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

 Back to Article Index

Fixing Your Ferret (Spay/Neuter)

These articles and images are copyrighted and may not be reprinted, re-used, reposted, copied, or otherwise distributed without permission from the author.

You should not rely on the veterinary advice or information provided on this site for diagnosis or treatment of any specific situation. Always consult your own veterinarian for specific advice concerning the medical condition or treatment of your own pet or animal.

Fix Your Ferrets -- Their Health (and Your Happiness) Depends on It

© Erika Matulich, Ph.D.

Of course I think all ferrets are cute, but there is nothing quite so adorable as a baby ferret (called a kit). When I went to pick out Zodiac from her litter, I was absolutely entranced by each and every fuzzy youngster! Their darling paws, ultrafluffy baby fuzz, angelic little eyes, and delicate ears put together a captivating package. How could I just pick one? As I in turn picked up each baby ferret to inspect, Precious, the mommy ferret, patiently retrieved the kit and firmly returned the baby to the nest cage. She had to make many trips, because I kept wanting to see each kit over and over.

Wouldn't Zodiac's own babies, if I bred her, be equally adorable? I understand the temptation to think about breeding your ferret. But the truth is, ferrets who have been fixed—males and females—are happier, healthier pets. Let common sense prevail (as I did) and leave breeding to the experts. For Zodiac's health and my own sanity, I had Zodiac fixed as soon as she was old enough.

How old is old enough?
If you adopt a ferret from a shelter or get one at a pet store, your new pet will most likely be a gib (a neutered male) or a sprite (a spayed female). Pet stores often fix ferrets as early as 5 or 6 weeks of age, though some experts suggest that this "early alter" practice is partially responsible for certain health problems later in life, such as the development of adrenal disease.

Kits from breeders will typically be unaltered. Many breeders require buyers to sign a contract guaranteeing that the ferret will be fixed at 5 months or 6 months of age. Sometimes, in fact, the fix price is prepaid in the purchase, and you are given a certificate to give to the vet.

A ferret who hasn't been fixed is known as "whole" ferret. A whole female is called a jill, and a whole male is called a hob. If you get a hob, plan to have him fixed at about 6 months (or when the testes begin to develop). A jill should be fixed before she goes into her first heat; typically this happens the spring after her birth. (Flower was born in December, but when I rescued her in late March, she was already going into heat, so I had her spayed immediately.) If you notice any swelling of your female ferret's vulva, have her spayed right away. The further your jill is into the heat cycle, the more risky the surgery, so be observant!

The perils of being in heat
Letting your female go into heat is dangerous for her. Unlike humans and many other animals who produce eggs according to a biological clock, ferrets are "induced ovulators": When a female ferret goes into heat, her body is waiting to be bred by a male before it will produce eggs to be fertilized. When she is "bred" (either by a real whole male, by a vasectomized male, or artificially with injections of hormones), her body will produce eggs and she will either get pregnant or have a false pregnancy—all the symptoms but no kits.

Ferrets do not come out of heat on their own; they stay in heat until they are spayed, are bred, or die. Staying in heat for longer than a month causes severe health problems, including aplastic anemia and estrogen toxicity.

I once rescued a beautiful silver female—I named her Crystal—who had been in heat for two months and was already too sick to survive surgery. The veterinarian tried all the options available in this situation. First, we tried to breed her with a vasectomized (sterile) male ferret to see if this false breeding would cause her to ovulate and bring her out of heat. This is often an unreliable method, and Crystal did not respond, so the vet then gave her injections of hCG (a human hormone shot) to stimulate ovulation. Although this works for many ferrets, it did not work for Crystal.

As a last resort, the vet gave her a blood transfusion, fluid therapy, B-vitamin supplements, and antibiotics in an effort to stabilize her enough for surgery. Sadly, it was too late for Crystal; as with most ferrets in prolonged heat, she did not survive. Don't let this happen to your girls—get them fixed!

Avoid the rut
Whole male ferrets cycle through their breeding season by going into "rut." During this time, they mark territory with a mixture of slimy oils and urine, groom themselves with this same blend of "ferret cologne," and go through dramatic weight changes. These ferrets also suffer anxiety and stress. Rutting males can also be quite aggressive, even killing other male ferrets. Female ferrets and humans are attacked less often, but the danger exists.

When Thor showed up on my doorstep, he was a whole (and incredibly stinky) male. He tried to bite anything that moved, and drew plenty of blood from me and the vet who neutered him. Thor is now the sweetest ferret—he loves to cuddle and give kisses on the scars he left on my hand.

Further reasons for fixing
But fixing your ferrets doesn't just make for happier, healthier pets; it makes your life better, too. Hormonal activity is the strongest contributor to ferret odor. Ferrets have tiny musk glands scattered throughout their skin, with heavier concentrations in the face and legs. When ferrets (both male and female) are whole, hormones cause these musk glands to produce lots of smelly oil.

When I worked with whole ferrets at the Fort Worth Zoo, the ferrets were so greasy with musk, they made my hands sticky. Bathing them helped for only a few hours—and did nothing to brighten their yellowed fur, discolored by sebum. When I came home from my zoo volunteer work, my mother made me take off "those stinky ferret clothes" in the garage!

Fixing your ferret will reduce musk production by about 90 percent, because the skin glands shrink. It's actually the single biggest thing you can do to reduce ferret odor. Combine that fact with the serious health and behavioral problems whole ferrets are prone to, and the question of whether to fix your ferrets is a no-brainer!

Why not to breed your ferrets

Breeding ferrets is difficult, usually unprofitable, and best left to the experts. Also, keep in mind that there are many thousands of unwanted and abandoned ferrets in shelters who need good homes.

You should not attempt to breed ferrets unless you are already an experienced ferret owner and are prepared to spend lots of time and money on breeding. You'll need to have a close relationship with a veterinarian familiar with ferrets, because there are often complications during breeding and birth, and kit mortality rates are high.

If you are considering breeding ferrets, do plenty of research long before you start. Join a ferret club and a breeding association. Do some volunteer work at a shelter, and practice with other breeders in your area. In the meantime, be sure to get your pet ferrets fixed!