The ultimate guide to happy, healthy ferrets

What do your ferret friends need to be happy and healthy? Find out with our ferret top tips! Thanks to their endearing, cheeky character, fun-loving ferrets can make wonderful companions, providing you understand what’s involved in caring for these captivatingly curious animals. Ferrets belong to the ‘Mustelidae’ family, which includes otters, stoats, weasels and badgers. Their most likely wild ancestors
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4th December 2023

What do your ferret friends need to be happy and healthy? Find out with our ferret top tips!

Thanks to their endearing, cheeky character, fun-loving ferrets can make wonderful companions, providing you understand what’s involved in caring for these captivatingly curious animals.

Ferrets belong to the ‘Mustelidae’ family, which includes otters, stoats, weasels and badgers. Their most likely wild ancestors are the European polecat and the Steppe polecat. 

  • Ferrets have stubby noses, small furry ears, and short, strong limbs. Their sleek, elongated body and large vertebrae allows them to move in confined spaces and turn round in narrow tunnels.
  • 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 clever little animals is known as a ‘business of ferrets’.
  • There are five main colours in domesticated ferrets: Fitch (the traditional polecat markings), Albino (also called the English ferret), Silver, Sandy and Dew.
  • Ferrets are intelligent and thrive on new challenges and experiences. With patience and some tasty treats, you can train a ferret to use a litter tray, learn tricks and how to walk with a harness and lead.
  • Because they are domesticated, ferrets need to be cared for by humans and would not be able to survive in the wild.

Animal charity Wood Green says: “Ferrets can make very affectionate and loyal pets. However, they may not suit first time pet owners or families with young children due to their very playful nature which can result in a few small nips when playing with toys etc. But they certainly suit many families if cared for properly. You will have hours of fun and be rewarded with lots of cuddles from these cheeky little creatures.”

What’s the best food for ferrets? >>

The charity also strongly advises microchipping, revealing: “Microchipping your ferrets is very important. Ferrets are keen escape artists, and many end up in rescue centres as unclaimed strays. They can travel several miles quite quickly, so it may not be your neighbour who finds them – 40% of the ferrets that arrive at our centres are strays.”

Keep reading to find out:

  • Health – how do you know if your ferret is in good health?
  • Behaviour – what activities does your ferret need to have access to so they can exhibit their natural behaviours?
  • Companionship – does your ferret need a friend?
  • Diet – what should you feed your ferret?
  • Environment – what housing does your ferret need?

 

TOP FERRET FACTS FROM THE RSPCA

  • Ferrets enjoy exploring. They are very curious and will test out most items with their mouths.
  • Ferrets rely on their senses of smell, taste and hearing as their eyesight is quite poor.
  • Ferrets are sociable and usually enjoy living in groups, although this does depend on the individual animals.
  • Ferrets are intelligent and need mental and physical stimulation. They can play constantly when they’re awake.
  • Ferrets like sleeping. A healthy ferret may sleep between 18 and 20 hours a day.
  • Ferrets use a range of methods to communicate. They use scent to communicate with each other and they can tell if another ferret is male or female, strange or familiar just by sniffing a mark left by the other ferret’s bottom. Ferrets also use postures and vocalisations to indicate how they’re feeling.
  • Ferrets are highly susceptible to several strains of the human influenza virus. Humans can infect ferrets and vice versa.

 

THE 5 WELFARE NEEDS

As with all pet animals, every ferret owner must provide for the following needs of the animals in their care:

  1. Health– Protection from pain, injury, suffering and disease and treated if they become ill or injured.
  2. Behaviour – the ability to behave naturally for their species, for example, to play, run, dig, jump etc.
  3. Companionship– to be housed with, or apart from, other animals as appropriate for the species. For example, company of their own kind for sociable species like ferrets, chinchillas, rabbits, guinea pigs and gerbils, or to be housed alone for solitary species such as Syrian hamsters.
  4. Diet – a suitable diet. This can include feeding appropriately for the pet’s life stage and feeding a suitable amount to prevent obesity or malnourishment, as well as access to fresh clean water.
  5. Environment – a suitable environment. This should include the right type of home with a comfortable place to rest and hide as well as space to exercise and explore.

PDSA advises: “The needs of each type of pet are very different and it is important owners know what these needs are, and how to meet them. Researching carefully before purchase can help owners understand what they will need to provide.”

 

1. Health – how do you know if your ferret is in good health?

A healthy, happy ferret will have bright eyes, a glossy coat, plenty of energy (when awake) and be interested in everything that’s going on around them. Happy, excited ferrets also produce bark-like vocalisations and chirping noises, known as ‘dooking’.

 

Veterinary charity PDSA advises: “Once you get to know your ferrets, you’ll start to learn what’s normal for them. This means you’ll be able to quickly spot any signs that they might be feeling under the weather.”

Unusual changes in your ferret’s behaviour can be a sign they’re not feeling very well. Keep a close eye on your ferret’s general health and visit your vet if you notice any of these symptoms:

  • Diarrhoea
  • Loss of appetite or overeating
  • Drinking much more or less than normal
  • Lack of energy/sleeping more than usual
  • Unusual swellings or unusual bleeding
  • Hair loss or skin conditions
  • Limping
  • Signs of pain, such as sensitivity to touch
  • Runny eyes or nose

Wood Green adds: “Ferrets require a yearly vaccination against K9 distemper. They also should be given preventative flea treatment every three months. Ferrets’ nails can grow very sharp and will require clipping every 6-12 weeks.”

Also monitor your ferrets’ teeth regularly from the age of three years onwards for any signs of infection, unpleasant breath or damaged teeth. Wood Green advises: “Ferrets can be prone to dental decay, particularly if they’re fed a soft meat diet. Like cats and dogs, ferrets will often require dental check-ups by your vet.”

Feeding complete ferret nuggets as the main part of your ferret’s diet can help keep their teeth clean and healthy.

Ferrets and neutering

Ferrets can be kept in same-sex pairs or a male and female. Wood Green recommends: “Whichever pairing you go for, it’s best to get them all neutered to prevent unwanted pregnancies. Male ferrets can be neutered from 5-6 months of age, while females are best to be neutered at around 7-8 months, but your vet will guide you on each female.”

Along with preventing unexpected babies, there are many benefits to neutering your pet ferrets. Neutering also guards against life threatening health problems – especially in female ferrets, who can suffer from pyometra, which is a life-threatening uterine infection.

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. Neutering allows your ferrets to live safely in pairs or groups (entire ferrets are more likely to be tricky to mix) which is important for their welfare.

Find out more about ferret health >>

 

2. Behaviour – what activities does your ferret need to have access to so they can exhibit their natural behaviours?

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 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.

Find out more about ferret behaviour >>

 

3. Companionship – does your ferret need a friend?

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. Pairings or groups should ideally be from the same litter, or a neutered male with a female.

Always make sure that any new introductions are made slowly, on neutral territory and under strict supervision.

Wood Green advises: “Another way of introducing ferrets to each other is to take them out for a walk together on harnesses – again in an unfamiliar, neutral area. If they show positive signs of getting on well together, you can go on to place them in a neutral territory and let them settle.”

Generally, neutered ferrets will get on, once they’ve got to know each other, but 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.

Find out more about ferret companionship >>

 

4. Diet – what should you feed your ferret?

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 little carnivores 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 have problems digesting lactose (a sugar found in dairy products such as milk and cheese) and certain carbohydrates (found in starchy foods such as potato and bread) so it’s best to avoid food with these ingredients.

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 in the form of a complete ferret nugget diet.

  • Nuggets are clean, convenient and easy to feed and do not attract flies as can happen with fresh meat, which can also contain harmful bacteria. Importantly, because ferrets need to eat little and often, they must have access to food at all times. Leaving meat in their environment can be messy and unhygienic.
  • By choosing a complete ferret nugget diet, you can safely leave food around your ferrets’ accommodation for them to eat at will. Ferret nuggets are produced via a process called thermal extrusion, where the ingredients are cooked thoroughly, ensuring that any harmful bacteria, such as salmonella, and viruses are destroyed.
  • Ferrets also need plenty of fresh water – water bottles with a metal spout are ideal, but ferrets can also drink from a bowl – just make sure it’s a heavy, ceramic one that they can’t tip over.
  • You can also give them an occasional treat of ferret-safe fresh food, such as a little cooked chicken or half a boiled egg.

Be aware that there are a number of foods that are poisonous to ferrets, including raisins, grapes, avocado and chocolate.

Animal welfare charity Blue Cross advises: “You should also avoid giving them processed meats like ham, or cat and dog food. And they’re lactose intolerant, so should not be fed dairy products such as cheese and cow’s milk.”

Find out more about feeding your ferret >>

 

5. Environment – what housing does your ferret need?

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). 

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.

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
  • As ferrets spend a large chunk of the day asleep – up to 20 hours a day – and like to nap in dark, enclosed areas, you’ll need to supply 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 need to be taken out of their living areas and played with daily. However, as they can squeeze through places you never thought possible, you’ll need to ferret-proof both their home and yours!

Find out more about ferret housing >>

 

When it comes to selecting the best food for your ferret friends Burgess Excel Ferret Nuggets are great choice. In fact, 92% of UK vets recommend our Burgess Excel small pets’ range.

At Burgess, all our high quality ferret food is nutritionally balanced and made at our factory in the heart of Yorkshire, using only ingredients that meet our stringent specifications. With a long tradition of supporting British famers, we actively source all our ingredients as close to our mill as possible.

With a whole host of FIVE STAR reviews, customers have told us:

“I have seven ferrets, ranging from gannets to picky eaters and they all absolutely piled on these! I’m choosy with what I give them, but the nutritionals on these are a great balance so I dished them out with confidence and was very happy to see how quickly they were hoovered up.”

“I like that this ferret food is full of high protein and contains taurine, plus there are vitamins, so the food is definitely beneficial for ferret health.”

“It has all the ingredients to make a nourishingly good meal for your ferrets and help them keep a healthy coat.”

“My aunt owns a couple of ferrets, and she said this pack was great value for money and packed full of nutrition as they have tonnes of energy all day when feeding on this.”

“To be honest, I have not got a bad thing to say about these nuggets, they have all the nutritional content that a ferret needs, and the bag has a feeding guide.”

“What is interesting is that the Burgess food (compared to a competitor’s) whilst cheaper has better ingredients.”

Are your ferrets Burgess ferrets? Join the Burgess Pet Club for exclusive offers and rewards.

CARE MORE Find lots of useful advice on caring for your ferrets from Burgess, the pet experts. Housing, health, feeding and more. It’s all here >>

 

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