Scientific Classification ; Family: Mustelidae, Species: Mustela putorius furo
Female ; Jill
Male ; Hob
Young ; Kits
Group ; a business
Life Span ; 5 – 9 years (but over 10 years is possible)
Sexual Maturity ; approx 5 – 6 months
Gestation ; 42 days
Litter Size ; 8 – 18
The Ferret is a very close relative of the weasel, polecat, mink, otter, skunk and badger. They are all part of the family Mustelidae. The scientific name for a ferret is Mustela putotius furo . The name Mustela is a Latin derivation of the term mus for mouse. Putorius is from the Latin putor , which means a stench referring to the musky odor of the ferret. Furo is Latin for thief. So we have a “mouse-catching, smelly, thief”!
Currently there is still controversy over which species of polecat the domesticated ferret actually came from. But it is thought likely that it is a domesticated form of the Western or Eastern European polecat. It is not a domesticated form of the black-footed ferret ( Mustela nigripes ) which was native to the western United States.
Research suggests that the ancestors of the domestic ferret originated in Northern Africa and then were spread to Europe with Roman and/or Norman invasions. Other research suggests that the spread of ferrets through Europe was accompanied by the spread of the rabbits that they hunted. A ferret-like animal was described by the Greek author Aristophanes in 450 BC, but it is unclear because an exact description of the animal is missing.
It is thought the very first reference to the ferret was found in the Book of Leviticus 1000 BC, but it is not perfectly clear whether it was the ferret or another member of the weasel family. The first references of the ferret in England were in 1223. From this time on, there is increasing evidence in Medieval European history of ferrets being used to hunt rabbits. Ferrets were also used for fur production, on ships to help control the rodents, as transporters for cables through long narrow pipes and because of their lively comical personality purely for companionship. It is perhaps fitting after a history of working for humans that ferrets should now enjoy a life of luxury as a beloved companion!
By far the most common use for a ferret today is as a companion animal. They are small, easy to care for and have really extrovert personalities which they retain throughout their lives
Ferrets just love to play. They love to be chased and to chase you. They enjoy playing tug-of-war, running through pipes, digging and burying themselves in blankets, chasing balls and generally just acting the clown! When a ferret gets excited it does what ferret lovers call a ‘ weasel war dance’. They curl their bodies and spring up and down on all four feet with mouth open, jumping around with seemingly no coordination at all often bumping into furniture or falling over, this is his way of asking you to play. Ferrets do like to play rough and can if not taught correctly give you a playful nip.
When not playing ferrets sleep for a large part of the day usually 15-18 hours. Your ferret will settle into a routine and will learn your schedule and will sleep while you are away and awaken when you arrive home.
Your ferret will bond with you but it will still need the company of another ferret. Two ferrets will help stop them from being bored when you are out all day. When asleep they will be found curled up together, wrapped around each other in such a way that it’s sometimes hard to figure out where one ferret ends and the other begins. Once you have discovered the joy of two ferrets playing you will never regret getting two. It is simply one of the most entertaining and satisfying things to watch.
Today there are many different colours of pet ferrets available; albino, sable, black, champagne, chocolate, roan, point, mitt, hooded, blaze, cinnamon and panda are to name just a few.
You will need a large sturdy wire cage with a maximum floor area. Although ferrets do climb they are not natural climbers, in the wild they spend most of their time on the ground or in burrows. Cover any wire shelves with pieces of carpet or plywood; wire flooring is not natural to any animal! Position the cage in a dry, cool place out of direct sunlight, drafts and loud noise. Your will need to ensure your ferret has distinct areas for eating, sleeping and toileting.
You will need to equip the cage with a bowl that locks onto the wire as ferrets love nothing more than to overturn a recently refreshed bowl.
Fresh water by means of a drip feeder should be available to them at all times. Water bowls can be knocked over or fouled. Clean the bottle with a mild soap solution and bottle brush once a week and rinse thoroughly before refilling.
Ferrets like to sleep in a nest like environment this can be as simple as a cardboard box with several holes cut out and filled with a nice warm fleece blanket they can snuggle up in.
Ferrets have very active metabolisms due to their short digestive tracts therefore need to poop a lot. It is instinctive for a ferret to seek out a sheltered corner when he’s got to ‘go’. So it is advisable to use a high backed corner litter tray, but like most animals he will ultimately choose his own corner for his tray to be placed. It is pointless trying to change this it is much easier to rearrange his cage to accommodate his needs. The best litter to use is wood pellets usually sold for cats. They are safe and really absorbent. It is also worth mentioning ferrets do not like their food and drink to be in range of their litter tray it is best to put these at opposite ends of the cage
Cat toys are usually ok for ferrets but always check there are no small parts that can be swallowed. Catnip will do your ferret no harm. Do not use toys that are made from rubber or spongy material, these will be destroyed and are harmful if swallowed. Drainage pipes or cardboard carpet tubes are appreciated for tunnelling. Balls that are stong and solid and are not small enough to cause choking will be played with for hours.
It is very important that your ferret should be given some ‘free time’ out of its cage every day to run and play. You must ensure this area is ferret proofed. Ferrets are incredibly nosey and notorious escape artist they will find places you never knew existed!
Here are some things to look out for:
Close all doors and windows. Remove all fragile and valued objects as ferrets will climb. Any small (or large) object that takes your ferrets fancy will be carried away and stashed! Beware of the back of domestic appliances there are many hiding places in the motor! Although ferrets are not known for chewing, secure all electric cabling. Toilet seats should be closed, and beware of other receptacles containing water. Ferrets love to dig, remove all house plants (which can also be toxic if eaten). They will often dig the carpet especially around the door areas. All cupboard doors should be locked or taped shut, as ferrets can easily open these and create havoc. Ferrets can squeeze between the cushions on a sofa and a chair and disappear into the framework, or into the mechanism of a folding bed. Remove toilet roll and kitchen roll tubes and all plastic bags these can all choke or suffocate your ferret. Never leave your ferret ‘free range’ unsupervised, always be vigilant as accidents happen so quickly!
Ferrets are obligate carnivores (meat eaters)- this means that they must get their nutrients from animal protein and fat. They cannot digest vegetable p protein and what’s more have no need for it. Avoid any food or treat that has fruits, vegetables or a high sugar content.
Ideally ferret food should contain; 34-40% protein; which should come primarily from chicken or other poultry. Avoid foods that contain fish meal as its first, second or third ingredient as ferrets are not big fish eaters. 22-30% or more fat. Less than 3% fibre
There are many ferret kibbles on the market today but do check out the packet carefully they are not all created equally. Just because there is a picture of a ferret on the packet it does not automatically mean it is an ideal diet for them . You may find this link md ferret paws helpful as it analyses nearly all the major food brands.
Ferrets eat small amounts all through the day therefore it is necessary they have access to food at all times. They will usually only eat enough to meet their needs, they are not greedy animals and do not become obese.
Like all the Mustelidae family they have scent glands for marking and protection. While the ferret does not spray it does mark its territory and emit a smell when frightened. Ferrets have various scent glands throughout the body, the anal scent gland being the main culprit.
Bathing will help relieve the smell for a very short time but the body will naturally reproduce the oils lost in the bathing. Too much bathing will make the skin dry and lead to an overproduction of oils therefore not helping with the reduction of smell at all.
Both male and female ferrets can be neutered so that they cannot reproduce. This also has the added benefit of reducing hormones and in turn leads to a further reduction in their scent. Neutering can reduce the production of musk by as much as 90%.
A female should be neutered at approx 5 months of age or if she goes into season before this age get her spayed immediately, the further she goes into the season the greater the risk of the surgery. She will usually come into season in her first spring, but if she is kept indoors and the ‘photoperiod’ (hours of light in the day) is artificially lengthened she can come into season as early as 16 weeks!
Female ferrets are induced ovulators which means that they do not ovulate unless breeding takes place. Staying in heat for a long period of time makes them very susceptible to infection, serious illness and eventually death.
She will not come out of heat unless she is mated, spayed or dies!
A male should be neutered at approx 6 months of age when his testicles have developed. A male that is not neutered will constantly mark his territory with urine and oils secreted from the skin and anal glands. They have a very strong musky smell making them ‘unpleasant’ pets to keep indoors. They are also more aggressive and more prone to bite.
Ferrets must be vaccinated against canine distemper. Distemper is an airborne virus that is a potentially fatal disease to any any ferret that is unvaccinated. It can even affect ferrets that never go outside as it can be carried in on your shoes and clothes.
Vaccination is usually administered at 8 weeks of age; boosters should be given at four-week intervals until the ferret is 16 weeks old. A further booster will be further required every year.
I hope this has given you the basic information needed to make a decision whether a ferret is the right pet for you. If you have decided to acquire one please consider offering a rescue ferret a home. All over the country there are many ferrets in rescues, through no fault of their own, patiently waiting for their ‘forever home’.
Our Ferrets At Wetpaint Silvers Ferret and Exotic Bird Sanctuary
The Irish Ferret Forum
The Ferret Depot