always fatal. Do not forget to inoculate against this every year! If your ferret is outside for any length of time, a rabies vaccination is also suggested. In some jurisdictions this is mandatory. Be aware that proof of rabies inoculation is required when taking your pet across international borders. Include a dental examination for your pet also. Though ferrets seldom develop cavities, check your ferret’s teeth regularly as many ferrets break their fangs when playing. This can cause excruciating pain and make the animal cranky and prone to biting.
Spaying & Neutering
All ferrets should be fixed before they reach sexual maturity as this will drastically reduce their odor and it will extend their lives. Female ferrets go into heat in their first spring (generally in February) and they will remain in season until successfully mated. If mating does not occur, the females will succumb to aplastic anemia and die a most painful death. You will greatly increase your female ferret’s life span if you have her fixed before this should happen. As ferrets are a very difficult animal to breed successfully and the risk of loosing the jill, her kits or both is very high, breeding of ferrets should be left to experts with on-site veterinary support. Ferrets attract mates through the use of pheromones which give the unneutered animals a very pungent aroma which most people find unpleasant. Unfixed males have a strong musky odour and mark their territory with urine. When a ferret is fixed (spayed or neutered) it’s odour will be eliminated almost entirely. Thereafter, bathing on a monthly basis should be all that is required. However, ferrets like all animals will retain a slight odour. Be a responsible pet owner and have your pets neutered or spayed. This increases your pleasure in your pets and makes them more attractive to others.
Odor & De-Scenting
One of the most common statements about ferrets is that they have a bad smell. Most of a ferret’s odor results from the influence of sex hormones on normal skin secretions. These secretions are drastically reduced when the ferret is neutered or spayed (see above). Being polecats and related to skunks, ferrets also have scent glands which they can release at will, though they rarely spray unless they are fighting, mating or very frightened. De-scenting involves the removal of these scent glands which are located at the base of the tail. Ferrets do not need to be de-scented. However, if you wish to eliminate the possibility of an unpleasant experience should your pet be frightened in a public place, consider having him de-scented. This is a minor operation roughly equivalent to a human tonsillectomy in seriousness and discomfort. Your ferret will be back to his active self in two or three days and he will never miss this natural defense. This increases your pleasure in your pet and makes him more attractive to others.
Once your ferret has been fixed and de-scented, a monthly bath is all your ferret will require. Use a good quality ferret, cat, or “no-tears” human shampoo, preferably with a conditioner. Be sure to wash around your ferret’s neck and face as there are additional scent glands located below the eyes.
The number one cause of premature death in ferrets is intestinal obstruction. Many ferrets will chew on soft rubber and other small objects. This is especially dangerous because these objects can become lodged in the ferret’s intestine. This causes an agonizing and slow death unless surgery is performed to remove the obstruction. Many other items can be just as deadly: peanuts and other nuts, doll feet or hands, erasers, ear plugs, kitchen sponges, small rubber items such as bath or sink plugs, coffee beans, small buttons, fabric, Latex rubber toys for cats and dogs, household chemicals, shoe inserts and other foam rubber items, etc. Be careful and use your common sense as you would if you had a toddler at home. Fortunately, most ferrets outgrow this rubber attraction once they have left kithood, but it is best to take no chances. Do not feed your ferret grain-based foods (breads, cakes, cookies, cereals, noodles, etc.), nuts, fibrous fruits and vegetables, or dairy products. These items are indigestible by ferrets and result in various digestive problems, including blockages. Warning signs of a blockage are listlessness, vomiting, problems passing a stool, passing a thin and/or mucousy stool, refusal to eat or drink, vomiting after eating or drinking. If you suspect a blockage, take your pet to your veterinarian immediately!
Ferrets can catch the human influenza and cold viruses and they can pass them back. If you have a cold or the flu, be sure to wash your hands before touching your ferret. Keep the ferret away from your face and do your best not to give your cold to your ferret. Ferrets are also susceptible to canine distemper and rabies (see above). Other common diseases are adrenal and pancreatic tumors, Aleutian disease, bronchial pneumonia and other viral infections. Most can be effectively treated given early diagnosis. As ferrets tend to deteriorate quickly due to their high metabolic rate if they become ill, it is important to provide proper veterinary care immediately.
Ferrets are dry, temperate climate creatures who suffer from warm temperatures and damp. They should be kept indoors rather than outside, and when the temperature exceeds 20 C (72 F) they should be kept in a cool, shaded place with water. Ferrets do have sweat glands, but their thick fur prevents body cooling by evaporation, making them very susceptible to heatstroke and dehydration. Even if temperatures do not reach such an extreme, the ferrets are often left damp from the sweat and susceptible to chills from sudden cooling afterwards. Leave your pets at home with lots of water on hot days.
The red-eyed white breed of ferret, commonly called an “albino,” was bred for the trait of eye color. Many of these animals suffer from hereditary vision problems due to this breeding and are basically blind, being able to distinguish only vague shapes and shadows. Expect an “albino” to require more care and attention than other ferrets.