5 Ways to Reduce Ferret Odor
Welcome to the World of Ferrets
Whether you adopted the furry critter from the local shelter or were sucked in by their rambunctious behavior at the pet store, you now find yourself with a ferret. First of all, congratulations! Ferrets can make wonderful pets, and they certainly provide some much needed amusement in our own lives. Watching my two little cretins (I use this word in the fondest sense) wrestle is pure stress relief after a busy day.
But now you’ve noticed something else that seems to have appeared in your home since you brought the little bugger home. A strong scent fills the air, and it’s not entirely pleasant. As all ferret owners know, these cute little mammals are legendary for their distinctive odor. Of course, we humans don’t always want that nostril-scrunching smell permeating our homes, and a few simple steps can reduce or even eliminate ferret odor.
Step One: A Healthy Diet
There are three major causes of ferret odor. Ferrets have a musky natural scent, which we will discuss later, but the largest culprit isn’t the ferret, it’s what comes out of their bottom. This waste goes by many names: crap, poop, feces, stool, solid waste, and a whole host of other and more vulgar names. Hereafter we shall refer to it as The Business, or just Business for short. If a ferret can be said to have a job it would be the production and disposal of The Business (sleeping and making trouble are also common ferret behaviors but these are just hobbies).
Most of a ferret’s malodor comes from The Business, and the best way to manipulate that is to manipulate a ferret’s diet. The healthiest and most natural diet is whole foods, usually baby chicks, or a combination of kibble and whole foods. However, feeding a ferret whole foods can be messy and inconvenient for the ferret owner. Baby chicks are not always readily available so we turn to processed kibble. The key to picking a healthy kibble is reading the nutrition label. You do it for your own foods (or should), why not for your pet’s food too?
This is by far the longest section and it involves a bit of a tangent about ferret nutrition. If you want the quick and dirty summary: Buy ferret food. Make sure it’s a healthy ferret food with plenty of protein and fat. Avoid corn and fish in the ingredients list. Make sure plenty of water is provided and look into bi-odor supplements. The rest of this section gives details on the quick and dirty summary, but if you already know a bit about ferret nutrition feel free to skip down to Step Two.
Now the details. First of all you must buy ferret food. I have known people to feed their ferrets cat food, and in the past this was almost necessary because ferret food was not readily available. The major problem with cat food is the sugar content, which over time can lead to insulinoma (diabetes) in ferrets. Ferrets love the taste of cat food because they have a sweet tooth a mile long. Commercial pet stores carry a variety of foods formulated for ferrets. The key is to pick the one that is right for your budget and your fuzzy critter.
The first thing you should look for on the label is a guaranteed analysis. This will give you percentages for protein, fat, fiber, ash, and moisture. Make sure that the proportions are as follows:
Protein: 30-40% Ferrets need a lot of protein. Like cats, ferrets are obligate carnivores (they eat meat). The protein in your ferret’s food must come from meat sources (keep reading for more on this).
Fat: 18-25% Again the fat should be from animal sources.
Fiber: 3% or less. Ferrets have no dietary need for fiber. The reason that the foods contain some is because of the byproducts used as fillers to create a solid kibble (often corn or wheat is added).
Ash: 7% or less. Again this is used as a filler to give the kibble its shape and consistency. It isn’t harmful to the ferret in low amounts.
Moisture: 10% or less. With very young ferrets you should moisten the food and perhaps even microwave it to soften it. Young ferrets are still developing their little fangs and have a harder time chewing hard kibble. The same may be true of older ferrets whose teeth are starting to go or who are too weak to eat regular kibble.
Now comes the important part. Look at the ingredients list and read the first five to seven ingredients. The first two should be an animal source usually poultry: Chicken meal, etc. Eggs and beat pulp may also be listed and these are ok. If corn is listed in the top five ingredients put that food back on the shelf. Corn can be a source of protein but it is an incomplete protein. It doesn’t contain all of the necessary amino acids. Wheat is ok because it is not a source of protein. Also look for any sort of fish products or fish oils listed in the ingredients. Fish is not harmful to ferrets and it is a valid source of protein; however, it makes their Business smell far worse than it has to and many ferrets do not like the taste of fish. Poultry is the most natural source.
While you’re at the pet store look into bi-odor supplements. These can be added to a ferret’s water and are supposed to help cut down on the smell, but they don’t work for every ferret. Always make sure your ferret has water available.
Step Two: The Trick With Treats
Ferret treats can be a great way to bond with your pet and to reward them for good behavior. Or behavior that approaches good. The trick is to not give them too many. This may be difficult because ferrets are excellent beggars, my fat ferret will literally sit on his haunches with his little front paws curled up and look up at you (he also sighs loudly when you don’t give in, a sure sign that the sad face is just an act). Just remember: too many treats is too much of a good thing.
Commercial treats can add to the stench of a ferret’s Business if given in too large a quantity. One or two a week is plenty.
By contrast, natural treats such as small bits of chicken or egg can sometimes help a ferret’s Business smell better. Well, not better, but less strongly. Business is Business after all.
Ferretone or Linatone is not a necessary component of a healthy ferret’s life. They usually love the flavor of it though and it can help replenish the natural oils on the skin and fur. I usually give some to them after bath time or during the drier winter months. It can be mixed with the food or given directly. For some amusement put a dab of it on their nose or belly and watch them go nuts. I also use ferretone to distract them while I cut their nails (something they hate). Works like a charm.
Step Three: Clean That Cage
If you don’t keep your ferret in a cage I strongly recommend you consider it. Even a ferret proofed home is not truly ferret proof. I have known people who let the little critters roam about freely only to find The Business invading every corner of their rooms. Even worse, I’ve known people who think a ferret’s natural lifespan is only one to two years! Curiosity kills ferrets quicker than it ever has cats. Ferrets are supposed to live five to eight years (I have one friend who had one last nine and a half). Of course if you keep them in a cage be sure to let them come out and play every day, under supervision.
Now we come to the cage. Most ferret odor comes from an unclean cage. Make sure your ferret is litter trained as the litter will help reduce the smell. Keep the litter boxes away from their food or sleeping places (ferrets don’t want to conduct Business where they sleep or eat). Clean those litter boxes at least once a day. If your ferret is a hard worker and conducts Business more often consider getting a larger litter box or cleaning it twice a day. Try to keep just a little bit of Business in the freshly cleaned litter box to discourage digging.
Clean the bedding! Selecting a proper bedding is very important. Do not use wood chips. Wood chip bedding can cause lung infections and other respiratory problems in ferrets. It will slowly kill your pet. When we brought home our little sable ferret the pet store recommended paper bedding. We bought it. The paper bedding was dusty and it caused her to sneeze a lot (all night sometimes, poor thing!). Worse, she thought the paper was litter so she didn’t hesitate to do Business in every place it could be found. She dug it all up and flung it about the cage and sometimes out of the cage. A friend gave us the solution: old T-shirts. We piled some old clothes in the bottom of the cage and she frolicked about in them, slept in them, tunneled through them, and most importantly did not do Business in or on them. Also it completely cut out the cost of bedding. We moved the litter box to the second shelf of the cage and everything has been fine since. Make sure to wash the clothes once a week at least; I recommend twice.
Lastly you should wipe down the surfaces of the cage at least once a week, more if accidents occur.
Step Four: Bath Time
So far we’ve discussed a ferret’s Business in great detail. Now I want to mention a few things about a ferret’s natural musky scent. If you can’t distinguish this smell from the smelliness of their Business give them a bath and you’ll know exactly what I mean.
Bathing a ferret is not necessary unless they’ve gotten themselves into trouble. In fact, bathing too often increases their natural musk. By washing the oils out of their skin and fur the ferret begins producing extra to make up the difference. Expect your ferret to smell more strongly for a day or two after bathing. Repeated bathing can actually dry out their skin and make them itchy and uncomfortable. At best this means more scratching and at worst it can lead to infections.
The musky smell is natural and comes from glands that can be removed surgically. Neutering can also reduce the amount of hormones released. If you bought your pet from the store, chances are those glands are already removed and your pet is neutered. If there is any doubt you can ask your veterinarian, just make sure you go to a vet that knows a thing or two about ferrets (some do not). They usually advertise that they specialize in exotics. If the glands have already been removed then that natural smell isn’t going to get any better. It should not be excessively strong though, and if it is it may be indicative of stress, which brings me to the final step.
Step Five: Keep Them Amused
Ferrets need plenty of attention and a constant stream of new things to stimulate their active personalities. Play time is an important time for you to bond with your pet and it's a great stress reliever for you and the ferret. You'll know if your furry little friend isn't getting enough attention.
Ferrets are great complainers. If they are understimulated or ignored they will sometimes protest by creating Business for you to clean. Sometimes these protests involve doing their Business in front of or next to the litter box. Furthermore stress can lead to a ferret producing more musk and thus more odor, so keep them amused! A sure sign of stress is biting at the bars of the cage, but be careful! Ferrets are clever creatures and if they realize that you open the cage door every time they bite at the bars they will start doing it just to make you open the door. The key is to balance the amount of affection and free time you give without allowing them to control your behavior.
Ferrets need to get out of that cage just as we need to get out of our houses. It drives them stir crazy to stay in there too long. Make sure they get some play time every day for a couple of hours minimum.
You can even keep them busy when they're not out playing. Switch up their cage from time to time. Rearrange it or hang toys from the ceiling or swap toys in and out. Keep them on their toes. If the cage is fun they won’t be stressed to be in there. Above all have fun! Your critters won’t be hesitating to have as much fun as possible, and they love to have fun with their human companions. Find what makes them happy and you’ll be laughing and enjoying their excitement in no time.