Owning A Ferret 101
July 7, 2021
Ferrets come in several different color schemes: The Fitch ferret is the most popular. Fitch ferrets have a buff-colored coat with black markings on the face, feet, and tails. Albino ferrets are white with pink eyes. Some ferrets have a buff coat with light markings.
The female ferret is called a jill, the male is a hob, and the infants are called kits.
The gestation period, or length of pregnancy, is about 42 days (compared to 60 days for dogs and cats and 270 days for people). Like puppies and kittens, kits are born deaf and with their eyes closed. They begin walking by about 3 weeks of age, which is also when their eyes and ears open. By about 6 weeks of age, they are weaned onto kitten or ferret food. The average life span is 5-8 years; ferrets are considered geriatric pets at 3 years of age (compared to 8 years of age for dogs and cats).
Ferrets can make good pets. Their diet is cat food or ferret food, and they easily learn to use a litterbox.
They can be nippy; check with your veterinarian prior to purchasing a ferret if you have small children.
Ferrets are escape artists and are easily able to squeeze through the tiniest openings and cracks. Homes must be "ferret-proofed" to prevent escape and injury. Naturally inquisitive, they will chew on and swallow many things. It is highly recommended to put a collar with a bell attached to your ferret so that it can be easily found if it escapes your sight (make sure the bell can't be swallowed if it becomes detached, or make sure it's firmly secured to the collar and can't easily detach). Never let your ferret out of your sight when it's out of its cage. If you leave the room even for a minute, take the ferret with you or put it back in its cage (carrier).
As stated above, ferrets love to chew. Rubber toys are not safe for ferrets, as they often chew off and swallow small pieces! Diagnosis of obstruction is often difficult in a ferret; usually, the problem is diagnosed during exploratory surgery and is often fatal if not treated early. Hard toys like Nylabones are safe, as are rawhide treats in small amounts (although some veterinarians feel rawhide shouldn't be given to any pets). Other safe toys include ping pong and golf balls, small cans, cardboard mailing tubes, and very hard plastic toys. Cloth toys are all right IF the ferret is not chewing off pieces of it!
Ferrets are usually spayed or neutered and de-scented prior to purchase. Unless you want to breed your prospective pet, sterilization is preferred. Intact (un-neutered) male ferrets have a musky odor and can be aggressive; female ferrets never go out of heat unless bred. This prolonged heat results in bone marrow suppression from high levels of estrogen, which is fatal unless treated early and aggressively with blood transfusions.
The anal sacs of ferrets secrete a foul-smelling liquid, and thus de-scented ferrets (which have these sacs removed at the time of spaying and neutering) make better pets. Even after de-scenting, ferrets still have a slightly musky odor. Bathing can be done weekly or every other week with a gentle moisturizing shampoo that your veterinarian recommends. Ferrets should also have their sharp claws trimmed regularly (ask your veterinarian for instructions). Ferrets should not be declawed.
Just like dogs and cats, ferrets require a series of vaccinations as youngsters. Once a year, they also require an examination, a fecal test for internal parasites, and vaccination boosters. Once a ferret becomes 3 years of age, it requires a complete geriatric profile (see below).
Ferrets are usually vaccinated at 8, 12, and 16 weeks of age against canine distemper. There is an approved vaccine for rabies in ferrets. However, since many local laws vary regarding ferret bites, some veterinarians do not vaccinate ferrets for rabies.
Ferrets do not have any identifiable blood types; if needed, blood from a dog or preferably a cat can be given to a ferret that needs a blood transfusion.
Ferrets are very susceptible to hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). For this reason, they are only fasted for a few hours (rather than overnight) prior to surgery or blood sampling.
Ferrets, like many small mammals and pocket pets, are extremely susceptible to heat stress or stroke. The temperature must be kept below 90o F (32o C).
Selecting Your Pet
Some areas make it illegal to own a pet ferret, due to potential attacks on people (specifically children, as ferrets, can be aggressive and nippy) and the chance of an escaped ferret becoming established in the wild (and potentially destroying crops). If owning a ferret is legal, they can often be purchased at pet stores or through breeders or ferret club members. Look for a young ferret (ideally). The eyes and nose should be clear and free of any discharge that might indicate a respiratory infection (or distemper). The ferret should be curious and inquisitive; it should not be thin and emaciated. Check for the presence of wetness around the anus, which might indicate diarrhea. Check for the presence of external parasites such as fleas. If possible, examine the ferret's mouth for broken teeth, discolored gums (they should be light pink), or any obvious sores, any of which could suggest disease. Inquire as to whether the ferret has been surgically altered (spayed or neutered) or de-scented (had its anal sacs surgically removed); most ferrets have these operations performed by 8-12 weeks of age prior to purchasing.
The First Veterinary Visit
Your ferret should be examined by a veterinarian who treats these special pets within 48 hours of purchase (this is often required by the seller, or the guarantee is voided). They will discuss proper diet, housing, and toys for the ferret. A vaccination program will be set up, a fecal sample checked for worms, and the ferret may be started on heartworm preventative. Like dogs and cats, ferrets require annual veterinary visits.
Once a ferret becomes 3 years old, a complete geriatric workup, which includes an EKG, urinalysis, blood profile, and radiographs (X-rays) is necessary for the early detection of diseases so commonly seen in older ferrets, such as cardiomyopathy and cancer.