About Ferrets

A brief overview of their history and care
by Pamela Grant of STAR*Ferrets

History of Ferrets

Mustela furo, the domestic European ferret, is a member of the weasel family (polecat, mink, skunk, ermine, otter, etc.). Ferrets were domesticated before the cat, probably by the Egyptians. The first ferrets came to the United States over 300 years ago on ships and were used for rodent control.

There are no populations of "wild" ferrets in the United States, except for the North American Black-footed Ferret, which is an endangered species and just recently reintroduced to Wyoming. Pet ferrets have no hunting instinct left; they will chase and catch rodents, but don't know how to "survive" on them.

Ferrets are domestic in the truest sense of the word. They come in a variety of colors, with albino being the original color of pet ferrets. Other popular colors are sable (with raccoon-like mask), chocolate (brown), silver (white with sprinkling of black hairs and black eyes), and cinnamon (just to name a few colors). Patterns are mitts (white feet), panda (white head), badger (white blaze), and Siamese (dark legs and tail).

Male ferrets are referred to as hobs and average from 2 to 5 pounds. Female ferrets are called jills and are half the size of the males. Baby ferrets are called kits and are considered "adults" at 6-7 months of age. A group of ferrets is called "a business of ferrets."

Ferret Care

This summary contains tips that should benefit veteran ferret owners as well as first time owners. First off, let me say that ferrets are DOMESTIC HOUSE PETS, not exotic novelty animals that may become a passing phase. There are estimated to be over 6 million PET ferrets kept in the United States.

Food and treats

Ferrets need a high protein (32% or greater) diet consisting mainly of meat or animal byproducts rather than grain. The amino acids in vegetable protein are not readily used by a ferret's 3 hour digestive system. Low ash and low magnesium are important to a good ferret diet as well. Quality dry cat foods are available at feed stores, at a good pet shop, or your veterinarian's office. There are new ferret diets appearing on the market all the time, but the ones which are fish based are not liked very well by ferrets, but preferred by their cousin, the mink. Most ferrets prefer shaped pieces of food and do not care for pelleted foods for this reason. Try not to use most grocery store brands of cat and kitten food because the dyes, fillers and preservatives used are not good for your little ones, and they are low on meat protein.

Ferrets enjoy eating treats such as raisins, grapes (peeled or cut in half), unsalted popcorn, peanut butter, banana and an occasional veggie or two. Try different things out in very small quantities and remember - this is a treat and not an alternative to quality food. Do not feed your ferret dairy products (can cause diarrhea) or chocolate and caffeine products. The ferrets may beg for these things, but what doesn't bother our system can kill a ferret.

Nail clipping and baths

Linatone, from pet and feed stores, is good for ferrets as a treat (2 drops a day or one pump a week) and a way to occupy the ferret as we clip its nails. Have the ferret seated belly up and pour a little Linatone (or Ferretone) on its stomach. Show him where it is, and while he's licking it up, clip the nails on all four feet to within a little bit of the quick (the pink part of the nail). Do not cut the quick as this may result in bleeding.

We recommended baths once a month. Any baby, kitten or ferret shampoo will do. Try to keep it out of their eyes and nose. When flea season arrives, we suggest that you use a formula for cats that contains Pyretherins, or use Peppermint Soap from the health food store. Never dip a ferret!


Ferrets require a Canine Distemper vaccination once a year. If the ferret has not been on a regimented vaccine program, then you should get a booster in three to four weeks. Kits from pets shops have had only one shot (if any) and should receive two boosters to raise the protection to its highest. The important thing to tell your vet if he/she is unfamiliar with ferrets is that a ferret based vaccine CAN NOT be used. Canine Distemper is 100% fatal in ferrets, so this is a genuine health concern.

A rabies vaccine for ferrets was licensed by USDA in February 1990. Even so, you will not be guaranteed that if he bites someone and authorities want him tested, that he will not be decapitated (brain tissue is tested for the virus). This is because the shedding period in ferrets for rabies has not been determined to the satisfaction of some public health officials. The rabies vaccine is called Imrab. It has been used in cats and dogs for years. A ferret receives a 1 ML dose under the skin once a year. A ferret can be vaccinated as early as three months of age.

Altering and descenting

Alter your ferrets. This is because the stress and smell of intact males is usually not desirable for a household pet. If a female is not brought out of heat, she can develop aplastic anemia, or pick up an infection, and die. If you do get an intact ferret, it should be altered at six months of age to insure that it's had time to develop physically. Having a ferret spayed or neutered will not alter its personality. As long as ferrets are fixed, it does not matter what combinations of sexes you keep.

Descenting is not necessary for a ferret. It only adds to the trauma of an operation, $ to the doctor bill, and does not make the ferret smell better. Ferret's coats are oily and musky from being intact but neutering and baths will fix that. Ferrets use their scent glands only when startled or threatened, then it's like a "bad passing of wind" and airs out in about ten minutes. It will not stain or permanently mark your household.

Cages, ferretproofing and training

We recommend that you keep your ferret caged or confined to a single room of the house while no one is home. Wire cages with levels are what ferrets prefer. DO NOT use aquariums and cedar chips! Caging protects the ferret as well as your house.

Ferrets are inquisitive, fearless, and capable of getting into places that you never imagined. If their head can fit into something, then the body can follow. To ferret proof your home, we suggest that you start with getting potted plants out of their reach. Ferrets love to dig in dirt. Ferrets can not climb in the sense that cats can. If they can jump and get a grip on something, they will either pull themselves up or pull objects over and down. Items such as trash cans, tablecloths, laundry baskets, drink glasses, etc., are fair game. Ferrets are not destructive, but they do like to toss pillows off sofas and steal dirty socks and hide them under beds. Sometimes they think the sock on your foot is fair game so watch your toes.

To discipline your ferret, a stern "NO" with a tap on the nose is usually sufficient. If biting or nipping is a problem, there is a product in the pet shops called Bitter Apple that tastes bad to pets and helps teach them what not to bite. Ferrets have poor eyesight and if they can't see the litter box right off, any corner is fair game. We suggest you handle the ferret for five minutes after it awakens (at which time the ferret may shiver while adjusting to the room's temperature). Place him back in the cage to use the litter box, and then let him out to play, or use newspaper in the corners to keep the mess down. Unlike cats, ferret urine does not have a strong smell and if their stools are left to dry, can be picked up and tossed in the trash the next day. The quantity is quite small.

Be careful where you sit and walk when the ferret is out - he might be under a pillow, blanket, pile of laundry, etc. Sleep sofas and recliners are places where ferrets can get caught in the mechanics. Block off furnaces, refrigerators, washers, dryers and dishwashers. Ferrets have no sense of direction in large areas. DO NOT allow them outdoors unless on a leash and under close supervision. Rubber toys that a ferret chews on and can swallow pieces of are very dangerous - keep these out of their cages. Even certain types of rags and cloth, some ferrets like to chew and eat. This can cause an obstruction in the intestinal track. Use plain clay, sand or unscented litters. Perfumes can cause reactions in ferrets or just make them not wish to use the litterbox.


Ferrets can catch and give the common human cold. Plenty of rest and water is the cure, but sometimes a trip to the vet is needed to prevent the cold from becoming something else. Also keep ferrets out of extreme heat. Over 85 degrees and the ferret should be in shade with plenty of ventilation and water. If a ferret becomes dehydrated, mix Karo syrup, honey or Linatone with water and get that animal to drink and then to a vet. Ferrets can get heartworms from mosquitoes. Please house them indoors for fewer problems and healthier pets.

Ferrets are fun to watch. They like to play until they drop. Ferrets in pairs are as easy to take care of as one, but more fun to watch than a barrel of monkeys. They live between six and nine years and are lively the whole time. If a ferret becomes lethargic for more than a day, something is wrong. If you have any other questions, problems, or concerns, please call us. Enjoy your ferret(s). They can be the best of friends.


Pamela Grant
<STARferet@aol.com> (note spelling of "feret")


STAR*Ferrets (Shelters That Adopt & Rescue Ferrets) is a group organized to provide assistance and information to ferret shelters and rescue organizations, but they can also help anyone who'd like to know more about ferrets as pets. Their email address is <STARferet@aol.com>.

A one-year membership is very reasonable and includes a quarterly newsletter, the book Ferret Care and Rescue, and forms for caring for ferrets.

For more info on *Shelters That Adopt & Rescue Ferrets, and to receive a listing of ferret shelters, contacts, vets, supplies, clubs, etc. in your state, send a long self addressed stamped envelope to

STAR* Ferrets
P. O. Box 1714
Springfield, VA 22151-0714

Back to Ferret Central
HTML by Pamela Greene <pamg@rice.edu>
Last modified 22 Mar 1995 (27 Feb 1998: changed email address)