Advice from the expert: Caring for ferrets

By Emma Purnell RVN Cert.Nut.

Ferrets can be cheeky and sociable pets but have specific care requirements that must be met to keep them happy and healthy.

They usually have a lifespan of 8 -10 years so are a long-term commitment. Male ferrets are known as hobs, females are jills. Unneutered males in particular can have a very distinctive and quite strong smell and keeping them in social areas can sometimes be an issue. Ferrets sleep for around 20 hours a day and are most active around dusk. Being natural predators, they must be kept well away from other animals as their smell will be hugely stressful for other species such as rabbits, guinea pigs etc.

Ferrets are obligate carnivores; they must eat meat. Complete ferret diets are available but supplementing this with uncooked meat, offal and bones is ideal. Processed meats and cat or dog foods are not suitable due to processing and ferrets are lactose intolerant so no milk products should be given. Raw eggs given whole can be a great treat. They will tend to eat small amounts frequently so feeding ad lib or little and often can be best, hence the switch for many owners to using the commercially produced ferret diets. Fresh clean water must always be available. Their weight will vary through the year – they can put on up to 40% of their body weight for winter which is normal. Monitoring their weight year-round is still important and avoiding sugary treats can ensure they stay at their optimal weight.

Ferrets can, if given a lot of socialisation at all times, be kept alone but are more often kept in pairs or groups. Ideally this should be same sex littermates or neutered male and females. Young ferrets tend to explore new places or people with their mouths, so nipping is not unusual. As carnivores, ferrets have sharp teeth and strong jaws, so these nips can be painful.

For first time owners, taking on a well-handled ferret 12 months old and over can be easier. If handled from a young age they can form a strong bond with their owners but are likely to bite hard if startled. They can be difficult to pick up and handle so are not ideal for children. It is best to pick them up around the shoulders and support their bottom with your other hand. They do tend to fidget so care should be taken.

For a pair of ferrets, the recommended enclosure size is at least 10ft long, 6ft high and 6ft wide. Enclosures need to be very strong and secure as they will dig as well as escape easily though small gaps. In outdoor runs mesh will need to be laid, but with turf or carpet laid over the top to avoid the risk of injury when digging. They need a large sleeping area and enjoy hammocks and fleece bedding, which can be less messy and easier to clean. Enclosures should be dry, free of draughts but also well ventilated. Ambient temperatures of 15-21C are best, they can struggle with hyperthermia in temperatures that are too high.

Ferrets can be litter trained; litter trays should be changed daily. They are playful and active creatures and need toys and mental stimulation to keep them happy. Scatter feeding can be great for this, hiding food around enclosures gets them active and searching. The enclosure should be checked daily for any old food, as they tend to hide it and it can go off if not removed. Some ferrets enjoy a bath so it may be fun to add in a shallow bath, which they can easily get out of, however never force them to swim unless they seek it out.

Ferrets are usually vaccinated against distemper as this is a disease, they can catch and can be fatal to them. Neutering in ferrets is often carried out, especially for females who, when they come into season will stay in season until mated, given hormone injections or neutered. This can be a problem as it can lead to anaemia bone marrow depression and even death. Neutering males can also reduce the smell and some of the greasy coat they are usually known for. Neutering has been linked to adrenal diseases so discuss the options with your vet before deciding. They can also be microchipped to ensure they do not get lost. Ear mites can be a common issue, but your vet can help with treatments for this. Claws may need clipping, but this is usually not a difficult thing to do safely. Flea treatments are available to prevent infestations and pet insurance is available through some companies to help with costs if there are any illnesses or accidents.

Ferrets can make wonderful pets in the right situations, but research is needed as they are not necessarily the right pets for every person or environment.

Emma qualified as a Veterinary Nurse in 2008 and works for Nutravet (UK) Ltd. She has a BSc in Zoology with Animal Ecology and an MSc in Ecology, helping to fuel her interest in more exotic species. She has a particular love of small furries and has a grade A distinction in Canine and Feline Clinical Nutrition (CertNut).