Exotic and Unusual Pets: Ferrets

They are cute, but Ferrets are not a simple pet for an inexperienced owner. If not taken care of properly a pet ferret will not be happy and may be destructive.

General Information

This is part of my “Unusual Pets” series. It is not a promotion of ferrets above other types of pets. The purpose of this article is so that people can honestly consider if a ferret is the right pet for them. People need to be aware that ferrets are NOT a simple pet. 

Due to casual and careless ownership by some people, laws have been passed against ownership of ferrets in other areas. Therefore it is extremely important to think thoroughly before you get a ferret, so as not to be unfair to good owners.

Ferrets are now commonly kept as pets, but they have been domesticated for thousands of years. They were used for controlling of rodents in barns and for “ferreting”, which is flushing rabbits out from their dens. As such if you own a bunny, I would not suggest considering a Ferret as an addition to the family.  They are a member of the weasel family (they are not rodents), and are carnivores. They generally live about 5-8 years.

Before you get a ferret find out if they are legal as pets in your area. Also decide if you are ready for a high level commitment. Owning a ferret can be as much, or more, work (and expense) than owning a dog.

(Photo from Wikimedia.) A child holds two gentle ferrets.

Selection and Purchase

As with most pets, you are always better to purchase from an independent breeder or adopt from an animal shelter as opposed to buying from a store. Store animals are often not socialized to the extent home raised animals are. Male ferrets will get much larger than females and will smell if not de-scented. You should not get a ferret that is younger than 8 weeks of age.

Select a ferret that is used to being handled correctly, one who is not may be more apt to bite. Be aware that young ferrets will nip, and must be taught that this is not acceptable play, you can do this by firmly tapping them when they nip.

Housing

There are several ferret cages available, most are multi level units which provide a lot of room for them, larger is better. If you have two ferrets you will need a cage at least 20 cubic feet. These cages will take up room in your house, but you should not try to keep your ferret in anything smaller, such as a rabbit cage. Cages with plastic bottoms will be easiest to clean, metal cages will rust from the urine. You should provide a litter box for your ferrets use, preferably with pellet litter, do not use clumping cat litter. Do not use cedar shavings in their cage, cedar is particularly bad for the lungs of small animals. You can use newspaper, or even a rug as flooring in the cage.

Make sure you have a special bed for your ferret, they need dark places to curl up in, there are several pet hammocks available for this purpose. They enjoy playing in towels or old jeans. You can buy special tunnels or ferret toys for them. Remember, these are intelligent creatures and need mental stimulation.
You will need a water bottle and heavy bowls for feeding, the bowls should be washed daily. The cage will need cleaning weekly, pay attention to the litter box every couple of days. You may find it easiest to have a second smaller cage to keep your ferret it while you are cleaning the cage. This small cage may be handy in the event your animal requires special veterinarian care and rest, or needs to be isolated in the event you have two ferrets.

Feeding and Care

Ferrets are strict carnivores, they need meat based protein, at least 34% protein and 20% fat. There are some commercially available ferret foods, but in a pinch a premium level kitten food will do. You should note that none of the kitten foods available from a grocery store are going to be good foods. Grocery store food contains too much filler and will not meet a ferrets nutritional needs. Baby food (for humans) will work also in a pinch, preferably chicken, or even actual cooked chicken. Adult cat food can be given to older ferrets, providing it is good quality food. Dog food, and dairy products are not suitable for ferrets.

You can buy some vegetable or fruit treats for ferrets, but do not over feed such treats, remembering ferrets are natural meat eaters. A better treat is a small amount of cooked free range egg.

Ferrets need at least two or three hours out of their cage a day. This is a good time for you to brush them and trim their nails, in addition to letting them explore and exercise. They are active and need stimulation. If you cannot provide this time out of the cage, and daily stimulation, a ferret is not going to be happy, and should not be considered as a pet option.

Vaccination needs will vary in each country, you need to talk to a veterinarian about vaccinations and worming. Also have your veterinarian check them for ear mites. You will want to make sure ferrets are spayed or neutered to eliminate odor problems. You may bathe them with pet shampoo but too many baths will dry out their skin.

Make sure you provide your ferret with toys, many dog toys work well. Ferrets naturally can carry things larger than themselves, as they would drag a dead rabbit home with them. As such a domesticated ferret will enjoy hauling around a stuffed dog toy. Even if you provide them with toys, you will note that they may want to make toys out of your precious objects (eg. Keys and watches) , and may hide them.
Handle them with two hands but do not squeeze them too tightly. They can be trained to walk on a leash and harness.

Other Information

Books will often tell you that ferrets can be litter trained and kept loose in your house, while this may be true, I frequently hear of stories where this is not the case. Ferrets will often select their own place to defecate and will use that place all the time afterwards. In which case you are best to put a litter box in that location.
Although I support ownership of some exotics, on the whole, I believe ferrets are definitely not a “pet for everyone”. By their very nature of intelligence, these cute little guys are generally not suitable as pets except for the very special owner. In my personal estimation, only 1% of people who consider owning ferrets are actually suitable owners.

An easier, alternative pet would be a Rat, Guinea Pig, Rabbit.

Related Links

Pet Rats

Pet Guinea Pigs

Pet Rabbits

Ferret Facts

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User Comments
  1. B Nelson

    On June 12, 2008 at 11:51 pm

    Very true – People should think hard before getting a Ferret, they are very needy of time out of their cage.
    Well written – good info.

  2. Manda

    On November 7, 2008 at 5:10 am

    I’ve had mine for almost three years and I couldn’t ask for a sweeter little guy. He had a major problem with biting when I first got him as he was already almost two and had been in a pet store all his life. Poor thing just wasn’t used to being held. I actually only bought him to get him out of the conditions he was in but then I fell in love. Its been over a since he has bitten me, now if I could just teach him to stop begging!

  3. nigel

    On February 3, 2009 at 5:48 pm

    i have six of the fuzzy furballs(2hoblets&4jills) great fun when they are all out in the garden together but also a massive responsabilty but pleasure they bring is reward enough please think before you buy one they need loads of space and attention 6 ping pong balls=full on riot

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