Legal Weasels: Ferret Legalities

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Keep yourself and your customers in "The Know" by staying current with the changing ferret laws.
by Erika Matulich, Ph.D.
Pet Product News
Volume 54, Number 1
January 2000
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Ferrets are not always legal to be kept as pets.  A a specialty pet retailer, it is imperative that you learn about legal issues impacting ferrets and other companion animals and how you can protect yourself and help your customers. Keep abreast of these important issues to benefit your store, customers, and their ferret friends.
Where Are Ferrets Legal?
Ferrets are legal in 48 of the United States and illegal statewide in California and Hawaii. Local laws (such as city or county) can choose to follow state guidelines, or can provide a stricter law. For this reason, many counties or cities in states where ferrets are legal have their own laws that may ban or restrict ferrets, such as New York City, Washington D.C., and Dallas, Texas.
Why Are Ferrets Illegal In Some Places?
Most laws that specifically prohibit ferrets are based on ignorance or misinformation. Lets explore these myths:
MYTH: Ferrets are Wild Animals! Not So!  Mustela putorius furo has been domesticated for thousands of years, possibly longer than the housecat! Records of albino household ferrets date back to early Greeks, around 450 BC. Furthermore, ferrets are recognized as domestic by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA 1996 Title 9). The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) and the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) also officially recognize ferrets as domestic companion animals.
MYTH: Ferrets are a Rabies Risk! The USDA approved the IMRAB-3 vaccine for ferrets in 1991. Different states have different rabies vaccination rules for ferrets (usually between 3 and 6 months). If you are selling ferret kits, you should inform the new ferret owner when the shot is needed. Even without a rabies shot, scientific studies and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) show that ferrets are unlikely to either catch or transmit rabies. In 1998, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) concluded that ferrets, in the slight possibility that they contract rabies, die within a few days. Therefore, a rabies quarantine policy was set for 10 days, just like cats and dogs.
MYTH: Ferrets Are Dangerous, Vicious Animals!  Ferrets have gained a bad reputation based on a few incidences widely reported in the media of ferret attacks on children. In every case, the ferret was severely abused. As with any animal, a ferret may bite when it is frightened or in pain.  However, studies by the CDC and AVMA show that humans are many times more likely to be bitten by a dog, cat, rabbit, snake, or human than a ferret. However, the ASPCA and the HSUS warn that "NO pet should be left unsupervised with a child."
MYTH: Feral Ferrets! Another fallacious argument is that if ferrets became legal everywhere, they could escape and establish feral populations that would destroy native wildlife and threaten farm production. Shannon Taylor, manager of the Creature Castle in Valrico, Florida laughed at the recent New York City ruling against ferrets: “There are so many crops for ferrets to destroy in New York City! Like a ferret would destroy a crop anyway!” Ms. Taylor adds that “Most ferrets sold in petstores are spayed or neutered (or should be), because if they’re not fixed, ferrets are smelly and experience health problems.”  There are NO feral ferret populations in North America. The endangered black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes) is the wild American cousin of the domestic pet ferret, but they can’t interbreed. Finally, domestic ferrets, because they have lived with man for so long, have lost many survival instincts. They don’t see well, have lost hunting instincts, and have little fear. Most pet ferrets survive only a few days in the wild, particularly in hot conditions.
What’s Your Status?
The above information shows that most arguments for declaring ferrets illegal are invalid. Shannon Taylor of Creature Castle says, “I never knew any actual, legitimate reason for ferrets to be illegal.” However, local codes remain on the books that you must be aware of. Start with the Department of Fish and Game to see if ferrets fall under their jurisdiction (indicating that ferrets have been declared as "wild"). Then get the complete animal control codes from the county or city where your petstore is located.
What Are The Levels Of Restriction?
Although every animal control code will vary, there are different restrictions you should look for so you can inform customers about the “rules.”
Ferrets Are Named Legal.  In this case, ferrets are specifically listed as a legal household pet. However, there are often other restrictions, such as ferrets needing licenses and/or rabies tags. A spay/neuter requirement is another possibility. In this case, be sure to give customers proof of this procedure. Some areas have leash laws (keep leashes and ferret harnesses in stock!). Finally, there may be a limit on the number of pets that can be kept in a single household.
Ferrets Are Not Mentioned In The Code.  In this case, ferrets are never mentioned in the animal control code, meaning ferrets are legal by default and are not subject to specific restrictions such as licensing, rabies tags, or permits. On the downside, the code is open to interpretation if a ferret in your store is implicated in a bite/scratch case. Some cities, even where ferrets are legal, automatically euthanize ferrets in a bite/scratch incidence.
Ferrets Are Not Permitted. In this case, ferrets are specifically mentioned in a list of non-permitted wild or exotic animals.  Sometimes there are loopholes for petstores and ferrets can be sold, but not owned as a pet in that city. Suzette Stidom, owner of S&S Exotic Animals Pet Shop in Houston, Texas, says that “to protect my store, I have a USDA license and a County license from Animal Control to carry exotics.”  That way, if ferrets are classified as exotics, they can still be sold. However, don’t let customers assume that because they buy ferret in your store it’s legal. Ms. Stidom emphasizes that even though ferrets are legal in Houston, if a customer is from outside the city limits (such as nearby Beaumont, where ferrets are illegal), “I always tell them to check their local laws.” Please inform customers of the status of ferrets in their city to protect yourself and your customer’s ferret.  Jacqueline Duncan, owner of All for Paws in Brooklyn, New York, says, “We had to stop carrying ferrets because of the new laws in New York. But we still carry all the supplies for ferrets, and people come in all the time walking around with ferrets on their shoulders.”
The efforts of ferret folk everywhere are slowly working to correct ferret misconceptions and change local and state laws. Progress is being made, but there have been some setbacks. Keep abreast of your local codes and become affiliated with a ferret organization that can help you with legal research and educational materials. Jacqueline Duncan of All for Paws says “there is no reason why ferrets should be illegal.” Someday domestic ferrets will be recognized everywhere as the wonderful pet they are!

How Can You Affect Ferret Laws?
Because ferrets are the third most popular companion animal in the United States, and ferret owners are more likely to spend money on ferret accessories, it is worthwhile to ensure that these profitable pets can be legally kept in your area. The key to changing ferret laws is to understand existing laws, educate people, and work to change laws. Start by examining the complete copy of the animal control code, and discuss the code with animal control and humane authorities. Then work to educate people, especially customers at your store, or visitors to your booth at a trade show. Get publicity by volunteering educational ferret seminars at elementary schools, city council meetings, animal control officer training courses, humane societies, and so on. If you wish to become proactive in changing a particular code in your city, become very familiar with the code, city council members, and the rules and procedures use to rewrite code. Work with as many other organizations that you can; don't try to change laws alone!