Liz is a licensed veterinary medical technologist. She acquired a B.S. in veterinary medical technology from Lincoln Memorial University.
Domestic ferrets descended from the European polecat. Historically, ferrets have been used for hunting rodents and rabbits. Ferrets have many color variations and have a lifespan of 5–8 years. Due to their odd physical features and charming personalities, they have become popular pets in the United States.
Ferrets are very active and curious animals and enjoy the company of humans, other animals, and other ferrets. They can be litter box trained like cats. They are particularly smart and train quickly, and can even be taught to come to a particular sound. They are quiet animals, preferring to hide and linger in quiet areas of the household. They are notorious for getting into tight spaces, making them escape artists; they can disappear and remain unseen in a household for many hours at a time.
Contrary to popular belief, ferrets are true carnivores and do NOT handle high-fiber diets well. Ferrets use fat for energy, so a highly digestible, meat-based high protein diet is necessary. Ferrets prefer to eat several smaller meals throughout the day, and also like to hide their food to go and retrieve it later. Avoid adding any salt to their food, and ensure that fresh water is always available. Dairy products, raisins, fruits, and vegetables should also be avoided.
Similarly to cats, commercial ferret diets should contain taurine and be composed of 15–20% animal fat, and no less than 32–40% animal-based protein. Carbohydrates should never be fed as a ferret’s main source of energy, and commercial diets that are very low in carbohydrates, fiber, and grain are the best choice. While cat diets may be perceived as very similar, dry foods designed for cats should never be fed to ferrets.
From personal experience, my recommended commercial ferret food brands include:
- Wysong: Ferret Archetypal- 1 (grain free, high animal-based protein content)
- Wysong: Ferret Archetypal- 2 (grain restricted)
- Innova Evo: Dry Ferret Food (grain free, lower carbohydrates)
- Nature’s Variety: Chicken, Turkey, Rabbit (grain free)
- Zupreem Premium Ferret Diet: Dry Food (grain restricted)
- Eagle Pack Holistic Select Ferret: Dry Food (grain restricted)
Cage size for a growing ferret should be at least 24” x 24” x 18” at a minimum, but should not be used all day. The floor should be bedding rather than mesh, and should be multilevel, avoiding steep ramps. Ferrets should be able to have access to light for 12 to 16 hours a day, and temperatures should be kept between 59–77ºF. Ferrets prefer to sleep curled up in towels, blankets, or sweaters inside of boxes or a hammock.
Ferrets can easily be trained to use litter boxes, as they like to eliminate mainly in corners and on vertical surfaces. Pellet or shredded paper-based litter is best, but avoid cat litter as it can be irritating to the ferret's skin and feet. Options for toys include paper bags, PVC piping, ping pong balls, golf balls, small cloth baby toys, and specially designed ferret toys. Almost anything can be used, however, never give your ferret any rubber or latex toys. Very little grooming is necessary, as ferrets mostly groom themselves.
Time outside of a cage on a daily basis is important for proper physical and mental activity for ferrets. Ferrets are expert escape artists, and extreme precautions must be taken to safely contain or “ferret proof” (if possible) a play area. Specially designed exercise pens for ferrets are an excellent option for a safe play area. Care must be taken in multiple species households in order to avoid conflicts, especially in regards to prey animals.
Bi-annual physical examinations of the heart, lungs, body temperature, weight, and other general conditions are highly recommended by veterinarians. Like dogs, a distemper booster and a rabies vaccine should be given annually. Also just like with dogs, heartworm and flea preventatives are highly recommended, even if the ferret never goes outside.
Common Medical Conditions Requiring Veterinary Attention
Medical conditions commonly observed in ferrets include:
- Human Influenza Viruses: Ferrets are susceptible to the human influenza virus, and can contract the flu from humans just as humans can contract the flu from ferrets (known as zoonosis). Care should be taken to avoid cross-contamination when either human or ferret has the flu.
- Heartworms/Fleas: Ferrets, like cats and dogs, can become infested with heartworms and fleas. Ferrets should be kept on heartworm/flea preventives as directed by your veterinarian.
- Foreign Bodies in the Stomach or Intestine: Ferrets, especially under a year old, will eat objects that they should not; these objects can easily become lodged in the intestine or stomach. Adult ferrets can develop large masses of hair in the stomach, which can cause an obstruction. All these situations are life-threatening and usually require surgery to remove the foreign body. Signs of a foreign body include lethargy, dehydration, vomiting, constipation, painful abdomen, and eventually death.
- Epizootic Catarrhal Enteritis (ECE): Also commonly known as “green slim disease.” The signs of ECE range from vomiting and a soft, green, mucous-coated stool to bloody diarrhea. An existing ferret in the home is susceptible to contracting the disease by the introduction of new ferrets. It is highly recommended that any new ferrets be quarantined for no less than three weeks before introduction (and if possible, in a separate house).
- Rabies: Rabies vaccination of ferrets is required by New York State Law, and is becoming mandatory in other states as well. Check your state's laws regarding rabies vaccination of pets. Rabies is a deadly zoonotic disease to both animals and humans, and preventing the spread of this disease is critical for everyone’s protection.
- Distemper: Distemper is a contagious disease caused by the canine distemper virus. The virus can be transmitted directly to ferrets from infected animals such as dogs, foxes, raccoons, and other ferrets. Contact with infected material such as shoes or clothing can also spread the disease. Annual vaccination is recommended to minimize the risk of your ferret contracting the virus.
- Exotic animal care course notes from Lincoln Memorial University Veterinary Medical Technology courses.
- Avian and exotics externship rotation at University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine teaching hospital.
- Personal experience as a licensed veterinary technologist.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2018 Liz Hardin