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Ferrets

By Craig Sernotti

Delightful and entertaining small animals, ferrets are eager, rambunctious, and tireless. If you’re looking for an interactive companion pet who has all the best qualities of a cat and dog rolled into one, then a ferret might be the right choice for you. Be sure that a ferret is the small animal you really want, though. Owning one is not the same as owning a dog or cat. A ferret’s curiosity, playfulness, and energy can be charming but can also make him tough to keep up with at times.

Ferrets come in many colors and patterns. They often change colors with the seasons—they’re lighter in the winter than in the summer, and many lighten as they age, too. They are about 1 to 5 pounds (1/2 to 2 kg) in size, and some can live as long as 15 years. Some are cuddly, while others are independent. A single ferret won’t be terribly lonely, although the fun of watching two or three playing together is easily worth the small amount of extra trouble.

Natural History

Ferrets are not wild animals. They have been domesticated for about 2,000 to 3,000 years. Ferrets are believed to have been descended from the European polecat, and they were used as hunting animals, chasing rabbits and rodents out of their holes so that the hunters and farmers could kill them. It’s thought that the Egyptians and Greeks kept them as pets. Ferrets are cousins of weasels and otters.

Enclosure and Setup

House your ferret in a sturdy wire cage. It must be large enough to allow him ample room in which to move around. Because the ferret is a ground-dwelling animal, the cage must have plenty of available floor space. It must also have a strong latch and be escape-proof. Make sure that the cage has distinct sleeping, feeding, and toilet areas.

Put a food dish, a water bottle, a litter pan with litter, bedding, and toys in the cage as well. Pelleted products made from paper or plant fibers are excellent choices for ferret litter. The bedding can be a polar fleece baby blanket, cotton T-shirts, and sweatshirts—your ferret will arrange it into a nest for sleep.
Your pet requires time out of his cage. Give him at least two hours of exercise and interaction with you on a daily basis.

Diet

Ferrets are obligate carnivores, meaning they must eat meat and only meat. Their bodies cannot properly digest fruits or vegetables. Feed them a variety of quality food items. You can buy a commercial ferret kibble from the pet store, but know that just because a ferret is featured on a bag of food doesn’t mean that it’s safe for ferrets to eat. The protein content should be meat based and between 35 and 40 percent. Fat content should be at least 20 percent.

Some keepers offer their ferrets raw meats, mostly chicken and rabbit. Others provide appropriately sized live prey items, like mice, rats, quails, and chicks.

Your ferret must always have a supply of fresh, clean water.

Grooming

You can brush your ferret. He will not like staying in one spot too long, so get into the habit of doing several quick brushing sessions rather than one long one. Use a soft short-bristled brush.

You can also give your ferret a bath, but only do this once a month. Some ferrets may take naturally to water, while others may not. Try to keep the experience as stress-free as possible. Fill the tub or sink with enough slightly warm water so that your pet is mostly covered, and use a gentle shampoo. Lather him up and rinse off all the shampoo, then dry him off with a towel.

Nails should be clipped every two weeks or so. Also, try to brush your ferret’s teeth at least once a week.

Health Care and Illness

Your ferret needs to visit a veterinarian every year for a checkup and to receive vaccinations against rabies and canine distemper. If you notice that something is wrong—a physical change, a behavioral change, a change in appetite, or litter box content or habit changes—see the vet immediately.
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