Care of Ferrets
FOOD: Ferrets are carnivores, meaning that they are strictly meat eaters. It has been shown that they only utilize amino acids from meat proteins (cannot digest amino acids from plant proteins). Many of the cat foods available in the grocery stores have cereal or plant proteins in their formulation, so they are not ideal. We suggest the use of specific ferret diets, or if you must use cat food, use a high quality brand such as Iams, or Pro-Plan. All of these diets are made up of highly digestible top quality meat proteins. For the young ferret (under three years of age) we recommend the growth (or kitten) formulation of these diets because of the higher protein and fat content. For older ferrets that are over five years of age your veterinarian may recommend using the maintenance (or adult cat formula), particularly if your ferret is experiencing any kidney or liver problems. Another consideration is that if the content of cereal grains (particularly the corn) is too high, it may lead to the formation of bladder stones. We rarely see any bladder stone problems on the diets recommended specifically for ferrets. Ferrets also have a high dietary fat requirement. The food should be fed as a dry kibble unless there is a medical reason to do otherwise. Usually food can be left out to be eaten free choice. In cases of obesity, the daily ration should be measures and divided into 2-3 smaller feedings.
WATER: Clean, fresh water should always be available and can be given in either a water bottle, heavy ceramic container, or a weighted bowl. Ferrets like to play in their water and overturn it. Keep this in mind when selecting a container. Water supplements are generally not needed.
VITAMINS: If your pet is healthy and on a good quality diet, then additional vitamins are not necessary. Your veterinarian will prescribe any that might be needed in the case of disease.
TABLE FOODS: Cooked meat and egg scraps are suitable table foods to offer your pet as a treat. Do not feed anything that contains bones. Many ferrets also adore a bit of fruit or vegetable, but these items should be fed sparingly. Ferrets don’t easily digest their high fiber content. Too much fruit or vegetable matter intake could lead to diarrhea. The rule of thumb is to feed no more than a total of one heaping teaspoon per day/ferret of any treat. Some favorite fruit and vegetable treats include cucumber, green pepper, and melon.
NEVER FEED YOUR PET FOODS THAT ARE HIGH IN REFINED SUGARS! Ferrets do not naturally get sugar in their diet and feeding foods high in sugar puts a tremendous strain on their pancreas. The result of sugar ingestion may lead to diabetes mellitus, which is extremely difficult to treat in the ferret and may ultimately leads to an early death. Do not feed candies, cakes, sugar coated cereals, ice cream, chocolate, sweet dairy products, etc.
FATTY ACID SUPPLEMENTS: As previously mentioned, ferrets have a high fat requirement and it may be necessary for some animals to have an additional supplement to improve coat quality. This is most essential during the winter months, when the air in our homes is very dry and detrimental to the ferrets skin and coat. We recommend using a feline or ferret fatty acid supplement (such as Linotone or Ferotone) and feeding 1/8 tsp. per ferret daily on the food. Many ferrets really love the taste and will readily take it right from the spoon! Ferrets can also be supplemented with meat fat (such as from poultry or beef) in the amount of 1 teaspoon of fat per ferret per day, but this should be from cooked meat.
HAIRBALL LAXATIVE: The accumulation of hair in the stomach of a ferret is very common (especially in animals greater than one year of age) and may require a costly surgery to remove. To prevent hairballs, use any cat hairball laxative at the label recommended doses. These products generally come as a sticky paste, and ferrets usually love the taste! We recommend giving a one half to one inch ribbon to your ferret at least every third day. This medication acts only as a lubricant and should not cause diarrhea. If your pet has never been exposed to these products, it may be necessary to smear a little on their lips in order to introduce them to the taste.
CAGE: A wire rabbit cage (24”x24”x18” high) is a basic cage used to house up to two ferrets. The solid floored cages are safer and easier on the feet. Newspaper or pelleted bedding such as CelluDri, Mountain Cat Country Litter, Harvest Litter, Yesterday’s News, etc. may be used as bedding, or towels can be used. Aquariums are not suitable cages for ferrets because the ventilation is very poor. Many other types of elaborate caging arrangements can be built by the creative owner. The use of a section of PVC pipe or large cardboard mailing tube can provide a good place for the ferrets to exercise and play. IT IS HIGHLY RECOMMENDED THAT YOUR PET IS CAGED WHEN YOU ARE NOT HOME to prevent any tragic accidents.
SLEEPING AREA: An enclosed sleeping area is NECESSARY to prevent your pet from becoming frustrated which may lead to continual digging at the corner of the cage. A sleeping area can be as simple as a towel, a shirt, an old stocking cap, a cardboard or wooden box with a hole cut in the side, the sleeve of a sweatshirt, etc. Please note that if your ferret likes to chew and eat towels or cloth, use a box or deep pan instead of towels to prevent an obstruction of the intestinal tract. The cloth eating habit is usually a baby behavior and stops by the time the pet is a year of age. It may occur in older ferrets when food is not available free choice.
LITTER BOX: Ferrets can be litter box trained about 90% of the time. A small low sided box should be placed in the preferred toilet area of the cage. (i.e.- let your pet pick the spot first, then place the box in that area). You can use kitty litter (avoid perfumed and sand types), or pelleted bedding (as described in the paragraph on caging) in the box. The biggest problem with clay and sand kitty litter is that some ferrets will lie in their litter boxes, causing their coats to dry out and become brittle and dull looking. Ferrets do not cover up their waste, therefore it will be necessary to change the box frequently to minimize the odor. When your pet is loose in the house, it may be necessary to place several litter boxes or papers in various corners. Ferrets are not very good at returning to “home base” if they get the bathroom urge and are far away from their usual waste area!
TOYS: – NEVER GIVE YOUR PET ANY RUBBER TOYS! Ferrets like to chew and swallow rubber which could result in an intestinal obstruction and even death. Make sure to FERRET PROOF your home and remove access to any rubber items including earphones, stereo speakers, rubber-soled shoes, pipe insulation, rubber bands, chair bottom protectors, etc. While you are at it, make sure to get down on your hands and knees and check for any escape holes that the ferret could get into, and plug them up! Ferrets also like to burrow into furniture and mattresses in search of a snug sleeping area. In the process they may swallow some of the foam rubber stuffing and develop an intestinal obstruction. It is important to cover the bottom of the furniture with hardware cloth or a sheet of wood to prevent this from happening. Recliner chairs are also safety hazards and many a pet has lost its life by being suffocated/crushed when the chair was reclined
Safe toys for your pet include nylon bones, ping-pong and golf balls, small cans, paper bags, cardboard mailing tubes, and very hard plastic toys. Most cloth toys are also suitable, but check carefully for the first week of introduction to make sure your pet is not chewing off any pieces.
CANINE DISTEMPER – THIS DISEASE IS NEARLY 100% FATAL IN THE FERRET! Please have your pet vaccinated to prevent distemper. Even if the pet never leaves the house, it is possible to bring the virus home on your shoes or your clothing. Youngsters should receive their last booster at 14 weeks of age. Thereafter, boosters should be given annually.
RABIES – There is an approved rabies vaccine for ferrets. We recommend the vaccine for all ferrets that will be in any high-risk situation where a potential bite may occur. The first vaccine should be given at three months of age with annual boosters thereafter.
VACCINE REACTIONS- Vaccine reactions are very common and can be quite severe in the ferret. For this reason we recommend pre-medicating with injectable anti-inflammatories at least 15 minutes prior to the vaccine injections. This is hoped to lessen the severity or prevent the vaccine reaction entirely. Despite these precautions, some reactions will occur and can vary from as little as lethargy to as severe as shock, bloody vomiting and diarrhea and even death. Due to this, it is recommended that you remain in the hospital for at least 30 minutes after a vaccine appointment. Prompt medical intervention can usually save the ferrets life and speed recovery. Alert your vet to any previous vaccine reactions in your pet.
STRONG BODY ODOR – The ferret produces oily skin secretions that have a very strong odor in the mature intact male and female. The odor is regulated by sex hormones, therefore, when your pet is neutered the odor is largely reduced. There is also an odor associated with the anal glands (or scent glands) of the ferret, but this is usually not a problem unless your ferret sprays as fear response. Most ferrets do not express their scent glands frequently, and when they do, the odor only lasts a few minutes. Unless there is a disease present, it is generally unnecessary to remove the scent glands.
BATHING should be done with a gentle pet shampoo. Ferrets do not need frequent baths; every two weeks is the most that is suggested in order to maintain a healthy fur coat. Bathing strips the skin of its essential oils and can lead to a dry itchy condition if performed too often.
FATAL ANEMIA OF FEMALES – When the female ferret goes into her heat cycle, she will remain in that cycle until she is bred by a male. During this heat period the levels of the female hormone, estrogen, are very high which can have a damaging effect on the bone marrow. The hormone causes the bone marrow to gradually stop producing white and red blood cells. The condition comes on very gradually and by the time the external signs of anemia are seen, the changes in the bone marrow are irreversible. If this is the case, the ferret will likely die despite therapy.
The condition is totally prevented by having your pet spayed. The operation should be performed by the time the pet is six months of age. If your pet comes into heat prior to this time, she can still be safely operated on.
If you wish to breed your pet, but do not wish to do it during a particular heat cycle, a hormone injection can be given to take her out of heat temporarily. Due to adverse side effects, these injections should not be used in place of spaying if you have no intention of breeding you pet.
FLEAS –Do not use flea collars on ferrets. Remember it is ideal to treat the house and yard with an insect growth regulator (IGR), as fleas spend most of their life cycle off of your pet laying eggs all over the environment. Ask your veterinarian about the use of newer products such as Advantage, Revolution, and Frontline. These products are safer and more effective than over-the-counter products.
HEARTWORM – Ferrets are susceptible to heartworm disease. This is a microscopic parasite that lives in the salivary glands of the mosquito and is transmitted to the pet through a mosquito bite. The larvae then grow into large worms that eventually lodge in the animal’s heart and cause disruption of blood flow and even death.
We recommend the use of a heartworm preventatives, given once a month, all year round if you live in an endemic area. There have been no major side effects to these drugs. We recommend that ferrets should be on heartworm preventative if they will come into contact with mosquitoes, especially if you travel to areas with them that are heartworm endemic.
COLDS AND FLU – Ferrets are highly susceptible to human colds and flu. They will develop the same symptoms as humans do. These include runny nose, watery eyes, and sometimes sneezing or coughing fits, sometimes leading to decreased appetite for several days. Occasionally a pet may have diarrhea. If it is profuse, bloody or accompanied by straining or crying, your veterinarian should be contacted immediately. For generic flu-like symptoms, there is usually no need for any medications, just tender loving care and lots of rest and fluids for five to seven days. If, however, your pet completely loses its appetite, develops green or yellow eye or nasal discharges, or becomes depressed or lethargic, please call your veterinarian right away. Some viral flu infections require more intensive supportive care and if secondary bacterial infections occur, usually call for antibiotics.
FOREIGN BODIES IN THE STOMACH OR INTESTINE – As mentioned previously, ferrets are very apt to eat rubber, and they are also prone to developing hairballs. Other items that ferrets have been known to eat include soft plastic items, cotton balls, bones, and towels. The signs of a foreign body obstruction are varied, depending on where the material has lodged. Some signs include gradual wasting, extreme depression or lethargy, vomiting, persistent dark tarry stools, and loss of appetite. If any of these signs are present, do not wait! Have him/her examined as soon as possible by your veterinarian. EXTREME LETHARGY OR DEPRESSION IS AN EMERGENCY!
GERIATRIC DISEASES – Unfortunately the average life span of the American ferret is only five to seven years. Starting at about three years of age we see a marked increase in a variety of diseased in the ferret. Cancer is very common, along with liver, adrenal, kidney, and heart disease. We recommended annual blood screenings to make early detection and more successful treatment/management of these diseases. Also, older ferrets often require dental cleanings.
*FINAL NOTE: There has been much negative publicity about the ferret over the years. Most is due to ignorance and misunderstandings about these fascinating little animals. The ferret is a domesticated animal that has been bred in captivity since 4 BC. The ferrets we keep as pets are not found naturally in this country, but were descended originally from Europe, where their wild counterparts still occur naturally.
Being a pet owner requires a certain amount of responsibility to protect the animal and care for it. If children under six years of age are in the household, we counsel you to carefully supervise any contact these little ones may have with the ferret. If supervision is not possible, then wait to get a ferret until the child is older. This warning holds true for any pet. In addition, do not place your pet ferret (or any other pet for that matter) in a situation with other humans where it is likely to become frightened or threatened. This may lead to a defensive reaction such as biting.
By being responsible pet owners we can do much to reverse the bad press that our little friends have received.