Wonder of the Weasel

Kim Schilling, Director, Animals for Awareness

The domesticated ferret is mischievous and playful, loving and intelligent. He's also becoming one of America's favorite companion animals.

Enter the home of a ferret lover and you're likely to see colorful toys, winding play tubes and litter boxes scattered about. You may ask with wide eyes, "What was that?" as several fuzzy blurs whiz past your feet. The ferret owner will caution you to shuffle your feet as you make your way from one end of the room to the other, so that you don't accidentally harm any of the critters running about. Ferret lovers are serious about this business of ferrets, and they have every right to be.

Practically unheard of as a household pet just 30 years ago, the domestic ferret has stolen the hearts (as well as the socks, keys and varied other small objects) of millions of people around the world. In the United States, ferrets have become one of the most popular companion animals, with more than 8 million owned by approximately 4 million households, according to a 1997 survey by the Annapolis, MD-based American Ferret Association.

So what is it about ferrets that captivate those who love them? How will you know if a ferret is the right pet for you? Admittedly, ferrets are not ideal for everyone, and not everyone is capable of being an ideal ferret owner. According to Bill Killian, owner of Zen and the Art of Ferrets, a ferret shelter in Star Tannery, VA, "Potential ferret owners must be ready for a change in lifestyle." It's important to know where you stand before making such a commitment.

Fascination with Ferrets

The companion ferret can date its ancestry to roughly 60 B.C., when Caesar Augustus brought ferrets to the Balearic Islands in an attempt to control the rabbit population. Hunters placed them in rabbit holes to "ferret out" their prey. Ferrets are believed to have arrived in the United States about 300 years ago, but it wasn't until the 1960s, after several books were published extolling the animal's qualities, that their appeal as pets began to spread.

Many of these qualities makes the ferret an ideal pet for both the homeowner and apartment tenant, and their small size makes them particularly appealing for city living. They range in size from 13 to 16 inches long, with an additional three to four inches for the tail, and usually weigh between three quarters and three and a half pounds.

With an average life span of seven to nine years, ferrets are considered geriatric at four to five years of age. There are always exceptions to this statistic, and many ferrets live 10 to 12 years or longer. "The reason for such long-lived individuals," says longtime ferret owner Sandy Repper of Los Lunas, NM, "is an indeterminable combination of genetics, diet, proper care and, of course, a little luck."

Like deer and rabbits, ferrets are "crepuscular," which means they're most active at dust and dawn. Given their own way, ferrets will happily snooze away 18 to 20 hours of the day, waking only to greet you in anticipation of playtime. This schedule adaptability makes ferrets wonderful pets for people who work odd hours.

And while people who decide to add a cat or a dog to the family often consider such attributes as breed and size, ferret owners need only worry about temperament. Domestic ferrets are all the same "breed"—only color and personality distinguishes them from one another.

Ferrets and the Family

As with many small animals, ferrets and very young children often don't mix.  For ferrets, young children may lead to anxiety, rough play or fear-biting.  Due to their small size, ferrets run a high risk of being crawled on, dropped or stepped on. Any interaction between ferrets and children should be supervised by a ferret-knowledgeable adult. And while many ferrets are relinquished to shelters due to the birth of a new human baby, it doesn't have to happen. Ferrets are no more dangerous than a dog or cat to a baby, but like all animals, ferrets can be unpredictable. In addition, a baby or small child can easily harm a pet, which could also provoke the animal to bite in self-defense.

Ferrets are also natural predators and may pose a threat to small animals such as rodents, birds, rabbits and kittens. However, ferrets will frequently do very well with adult dogs and cats, although the interaction between the pets should be closely monitored. Constant supervision must be provided during playtime or when introducing ferrets to other family members, human or animal.

The Adoption Option

It may be difficult to resist that bouncing ferret kit (baby) in the local pet store, but you should take several things into consideration before deciding where to get your ferret. According to Kim Rushing, the director of Manahawkin, NJ-based KiSta Ferret Rescue, there are more than 114 ferret shelters in the United States, and they're filled to capacity with healthy, adoptable ferrets.

In addition to saving a life, there are a number of reasons to adopt a ferret from a shelter. Kits, which are normally sold in pet stores, are very demanding and require a great deal of training and socializing. Many people don't have the time, patience or consistency to work with them, and inexperienced owners often end up with nippy adult ferrets due to improper handling and training. "Adopting a ferret from a shelter or rescue instead of purchasing an untrained kit means skipping the pains of litter training and nip training," says Killian. Also, ferret shelters provide behavior training, and most adult ferrets in shelters are well-socialized, eager to love and be loved and bond quickly with a new family.

Ferrets often do best in pairs or trios and will readily accept a new cagemate with very little fuss. The love to snuggle and play with each other, so it is advisable to adopt two or three ferrets. They also grieve, sometimes severely, when a cagemate is lost. In the case of a trio, if one ferret dies, the remaining two will have each other for company.

When choosing a ferret, make sure he has bright, clear eyes free of any discharge; his nose should also be free of discharge. His fur should be shiny and soft (although some older ferrets have coarser fur) with no missing patches. There should be no signs of diarrhea, and he should be inquisitive and alert when you approach or handle him. Belly bloating may be indicative of internal parasites or another medical condition.

A new ferret should be quarantined for a few days before being introduced to existing household ferrets to be sure he is harboring no illnesses. The newcomer should be given some time in a quiet place to become acclimated. Ferrets adjust quite easily, though, and in no time he'll be ready to meet all the family members and explore his new surroundings.

Ferret Proofing and Playtime

Ferrets exhibit many of the same silly quirks that we love in puppies and kittens. "Ferrets are genuinely happy, carefree animals," says Rushing. "When they play, they play like they've never played before, and might not ever get a chance to play again." Some ferrets will learn tricks. Some answer to their name. Others come running at the sound of a squeaky toy. "My ferret Zappa will open the fridge and steal hot dogs and bacon," adds Rushing. "We've modified the fridge, but if he's nearby when it's opened, he'll still try to pull off a covert hot dog theft."

But perspective owners need to remember that ferrets are not dogs, nor are they cats in funny-shaped bodies. Although they may walk on a harness and leash like your dog or use the litter box almost as faithfully as your cat, ferrets have their own unique personalities and needs. Both owners and potential owners often overlook the ferret's intelligence and creativity, and many people fail to realize what's really involved when they scoop up that ferret and impulsively cart him home.

While ferrets may be small, they do not thrive when left in a cage all day. Although adequate ferret cages have multiple levels with ramps leading from one to another, ferrets need to be able to run and play freely for at least two to three hours per day. This keeps them in shape physically and mentally. Restricted ferrets may end up depressed, unfit and overly destructive. Many ferret aficionados devote an entire safe playroom to their ferrets. While space may limit your ability to go this far, concessions must be made for playtime. Ferrets require as much commitment from their humans as any other pet.

"Ferrets are high-energy, fun-loving balls of fur that steal your heart and everything else," says Repper. As such, ferret owners must painstakingly examine all areas of their home for potential hazards. Ferrets will go to great lengths to find the flaws in your ferret-proofing techniques. For this reason, ferret-proofing is an ongoing task. "The most common dangers are crush injuries from recliners, sofa beds or other pieces of furniture, or even from being stepped on by humans. Large appliances and escapes to the outdoors also top the list," says Repper. Living successfully and safely with ferrets is a complete lifestyle, from the chronic shuffling of your feet, to habitually leaving toilet lids down, to sorting through all the laundry before running it through the washing machine. While books, magazines and websites offer advice on ferret-proofing, the best information often comes from experienced ferret owners.

Ongoing enrichment plans should also be made for your companion ferret. This can be as simple as rearranging his cage and adding new toys, to more extravagant plans such as hiding goodies in plastic Easter eggs. Hard toys, such as plastic cat toys or hanging parrot toys, are ideal. (Avoid anything that can be chewed and ingested, such as foam rubber or soft plastic.) Invent games that stimulate the ferret's curiosity. Put his favorite furry toy on a string and make him chase it or jump for it. Float some ping pong balls in a shallow pool of water. Be creative and have fun, making sure you take advantage of all the ferret's senses and personality traits. A bored ferret is an unhappy ferret.

Raising a Healthy Ferret

If you think you have what it takes to master the art of ferret proofing and playtime, you may already be over the highest hurdle. However, one of the most common reasons why people relinquish ferrets is the odor factor. All carnivores possess scent glands located just inside the anus, and ferrets are no different. When excited, angry, overstimulated or scared, a ferret may discharge a strong, musky smell. While somewhat offensive at the moment, the odor dissipates quickly and leaves no lasting traces. Nevertheless, some people cannot tolerate the odor, regardless how slight. In addition, even a healthy and properly cared for ferret has a slight musky odor from the oil glands located on his skin, and some ferrets may smell muskier due to illness, improper diet or failure on the caretaker's part to regularly clean litter boxes and bedding.

Ferrets are actually very clean animals. Most will readily use a litter box both in and out of their cage. Regularly cleaning the litter box and any soiled areas of the cage will help with odor control.

Like dogs and cats, ferrets require regular grooming. A ferret has a set of five non-retractable claws on each paw, which he uses for walking, grasping, digging and climbing. Clipping the claws on a monthly basis is important for your safety and his, but declawing is an absolute no-no. Just as intimidating as the ferret's claws are his large, slightly protruding canine teeth. These teeth should also remain intact unless a medical condition necessitates their removal. Clean your ferret's teeth monthly, and have your veterinarian clean them more thoroughly once a year. Clean his ears on a monthly basis, too.

One of the most common mistakes that ferret owners make is over-bathing their ferret in an attempt to rid the animal of his natural musky odor. In fact, bathing may actually increase the odor, because it strips the fur and skin of the natural oils, sending a message to the ferret's glands to quickly replenish lost oil. Unless your ferret gets into something particularly dirty, he only needs to be bathed a few times a year.

The proper diet can mean the difference between a four-or 10-year life span for your ferret. As carnivores, ferrets require a diet high in protein and fat. And because ferrets possess a high energy level and metabolism, both food and fresh water should be available at all times. Ferrets will generally eat only as much as their bodies need, so overeating is not a serious concern. Treats are okay in moderation and can actually help with the bonding and/or training processes.

Veterinary Care

Not all veterinarians are created equal, especially when it comes to ferrets. Although many "see" ferrets in their practice, not all are experienced in non-routine ferret care. Some veterinarians won't even see ferrets; others try to treat ferrets as they would dogs or cats, often overlooking common ferret maladies.

Spaying and neutering is important for the health, behavior and livability of ferrets. Females become sexually mature between six and 12 months and will go into heat and stay in heat unless bred or given a hormone injection. Females who stay in heat may die of aplastic anemia. Males reach sexual maturity at approximately nine months, and intact males will go through periods of excessive aggression and odor.

Routine checkups and annual vaccinations are a must. Regular physicals and blood work will help to detect or rule out common ferret illnesses, such as insulinoma (cancer of the pancreas), adrenal disease (cancer of or lesions on the adrenal glands) and lymphoma (cancer of the lymphatic system). Intestinal obstructions are also frequently found during routine exams. These are a leading cause of death in ferrets, whether from ingesting a foreign object or accumulating hairballs.

Understanding the particular needs of your companion ferret will help him live a long and healthy life, and will bring many years of joy to yours. It's not difficult for the new ferret owner to see what's so fetching about these delightful animals. Says Rushing: "The ideal ferret owner is fun-loving, light-hearted and has a sense of humor. It's also someone who isn't neurotic about having a 100-percent clean house."

Want to add a little pizzazz and a whole lot of love to your life? Add a ferret.

Kimberly Schilling, author of Ferrets for Dummies, resides in Palos Park, IL.

Ferreting out the Facts

Perhaps the biggest obstacles facing ferrets today are the myths and misconceptions that surround them. Some people continue to tarnish the reputation of domestic ferrets with outdated facts, old wives' tales, misinformation and a general lack of understanding. In fact, some states (Hawaii and California) and some cities (New York City, for example) have gone so far as to pass legislation making it illegal for people to "possess" ferrets. Only through proper education will the domestic ferret be as readily accepted in all cities and states as the companion dog and cat.

Myth: Ferrets are wild animals.

Reality: Ferrets are not wild animals, nor are they exotic animals. They have been domesticated for more than 2,000 years, and they require human assistance to remain alive and healthy.

Myth: Ferrets carry rabies.

Reality: Ferrets and their polecat relatives are extremely resistant and have a natural immunity to the rabies virus. Not only has there never been a documented case of a human contracting rabies from a ferret, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta has documented fewer than 20 rabies-infected ferrets since 1954. In addition, ferrets properly housed indoors have little chance of coming in contact with a rabies-infected animal.

Myth: Ferrets are vicious

Reality: While anything with teeth can bite, biting ferrets are the exception, not the rule. As with most animals, ferrets can and should be properly taught at a young age that play nipping or biting are unacceptable behaviors. A well-socialized ferret is more often than not an affectionate companion.

Myth: Ferrets smell like skunks.

Reality: The odor of a ferret does not even begin to compare to that of a skunk. Undescented ferrets will occasionally "poof" or emit a foul-smelling odor from their scent glands, but the smell dissipates quickly. And all ferrets, descented or not, have a slight musky odor from the oils produced in their skin glands. Good husbandry, such as washing bedding and litter boxes regularly and feeding a proper diet, will help control excessive odor.



For More Information

  • Books
    • Ferrets for Dummies by Kim SchillingA resource for both novice and experienced ferret owners. Advice and tips on care, feeding, housing, health, training and more.
    • The Wit and Wisdom of the Modern Ferrets: A Ferret's Perspective by Mary SheffermanA look at care through the eyes of a ferret.
  • Websites
  • Discussion Groups
    • Ferret Mailing List

      An excellent list for serious ferret owners. Send a "subscribe ferret" e-mail to ferret-request@cunyvm.cuny.edu
    • Ferret Health List

      A list for health-related issues. Participants include ferret-knowledgeable veterinarians. Available at www.yahoogroups.com (search for ferret health and follow instructions to subscribe).

© 2001

ASPCA Animal Watch - Fall 2001