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

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Choosing your First Ferret

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Choose Your Perfect Fuzzy Match

© Erika Matulich, Ph.D.

The big day is finally here: time to choose your pet ferret. If you visit a shelter, breeder, or pet store, you will usually be faced with many ferrets, and you can't take them all home! How can you pick out the best ferret for you? Your choice of ferret should depend on your experience level, where you are getting your ferret, the ferret himself, and your personal preferences. Here are some general guidelines.

First of all, new ferret owners should adopt older ferrets, not kits (baby ferrets). Kits are a challenging handful more suited to experienced ferret owners. A 2-year-old ferret is ideal for a first-time ferret owner. The best place to get a ferret this age is at a shelter.

If you are up to the demands of a kit (you'll have to train her not to nip or chew and teach her to use a litter box—no small task), they are available at breeders and pet stores. Make sure the dealer is not selling any kits less than 8 weeks of age. Early weaning can cause medical and behavioral problems in a ferret.

Shiny whiskers and ...
When selecting a ferret, good health is the first thing to look for. (Worry about size, gender, and fur color later.) A healthy ferret should have bright eyes of equal size (not runny or crusty), clean ears (no odor, wax, or ear mites), clean teeth (no tartar, chipped teeth, bad breath, or inflamed or swollen gums), and long, shiny whiskers (not broken or brittle).

A ferret's nose can be cold and wet or dry and warm—this is not a health indicator. Just make sure the nose is not running! The fur should be silky and soft, and the skin should be free of parasites, bumps, and red or flaky patches. Foot pads should not look dry or scaly, and nails should be trimmed and not split. Also, be sure the ferret can walk around with no limping, staggering, or wobbling.

Does the ferret have a vaccination record? Kits should have a series of three distemper shots (Fervac-D or Galaxy-D) by the time they are 4 months old and a rabies shot (IMRAB-3) by the time they are 6 months old. Adult ferrets should have had an annual rabies and distemper shot within the last year.

Along with these medical records (which you may need to license your ferret, depending on where you live), check to see if a health guarantee comes with your ferret. Some sellers offer such a guarantee to ensure that you have purchased a ferret free from illness or congenital defect (these guarantees do not cover illnesses later on in the ferret's life).

Check the environment
Another key to determining whether a ferret is healthy is to look at how the ferret has been cared for. Has she been provided with an appropriate cage, litter box, and bedding? Are these items clean? There should be no wood shavings in the ferret's environment, no clumping litter, and no dangerous toys.

Is adequate fresh food and water available? Is the food appropriate for ferrets? (I once rescued a malnourished ferret who had been eating dog biscuits and cereal, had no water or litter box, and had bleeding foot pads from being kept in a hamster cage with a wire floor). Has the ferret been kept indoors? Outdoor ferrets who have been exposed to heat or mosquitos can develop severe health problems.

A final word on health: Shelters may adopt out a “special needs” ferret to an experienced ferret owner who knows exactly how to care for that ferret. Even if you feel sorry for the ferret, avoid purchasing a ferret with special needs from a pet store if the ferret has had no veterinary evaluation. Some pet stores provide a guarantee, but you'll be heartbroken if you to have to return the pet (and these “defective” ferrets are often destroyed).

A winning personality
After making sure the ferrets you are choosing from are healthy, you should pay attention to personality. Is the ferret alert and interested in interacting with you? These are good signs. Try squeezing a squeaky toy to see if the ferret reacts (one who doesn't may be ill or deaf).

Try playing with the ferret. Does she want to cavort with you or cuddle? A ferret who always tries to get away when picked up or invited to play may not be the ferret for you. However, give yourself (and the ferret) plenty of time for interaction. It could be the ferret is tired or hungry, or even that she has to go to the bathroom.

Does the ferret playfully nip you in an invitation to play, or does he bite you hard and run in fear? How does the seller react to this situation? If the seller reacts to a nip or bite by physically punishing the ferret (slap or nose flick), go elsewhere. Ferrets don't respond well to physical discipline and may come to mistrust human beings.

There are not many personality differences between girl and boy ferrets, although some people say females are more active and males are more cuddly. I think it's really up to the ferret, because I've had plenty of cuddly females and active males. The major difference is size: Males are twice as large as females and will eat (and poop) more.

Spaying a female costs more than neutering a male, but in most cases, the ferret you get will already be fixed. (If the ferret is not fixed, make plans to do so before your pet is 6 months old. Unneutered male ferrets become very aggressive and smelly, and unspayed females can die if they are not bred when they go into heat.)

I hope these tips will help you to choose the ideal ferret—or ferrets—for you. Ferrets are about as irresistible as potato chips; it's true you can't take them all home, but you might have trouble getting out the door with just one!

Ferret colors and markings

Ferrets are most commonly a variation of brown colors (called sable). Albino ferrets—who have whitish yellow fur and red eyes—are also quite common.

Ferrets also come in a variety of markings. Those with the standard marking have a white face with a dark mask around the eyes (the mask gets more prominent in summer); the legs and tail are typically slightly darker than the body. “Mitt” ferrets—those with white feet and a white bib at the throat—are fairly common as well.

Blaze ferrets—those with a white stripe between the ears down to the nose—are also plentiful. In many (but not all) blazes, the white stripe is associated with Waardenburg syndrome, which typically results in deafness. For the same reason, panda ferrets (a genetic mutation in which the blaze's white “stripe” covers the entire head) are often deaf, too. Deaf ferrets pose potential behavioral and training problems.

Specialty ferrets include pandas and color-diluted ferrets such as silvers (salt-and-pepper), cinnamons (red-orange), and dark-eyed whites. There is also the rare and expensive long-coated angora ferret, imported from Sweden. Specialty ferrets don't have as much genetic diversity as other ferrets do and can experience more health problems.

Deafness and other genetic problems associated with certain types of ferrets could be decreased through responsible breeding. Unfortunately, not all breeders and distributors are responsible.

When you're looking for a healthy ferret, a rare coat should not be your first priority. (But if you're looking for a shelter ferret who needs a home, they come in all colors!) The color with the best genetic diversity is sable, followed by albino. Also, a sable mitt would be potentially healthier than a sable panda.