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In this article, a ferret named Zodiac helps us humans understand why treats are so important in a ferret’s life. Her human will add a touch of reality to understanding ferret treats.
by Erika Matulich, Ph.D.
Volume 5, Number 6
November/December 2002
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Hi! My name is Zodiac, and I am a sable-mitt ferret who lives with my Mom and Dad (humans) and a ton of other ferrets. I am an extremely busy ferret and the hardest worker in the household. My schedule is chock full, with one of my primary duties being that of a sockster. If you don’t know what a sockster is, let me explain. My messy humans put all sorts of socks in the strangest places – stuffed in boots, on the floor, in the hampers, in drawers, and in cabinets. My job as a sockster is to put all these socks away into their proper place, behind the waterbed where the humans can’t mess them up any more. Let me tell you, this is hard work! After a tough session of wrestling with socks, I deserve a reward! A tempting treat is just the thing! And if I get a good treat I can work harder on my other jobs of high-speed house patrol, putting other ferrets in their proper place, in-depth napping, and new-venture exploration. When I get more treats, I know I am doing my job just right!
Hello! This is Zodiac’s mom, Erika. The very first thing I want to emphasize is that treats are great in their place, but should only be given in moderation – less than 5 % of your ferret’s total diet. Although Zodiac would love for treats to be the majority of her diet, you must resist the temptation to constantly feed your ferrets treats. Keep your ferret’s overall nutritional needs in mind, with a total picture of everything your ferret consumes. We’ll start our discussion with basic nutritional needs, move on to good and bad treats, and then discuss how useful treats can be in training and working with your ferrets.
Basic Nutritional Needs
Aww, Mom, I could eat treats all day long instead of this boring ole ferret food! Treats are every so much more yummy! Can’t I have nothing but treats? Can I? Huh? Please? I’ll start putting away ALL of your clothes (instead of just your socks) if you would only give me more treats! I mean, really, wouldn’t YOU like to eat your chocolates all day long?
Ferrets have unique nutritional needs that must be met to stay healthy, including a high protein, high fat, low fiber diet and plenty of fresh water. Ferrets do not digest vegetables, grains/cereals, or fiber very well, so they need their protein and fat sources from meat. Look for foods with a guaranteed analysis of 32-38% protein, 18-22% fat, and less than 3% fiber. Then read the ingredient list and make sure there are at least two meat protein sources in the first five ingredients. You don’t want much of that protein in the guaranteed analysis to come from vegetable sources, because a ferret can’t use it. Poultry meats appear to be the most digestible for ferrets, fish and lamb next, and beef the least digestible. If a food has a grain listed as the first ingredient (such as corn), don’t feed it to your ferret.
Once your ferret is eating a proper diet of dry kibbled ferret food, you can then add treats to the repertoire. Unlike regular ferret food, which should be available constantly, treats should be given sparingly and sporadically. Keep your ferrets on their toes and use treats as rewards, bribes, training tools, and toys. Use as many of the same guidelines for ferret food as you can when evaluating treats. If the treats are commercially prepared, read the guaranteed analysis and ingredient listing just as carefully as you would a ferret food. Again, look for meat protein ingredients, low fiber, low sugar, and low fruit/vegetable sources.
Ferrets, like humans, have their own individual tastes. Misty likes mushrooms (only very fresh ones), Chester enjoys animal crackers, Little Bear loves Kix cereal, and Morgan begs constantly for N-bones (we call them hissing sticks because he hisses all the other ferrets away while he is eating one). Many, but not all, ferrets like raisins. All my ferrets enjoy Ferretone, except Misty who turns up her nose at this and will only lick up Linatone. You may have to experiment with a number of items before you find out what turns on your ferret.
Vitamin Supplements as Treats
Mmmmm…my favorite treat – Mommy is giving me my magic ferret oil. This either means it is time for me to go to bed and get put up in my cage, or I am about to get my toenails clipped. I just love this oil! Once I managed to get on the kitchen counter and knocked a whole oil bottle on the floor and lapped up as much as I could (once I figured out how to climb back down the drawer pulls – it was easier climbing up). It was incredibly delicious! Later that day, I was napping and dreaming about my yummy conquest and I suddenly got a terrible stomach-ache that interrupted my lovely dream! I didn’t feel very well at all for the rest of the day and spent a lot of time in my litterbox. I think I need some more ferret oil to soothe my tummy!
A good quality premium ferret diet should provide the appropriate nutrition for your ferret without the need for vitamin supplements. But if you are going to give your ferret a treat, why not a healthy one? Also, an ill or older ferret might need a boost from a vitamin supplement. Many ferrets benefit from the addition of EFAs (essential fatty acids) in their diet, and very much enjoy EFAs as a delicious treat of “magic ferret oil.” However, with ferret vitamin supplements, more is not better. Too much of a good thing can overdose your ferret and cause serious health problems. Vitamin A toxicity is a particular problem for ferrets especially with overdoses of the EFA oils (products such as Linatone, Ferretone, and Furatone). Too much oil can also result in diarrhea. Other supplements that may be considered treats by ferrets include hairball preventives such as Laxatone, Kittymalt, or Petromalt.  For any supplement, read the labels carefully! Make sure any vitamin supplement is designed specifically for ferrets, because they have different nutritional needs than dogs, cats, birds, and other pets.
Treats that are Tops
Ohboyoboyoboy! Treat Time! Oh please, please, I can’t see what Dad is putting in my special bowl! What will I get? Raisins? Bandits? Dates? Kix? N-Bones? Maybe a whole roast chicken? (Once I managed to snatch an entire pork chop, but it was out of grandpa’s treat bowl, not mine. He didn’t seem to want to share anyway, once I had a taste of it).
Treats made from meat sources that are high in protein and low in fiber are the best treats. These treats mimic the daily nutritional food requirements for ferrets. Zodiac is partial to the chicken flavor of Marshall’s Bandits, while Tito and Chester really like the new Totally Ferret Treats.  Both of these treats have high meat protein content and are low in grains, sugars, and fibers. I also feed my ferrets bits of roast poultry, turkey baby food, or lunchmeat that has no preservatives.  In fact, I like to train my ferrets that poultry baby food is a treat, because I would like them to eat it if they become ill or are recovering from surgery.
Fruits, vegetables and cereal products can be offered in small quantities, as long as your ferret doesn’t fill up on this type of treat at the expense of other nutrition. Many ferrets enjoy raisins, but the natural sugars in these will necessitate more frequent dental care. Be careful with “hard” vegetables – some ferrets have needed surgeries to removed carrot chunks, raw potato pieces, corn kernels, and even pea pods that were causing intestinal blockages. My ferrets enjoy (in limited amounts) apples, bananas, grapes, peaches, nectarines, bell peppers, melons, mushrooms, sugar snap peas, and pears. However, raw onions, potatoes, eggplant and tomato skins contain some toxins that are potentially harmful to ferrets. Grain-based products, such as breakfast cereal, crackers or bread may be enjoyed by ferrets but are simply non-nutritive fillers. Moderation is the key.
Terrible Treats?
How nice! A houseguest! And they brought a present! It must be for me, because I am such a wonderful ferret. Oh, yes, it is for me, because the gift was put down in my reach and the humans walked off. Let me shred this annoying wrapper off so I can open up the box (why do humans make it so difficult?) Aaaah, chocolates. I had better wolf down as many of these as I can before another ferret shows up. Or Dad, who always steals my chocolates. Yum, this one has a cream center. And this one is cherry! And this one --- OH! Here comes Dad! I’ll swallow this one whole and grab that toffee one “to go.”
Chocolate contains a substance called theobromine, which is extremely toxic to dogs, but has not been definitively proven to be a toxic problem in ferrets unless they have heart problems. Regardless, chocolate is loaded with caffeine, sugars, and fats, and should only be fed sparingly if at all. Zodiac had projectile vomiting for hours after her chocolate box incidence. Many ferrets are lactose intolerant, so avoid dairy products, including ice cream, milk, whey, yogurt, cheese, and so on.  Sugary items should also be avoided, as sugars can cause rapid tooth decay, increased need for toothbrushing, and health problems as your ferret gets older and has difficulty regulating blood sugars. Treats high in fiber, vegetable or cereal ingredients, sugars, artificial colors, and preservatives should all be avoided.
There are also plenty of “accidental” treats. These are items that a ferret considers a tasty tidbit, but you do not. Examples are rubbery items that ferrets love to chew and swallow (remote control buttons, erasers, earplugs, rubber bands), cloth items (dirty socks, pantyhose, dishrags, sleepsacks), or insects (crickets, spiders, cockroaches). Although insects are a wonderful source of protein, and lots of fun to chase and hunt down, they may not be healthy for your ferret. Many insects carry parasites and bacteria that can make your ferret sick. Other insects may have already ingested some household insecticides which will then be transferred to your ferret. The hard shells of many insects are not digestible, and like rubber and cloth items, could potentially cause intestinal blockages. Religious ferret proofing and pet-proof insect control are key activities.
Treats and Teeth
Ooooh Nooo! It’s the toothbrush! Yuck! Spit! Get that thing outta my mouth! Well, that doesn’t taste too bad after all. Let me bite those bristles! Put me down! What did I do to deserve this? Look at all those other ferrets, meekly cooperating with their toothbrushing. I make it a point to put up a fight when the toothbrush comes out. I deserve extra treats for having to put up with the indignity of having my biters brushed.
Of course, sugary treats can quickly decay teeth, so extra dental care is in order. But anything that can stick to or coat the teeth is also a problem. This includes raisins, dates, canned moist foods, baby food, and so on. If your ferret consumes mostly dry, kibbled food (which helps scrub the teeth) and very few treats, you can brush your ferret’s teeth every 3 or 4 weeks. But with the addition of treats, weekly or more frequent brushing is in order. Remember to only use a tooth brush and paste suitable for pets (human brushes and pastes are harmful). Many pet pastes are edible and taste good. In between brushings, I let my ferrets chew on Velcro strips, which they love, and it helps scrub the teeth as well. 
Treats for Training
I can’t believe that Little Bear would debase herself like that! Look at her doing stupid pet tricks for Dad just so she can have a treat! No pride at all. She rolls over three times, sits up, and Dad gave her one lousy ball of Kix cereal. Get real!  I’ll tell you how smart ferrets get treats. Chester just walks up to Dad, puts a paw on his foot, and looks pathetic. It works pretty well. My method is much faster. I wait for Dad to pick up a treat and get it to ferret range, and then like lightening I will dash in, nip the hand holding the treat (which is invariably dropped with a sharp yelp), grab the treat before it even hits the ground, and dash off as fast as I can.
Treats are great for training. Find a tasty morsel that your ferret really loves, and then use it for motivation. Sure, there are “cute” tricks you can easily teach a ferret with treats (rolling over, sitting up, jumping, etc.)  But my favorite training tricks are really more for day-to-day ferret management. For example, if I have to “call” or “gather” my ferrets, I can shake the can of cereal (or raisins, depending on the ferret). If I need to trim nails, I let them lick Ferretone during the process to keep them distracted. I use treats for litterbox training as well as leash training – reward and reinforce the good behaviors and ignore the bad. Treat time is also “going to bed” time. My ferrets are put up in their cages at night, and know they will be rewarded with some treats. I also take treats to the vet, which makes my ferrets quickly forget those injections!
Treats as Toys
Yippee! It’s my very favorite chew toy treat! Mom has taken a Cheweasel out of the freezer for me! Oh yes! It’s mine, mine, mine, and I am going to make sure that none of those other ferrets can get my chewie. Hey, no fair! Mom tied it to a bungee cord! I’ll just have to chew really fast and hard while pulling at the same time, and make lots of hissing noises so those other ferrets will keep away.
There are a number of edible chew toys for ferrets on the market, including the Cheweasel, Marshall’s SuperChew, and N-Bones.  Usually these treats are made up of easily digestible proteins, and very few sugars or preservatives. I find these treats very healthy (they don’t leave tooth residue) and the ferrets find them very fun.  Other, natural chew toys are cattle hooves and pig ears; however, these items (sold dried), need to be boiled and softened for ferrets  -- don’t serve them in their original, dried form. A word of warning: rawhide should never be offered to ferrets. Make sure if you have a dog that has rawhide toys or treats that these items are kept away from ferrets. Rawhide can cause severe intestinal blockages in ferrets that invariably require surgery or result in death. Make sure that edible treats are truly edible and digestible for ferrets.
Thanks for letting me tell you my tales of tasty treats. I’m sure your ferrets are just like me – adorable, well-behaved, and hard working. Reward your ferrets frequently with terrific treats, and your ferret will be a model ferret forever! Ta Ta for now!
Have a terrific time testing treats! Just keep your “treatment” limited and your ferret’s overall nutrition in mind for a happy, healthy life.