The Domestic Ferret



he domestic ferret is the most popular pet after dogs and cats in this country. Currently it is the pet that is growing the fastest in popularity in the United States. Ferrets are furry, fun loving, social mammals (Figure 1).  Many people have many preconceived notions about ferrets that are just plain wrong.  For example,

·         Ferrets are not wild animals

·         Ferrets are not mean and vicious

·         Ferrets are not bad around children.

·         Ferrets are not related to the wild Black Footed ferret found in the Western United States.

Brief History

Ferrets have been domesticated from the time of the Pharaohs in Egypt.  It is estimated that Egyptians had domesticated ferrets as long ago as 3,000 BC. Ferret images have been found in Egyptian tombs indicating that they were held in high esteem.

Since that ancient time, ferrets have been constant human companions. Muzzled ferrets have been used to chase rabbits out of their holes into waiting nets.  They were also frequently kept as “working” pets to hunt rats and mice. They were used extensively in the United States for this purpose well in the early 1900s.[1]

Ferrets came to their height of popularity during the Victorian Age in England around 1875 when Queen Victoria began giving them as gifts to visiting heads of state. She was so enamored with them that she commissioned special cages be built for them.[2]

Ferrets as Pets

In 1994 it was estimated that there were more than seven million ferrets in domestic households in the United States.[3] Ferrets are becoming one of the most popular pets because they have the same as well as different qualities of both cats and dogs.

·         They are more independent than dogs.

·         They are more playful than kittens and remain playful all their lives.

·         They are very quiet animals and do not make a lot of noise.

·         They do not have to be taken for 2:00 a.m. walks.

·         They are small, litter trainable, and extremely social.

·         They sleep 15 - 20 hours a day.

Depending upon the neutered status of the animal, ferrets go by a number of different names:

·         Kit - baby ferret

·         Jill - female ferret capable of breeding

·         Sprite - spayed female

·         Hob - male ferret capable of breeding

·         Gib - neutered male

·         Business - A group of ferrets

Ferret Odor

Ferrets (Mustela Furo) belong to the Mustelidae family.  This biological family contains skunks, wolverines, badgers, mink, ermine, and so forth.  A diagram of the Family Mustelidae can be seen in Figure 2.[4]  Since the ferret belongs to this family it is natural for it to have a musky odor.  This odor originates from scent glands that are located around its anus as well as around the ears.  Many ferrets that you find in pet stores have been descented.  This means that they cannot spray when frightened or angry. 

The only odor that remains comes from the scent glands around the head.  Many people still find this odor a bit strong and some bath their pets at least once a week to control the slight smell. Other pet owners do not find this odor offensive and rarely bathe their pets.  If you do decide to bath your ferret, it is generally not recommended to bath a ferret more than once a week, because this will deplete needed oils from their coat.



Ferret Personalities

Ferrets have very playful personalities and are extremely intelligent and problem-solving animals. Ferrets don’t know what the word moderation means when it comes to play.  They go “full tilt” until they get so tired that they “crash and burn.” Several terms related to ferret play are:

1.       Dooking - The “chirping” or noise that ferrets make.

2.       Weasel War Dance - The jumping around, going sideways or backwards when playing or wrestling.

3.       Ferret Speed Bump - A tired ferret lying flat on the floor (may also be waiting for an attack by another ferret).

When two ferrets get together, they usually have tremendous fun entertaining themselves.  They stage what look like fierce mock battles where, upon first glance by the uninitiated, they are trying to kill each other. Because of the thick skin around the “scruff” or neck area no harm is done.  As a matter of fact, the attacked ferret, when released, usually tries to jump the attacker.

An old pair of pants, an empty box with a hole cut in it, a section of dryer hose, or a piece of PVC pipe to explore can be used to keep a ferret entertained.  A box of toys dumped on the floor will also keep ferrets occupied.[5]

Ferret Thievery

Ferrets love to stash things in their “hidey hole”. This storage area may be under a piece of furniture or in a box.  They have been known to hide keys, shoes, toys, food, or anything else that strikes their fancy.[6] Ferrets, for some reason, really like socks. Many an owner that lets their ferrets in the bedroom has searched vainly for socks after getting up in the morning.

Ferret Housing

While some people give their ferrets free run of the house, it is usually recommended that ferrets be caged or at least confined to one room while no one is home.[7] Wire cages with multiple levels seem to be preferred by most ferrets.[8]

Ferrets are extremely inquisitive and fearless. They can easily get into trouble by getting trapped in an area that most humans would think inaccessible. The rule of thumb is that if their head can fit into something, then the body can follow.  This means that you must perform extensive “ferret-proofing” to make an area safe for ferrets.[9]  Some things that you can do to keep the ferret’s environment safe are:

1.       Get potted plants out of their reach.

2.       Cover up any small holes so that they cannot get behind appliances or around plumbing pipes.

3.       Cover receptacle openings with childproof caps.

4.       Place childproof latches on any cabinet doors that they may have access to.

Remember that ferrets are domestic household pets.  They should never be allowed out of the house without a harness and leash.  Do not use collars because a ferret can easily slip out of them.


Ferrets need a high protein diet. They have a very short digestive system (food goes through in about 3 hours) and cannot digest vegetable products.  High quality cat foods like Iams or food manufactured especially for ferrets like Totally Ferret is excellent for them. Ferrets typically like shaped pieces of food rather than pellets that are typically used in cat food.[10]

While many ferrets love dairy products like ice cream, this type of food gives them severe diarrhea (under some circumstances too much dairy or chocolate can even be fatal).  Treats that you can provide for your ferret include

raisins, banana, peanut butter, raw vegetables, or peeled grapes.[11]

Nail Care

Ferrets are burrowers.  This means that in their natural habitat, thousands of years ago, they were digging constantly.  This constant digging caused their front nails to grow quite quickly. While they no longer have the need to dig, their genes still “remember” the need to grow the front nails to perform this task.  This means that, from time to time, their nails will have to be trimmed. Because of their physiology, the front nails will typically be trimmed three times as often as the hind nails.

It is usually easiest to trim nails when the ferret’s attention is distracted using a treat like peanut butter, Nutrical vitamins, or ferretone (an amino acid supplement designed specifically for ferrets).

Veterinary Care

Ferrets, like cats and dogs, require rabies and distemper vaccinations. Distemper is 100% fatal for ferrets, so they must be vaccinated. A rabies vaccine, Imrab, especially designed for ferrets is available and should be used. A booster for rabies as well as a distemper shot should be administered to a ferret once a year.[12]

Ferrets can live for eight to eleven years.  They are considered to be geriatric at the age of three and, as such, should make a yearly visit to the vet.[13]  If a ferret is not having fun when it is out of the cage for a couple of days the vet should be called because something is probably wrong.

Ferrets can also catch the common cold as well as suffer from heat prostration at temperatures over 85 degrees. Therefore it is recommended that ferrets be kept indoors in cool locations during the summer months.[14]

Additional Information

Additional information about ferrets can be found in the Ferret FAQ compiled and edited by Pamela Greene. This FAQ contains a wealth of basic information about the care of Ferrets.  Another source of information is the Ferret Mailing List (FML) which is a list server devoted to the topics of ferrets and ferret care.  This list server appears daily and can be subscribed to at the E-mail address 

Works Cited

Armour, Martha. DVM. Interview by author. Bloomington, Illinois, 12 September 1997.

Bossart, L., and Eckart, T.L. “Domestic Ferret Fact Sheet.” []. 1996.

----. “An Introduction to Domestic Ferrets.” F.A.I.R. Ferret Adoption, Information and Rescue Society/Shelter. 1995

Grant, Pamela T. “About Ferrets.” [ 8080/users/pgreene/for-others/overview.html]. 1996

Grant, Pamela T. “Mini Book of Ferret Care.” The Ferrets of Pet Pals and S.T.A.R. * Ferrets (*Shelters That Adopt and Rescue).  1996.

Greene, Pamela, ed.  Ferret FAQ.” [ users/pgreene/faq/wholefaq.html]. 1996.

Jeans, Deborah. A Practical Guide to Ferret Care. Ferrets Inc., Miami, 1994.

Winsted, Wendy. M.D. FERRETS. Neptune City: T.F.H. Publications, Inc., 1989.


[1] Deborah Jeans, A Practical Guide to Ferret Care (Miami: Ferrets Inc., 1994), 8

[2] Ibid., 7.

[3] Ibid., 8.

[4] L. Bossart and T.L. Eckart, “Domestic Ferret Fact Sheet,” [], 1996

[5] Pamela Greene, “The Ferret FAQ,” ed. [ 8080/users/pgreene/faq/wholefaq.html], 1996, (5,6).

[6] Jeans, 11.

[7] “An Introduction to Domestic Ferrets,” (F.A.I.R. Ferret Adoption, Information and Rescue Society/Shelter), 1995, 6.

[8] Greene, (5,2).

[9] Ibid,., (6,1).

[10] Pamela Grant, “About Ferrets,” [ 8080/users/pgreene/for-others/overview.html], 1996.

[11] Wendy Winstead, M.D., Ferrets, (Neptune City: T.F.H. Publications Inc., 1989), 48-49.

[12] Grant, “About Ferrets.”

[13] Dr. Martha Armour, DVM, interview by author, Bloomington, Illinois, 12 September 1996.

[14] Pamela T. Grant, “Mini Book of Ferret Care,” (The Ferrets of Pet Pals and S.T.A.R. Ferrets (Shelters That Adopt and Rescue, 1996), 16, 18.