CVMA-ACMV

Keep Your Ferret in Good Health for Life

April 15, 2015

The ferret (Mustela putorious) is an active, playful pet that enjoys human companionship. They are docile and should be handled gently from an early age. They are notorious for slipping through very small spaces, so make sure home exits are well secured if they free roam in the home! Though we usually think of ferrets coloured with their wild type hair coat colour, selective breeding has resulted in over 20 colour varieties. They have been domesticated for about two centuries

Basic Biology

The ferret lives an average of 6 years, and the males are about twice the size of females. Males (hobs) average 1500 g and the females (jills) average 750 g body weight. Ferret kits are born after a 41day pregnancy, and litters average eight young. Weaning is usually done at five to eight weeks of age, and maturity occurs at five to nine months old. The species is carnivorous, which means that they need a diet consisting of animal origin components. Their digestive tract is designed for frequent meals; processing foods only takes a few hours so they will get hungry frequently during a day. Free access to food at all times is the preferred schedule. Sometimes cat food is used as the primary diet, other times a commercial ferret pellet diet is chosen. Home-made "natural source" complex diets have been used, but this option is a challenge because of difficulty preparing a complete and balanced diet with optimal nutrient balance, so it should be done only with veterinary or nutritionist consultation. 

The odour of the ferret is a concern for some potential owners. The mature male ferret gives off the strongest odour, but jills in estrus will also have a strong odour. Unlike the skunk, they do not generally empty out the smelly anal gland spray, and do not require anal gland removal. Some do remove the scent glands at the time of the neuter operation. Neutering alone will provide a significant reduction in odour (over 90%), but a low-level residual odour will usually remain. 

Housing

The ferret can be housed outdoors in less harsh climates if proper shelter and bedding are provided, but usually they are housed indoors in small mesh wire enclosures with metal or mesh flooring. Bedding and sleeping areas should be provided. Some caregivers allow free roaming in the home if it is "ferret proofed" when they are home to monitor their activities. A litter box can be used either in the enclosure or in the home. Pellet litter, or shavings are preferred to clumping or clay- type cat litter. The ferret is a playful animal, and provision of toys and exercise tunnels will help them entertain themselves (and the family!). Toys should be carefully selected, since soft toys will end up chewed up into dangerous pieces that could be swallowed. 

Handling and Behaviour

Handling ferrets takes a bit of practice because of their uncanny ability to squirm and wiggle their way out of a grip. The scruff restraint is very effective when nail trims or other situations require them to be quite still; a nice abdomen rub will help to calm and relax the ferret. To carry them securely, tuck their bodies under the arm along the side of your chest. If the ferret has been handled frequently and gently from an early age, biting will not usually be a problem. 

Health Considerations

Ferrets require very high quality and concentration of protein and fats in their diet. Deficiencies are common unless the diet is carefully formulated. Unless female ferrets are part of a breeding program, they should be spayed since intact females will often develop estrogen hormone imbalances, and this can progress to blood cell changes, and eventually bone marrow suppression. Other common conditions in adults relate to hormone excesses originating from the adrenal glands or pancreas. It is very important to ensure free access to water at all times since water deprivation leads to serious health complications.