I fell in love with ferrets after seeing the iconic 80’s movie “Beastmaster.” The ferret duo of Podo and Kodo stole the show, and I was instantly taken in by their long furry bodies, fuzzy faces, and cunning intelligence. At the time, all I wanted was to have my very own cute, clever, and mischievous pet ferret.
I never ended up getting one, but I have worked with ferrets at zoos, known friends who have had them as pets, and have seen many come through an exotic hospital I worked at. I still have a special place in my heart for them, and today I want to share with you all some of the things I’ve learned about these endearing creatures. Whether you’re considering adopting a ferret of your own, or are just curious about them, read on for some Ferret 101.
Let’s start with some facts: Ferrets are mustelids (that’s just the fancy way of saying they’re part of the weasel family). Like many of their relatives, ferrets have a strong-smelling scent that comes from an anal gland. It’s nowhere near as pungent as a skunk’s odor, but it is noticeable, so people should spend some time with ferrets to see if they personally find the odor tolerable before making the decision to take one home. It is possible to have the scent gland surgically removed by a veterinarian, but know that the surgery is unnecessary, and many find it inhumane, so some veterinarians may refuse to perform the procedure.
A healthy ferret will live for 7-10 years. They are carnivores, and high-quality ferret diets are readily available in most pet supply stores and online. Ferrets are social, so potential parents may consider adopting more than one, and will definitely need to plan for plenty of play time for each ferret. In general, I always like to say that bored pets will find their own ways of entertaining themselves, and odds are that you won’t like the activities they come up with. Since ferrets are so smart, their enrichment/play should be varied to keep them stimulated. Ferrets are crepuscular (meaning they sleep a lot and are most active at dawn and dusk) predators, and they like to burrow, so the best enrichment will stimulate their natural behaviors by letting them chase, explore, and dig.
Ferrets are similar to cats in that they are able to be litter box trained, and they can get hairballs from self-grooming. A ferret enclosure will need to be large enough for their play area, and should include a spot to dig, a litter box, and an enclosed sleeping area (hammock-like sleeves are made for ferret beds and are available online and in most pet stores).
Ferrets are adorable “thieves” (they are known for taking items and hiding them in their favorite spot) with cunning intelligence, and are rightfully loved by many. I decided that I wouldn’t want a ferret as a pet while working at the exotic animal hospital—I was astounded at the number of ferrets that we treated with adrenal gland failure and cancer. The veterinarian I worked for explained that some theorize inbreeding, plus a lack of genetic diversity, has led to so many health issues being quite common in ferrets.
If you decide to get a ferret, consider adopting one from a local rescue group—a quick Internet search can help you find a ferret in need of a loving forever home. Make sure your new furry friend is spayed/neutered, and find a veterinarian near your home that will treat a ferret. Know your local laws, and consider future moving plans before adopting, as ferrets are illegal in California, Hawaii, New York City, Washington D.C., and a few other places as well. Some states—such as Wisconsin and Rhode Island—require you to obtain a permit before bringing home a pet ferret.
Like any pet, ferrets have tons of wonderful attributes, but are at risk for certain complications. Learn as much as you can about them before adopting one so you can be prepared for this beautiful, smart, and sly animal.
Tatiana Garrett grew up with Borzoi, a rescued Standard Poodle, cats, hamsters, parrots, rabbits, guinea pigs, and an iguana… just to name a few pets. She began her professional career with animals in 1995 at Brookfield Zoo. She has studied wild dolphins in Australia and rescued wildlife in Florida, but people are truly at the heart of her work. If it walks, hops, or slithers, Tatiana cares about it. She currently oversees the Humane Education programs at The Anti-Cruelty Society and hosts “Chicago Tails” on Watch312.com.