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New to the world of ferrets? Let this article help dispel myths and help you learn the truth about ferrets!
by Erika Matulich, Ph.D. Ferrets USA
Volume 7, 2002 Annual
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It’s absolutely amazing how much misinformation exists about ferrets. Over the years, as I have introduced my pet ferrets to people, they tend to make what I might think are the silliest comments and ask the most ridiculous questions! Of course, it is my job to patiently educate these folks about ferrets, even though inside I am either mentally rolling my eyes in disbelief or laughing hysterically. Then I have to remember that when I was first introduced to ferrets, I asked the same crazy question! Let me tell you about some of the most common questions and comments I have received and how I answer them to correct the myths and misconceptions.
The first set of comments and questions have to do with people not really understanding what a ferret is. Although ferrets are relatively popular companion animals, many folks have never seen a real ferret and are surprised at its appearance. The Budweiser ferret, Nickelodeon’s I R Weasel, and other ferret/weasel portrayals do not do our cuddly critters justice!
“What is THAT? Is it a RAT?”
The scientific name for the domestic ferret is Mustela Putorius Furo. The domestic ferret descends from the Siberian or European polecat. Ferrets are mammals, but definitely not rodents! They are members of the weasel family and related to mink, ermine, otters, skunks, badgers, and wolverines. These wild cousins are likely to eat a rat, not be one! See their mouth? It looks more like a cat’s jaw and teeth than the buckteeth you would find on a rodent bunny or rat.
“Aren’t ferrets WILD animals? You should set them loose in the woods!”
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 thousands of years ago, possibly before the housecat! (It is a myth, however, that they were first domesticated in Egypt). In the 12th-14th centuries, ferrets were favored pets of English nobility. The American domesticated ferret only exists 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 should escape outdoors, it would only survive a few days because domesticated ferrets have very poor eyesight, don’t handle heat or dehydration well, have reduced hunting instincts, and have little fear of potentially dangerous hazards.
“I thought ferrets were illegal!”
Currently, ferrets are legal in 48 of the United States. The two states that have declared ferrets illegal in the entire state are California and Hawaii. In general, local laws (such as city or county) 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 can’t permit ferrets, but individual cities in the other 48 ferret-legal states can place further restrictions on ferrets. For this reason, many counties and cities in states where ferrets are legal have their own laws that may ban or restrict ferrets, such as Washington, DC and Dallas, Texas. 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 (number of ferrets, licenses, and vaccinations). Just because a ferret is sold in your city does not mean ferrets are legal to own as pets! My ferrets are legal because they are recognized as legal in my state, county, and city. I also have licenses for my ferrets, which can only be obtained from the county with proof of rabies vaccinations.
Another common set of comments is the misconception that ferrets are dangerous, vicious creatures. Many express fear of ferrets, as ferrets have often been unfairly portrayed in the media as killer creatures.
“Don’t ferrets bite and attack babies?”
A ferret that has been raised and cared for properly is an affectionate, friendly pet. Ferrets respond well to loving environments. As with any pet, they need to be gently taught acceptable behavior, as they can be "nippy" when young, but this is a normal part of the growing-up process of any animal. Slapping or punishing your ferret for nipping usually leads to worse biting behavior. Some of my rescue ferrets (Flower, Rascal and Thor especially) were not socialized when they were kits, 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. These rescues are unusual cases. Most ferrets are naturally friendly and may nip only as an invitation to play or a call for attention.
The media have sensationalized a few cases indicating that a ferret viciously attacked a baby or child. However, in all reported cases, the ferrets had suffered from extreme animal abuse (and in many cases, so had the baby). Yes, ferrets can nip, and on the tender skin of a baby or small child, this can be painful. Any pet, not just a ferret, has the potential to bite your child. Bite statistics from the Centers for Disease Control indicate that the severity of a ferret bite is far less than what can be inflicted by a cat, dog, or even another human child. Children and pets should always be supervised. Young children and babies may not have sufficient motor skills to control their physical encounters with a pet, and squeezing and hitting are common actions. A toddler grabbing and squeezing a dog will inflict much less harm than the same action on a ferret. A hurt ferret will try to run first, and defend themselves second, which may be a bite. So the supervision of a child and a pet is so they cannot hurt each other.
Get that thing away from me! I don’t want to catch rabies!”
Rabies researchers have shown that ferrets are unlikely to either catch or spread rabies.  In several scientific studies, lab ferrets were exposed to many different strains of rabies. Only a few ferrets actually wound up carrying rabies in their salivary glands (meaning they could infect a human with a bite), and all the ferrets that caught rabies died in just a few days. Ferrets are statistically far less likely to bite than a dog, cat, rabbit, or even a human, so getting rabies from a ferret is difficult. Additionally, most states and counties have ordinances that require rabies vaccinations for ferrets, so any ferret that receives regular veterinary care won’t harbor rabies. Finally, because ferrets are housed indoors, it is unlikely they would be exposed to rabies from a wild animal.
“I wouldn’t ever have a ferret because it would kill my cat.”
Ferrets have been accused of killing everything from cats to cows. Ferrets can get along quite well with both cats and dogs, provided that proper training has taken place to socialize the different pets. Ferrets love to play with cats and will even share a litterbox. Cats actually get quite tired of ferret antics and will often flee to safety when ferret play becomes too intense. Some dog breeds are more likely to harm or kill a ferret because they have been bred to have instincts to hunt small animals. Terriers, hunting dogs, or guard dogs may not be a good combination, although there are exceptions. Retrievers may do better.  Ferrets also have their own instinctive hunting behaviors, just like cats. Some ferret’s instincts are more developed than others. Like a cat, a ferret is likely to catch, play with, and possibly harm pet rodents (mice, rats, hamsters, chinchillas, gerbils, rabbits). Ferrets may also view your pet reptiles or insects as a tasty snack (snakes, lizards, turtles, spiders). And in general, ferrets and birds are not good combinations, either.
Many people wonder how in the world any sane human being could have a ferret as a pet. A number of ferret fables exist that make people think that ferrets are impossible to live with.
“Aren’t ferrets really difficult pets?”
Ferrets make ideal pets for many people, but can be more challenging than cats or dogs.  Ferrets are small, quiet, and can be litterbox trained. They are playful and keep their kitten-like antics throughout their lives. Ferrets are extremely curious and will "get into" things in your house. They enjoy swiping and hiding items (my car keys!), digging up plants, and chewing on rubbery stuff (buttons on my remote!). Ferrets tend to be somewhat more expensive than other pets, mostly due to special food and veterinary care needs. They crave attention, and need regular care of ears, teeth, and nails. Owning a ferret has unique obligations and considerations; ferrets make good pets, but not for everyone.  I find ferret ownership to be full of responsibilities, but one of the most rewarding experiences in my life.
“Aren’t ferrets really stinky?”
All animals have some kind of scent – cats, dogs, birds, and people. Why do you think marketers sell so much deodorant to humans? A ferret's scent comes from oil glands under the skin. Once a ferret is neutered, their odor decreases dramatically. You can also opt to have the anal glands removed, but these scent glands are not a big contributor to odor. A healthy diet, clean ears and teeth, and surroundings that are kept clean (litterbox, cage, and bedding) play a large role in odor control. Bathing every few months can help (more frequent bathing makes ferrets smell worse as oil glands overreact to dry skin). The natural ferret scent is unusual to people, and some may object to it. Humans have gotten used to people, cat, and dog smells, but the smell of a ferret may be unfamiliar. I personally prefer ferret scent over wet dog, cat litterbox, or sweaty husband!
“I’ve heard ferrets are really stupid and can’t be trained. They can’t even find their way back home if they get lost!”
Actually, ferrets are quite smart. It all depends on how you view a measure of intelligence. If you consider problem solving as intelligence, as many animal behaviorists do, then ferrets rank above cats and dogs, and into the range of small primates.  However, if you consider memory to be intelligence (few animal behaviorists do), then ferrets rank lower than dogs but above cats. Some people equate intelligence with communication. Dogs appear smart because they communicate with their voice, eyes, and other expressions that humans can understand. Ferrets, on the other hand, communicate with lots of scent, some body language, and only a few vocalizations. Ferrets aren’t dumb, they just do things differently. If anything, humans are dumb for not learning how to translate this different type of language.
It is true that most ferrets that escape and get “lost” are never found. However, ferrets have a strong sense of curiosity and are instinctively driven to “disperse” into other locations. Ferrets will continue to move on to anything that is more interesting than what they are dealing with in the present. Ferrets always want to be where they are not, and this makes an escaped ferret extremely difficult to find, regardless of intelligence. 
“Do your nocturnal ferrets keep you up all night?”
Ferrets are naturally most active at dusk and dawn, but adjust their activity schedule to yours. 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.
“Why don’t you keep your ferrets in a cage outside?”
“Why don’t you keep your ferrets in a cage all the time?”
Ferrets are heat sensitive and don’t tolerate temperatures over 80 degrees F. Also, a single mosquito bite can give a ferret heartworms, which is usually fatal. Therefore, ferrets should be kept indoors in a temperature-controlled environment. Inside, my ferrets have spacious and comfortable cages, but are confined when I am away or cannot supervise them. When I am home, the ferrets are out and about, except at night. When I go to bed, so do the ferrets. . Ferrets are highly intelligent animals and need lots of playtime and companionship to keep them happy and healthy.
More misinformation exists in the care and keeping of ferrets – even by existing ferret owners.
“Ferrets are prone to all sorts of diseases and are unhealthy pets.”
All mammals as they age are prone to diseases such as cancer. Because a ferret’s lifespan is relatively shorter than a cat, dog, or human, when a ferret reaches the geriatric age of five, medical problems may occur. Ferrets do seem to have a predisposition towards adrenal tumors, insulinomas, and lymphomas, but only when they get older, and the rates are not statistically different from other pets. In fact, if you check out the listings in veterinarian libraries, you would discover ferrets actually have a very low rate of genetic disease. Some of the perception of health care problems comes from ferret mailing lists, where people tend to discuss ferret medical problems. However, for every medical problem discussed, there are thousands of healthy ferrets out there whose story didn’t make it to the discussion board.
“It is cruel to spay and neuter a ferret. They should have the right to exist naturally.”
Ferrets live happier and healthier lives if they are fixed. Whole male ferrets can become aggressive during mating season, and they are incredibly stinky. Until they are fixed, male ferrets will produce so much musky body oil that they become greasy with it, and to make matters worse, they will groom themselves with urine. Testicular cancer is also a problem with these ferrets. A quick fix is a quick neuter.  Female ferrets that have not been spayed can die from aplastic anemia when they go into heat. Mammary cancer is also a danger. As with males, increased odor is a big problem. For the health of your female ferret, a fix is in order!  If you are thinking of keeping whole ferrets for breeding, think again. Ferret breeding should be left to the experienced and careful breeder, who has a record of genetic lines, access to high-level veterinary assistance because of the high rate of breeding complications. Kit mortality rates are high, as are medical and veterinary costs.
“You should leave a ferret’s anal scent glands intact – it is cruel to descent a ferret.”
Well, there are two sides to this tale. It is true that a ferret with scent glands will not have much more body odor than a descented ferret.  A ferret will use scent glands to “poof” if they are threatened, frightened, or hurt. Scent is a good communications and defense mechanism for the ferret. On the other hand, scent glands have a propensity to become impacted and infected, and surgical removal becomes necessary anyway, except the surgery is much more traumatic. Also, older ferrets can get leaky scent glands and can lose control, which does contribute greatly to an odor problem.
“My ferret is digging at the carpet. A simple solution is a simple declaw, just like my cat.”
Yes, ferrets love to dig. They will dig in their food bowls, litterboxes, waterbowls, and sleeping areas. They will scratch at carpet around closed doors that should be open. They will also dig up houseplants. The ferrets’ wild cousins do live in underground burrows, and digging is instinctive. Give your ferrets a sandbox, enclosed bin with dried beans or rice, or some other digging fun. Protect carpet in front of doors with plastic mats. Hang up your houseplants. Don’t, however, declaw your ferret. A ferret toe and nail structure is not at all like a cat’s. Declawing a ferret is the equivalent of amputating your fingers at the first joint under your fingernail. This is a major, traumatic, and painful surgery that leaves a ferret crippled. Declawed ferrets cannot walk or run properly, and certainly cannot climb.
“My ferret is going bald. I’ve tried all sorts of skin lotions and shampoos, but it doesn’t help.”
Adrenal disease is a common problem in older ferrets, and one of its primary symptoms is balding. If your ferret begins losing hair (typically at the base of the tail or neck area) at about age 4, you should suspect adrenal disease. Many veterinarians may also incorrectly diagnose balding as a skin problem or Cushing’s disease. A blood test or an ultrasound can correctly diagnose the problem, and the solution is usually surgery, or possibly Lupron treatments. Other symptoms of adrenal disease include enlarged prostates for males, and swollen vulvas for females. Sometimes vets might think your ferret has prostate cancer, or your female has an incomplete spay. Again, adrenals are usually the culprit.
“Ferrets can eat just about anything, so it’s nice that my ferrets can share the dog and cat food when the cat and dog get fed.”
Ferrets will eat just about anything, but that doesn’t mean they should. All dog foods and most cat foods do not have the correct nutritional composition for ferrets. Make sure your ferret is eating a high-quality dry ferret or kitten food with 32-38% protein, 18-22% fat, and less than 3% fiber. Read the ingredient list and make sure that there are at least two meat protein sources in the first five ingredients (usually poultry). Ferrets cannot digest protein from vegetable sources like dogs can. That is why dog foods have high corn content to increase protein percentages, but a ferret cannot utilize much of that protein. And don’t make the mistake of feeding your ferret portions of food at certain times – this is very unhealthy for your ferret. Your ferret needs to be “free fed” or have food available at all times. A ferret’s metabolism is very fast, so they need a bite to eat as often as every few hours.
“I have bedded my ferret cage with cedar chips to cut down on the odor, and I really like the convenience of those new clumping cat litters!”
Ferrets have extremely sensitive respiratory systems, and they can’t handle strong odors or lung irritants. Cedar shavings or chips cause respiratory and eye problems for ferrets, as do some other wood chips. Scented cat litters can also be harmful. Clumping litters are especially dangerous for ferrets because ferrets like to “snorkel” in their litterboxes and particles can go up the nasal passages and then swell to dangerous proportions. Similarly, ferrets like to “butt wipe” after using a litterbox, and clumping particles may also get lodged. Silica pearl litters are also dangerous because they dehydrate mucous membranes (again, eyes, nose, and rear end).
There are many more ferret fables, some extending from children’s literature, mythology, and superstitions. I hope this article has helped dispel some of the more common misconceptions, but always be prepared for the next interesting piece of ferret fiction!