ABSTRACT: The ferret is a very misunderstood animal. Many people are under the impression that ferrets are vicious and evil-smelling when in actual fact they are delightful, intelligent, fun-loving and affectionate creatures. I have owned ferrets for many years and I am a firm believer that they make great pets if they are cared for correctly and properly understood. As an owner of three beautiful boys’. 'Sid', Johnny' and Ralph' (Figures 1. 2 & 3), I thought it was about time I shared my knowledge of these wonderful animals, which will hopefully help you when advising your clients in practice.

Figures 1, 2 & 3: Sid, Johnny and Ralph

The ferret (Mustela putorius furo) is thought to be a domestication of the European polecat (Mustela putorius). The word ferret comes from the Latin word ‘furo’, meaning thief-like and ‘putorius’ meaning smelly. Ferrets are related to the otter, weasel, mink, badger and skunk.

In 3000 BC, ferrets were domesticated by the Egyptians. By the Middle Ages, the ferret was well-established as a domestic animal and was later transported to North America by European colonists to be used for rodent control. Ferrets were released in barns or granaries to chase rats out of hiding places. In England and some European countries, ferrets are still being used for hunting purposes today, although this is illegal in the US.

Understanding ferrets

Most ferrets prefer to have the company of humans and their own kind, whereas wild polecats are solitary animals. Ferrets are curious and approach most situations with little fear, unlike polecats which are shy. Ferrets are extremely single-minded in their approach to life and if they want to do something, they will. So trying to persuade them not to dig up your best plants or scratch your furniture can be an uphill struggle!

Figure 4: Ferrets love to dig!

Ferrets display some interesting characteristics.

   Always expect the unexpected with a ferret – it has been said that ferrets cannot climb or jump – well mine definitely do both very well!

   A really excited ferret appears to ‘dance’ – moving sideways, jumping, twisting, with its mouth open, making a chuckling noise known a ‘chooking’

   meaning your ferret is happy!

   A high-pitched chattering can indicate pain – this can occur during rough play with another ferret.

   A soft hissing is a warning that the ferret is unhappy with the situation and wishes to be left alone.

There are small scent glands all over ferrets’ bodies, which give them a musky smell that many people find repulsive. This certainly becomes less noticeable when they are neutered. Ferrets do have anal glands but only tend to ‘spray’ when frightened or attacked.

Ferrets sleep a large part of the day, commonly around 18 hours. They naturally tend to be active at dawn and dusk, but usually adapt their sleeping and active times to fit the schedules of their owners. Ferrets have relatively poor eyesight but a keen sense of smell and hearing.

Ferrets as pets

A well-kept ferret can live between eight to 10 years, with a few reaching 12 years; so a great deal of commitment and care is required.

A male ferret is called a ‘hob’, a female a ‘jill’ and a youngster a ‘kit’. A hobblet is a vasectomised hob; a hobble is a castrated hob.

The hob can reach 62cm in length whilst the jill can be much smaller – 35cm, nearly half of the length comprises the tail. Adult weight can be between 400g and 2kg, with both sexes displaying seasonal weight variations.

An entire hob has a much stronger odour than the jill, especially during the breeding season. For hobs this begins in December and runs through until June. Sexual maturity is reached by six to eight months of age. During this time, the hob will become aggressive to other males and will start dragging females around by their neck. The hob should be housed separately during this period.

These problems can be solved by having the hob castrated from six months of age. Jills will remain in season from spring until autumn, unless they are mated or by the use of a hobblet. Jills left in season can develop aplastic anaemia which is usually fatal. If the jill is not going to be used for breeding, she should be spayed at six months of age.

The gestation period is 42 days. When kits are born they are blind, hairless and deaf with a pinkish red skin colour. Their eyes open on the 27th day. At four weeks of age, weaning can be started by teaching the kits to drink from a dish. Kits’ canine teeth grow in when they're seven weeks old.

Ferrets form strong bonds with each other. It is best to have at least two ferrets living together as they will entertain each other when you’re not around.

Very young children and ferrets are not a good combination. Young children cannot always recognise the warning signs when an animal has had enough; resulting in the ferret biting a child.

Older children – 10 years or above – can be introduced to ferrets as pets; under adult supervision, for the sake of the ferret as well as the child. Children have a tendency to be rough with animals and whilst a puppy or rabbit may tolerate this to a large extent, a ferret is less willing to do so!

Never let a ferret loose with ‘small furries’ or birds as these are prey animals to the ferret and will probably be killed.

Despite much of the ferret’s killing ability being diluted in the domestic form, it will still become excited and ‘play-maul’ such pets.

On the other hand, dogs and cats in the household could badly maul, if not kill, your ferret. However, when ferrets, dogs and cats are introduced gradually they can become close companions.

Ferrets can change their colour and markings throughout their life. Some may change their markings with the seasons and once they reach maturity some may develop a yellowish tinge to the coat – look at Johnny, for example (Figure 2).

Ferrets come in a wide variety of colours and the following are some of the main classifications:

Sable/Polecat -the most common coloured ferret. The sable ferret has mostly raccoon-like colourings with a mask on the face, dark paws and tail. There can be lighter and darker sables depending on how dark the ‘under fur’ is. The hairs on top, also known as the guard hairs, are normally darker and they are what give the ferret the raccoon look, for example look at Sid and Ralph (Figures 1,3 & 5). Silver-mitt – white feet and can have white bibs/throat flashes and a pale face.

Figure 5: Sable ferrets

Silver/Sterling silver – pale-coated with darker tips to each hair; dark eyes –   light silver to colour of gun metal. Sandy/Butterscotch/Cinnamon – pale gold to deep red with eyes dark to red.

Albino – pale coat pure white to cream and red eyes.

Black-eyed whites also known as the ‘onyx-eyed white’ – have a predominantly white coat, like Johnny (Figures 2 & 6); although sometimes they may have a few black hairs on their back and tail.

Figure 6: Black-eyed ferret

Choosing a ferret

Ideally the kits should be 12 weeks old before leaving their mother. The kits are weaned at six to 10 weeks old, but leaving them an extra few weeks with their mother can help build their confidence. A good healthy kit will be full of life, with a shiny coat and bright eyes.

Ferret housing

It is important that any housing for ferrets is escape-proof and easy to clean. The cage must provide a litter area, a feeding area and a separate sleeping area (Figure 7). It is acceptable for a ferret or two ferrets that are happy living in the same area together to be housed in a very large rabbit hutch; provided that they are given the opportunity to exercise by walking on a lead or allowed access to a large room in the house.

Figure 7: Cages must provide a litter area, a feeding area and a separate sleeping area

For indoor ferrets a large rat cage, a tall chinchilla cage, or a cage specifically made for ferrets can be used. Make sure that the wire is welded on the cage and that the spaces in the mesh are too small to allow your ferret to escape. All my ferrets are housed outside in large hutches, the bigger the better, with daily access to the garage for playtime and walks around the garden and canal.


Ferrets are carnivores by nature. Up until recently, they have been ted on cat or dog dry foods, but nowadays specific ferret foods are available.

Ferrets require a diet that is high in protein (34 -36%) and which contains about 20 per cent fat. The source of the protein should be animal protein – vegetable protein is indigestible and not adequate to meet the needs of a ferrets metabolism. Treats such as apples, raw eggs, raisins and bananas can be given sparingly and are a great incentive for training purposes.

Common diseases

Common conditions of ferrets include diarrhoea, intestinal foreign bodies, parasites, heart disease, various kinds of cancer and canine distemper.

Several conditions can result in diarrhoea, viruses being an increasingly common cause. Helicobacter musteli is a spirochete-type of bacterium that causes ulcers and diarrhoea in ferrets; similar spirochetes cause stomach ulcers in people and dogs, although there is no evidence of infection being passed from human to ferret or vice-versa.

Proliferative colitis is caused by a Campylobacter bacterium and is treated with antibiotics.

Being curious creatures, ferrets commonly investigate, chew, and swallow many objects; so intestinal foreign bodies are a common problem in ferrets, especially those less than one year old. Common signs are lack of appetite, vomiting, and lethargy. Vomiting of a severe, projectile nature is suggestive of a complete obstruction.

External parasites, such as fleas, ticks, mange, and ear mites, can infect ferrets. Regular use of amidocloprid and moxidectin (Advocate for Small Cats & Ferrets, Bayer Animal Health) for is advised.

Heart disease is becoming more common. Typically seen in older animals, the ferret loses weight and becomes lethargic, although coughing or breathing problems are unusual.

Ferrets develop cancer quite readily and early in life, so every ferret aged five years and older should have an annual geriatric screening. There are several types of cancers commonly seen, including insulinoma, adrenal gland tumours (often seen in conjunction with the insulinoma) and lymphosarcoma (cancer of the lymph nodes and lymphocytic white blood cells).


Canine distemper is fatal to a ferret and results in a slow and painful death. An initial dose of distemper vaccine can be administered from six to eight weeks of age, with a booster injection given at 11 to 12 weeks and 14 to 16 weeks of age. A 16-week-old ferret with no known vaccination history will only require two injections given three to four weeks apart.

Finally, don’t forget that pet ferrets can now enter or re-enter the UK without quarantine under PETS in the same way as dogs and cats, provided all the regulations are carefully followed. There are no rabies vaccines currently licensed in the UK for use in ferrets.

However, the three rabies vaccines available for use in dogs and cats (Nobivac Rabies, Intervet; Rabisin, Merial and Quantum Rabies, Pfizer) have been used successfully in ferrets. A single primary dose is given from three months of age and then annual boosters. 

Further information

National Ferret Day is run in May every year and is an ideal opportunity to raise awareness of ferrets.

There is a Ferret Education & Research Trust, www.ferrettrust.org, and the Caring tor your ferret booklet available from the BVA's Animal Welfare Foundation contains a deal of useful information, www.bva-awf.org uk/resources/leaflets


Kerry Brennand

DipAVN (Surgical) RVN A1 Cert SAN MBVNA

Kerry Brennand qualified as a veterinary nurse in 1999, gaining her Small Animal Nutritional Certificate in 2002. She became an A1 Assessor in 2008 and was awarded a Diploma in Advanced Surgical Nursing in 2009. After working in various mixed, small animal, hospital and referral practices Kerry spent a year as a locum, and has now found a new challenge working as head nurse and clinical coach in a progressive small animal practice.

To cite this article use either

DOI: 10.1111/j.2045-0648.2011.00124.x or Veterinary Nursing Journal Vol 26 pp 4451-453.


Veterinary Nursing Journa
l • VOL 26 • December 2011 •