Ferrets

Steven D. Garner, DVM, DABVP Diplomate,
American Board of Veterinary Practitioners,
Chief of Staff, Safari Veterinary Care Centers,
e-mail: docgarner@safarivet.com
www.safarivet.com

Ferrets are carnivores of the family Mustelid and are related to skunks, otters, weasels and mink. The domestic ferret, Mustela putorious furo, was originally used in Europe and Asia as far back as 4 BC for vermin control and for hunting rabbits. Ferrets are domesticated animals and have been captive bred for thousands of years. Ferrets were introduced in to the USA in the late 1800’s and have become popular as pets. Ferrets reach adult weight by 6 months of age. Males (hobs) average 3 pounds and females (jills) average 1.5 pounds. Baby ferrets are kits. Life span averages 5-7 years. Ferrets are considered geriatric at 2-3 years of age. Ferrets tend to molt or shed their hair, starting in summer with regrowth in fall. This should not be confused with hair loss due to skin problems or internal disease (see Adrenal Neoplasia).
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Odor: Ferrets have paired anal sacs similar to a skunk however they do not spray like a skunk. Most ferrets sold in the USA are produced in large breeding facilities and are neutered/spayed and descented at 4-6 weeks of age. These ferrets have little if any odor. Sexually intact ferrets emit a strong odor from a combination of glands in the skin and the anal sacs. Neutering/spaying dramatically reduces this odor. If the remaining odor is unacceptable then surgical removal of the anal sacs is recommended.

Diet: Ferrets are true carnivores and therefore require diets high in protein. Due to the short time that the food spends in the intestinal tract, the protein must be of very high quality and highly digestible. Science Diet Feline Growth, Health Blend Kitten, and Marshall Farms Ferret Diet are adequate diets for ferrets. DOG FOOD SHOULD NEVER BE FED. Dog foods are not only too low in protein and fat, but are deficient in the amino acid, Taurine, that is necessary for the normal development and function of the ferret’s heart.

Housing: The ferret is one of the most inquisitive animals in nature, and, as such, it is nearly impossible to “ferret-proof” a house. A ferret’s cage should be made out of a material that will not absorb or retain odors. You can build with Plexiglas, wire mesh, or plastic among other materials. If wire mesh is used, make sure the openings are small enough to prevent your pet from crawling through (or possibly getting stuck).
Cages are also readily available commercially. Ferrets are very clean animals, and if provided with a litter box, will usually use it. A blanket or towel should always be provided in the cage since ferrets like to crawl under things to hide when sleeping.

Reproduction: In the USA, most ferrets are neutered/spayed as kits at 4-6 weeks of age before being sold as pets. These ferrets are usually identified by a small tattoo in the right ear, however, not all facilities use tattoos. Intact ferrets have a strong odor due to hormone related secretions from the glands in the skin. Males are only fertile from March-December. During the winter, the testicles are retracted and may be difficult to feel. Female ferrets in heat demonstrate a swollen vulva. Female ferrets remain in heat until they are bred by a male ferret. If this does not occur, the female may remain in heat ultimately, developing complications that are often fatal if not recognized and treated. (see Aplastic Anemia) Ferrets may have two litters per year. Litter size varies from 2-17 (average 8). Kits are born hairless, blind and deaf. White fur appears at 2 days, dark fur at 1 week and full coat by 2 weeks of age. Eyes open at 2-5 weeks and kits usually start eating solid food by 2-3 weeks of age.