So, you are wondering if ferrets are right for you? Before you decide to add a ferret to your family, it is essential that you understand what you are getting into. Maybe more specifically, what they will get into. Just so you know, a group of ferrets is called a “business,” and that may be because they will get into a lot of it!

It is crucial that you can give them time, enrichment, and a proper diet to help them avoid obesity and dietary deficiencies. It is also necessary that a potential ferret home do their homework: adopting these darlings is like adding slinky-shaped miniature toddlers with high IQs and zero understanding of social rules or “that’s mommy’s favorite vase!” to your family. Not only are they super intelligent, they are a long-term commitment with lifespans comparable to small dogs. Of course, chances are you used Google to get here, so you are already ahead of the curve. 

They have personality and can quickly become addictive if they are the right fit for your home. Which is a good thing, because you really shouldn’t have just one – they do best with ferret company in small groups, according to Vet Babble.

What you feed your ferret, and the housing, enrichment activities and care you give them will determine whether or not you have a great family pet or a bitey whirling dervish of destruction.

Ferrets can bite, and they have teeth like a mini-T-rex — ok, not that bad, more like a cat — but you will know when you’ve been bitten. Consistent handling, enrichment, and socialization of your little brainiac will matter, a lot.

Even the best-behaved ferret is going to be a ball of energy, sometimes, they are silky tornados of cuteness and others you are going to wish you had maid service.

Ferret Facts:  Lifespan, Health, Diet, and Ferret Care

The name ferret comes from the Latin word furittus, meaning “little thief.” That name is likely derived from the ferret’s proclivity for stealing away small treasures. Like your keys, toothbrush or shoes. We don’t say “ferreted away,” for nothing.

Ferrets aren’t mostly “caged pets,” like hamsters:, they need to be part of the family, with sufficient time spent in play and roaming freely. If you are thinking about getting one because you think they will be in an enclosure most the time, like you see them in a pet store (below), don’t.

These guys live 7-10 (even up to 13) years, and they need space. Lots and lots of space if possible, and playgrounds, tubes, and hammocks and boxes; and they are still going to get into your stuff – because they are ferrets. They need to roughhouse and explore, it is just what they are.

Here is one example, you don’t have to give your pet this much room, but if you can you are going to want to.

Black-Footed Ferrets as Pets: Pitfalls and Pleasures

The Black-Footed Ferret is a well-known pet animal, it is thought to have been domesticated some 2,500 years ago. Previously considered globally extinct, they are making a comeback in the wild. According to the World Wildlife Foundation, and have now been designated as endangered.

Pet ferrets are hunters, like their wild brethren, and may not be good with other small prey animals for company, like prairie dogs or other rodents – which actually comprise most of their diet in the wild:

However, when raised together they can accept other animals as buddies, even adopting babies from other species into their group.

These svelt smarties are carnivores like the predatory mongoose, so they aren’t going to be able to eat a vegan diet with you, either. Their diet must be high protein, and that protein needs to be from an animal source. Soy and Tofurkey are not acceptable substitutes, not for these little guys. Make sure you know what kind of diet your new charge was on and keep it the same, slowly changing it if you want a better quality food. You also need to assure access to plenty of clean water – ferrets are prone to dehydration. For a special treat, you can give your miniature hunter a mouse, a rat, or an egg yolk; but don’t give him fruits and veggies. They don’t have the correct enzymes to digest plants, they aren’t omnivores like dogs are.

Also, if you have young children, it is best to wait until they are a little older to adopt these critters, according to Vet Babble:

Ferrets are highly intelligent and social pets that do best in small groups. It is highly recommended you consider adopting a pair of ferrets so they will always have a companion to socialize with. Ferrets natural play includes nipping and training is required to ensure your ferret knows that nipping humans is not an acceptable behavior. They are also extremely inquisitive, anything you may have in your home IS of interest, so ferret-proofing your home is a must so they do not get caught in between, underneath or behind things.

They’ll Steal Your Heart … and Your Toothbrush

The name ferret comes from the Latin word furittus, meaning “little thief.” The name is derived from the ferret’s proclivity for stealing away small treasures. Like your keys, toothbrush or shoes. We don’t say “ferreted away,” for nothing.

Female ferrets are around 10 percent smaller than males and both genders come in a rainbow of colors. Sexual Maturity for ferrets occurs at about a year old, you are going to want to have your males fixed by then or you may never get them to stop scent marking. Domestic ferrets don’t just love company, they thrive on it – so you should plan on getting two.

Don’t forget, local laws and rules may make owning a ferret illegal, so be sure you know the legalities. For example, in California, only neutered males can be kept as pets. Even more specifically, in Carson, Nevada you may not own one if you have a young child in your home.

However, a baby ferret will give the universally cute cuddling otters a run for its money when it comes to the “awwww factor.”:

 

Your Super-Cute Baby ferret is going to grow up, what you need to know

Starting very young, at about 6 weeks, Ferrets will play aggressively because of their genetics. As they get older, that kind of play doesn’t go away – its part of who they are. They will bite each other on the neck like cats, especially while mating, but unlike cats, this behavior seldom results in damage or infection. According to Susan A. Brown, DVM, ferrets fight, and that is not likely to cause injury. So, as long as your ferrets are healthy and not recovering from an illness and injury and have enough space and hiding places, they are best left to be ferrets. However, if the play is far too aggressive you can use a bitter tasting product on your ferret’s necks. When the overly-excitable play bites happen, they will stop quickly because of the nasty flavor.

 The “Weasel War Dance” and Ferret Screams

Brown also talked about two specific behaviors that you should be aware of. The “weasel war dance,” and the ferret scream – yes, scream. The war dance may remind you of the famous literary mongoose, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi. Brown described it as, “lunging, sideways attack, dancing and a staccato clucking sound,” which is not so much dancing as, “a display of bravado and scare tactics directed towards another creature, which in the case of a pet ferret, is usually their human caretaker.” It really isn’t a concern and part of ferret behavior.

Defensive behavior is displayed when a ferret is fearful. Including hissing, snapping their jaws, and that scream. According to Brown, “a ferret scream can be quite loud, high-pitched and alarming, but is associated with fear, not pain.” Though “quite unnerving” these screams are displays and not from pain. You may want to rush in and stop the behavior, however with enough room to roam they usually work it out on their own. They may even scream without even touching each other:

“I have often observed that the screaming ferret is not even being touched by another ferret, but is just being ‘stared down’. Amazingly enough, injuries from ferret ‘fights’ are incredibly rare. I would not make this statement about fights between dogs, cats or even rabbits. (*NOTE: Allowing fights, does not apply to ferrets that are debilitated with illness. These animals should be allowed plenty of private space in which to heal.)”

Remember, Ferrets Are Polecat Relatives … as in “Skunk”

Ferrets can stink, though not as noxiously as their black and white cousins the Skunk. Their scent is usually not awful to animal lovers, but it is “definitely strong,” according to Pethelpful.com. “that the smell of strong artificial chocolate is the closest way to describe it.”  They recommend bathing and drying your companion before venturing into public with them, as many people will react negatively to the obvious scent, which can be very embarrassing.

Like the European polecat they descended from, though, they are fastidious and don’t want to defecate or urinate in or around their den. They can be litter box trained, but you may want a special high-sided litter box so that they can indulge another polecat-style behavior: they back up against a solid surface and spread their scent by rubbing their rear on the wall after pooping. Male ferrets that are not neutered before they come into sexual maturity will mark with not only their anus but their sides as well.

Most of these weasel-cousins sold as pets will have had their anal glands removed, that takes a lot of the smell and “smear” out of it, but the behavior will remain.

Their sharp gazes, small rounded ears, and raccoon-like robber’s masks make them so cute we can put up with it, though.

Black-Footed Ferrets as pets: pitfalls and pleasures of the tiny dog-weasel-cats

Ferrets can be highly entertaining, they are smart and funny and adorable. They also need regular veterinary care, vaccinations, and to be spayed or neuter. Ferrets can be prone to fleas and susceptible to heartworm so your vet may recommend a preventative medication for them. Just like any other animal, it is best to visit the vet at least once a year for a “well-weasel” check.

They can get bored and destructive alone. Ferrets are like canines in their need for companionship, cats in their need for play, and like small children in nosiness and abandoned joy at mess making.

These high-maintenance critters need a lot of cleaning up after. Think a herd of kids or an unsupervised frat house, and you will get close. You are going to be scooping litter boxes and cleaning cages often, and picking up toys after them, too.

A ferret home is hard to miss:

Ferret Funlands: Cages and More

You are going to need a sturdy, roomy cage, one that not only keeps your sly buddy safe and out of your dresser overnight but that will also be stimulating and comfy. Not to mention, a ferret playground: anything from a room that is ferret-proofed to a playpen they can’t climb so that they can get out and explore.

The cage will need to have at least 2 feet of floor space, but the sky’s the limit for what you can do to build a vast enclosure. Maybe not this epic, but we all need goals, right?:

According to the FerretZone.com, you are going to need quite a bit of equipment to do the job of ferret guardian well:

  • A wire mesh cage with at least two square feet of floor space per ferret.
  • Pet carrier. Your ferret will need to see a veterinarian at least once a year and probably more often in that critical first year. You’ll need a sturdy pet carrier to transport your fuzzy.
  • Ferret bedding. Because ferrets love to burrow and snuggle up when they sleep, they need cozy bedding. Whether it’s an old blanket or t-shirt or a swinging hammock, comfort is the key here.
  • Ferret food. Whether it’s canned, dry, or even whole prey, it’s best if you choose food specifically intended for ferrets so that it meets their needs for a high-protein, high-fat, low-fiber diet.
  • Food and water containers. These should be heavy and durable to resist tipping. Many ferret owners prefer to use non-drip water bottles.
  • Litter box and non-clumping, dust-free litter. Remember that ferrets love to dig, so choose a corner-fitting box with high sides. Non-clumping litter is essential to protect ferret health as the clumping variety can play havoc with the digestive system.
  • Hygiene items. Shampoo, brushes, combs, nail clippers, toothbrushes, toothpaste, ear washes, vitamins, and supplements are every bit as important for your ferret as they are for your own health.
  • Harness and leash. Your ferret needs to be out of the cage for several hours each day. One way to keep her busy is to take her for a walk in the great outdoors. The harness and leash will help her explore the world safely.
  • Protective devices. Pet gates, electrical outlet covers, door latches, and similar products are frequently overlooked by new owners, but they are essential for keeping your ferret (and your belongings) safe.

And, that doesn’t cover it all, either. Ferrets also like “dig boxes,” tunnels and obstacle courses and toys. They are sometimes lazy, too, and also love cushy hammocks and hiding places where they can curl up in a ball with their ferret friends. They want to cuddle into a dark place and be dragged around on a towel and tear around in circles, then hide your keys under the stove. (So keep your keys out of the ferret fun-zone).

Did we mention enrichment and toys? Suitable toys for a ferret can come in lots of shapes and sizes. In fact, you may have a ton of ferret toys laying around your house. Below you will find a partial list of things from Pet Education that you can use to give your ferrets the mental and physical stimulation they need to live a long, healthy life:

  • Ferret balls (large plastic balls with holes cut in them so ferrets can get inside and roll around). These are available commercially.
  • Fabric-covered cat toys
  • Knotted cotton rope intended for dogs
  • Socks tied in a knot
  • Empty milk jugs with ferret-sized holes cut in them
  • Empty paper bags, the bigger the better
  • Cardboard boxes with small holes cut in the sides so ferrets can climb in and out
  • PVC tubing (plastic plumbing pipe) or similar tunnel-like materials, like cardboard mailing tubes, big enough for your fattest ferret to get through without getting stuck
  • Wastebaskets containing smaller items of interest
  • A dishpan with a little water inside and a lot of newspaper spread around it. (Not all ferrets like to play in water but those that do are very entertaining.)

  • ‘Stolen’ items such as shoes, socks, gloves or mitts, slippers, hats, car keys
  • Other ferrets
  • Other animals trained as ferret playmates, such as cats and dogs; and best of all…
  • Ferret-loving people, especially those sweeping the floor, reading a newspaper, or doing other interesting tasks to attract ferret ‘help’

But, that isn’t anywhere near all your options, a box full of non-toxic packing peanuts, or a bin full of those small colorful balls kids love to play in are just as likely to have your ferret wriggling in ecstasy. Be creative, and you will be rewarded with hours of fun playing with and watching your pets.  

Sneaky, sly, fun, curious, stinky, “handy,” playful, intelligent and mischevious, these little weasel faces are definitely a lot of responsibility, but they are also excellent pets for many. Not bad for what boils down to a domesticated polecat descendent.

Featured image: CC 0 Max Pixel.