Ferret Husbandry

Ferrets are domestic members of the Mustelidae family, which in the wild includes the Stoat, Weasel, Pine Marten, Polecat, Otter and Badger. Ferrets were first brought to the UK with the Romans and, though it is unsure when ferrets became domesticated, they have been so for over 2000 years. Originally ferrets would be kept for hunting, and still are today, but have been increasingly kept as pets since the 1960s. Ferrets are fun-loving, curious animals which will bond strongly with their human, and they need to be handled daily.

A male ferret is a Hob.

A female ferret is a Jill.

A baby ferret is a Kit.

A neutered male ferret (castrated) is a Hobble.

A vasectomised male ferret is a Hoblet.

Diet

Ferrets are obligate carnivores. This means they cannot digest vegetables, fruit or cereals. They can only digest meat and bone. Raw poultry and game offer the best nutritional value. Pork must be avoided as the raw meat can carry parasites. There is a good choice of specially formulated dry ferret foods available in most countries. In countries where it is not possible to obtain ferret food a high quality dry kitten kibble may be substituted.

Ferrets can be fed meat with bones in, but only if raw. They must never be given cooked bones as these can cause serious internal blockages which often prove fatal.

Ferrets can enjoy raw and cooked egg but only the yolk. Feeding your ferret too much egg white can cause a biotin deficiency which will lead to hair loss. Hair will grow back once egg white is removed from the diet.

Ferrets need a good supply of clean water, preferably in a shallow heavy dish as some ferrets like to dig in, or move, their dish. We do not advise the use of water bottles for ferrets.

Nature

Ferrets love to climb, dig, chase and go through tunnels. They are very inquisitive, which can get them into trouble of various kinds. They also like to run off with,and hide, small toys or other objects and are capable of squeezing through small gaps and holes. They can be taken for walks on a harness (though be careful, they can sometimes wriggle out).

Ferrets will sleep normally for about 20 hours per day and are crepuscular, which means that they are most active at dawn and dusk: however they will quickly adapt to their humans routines. When they are awake they are very active and have been likened to perpetual kittens. Ferrets need to be handled by their humans every day and need to be well exercised and stimulated to keep them happy and healthy. Ferrets are clean animals and will normally toilet in one area. A ferret's lifespan is normally 8 to 10 years in the UK.

Habitat

Ferrets can happily live either indoors or outdoors all year round. Ferrets are social animals and most will be happy to live in pairs or groups, but as with any animal there are exceptions to this. Hobs, when in the mating season, will become aggressive towards other hobs and will need to be separated.

Ferrets do not sweat; therefore they cannot cool themselves down. This can cause ferrets to dehydrate, and this can be fatal. It is therefore important to keep your ferrets in a shaded area with plenty of water.

Outdoor ferrets are kept in a home called a court. Ferrets prefer to sleep in a nesting box off the ground. They will need an area to play and eat as well as a toilet area.

With regard to bedding, in summer ferrets will happily sleep in hammocks or hanging baskets hung around the court, with a few fleece blankets in the nest box. In winter they will mainly use the nest box. Fleece blankets are the best form of bedding and they will cuddle together happily in this. Bedding needs to be changed once a week and washed at 60 degrees. Old t-shirts are an acceptable alternative to fleeces, but towelling is not recommended as the ferrets' claws can easily become caught in it. Some people still use straw and hay but this is not recommended as both of these will often irritate the ferrets' faces and delicate respiratory systems.

This is an example of an outdoor court:

Court_01.jpgCourt_02.jpg

The base is 8' x 4' x 6' high and can comfortably house up to 10 ferrets. The nest boxes are 1ft  cubes with the entrance hole 5" from the base with a 4" diameter. The top overlaps and is hinged to provide easy accesse for cleaning and for retrieving ferrets. The ramp is also hinged so that it can be raised to make cleaning out simpler.

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Indoor ferrets need a large roomy cage and will sleep on hammocks. Food and water need to be kept as far away from toileting area as possible. The ferrets will need access to a run or have free run of (part of) the house for at least an hour a day under supervision.

A couple of examples of indoor cages:

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Both of these cages would be suitable for up to 5 ferrets depending on their size and age; younger ferrets are more boisterous and need more room.

Handling Your Ferret

Ferrets need firm but gentle handling. You and your ferrets need to bond and form a mutual trust of each other. The best way of picking up your ferret is to scoop it up, placing your hand under the body just by the forelegs, so your thumb and little finger are behind the forelegs, and your index and middle fingers are forward of the legs either side of the ferret. The rest of the body may then be further supported by holding to your chest, resting on your forearm, or supporting their bottom with your other hand.

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Ferrets enjoy being tickled behind the ears and being stoked gently along the back. To calm your ferret hold it in one hand and stoke as much ferret as you can all the way down to the tail repeatedly. Gently squeeze the lower legs together as you do so. As your ferret becomes more used to you it may be cradled in your arms and may go to sleep on your lap.

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Like any animal ferrets can bite. Kits, like kittens and puppies, explore their environment with their teeth and will nip. They need to be handled often and firmly so that this should soon abate.

Try not to shout or use fast movements as this may scare your ferret. Be patient. Offer a treat and stroke your ferret while he is eating. This will encourage your ferret to associate you with good things and build up a mutual trust. Ferrets love to chase fast moving things, so by pulling away quickly your ferret may jump and nip or bite thinking you are inviting him to play.

Sometimes ferrets need to be told, "No". The best way doing this is by holding your ferret by its scruff: say "No" firmly and tap the ferret's nose gently with the tip your finger. Continue to hold the ferret by its scruff until he yawns.

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Holding a ferret by its scruff does not hurt, and when the ferret yawns it is showing submissive behaviour to you. This makes you the Alpha of the court and your ferret is less likely bite you.

When excited or scared sometimes ferrets can 'skunk', releasing a pungent-smelling musk. This is one of their natural defences against predators and does not happen often. The smell dissipates quite quickly.

Ferrets will bite when scared or in pain, so if your ferret starts to bite when normally placid you should consider a trip to the vets. 

Breeding

Intact ferrets in the UK normally come into season at the end of March, as the days get lighter. This can be earlier if the ferret is kept indoors, because of �the artificial lighting. Jills will normally have two litters a year of 8 kits or more; 9 kits are common. Kits born this season will come into season next year ready to breed.

Jills must be brought out of season.� If not they will continue to ovulate� and menstruate which this will cause the Jill to become anaemic and die.

There are four options to bring a Jill out of season:

  1. To mate the Jill resting in having kits.
  2. To have the Jill serviced by a Hoblet ( a vasectomised Hob ) .
  3. To have the Jill taken out of season chemically in the form of a �Jill jab� available from the vet. This might have to be repeated if the Jill comes back in to season later in the year.
  4. To have the Jill spayed at the vets before coming into season, or after being taken out of season by 'Jill jab' or Hoblet. Most vets will not spay if a Jill is in season because the blood supply to the uterus vastly increases and there is a high risk of haemorrhage.

Central Ferret Welfare does not recommend breeding ferrets.

You can tell if a Jill is in season by looking at her vulva: it will be swollen and very pronounced like this:

In_Season.jpg

A Jill not in season will look like this:

Out_Season.jpg

When in rut an intact Hob will produce a strong smelling musk that it will use to mark out its territory, and will become aggressive towards other males and so may need to be separated from others.

The mating of ferrets is very rough, long and noisy. After mating, the Hob and Jill should be separated.

Keeping Your Ferret Healthy

  1. Trim the claws of your ferret regularly as they can�t retract and will continually grow. This will stop them from splitting and getting caught in bedding, and help keep your ferret mobile and pain-free.
  2. Check for healthy teeth and gums. Gums should be pink and teeth white in kits and more opaque in adults. There can sometimes be a build-up of grey tartar on the teeth which can cause gum disease and should be removed. Giving your ferret fresh meat with small bones, such as raw chicken wings, will help keep their teeth clean.
  3. Tics, fleas and ear mites are common parasites that can affect ferrets at times. Simple treatments are available from vets or over the counter at good pet stores. Make sure it is suitable for ferrets if bought over the counter.
  4. Ferrets can suffer from a variety of worms, e.g. tapeworm, roundworm, lungworm .You will notice an increase of appetite with loss of weight, bloating and diarrhoea. Ferrets can be protected from these with regular worm treatments available from your vet or pet store. Make sure it is suitable for ferrets if bought over the counter. Many ferrets enjoy eating slugs and snails but this must be avoided at all costs because they can transmit lungworm. There is also a risk of secondary poisoning from toxic slug pellets.

Ferrets are quite hardy animals but always consult a vet if you see evidence of:

  • Having difficulty breathing
  • Vomiting
  • Grinding teeth
  • Black tarry faeces (this can be normal if just fed fresh red meat)
  • Diarrhoea
  • Convulsions
  • Discharge from nose eyes or ears
  • Swollen feet or limbs tender to touch
  • Paralysis
  • Fever
  • Listlessness
  • Lumps or tumours
  • Sudden weight loss
  • Coughing
  • Persistent scratching of body or ears

Ferret Adrenal Disease Complex

This is a common disease that affects older ferrets. The symptoms are:

  • Hair loss starting at base of the tail and working up the body.
  • Swollen abdomen enlarged vulva (Jills) testes (Hobs)

If there is any sign of these symptoms then your ferret should be seen by a vet quickly. IMPORTANT: Hair loss should not be confused with a common condition called Rat Tail. This is a harmless, seasonal affliction, which affects some ferrets and causes the hair on their tails to become very sparse. A vet will be able to tell you whether your ferret has this condition.

Canine Distemper

This is a risk in the UK and we recommend that any ferret being exercised in the same area where dogs are exercised should be vaccinated for this disease as it always proves fatal to ferrets who aren't vaccinated.

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