Ferret Friendly Facts and Advice by Erika Matulich, Ph.D.

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What Ferrets Eat (Anything!)

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Is There Anything a Ferret Won't Put in Her Mouth?

© Erika Matulich, Ph.D.

Puppies, kittens, human babies—they all go through the oral stage, during which they put anything and everything in their mouth. But ferrets seem never to get past the oral stage. Some of the things ferrets put in their mouth are just fine: They love to chow down on their food and will beg you for treats (which are OK to give in moderation). But a ferret owner must be vigilant, because these curious pets will also gobble any manner of household items.

Turkey baby food on Granny Smith apples
A ferret's diet should consist mostly of a high-quality, meat-based ferret food. Supplements like Linatone or Ferretone, which provide essential fatty acids, make a healthy treat when given in moderation. Ferrets also enjoy other treats but should get only limited quantities of fruits, vegetables, cereal-based products, and sweets.

Each of my ferrets has his or her own favorite treats. Misty enjoys mushrooms, and Sasha craves sugar snap peas. Slinky likes grapes, and the rest of the crew love raisins. Bear prefers dates, while Little Bear does back flips to get Kix cereal. Rascal begs for bananas, and Flower enjoys turkey baby food on Granny Smith apples. I have heard of other ferrets eating potatoes, carrots, crackers, lunch meat, peaches, pears, and even oysters.

But there are several dangers to look out for when giving treats. First, ferrets have difficulty digesting fiber and getting nutrition from nonmeat-based foods. Therefore, fruits and vegetables are "junk food" for a ferret, and a ferret who fills up on them will eat less of her nutritious ferret food. Treats should never make up more than 10 percent of a ferret's diet; five raisins a day is what I feed to each ferret—or five pieces of cereal, or a few peas.

Also, the sugar content in many treats can lead to dental problems, so if you feed sweets you'll have to brush your ferret's teeth more often. Never feed your ferret chocolate, black licorice, or onions—they are potentially toxic. Finally, some treats can cause a life-threatening intestinal blockage; never feed your ferret nuts, and give him only small chunks of raw fruits and vegetables.

Oh boy, rubber!
Even with a wonderful diet of ferret food and appropriate treats, ferrets still find the time to chew and swallow all sorts of other items. Rubbery items are ferret favorites. Sweet Pea once got on my desk and ate all the erasers off my pencils. My ferrets have also eaten the buttons off every remote control and telephone in the house. (You might think that, after years of dialing a telephone, I could dial without keypad numbers, but it's harder than you'd think!) They even find the rubbery feet on the bottom of computers, electronics, and small appliances.

Foam is another ferret favorite. Soft sofa stuffing. Styrofoam packing peanuts. If it's foam, they love it! I dread unpacking a box, because Morgan will steal the peanuts. (The newer, starch packing peanuts probably won't cause a blockage, but they're still not good for a ferret.)When I hear the telltale squeak that Styrofoam makes when chewed, I know I must find Morgan and pry the peanuts out of his mouth.

The dreaded foreign-body surgery
Unfortunately, rubber and foam items are not digestible and often lodge in the ferret's stomach, blocking the intestines. Ferrets rarely vomit these items back up, and even with regular doses of cat laxatives (Laxastat and Laxatone work best), the foreign body ("FB" in vet-speak) might not pass through. If your ferret is lethargic, has diarrhea or difficulty defecating, or has tried to vomit, she may have an intestinal blockage. If laxatives don't do the trick within a few hours, surgery is inevitable. If you suspect a blockage, take your ferret to the vet immediately for an X-ray. A ferret can die from an intestinal blockage. Also, even if the foreign body passes through, it can irritate or tear the stomach lining on its way out, causing a gastric ulcer.

I once had to rush Bobbin to the vet after she collapsed at my feet. The X-ray was not very revealing (small, soft items like bits of fabric or sponge often do not show up). So the vet flushed Bobbin's digestive track with barium, a chalky, bright-white liquid that coats the offending object and makes it appear highlighted in an X-ray. (A barium flush will also sometimes push the foreign body out.) Bobbin's flush did indeed reveal a blockage, and abdominal surgery turned up an entire leg of pantyhose! I was shocked that a ferret could swallow this—and even more surprised when the vet told me he had recently removed the long sleeve of a man's dress shirt from a ferret's stomach!

Daring dining
Little Bear once needed surgery for the removal of part of a shoe insole, and Bobbin—my repeat offender—has been hauled into the vet for eating these items: an elastic waistband; the drawstring from a pair of sweatpants; staples; and icicles from the Christmas tree. Massive amounts of Laxatone got some of these out; the rest required surgery.

Other veterinarians have removed the following items from ferrets: rubber feet from a phone answering machine; plumbing gaskets; a foam ear plug; paper clips; chunks of raw carrot; erasers; the fibrous end of an pea pod; a cherry pit; parts of rubber balls; balloon pieces; rubber bands; calculator keys; mousepad pieces; weatherstripping; carpet backing; Velcro; and parts of latex dog chew toys.

Always supervise your fuzzies when they roam the house, and provide plenty of ferret food and fresh water, plus a few treats. Keep your house carefully ferret-proofed—and your small or rubbery items out of reach!