The Ferret Starter Kit

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Are you right for a ferret? Is a ferret right for you? Get details about the uniqueness of ferret personalities and a fuzzy's needs before you begin looking for a ferret friend.
by Erika Matulich, Ph.D.
Critters Magazine
Volume 6 , 2001 Annual
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You should not rely on the veterinary advice or information provided on this site for diagnosis or treatment of any specific situation. Always consult your own veterinarian for specific advice concerning the medical condition or treatment of your own pet or animal.


Ferret Shopping List

The Essentials (you need these before you bring home a ferret)

  • Wire cage
  • Water dispenser (bowls and/or bottle)
  • Food
  • Food dish
  • Litterbox
  • Litter
  • Bed: hammock and/or sleep sack
  • Carrier

The Extras (you’ll need these shortly after bringing home a ferret)

  • Nail clippers
  • Toothbrush and paste
  • Ear wash and cotton swabs
  • Shampoo and conditioner
  • Harness and/or collar and leash
  • Supplements 

The Fun Stuff

  • Toys (hard rubber or plastic)
  • Treats
  • Tunnels/Tubes
  • Apparel


Thinking about bringing a ferret home as a pet? That’s great, as long as you know what you are getting into. Ferrets can make wonderful pets, but they are not necessarily the best pet for all people. On the plus side, ferrets are small and quiet and ideal for apartment living. Ferrets are also highly intelligent, and will constantly amuse you with their antics. They can become loyal friends and confidants. I personally can’t imagine my life without my furry crew.
On the other hand, ferrets take quite a bit more care than other pets. They also tend to have higher veterinary bills throughout their lives. Ferrets need lots of attention and playtime and enjoy routines. If you work long hours or travel frequently, maybe a ferret is not the best pet for you. Do you have other pets? Ferrets are not a good combination with rodents or birds (which make great ferret snacks). They can get along with most cats and some dogs, but require constant supervision and pet training for these interactions to be successful. Do you have toddlers or infants in the house? Ferrets and small children can hurt each other, so maybe another pet would be more appropriate. Don’t have airconditioning? Ferrets are heat sensitive and need climate control. Ferrets also have a unique odor, which some people might find offensive.
If you do decide that a ferret is right for you and you are right for a ferret, be sure you are well prepared to bring your first ferret home. You’ll need to shop for the appropriate gear, find a veterinarian, and ferret-proof your home. Let’s talk about each of these preparations in more detail.
Shopping for Ferret Gear
Plan to go shopping for your ferret and have everything ready before you bring your ferret home. You’ll need quite a few essentials immediately, some extras, and you have many options with additional fun ferret items (see sidebar)
Cage. Ferrets do best in a wire mesh habitat that provides plenty of ventilation. Wooden cages absorb odors, and plastic or glass aquariums don't provide enough ventilation. Ideally, the wire mesh should have wire spaces no larger than 1”x2”, and the wire should be coated to prevent rusting. There should be no sharp edges or “burrs” that could injure you or your ferret. It’s also nice to have some sort of washable pan or tray at the bottom to keep things neat. At the absolute minimum, a cage for one ferret should provide two square feet of floor space and 18 inches of  headroom. Double the size for two ferrets, or add another story for each new ferret. Bigger is always better!
Water bottle and bowl. Ferrets need constant access to fresh water, so a no-drip water bottle for the cage is a must. Try using a bowl to catch any drips from the bottle. Ferrets actually prefer drinking out of water bowls, but they tend to splash around and make a big mess. When your ferret is out of the cage, keep a bowl of water available on the floor in your house. Try a heavy, crock-style bowl that won't tip over.
Food. Look for a ferret-specific food or a premium kitten food with a guaranteed analysis of 32 to 38 percent protein, 18 to 22 percent fat, and less than 3 percent fiber. Read the packaging to make sure at least two meat protein sources are listed in the first five ingredients. The food should be a dry kibble; reserve the canned food for ill ferrets.  Most canned formulas don't provide enough calcium, and they contain higher levels of preservatives, which may not be healthy for your ferret in the long run. And unlike crunchy dry food, canned food won't help prevent tooth decay.
Food Dishes. Bowls should be heavy and difficult to tip over. Ferrets like to dig in their food, so bowls with an interior lip are a plus, because they help prevent the food from scattering around. Choose a bowl that's easy to clean; ferret foods have a high fat content, which leaves residue inside bowls.
Litter box. Ferrets need a litter box or pan with a high back and a low, easy-entry front. Ferrets naturally like to go in corners, so a triangular high-back litter pan can be a good starter option. However, as ferrets grow older and larger, some may not want to use a corner pan they can’t fit in. In that case, a high-backed square box may be a good choice.
Litter. Try a pelleted litter made from compressed newspapers or organic vegetable matter (such as denatured pine, citrus peels, or aspen wood). Clay and corncob litters tend to be too dusty for ferrets.
Never use clumping litters—which are dangerous for ferrets for a variety of reasons—or silica litters,  which can be dangerous if ingested.
Bed. Ferrets must have a bed where they can sleep. Old towels and T-shirts will do in a pinch, but have the potential to snag toenails. Most ferrets love fleece-lined sleep sacks and hammocks for snoozing; some of mine prefer hammocks with a pouch for sleeping either inside or outside. Make sure bedding is washable and snag-resistant.  You can give more room to your ferret by suspending a hammock from the top of the cage. In a multistory cage, hammocks can catch a ferret falling from a high lookout point.
Carrier. A carrier is a must for not only the first trip home, but also vet visits. A soft-sided carrier is fine for short, local trips. You'll need an airline-approved plastic carrier for long-distance traveling. It can also be used for brief time-out sessions when your ferret needs some training.
Nail clippers. You'll need to trim your ferret's nails every other week or so. The notched scissors designed for birds' or kittens' claws are best. Don't use human nail clippers on your ferret—they'll block your view of your pet's nails, making it easy cut off too much; plus, they tend to crush nail rather than cut them.
Toothbrush and paste. Ferrets' teeth need brushing every few weeks. Never use toothpaste meant for humans—it can be toxic if your pet swallows it. Also, human toothbrushes (even those for babies) are too harsh for ferret teeth and can damage the tooth enamel. Use a brush and toothpaste formulated for cats instead.
Ear washes. Ferrets need their ears cleaned every few weeks to prevent ear mites and the buildup of smelly earwax. For regular cleaning, choose a gentle ear wash that you can apply with a cotton swab. Treat ear mites with a miticide gentle enough for kittens or rabbits.
Shampoo and conditioner. You can bathe your ferret every few months using a pH-balanced ferret shampoo, but remember: Very frequent baths (more often than once a month) actually cause ferrets to smell worse! Ferrets tend to overproduce musk oils if bathing strips their skin and fur of its natural oils, and the dry fur then absorbs the extra odoriferous oils, resulting in a stinkier and discolored ferret. Conditioners are optional, but they can help moisturize the fur that was stripped during the bathing process.
Harness, leash, and collar. Whenever your ferret is out of the cage, you'll be able to locate her more easily if she wears a safety collar with a bell. A harness and leash are a must if you want to take your ferret outdoors. Choose a harness in an H-type design, and a lightweight leash.
Supplements. Ferrets who eat a balanced diet probably don't need extra vitamins, but they can benefit from a liquid supplement of essential fatty acids, which helps maintain a healthy skin and coat. Actually, most ferrets think this oily stuff is a great treat! Also, ferret shed during the spring and fall and will need a hairball preventive during this time. A quarter-teaspoon of cat laxative twice a week does the trick.
Toys. Ferrets are playful creatures who love playing with toys. Just make sure the toys are safe: Avoid latex, soft rubber, spongy items and anything with small parts that a ferret could swallow. Ferrets love anything that moves, so toys on stretchy cords, balls, and fishing rods with fun lures are very entertaining.
Treats. If you're training your ferret or rewarding for good behavior, look for healthy treats with minimal sugar and lots of meat protein. Ferrets also enjoy the occasional fruit or vegetable, as well as some cereal products. However, don't use treats as a substitute for food, or nutritional problems may result
Tubes. Ferrets love running through tubes—translucent plastic maze tubes and clear dryer hoses are great fun! Just be sure there are no exposed wires or sharp edges on the tubes, or any areas where a ferret could snag a toenail or trap a paw.
Apparel. Clothes and hats are fun photo opportunities, but ferrets don’t need extra clothes and most don’t like them Just remember that your ferret should wear apparel only when you're there to supervise.
Ferret-Proofing Your Home
Ferrets are incredibly inquisitive animals who will want to explore your entire house. Keep dangerous areas such as the kitchen, laundry room, and bathroom off-limits by closing doors or installing barriers. You'll need to ferret-proof all other rooms by blocking off any holes larger than the size of a quarter. Staple a barrier (panelling  or heavy fabric) to the bottom of upholstered chairs, couches, or mattresses. Hang all potted plants out of reach and install baby locks on cabinet doors and drawers. Ferrets also like to eat things that aren't good for them, so hide anything that is rubbery or spongy (ferret favorites!).
Visiting the Vet
Start your search for a veterinarian who treats ferrets. Often, ferret vets have an “exotics” specialty, but call to make sure. You can also get vet referrals from a local ferret club. Make an appointment with the vet for a physical exam, shots, and possible licensing. Baby ferrets need three canine distemper shots two to three weeks apart. Most often, baby ferrets have only their first shot when they're sold, so you'll probably need to make at least two visits to the vet during your pet's first few months in your home. If you aren't sure of your older ferret's vaccination history, she may need a distemper booster or two. (All ferrets need this vaccine annually, because they can easily catch canine distemper, which is fatal.) If your ferret is 3 months old or older, an annual rabies shot is also in order. Do you live in an area with mosquitos? Your vet may also need to prescribe a monthly heartworm medication. You'll need to plan to see your veterinarian at least once a year for a checkup and annual vaccinations. If your ferret is “whole” it will need to be spayed or neutered by about six months of age. Fixing ferrets reduced odor problems by about 90%. Male ferrets, if not neutered, can become aggressive. Female ferrets, if not spayed, develop serious health problems at their first heat and die. New ferret owners should not be tempted to breed until they are very experienced in ferret care. Breeding is difficult, expensive, and requires a huge time commitment –leave it to the experts.
Choosing a Ferret
Where should you get your ferret? Petstores carry baby ferrets, but you can also find ferrets in the classified ads of the newspaper or at a ferret shelter. If you have never owned a ferret before, consider starting with a mature ferret from a ferret shelter. The shelter operator will know the ferret’s history, personality, and state of health and can match you up with a ferret needing a good home. Baby ferrets (kits), although incredibly cute, are a real challenge. They are incredibly active, need nip-training, litter training, and extra veterinary care. Also be careful about ferrets advertised in the classified ads, because of possible behavioral or medical problems that an inexperienced ferret owner might not recognize.
In any case, choose a ferret in good health – a glossy coat, bright eyes, clean ears and teeth, trimmed nails, healthy skin, and a super personality. A ferret’s nose can be either wet or dry – this is not a health indicator. But the nose and eyes should not be runny.  Keep in mind that some specialty-color ferrets can be deaf, particularly ferrets with a white stripe on their face, or dark-eyed whites. Whether you choose a boy or girl is up to you, just keep in mind that males will grow to be twice the size of females. If your ferret needs to be neutered or spayed, the cost of fixing a female is higher.
Home at last!
Now, you're ready to bring your baby home. Moving to a new place is always a stressful experience for a ferret. (Vet visits are stressful, too!) Ease your new arrival's transition by letting him explore the cage; find his litter box, food, and water; and take a nap in a hammock. Then, close the door to the ferret room and be quiet for an hour or so, even if your ferret looks very excited and wants to play. Later, you can take your ferret out of the cage for a 15-minute exploring session. (Check to make sure she uses the litter box  first!) Don't let your ferret run all over the house yet. Confine the ferret to one room and, over the next few weeks, gradually expand the exploring area and length of playtime. When you're not home, keep your ferret in the cage.
Chow Time
Your ferret needs plenty of food and fresh water available at all times. Don't make the mistake of feeding him small portions of food only at certain times—this is very unhealthy. Ferrets have a fast metabolism that requires constant nourishment; without it, they can suffer from nutritional problems, metabolic imbalance, and blood-sugar swings—all of which can increase the probability of disease, lower the immune system response, and shorten a ferret's life.
Litterbox Training
Most ferrets tend to be pretty reliable about using the litterbox in their cage. Like cats, they're clean animals who don't want to soil their bedding. Clean the box of solid waste every day and change all the litter weekly. However, if your ferret has a large play area, be prepared for him to use some other corner of your house as a litter box. If he's busy playing, he's not likely to walk all the way back to the cage to do his duty! It's much easier to go in a nearby corner. Try putting an extra litterbox or newspapers in those corners.
Ferrets always use the litter box after they wake up, so don't take your ferret out until he does. Then you only have an hour or two before the next urge comes. You may want to put extra litter boxes or newspapers in the corners of the rooms your ferret explores, just in case. Don't punish your ferret for missing the litter box. Ferrets have short attention spans and they won't link the punishment with the miss.
Play time!
Ferrets are incredibly social, playful creatures. If you don't have time to play with your ferret for at least a few hours every day, consider getting a larger cage and another ferret as a buddy. Also, be prepared: When ferrets get excited during playtime, they may do the "weasel war dance," jumping and hissing with their mouths open. Some get so excited that they bounce into walls!
Nipping is a no-no
Ferrets have very tough skin, and may grab other ferrets' skin in play. This doesn't hurt them, but the same toothy grab may be painful to you! Baby ferrets in particular are quite nippy and don't know their own jaw strength.  Ferrets must be gently taught to be gentle. If your ferret nips too hard, scruff him by grasping the loose skin on the back of his neck like a mother ferret carrying one of her babies. Then say "No!" and gently put the ferret down. If your ferret continues to be overly excited, give him a five-minute time-out in the carrier. Never, ever hit or physically punish your ferret for biting, because that will just make him bite harder and more often.
Nap time
Ferrets play hard and sleep hard. Sometimes they're so difficult to wake up, you'll think they're completely unconscious. Ferrets sleep about 15 hours a day, but they'll wake up every two to three hours to eat a snack, drink water, or play. They tend to be most active whenever you are, or at dawn or dusk. Sometimes when you first wake ferrets up, they seem to be shivering. Don't worry, they're not cold or scared, they're just adjusting their sleeping body temperature to waking mode.
Pesky Pests
Ferrets can get fleas and ticks, and these parasites can cause health problems. Ferrets are very sensitive to insecticides, so you can’t use all the same products you might use for cats and dogs. For example, NEVER use a flea collar, flea powder or flea dip on your ferret. You can use flea shampoos that are labeled as safe for kittens or rabbits. There are also a few drop-on-the-neck products that appear to be safe for ferrets – you can use ½ the cat dose of Frontline or Advantage. Farnam also has a Bio-Spot product specifically designed for ferrets.
Common Medical Problems
Veterinarians usually say the most common reason for a ferret needing surgery is for intestinal blockage. Ferrets have a tendency to chew and swallow all sorts of indigestible household objects which cannot get past the stomach, causing life-threatening problems. Another common problem, usually evidenced by balding, is adrenal disease. Older ferrets may also develop insulinoma, which is a blood sugar problem that may result in a weak hind end or even seizures. These common problems are just one reason why the annual veterinary checkup is so important. Adrenal disease and insulinoma can be treated surgically and medically. Heartworm is extremely difficult to treat, and distemper is fatal, so prevention is the key. Finally it should be pointed out that ferrets are very heat sensitive. Ferrets should be kept indoors in temperatures below 80 degrees F, or they can suffer dehydration and heat stroke.
Finding out More
A good ferret owner will continue to learn more about keeping ferrets healthy and happy. There’s lots more to find out about ferret medical problems, training issues and even showing your ferret at shows. There are plenty of great ferret resources out there – just check them out!

Ferret Resources
  • Ferrets Magazine, 6 issues per year, (800) 365-4421
  • Ferrets USA Magazine, annual issue, at petstores and newsstands
  • The Ferret: An Owner’s Guide to a Happy Healthy Pet, by Mary Shefferman (Howell Book House ISBN 0-87605-498-X)
  • A Practical Guide to Ferret Care, by Deborah Jeans (Ferrets, Inc. ISBN 0-9642589-1-9)
  • Ferret Central and the online FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) on Ferrets

I hope these tips will help your ferret to grow to be a happy, healthy, well-behaved member of your household. Ferrets are full of surprises, however, and there is a lot to learn about ferret health, needs, and behaviors. Get ready for a fun ferret education!