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

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Eau de Ferret (Ferret Odors)

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No, My Ferrets Don't Stink! (But Thank You for Asking)

© Erika Matulich, Ph.D.

When I tell people I am owned by ferrets, I often hear, "Peeeeyew! Don't ferrets really stink? How can you stand it?" I refrain from telling the person how offensive their cologne is! Instead, I patiently explain that all animals, even humans, have their own unique smell. Humans are used to the smells of other animals, such as people, cats, and dogs. It's true that to the uninitiated nose, natural ferret aroma can be an unusual surprise (I personally think ferrets smell great!). But a healthy ferret and a clean ferret environment keep odors under control.

Eau de ferret
Ferrets are born with anal scent sacs, but these don't contribute significantly to ferret smell. The distinctive ferret odor comes from musk glands in the skin, which are concentrated around the face and spread over the rest of the body. The strongest contributor to ferret odor is hormonal activity. Hormones stimulate musk production in the skin glands, so the best way to reduce odor (by about 90 percent!) is to spay or neuter your ferret.

When I got my first ferret, Critter, I bathed her every few days, in a vain effort to reduce odor. Unfortunately, bathing your ferret too often actually makes her smell worse! Bathing strips the ferret's skin of essential oils. The dry ferret overcompensates by producing extra musky oils, which result in a smellier ferret.

I now bathe my ferrets regularly twice a year (during coat changes) and then as needed (for instance, when Thor digs up a potted plant or Misty rolls around in sooty fireplace ashes). Others bathe their ferrets every two or three months. Remember to use ferret-safe (or kitten-safe) shampoos, and avoid added scents, which may cause allergic reactions or respiratory upsets in your ferret.

Never spray your ferret directly with human perfume, cologne, or air fresheners in an attempt to mask odors. Don't use powders, either. These products can damage skin and fur, cause allergic reactions, exacerbate respiratory problems, and damage mucous membranes in the eyes, nose, and mouth. There are many spray products marketed specifically for ferrets or other pets. Avoid alcohol-based products, and look for those that neutralize odors rather than masking them.

Dirty ears can be another cause of odor problems. Ferret ears produce lots of smelly earwax, so you need to clean your ferret's ears every few weeks. If your ferret's ears are particularly stinky and the wax is almost black, your ferret may have ear mites. This was Critter's problem, and as soon as the ear mites cleared up, so did her smell.

In ferrets as in humans, bad breath can indicate dental problems. Ferret teeth should be brushed regularly with a special pet toothbrush and pet toothpaste. Otherwise, tartar can quickly build up. Tartar by itself can be smelly, but long-term tartar buildup causes gum and tooth infections, which cause bad breath, as well as some kidney diseases.

Aromatic abodes
Be sure your ferret's cage is made of washable materials, such as plastic or coated wire. Wood will permanently absorb ferret aroma. Cage accessories should also be washable or disposable. If your ferret sleeps in a cardboard box, replace it every month. Run plastic play tubes or balls through the dishwasher. Line cage floors with linoleum or washable bath mats. Carpet will quickly absorb ferret smells and is difficult to clean. Note that many household cleaners and deodorizers are poisonous to ferrets. A weak bleach solution (2 percent) is the best cleaner and deodorizer for a ferret cage.

One of the most effective ways to keep your ferret smelling fresh is to keep your ferret's bedding clean. Frequent laundering of hammocks, sleep sacks, snuggle tubes, cage mats, or rugs will do a great job of keeping odors down. Don't be tempted to buy a nifty ferret bed or tent unless you can wash it. Don't use perfumed detergents or fabric softeners, which may cause allergic skin reactions or respiratory problems. I do ferret laundry every week! It's easier (and more effective) than washing the ferrets.

Keeping the litter box clean will significantly reduce odors. Clean solid waste from the litter box morning and night, and completely change out all litter weekly. Never use cedar in the litter box (or anywhere else)—cedar causes respiratory problems in ferrets. In general, wood shavings don't do a very good job of absorbing either moisture or odors. Other problematic litters are clumping litters and those made of corn cob or clay; all of these cause serious ferret health problems.

Most ferret owners recommend pelleted litter (with the exception of the new silica pearl litters). Alfalfa pellets (rabbit food) are highly absorbent and inexpensive. Stove or wood pellets are a great alternative (my favorite is Gentle Touch, a compressed aspen-wood pellet). Other pellets are made out of recycled newspaper.

Remember, a happy owner results in a happy ferret. Keep those odors down by spaying or neutering your ferrets, cleaning litter boxes, and doing laundry. A proper diet, clean ears and teeth, good health, and an occasional bath can also help keep your ferret and your home smelling fresh.

Diet makes a difference

Animal waste causes odors. You can control both the strength of the smell and the amount of the waste with a proper diet. Ferrets fed a poor-quality diet will let you know it, both in their general health and in their eliminations. Preservatives, artificial colors and flavors, and low-quality fats (such as beef tallow) will produce extra-stinky eliminations. Foods high in vegetable fiber, cereal grains, water, and other fillers will result in unnecessarily large stool volumes, as the ferret has to eat much more food to get adequate nutrition.

Ferrets should eat dry food low in fiber and high in fats and meat-based protein. Look for a food that is a minimum of 32 percent protein and 18 percent fat, and a maximum of 3 percent fiber. The first ingredient should be some sort of meat, and the other ingredients should not include too many grains. Don't feed your ferret canned food (unless she is ill) or dog food of any sort.

Finally, even some healthy ferret-food ingredients (such as fish oils) might offend your nose. Try different foods that work for both you and your ferret.