Ferret Basic Care
Ferrets are intelligent, playful and interactive creatures that can make good pets.
Legal restrictions do exist for the ownership of ferrets so make sure to check with your state and local laws before deciding to pursue ferret ownership. Ferrets are legal in Arizona but not in California.
Average Size: Adult Weight about 1.5 to 3 pounds.
Diet and Feeding
Ferrets are strict carnivores and require a meat based diet.
The incidence of ferrets with inflammatory bowel disease and insulinoma is much higher in the United States than in many other countries. It appears that feeding a grain-containing kibble diet puts ferrets at risk of developing these diseases while feeding a diet based on whole prey (e.g., frozen thawed rats, mice, rabbits, or quail) or a frozen nutritionally balanced meat diet will reduce the risk. Additionally, feeding whole prey diets seems to be beneficial for maintaining healthy teeth by reducing the build-up of plaque and tartar.
For those who do not like the idea of feeding whole prey diets, there area few kibble diets that are made without grains added. Wysong (Epigen 90) and Marshall's (Ultimate Carnivore) make a grain and starch free diets that are beneficial for ferrets. We recommend and sell these diets at the hosptial. Evo also has a grain free diet that is beneficial, but has had a few product recalls over the past few years. ZuPreem makes a Grain-Free Ferret Diet that is available through many local pet stores but may not be beneficial due to the starches in it. Many ferrets eating the ZuPreem diet appear to have more gum disease problems than other ferrets.
There are a few online forums you may wish to join to learn about other homemade diets. Please be aware that not every thread is written by knowledgeable people and that you should always double-check the information found on the Internet before assuming it is true!
Foods high in carbohydrates and fibers like fruits, bananas, sugary cereals, dairy products and vegetables should be avoided. These foods can have a negative effect on their digestive system and cause health problems. Use caution when offering store bought ferret treats since many of these are high in carbohydrates. Check the label before you buy! Small pieces of cooked chicken or fish can be offered as rewards.
Dog food and cat food are NOT appropriate diets for ferrets and can cause health problems.
Since ferrets naturally eat frequent small meals, food and fresh clean water should be available at all times. Most ferrets drink readily from water bottles and all ferrets seem to enjoy splashing in water bowls.
Ferrets need a large cage that is "ferret proofed" to prevent escape; likewise a house should be "ferret proofed" so that electrical cords and other dangerous household items are not accessible by the ferrets.
Two ferrets can live in a wire cage measuring 48 x 24 x 24 inches, with either a wire or solid floor. Additional space is recommended if the ferrets are not allowed to roam the house for exercise daily. Due to poor ventilation, glass aquariums are not recommended.
Shelving, hammocks, or tiers may be incorporated into the cage to provide more room to sleep and play. PVC tubes and large cardboard tubes make great hiding tunnels.
Their enclosure should be easy to clean and disinfect.
Ferrets enjoy digging and burrowing into soft materials such as wood shavings, recycled paper products, or pelleted products. If used, 1-2 inches should be placed on the floor of the enclosure. However, this is not necessary and many ferrets do well with newspaper or paper towels are floor coverings. If you include towels or other cloth items in the cage, inspect the edges frequently and trim away loose threads. If you ferret seems to be chewing on these items, you may need to remove them or you run the risk of your ferret developing a serious surgical condition known as a gastrointestinal foreign body (GIFB).
This is an essential part of your ferret's habitat. Items such as towels, old shirts, or commercially produced ferret beds or hammocks will provide not only a place for your ferret to sleep, but to feel safe and secure. It is worth repeating that all cloth items should be inspected and any frayed edges or trailing strings or thread removed. If holes develop, throw out the item so your ferret does not get entangled and possibly injured trying to crawl through too small an opening. Provide at least one sleeping area for each ferret.
Ferrets can be litter box trained, and prefer to eliminate in a corner of their enclosure. Use pelleted litter or recycled paper products like Yesterday's News or Carefresh instead of clay or clumping litters. Multiple litter boxes can be placed throughout the house for when your ferret is not in their cage.
It may help train a ferret to use a new litter box by adding a small amount of soiled litter from its regular litter box. Make sure the litter boxes are positioned in corners where the ferret can see the rest of the room -- If a litter box is in an open position, a ferret will not feel comfortable using it.
Never scold or spank a ferret or otherwise punish it if it goes outside the litter box. It will not understand what you are doing. It is far more effective to praise the ferret when it is actually using the litter box.
Some ferrets can be slow to learn to use the litter boxes outside their cage. In that case, enclose the litter box with a barrier. You will probably notice that your ferret goes to the bathroom at a predictable time after it is taken out of its cage. Some do it right away, others do it after 5 minutes, and some only do it if they have been eating right beforehand. You can then place it inside the barrier and leave it there until it uses the litter box. After a couple of times, the ferret should get the idea and the barrier can be taken down. You may have to do this with each litterbox so it learns all of the locations.
Ferrets do well in a temperature between 50 and 80°F. They are susceptible to overheating when exposed to temperatures over 90F for prolonged periods. Heat stroke can be deadly -- do not expose your ferret to warm summer Arizona weather!
Ferrets do well alone or in groups. They may play aggressively together and show other behaviors such as territory marking and hunting. If frightened, ferrets can show defensive behaviors such as hissing, screaming, and may try to bite. Ferrets may sleep up to 18 hours a day
Exercise and Play
Ferrets need at least 2 hours of exercise a day outside of their cages. Soft rubber toys are not appropriate for ferrets. Ferrets can eat parts of these toys and develop severe medical problems, such as blockage of their digestive systems. Toys that are OK for your ferret include paper bags, cloth toys made for cats, and hard plastic toys (such as Nylabone), or metal toys. Throw out cloth toys that start to show visible threads or strings or where the stuffing is coming loose and throw out any plastic items that seem to be easily chewed into smaller pieces. Tubing such as PVC pipes, mailing tubes, or dryer hoses make good exploration zones. If ferrets are let out of their enclosures to play, the area must also be "ferret proofed¨ to prevent ingestion of harmful materials or chewing of electrical cords.
Clean the litter box daily and change the litter as needed. Bedding should be changed weekly, or more frequently if needed. The ferret's enclosure should also be cleaned weekly with a mild soap and should be thoroughly rinsed and allowed to completely dry before reintroducing the ferret to its home.
Grooming and Hygiene
Ferrets produce a musty smell even if they are surgically descented. This is due to oil producing glands in their skin. Most ferrets have their anal glands removed (descented) at a very early age (5-6 weeks old), this occurs at the same time they are spayed or neutered. Ferrets shed their fur twice a year. Combing them during this time can help eliminate loose fur. Baths can be given when necessary, but avoid frequent bathing, which can dry out their skin. Use a ferret or mild puppy/kitten shampoo and do not apply a conditioner. Nails should be trimmed and ears should be checked and cleaned weekly or as needed. It is a good idea to brush your ferret's teeth with a softy baby toothbrush, cat toothbrush, or even just cotton-tip applicators. Enzymatic toothpastes used for cats and MaxiGuard gel work best. Brushing daily is best but even once a week or once every two weeks is better than nothing at all. Even with regular brushing, many ferrets go on to develop tartar and gingivitis so we recommend teeth cleaning as part of the annual care program for your ferret. This procedure is done under general anesthesia. With a proper dental care program, your ferret will have all its teeth even when it is a senior citizen!
Common Health Problems
- Adrenal Gland Disease
- Ear mites are also a common problem in ferrets. If a thick red-brown waxy buildup is noted in your ferret's ears consult your veterinarian
- Stomach ulcers
- Inflammatory Bowel Disease
- Insulinomas (Hypoglycemia)
- Upper respiratory infections
- Vomiting due to a swallowed object - this is often a life-threatening condition
- Heartworm disease is extremely rare in Arizona but in other parts of the country it is common to have ferrets on monthly preventives for this infection.
Warning Signs: Contact your veterinarian immediately if any of these signs occur: hair loss, lethargy, diarrhea, weight loss, nasal or eye discharge, difficulty breathing, not responding to touch, "glassy eyed stares", or seizures
In order for your ferret to have a long healthy life, we recommend the following health care program.
- Physical examination and dental evaluation every 6-12 months depending on age and health: Ferrets often do not show outward signs of health problems until they are very advanced. Routine examinations and screenings help detect early signs of illnesses such as adrenal disease, insulinoma, inflammatory bowel disease, and periodontal disease. It also allows us to answer any health or behavioral questions you may have. Depending on the age and medical history of your ferret, we may recommend a wellness exam more frequently.
- Disease screening tests:
- Fecal Parasite Test: Ferrets can carry parasites that can infect other pets and people. Giardia and Coccidia are parasites that can cause intestinal problems for ferrets. We recommend all new ferrets coming in to a household have an initial fecal parasite examination.
- Blood Tests: Yearly blood tests are a good idea for ferrets 4 years and older since they are not always able to tell us they are not feeling well. A thorough blood test will help us understand your ferret’s health, and allow early treatment of any problems detected. A quick test from a drop of blood can quickly screen for insulinoma which causes dangerous drops in blood sugar.
- Distemper and Rabies Vaccinations: These vaccinations prevent serious diseases of ferrets. Determining which vaccinations are needed and how often they should be administered depends on many factors. A proper vaccination plan should be be determined based on physical examination and individual risk assessment for your ferret.
- Emergency supplies: We recommend that you keep at home a small packet of ferret assist feeding diet (We recommend and sell Oxbow's Carnivore Care and Emeraid Carnivore Diet) to use if your ferret stops eating or is not eating much. Maintaining better hydration and nutrition will help prevent your ferret from becoming dehydrated and weak prior to being able to get him or her to a ferret veterinarian.
- Microchip: Ferrets' coats (especially their masks) can change in appearance over time making identification based on photos difficult. Ferrets are also escape artists and are always looking for new places to explore. Microchips can help you and your ferret reunite if it gets away and becomes lost.
- Care while you're away: We recommend that you identify a qualified pet-sitter for your ferret or consider boarding. We offer a caring boarding environment at our hospital whenever you need someone else to take care of your ferret.