Images of ferret-like animals on leashes have been discovered on the walls of Egyptian tombs, which suggests that these smart, slinky little carnivores have been human companions for thousands of years. It’s thought that they were first introduced to Britain around 2,000 years ago by the Romans.
Captivatingly curious and bristling with intelligence, ferrets are domesticated animals – which means they have been adapted from wild species (most likely the European polecat and the Steppe polecat) by humans to fulfil specific requirements. For centuries, ferrets have been effective hunting partners, highly skilled in the art of flushing out rabbits from burrows. As pets, they are endlessly entertaining and respond well to human interaction and affection.
NOT SO WILD AT HEART
The ferret is a member of the Mustelid family, which also includes weasels, stoats, martens, mink, badgers and otters. However, because they are domesticated, they need to be cared for by humans and would not be able to survive in the wild. They are small creatures, measuring 40-60cm long. Males, called hobs, weigh 1-2.5kg, and females, called jills, around 0.5-1.5kg.
They live for around eight to 10 years and come in range of colours: 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).
Ferrets are crepuscular, which means they are naturally active at dawn and dusk. They like to have lots and lots of sleep – between 18 and 20 hours a day – but they certainly make up for their monster snoozes when they’re awake. Their clever minds and agile bodies need lots of toys and stimulation to keep them mentally and physically occupied. Friendly and sociable, they enjoy human companionship but love to play games with other ferrets, which is why you should always have at least two – ideally from the same litter.
FEEDING AND FORAGING
Ferrets, like cats, are obligate carnivores, which means they must eat meat to survive. The best way to ensure they receive the correct nutrition is to feed them specially-designed complete ferret food such as Burgess Excel Ferret that contains all the protein and supplements they need, including calcium for healthy teeth and bones. Scatter the food around their accommodation to encourage natural foraging behaviour. Your ferrets will also enjoy occasional treats such as a cooked egg yolk.
Make sure your wriggly chums always have access to clean water – in bottles or in a heavy ceramic dish that they can’t tip over, placed away from the litter tray. Ferrets will drink throughout the day, and during periods of play, will regularly return for a water top-up.
Certain foods – such as chocolate, grapes and raisins are poisonous to ferrets – and they are also lactose intolerant, so should not be fed dairy products such as cows’ milk. Ferrets like to stow food away, so always remove any secret stashes before they go mouldy.
A FERRET-PROOF HOME
For a ferret, a hole of any size, is something that just has to be investigated. Thanks to their slender, elongated body and large vertebrae – which allows them to move in confined spaces and turn around in narrow tunnels – they will manage to squeeze through places you never thought possible. Having ferrets as pets means that you need to ferret-proof both their home and yours.
Ferrets can be kept outdoors (in a well-insulated, weatherproof shed) or can be indoor pets. They are fastidiously clean and can easily be trained to use a litter tray (filled with wood fibre litter). Whether indoors or outdoors, they need a large enclosure, with platforms, tubes, hammocks and tunnels to explore, as well as a dark, private sleeping area, such as a nesting box filled with dust free bedding, where they can cuddle up together in comfort. Don’t use shredded paper or straw as this offers little insulation and can lead to health problems.
Digging is something that ferrets love to do, so to stop any escape missions from outdoor runs, fit wire mesh to the underside, covering it with turf or carpet to prevent injury. Make sure any cage bars are too small for ferrets to put their heads through. Indoors, you can use tall ferret cages, which incorporate multiple levels and solid platforms.
Ferrets also need some out-of-cage playtime every day – so it’s vital that you make sure the area you let them run around in is safe and secure. Cables and breakable items should be moved away from where your ferret is going to play and any gaps in flooring should be sealed, no matter how small.
DID YOU KNOW?
Ferrets love exercise and you can train your ferret to walk on a lead and harness. Ferrets are at risk from Canine Distemper, so get yours vaccinated if you plan on taking them for walks.
Ferrets are very clean animals and will spend a good portion of their time awake cleaning themselves, but they are very susceptible to ear mites, so check their ears daily. You will 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.
Neutering is an important consideration for both male and female ferrets. Jills come into season in the spring and again later in the year, normally around late summer or autumn. This is noticeable by a swelling around the genital area, which can lead to anaemia or other infections.
Surgical neutering can increase the risk of adrenal gland disease, so it’s now recognised as best practice to use a hormonal ‘neutering’ implant which can be put into both hobs and jills. The implant is applied via a non-surgical procedure by your vet. Implants last around 18 to 24 months and can then be reapplied. As well as preventing jills from coming into season, implants can also help prevent the musky smell of hobs and put a stop to seasonal aggression, which can prevent males living happily together as a group.
DID YOU KNOW?
When excited, ferrets make a ‘dook’ sound. They can also produce bark-like vocalisations and, if they feel in danger, scream.
WHERE TO GET YOUR FERRETS
Many county shows have ferret events, which provide the perfect opportunity to chat to ferret owners, ask their advice and handle the animals. A good place to find ferrets of your own is at rescue centres. The animals will have been well looked after and will be used to being handled and therefore should have less inclination to nip.
FIND OUT MORE about caring for your ferrets here>>