Caring for ferrets

Ferrets are interesting, lively, comical and friendly animals who like plenty of company (both human and other ferrets).

They spend up to 75% of their time (often 20 hours per day) asleep, and like to sleep in dark, enclosed areas. They are very inquisitive and exploratory and need the opportunity to forage and explore their environment. They are most active at dusk.. If they have insufficient stimulation, they can become bored, destructive and looking for escape routes.  

 

Owning and caring for a ferret can be great fun and very rewarding, but it can also be quite challenging. It is a big responsibility and long-term commitment. Ferrets are rather more demanding than most other caged domestic animals, but if you are prepared to put in the commitment, you will find yourself completely captivated by your furry little friend.

Ferrets come in a wide variety of colours including albino, dark eyed white, Sandy, silver, light pole cat and dark polecat. The colour of their coats can change significantly with the seasons, particularly with ferrets that are kept outside.

Ferrets are renowned for their love of nipping toes and ankles. Ferrets usually nip ankles and toes as a way to engage you in play. This can become quite a favourite game and the more you squeal and pirouette across the floor, the more fun it is to chase. Ferrets enjoy chasing games. Sometimes they chase each other; other times they want to chase their human friends.They are often named toe sharks for this very reason. Many owners resort to always wearing shoes to avoid having their toes nipped but ferrets can be taught not to chase toes so it is possible to safely venture barefoot to the kitchen.

When handled frequently from a young age, ferrets will develop very close bonds with their owners. A happy ferret will often entertain you with a Weasel War Dance. The behavior consists of a rapid series of  sideways and backwards bouncing, often accompanied by a chuckling noise called a Dook and an arched back. They may also have a bottle brush tail where they puff the fur out resembling a bottle brush. This behaviour is an indication that they are happy and excited to play.

Ferrets can make many vocalisations including dooking - a happy chuckling sound heard during play, while war dancing and when excited. Hormonal ferrets often make this sound loudly and frequently and we call this the hob song.

 

Other vocalisations include:

 

Hissing - This can be an expression of fear, frustration, warning others to back off and guarding possessions. Some ferrets are very vocal and hiss during play or to get attention.

 

Squeaking - This is often to show displeasure to other ferrets being over zealous and rough during play. Some ferrets use a squeak to give a telling off and often hormonal jills will squeak. The squeak is often a common noise made by deaf ferrets along with a few other unusual noises. This happens as they cannot hear themselves or others.

Screaming - Screaming is a sure sign that a ferret is in a great deal of distress. This can be seen when they are in pain, severe fear, or during seizures. A terrified or injured ferret is likely to bite to defend themselves therefore need to be handled with extreme care.

Barking - Occasionally ferrets will make a shrill barking noise to indicate that they are trapped or startled.

How many ferrets should you keep?

Although one ferret can be kept alone, this is not ideal. You will need to spend significant amounts of time with a lone ferret in order to prevent it from getting bored and lonely. Neutered hobs and jills usually live together harmoniously and provide companionship and play with each other. Ferrets often live in larger groups of three, four or more, space and facilities permitting.

Ferret
Ferret

Ferret Loves his toy

Ferret Shed
Ferret Shed

Good example of ferret shed set up

Coop style cage
Coop style cage

Good example of large coop style cage

Ferret
Ferret

Ferret Loves his toy

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Ferret housing

Ferret houses and cages should be well constructed and secure. It should have an enclosed sleeping area, free from draughts, and a good solid floor that is be easy to clean (wooden floors can be covered with lino for easy cleaning). Check the housing area regularly for small holes and gaps and consider fitting stronger locks to the cage.The cage should also be weatherproof and located in a shady area, protected from wind or rain and out of direct sunlight.

 

Ferrets are very active so the more living/playing space you can provide the better. The living area should encourage them to perform a range of behaviours, including exploring, foraging, playing, hiding and resting, territory marking and grooming.Ferrets need things that they can climb on, play with and explore such as tunnels and closed hammocks. 

 

Ferrets are naturally clean animals and will usually choose only one or two areas as their toilet, usually a vertical surface where they tend to back into a corner and squirt upwards. The cage should be cleaned daily, removing any bedding that is wet or dirty, faeces and uneaten meat. You should clean the food and water containers daily and the whole cage should be thoroughly cleaned weekly.

If you are looking to rehome a ferret from Little Paws Ferret Rescue then we expect the cage to be large and suitable for ferrets. It needs to have plenty of floor space so cages that are high with staggered shelves are not suitable for ferrets. Multi level cages with small staggered shelves are very dangerous to ferrets and serious injury can be caused from a fall from the top shelves. If you have a cage like this then please consider relocating the shelves with at least two next to each other and another two on the opposite side to shorten the distance that a ferret can fall. This also gives more floor space to play.

This style of cage should be avoided. They are very dangerous for ferrets!

 

At Little Paws Ferret Rescue we have first hand experience of the danger of these cages as one of our rehomed ferrets fell from the top shelves and broke her spine. Sadly she passed away before the vets could save her. She was less than a year old.

 

DIP beautiful Asti x

bad cage picture

Suitable housing options can include a large shed with a smaller cage inside where the ferrets get free roam in the rest of the shed. With a few tweaks and some tubes and toys, your ferrets will have plenty of space to practice their war dances!

Some owners prefer to have their ferrets free roaming the house. If this is an option for you then you will need to implement some safety measures to stop them escaping the house. Open windows (no matter how high) are a potential escape route as are open doors, unsealed vents, etc... If you have a busy household with lots off traffic coming in and out then a safer option is to have dedicated rooms that are secured with ferret proofed gates. You will also need to consider your flooring choices! Carpets are easily damaged by ferret claws and don't look great after a ferret uses them as a toilet. Maybe consider laminate flooring or lino. Although ferrets are very clever, they may not be good at using the litter tray every time (some are brilliant and others will poop in front, to the side and sometimes even on the roof or the litter tray!). 

When having ferrets indoors to live, or even just to play, you will need to consider modifying your soft furnishings. Sofas are a favourite place to hide and they can be damaged by ferrets easily and are a great place to stash toys and food. Stapling lino to the base or removing the legs so that they can't get beneath is a good strategy. You may also want to put any treasured ornaments and valuables up high so they are safe from being knocked over or stolen. Basically you need to ferret proof your house as if a manic toddler with Kleptomania were visiting your home!

Gardens and outdoor areas need to be thoroughly ferret proofed as ferrets are great escape artists. Fencing will need to be secure at the base. Ferrets can and will dig holes under the fencing, through hedges, in flower pots, etc... Precious plants will not be safe around these little burrowing muck machines! Ferrets are also great at climbing but not so great at landing safely so make sure that they cannot climb out of your garden or up heights where they may fall. Open water such as ponds and water butts are extremely dangerous as they pose a drowning risk to your ferrets. 

Handling your ferret

Ferrets, like all animals, need to be properly handled and trained to behave well. Like puppies and kittens, they will test everything with their mouth. They have large teeth, and can deliver a deep, nasty bite. Ferret owners often hear "Ferrets are aggressive and bite all the time!"  This is not true.there are a number of reasons that a ferret may bite: The ferret is young and needs training, The ferret is biting out of fear, the ferret is play biting. Ferrets have very thick, tough skin, and so what may be a little play nip to them can draw blood on us!

Young ferrets (kits) can be prone to biting so it’s always advisable for first time owners to look for ferrets that are at least a year old, have already been handled a lot and are friendly and less likely to bite. Like puppies and kittens, ferrets tend to 'test' things with their teeth. They are not vicious, but can make one or two experimental nips so until you have got to know your ferret and established mutual trust, do not allow him too near your face.

Children should always be supervised with ferrets, and taught the correct and safe methods of handling them.

Ferrets who have been neglected or abused often fear bite. They are afraid of humans and scared to get injured. You need to build up trust with the ferret using a calm and gentle manner, plenty of treats and a bit of patience.

Play bites that a ferret gives you in play! This is the way they play with other ferrets as well! However, your ferret may nip harder than you would like during play. If you want to teach your ferret to not play bite hands and feet, try playing with a toy instead. Train your ferret that toys are good to play nip, humans are not. Play biting is different from fear biting and a firm "No" is often all it takes to teach them that this is not acceptable play.

Ferrets should be handled gently but firmly. They soon learn that handling is fun and enjoy being cuddled and carried. They should be picked up around the shoulders from above and have their hindquarters supported with the other hand. They are very wriggly, so should be handled with care in case they are dropped!

You should never shout or hiss at your ferret, never flick his nose, Pinch its ear or hurt the ferret in any way, this will just lead to your ferret becoming afraid of you and might make the biting worse. You should try not to whip your hand away when a ferret goes to bite as this often results in a worse injury and the ferret often sees this as a game. We do not recommend using gloves to handle a ferret as they don't teach the ferret not to bite skin, they can even frighten the ferret causing them to bite. Some gloves are thick and you are less likely to feel the pressure that you are holding him with and so you may be holding too tight. If a ferret bites when you go to pick him up then you need to be calm and not grab at him. A good idea is to distract the bitey end with a treat such as oil so that you can gently lift him without any sudden movements that may startle him or make him become tense. Practice this several times a day until he is comfortable that lifting him up equals good things.

The key to nip training is consistency and patience. Teach your ferret to trust you and build a strong bond and you will be well rewarded.
 

 

Feeding your ferret

Ferrets are "obligate" carnivores, which means they eat meat. In the wild a ferret would eat every part of the animal including its bones therefore raw meat is the best option, including chicken breast, wings and thigh, beef or pork mince, heart, offal and whole prey such as mice, rats, chicks, rabbit, pigeon, etc... A balanced raw diet consists of meat, bones and organs. 80% meat, 10% bones and 10% organs.

 

You may not like the idea of feeding raw food to your ferret but it replicates their natural diet and helps to maintain healthy teeth and digestion. Feeding whole pray with the fur or feathers also help to keep your ferrets' digestion system free of parasites. Make sure you buy good quality meat, frozen rodents and chicks from regular shops or raw pet food suppliers. 

Bandit
Bandit

Ferret in cage with meat

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294

Enjoying meat
Enjoying meat

Little ferret enjoying a big bit of meat

Bandit
Bandit

Ferret in cage with meat

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Ferrets regularly stash any uneaten meat for later so you will need to check and remove uneaten meat daily.

Ferrets should NEVER be fed on human food, vegetables, rabbit food, etc... Ferrets are also lactose intolerant so any type of dairy product could cause stomach upsets and vomiting. It is NOT advised to feed your ferret dog food. This is because there is not enough protein and fat in it for your ferret. Dog food also contains vegetable protein and fibre which cannot be digested by ferrets, and can cause health problems.

Ferrets can eat meat based kitten food as it has a high meat protein content however adult cat food does not contain the same protein levels, so is not beneficial for your ferret. Make sure the kitten food contains no corn or grain, and meat is the first ingredient.

 

Canned cat foods are not recommended to feed your ferret as they do not contain enough calories for ferrets. Canned cat foods are also soft and do not help in removing plaques from your ferret’s teeth. When feeding kitten food to your ferret, make sure that the label suggests that it contains more than 33% high quality, easily digestible animal protein and at least 15% fats. Consider also feeding dry kibble along side the kitten food.

We recommend that you always provide a supply of high quality high protein kibble such as Dr Johns Merlin, Vitalin, Burgess, Alpha Ferret Feast or James Well-beloved. When buying dried ferret food ensure it contains more meat protein than any other product. The dry foods can be fed freely so that the ferret can take whatever it wants.

The amount of food a ferret needs depends on its age, the amount of exercise it gets, and how large it is. Ferret Kits need rather more than adults and should have several meals per day. Kits are much easier to handle on a full tummy so plan any handling after a feed. It is important that young ferrets get a good variety of different meats and whole prey to eat as this will help them to eat a good variety when they are older. A kit fed only cat food or kibble may never accept raw food later in life.

Fresh Water is essential. Ferrets can dehydrate quickly, especially in warm weather. Heavy ceramic bowls work well and stop them from tipping the bowl. Water bottles are also good to use.  Make sure you change their water daily and check that they have not overturned the bowls or dug out all the water. During hot weather make sure to provide extra water as they will also splash water from their bowls onto their bellies to cool down.

Treats

 It is best to stick with treats that are specifically made for ferrets cats—but never dog treats.

One way to make treat time quick and easy is to make a batch of meat and cut it into small chunks that can be frozen for convenience.

Other tasty treats are:

  • “Duck” soup - A cooked meat and kibble mixture that is very palatable and great for building up sick or underweight ferrets.

  • Ferret Oil (Mixture of salmon, rapeseed, flax or other oils. Recipes vary) - Great for making nail clipping easier

  • Ferret Malt / vitamin Paste – Good for reducing hairball buildup during moulting 

  • Raw or Scrambled eggs - given sparingly as a treat.

  • Occasionally cooked up beef, chicken, liver, or other goodies.

  • Taramasalata

  • Cat sticks 

  • Lick-E-Licks meat based cat treats

  • Kitten, Soya or goats milk is a very good alternative to cows milk

Common Illnesses

Ferrets are pretty hardy creatures but just like dogs and cats, they are prone to a variety of illnesses. By learning about common diseases affecting ferrets you should be better prepared to recognise signs and symptoms of them or even possibly prevent your ferret from getting sick.

Ferrets are generally full of energy and excited when you first get them out. If a ferret is hard to rouse from sleep (excluding dead sleep which is frankly terrifying!!), lethargic, wanting to lie flat to the floor, rapidly breathing, mouth breathing or grunting, staring into space, wobbling when walking, these are all signs that your ferret may be sick and needs veterinary treatment ASAP.

The following links will give you information about common diseases and ailments. These are not a substitute for veterinary advice and are for information only. If you believe your ferret is unwell then please contact a veterinary practice for an appointment.

We have our own Ferret Rescue page on Facebook and our Facebook group North East Ferret Community is a great place to chat with ferret owners, share photos and experiences and ask questions!