Fur-rats or Ferrets?
Anne K. G. Bazilwich, DVM
Member of the Vermont Veterinary Medical Association, www.vtvets.org.
When guests are shown through my house, someone inevitably mutters under their breath, “How can she possibly live with those rats?” Now see, there is the first mistake. Ferrets are not rodents, like rats, and are not even related to rodents. They are carnivorous (meat eaters) mammals in the same biologic grouping as cats and dogs. Ferrets are related to mink, weasels, and polecats, to name a few. The domesticated ferret, Mustela putorius furo, is NOT a wild animal; they have been domesticated for as long as the cat and dog. In fact, there are pictures in Egyptian tombs of ferrets on leashes! Our ferrets cannot survive without human intervention and should never be let loose outside to fend for themselves.
Ferrets are adorable little creatures that are full of personality and playfulness. As the third most popular house pet in the United States, I am not alone in my love for these amusing animals. Ferrets adjust to their owner’s schedules and tend to sleep or entertain themselves while the owner is away. This makes them prevalent among professional adults who are away from the house for many hours. As with any pet, if children are to be involved in the ferret’s upbringing, proper adult supervision is required.
Ferrets are happy in a single ferret household or in a group, or business, of ferrets. They can also live with other pets, such as cats and dogs. Ferrets should be kept in a multi-level cage with a litter pan, some towels or old sweatshirts, and a hammock or two. Most ferrets can be litter trained with some patience. When the owner returns home, it is a good idea to let the ferret out of the cage for a few hours for some supervised activity and exercise. Ferrets by nature are extremely curious and can get into some mischief and danger if left unattended. It is difficult too completely “ferret-proof” a room or house, but it can be done with a lot of experience. I still recommend that ferrets be confined to their cage when the owner is not around; I have seen too many accidents that caused much guilt and grief. Please talk to your veterinarian for more information on potential environmental hazards to ferrets.
Similar to human babies, ferrets will put anything into their mouths and if swallowed, the foreign body can block their intestinal systems. Frequently, surgery is required to remove the foreign object. If the ferret has toys at home, I recommend that they should not be left in the cage and the ferret should not be allowed to play with them unattended. I also suggest checking the toys routinely for breakage. If a toy has been damaged, simply throw it away. Your veterinarian can advise you on toys that are the safest for ferrets. Again, it is important to supervise the ferret when it is out of the cage to make sure nothing else gets swallowed unintentionally.
Most ferrets are purchased neutered and descented. If not already neutered, it is critical that female ferrets, or jills, be spayed to prevent a very serious and fatal blood disease. Once spayed, female ferrets are called sprites. Male ferrets, or hobs, should be neutered to decrease their pungent odor; they are called gibs after they have been neutered. It is unnecessary to descent a ferret to decrease odor. Neutering takes care of most of the musky smell that is inherent to all ferrets. Bathing the ferret a few times per year with a ferret safe shampoo and frequently laundering their bedding helps to further decrease the odor. There may be a lingering smell, especially around males, that may take some getting used to but I rarely hear complaints from owners. In fact, most people who come to my house admit that they are surprised that there is not an odor around my little business of ferrets.
Besides bathing your ferret, some other routine care must be performed to ensure a healthy, happy ferret. Ferrets should have a high quality ferret food and water available at all times. They eat approximately every three hours (and produce stool at approximately the same rate!) and therefore need to be fed free choice. Your veterinarian can help you with the selection of an appropriate ferret food. Since ferrets are carnivores, it is very important that they receive enough animal protein. They have a difficult time digesting fruits and vegetables, and treats should be kept to a minimum. It is very easy to train a ferret to a water bottle, which provides a continuous source of clean water. Ferrets should have their nails trimmed and their ears cleaned with an appropriate ear cleaner weekly. Also, a hairball preventative should be given to them a few times per week. Your veterinarian can show you how to do all of this at the ferret’s first check up.
It is important that your ferret see a veterinarian shortly after you bring your ferret home. Most ferrets have received their first vaccination for Canine Distemper, but it is critical that the necessary booster vaccines be administered at the appropriate intervals. Ferrets also need an annual Rabies vaccine. However, your ferret’s visit with a veterinarian will provide more than just the necessary vaccines, but also excellent information on the proper way to care for your new pet. It is also important to consult with your veterinarian before adding new ferrets to an established population of ferrets since some dangerous diseases can be avoided.
As the popularity of ferrets increases, more and more information can be found on the Internet, in books, and in newspapers. It is important to realize that a lot of this information is misleading. Use some discretion and common sense when learning about ferrets, and take your questions to your veterinarian. Ferrets make wonderful pets for the right owner by frolicking and dancing enthusiastically into our hearts.