Buying and Caring for Your Pet Ferret

Years ago, my first husband, Jack, and I kept ferrets. We had two – “Rikki” (for Rikki Tikki Tavi, of course), and Rosie, a female. We had Rikki for a couple of years before we got Rosie. He was a tremendous lot of fun. We had a little harness for him and a leash, and would take him out for walks. Most people we met knew almost nothing about ferrets and had strong reactions to him (possibly because of his strong smell); if they didn’t say, “What’s that?” they’d say, “Hey, where’d you get your rat?”

At that time we lived in a house with highly polished wood floors, and Jack was fond of playing “bowl the ferret” along our front hall. He’d spin Rikki around and around on his finger (on the floor) then give him a push and Rikki would go spinning like a loosed balloon all the way down the hall. He loved it. He’d jump up and come scampering back and curl up on the floor for another go.

Ferrets can be a lot of fun, but they shouldn’t be undertaken as pets without a lot of thought and preparation. They are an ice-breaker par excellence; but they may bite, and will have to be trained out of it. (To get the ferret to let go – no easy task – grab the base of his jaw from behind, where the joint is, between two fingers and squeeze. He will be furious at you for a while, but they must not be allowed to bite, and if small children (under 180 lbs.) will be visiting, it’s best to put a little muzzle on him).

In English pubs, I am told, you can win money by volunteering to put a ferret down your pants.

It’s not really clear where ferrets came from, although they used to live wild near the towns of prairie dogs – their favorite food (the dogs, not the towns). They belong to the family Mustelidae (Mus-TELLA-dee). Some have speculated that the ancestors of our modern ferrets were kept on farms 2,000 years ago, to discourage pests. That puts ferrets squarely in the middle, between dogs and cats, in terms of how long they have associated with humans.

Is a ferret the right pet for you?

You must realize, first, that a ferret is not a cat, dog or fish. Ferrets are extremely high maintenance. They move so incredibly fast that if you drop your ferret outside without a leash, they will be out of sight before you can focus your eyes. And they will not allow themselves to be caught, except perhaps by a landlord who does not allow pets. Rikki got away from us more than once, but some small child always captured him and brought him back (the last time by the landlord). They have a curiosity bump bigger and more firmly established than any cat’s. Any opening big enough to accommodate a ferret’s head will also accept his body, including furnace vents, open ductwork, plumbing, you name it. If you want to let your ferret run free, you will have to watch it like an owl watches a marmot.

They do sleep a lot, though Rikki certainly did not sleep 18-20 hours per day, as some sites suggest. We never did try to train him to a litter box (don’t ask), perhaps because it was so cute how he pooped. From the middle of the floor he’d point his behind toward a corner and skitter backward until he hit the wall, then he’d let fly, no doubt wondering why the adults and children were rolling around on the floor laughing. I have read that ferrets harbor only one kind of bacteria in their intestinal tract and thus their poop “doesn’t smell.” Evidently the person who wrote that never encountered a real ferret. Rikki certainly didn’t smell like a rose, I can witness to that.

It would be a good idea, before you decide on getting a ferret, to do your homework. Study them on the internet, read what books you can, talk to people who own or have owned them. Ferrets run on 12-cylinders unless they’re asleep, then it cuts back to about 2500 rpms. When awake they are vulnerable to accidents and disease. Their canines (fangs) often break because they bite so hard; this must be seen to by a vet immediately, as it is painful for the animal. The good news is that ferrets use a litter box, don’t scratch the furniture like cats or make loud noises like dogs, nor do they mark their territory. They’re remarkably clean, but de-scenting is highly recommended. You will want to cuddle your ferret, after all.

Choosing your ferret

Exercise care when purchasing your ferret. Buy from a reputable pet store or rescue organization. The gender doesn’t matter, although some say males are easier to get along with (especially if neutered) than females. Watch the ferrets for a while, then choose the one that’s well-behaved (or the liveliest, according to your preference). Ask the dealer if they will give you a discount on a new cage, hammock or sleep sack, or the second one, if you want two. Make sure the seller will take the ferret back if the two of you just can’t get along.

Whether you can make money raising ferrets or not is a moot question, but if you decide to have babies, keep the male away from them (don’t ask why, you don’t want to know).

Ferrets live from 8-10 years, unless they meet with illness or accident. They are colored grey, brown and black, black and white, or white or pale yellow. Albino ferrets have red eyes and are white in color.

The Cage

A cage is a must. Ferrets must have a place to retreat to when the chaos becomes too much even for them. The cage should be at least 4′ long and 2′ wide for one ferret, bigger for two. A cage made of pallets with wire all around and the top able to open (and lock) will suit. Do not put wire on the bottom without protection for the ferret’s pads. Linoleum works well, or an old quilt . A thick pile would be greatly appreciated by your ferret, as they love to dig and burrow. And if it is snowing, by all means put the cage outside. Ferrets love cold and snow to play in. Avoid cedar or pine bedding as they will affect your ferret’s breathing.

Put your ferret in the cage if you are going to be gone, but make sure food and water is available. If you happen to have a room where the ferret cannot harm anything, (bathroom?) include the litter box. But beware if your washer/dryer is in the bathroom; ferrets will quickly disappear into the back of appliances if not barred. They will usually emerge quickly, but if not, or if the appliance is running (like a refrigerator) the ferret may be shocked or even killed.

Ferret proofing your home

Ferrets have one motto: Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine also.” Their curiosity simply knows no bounds. They will investigate anything that offers novelty: a new opening somewhere, a bag or a box, rubber sneakers, socks. Like packrats, they will run off with glittery things. They make nests and tear them apart. If a thing can be turned inside out, ripped apart, bitten, made to fall off whatever it’s sitting on, it will appeal to your ferret. They love to dig so put your house plants up.

If you buy two, you can count on them amusing each other, but they will do twice the damage. Protect your house and your things accordingly.

Ferret v. Fido, Mew-Mew and Junior

If you have a dog, make sure it’s not of the hunting type. Hunting ferrets and hunting dogs should be kept far enough apart that they don’t have access to one another. Introduce the two slowly and carefully. The ferret should be kept caged for the first few days so the dog can get used to having it in the house. Some dogs will object so strongly that they will actually kill the ferret. But not if it gets hold of the dog’s snout first! Ferret’s canines are sometimes an inch long, and they bite hard. Rikki once bit completely through my husband’s thumbnail.

Whether your cat will ever get along with a ferret is completely unpredictable. The same is true of young children (under 10). Ferrets should be kept away from babies and small children, as youngsters are not gentle enough to handle them, and if “abused” in the ferret’s opinion, they may bite to defend themselves. When small children are around, the ferret should be caged.

Feeding your ferret

When gentling your ferret, give it a treat every time you handle it. FerretVite is a treat they love. In fact, you can cut their toenails by laying them on their backs and putting a gob of FerretVite on their chests. While the ferret is busy licking this off, you can cut their toenails. Cut only the ends. Don’t cut the pink part or that will be the LAST time you will be allowed to do this trick.

Food: Give your ferret high-quality ferret or kitten food. Our Rikki was mature when we got him, and ate canned Alpo dog food – he loved it, and thrived on it. Ferret’s also like fruit, some vegetables, but don’t feed your ferret milk, grain, nuts, bread or crackers, or sugary foods.
Medical care

Consult your vet regarding medical care. Ferrets need shots, vitamins, etc. The older your ferret is, the more often he will need to visit the vet, so start saving your money now.

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