What Is a Ferret?


So, if you are here, chances are you know what a ferret actually is. The weasel-like, slinky-esque built animals are a popular pet in the west and are quite famous for their mischievous personalities and affinity for getting into anything and everything if left unsupervised. Still, let’s take a closer look at these interesting little animals and learn about what makes them such fantastic, interesting pets.

So, What is a Ferret?

Domestic ferrets are small animals that look similar to the wild weasel. They are long, flexible animals that are quite agile and intelligent. In the wild, the closest relative to the domestic ferret is the black footed ferret, a critically endangered species with only around five hundred individuals left in its wild population.

Like its wild cousin, the domestic ferret is an obligate carnivore. This means that, unlike other similarly marketed pets like rats and rabbits, ferrets only eat meat. In fact, their bodies cannot digest high fiber foods like fruits and vegetables, nor can it handle dairy products.

Due to this dietary requirement, ferrets actually are actually quite adept hunters. They have a high prey drive and love enrichment activities that tickle the part of their brain that once helped them find food by hunting and scavenging.

True or False

Ferrets and ferret ownership tend to be surrounded by a few myths and half truths that can deter people from picking up these precious weasels as pets. Let’s discuss the rumors surrounding these strange little pets.

Ferrets are stinky animals.

This rumor is, for the most part, actually very true. Ferrets are musty, smelly animals due to the hormonal oils they secrete from glands all over their bodies. This funk is quite pungent and can be especially strong when they are entering into their mating season, as males will use their smelly oils to help attract females and mark their territory.

Ferret stink can be reduced in pungency and presence by taking a few precautionary steps. For starters, avoid using porous materials in their cages, as these types of items can trap oils if the ferret rubs on them or chooses to urinate in the area. Additionally, avoid bathing your ferret unless they are actually dirty, as over-bathing can dry out their skin and lead to oil overproduction and other illnesses.

Simply keeping your pet’s cage clean and tidy reduces the odor by quite a bit. Add fresh bedding often and remove soiled bedding as soon as you notice it. Many people even litter train their ferrets which minimizes the smell even more! Ferrets have an internal instinct that leads to them being very clean animals so they actually are quite easy to train up!

Getting your ferret spayed or neutered is also a good way to assist in reducing the pungency of their smell. Spaying and neutering also comes with many health benefits, including a lessened chance of adrenal disease and various cancers, as well.

All in all, though, ferrets are just funky little critters and their smell is just part of owning them. There are highly controversial descenting procedures available but these often lead to other health problems as your ferret ages.

By the way, you may not even think your ferret stinks. Some people report the smell being anything from popcorn or similar to the smell of corn chips to skunky. It just depends on your own nose, oddly enough.

Ferrets will die if they do not mate.

This is a bit of a half-truth. Ferrets will not outright die if they do not mate. In fact, males have no issue at all with not mating aside from being grumpy and perhaps a bit more aggressive and messy. The problem lies within the biology of the female ferret.

Female ferrets can go into what is known as an “extended heat”. Essentially, female ferrets are biologically inclined to remain in heat until they mate or die. This extended heat puts a lot of stress on their bodies and can result in aplastic anemia and adrenal stress, which can lead to death.

There are a few things you can do to help prevent your female ferret from becoming ill and trapped in an extended heat. First, you could breed her. This is an expensive and labor intensive endeavor that is not for novice ferret owners; due to this, it is usually recommended that other methods be chosen unless the ferret was specifically bought for breeding purposes.

Obviously, you can spay your ferret. Female spaying is recommended if you do not plan to breed your pet, as it helps prevent many health issues, including the prolonged heat issue. If you want to breed your pet in the future, you can opt for chemical sterilization. Administered through a vaccine, this method lasts around a year or so, depending on the product used and must be readministered once the timespan of effectiveness has passed.

Lastly, some people who want to breed their ferret in the future but wish to not use the vaccine method for prevention opt to mate their ferret with a neutered male. This can trick her body into not going into prolonged heat, though the method is hit or miss and should only be done with the assistance and approval of a medical professional.

Ferrets are aggressive.

Not at all! Ferrets are individual animals that are incredibly intelligent. Each animal has a unique personality and will behave differently than other ferrets. Due to this, you cannot outright assume any ferret you encounter will be an aggressive biting machine.

There are a lot of factors that go into a ferret’s temperament and behavior aside from their personality, as well. Training a ferret and handling them from a very young age will help ensure that they are entirely comfortable with humans and will not bite out of fear or frustration.

An exception to the rule is that sick ferrets or those that are older or in pain may sometimes develop defensive behaviors that can include biting. This does not mean they are a “bad ferret”. Sometimes they just feel scared or hurt and lash out a bit, like any other animal.

Males that are mating and females that are caring for newborn kits will sometimes be a little more aggressive, as well, but are generally not going to suddenly turn into attack ferrets. They will just be a little more defensive and perhaps nip at you if you do something they do not like.

Ferrets do not need vet care.

The idea that ferrets and other small animals do not need to see a veterinarian regularly is very unfortunate misconception. Ferrets, like any other pet, need to see a vet for check ups and regular sick visits.

Ferrets are prone to quite a few different illnesses, including the prolonged heat we discussed earlier and various cancers and adrenal diseases. They also can become diabetic and experience hormonal disorders, too. A regular vet visit can help catch these disorders early and greatly increase your pet’s chances of making a full recovery.

On top of this, ferrets need vaccinations and overall wellness checks to make sure they are healthy. Ferrets can easily become obese and are prone to foot health issues. They also need vaccines against rabies and other issues, especially if they are kept outdoors.

Ferrets cannot be kept outside

This is a bit of a controversial question that is quite difficult to answer, as the ferret community seems to be divided right down the middle in regards to ferret housing. Many believe that keeping ferrets outdoors is incredibly dangerous since they are at a high risk of being seen as prey by native predators. Since they are caged, this puts them at a significant risk of being injured.

They are also more prone to escaping if they are outside and becoming lost or getting to a street and being injured. Additionally, parasites and other illnesses are more likely to find our pet if they are outdoors.

Due to this, it is generally recommended to keep your ferret inside. If you do choose to keep your pet outside, make sure their cage is secure and frequently perform maintenance on it to ensure they cannot escape and predators cannot get in. Vet visits are a must for any ferret but are especially important for those who are outdoors, as well.

Domestic ferrets can be released into the wild.

This one is a massive no-go. Not only is releasing an animal into the wild damaging to the ecosystem, it also almost certainly spells certain death for domestic pets. Domestic animals have been adapted to live in captivity and do not have the same instincts and grasp of living on their own that wild animals do.

Additionally, the ecosystem where you live is incredibly fragile. The food chain is well established and things are likely pretty set in stone. Adding in a new species can lead to invasion which can be detrimental if the population begins to grow. New diseases can be introduced and increased competition between species can cause some serious issues.

If you wish to rehome your ferret, do so humanely. It is not right morally or ethically to release a pet into the wild.

Ferrets and Children

One of the biggest questions when adopting any pet into your family has to be, “will it suit our lifestyle”. Evaluating this ahead of time will save you a lot of frustration and heartbreak down the line and help ensure your pet gets the best care and completely fits with your family planning choices and general daily life timeline.

While you can certainly own ferrets and have children at the same time, it is important to remember that ferrets are living things and need to be handled gently. Due to this, it is not recommended to allow small children around the animals unsupervised and honestly not really recommended to let them hold or carry the animals at all until they are of an age where they understand the fragility of what they are doing.

This guideline is in place not only to protect your pet from being dropped, squeezed, or otherwise injured, but also your child. Ferrets have claws and teeth and will definitely bite and scratch if they feel cornered, especially during the mating season or if kits are present. Teach your little ones to adore their pets from afar until they are ready to be given the responsibility of taking part in the animal’s care.

Ferrets and Other Pets

As with any new critter you bring into your home, there are some steps you have to take to help both the new pet and your other pets adjust to the big changes that come with adding a new member to your family.

Ferrets are predators and carnivores, meaning that they should not be given access to things like fish tanks, bird cages (especially if the birds are smaller species), or rodent cages. They are generally okay interacting with dogs and cats but you should always supervise interactions and know when to remove the animals from each other’s presence.

Limit interaction between the animals and be sure to always be within arm’s reach of your ferret in case they decide to get defensive or need help getting out of a sticky situation. In general, it is a good idea to always supervise your ferret when he is outside of his cage since they are prone to being a bit mischievous.

Related Questions

Can you own a black footed ferret? What is the difference between it and domestic ferrets? As black footed ferrets are an endangered species, it requires a special permit and training course to own them. There are only around three hundred to three hundred and fifty black footed ferrets in captive breeding areas and only another five hundred or so in the wild. These critically endangered animals are actually making a comeback, as in 1987 there were only eighteen left! Still, due to conservation efforts, you likely cannot own one as a pet.

Black footed ferrets would not really make for a very good pet, though, to be fair. They are not the same as the European ferrets we typically own as pets and are behaviorally less comfortable around humans since they have not experienced the same domestication as European ferrets. They may be physically similar aside from their fur but they are entirely different creatures with different preferences and needs.

Are there any wild European ferrets? Not really, no. European ferrets were first domesticated over two thousand and five hundred years ago and have not maintained a prominent wild population since then. This is part of why it is so important that we make efforts to protect the black footed ferret, as it can be used as a representation for both species in some general studies.

Why are black footed ferrets endangered? Why are wild European ferrets uncommon? Black footed ferrets are endangered mainly due to the fact that farmers began poisoning the prairie dog holes they must use for food and shelter. Farmers saw the prairie dogs as a threat to their livestock so they began poisoning them, resulting in many ferrets being poisoned and left homeless.

European ferrets experienced pretty much the opposite side of the human/animal interaction spectrum. Humans began domesticating ferrets and discovered they are excellent for hunting mice. Sailors took them out to sea to keep the cargo vermin free and they found their way into North America, where they became popular both as vermin protection and as fuzzy companions.

Conclusion

There is no short answer to, “What is a ferret?”. They are fabulous little animals that make for hilarious, loving pets which form a deep bond with their owners and provide hours of laughter and millions of memories. Truly, these animals are wonderful and worth all of the weasel tantrums and ferret funk that come with owning them!

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