Caring for your ferrets
These domesticated polecats are intelligent and endlessly entertaining creatures who make fantastically loyal animal companions – indeed, the Pet Food Manufacturers Association (PMFA) estimates there are currently around 10,0000 pet ferrets in the UK. However, while ferrets are great fun, they have very specific needs that must be met so they can be healthy and happy and live their best ferret lives.
First off, if you want to know how to look after ferrets, there are some very important things to be aware of:
- They’re bundles of energy who love to run, climb, dig, burrow, forage, groom, hide and play endless ferret games
- They’re clever and inquisitive and need lots of things to explore to keep their minds stimulated
- They’ll chew pretty much anything they can get their paws on
- They like making a mess with their food
- They need to live in a constant temperature – not too hot, not too cold
- They like to sleep – a lot...
Like all pets animals, ferrets have very specific needs which, as a ferret guardian, it’s your responsibility to meet. The RSPCA advises: “Ferrets are curious – play and exploratory behaviours are essential behaviours for them.” Your ferret friends require:
- Constant access to everything they need – space, food, water, companions, toys and safe hiding places (tunnels, closed hammocks) so they can avoid things that scare them
- Suitable things to investigate, safe toys and regular opportunities to play (squeaky toys, balls), somewhere to dig and opportunities to play hide and seek. Vary play and toys frequently
- A shallow water bath if they enjoy playing in water – some do, but it depends on the individual. Always supervise (ensure it is shallow enough so they can always get out) and never force them to swim
- Daily exercise opportunities to stay fit and healthy – ideally, daily access to a safe play area
- Interesting mealtimes. Make them search for their ferret food by hiding it/using food toys
- Daily observation for any signs of excessive aggression in the group (biting, with or without shaking or dragging of the other animal)
- To be kept away from prey species. They are predators – predation comes naturally to them
- Careful observation – changes in behaviour or showing regular signs of stress/fear could indicate distress, boredom, illness or injury – seek advice from a vet
Ferret food – what do ferrets eat?
If you’re a ferret guardian, it’s essential to understand the very specific nutritional requirements of these smart, slinky animals:
- Ferrets have a high metabolic rate and turn food into energy very quickly
- They have a short gut, which means food passes through them quickly and they need to eat every few hours
- Ferrets can’t digest lactose (a sugar found in dairy products such as milk and cheese)
- They can’t digest certain carbohydrates (found in starchy foods such as potato and bread) that well, so it’s best to avoid food with these ingredients
- Ferrets are strict or ‘obligate’ carnivores – which means, like cats, they have to eat meat to survive as it contains important nutrients they can’t get from other types of food
- However, feeding a meat only diet without calcium can lead to the softening of the bones
So, what’s the solution? The answer is to choose a specially designed ferret food that has meat-based ingredients first on the list with moderate amounts of digestible carbohydrates, such as rice, and contains a carefully balanced mix of all the protein and supplements these small carnivores require to thrive.
Burgess Excel Ferret Nuggets are rich in quality chicken, which provides the essential high protein levels that ferrets need. It’s also clean, convenient and easy to feed and doesn’t attract flies – as can happen with wet ferret food or raw ferret food, which can also contain harmful bacteria. Find out more about what ferrets eat >>
Alongside their nuggets, ferrets can be given occasional treats such as small amounts of fresh fish or the yolk of a hard-boiled egg. However, because some treats and food types aren’t suitable for ferrets, and can make them ill, it’s important to know what they can and can’t eat. If you’re ever unsure, seek the advice of your vet before introducing any new foods into their diets.
Ferrets shouldn’t eat the following foods: Dairy products; apple; blackberries; lentils; lima beans; pears; pigeon beans; pink beans; pinto beans; raspberries; spinach; bananas; blueberries; broccoli; Brussel sprouts; dates; figs; green beans; guavas; kiwi fruit; onions; oranges; dried plums; sweet potato; peanut butter; raisins; rice; bananas; salt; chocolate.
The PFMA also has some useful guidelines when it comes to feeding your ferrets:
- The average ferret will eat 5-7% of their body weight on a daily basis – this is about 50-75 grams of food for a ferret weighing 1 kg. However, the quantity of food differs from animal to animal and according to life stage
- Ferrets will require larger quantities during growth, gestation and reproduction. A reproducing female require a minimum of 30% protein in their diet and kits require more protein and fat. Older ferrets may need less food and, of course, if you think your pet is gaining weight, feed levels should be adjusted
- Only give your ferret small amounts of treats. If ferrets eat too much and become overweight, this can lead to many other health problems
- It’s not advisable to make any sudden changes to your ferret’s diet as this may make them very ill. Always introduce new diets gradually and talk to your vet it your ferret is poorly
- Fresh, clean water must always be available and check it regularly – at least twice a day. If your ferret is outdoors in winter, make sure the water doesn’t freeze
Where to keep your ferrets
Ferrets can be kept indoors or outdoors. Outdoor enclosures should combine a well-ventilated and well-insulated indoor section with attached run to provide your ferrets constant access to lots of space and activities. This arrangement should also maintain a natural ferret- friendly temperature of 15-21°C all year-round (although you may want to add extra insulation during the coldest days of coldest days of winter).
The minimum outdoor enclosure size for a pair of ferrets is 2.4 metres long x 2 metres wide x 2 metres high (8 ft long x 6 ft wide x 6 ft high). Find out more about creating the perfect ferret residence >>
For indoor ferrets, choose an extra-large 'explorer' cage, ideally placed in a separate room of your house. This area will need to be thoroughly ferret-proofed to ensure that it’s free from electric cables and plug sockets, poisonous plants and gaps out of windows or into walls. For lots of great ferret housing ideas and advice, visit Fairoak Ferrets.
The inside of your ferrets’ home needs to combine:
- Spacious areas for zooming around in
- Safe platforms of different heights to climb onto
- Rope bridges to tackle
- Tunnels and drainpipes to disappear down
- A digging box to get stuck in to (try a large storage box full of dry rice or soil)
- A selection of sturdytoys to play with
Ferrets spend a large chunk of the day asleep – up to 20 hours a day – and like to nap in dark, enclosed areas. As snoozing is one of a ferret’s favourite things, it’s important that they have a choice of cosy sleeping spots such as soft hammocks, a nesting box filled with dust-free bedding (don’t use shredded paper or straw) and some fleecy blankets – ferrets love to make nests in them. Giving a range of options enables your ferrets to enjoy a solo siesta or a cuddle with a friend.
PFMA advises: “When in their hutch, ferrets love burrowing in dust-free bedding. Hay is unsuitable but old clothes or towels are ideal. Don’t forget hutches need to be cleaned regularly – more than once a week in the winter. Ferrets can also be toilet trained – unlike many small furries – so need a litter box filled with dust-free litter material.”
Company of their own kind
When it comes to caring for ferrets, the first thing to bear in mind is that ferrets are best in the plural, rather than the singular. As ferrets love to play, they’ll really benefit from having a playmate of their own kind. PFMA advises: “Ferrets can live alone but they prefer to live with one or two others – if they get on! Also, unless you want a large family, make sure they are single sex or neutered. If only one ferret is to be kept, remember you are its play mate and will need to dedicate more time to entertaining and exercising. When thinking about introducing a ferret into your household, it’s important to remember they are easily frightened. Be very careful with introductions to other pets. Ferrets can live with dogs and cats but not with other small furries.”
Providing lots of things to do
Curious ferrets love lots of things to investigate and play with. Even something such as an old pillowcase can provide hours of fun as something to climb in and ambush their polecat pals from. Suspend by all four corners to turn it into a hammock for playing or sleeping in.
Providing a range of toys for ferrets is a good way to provide these clever little animals with the challenges and stimulation they need. You can even turn things lying around the house into fun ferret activities:
- An old cardboard boxcan become an intriguing den if you cut a couple of wriggle-size holes in it and place something tasty such as some Burgess Excel Ferret Nuggets hidden in an old sock inside it
- A tatty, stinky old walking boot?It will make a great hidey-hole to pop out of and place to hide a small stash of food
- A cosy jumperthat’s past its best? Your ferrets will love tunnelling through the sleeves to investigate if there are any treats inside
Keeping your ferrets healthy and happy
Providing the correct nutrition, suitable accommodation, company of their own kind and lots of stimulating and interesting things to do, will all play a big part in keeping your mustelid mates happy and healthy. However, there are some important health issues to be aware of:
- It’s recommended to get your ferrets vaccinated against canine distemper. Ferrets are usually given their first vaccination at 12 weeks, although an additional earlier vaccination may be given in high-risk cases. Yearly boosters are given to maintain immunity.
- Just like humans, ferrets can easily catch colds and flu and suffer with similar symptoms including sneezing, coughing, runny nose and eyes, fever, wheezing, diarrhoea and loss of appetite. Make sure your ferrets drink plenty of fluid and, if they stop eating or passing faeces, take them straight to your vet.
- Ferrets also have unusual reproductive systems. Female ferrets can become very ill and even die if their reproductive cycle is not controlled by hormone injection, implant or neutering. Coming into heat during the long breeding period of March to September, produces a rush of oestrogen, which reduces their body’s ability to make red blood cells. If the heat is not ended in time, this can lead to anaemia, which can be life-threatening. For male ferrets, neutering will calm aggressive behaviours, remove the drive to mate and reduce their rather pungent scent.
Regular checks will also help you keep a close eye on your ferrets’ health:
- Keep a record of your ferret’s weight – Major weight changes could signal a health problem. (Seasonal weight fluctuations are normal)
- Check their coat – Your ferret’s coat should be shiny and glossy, except during coat change seasons. If you notice a hair loss which does not regrow within a normal time frame, check with your vet. Also, check to make sure your ferret is free of fleas and other parasites
- Check their skin condition – Is it dry, flaky or discoloured? These changes should be reported to your vet
- Check their eyes – Are they clear and bright? Is there any coloured discharge? Watery eyes may indicate an allergy or irritation, perhaps even a cold. If this persists, it should be checked by your vet
- Keep ears clean and check for ear mites – An abundance of debris is not normal. Ears should be pink and free of odour. If the ears are smelly, have your vet check for ear mites. Mites left untreated can cause infections and other problems
- Check their gums– They should be pink – pale gums indicate a problem. Gently press a finger against the gums – the pink colour should return to them quickly, indicating good blood flow. Also, check teeth for tartar build-up
- Check their breath– Bad breath can indicate more than tooth and gum problems
- Check them all over for any lumps or bumps
- Check their feet and pads for dryness or cracking – Older ferrets may have dry foot pads. Applying a small application of Vaseline™ to the pads will protect them from cracking and drying, especially in dry winter heat
- Does your ferret cough or gasp?– First, rule out the probability of hair ingestion during shedding season. Then, if either condition persists, see your vet
And finally... check out these fun ferret facts
- Ferrets (Mustela putorius furo) belong to the family ‘Mustelidae’, which includes otters, stoats, weasels and badgers. Their most likely wild ancestors are the European polecat and the Steppe polecat. Because they are domesticated, ferrets need to be cared for by humans and would not be able to survive in the wild
- Pet ferrets can live for five to 15 years, but the average lifespan is between eight and 10 years
- Male ferrets are called hobs, and females jills. A neutered female is a sprite and a neutered male is a gib. Baby ferrets (less than one year old) are kits. A group of these intelligent little animals is known as a ‘business of ferrets’
- Males can be twice as large as females. Both sexes exhibit seasonal fluctuations of up to 30 to 40% in body weight, as subcutaneous fat is added in the autumn and shed in the spring
- Ferrets lack sweat glands in the skin and regulate their body temperature by panting and are susceptible to overheating, particularly in humid conditions
- Ferrets don’t have varying breeds, but they do come in all manner of stunning colour combinations. Common colours in the UK are Fitch/Sable/Poley, Sandy/Champagne, Albino, Dark Eyed White (Dew) or Black Eyed White (Bew) and Silver. However, the different combinations of colours, patterns and markings produce an infinite number of variations
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Why choose Burgess Ferret Food?
At Burgess, we understand the complex nature of ferret dietary requirements, and the effect that a poor diet can have on their health, wellbeing and welfare. Without good levels of protein, fat and all-important vitamins and minerals, ferrets will lack the energy they need to exercise, play and be happy.
Burgess Excel Ferret Nuggets are made using premium ingredients that ensure great quality and taste. Helping to support a healthy diet for ferrets of all ages, this food is designed to help your ferrets thrive. High in good quality protein for obligate carnivores, our ferret nuggets can provide beneficial vitamins and nutrients too. At Burgess, our complete ferret food contain good quality poultry protein and fat, along with taurine for a healthy heart, prebiotics to support digestion and added linseed for coat condition:
- Protein– Helps to support your ferrets’ energy levels, muscles and immune system
- Prebiotics– To support your ferrets’ digestion
- Antioxidants– To aid the immune system
- Vitamins– Fortified with Vitamin A, Vitamin D3 and Vitamin E for healthy skin, coat, teeth and bones
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