The quirky little ferret

Group of four ferrets, 5 years, 6 years, 3 years, 1 years old, in front of white backgroundBy Sherry Warner

The words Jill, Hob, Sprite and Kit, probably won’t mean much unless you have ferrets. These spirited creatures are members of the weasel family and make excellent pets for the right family. “Ferrets are probably one of the most entertaining pets out there,” says Dr. Shelby Kimura, DVM and owner of McKnight 24 Hour Veterinary Hospital in Calgary. “They are like a kitten or puppy that never grows up.”

When asked how she would describe a ferret’s personality, Dr. Kimura says: “Fantastic. I’ve never met a ferret I didn’t like. They are really entertaining animals — when they play, they play hard, when they sleep, they sleep deep.”

If you are thinking about welcoming a ferret into your life, it’s crucial you do some research to make sure your family is the right fit for your new pet. “You must be willing to modify and ferret-proof your home to keep your new family member safe, says Dr. Kimura. “You need to make sure they can’t get into the little crevices you sometimes don’t even know exist in your home.”

Dr. Kimura suggests moving around the house on hands and knees and finding every crevice and hole that you can. “They will find it if you don’t,” she says. Recliners, open banisters, sofa beds and the bottom of box spring mattresses are all areas ferrets like to explore and can be very dangerous to their well-being. “Some are pretty adventurous, so you want to make sure there is nothing they can fall from or get caught in,” says Dr. Kimura.

“If you are looking for a pet that wants to cuddle, a ferret is not the pet for you,” says Andrea Camp, president of Ferret Rescue & Education Society (FRES). Ferrets have a lot of energy, they like to play and they like to get into things, she adds.

Ferrets also need a lot of out-of-cage time so families that are very active with sports or other activities that keep them away from home, are not ideal, says Andrea, as are families with small children. “Ferrets may startle easily and like any other animal that is startled, they can bite.”

Patience is a must when you have ferrets, says Dr. Kimura. “Ferrets need to be litter trained.” And it takes time to train them properly. To set your ferret up for success, Dr. Kimura advises keeping them in a smaller room with a litter box so they can get used to using it. Once they are used to using the litter box you can expand the area they are allowed to roam. Also, make sure the litter box is square or rectangular, not triangular, and that it’s always kept clean.

Both women suggest that if you have the space to dedicate a separate room for your ferret(s) — which has been ferret-proofed and offers enough room to exercise and house their cage and toys — that is the best case scenario.

Ferrets are very social animals so it’s best to have more than one, says Dr. Kimura. “When I was involved with FRES, we always recommended three. In case one passes away the others still can be together,” she explains. “I know that’s sad to say but over the years their life span has decreased. We used to say 7-10 years and now we say 6-8 years for life expectancy.”

And if you have other pets in the home, getting along is going to depend on the personalities of all involved. “I’ve always had ferrets, dogs and cats in my house and I’ve never had any problems,” says Dr. Kimura. But, because ferrets are predators it’s not a good idea to introduce ferrets in a home with prey animals such as rabbits and guinea pigs.

Another consideration before you welcome one or more ferrets into the family is cost. “Ferrets aren’t an inexpensive animal to have,” says Andrea. Vet costs will run about $200 annually just for a regular checkup. “Your ferret should have an annual exam just like other pets,” says Dr. Kimura. “There are vaccines but unfortunately they are limited at the moment.”

Also, keep in mind that pet insurance is not currently an option for ferrets, she adds. “You definitely want to put aside some money to make sure you are able to provide for any unexpected emergencies,” says Dr. Kimura, suggesting about $2,000 is an ample safety net.

“Ferrets like to eat things — they are curious,” she says. “We see ferrets for surgery to remove foreign bodies and they do get certain medical conditions so you want to make sure you are financially prepared, explains Dr. Kimura.

When ferrets are young, they tend to eat things. Some of their favourites are foamy or rubbery such as the dots on the inside of cupboards, insoles, carpet underlay, ear plugs, electrical cords and anything they can chew off of a toy to name a few.

As they get older, they are prone to certain cancers including adrenal disease, which can be cancerous or not, and insulinoma — tumours around the pancreas causing insulin to be released resulting in decreased blood glucose levels.

Other costs to consider include food, housing, litter and toys. It’s recommended ferrets eat a quality, high-protein diet, with very few carbohydrates and no grains that’s specifically designed for them.

Their cage will be the most expensive purchase, says Andrea. And they need a lot of toys. “They are very smart animals and they need toys to keep them stimulated,” she says. Make sure the toys are not made of soft rubber or foam and keep them interesting such as tunnels or tubes they can run through, squeaky toys and jingle bells.

Wood pellets or newspaper pellets are good choices for litter. “Ferrets are burrowers so you don’t want them to burrow into something that’s going to get stuck on their noses,” says Andrea. “Clay litter is not recommended.”

For their bedding, fleece blankets, hammocks and cat beds work well. Ferrets only shed twice a year so you don’t have to worry about regular brushing. Most ferrets that are adopted will already be spayed or neutered and their scent glads removed. Even so, ferrets still exude a musky scent.

Now that you’ve become more familiar with ferrets and know they’d be a good fit for your family, please consider adopting rather than purchasing a ferret from a pet store. If you purchase from a store, it’s a good bet that the ferrets came from a ferret mill (just like a puppy mill), which are known to be inhumane environments for animals.

Ferret Facts:

  • Ferrets are not rodents
  • Ferrets are carnivorous mammals in the weasel family that include otters, badgers, weasels, minks and wolverines
  • Ferrets sleep about 18-20 hours a day
  • The name ferret comes from the Latin “furonem”, meaning “thief”
  • Caesar used ferrets fro hunting and Aristotle wrote about them
  • Female ferrets are Jills, spayed females are Sprites, male ferrets are Hobs and baby ferrets are Kits
  • A group of ferrets is a Business
  • Ferrets do not occur naturally in the wild and were originally domesticated for hunting
  • Ferrets are crepuscular, so are most active at dawn and dusk
  • Ferrets come in a variety of colours and markings — from albino, with white fur and red eyes, to champagne, cinnamon and those with badger markings.