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Ferrets

Mustela putorius furo (Mustela furo)

Ferrets

NOTE: Be sure to quarantine any new ferret pets (especially babies) from existing ferrets in the home for at least 14 days. Take your new ferret to an exotic pet veterinarian before introducing.

LIFE SPAN:

average 6-10 years

AVERAGE SIZE:

Males (hobs) - 15-16 inches long; 2-3.5 pounds
Females (jills) - 13-14 inches long; 0.75-2.5 pounds

WILD HISTORY:

Ferrets are mustelids. This group of animals is named for the fact that they have distinct musk glands, which are often used as a defense mechanism when they are threatened. Badgers, wolverines, otters, mink, weasels, black-footed ferrets and polecats are also mustelids. Ferrets do not have musk glands that are as powerful as those of the skunk nor can they “spray” their scent. Ferrets have been domesticated for more than 2000 years and have been kept as pets in America for about 300 years. They were, and still are in some countries, used to hunt rabbits, as they are quick, slim and very good at flushing rabbits and other small mammals out of burrows. They are illegal to have in some countries. Ferrets are illegal to keep in many states and/or cities in the U.S. because of the fear that they will reproduce quickly and become agricultural threats if accidentally released. However, most ferrets sold as pets are spayed or neutered beforehand, so the chance of this actually happening is slim. Some other states and cities require a permit to keep.

PHYSICAL ATTRIBUTES:

Ferrets have slim and slinky bodies, but should not be skinny. They have small, rounded ears and tiny dark eyes. Ferrets do not have good eyesight, but their keen senses of smell and hearing more than make up for this fact. Ferrets are available in a variety of colors including sable, white, seal-point and albino. Most ferrets for sale in the U.S. pet trade have had their anal scent glands removed; however their skin also releases a small amount of musk, so a scent is still present. Most people are not extremely offended by this scent. Many ferret owners exacerbate the scent problem by over-bathing their pet, which dries out the skin and therefore prompts the skin glands to produce more oils to compensate. Ferrets have the typical teeth of a carnivore, including pronounced canines. Tails are approximately five inches long.

NORMAL BEHAVIOR & INTERACTION:

The “furo” portion of the scientific name for ferret is derived from the Latin word “furonem”, which means “thief”, and any experienced ferret owner will tell you that this description is extremely accurate. If you are ever missing any shiny objects, check your ferret’s favorite hiding places first! Ferrets are crepuscular (most active at dawn and dusk) and sleep about 14-18 hours a day; the remaining time is spent playing and entertaining their families and playmates. When excited and playful, a ferret will exhibit what is known as the “weasel war dance”, which is characterized by seemingly uncontrolled happy sideways jumps, which often end in banging into furniture or each other. Ferrets are very social animals and prefer to live together with other ferrets. The best toy for a ferret is another ferret!

VACCINES:

Most states require that ferrets receive a regular rabies vaccination. Rabies vaccine is first administered at 12 weeks of age, and then once a year for life.

It is strongly recommended by most veterinarians that ferrets also receive distemper vaccines. Ferrets are extremely susceptible to Canine Distemper Virus, which is virtually 100% fatal in ferrets. Distemper vaccine is administered to baby ferrets at 8, 11 and 14 weeks and then once a year for life.

An exotic veterinarian who routinely treats ferrets will have the proper brand distemper and rabies vaccine for ferrets on hand. It is not recommended that they receive both vaccines within the same week, as it will increase the chance of a negative reaction to one of the vaccines.

FEEDING:

Strict (obligate) Carnivores. Ferrets have no ability to pull nutrients from grains or other plant matter, so good ferret foods should not contain large amounts of these ingredients. Ferrets have very short digestive tracts and a very high metabolism, so they have to eat often. Make sure fresh food is available at all times. Ferrets generally eat only what they need and generally do not become obese from overeating. If your ferret seems overweight, see your exotic pet veterinarian as there may be a medical reason for the weight gain or you may need to change your pet’s food. Ferrets tend to imprint on their food and are therefore very difficult to switch to a different food if that primary food becomes unavailable at any point. Because of this fact, many ferret experts recommend feeding a variety of about three different foods. This also provides a variety of flavors as well as nutrients. Commercial ferret foods should have 34-40% protein and 19-30% fat with extremely low carbohydrate and fiber content. Chose foods with ingredient panels that list actual meats and meat meals, such as chicken meal and egg, as opposed to meat by-products (meat waste products from human grade food manufacturing). Ingredient panels basically list items in order of the total weight of each ingredient in the food. The highest quality ferret foods list meats or meat meals as the first three ingredients. Also, look for good levels of omega 3 & 6 fatty acids (among the first 6 ingredients). Avoid products with high levels of ingredients such as corn gluten, soy meal, and vegetable and grain items. Also be careful of hidden sugars in the form of sucrose, fructose and corn syrup

DO NOT FEED CAT OR DOG FOODS

** Please Avoid: yogurt drops, chocolate, pasta, fruity treats, breads, crackers, cookies, breakfast cereals and any human grade junk food “treats”.

Good ferret treats are meat based with no sugar or carbohydrates.

SUPPLEMENTS:

Ferretone and Linatone - Scientifically formulated dietary supplements that promote healthy skin and a shiny coat. Can be given once a day. See package directions for adult ferret, baby ferret and pregnant jill doses. Take care to not overdose, as these supplements contain vitamin A which can be dangerous at high levels.
Laxatone or Petromalt - Helps your ferret pass hairballs. Contains oils and molasses. Follow package directions carefully and do not overdose as they contain a high amount of sugar.

WATER:

Clean, fresh chlorine-free water must always be available. Change it daily. All water given must be 100% free of chlorine and heavy metals. (Not all home water filtration systems remove 100% of the chlorine and heavy metals from tap water). We recommend that you use unflavored bottled drinking water or bottled natural spring water; never use untreated tap water. If tap water is used, you should treat it with a de-chlorinating treatment. Do not use distilled water, which can cause severe medical problems, since it lacks minerals that are essential to important body functions.

LITTER TRAINING:

Ferrets naturally (even in the wild) tend to urinate and defecate in one certain area of their “domain” - generally a corner. This is a way of marking territory. You can use this natural behavior to your advantage by training your pet to use a litter box in order to keep the cage cleaner. Cat litters tend to be irritating to ferrets and some can create health problems, so recycled newspaper pellets such as “Yesterday’s News”, un-treated wood-stove pellets and “Carefresh” are most recommended. DO NOT USE CLUMPING CAT LITTERS.

Use a system of rewarding for good behavior, not scolding for incorrect behavior. Place your ferret’s litter-box in a place where he usually eliminates already (usually a corner), making it easy for him to succeed. If your ferret defecates outside the box, place the feces into the litter-box to establish the scent in the box.

SPAYING AND NEUTERING:

Most ferrets are purchased or adopted already spayed or neutered. If your new ferret is NOT, it is extremely important to do so. It should be considered just as important as spaying or neutering a pet dog or cat. Spaying or neutering your ferret will extend its healthy lifetime. By altering your pet, the risk of reproductive cancers is reduced, aggressive behavior is reduced, urine spraying is reduced and the ability to litter train becomes easier.

GROOMING:

Ferret grooming consists of brushing (to reduce the risk of hairballs), nail trimming (when needed), ear cleaning (use a ferret ear cleaner and cotton swabs - about once a week), and tooth brushing (use cat toothpaste and a finger brush or finger only about once a week). Baths should be limited to about once a month as more frequent baths will strip the skin of natural oils which will in turn cause the skin to release more musky oils which can make your ferret’s natural odor worse. Use warm water (101-102 degrees) and a good ferret shampoo only. Carefully massage the ears, being careful not to get to much water into the ear canal.

Some ferrets LOVE the bath and some hate it. Be patient and respect your ferret’s reaction, however do be sure to get the cleaning done!

RECOMMENDED SUPPLIES:

Wire sided cage at least 4’ x 2’ x 2’ for two ferrets. Do not choose a cage with a wire bottom; only solid floored cages are appropriate. High quality ferret foods - see “feeding” section.
Several toys - chewable wood and cardboard and ferret-safe plastic. Shredded aspen bedding, “Carefresh”, or newspaper for the bottom of the cage. NO PINE OR CEDAR SHAVINGS.
Fleece hide sacks and slings for sleeping LOTS of toys!!! Ferretone and Laxatone
Water bottle Playpen - for safe out-of-cage playtime
Litter box - choose a different substrate for the litter box than what covers the bottom of the cage. DO NOT USE PINE OR CEDAR SHAVINGS IN A LITTER BOX. Heavy ceramic crock food bowl. Ferrets will flip or chew a light plastic bowl. Also available are bowls that hook onto the side of the cage.

HOUSING & ENVIRONMENT:

Ferrets require large cages, preferably with multiple floors. Be sure to purchase a high quality ferret cage made of safe plastic or galvanized metal (lead free) which is secure, sturdy and easy to clean.

Place your pet’s cage in a place in the home where it will be around the family, yet protected from direct light, drafts and excess noise during the day.

Absolute minimum size for two ferrets is 4 ft (long) x 2 ft (wide) x 3 ft (high).

GLASS ENCLOSURES SHOULD NOT BE USED FOR FERRETS; glass cages hold in too much heat and humidity. Do not buy a cage with a wire floor; this will result in foot injuries and a condition known as “bumble-foot”. Cages should have a solid plastic bottom, for safety and for ease of cleaning.

IT IS NOT TRUE THAT AN ANIMAL WILL ONLY GROW AS LARGE AS ITS ENCLOSURE!!

When allowing your ferret out of cage time, be sure to monitor closely. Do not allow your ferret to roam the house or a room when he or she is not supervised. Injuries to both the ferret and/or your house are imminent. Before allowing your ferret supervised play time, scan the room for power cords, sharp objects, items that your pet can easily pick up and eat, and other items that may be a danger to your pet.

WATER BOTTLE: A full water bottle must be available at all times; refill it daily. Be sure to clean out the inside of the bottle thoroughly during the more intensive cage cleaning sessions every week. Water bottles will often become slimy inside, which will in turn harbor harmful bacteria. Clean the bottle thoroughly with a mild bleach solution. Be sure to rinse the bottle extremely well after the cleaning to ensure no bleach is left behind! Your pet will most likely chew a bottle inside the cage, so be sure to attach the bottle to the OUTSIDE of the cage. Check the straw daily for any blockages to make sure your pet always has access to the fresh water. If you cannot place the bottle on the outside of the cage, purchase a metal water bottle guard. This will keep him or her from getting to the bottle.

BEDDING: We recommend an aspen bedding or soft recycled newspaper bedding such as “Carefresh”. Neither of these choices will cause allergic reactions or respiratory distress and it is easy to clean. DO NOT use cedar chips or pine chips, as they contain dangerous phenols, which are toxic to your pet.

TOYS: Several types of toys should be available for your ferret. Ferrets love to tunnel and hide, which means large plastic tubes and fleece hiding sacks are greatly enjoyed. Most ferrets appreciate fleece sacks and/or hanging tents or slings for sleeping. An overly warm ferret may stretch out uncovered on a cool plastic or metal cage floor. Feathers, plastic balls or plush toys with bells, dig boxes (cardboard boxes filled with digging material such as small plastic balls or peanuts?), cat crinkle toys or any other ferret toys on the market will be welcomed with zeal. Ferrets LOVE to play and have a lot of energy to expend, so be sure to provide many playthings. And remember, the best toy for a ferret is another ferret! DO NOT GIVE RUBBER OR FOAM TOYS; THESE CREATE A HIGH RISK FOR INGESTION AND IMPACTION

HABITAT MAINTENANCE:

Daily maintenance should consist of spot cleaning by removing soiled substrate, cleaning water bowl thoroughly and wiping glass clean.

The entire tank should be cleaned thoroughly at least once every week with: A mild dishwashing liquid in warm water (make a weak dilution), THEN Vinegar & water (1:8) OR bleach and warm water (1:32)

Cage “furniture” should also be scrubbed clean with the same dilution.

RINSE OFF ALL SOAP AND BLEACH THOROUGHLY WITH PLAIN WATER BEFORE RE-INTRODUCING YOUR PET TO ITS ENCLOSURE!!

NEVER MIX VINEGAR AND BLEACH - IT CREATES A TOXIC SOLUTION

SIGNS OF A HEALTHY ANIMAL:

Healthy ferrets have a slim (not skinny) body, with a rounded belly and smooth, shiny, even fur with no bald patches. The nostrils, rump area, under-chin area, ears and eyes should be clear and free of discharge - fur should not be damp or stained in any way. Your pet should have bright eyes; teeth should be even and well aligned with no staining around the chin; breathing should be even and not labored, with no wheezing or gurgling sounds. Healthy ferrets are energetic and alert.

At least two visits per year with an exotic pet veterinarian are highly recommended, as ferrets are susceptible to health issues that can be managed if taken care of quickly.

SOME COMMON PROBLEMS INCLUDE:

HEALTH ISSUE: SYMPTOMS: TREATMENT:
Mites Most common in ears of ferrets - foul odor of ear; darkened, grainy ear wax; ferret scratching at ear or shaking head; loss of balance; lethargy See exotic pet veterinarian immediately. Infecting mite must be identified and treated accordingly
Fleas (cat flea) Scratching, sighting of fleas or black flea droppings, loss of hair, See exotic pet veterinarian for proper dosage of flea treatment for your ferret’s weight.
Epizootic Catarrhal Enteritis (Green Slime Disease - caused by coronavirus) Foul smelling, lime green diarrhea; dehydration, lethargy. May then appear healthier before worse problems occur - ulcers of the stomach, throat and mouth, which result in severe weight loss. See exotic pet veterinarian immediately upon first signs of illness. CAN be treated. Rehydration, assisted feeding and medications necessary. Surgery if possible
Insulinoma (cancer of the pancreas) Weight loss, episodes of lethargy or depression; may seem ‘zombie-like’, weakness, possible decreased appetite, seizures Medical management with prednisone or and/or diazoxide, dietary management.
Adrenal Associated Endocrinopathy (adrenal gland tumors) Hair loss, enlarged vulva in females, difficulty urinating in males; also possible lethargy, weakness, aggression, and urine marking Surgery if possible Or?Medical management with Lupron injections (or similar drugs) or Deslorden implants.
Lymphoma (cancer of the white blood cells) Enlarged external lymph nodes, Loss of appetite, lethargy Surgery, Chemotherapy
Foreign Body Weight loss, lethargy and/or vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite Surgery

©2012 Dawn M. Trainor-Scalise

Courtesy of: Specialized Care for Avian & Exotic Pets

In conjunction with Pet Supplies “Plus”

10882 Main Street, Clarence, NY 14031

Ph (716) 759-0144

www.buffalobirdnerd.com