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

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The Maligned Ferret

Erika with Sweet Pea, Gizmo, Bobbin, & Critter
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Ferrets Don't Deserve the Bad Rap

© Erika Matulich, Ph.D.

When I introduce people to my pet ferrets, they sometimes ask questions that show how these wonderful pets have gotten a bad rap. Here's the truth about ferrets.

Aren't ferrets related to rats?
Descended from the Siberian or European polecat, ferrets are mammals but definitely not rodents. They are members of the weasel family and are related to minks, ermines, otters, skunks, badgers, and wolverines. (It's true that these wild cousins are likely to eat a rat.) The scientific name for the domestic ferret is Mustela putorius furo.

Aren't ferrets wild animals?
Unfortunately, when my friend Bill uttered this remark, Sweet Pea had the bad grace to puff up and hiss! I quickly explained that ferrets were first domesticated more than 2,000 years ago—before the cat. From the 12th through the 14th century, ferrets were favored pets of the English nobility. The American domesticated ferret exists only in people's homes—there are no feral (wild) colonies of domesticated ferrets in the United States. The American black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes) is a wild cousin of the domestic ferret and an endangered species. In fact, domestic ferrets have few survival instincts. If one were to escape outdoors, it would survive only a few days because ferrets have poor eyesight, reduced hunting instincts, and little fear.

Don't ferrets bite and spread rabies?
A ferret who has been raised and cared for properly is an affectionate, friendly pet. Ferrets respond well to a loving environment. Like all pets, they need to be gently taught acceptable behavior, as they can be "nippy" when young; this is a normal part of the growing-up process for any animal. Slapping or punishing your ferret for nipping usually leads to worse biting behavior. Some of my rescued ferrets (Flower, Rascal, and Thor, especially) were not socialized when they were young, or were abused by their former owners, and they bit. These ferrets were trained out of biting by an experienced ferret specialist—and lots of love. Rabies researchers have shown that ferrets are unlikely either to catch or spread rabies, and ferrets are statistically far less likely to bite than a dog, cat, rabbit, or even a human.

Aren't ferrets really smelly?
All animals have some kind of scent. A ferret's scent comes from oil glands under the skin. Once a ferret is neutered or spayed, the odor decreases dramatically (the difference is more obvious in male ferrets, because unaltered males have a stronger odor). You can also opt to have the anal glands removed, but scent glands are not a big contributor to odor. A healthy diet, clean ears and teeth, and surroundings (litter box, cage, and bedding) that are kept clean play a large role in odor control. Bathing your ferret every few months can help (more frequent bathing makes ferrets smell worse, as oil glands overreact to dry skin).

Do your ferrets keep you up all night?
My ferrets have spacious and comfortable cages but are confined only when I am away. When I am home, the ferrets are out and about—inside the house, of course. (Ferrets are heat-sensitive and don't tolerate temperatures higher than 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Also, a single mosquito bite can give a ferret heartworms, which are usually fatal. Therefore, ferrets should be kept indoors in a temperature-controlled environment.) Ferrets are highly intelligent animals and need lots of playtime and companionship to keep them happy and healthy.

Ferrets are naturally most active at dusk and dawn, but they adjust their activity schedule to that of their humans. My ferrets tend to play hard before breakfast and after dinner, but they also get up every few hours (night and day) to wander around, have a snack, take a potty break, get a drink of water, and find a new place to go back to sleep.

Aren't ferrets difficult pets?
Ferrets make ideal pets for many people, but they can be more challenging than cats or dogs. They are small and quiet and can be litter-box trained. They are playful and continue their kittenish antics throughout their lives. Ferrets are extremely curious and will get into things in your house. They enjoy swiping and hiding items (like car keys!), digging up plants, and chewing on rubbery stuff (like buttons on the remote!). Ferrets tend to be somewhat more expensive to care for than other pets, mostly because of special food and veterinary needs. They crave attention and need regular care of ears, teeth, and nails. Ferret ownership has unique obligations and considerations; ferrets make good pets but not for everyone. I find owning a ferret to be full of responsibilities, yet one of the most rewarding experiences in my life.