Ferrets as pets – take a fascinating glimpse into the world of slinky wrigglers
Ever wondered what ferrets like to do best? Want to find out more about their behaviour, habits, how they communicate as well as what ferrets eat? To get some answers, just keep scrolling...
Ever fancied having some captivatingly curious ferrets as pets? In fact, these domesticated polecats have been popular human companions for centuries. Images of ferret-like animals on leashes have been discovered on the walls of Egyptian tombs, which suggests that these mischievous little carnivores have been pals with humans for thousands of years. It’s thought that they were first introduced to Britain around 2,000 years ago by the Romans and they’ve gained legions of ferret fans ever since...
Ferrets are fearless explorers who need to be cared for by humans
- 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. They have stubby noses, small furry ears, long, flexible bodies, and short, strong limbs, meaning 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. Thanks to their slender, elongated body and large vertebrae they can squeeze through places you never thought possible. Having ferrets as pets means that you need to ferret-proof both their home and yours.
- Because they are domesticated, ferrets need to be cared for by humans and would not be able to survive in the wild. Despite being kept in their own, specially designed ferret accommodation rather than being given the free run of the house (for their own safety so they don’t disappear down holes or chew electric cables!) the range of ferret behaviour and communication actually has more in common with that of dogs and cats than other small furries, as their interrelationships, actions and body language are multiple and complex. The RSPCA advises: “Since no wild counterpart exists, we are still learning about the ferret's natural needs, habitat and behaviours. There is no one 'perfect' way to care for ferrets because every ferret and every situation is different.”
- Wendy Bament in Vet Times says: “Ferrets are not as nervous of humans as their wild counterparts, the European polecat, and while the polecat is solitary and highly territorial, the ferret is social and enjoys contact. Ferrets quickly become habituated and bonded to their owners. This gregarious nature must be satisfied by owners investing time to interact with their pet and/or keeping them with at least one other ferret. Ferrets love to play and behave like excitable puppies, even initiating tag games where they are chased and perform elaborate leaps, such as the ‘weasel war dance’.”
- Blue Cross advises: “Ferrets can become friends with other household pets, like dogs and cats, but they should always be supervised if playing together. Even the scent of a ferret can be really stressful for prey species, like rabbits or rodents, so keep them away.”
- You can also train your ferrets to walk on a lead and harness so they get the chance to explore more of the outside world. However, ferrets are at risk from the same diseases as dogs so need to be vaccinated against canine distemper before you take them walkies.
Let’s get down to the serious business of ferrets
- 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 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.
Ferrets coat and colourings – no two ferrets are exactly alike
- 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.
- When ferrets shed their coats – usually twice a year in autumn and spring – their coat texture and colour can change. As they age, ferrets also may develop more white guard hairs, especially on their hind ends, making them appear lighter. Depending on whether they live indoors or in an outdoor ferret house, ferrets generally sport a thicker, longer coat in winter and a shorter, silkier coat in summer.
Ferrets are the ultimate sleeping beauties
- Ferrets spend a large chunk of the day asleep and like to snooze in dark, enclosed areas. Sleeping patterns will vary with the seasons (ferrets sleep longer in the winter) and age (older ferrets sleep more). Wendy Bament in Vet Times explains: “They need to sleep for 16 to 20 hours during the day to support their high energy activities, such as hunting and play during the night.”
- As snoozing is one of a ferret’s favourite things, it’s important that they have a choice of cosy napping spots. Ferret World advises: “Ferrets appreciate variety in their sleeping spaces. If a ferret sticks with a single sleeping space over a long period of time, there may be something wrong. They may be bored with their sleeping options or they may be avoiding a cage mate. If cage mates are usually sleeping apart, this can indicate a lack of bonding. These ferrets may need different territories (cages or rooms).”
- Ferrets have some rather strange sleep behaviours that can look rather worrying and uncomfortable to us but are actually completely normal for these clever little creatures. Ferret World says: “Bonded ferrets will often sleep together in a ‘pile’, leaving their humans afraid that some of them can’t breathe.” They also sometimes go into a ‘dead sleep’, “a sleep so deep that they won’t wake up even when prodded and moved. As long as your ferret is breathing and wakes up eventually, you don’t need to worry about dead sleep.”
Fun-loving ferrets adore playtime
When they’re not napping, frolicking ferrets will play intensively – ideally with a ferret companion as well as their human. These endlessly 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.
- 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.
Providing a range of toys for ferrets is a good way to provide your clever little mustelids with the challenges and stimulation they need. You can even turn things lying around the house into fun ferret activities:
- An old cardboard box can 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, worn out, rather stinky walking boot? It will make a great hidey-hole to pop out of and place to hide a small stash of food.
- A cosy jumper that’s past its best? Your ferrets will love tunnelling through the sleeves to investigate if there are any treats inside.
- Faded, fraying pillowcase? Stitch some sturdy rope to it, attach each end to the sides of their cage and it becomes a hammock for your ferret chums to clamber on for a post-lunch snooze.
According to ferret expert Peter Fisher, writing in Exotic Pet Behavior, ferrets explore first by scent. He observes: “Projects placed directly in front of a ferret will be examined first by smelling, followed by visual or tactile inspection.” Ferrets are most attracted to moving objects and objects close to them. He also points out that ferrets really enjoy playing with their humans: “A ferret that jumps back and forth in front of you and nips at your feet is telling you it wants to play. Simply getting down on your hands and knees and chasing a ferret will stimulate more ferret dancing and happy vocalizations, chuckling, or dooking.” Ferrets at play also enjoy chasing and digging.
Ferrets have relatively poor vision, although they are able to spot moving objects at close range and will test out most items with their mouths. Their natural instinct is to nip at objects moving in their field of view, so care should be taken when getting them used to being handled. Blue Cross advises: “Young ferrets (kits) can be prone to biting so it’s always advisable for first time owners to look for ferrets that are at least a year old, have already been handled a lot and are friendly and less likely to bite. Ferrets that are handled a lot from a young age can form strong bonds with their owners. They have poor eyesight, so they may bite by mistake if you reach in to get them out of a sleeping box or pet carrier. It’s better to let them come out and then pick them up. They should be picked up around the shoulders from above and have their hindquarters supported with the other hand.”
SAFETY FIRST! While ferrets will play with almost anything, it’s important that they don’t get their little paws on anything hazardous. For example, chewy, squeaky dog toys are not recommended as they are easy for ferrets with their razor-sharp incisors to tear to bits, swallowing slivers of plastic and squeakers in the process. Check all of your ferret’s toys regularly for signs of wear or chewing and throw any worn toys away.
Ferrets need to eat meat to thrive but can’t thrive on meat alone
As ferret guardians, it’s essential that humans understand the very specific nutritional requirements of these smart, slinky animals to ensure they are given the correct ferret food.
- 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 are strict or ‘obligate’ carnivores – which means, like cats, they have to eat meat to survive and thrive 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.
- Ferrets can’t digest lactose (a sugar found in dairy products such as milk and cheese) or carbohydrates (found in starchy foods such as rice, potato and bread) so it’s best to avoid food with these ingredients. In addition, certain foods, including, grapes and raisins, are poisonous to ferrets.
So, what’s the solution? The answer is to choose a ferret food that contains a carefully balanced mix of all the protein and supplements these small carnivores require to thrive.
Burgess Excel Ferret Nuggets are a single component extruded diet, which helps prevent selective feeding. This super premium food contains high levels of quality chicken, 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. Find out more about what ferrets eat
At home with ferrets – what’s mine is mine!
- Ferrets like things to be in good order. Given the choice, a ferret will build itself a burrow incorporating a sleeping area, larder for storage of food, several escape holes and a separate toilet area. An ‘artificial warren’ can be created using plastic tubes, branches, cardboard boxes and paper bags.
- Ferrets are very clean and, like a cat, can be trained to use a litter tray. However, ferrets are messy with food and water so creating a splash-proof corner with some acrylic bathroom splashbacks will make cleaning up easier, along with newspaper under their bowls to soak up spillages. Ferrets also like to stow food away, so always remove any secret stashes before they go mouldy.
- Ferrets are territorial and will mark their space and their stuff with their urine and skin oils by rubbing their sides against objects or the ground. They can also be possessive of their food, hiding places, and sleeping places as well as their favourite toys and objects.
Communicating with ferrets – dooking and the dance of joy
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 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.
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THE MERITS OF FERRETS Like a cat, most ferrets can be trained to use a litter tray. Like a dog, they’re playful and can even be taken for walks on a lead. They also like to sleep for up to 20 hours a day. Could ferrets be the perfect pets for you?
FERRETS AND THEIR COATS OF MANY COLOURS Dogs, cats and rabbits come in lots of breeds, but ferrets come in just one. However, they do have a wonderful range of colours and patterns, with no two ferrets sporting exactly the same striking coat.
FUN TOYS FOR FERRETS Ferrets are highly intelligent and providing a variety of toys is a great way to keep your slinky friends busy and happy. But what toys are best for these inquisitive, mischievous little carnivores?
WHAT DO FERRETS EAT? Ferrets are strict carnivores with a high metabolic rate who like to eat little and often and enjoy foraging for their food.
Sources: petmd.com, bluecross.org.uk, rspca.org.uk, starescue.org.uk Ferret-world.com, vettimes.co.uk