Are ferrets good pets for children? How long do ferrets live? What do ferrets like to do? What should you feed ferrets? How can you tell if your ferrets are happy? We’ve all the answers to these questions and more, which will help you understand what makes these curious, clever pets such popular companions.
Here’s what’s covered in our comprehensive ferret Q&A:
- Where do ferrets come from?
- Are ferrets awake during the day?
- Are ferrets good pets for children?
- What do ferrets eat?
- Where should ferrets live?
- Do ferrets need much grooming?
- Are ferrets social and do they need company?
- What do ferrets like to do?
- How long does a ferret live?
- How do ferrets communicate and how do you know if your ferrets like you?
- How do you make friends with a ferret?
Where do ferrets come from?
Ferrets are domesticated polecats, which means they’ve been adapted from wild species (most likely the European polecat and the Steppe polecat) by humans to fulfil specific requirements.
They’re part of the ‘Mustelid’ family, which is a large, diverse group of carnivorous mammals that includes badgers, otters, weasels, stoats, martens, mink and wolverines. Because ferrets are domesticated, they need to be cared for by humans and would not be able to survive in the wild.
Humans and ferrets have been companions for thousands of years – images of ferret-like animals on leashes have even been discovered on the walls of Egyptian tombs. It’s thought that they were first introduced to Britain around 2,000 years ago by the Romans.
Ferrets are small creatures, measuring 40-60cm long. Males, called hobs, weigh 1-2.5kg, and females, called jills, around 0.5-1.5kg. They come in all manner of colour combinations including: Fitch (with the distinctive ‘robbers’ mask’ across the eyes, dark limbs and tail); Albino or English ferret (with a stunning, snowy white coat); Silver (grey with neat white markings); Sandy (light brown to deep golden coat) and Dew (pure white with black or ruby eyes). Find out more about ferrets and their coats of many colours >>
Are ferrets awake during the day?
Ferrets are crepuscular, which means they’re naturally active at dawn and dusk. However, when it comes to sleeping beauties, ferrets are the real deal as they like to snooze for around 18 to 20 hours a day. When they’re awake and fully recharged, they’re extremely active, so providing plenty of ferret-friendly things to do and spending quality time interacting with your polecat pals is essential.
Are ferrets good pets for children?
Lively, curious and fun-loving ferrets make great pets, but they're not the easiest to handle and can bite if startled, so, they don't always make good pets for children. Like all pets, ferrets require more looking after than a child can offer and responsibility for any animal’s wellbeing lies with adults.
If you're planning on getting ferrets, you'll need to do lots of research as they have very specific needs. County shows are a good place to start. Many have special ferret events, which provide the perfect opportunity to chat to ferret owners, ask their advice and handle the animals. To find ferrets of your own, it’s a good idea to check out rescue centres – such as those run by the RSPCA or a local ferret rescue group. The animals will have been well looked after and will be used to being handled and therefore should have less inclination to nip.
Show your pets the love: Learn the five animal welfare needs and understand the importance of enabling pet animals to exhibit their natural behaviours >>
What do ferrets eat?
Like cats, ferrets are ‘obligate carnivores’ – this means that they have to eat meat to stay healthy as it contains important nutrients they can’t get from other types of food. Their staple diet needs to contain meat protein, alongside a constant supply of clean, fresh water.
However, as well as meat, ferrets also need calcium in their diet to help support healthy teeth and bones. The best way to provide this is to choose a complete nugget diet that contains a carefully balanced mix of all the protein and supplements a ferret requires to thrive.
Developed by our in-house vet, animal nutritionist and food technology team, Burgess Excel Ferret Nuggets are a single component extruded diet, which helps prevent selective feeding. This super premium food contains high levels of quality poultry, which provides the essential high protein levels that ferrets need. It’s also clean, convenient and easy to feed and does not attract flies as can happen with fresh meat, which can also contain harmful bacteria. This complete food features:
- Protein– Aids a ferret’s high metabolism, as well as their energy levels, muscle mass and immune system
- Prebiotic– To help support healthy digestion
- Taurine– To help to maintain a healthy heart
- Vitamins– Including zinc and biotin to aid a healthy skin and coat
- Vitamin A– Assists the heart, lungs and kidneys in correct functioning
- Vitamin D3– Can help to support bone health
- Vitamin E– Can help to maintain healthy skin and eyes and support the body’s natural defences
- No added artificial colours, flavours or preservatives
Ferret food facts
- Ferrets have a high metabolic rate and turn food into energy very quickly. They also 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) or large amounts of plant matter.
- There are a number of foods that are poisonous to ferrets, including raisins, avocado and chocolate.
- Treats in small amounts can be provided occasionally – such as a little cooked chicken or half a boiled egg.
Make feeding time fun
Active, curious and clever, ferrets are natural puzzle- solvers and will enjoy foraging for their food. Measure out their daily allowance of nuggets and hide some of it in tunnels, in paper bags or around their accommodation so they can have lots of fun searching for it. You could also try filling a Kong toy with some of their daily ration, so they can keep both mind and body busy figuring out how to get their paws on their tasty stash. You could also introduce some special activity toys suitable for small animals, such as treat balls or puzzle boards. Find out more about feeding your ferrets >>
- If you are at all unsure about the best way of feeding your ferrets or have any concerns about specific nutritional requirements at different times of their life, ask your local veterinary practice for advice.
- You can also call the Burgess pet expert team on 44 (0)0800 413 969who’ll be happy to help. They’re available 9am-5pm, Monday to Friday. Alternatively, you can use our online form to get in touch.
Where should ferrets live?
Ferrets can be kept either indoors or outdoors. Outdoor enclosures that combine a well-ventilated and well-insulated indoor section with attached run offers 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 winter). 10 ways to keep your small pets snug and warm this winter >>
If housing your ferrets indoors, 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.
Ferrets love to play and jump around, and their living area should allow them to do so. Their housing should be at least 3m long x 2m wide x 2m high for a pair of ferrets. it’s important to make sure the housing you have is large enough for each of your ferrets to have their own spaces, just in case they want to get away from each other for a while.
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)
- Some sturdy toys to play with
- A selection of napping 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.
Ferrets are extremely social animals and need to be taken out of their living areas and played with daily. However, with their long, flexible bodies, and short, strong limbs, they’re perfectly equipped to move freely in confined spaces and turn round in narrow tunnels. Unsurprisingly, they adore tunnelling and consider a hole of any size as something that just has to be investigated and can squeeze through places you never thought possible. Having ferrets as pets means that you need to ferret-proof both their home and yours.
Do ferrets need much grooming?
Ferrets are very clean animals and will spend a good portion of their time awake cleaning themselves. However, regular grooming sessions with their human regular with a suitable brush (ask your vet for advice) should also be part of their routine. Not only will this help them build up their trust in you, it’s also a really good way to keep check of their health – taking a close look at coat, skin, ears, eyes, mouth and feet will help you spot if there’s anything out of the ordinary that needs attention outside of your normal vet check appointments.
Ferrets are susceptible to ear mites, so check their ears daily. You’ll also need to regularly clip their claws. Ferrets can also catch several strains of the human influenza virus and other diseases, so contact your vet immediately if your pet displays any signs of being unwell. An annual check-up is also essential, where you can also get advice on flea and tick protection and vaccinations. Find out more about keeping your ferrets healthy >>
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Are ferrets social and do they need company?
While they relish human attention, ferrets need to be with others of their own kind and should always be kept in pairs or small groups of up to four ferrets, unless advised otherwise by a vet, ideally from the same litter, or a neutered male with a female. Find out more about ferret companionship >>
What do ferrets like to do?
When they’re not enjoying hours and hours snoozing, ferrets will play intensively – ideally with a ferret companion as well as their human. These curious explorers need lots of stimulation to occupy their questioning minds and to prevent them getting bored – things they can climb on, play with and investigate, along with access to safe hiding places. Dry food such as Burgess Excel Ferret Nuggets are ideal to scatter around your ferrets’ accommodation to encourage natural foraging and exploration activity.
RSPCA advises: “Ferrets are curious – play and exploratory behaviours are essential behaviours for them.” They 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 food by hiding it/using food toys.
Some ferrets will enjoy going for walks with you. You'll need to spend time introducing them to their harness and lead and getting them used to the experience.
To take them for walks, Blue Cross advises that you'll need:
- A specialist ferret harness – similar to a dog harness (but much smaller!) with two sections that will clip together and a lead.
- To make sure they're used to being picked up and handled.
Things to be aware of when walking your ferret:
- Their harness will need to be secure so that they don't wriggle out of it.
- You'll need to keep an eye on them at all times.
- You should avoid public places if they aren't used to being picked up or meeting new people.
- Watch out for dogs and pick your ferret up if you can see a dog in the distance – it's always better to be safe.
How long do ferrets live?
With the right nutrition, suitable accommodation, company, care and kindness, ferrets can live for five to 15 years, but the average lifespan is between eight and 10 years.
How do ferrets communicate and how do you know if your ferrets like you?
Ferrets use scent to communicate with each other – they can tell if another ferret is male or female, strange or familiar and if the mark was left recently or a day ago, just by sniffing a mark left by the other ferret. Just like dogs and cats, ferrets show how they’re feeling via vocalisations and their body language. Ferret World outlines some classic ferret moves to look out for:
- When playing, ferrets may hiss and chuckle and when foraging they may produce a low-pitched grumble. When frightened or threatened, they may scream.
- When ferrets are feeling really happy, they’ll often perform the ‘dance of joy’. This involves puffing up their tail, baring their teeth and throwing their head back and hopping around in all directions. If they do this when you’re playing with them, you’ll know they’re really enjoying your company!
- If your ferret is pawing at the ground, they’re inviting you or another ferret to wrestle with them. Happy, excited ferrets also produce bark-like vocalisations and chirping noises, known as ‘dooking’.
- In the middle or after play, ferrets will often ‘speed bump’, lying flat on the floor with their heads down and their legs pointed outward. This is a normal behaviour displayed when the ferret is taking a break from play or has had a toy taken away.
- To ferrets, nipping is not a sign of aggression. Bonded ferrets engage in fairly rough biting with each other during play and, perceiving a human as a playmate, they may not understand that human skin is more sensitive than ferret skin.
Understanding your ferrets’ behaviour and what makes them tick is essential to making the most out of your life together. Find out more about ferret behaviour >>
How do you make friends with a ferret?
Endlessly entertaining, ferrets are great fun as pets and love being around their human and, once you and your ferrets are used to each other, you’ll have lots of fun times together.
As with most animals, start slowly when introducing yourself to your ferrets. Try placing a t-shirt that smells of you into their enclosure so they can get used to your scent. Gently speak to them whenever you walk past so they get used to your voice. Have some tasty nuggets to hand so they associate you with good things.
Ferrets really enjoy human company, but they do like to explore the world with their mouth, so they can nip when they are young and untrained. A firm no after a nip should be enough to teach the ferret that biting is not acceptable. Never react with fast movements of physically punish the ferret as they will become scared, and it will be harder for them to learn to trust you.
When you feel ready, start to play with your ferrets. It’s best to handle ferrets when calm and relaxed. To pick them up, place one hand around their middle, and use your other hand to support their backside. When they’re out and about, go low to the ground so you’re at their level. The more playtime you spend with them the better.
Did you know that 92% of UK vets recommend our Excel range? What’s more, at Burgess, all our pet food is produced in line with FEDIAF (the European pet food industry federation) nutritional guidelines. These guidelines, which are based on many pieces of published research, helps us to calculate the nutrient content and dietary components required to ensure all our foods meet the detailed nutritional requirements for the pets they are designed for.
CARE MORE Find more great advice on all aspects of ferret care from the pet experts >>
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