Ferrets are such cute & curious critters that have become increasingly popular as pets. Knowing how to care for them, and what to look for, is key to providing them a healthy, happy life. Learn the basics of caring for a ferret, including diet, hygiene, accommodations, play, and vaccinations. And if you have questions or concerns about your pet ferret, don’t hesitate to give us a call. Dr. Craig has been seeing ferrets for quite some time (along with many other exotics).
Ferrets have an average lifespan of 5-8 years, though they have been known to live longer. Males (hobs) typically weigh between two to four pounds while females (jills) are considerably smaller. Although most are "descented" (anal glands are removed), they still have a musky smell due to an odor from their sebaceous glands. By 6-8 months of age, they are considered sexually mature. Litters typically have 7-14 babies (kits), with 8 being average. Adult ferrets can sleep 18 hours a day, and although they are naturally nocturnal can adjust their wake/sleep cycle to be active during the day.
Most people choose a wire cage for their ferret as it is most easily cleaned and with good ventilation. Look for one that is at least 3' x 3' x 2' that won't allow your pet to escape. Ferrets are nesters normally sleeping in burrows and so providing your ferret with a cloth bed is desirable. (If he/she is a chewer, you might try straw.) They are also easily litter box trained. Provide him/her with a litter box in the corner of the cage and use pelleted litter such as Yesterday's News. Water can be provided by bottle (attached securely to the wire cage) or a heavy bowl that cannot be tipped. Ensure it is changed daily.
Ferrets are strict carnivores meaning that it is essential for them to have a diet composed almost exclusively of animal based protein and fat. Their digestive tracts are short, requiring food that is highly digestible (fat and good quality animal protein, low in carbohydrates). There has been much controversy over what the "idea" pet ferret diet is. Unfortunately, good research is lacking and so most recommendations are being made based on opinion rather than fact. Therefore, as more research becomes available, recommendations may change. A variety of diets have been recommended for ferrets from pelleted, raw, whole prey items and combinations of these. Each diet has pros and cons. We have seen many ferrets live healthy, long lives with pelleted diets like Marshall's and Natural Gold. These diets have the advantage of being less messy, less odiferous, are generally well tolerated and relatively low cost. The pelleted form, however, necessitates a higher carbohydrate level which is not ideal and there is some belief that the abrasive action of chewing the harder food may contribute to dental disease. Whole prey items (mice, rats, birds, insects, etc) are clearly what a wild ferret would eat. Depending on how the prey items are kept though they can have parasites and be contaminated by potentially dangerous bacteria (to both ferrets and humans) like salmonella. Raw food like Wysong's Archetype diet has been recommended as a popular option and one we have liked.
One last thought on ferret diets - there has been a trend to using grain-free diets in carnivores recently. These diets seem to have an association with a particular type of bladder stone. Low carbohydrate is important to ferrets, but grain-free is not needed or synonymous.
Avoid ferret "treat" foods - those that contain dried fruit and vegetables. And regarding "treats", ideally limit this to animal proteins (egg, meat, etc.) and avoid fruits, vegetables or processed carbohydrates (bread, other sugary foods). Many ferrets, if fed the proper diet, can be free fed (food is always available) without becoming overweight - especially if given adequate exercise.
Sedentary is not typically used to describe ferrets! Although they do sleep A LOT, they still are extremely curious and like to be active when they are awake. Therefore, it's important to provide your ferret with at least 2-3 hours of exercise a day. Be sure to supervise your ferret, however, as they are known for squeezing thru tight spaces, and/or ingesting things they shouldn't. Ferret exercise pens can be purchased to help with this!
Most ferrets are relatively easy to handle and not aggressive, though they are often squirmy. Because their vision isn't great, they may startle easily, and be cautious when waking one up (who isn't grumpy when they're woken up?). Because they can't see that well, don't let yours climb excessively as it's not difficult for them to fall over edges.
Ferrets do need their nails trimmed routinely - typically every 6-8 weeks. And they don't really need to be bathed which can cause their skin to become dry if overdone, but they can be bathed intermittently in a mild, hypoallergenic shampoo.
Ferrets are susceptible to several viruses, as well as heartworm disease, fleas, and many other conditions for which veterinary care is necessary. Canine distemper is a virus for which vaccination is recommended - if the vaccine is available. There is currently only one vaccine that is specific for ferrets but it has been unavailable for some time. Rabies is another disease for which we recommend immunization though it is not currently required by either St. Clair or Madison County. Conditions such as adrenal disease, insulinomas (a pancreatic cancer), and heart disease can affect ferrets, as well as many other conditions. Worth mentioning is the fact that ferrets can catch human influenza ("flu") from humans or other ferrets affected with it. Most ferrets recover uneventfully, though sick, older or very young ferrets will be more severely affected. In general, for the first 2 years of life, we recommend annual veterinary visits, but thereafter, due to the large number of conditions ferrets can acquire and their relatively short lifespan, we recommend an exam every 6 months.
In summary, ferrets can make wonderful pets providing hours of fun interaction, especially in the right environment. They are social, curious and easy to handle making them extremely desirable for many people.