Ferrets are adorable, high-energy pets that do best in small groups. Discover our tips and advice for caring for ferrets as pets.
Ferrets (Mustela putorius furo) are small members of the weasel family that have been domesticated for more than two thousand years. These energetic little bundles of curiosity are a big responsibility, often requiring as much, if not more, care than a cat or dog.
However, if you are truly ready to bring a ferret into your home the rewards will quickly become obvious to you and your family.
Ferrets live for 6 to 13 years and during that time they will require regular vaccinations and veterinary check ups to remain in tip top shape. In particular, Ferrets are at risk of fleas and heartworm, so monthly preventative treatments like Advocate (for kittens) should be used. They are also at risk of canine distemper, and annual vaccination can prevent this.
Annual health checks are recommended for ferrets up to 5 years of age and twice yearly health checks once they enter their senior years to keep them in ship shape. Any concerns you may have should be consulted with a veterinarian at the earliest possible time. Although ferrets are hunters, they still become prey to other animals so they hide their illness very well like other small mammals.
Unless you plan on breeding your ferrets it’s also important that you have them de-sexed prior to reaching sexual maturity (between 6 to 12 months old). Not only does this reduce the smell associated with Ferret reproductive glands but it is also essential to ensure the health of female ferrets who, once in heat, remain so until mated. This can lead to a condition of the uterus, known as Pyometra, which can have serious and even fatal consequences for female ferrets.
Ferrets are highly intelligent and social pets that do best in small groups. It is highly recommended you consider adopting a pair of ferrets so they will always have a companion to socialise with. Ferrets natural play includes nipping and training is required to ensure your ferret knows that nipping humans is not an acceptable behaviour. They are also extremely inquistive, anything you may have in your home IS of interest, so ferret proofing your home is must so they do not get caught in between, underneath or behind things.
Whilst ferrets are relatively robust when playing with each other, as small pets, they are not animals suitable for homes with small children. It’s best to wait until children in the family are at least twelve or thirteen years old. First, ferrets can be easily injured by handlers who lack manual dexterity.Second, children are easily injured and frightened by the nips and bared teeth of ferrets. A frightened child may injure a ferret by dropping or accidentally hitting the pet in retaliation.
Ferret cages are usually designed with two levels and a place to hang a cozy hammock. The cage should also contain a dark enclosure such as a wooden hut, where the ferrets can make a nest for sleeping. Towels and similar fabrics make good bedding. The bedding will need to be washed frequently, and the cage itself will need regular scrubbing.
Your ferret needs several litter boxes: one for the cage and several for playtime outside the cage. The best litters to use are shredded paper and newspaper-based cat litters.
From time to time, your ferret will need to visit the vet’s office. To transport your ferret safely, you’ll need a pet carrier with gaps small enough that your pet can’t worm his way through them. A leash and H-harness will also be useful.
Heavy ceramic or lock-on bowls are good dishes for ferrets. Expect the playful little pet to up-end the water bowl, however, so supply a sipper bottle as well.
Ferrets love to play. They will bounce back and forth and sideways with their teeth bared and looking quite ferocious. When they do this, they are inviting you and any other ferrets to play with them. Bounce along with them, and they will be happy. Ferrets may also puff up their tail and make little giggling like sounds (dooking) to show they are having a great time, some even wag their tails! Some ferrets will “speed bump” as they play, this means they suddenly lie very still on the floor. touching them might make them sad because a speed bumping ferret is invisible, but make sure to make a fuss once they get up and play again!
They also like to wrestle and play-fight. They tend to play rough, but they learn to be careful with humans if their human playmates yelp when nipped. A firm “no!” will also get the job done.
Ferrets are weasels and, as such, they are obligate carnivores. This means they need meat in their diet. They also have very high metabolisms, so they need a large amount of animal fat in their diets. For a detailed review of your ferrets dietary needs check out our article Ferret Food: A Recipe for Success.
There are many high-grade ferret foods on the market, however, be sure to read the ingredients to make sure that the food is not fish-based. Its also good to avoid foods which are too high in vegetable and grain matter as this can help predispose your ferret to a cancer known as insulinoma. Several types of ferret food are nothing more than modified mink food. Mink eat fish. Ferrets do not. Some ferrets will starve themselves instead of eating fish-based food.
Ferrets tend to be picky eaters. Buy small quantities of food, so that it doesn’t go stale before its used: no more than a month’s worth at a time. Meat or whole prey can be frozen but it will need to be properly thawed prior to giving it to your ferret. Changing foods or flavours abruptly will make the ferret sick. As a result, it is a good idea to ensure your ferret experiences a mix of foods at an early age so as to accustom them to different diets in the event their preferred food is unavailable for a short period. This also helps ensure your ferret is used to a wide variety of flavors and does not imprint itself to one food only.
Fresh water must be available to your ferret at all times.
Ferrets are naturally clean animals, and tend their own fur carefully. They need a bowl of water in order to wash their faces, and they clean the rest of their coat in the same fashion as a cat. Baths should be kept to a minimum, regular bathing may make your ferret smell good for a night, but its strips the natural oils off their fur and they will then overcompensate for this by producing even more! They will then get A LOT smellier and their skin will dry out.
If your ferret lets one go from the poofy valve while playing, or just rolls around in muck its best to just give them a wipe with a soap free baby wipe or even better, just a warm damp towel. You can also let them swim around in some water.
Try limit proper baths for once every quarter (or less) and use a soft easy going shampoo such as Natural Animal Solutions Shampoo or BioGroom Ferret Shampoo and Conditioner. These are very gentle shampoos and do not strip all those lovely oils from their skin. As all pets and humans, ferrets have sensitive eyes and ears, be sure to stear clear of the face when you do need to bathe them. Ferret ears do get quite waxy, cleaning on a regular basis with a gentle pet friendly ear cleaner with some cotton wool is recommended. Regular nail clipping is also required, a small pair of human nail clippers is the perfect size. If you need assistance just phone the campus and a staff member can help you out.
Ferret-proofing a house is a bit like preparing your home for a remarkably agile toddler and a litter of hyperactive kittens, while trying to keep out mice and snakes. Ferrets can wiggle through almost any hole or gap that is 3cm across. They’ve been known to get out of houses through dryer vents, screened windows, and the gaps under doors. At the same time, you’ll need to keep rubber items, electrical wires, breakable items, and any dangerous substances out of their reach. When bringing your ferret home for the first time its a great idea to follow their every footstep for the first few days so you can discover where they may have found an escape route.
Being inquisitive little things ferrets can get into A LOT of tight and dangerous positions. If you have a recliner chair make sure you know where all the ferrets are before adjusting the foot rest. Check every individual piece of clothing for a snuggled up ferret before putting it in the washing machine, then make sure the ferret doesn’t hope into the clothes dryer when you go to use that. Check your dishwasher for a naughty ferret before closing it and turning it on. Unfortunately these situations have lead to unfortunate ferret deaths in the past, the saying should really be curiosity killed the ferret NOT THE CAT!
Temperature is another thing to watch. Ferrets do not do well in hot weather. Any time the temperature is likely to get to 27C, check on your ferrets frequently and bring them inside with a fan on their cage if possible. If you can’t bring your ferrets inside to escape the heat give them plenty of ice packs in their cage, an outdoor fan and even some towels soaking in a bowl of water!
Like all weasels, ferrets can be trained to use a litter box, a “piddle pad,” or newspaper as a toilet. Their bathroom needs to be in the same room where they play, though. Unlike a cat or puppy, a ferret can’t “hold it” very long, because his digestive tract is very short. You’ll have the easiest success if the box or paper is placed in the corner of the room, to take advantage of your pet’s natural preferences.
Ferrets are also receptive to other forms of training. From sitting to shaking paws you can discover the basics of training your ferret in our article Ferret Training: Teaching Your Ferret The Basics.
REGULATION & LICENSING
Before you decide whether ferret ownership is right for you, it’s important that you understand that the regulation of ferrets as pets varies between states and territories across Australia:
- It is illegal to keep ferrets as pets in the Northern Territory and Queensland where they are classed as prohibited or restricted species;
- A license is required to keep ferrets in the ACT;
- Ferrets are legal in New South Wales and Victoria, however, local councils laws may require ferrets to be registered or place restrictions on the number of ferrets and minimum care standards;
- Ferrets are legal in Western Australia, however, ferrets must be declared upon entering the state as close relatives are classed as restricted species; and
- Ferrets are legal in South Australia and Tasmania
In states where ferrets are legal it is a good idea to check with your local council to ensure you are aware of any restrictions or registration requirements and fees prior to adopting or purchasing a ferret for your family.
Ferrets can be microchipped and we highly recommend this for all ferret owners, that way if your ferret ever does go wandering and someone else find them you can be contacted. Unfortunately ferrets can easily get out of collars and harnesses, and it’s generally unsafe to leave them on 24/7 if you aren’t around for supervision so this is recommended. While the Companion Animal Register only registered cats and dogs, Ferrets can be registered under the Australian Animal Register! You can also get your ferret an ID tag for their harness.
Finally, ferrets are not approved for live import under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. As a result, ferrets should only be purchased from a licensed breeder or, better yet, adopted from your local ferret rescue organisation.
WHERE TO NEXT?
What’s the next step? Think long and hard before bringing ferrets into your home. They are wonderful pets, but they require a lot of work. If you decide that ferrets are right for you, consider adopting from a rescue or shelter.
Be sure to check out Pet Rescue, Australia’s largest on-line directory of rescue pets, as there are always plenty of ferrets on the lookout for their fur-ever home. Other rescues include “The Ferret Welfare Society” which has branches in most states, “Ferret Love Rescue” which is a New South Wales based rescue, and “Unwanted Fuzz” based in Victoria.