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

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Frequently Asked Questions About the Legal Status of Ferrets

© Erika Matulich, Ph.D.

Some common questions people have about ferrets (aside from “Aren't ferrets smelly?”) concern the legal status of ferrets as pets. This is an important issue for people who own ferrets and live where it is illegal to do so, and also for ferret lovers who work to protect ferret rights everywhere and for people who are considering adopting a ferret. Although, in my opinion, there are no valid reasons why ferrets should be banned, it is illegal to own them as pets in some places. Here are answers to some frequently asked questions about ferret laws and how they affect people and pets:

Why is it illegal to own ferrets in some places?
In my opinion, most laws that prohibit ferrets as pets are based on ignorance or misinformation. Several reasons are commonly given to explain why ferrets have been declared illegal. These include:
  • "Ferrets are wild animals." This is untrue; ferrets have been domesticated for thousands of years.
  • "There's no rabies shot for ferrets, so they'll spread this disease." In fact, IMRAB-3 has been USDA-approved for ferrets since 1991, and no human has ever contracted rabies from a ferret.
  • "Ferrets are dangerous, vicious biters." According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control, a ferret is thousands of times less likely to bite than a dog is.
  • "A feral ferret population could destroy the environment." There are no feral domestic ferret (Mustela putorius furo) populations in North America; the wild cousin to the domestic ferret, the black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes), is one of the most endangered species in the world.
Where is it illegal to own ferrets?
In the United States, as of the year 2000, ferrets are legal in 48 states. California and Hawaii have declared ferrets illegal in the entire state.

In general, local authorities (such as a city or county government) can choose to follow state guidelines, or can provide a stricter law, but cannot relax a law to be softer than a state law. This means individual cities within California and Hawaii cannot permit ferrets, but individual cities in the other 48 ferret-legal states can place further restrictions on ferrets.

Many counties and cities in states where ferrets are legal have their own laws banning or restricting ferrets. These cities include New York City and Dallas. In addition, ferrets are banned on most military bases.

It is important to have a complete, current copy of your local county or city animal control ordinance to determine the status of ferrets in your area. Even if they are legal, there may be ownership restrictions. Just because a ferret is sold in your city does not mean ferrets are legal to own as pets!

It's illegal to own ferrets where I live. How can I find a ferret vet?
Your best bet is other ferret owners—contact a local ferret club or ferret shelter for a referral. There are also state, national, and international listings of ferret vets, clubs, shelters, and contacts offered by STAR*Ferrets (P.O. Box 1832, Springfield, VA 22151-0832). You can access the Star*Ferrets databases through Ferret Central's Web site: www.ferretcentral.org.

You can also try visiting veterinarians and asking if they will see ferrets (with a phone call, a vet may not admit to treating illegal ferrets).

If ferrets are legal in your state but not in your city, it may be easiest to go to the next town.

Overall, veterinarians are more concerned with animal health care than with the laws. Just make sure your records are kept private!

It's illegal to own ferrets where I live. How can I protect my pets and myself?
Authorities must have a properly executed search warrant to enter your home to look for ferrets. The exception is if an officer saw you committing the offense (you were playing with your ferret in the yard, or the ferret was seen through the window). If you live in a place where ferrets are illegal (known as a ferret-free zone, or FFZ), be extremely careful and private with your ferrets.

Be prepared in case the authorities do show up. Have on hand the emergency numbers of a safe house or your local ferret club, shelter, or ferret-rescue organization so that you can contact them for a pickup. Also keep proof of current vaccinations, particularly rabies and distemper, on hand.

There are state, national, and international listings of ferret vets, clubs, shelters, and contacts offered by STAR*Ferrets (P.O. Box 1832, Springfield, VA 22151-0832). You can access the Star*Ferrets databases through Ferret Central's Web site: www.ferretcentral.org.

What will happen to my pets and me if I am caught keeping ferrets illegally?
Consequences vary depending on your location, the laws, and the law-enforcement authorities. You may be asked to get rid of your ferret; the authorities have the right to come to your home to enforce compliance, and most likely they will do so. You may also be fined. In a worst-case scenario, authorities can seize your ferrets and either send them out of the illegal area or even euthanize them.

Some authorities turn seized ferrets over to an organization such as the California Domestic Ferret Association (CDFA); others don't. (It's better if your ferrets are turned over to a group like CDFA, because it is easier for these groups than it is for the authorities to find a new home for the ferrets.)

If your ferrets are seized, you most likely will not have the opportunity to move them to a legal home later. In fact, the owner is often barred from even knowing where the ferrets are and is prohibited from contacting the new caretaker. This is to prevent retrieval back into an illegal zone. In California, if the ferrets are turned over to the CDFA or some other rescue organization, the owner has given up all rights to the ferret (which is best for the safety of the ferrets and for the legal protection of the owner).

What should I do if I am caught keeping ferrets illegally?
If an animal-control or a humane-society officer shows up on your doorstep and wants to enter your home to search for an illegal ferret, politely but firmly inform the officer that you need to see a properly executed search warrant to legally protect all parties. The warrant must have “probable cause” listed on it as the reason the search is being conducted. A valid search warrant can be obtained only from a judge or magistrate and must list your accuser.

Don't panic, slam the door in the officer's face, or get angry—any of these actions could become the probable cause. If the officer needs to leave to get a warrant, take the time to move your ferrets to a ferret-safe zone.

If all the warrant paperwork is in order and you have been found to be defying local laws, ask for a brief time period to move your ferrets to a ferret-legal zone to avoid confiscation. (You will need proof that the relocation is permanent.) If you know of no one in a ferret-legal zone who can take your pets, have the emergency numbers of your local ferret club, shelter, or ferret-rescue organization on hand, and contact them for a pickup. These organizations may also have rescue permits that allow them to transport ferrets.

If your ferrets are seized, ask for a written guarantee that they will not be euthanized, and request that a licensed vet experienced in the care of ferrets give them the proper medical attention. (In California, two ferrets who were seized died because they weren't given their daily insulinoma medication; the vet thought the medicine was vitamin drops.)

Provide proof of current vaccinations, particularly rabies and distemper, and refer the authorities to the current American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) guidelines, which recommend a 10-day quarantine for a bite/scratch incident; do this even if your ferrets are not accused of a bite or scratch, in case something happens at the facility where your ferrets will be held.

What efforts are being made to change ferret laws?
The key to changing the ferret laws is to understand the existing laws, educate people, and work in a focused way for change. Ferret rights organizations are working hard to legalize ferrets in places where they are illegal, and to change ferret euthanasia laws to quarantine requirements in places where ferrets are legal. Volunteers with ferret shelters ands: on the Web, at pet stores, in elementary schools, at city council meetings, at humane societies, with scouting organizations, and at training courses for animal-control officers.

If you want to help at the local level, become very familiar with the animal-control code for your city and county, the city council members, and the procedures for rewriting codes. Make sure you follow all the rules and procedures, or your case will be dismissed or ignored. Above all, don't become hostile or angry; this will not further the cause of ferrets. Work with as many other organizations as you can; don't try to change laws alone!

At the state level, California has several ferret-legalization organizations you can join, including Californians for Ferret Legalization and the California Domestic Ferret Association.