|Like it or not, an assortment of aromas are involved when keeping ferrets. Here are some tips on what they are, and what you may be able to do about them||
ODORS: LIVING WITH THEM AND LIVING WITHOUT THEM
One complaint of new or non-ferret owners is ferret smell. Remember that ALL animals, even humans, have their own unique smell. Mammals have musk glands that produce scented secretions which allow animals to identify and communicate with each other. Humans are used to the smells of some other animals, such as people, cats, and dogs; but to the uninitiated nose, natural ferret aroma may be an unusual surprise.
This article will focus on two parts of controlling ferret odors. First, we will examine how to manage odors from ferrets themselves. Next, we will look at keeping the environment around the ferret clean.
EAU De FERRET
Ferrets are born with anal scent sacs. They also have musk glands concentrated around their face and lightly spread throughout the rest of the body. The anal scent sacs do not contribute significantly to the smell of the ferret. The natural ferret odor comes from the other musk glands in the skin. Smelling a ferret face will give you the best idea of what the natural ferret aroma is. Some people love the natural ferret smell, describing it as a sweet musk, curry, or a corn-based smell (tortillas, corn chips, or popcorn). Other people dislike ferret aroma at first, describing it as skunky or otherwise unpleasant. As with any animal, it may take people awhile to get used to new smells. Note that each ferret will have an "individual" smell unique to that animal, and that smell varies by the age and health status of the ferret.
FIXING YOUR FERRET
The strongest contributor to ferret odor is not the scent sacs or glands, but the hormones. A whole (unfixed) ferret will have a much stronger odor than spayed or neutered ferrets. When whole males (hobs) come into breeding season, they can be positively stinky. Not only do they produce more musk during this time, but they will also groom themselves with urine to make them smell more "attractive" to ferret females.
The best way to reduce odor is to spay or neuter your ferret. "Altering" your ferret will take care of 90% of ferret odor. Most pet store ferrets are already fixed because major pet store suppliers routinely spay and neuter ferrets at six weeks before they are shipped to the pet store. You may receive a certificate from the pet store indicating your ferret is fixed. However, with mass-production surgeries at a young age, it is possible to "miss" a few things. If your "fixed" ferret has an unusually strong odor, particularly at sexual maturity (around six months of age), the neuter or spay may be incomplete. Male ferrets may have retained testicles that should be surgically removed. Female ferrets may still have ovaries or other hormone-producing tissue. Contact an experienced ferret veterinarian to investigate this possibility. Ultrasound may be able to detect an incomplete fix.
If you own a whole ferret, most ferret experts recommend spaying or neutering around five to seven months of age. Ferrets can be fixed at any time after this as well; there is no problem with neutering or spaying an older ferret. However, it takes about 30 days for the hormones (and the smell) to calm down after the ferret has been altered, so you must be patient.
TO DESCENT OR NOT TO DESCENT?
In the United States, most pet-store ferrets are routinely descented at the same time they are altered. In many European countries, descenting is illegal and is considered mutilation. If your ferret is already descented, that is fine. Deborah Kemmerer, DVM points out that a descented ferret will not be at risk for later anal sac infections or even cancerous tumors. On the other hand, Susan Brown, DVM warns that there is the danger in kits of rectal prolapse due to damage to the sphincter muscles around the anus when the anal glands are removed. Mike Dutton, DVM also points out that the descenting surgery is delicate, and it is common for some anal sac tissue to be left behind if ferrets are descented at an early age. Just because your buy a ferret kit that is supposed to be descented does not mean you will get one. Although anal sacs do not regrow, the leftover tissue will start producing odors. If this is the case, you must have your ferret re-descented. The leftover tissue can cause serious infections if left intact.
If your ferret has not been descented, you will most likely have no need to do so. Descenting a ferret has no significant impact on overall body odor. A ferret with intact anal sacs does, however, retain the ability to "poof" or "blow bombs" which means releasing some musk from these anal sacs. Ferrets cannot spray like a skunk, and unlike a skunk musk, ferret poofs dissipate within a few minutes. This natural defense mechanism will assert itself if your ferret is hurt or suddenly frightened. Additionally, ill ferrets with intact anal sacs will smell worse because they may not groom themselves, so the odor is an excellent indicator of a health problem.
Undescented ferret kits may poof while at play or when waking up. Some "leak" while asleep and dreaming. Others may seem to poof for no reason at all. Generally, this behavior subsides by one year of age. There are two reasons that you may elect to have a ferret descented. The first is medical, and the second is behavioral. Undescented ferrets may have a problem with impacted anal glands or recurring anal gland infections. In these cases, the anal sacs must be removed. There are also some ferrets who blow bombs constantly or seem to have no control over their anal sacs, even when they are mature and fixed. If your ferret is unbearable to live with because of this behavior, you may need to descent your ferret.
According to Karen Purcell, DVM, the risks of descenting surgery include death from anesthesia reaction (rare); incontinence, either temporary or permanent, from the procedure (possible); and small retained pieces of the glands that can lead to infection/abscess/problems down the line (common). It is extremely important that your veterinarian is experienced with this procedure, and has had a good success rate. I know of ferrets who have had multiple surgeries due to poor descenting technique the first few times.
Many new ferret owners bathe their ferrets as often as possible in an effort to reduce odor. Unfortunately, if you bathe your ferret too frequently, it will actually smell worse. Bathing strips the ferret’s skin and fur of essential oils, and "dries the ferret out." Dry skin is itchy skin, which is uncomfortable for your ferret. Additionally, skin that cracks from dryness allows infections to enter the body. Dry fur becomes brittle, dull, and porous. All this dryness causes the ferret to overcompensate by producing extra musky oils that are absorbed and stored by the porous fur, which only results in a smellier ferret. Bathing your ferret as often as every two weeks can cause skin and odor problems. Many experienced ferret owners advocate bathing only when necessary (such as when your ferret digs up a plant or plays in fireplace ashes), or during coat changes (twice a year). Others bathe their ferrets every two or three months.
Use shampoos that are designed to be safe on ferrets or kittens. Do not use human shampoos or dishsoaps; the ph-balance is incorrect for ferrets. Shampoos with added scents should also be avoided because these perfumes may cause allergic reactions or respiratory upsets in your ferret. Make sure you rinse your ferret thoroughly (or twice!) so there is no evidence of soap left. You can use a conditioner (again, designed for ferrets or kittens), but make sure it is also completely rinsed out. Do not use leave-in conditioners on a ferret. A few drops of baby oil in a sinkful of water can be used as a final rinse. Many ferret owners advocate putting a teaspoonful of apple-cider vinegar (NOT white vinegar) in a sinkful of rinse water. This helps restore the natural ph-balance of the skin and leaves a clean scent.
A common contributor to strong ferret odors is dirty ears. Ferret ears produce a significant amount of wax, which can be odor producing. You should clean your ferret’s ears every few weeks. If your ferret’s ears have a particularly strong odor, and the wax is almost black, your ferret may have earmites.
To clean your ferret’s ears, moisten a cotton swab with an ear-cleaning solution (such as Oti-Clens) or miticide (such as Nolvamite) designed for kittens or rabbits. Gently wipe the swab through the crevices of the outer ear. Ferret ears have many folds and pockets in their outer ear, and it may take several swabs to remove all the debris. Only clean the part of the ear you can see! Do not push the cotton swab into the ear canal, even if you see wax in the canal. Ferrets generally dislike this procedure, and they may need a distraction of a ferret treat, or require a second person to hold the ferret.
If your ferret has bad breath that seems unrelated to diet, your ferret could have dental problems. Ferret teeth should be brushed regularly with a special pet toothbrush and pet toothpaste. If this is not done, tartar can quickly build up. Tartar by itself can be smelly, but long-term tartar buildups can cause serious gum and tooth infections. Infections and abcesses cause bad breath, as well as some kidney diseases. Your ferret veterinarian can diagnose kidney problems, infections, or dental problems.
ODOR-CONTROL PRODUCTS FOR YOUR FERRET
Never spray your ferret directly with human perfume, cologne, or air fresheners in attempt to mask odors. These products can damage skin and fur, cause allergic reactions, exacerbate respiratory problems, and damage mucous membranes in the eyes, nose, and mouth. There are many spray products marketed specifically for ferrets or other pets. These are not necessarily a good solution, especially if alcohol-based. Look for products that neutralize odors, not cover them, such as Ferret Kleen. The point is not to mask odors with a stronger, alternative scent, but to reduce these odors by attacking the smells themselves. Some people sprinkle a little baby powder on their ferret’s backs and brush it into their fur. This solution should not be used regularly, because baby powder dries out the skin and causes respiratory problems.
The best ways to control odors is to fix your ferret, be sure it is in good health and properly groomed, and keep the ferret’s environment clean. Let us turn now to aspects of the ferret environment that can be managed to control ferret smell.
Cages made out of wood will absorb ferret odors, both from body oils and urine, and the smell cannot be removed. Be sure your cage is made out of washable materials, such as plastic or coated wire. Non-coated wire may rust, and the rust will also trap odors. Items in the cage should also be washable or disposable. For example, if your ferret sleeps in a cardboard box, replace it with a new one every month. If there are plastic playtubes or balls in the cage, run them through the dishwasher. Line cage floors with linoleum that can be wiped clean, or put washable bath mats on the floor. Carpet is not such a good alternative, as it will quickly absorb ferret smells and is difficult to clean.
Note that many cleaners such as Lysol, Fantastic, and Pine Sol are poisonous to ferrets. Avoid these, as many ferrets find the smell of soaps and cleaners attractive and will lick the residue. Even small amounts can be fatal. A weak bleach solution (2%) is the best cleaner and deodorizer for a ferret cage.
Animal waste causes odors. You can control the both the strength of the smell and the amount of the waste with a proper diet. Ferrets fed a poor-quality diet will let you know, both in their general health, and also in their eliminations. Preservatives, artificial colors and flavors, and low-quality fats (such as beef tallow) will produce extra-stinky eliminations. Foods high in vegetable fiber, cereal grains, water, and other fillers will result in unnecessarily large stool volumes, as the ferret has to eat much more food to get adequate nutrition.
Ferrets should eat a dry food that is low in fiber and high in fats and meat-based protein. Look for a food that is a minimum of 32% protein and 18% fat, and a maximum of 3% fiber. The first ingredient should be some sort of meat (usually poultry), and the other ingredients should not have too many grain products. Avoid dyes and preservatives as well. Do not feed your ferret canned food (unless they are ill), or dog food of any sort.
Keeping the litterbox clean will significantly reduce odors. Clean the solid waste from a litterbox at least twice a day -- morning and evening. Completely change out all litter at least once per week. These guidelines apply to one or two ferrets using one litterbox in a cage. For more ferrets, more frequent cleanings will be necessary to keep down odors.
Different kinds of litter perform differently at absorbing moisture and controlling odors. Never use cedar chips or shavings in the litterbox (or anywhere else in the cage). Cedar has strong oils that cause respiratory problems in ferrets. In fact, most wood shavings and chips carry aromatic oils that are problematic for ferrets. In any case, shavings do not make the best litter because they do not do a very good job of absorbing either moisture or odors compared to other available litters.
Most ferret owners recommend some sort of pelleted litter. Alfalfa pellets (rabbit food) is highly absorbent and inexpensive. A safe wood-based alternative is wood pellets. These are compressed pellets that have had the dangerous aromatic oils removed. These wood pellets absorb much liquid and help control odors. Products include Pine Fresh, Feline Pine, and All Pet Pine. My personal favorite is Gentle Touch, which is a compressed aspenwood pellet. Aspen is the safest wood for ferrets, and these pellets do a superior job of controlling odors. A less expensive alternative is Stove Chow, available in hardware stores that supply wood stoves.
Other pellets that can be used as litter are made out of recycled newspaper. Yesterday’s News and Nature’s Fresh do a good job of absorbing moisture. Newspaper pellets may not do as good a job of controlling odors, but they are often less expensive than wood pellets and are more economical for frequent litterbox changes. Another plus is that these pellets are often flushable. Check less expensive brands of recycled pelleted newspaper carefully; some may have bits of plastic and rubber mixed in, which could cause intestinal blockages.
One other type of litter that could be problematic for some ferrets is corn cob pellets. These inexpensive ground corn cobs do an adequate job of controlling odors, but have caused serious intestinal blockages in ferrets that accidentally ate the pieces. Oat hulls are another inexpensive source of litter, but be careful of dust levels, especially for litter-burrowing ferrets. A brand new alternative on the market is Citra-Fresh litter, an all-natural citrus litter derived from orange peels. The litter does a great job of absorbing both moisture and odors.
Traditional clay litters can also be used for ferrets, but also have drawbacks, such as being quite dusty. The clay litters that promise additional odor control are often heavily perfumed and cause respiratory problems for ferrets. Never use a clumping litter. Although clumping litters may allow you to clean litterboxes more easily and completely, thus reducing smells, these litters can be fatal to ferrets. Ferrets can either get intestinal blockages, urinary tract infections, or fatal lung conditions. Remember that these particles expand under damp conditions, so if a ferret breathes in some clumping litter particles, the results can be disastrous.
One of the most effective ways to keep your ferret smelling fresh is to keep the ferret’s bedding clean. Frequent laundering of hammocks, sleep sacks, snuggle tubes, cage mats, or rugs will do a great job of keeping odors down. Don’t be tempted to buy a nifty ferret bed or tent unless you can wash it. Your ferret will appreciate freshly laundered items. However, don’t use strongly perfumed detergents or fabric softeners, which may cause allergic skin reactions or respiratory problems. Soaps that are free of dyes and perfumes are preferable for ferret laundry. The goal is to have ferret bedding that does not smell at all, instead of ferret bedding that smells like soap or special scents. Do your ferret laundry at least once a week, depending on the number of ferrets you have concentrated on the bedding.
AIR FRESHENERS, FILTERS, and CLEANERS
In general, air fresheners should not be used around ferrets. Many ferrets are allergic to spray propellants and heavy perfumes. Stick-on and plug-in deodorizers can be fatal to your ferret if ingested. Scented candles may be a good alternative when company is about to arrive. Keep candle flames away from ferrets! There are some odor neutralizing fluids, such as Odo-Ban, that can be effective in neutralizing odors on floors or carpets. Avoid using carpet powders, as these cause lung diseases and footpad rashes.
Although air filters can help reduce allergies in both humans and ferrets (especially HEPA-filters), they are not particularly effective against odors. To neutralize odors, ionizers can be effective. Although expensive, the unit I have seen most often in ferret shelters and multiple-ferret households with many ferrets is the Alpine XL-15S ( This unit effectively reduces odors by sensing levels and emitting ozonated ions by radio wave.)
A happy owner results in a happy ferret. Keep those odors down by spaying or neutering your ferrets, cleaning their litterboxes, and doing their laundry. You probably do not need to descent your ferret. A proper diet, clean ears and teeth, good health, and an occasional bath can also help keep your ferret and your home smelling fresh.