June 27, 2010

A ferret is an awfully cute little creature that resembles a weasel. Their scientific name, Mustela purorious furo literally means “little smelly thief.” That may well have been a deserving name for the domesticated ferret hunreds of years ago, but today most ferrets are descented and don’t smell too bad because they have had their scent glands removed. But they will steal things, hide them and even, to their detriment, eat them.

Well behind dogs and cats, ferrets are probably the next most popular pet that we see at Bees Ferry Veterinary Hospital, although rabbits are up there too. Ferrets make good apartment pets like hamsters and gerbils, but they seem to have a bit more intelligence and inquisitiveness. This makes them, if not more challenging, at least more fun for the pet owner.

Since most of us didn’t grow up with this type of animal, preparing to adopt a ferret requires a lot of planning and education, but here are some things to think about.

Ferrets are obligate carnivores, meaning they eat whole prey. When I was in school we thought that a ferret could live well on a diet made for cats, since they also require a lot of protein, but alas we have learned that the carbohydrates in the cat diets are really detrimental to ferrets (and maybe aren’t so good for cats either). Ferrets need a balanced raw carnivore diet. These can be found freeze-dried or frozen. Archetype Diet for ferrets by Wysong and Nature’s Variety raw or freeze dried diets are a couple of brands of ready-made food that fit the bill. If you decide to get a ferret, you must be really careful with your hygiene in the kitchen where you plan to prepare their meals because these raw meats can carry deadly bacteria, like salmonella, that could get into your food and make you very sick. It isn’t a much bigger deal than taking the precautions you do when handling a raw chicken, but you can’t let that hygiene slide. Ferrets don’t need treats, but if it satisfies your emotional needs to give your pets treats, then a ferret could benefit from bits of egg, raw liver or heart. Dried jerky treats like you can buy for dogs and cats work well too.

Ferrets need a cage to hang out in when they are un-supervised, but they should not be caged all 24 hours. They like to play intensly for an hour or less, but then they sleep soundly for several hours. They are instinctively nocturnal, but most ferrets will adapt to your play schedule, and you need to schedule that supervised play for at least 2 hours a day. This time does not need to be consecutive, it just needs to total 2 hours. And, the play area needs to be ferret proofed. Block up any tiny escape routes or use a “ferret play pen”. Protect carpet with heavy plastic like the kind you put under an office chair. Remove plants. And do not let a ferret near a recliner. They will burrow into the mechanism in no time and could easily be crushed if someone tries to put their feet up. Toys to have around would include ping-pong balls, feather cat toys or cloth baby toys. Avoid anyting latex or foam rubber because they will eat these materials. Not good.

I like the multi-level “condos” for ferret’s down-time, but not being natural climbers, they need gentle ramps to connect the shelves. They love to tunnel and hide, so towels, tubes hammocks are great things for them to have in their condo. Ferrets will use a litter box. They like corner boxes best, but you need to use the pelleted litter. Ferrets might eat clumping litter and this would cause a terrible obstruction in their stomach.

Ferrets love to be handled and played with. They have poor eyesight, so unlike cats, you cannot place them on a counter or couch because the could fall off. Also, it is a good idea not to hold them up to your nose if you don’t want a nip on the tip of your noggin. I seem to be guilty of doing this with every ferret I see. They are just so darn cute that I hold them up to my face for a nuzzle. One of these days I am going to get a chomp on the nose, but so far so good.

Ferrets do need some vaccinations, but they are very susceptible to vaccine reactions that can be life threatening. Therefore, your vet may want to watch your ferret for a while after his shot and he may be very particular about which vaccinations to recommend. Only the rabies vaccine is legally required, so if your ferret stays at home, that may be the only vaccination it needs.


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