Ferret Facts And Myths

Cute ferret

Image Credit: Tambako The Jaguar

Ferrets are considered to be among the cutest animals in the Northern Hemisphere but still bear the stigma of being dangerous creatures for the human’s health. These medium-sized mammals are on the list of the most lovable, special and exotic household companions in the U.S. Providing facts on their nature and behaviour not only increases the awareness but also promotes a more positive attitude. With the right knowledge people would come to appreciate the ferret’s unique characteristics. This article is dedicated to provide the most important information about the ambiguous creature.

Ferrets are domesticated meat-eaters. This species is the only tamed member of the Polecats family. Their close relatives are the wild black-footed ferret, skunk, the otter, mink, weasel, and European polecat.

The name of the little predator derives from a Latin word that means “thief”. It is with a reference of their natural curiosity and habits to steal sparkling items and hide them.

Ferret species have been living in captivity for more than 2000 years. For centuries, the domesticated carnivores were bred exclusively as hunting animals. These cute creatures had been promoted as household pets in the 20th century and soon gained a great popularity. Yet, there are ownership restrictions in California, New York, Washington, etc. due to suspected risks to human health.

Although the possession of a ferret pet is banned in some U.S states, they make wonderful interactive companions. In fact, the ferret is the third most popular pet in North America. Up to 7 million small carnivores are currently kept as animal companions in the U.S.

Some vet experts and experienced pet owners claim that these furry animals are not wild creatures anymore.  They do not have a hunting instinct and if they escape, they would not be able to survive. Other pet keepers share that ferrets will catch and chase other small animals as they recognise them as food.

Appearance and Physical Description

Ferrets feature an arrow-like head, long body, short legs and small ears.The form of the nose is a rounded-corner rectangle. Their round ears are in the upper back part of the head. The tail is straight and flexible. Its length is 1/3 of the length of the ferret’s figure. In a threatening situation their funny tail start vibrating. This companion mammal has long claws and pink padded feet.

The female weighs normally between 1-3 pounds and is 14-18 inches long (without the tail). The male is bigger – 15 inches long and weighs up to 6 pounds.

Ferrets have 40 pearly white and sharp teeth.  In their first 6-8 weeks, babies have “milk teeth”. As kits grow, their permanent teeth begin to come in.

One of the breed`s specific characteristics is the perfect sense of hearing and well developed hearing receptors. They have a higher hearing range than other animals such as dogs, cats and chinchillas. They are able to detect a sound source from a big distance. Newborns are not able to hear until they are about 4 weeks old but the hearing system develops quickly.  Some research on ferret behaviour found that these animals can hear better female human voices than male voices.

Fur

Ferret Pictures

Image Credit: The_Parasite (Flickr)

According to the American Ferret Association, when describing how ferrets look like “two terms are used: Colour and Pattern”. We describe the tint of the pet’s hair, undercoat, eyes, and nose with the term “colour”. We use the word “pattern” when talking about the hue distribution on the body.

Their coat can be tinted in a variety of colours such as black (sable), dark brown, silver and dark orange (blaze). Usually, the fur on their legs and tails features darker nuances. These glossy shine colours contrast beautifully with their white faces. In general,  the eye colour of the dark-coated animals is black.

Albinos come with almost white fur without pigment. They have ruby or dark burgundy eyes.  Their nose is beige or pink.

Rare specimens can have white paws. Another rear combination is a white ferret featuring dark eyes.

According to the patterns, white ferrets are divided into 3 groups. The first is called “blazed”. They feature a long white pattern starting from the forehead, between the ears, down the back of the neck and shoulders. This type has a white belly and feet. The Panda-like appearance means that white patterns should be present on the feet and the tip on the tail. Mitts form the third group of white ferrets. They also have specific head markings.

Ferrets change their fur twice a year – in spring and autumn. That way they prepare themselves for the upcoming climate change. On the threshold of a new season they also experience weight gain and loss. Unlike cat`s coat, the ferret fur do not require regular brushing but combing helps remove loose fur. That is an important grooming procedure since these furry pets can suffer from hairballs during shedding process.

According to the fur length, there are three types of ferrets. The angora or long haired individuals feature a 2 – 4 inches coat. Their noses look smaller because of the extra hair. Medium haired ferrets have a two-layered coat. They have a fur collar around their shoulders. Short haired animals have a soft and fine undercoat and a glossy top coat.

Breeding

The gestation period is six weeks. The female ferret may have up to 3 litters a year. The litter size is typically between 2 to 6 kits. They are born deaf with their eyes closed. The babies’s ‘milk’ teeth begin to erupt at 15 days of age. The youngsters become independent at the age of 3 months. Ferrets become sexually mature at the age of 6 months.

Personality

Experienced pet parents usually portray domestic ferrets as adorable, loving and very intelligent household companions.

Ferrets and Humans

Although these animals spend up to 18 hours sleeping, they adjust their daily routine to the schedule of their human keepers. It is an amazing fact that these animals are constantly eager to play with other ferrets or with people!  A ferret feels depressed if left alone for a long time.

Ferrets can inadvertently hurt small babies while playing with them. These animals are instinctively motivated by motions, and should not be given access to babies. Infants should never be left unsupervised with a ferret.

The little weasels can make wonderful friendship with children aged 3 years and more but supervision by an adult is needed. Kids have to be taught how to hold and care for such an energetic animal. On the other hand, ferrets also need to be taught what acceptable behaviour is.

Interaction with Other Animals

The domesticated ferrets are cheerful and get along well with animals, larger than them such as dogs. They often become friends with cats and dogs of a non-hunting breed, but introductions should be monitored. When introducing a medium carnivore mammal to a smaller living creature, supervision is needed. Ferret experts do not recommend an interaction with bunnies, chinchillas, hamsters and birds.

The carnivore mammals are social creatures. Two or more ferrets will have a great time playing with each other.  They need some privacy only in breeding season or if the female is pregnant.

Cat and Ferret

Image Credit: _schadenfreude

Health

With good care and caution, a domesticated ferret will never experience significant health problems. Domesticated ferrets need to be vaccinated regularly. As any other mammal, these fur balls should be examined by a veterinarian once a year.  Check their teeth for build-up or gum disease. Their ears require regular cleaning.

The biggest health issue is the canine distemper virus. It is very contagious and resilient virus. It is considered to be 100% fatal.  Many veterinarians recommend a rabies vaccination as well.

One of the most common health problems among ferrets is a viral diarrhea. This virus causes significant weight loss and dehydration.

Cataract may affect the eyes. It is a condition where the lens becomes opaque. To prevent this, choose a diet plan containing vitamins.

Sometimes ferrets pick up from the ground and eat hairballs, glass or plastic pieces. These harmful materials often remain in the stomach. That leads to loss of appetite, vomiting and dehydration. To prevent this, pet parents should give a hairball laxative once a week.

The little mammals are susceptible to flu viruses. The symptoms are watery eyes, loss of appetite and runny nose. Veterinarians recommend giving plenty of water and occasionally an aspirin.

Nutrition

Ferrets are natural carnivores. Their nutrition plan includes one third meat protein, one fifth fat and small quantities of carbohydrate. Sugary foods such as dry fruits, snacks and cereals are not recommended because they contribute to diseases.

Ferrets’ polecat ancestors used to eat mainly small live prey but the vast majority of the domesticated predators are fed cat`s food.

A proper diet is the best basis to ferret’s health care. A quality dry canned food is a good choice. Some pet parents purchase live prey such as mice to their small carnivores. They believe that this way they imitate ferret’s natural diet.

Black-footed Ferret

Running Black-footed Ferret. Image Credit: J. Michael Lockhart / USFWS

Running Black-footed Ferret. Image Credit: J. Michael Lockhart / USFWS

Black-footed ferrets are native to North America. This wild variation is an endangered species. It is believed that there are between 900 and 1,100 individuals born in the wild.

The black-footed ferret is a nocturnal creature. Compared to his domesticated cousin, he has shorter fur and larger years.  The appearance of the wild individuals features greater contrast between the colour of the animal’s body and lower limbs. As wild chinchillas, black-footed ferrets feature only one body colour – dark beige.

The wild polecat is a solitary animal and he lives in pairs only during breeding season.

Whether domesticated or wild, a ferret is an intriguing animal. Thanks to his engaging personality and cheerful nature this amazing creature can be easily socialized and trained.

Black footed ferret

Image Credit: USFWS Mountain-Prairie