Several other small, elongated carnivorous mammals belonging to the family Mustelidae (weasels) also have the word "ferret" in their common names, including an endangered species, the Black-footed Ferret. The ferret is a very close relative of the polecat, but it is as yet unclear whether it is a domesticated form of the European Polecat, the Steppe Polecat, or some hybrid of the two.
The history of the ferret's domestication is uncertain, like that of most other domestic animals. It is very likely that ferrets have been domesticated for at least 2,500 years, but it is not certain for what purpose the ferret was originally domesticated. They are still used for hunting rabbits in some parts of the world today, but increasingly they are being kept simply as pets.
Being so closely related to polecats, ferrets are quite easily able to hybridize with them, and this has occasionally resulted in feral colonies of ferret polecat hybrids that have been perceived to have caused damage to native fauna, perhaps most notably in New Zealand. As a result, some parts of the world have imposed restrictions on the keeping of ferrets.
The name "ferret" is derived from the Latin furittus, meaning "little thief", a likely reference to the common ferret penchant for secreting away small items. Ferrets were probably used by the Romans for hunting.
Colonies of feral ferrets have established themselves in areas where there is no competition from similarly sized predators, such as in the Shetland Islands. Where ferrets coexist with polecats, hybridization is common. It has been claimed that New Zealand has the world's largest feral population of ferret-polecat hybrids. In 1877, farmers in New Zealand demanded that ferrets be introduced into the country to control the rabbit population, which was also introduced by humans. Five ferrets were imported in 1879, and in 1882-1883, 32 shipments of ferrets were made from London, totaling 1,217 animals. Only 678 landed, and 198 were sent from Melbourne, Australia. On the voyage, the ferrets were mated with the European polecat, creating a number of hybrids that were capable of surviving in the wild. In 1884 and 1886, close to 4,000 ferrets and ferret hybrids, 3,099 weasels and 137 stoats were turned loose. Concern was raised that these animals would eventually prey on indigenous wildlife once rabbit populations dropped, and this is exactly what happened to New Zealand bird species which previously had no mammalian predators.
In England, in 1390, a law was enacted restricting the use of ferrets for hunting:
...it is ordained that no manner of layman which hath not lands to the value of forty shillings a year (the equivalent of about £1,000 in today's money) shall from henceforth keep any greyhound or other dog to hunt, nor shall he use ferrets, nets, heys, harepipes nor cords, nor other engines for to take or destroy deer, hares, nor conies, nor other gentlemen's game, under pain of twelve months' imprisonment.
Ferrets spend 14 to 18 hours a day sleeping and are naturally crepuscular, meaning they are most active during dusk and dawn. Though ferrets sleep more than most other domesticated animals, they are very active when awake and will seek to be released from their cage to get exercise and satisfy their abundant curiosity daily.
Ferrets are energetic, curious, interested in their surroundings, and often actively solicit play with humans, having a repertoire of behaviors both endearing and difficult for some human owners. Play for a ferret will often involve hide-and-seek games, or some form of predator/prey game in which either the human attempts to catch the ferret or the ferret to catch the human. They also have a strong nesting instinct and will repeatedly carry small objects to hidden locations. It is difficult to predict what objects ferrets will attempt to hoard, with owners reporting play toys, socks, bags of onions, pizza slices, keys, calculators, silverware, aluminum foil, shoes, sponges, toilet paper rolls, textbooks, video game controllers, footballs, brooms, pencils, erasers, bouncy balls, etc. Ferrets will seemingly form attachments to certain objects and will repeatedly 'steal' the same object and bring it to their hiding place.
Ferrets are easily entertained and do not require pet toys; however, most kitten toys work well with ferrets. Ferrets love playing tug of war with toys and stuffed animals. Ferrets will also tear open packages and other containers to see what is inside or explore the inside of the package. Ferrets are interested in holes, pipes and other small enclosed areas, and seem compelled to explore holes. Thus a cardboard or plastic tube will be appreciated. Ferrets are especially fond of variety in their toy selection — bell-balls, crinkle tubes, and paper bags will work well. All toys should be mixed up regularly, as ferrets will often grow bored of playing the same games repeatedly.
When ferrets are excited, they may perform a routine commonly referred to as the weasel war dance, a frenzied series of sideways hops. This is often accompanied by a soft clucking noise, commonly referred to as dooking. It is often an invitation to play or an expression of happy excitement and is not threatening.
The ferret's posture may become rigid with wide open jaws, momentary eye contact followed by thrashing or turning of the head from side to side, arching the back, piloerection, and hopping to the side or backwards while facing the intended playmate. This is often accompanied by an excited panting sound that may sound like a hiss. Often, this behavior will break into a game of chase, pounce and wrestle. Ferrets in war dances are very accident prone, often hopping into obstacles or tripping over their own feet.
Ferrets tend to nip as kits. Nipping is the act of biting in a playful manner representative of mock fighting and sparring; young ferrets are also more prone to chewing and teething, and have a tendency to bite harder. Older ferrets tend to chew far less frequently and, when trained correctly, almost never nip a human hand or only do so very gently. However, ferrets that have been abused or are in extreme pain may bite a human, and are capable of strong bites which break through the skin.
Ferrets, like cats, can use a litter box with training, but they are not always completely litter box trainable. Their instinct is to spread their waste in order to scent mark a wider foraging territory for themselves; thus, multiple litter boxes may be necessary, and all litter areas should be changed frequently.
A common ferret problem to many pet owners is introducing new ferrets to their population. Senior ferrets may seem excessively violent to unknown ferrets in their home, but adding another ferret to ones population to decrease boredom or for breeding will greatly encourage the morale of the ferret or ferret population one owns. Males and females will exhibit much stronger territorial urges when confronted with a new ferret, and will often treat the new ferret like a toy. After a fighting period which should be monitored but only rarely results in harm to a ferret, the older ferret will show its dominance, often by dragging the junior ferret around by the scruff of the neck to its hoard and leaving it like any other object it values. Given time and careful monitoring, new ferrets will almost always be accepted by the older ferret or group. Young ferrets can actually benefit from having an older house trained ferret around when being taught to use a litter box, take baths, or have their nails clipped.
Alternatively, there are many commercial ferret food products. Some kitten foods can also be used, so long as they provide the high protein and fat content required by the ferret's metabolism. Most adult cat foods and kitten foods are unsuitable for ferrets however, because of their low protein content and high fiber. Ideally, a ferret food should contain a minimum of 32% meat based protein and 18% fat and a maximum 3% fiber. Low-quality pet foods often contain grain-based proteins, which ferrets cannot properly digest.
Ferrets may have a fondness for sweets like raisins, bananas, peanut butter, and pieces of cereal. The high sugar content of such treats has been linked to ferret insulinoma and other diseases. Veterinarians recommend not feeding raisins and the like to ferrets at all. Also, like many other carnivores, ferrets gradually lose the ability to digest lactose after they are weaned. As a result, lactose-free milk is to be preferred.
Many ferrets are sold very young. Sometimes a ferret will be sold too young; after consultation with a veterinarian, it should be fed a mix of crushed or soft food mixed with milk slightly warmed, until the veterinarian advises otherwise.
Recliners and fold-out sofas are a leading cause of accidental death in ferrets. Ferrets will often climb inside the springs and can be injured or killed once the chair is put into a reclined position.
For these reasons, owners usually "ferret-proof" their home, the task of carefully going through each room, removing items dangerous to ferrets and covering over any holes or potential escape routes. As ferrets can open improperly latched cupboards or doors by rolling over and clawing at the bottom edge, childproof latches are often used and owners keep cleaning products in high, out-of-reach places. However, ferrets can typically fit through any hole as small as the size of their head, making some childproof latches ineffective.
Some owners may prefer to house their pets outdoors in sheds, and not indoors. This is becoming more popular, due to speculation on the possible effects of the photoperiod effect on the ferret adrenal gland.
When a ferret is outdoors, an owner must take additional care during mosquito and tick season, as ferrets are susceptible to the diseases carried by these parasites. Ticks can attach themselves and begin to draw blood. When the tick gets full, it regurgitates some blood and tick saliva back into the ferret, which is how Lyme and other diseases can be transmitted. Ordinarily, the regurgitation happens between five to 24 hours after the tick attaches. Early removal of ticks using proper methods to avoid tick regurgitation, and prevention when in environments where encountering ticks is essential. Additionally, mosquitoes may carry heart worms and the West Nile virus. Fleas can cause extreme skin irritation and can be intermediate hosts for tapeworms, one of which may kill a ferret because of their small size. Similarly, the venom of a bee, wasp or spider is much more serious for a ferret than for a larger mammal, and ferrets can be regarded as prey by hawks, and by large snakes.
Ferrets are fearless to the point of foolishness and should not be allowed to wander. Whenever they are outside, they should be closely supervised and preferably kept on a harness leash designed for ferrets such as an H-shaped harness. Their curious nature also leads them to place themselves in situations where they will confront and try to play with larger animals outdoors that may be dangerous to the ferret.
Ferrets should not be left alone without supervision when there are other pets around. Still ferrets have been known to play well with household cats and some non-aggressive dogs, however, great care must be taken when introducing ferrets to any household pet. Certain terrier dog breeds even have a heightened instinct to grab and kill ferrets, larger dog breeds may even hurt a ferret by stepping on them when playing. Many breeders these days prefer to raise their young kits with prey animal (baby & adult mouse, chicken, hamster, rats etc) instead of giving dry food. Therefore, ferrets (very much like cats) may attack, hurt or even kill pets like rodents, birds, and small reptiles, which may have been the prey of their wild ancestors.
Ferrets are capable of delivering a bite almost as strong as a domestic cat. Like all other domesticated animals, they should never be left unsupervised near infants or very young children. There have been rare cases where ferrets have severely injured babies but nearly all such incidents involved neglect, abuse, or roughhousing that the ferret likely perceived as an attack, and some of the animals involved were ferret-polecat hybrid crosses. Given that young children and ferrets can be both excitable and prone to rough play, interaction between ferrets and children must always be closely supervised for the protection of both. With regard to the danger of potential pet ferret attacks as contrasted to attacks from other pet species, statistics would imply that the danger is probably overstated. In the United States, a government study by the California Department of Health Services on national pet attack statistics found 452 reported incidents of ferret bites during the ten year period 1978-1987. By comparison, pet dogs accounted for an estimated 585,000 injuries that required medical attention in the year 1986 alone, with the total number of pet dogs in the United States in 1996 estimated at 55,000,000 and the total number of pet ferrets in the United States in 1996 estimated at 800,000. Adjusting for the proportionate ratio of dogs to ferrets in the United States of 68 to 1, dog bites occurred 5 times more often than ferret bites.
As the possible danger to a human child by a pet ferret must be assessed, the possible danger to a pet ferret by a human child should also be considered in determining whether or not a ferret will make a good pet for a child. Younger children may play too rough with a ferret, or fail to anticipate the physical danger to a ferret from things like closing doors, heavy objects, or accidentally stepping on the animal during play, all of which may lead to severe injury, and often the need for surgery, for the ferret involved. Repeated rough play may psychologically and physically stress the ferret and increases the likelihood of a provocation and a defensive response or bite from the animal. Additionally, as with any pet, young children may fail to appreciate the responsibilities of care and maintenance of their ferret, including attention to proper food and water supply, cage and litter maintenance, grooming, and the need for daily activity and attention when the ferret is alert and active. If a parent or responsible party is not present and willing to step in and fulfill these needs, a ferret is likely a poor choice of pet for a child, due to the problem of neglect.
For children who demonstrate responsible behavior, in regard to both playing with their pet and to consistent care and maintenance, ferrets can make good pets and are often loved by children for their social personalities and engaging antics.
Because they share many anatomical and physiological features with humans, ferrets are extensively used as experimental subjects in biomedical research, in fields such as virology, reproductive physiology, anatomy, endocrinology and neuroscience.
Ferrets do not require frequent bathing, which may remove natural oils in the ferrets coat that prevent dry skin. However, most ferrets are not averse to water. Ferrets also need their nails clipped on a regular basis, and usually shed twice a year in the spring and fall. A laxative is sometimes administered, to help any ingested fur pass more easily through the digestive tract.
Ferret bedding should be washed or changed regularly, and the litter box cleaned frequently, which significantly lessens any unpleasant odors. Due to their low carriage and their sensitive mucous membranes, ferrets are extremely sensitive to dust in their environment and many cat litters may be unsuitable for them. Also, a clumping cat litter may be ingested and cause blockages. A litter made from recycled paper material or organic material (e.g. corn or wheat) is preferred.
Most veterinarians recommend an annual health checkup. Ferrets often hide symptoms of illness very well, so any unusual behavior is considered good cause for a medical consultation. As ferrets have high metabolisms and cancers can progress at a fast rate, early detection is critical for successful treatment.
Like many other carnivores, ferrets have scent glands near their anuses, the secretions from which are used in scent marking. It has been reported that ferrets can recognize individuals from these anal gland secretions, as well as the sex of unfamiliar individuals. Ferrets may also use urine marking for sex and individual recognitions.
Like skunks, ferrets can release their anal gland secretions when startled or scared, but the smell dissipates rapidly. Most pet ferrets in the US are sold descented, with their anal glands removed. In the UK, many consider descenting an unnecessary mutilation. In Australia and the UK, the general opinion is that the animal does not need to be descented. The Netherlands and other parts of Europe consider this practice to be animal abuse.
Males, if not neutered, are extremely musky. It is considered preferable to delay neutering until sexual maturity has been reached, at approximately 6-8 months old, after the full descent of the testicles. Neutering the male will reduce the smell to almost nothing. The same applies for females, but spaying them is also important for their own health. Unless they are going to be used for breeding purposes, female ferrets will go into extended heat and a female that will not mate, without medical intervention, can die of aplastic anemia. It is possible to use a vasectomised male to take a female out of heat.
Many domestic ferrets are known to suffer from several distinct health problems. Among the most common are cancers affecting the adrenal glands, pancreas, and lymphatic system. Some health problems have been linked to ferrets being neutered before sexual maturity was reached, because of this some owners now choose to use implants instead of having the ferret neutered too early. Some owners even choose not to have their ferret neutered at all but use longer working implants instead. Certain colors of ferret may also carry a genetic defect known as Waardenburg syndrome .
Many of the diseases present in ferrets can cause severe weight loss, which, due to their size, can be an even more extreme problem than in some other animals. Ferrets have a side-effect of being so hyperactive that they find it physically impossible to get obese. Ferrets suffering from extreme weight loss or with sensitive digestive tracts are often recommended to be fed a mixture called "duck soup." This usually contains a high-fat, high-protein, low-fiber mixture of a whole chicken (innards and all), fat drippings, Nutrical, Ferretone, high-grade kitten food, and several other ingredients, variant on recipe. "Duck soup" helps ensure that a ferret keeps his or her weight up and is easy on the intestines.
Dehydrated ferrets may also be given Pedialyte.
Treatment options include surgery to excise the affected glands, melatonin implants, which treat the symptoms but not the disease itself, and/or hormone therapy. The causes of adrenal disease are as yet uncertain, but speculated triggers include unnatural light cycles, diets based around processed ferret foods, and prepubescent neutering. It has also been suggested that there may be a hereditary component to adrenal disease.
Adrenal disease is usually detected during the spring or fall. This is because adrenal disease affects the hormones that make the fur grow, so when ferrets with adrenal disease shed their winter coat they simply don't grow it back because of the disease. The hair loss pattern is usually very specific for adrenal disease: It begins at the base of the tail and then continues up the ferret's back. Ferrets who have been treated for adrenal disease may also suffer temporary but severe hair loss as their bodies recover.
Like adrenal cancer, the exact cause of insulinoma is unknown. It is speculated that the diets of domestic ferrets are too far removed from the natural diets of their polecat ancestors, and include too much sugar or simple carbohydrates.
Treatment for insulinoma may include surgical excision of the cancerous lobes, pharmaceutical treatment with steroids that suppress the production of insulin, supplemental changes in diet (most often poultry-based baby food), or a combination thereof. Unfortunately, the growth of the tumors cannot be completely stopped, and the ferret will eventually suffer a recurrence of symptoms. In an insulinoma attack, a temporary remedy to stabilize the ferret is any kind of a sugary syrup, such as corn syrup or honey.
In juvenile ferret lymphosarcoma, large, immature lymphocytes (lymphoblasts) rapidly invade the thymus and/or the organs of the abdominal cavity, particularly the liver and spleen. In adult ferret lymphosarcoma, the lymph nodes in the limbs and abdominal cavity become swollen early on due to invasion by small, mature lymphocytes. Invasion of organs, such as the liver, kidney, lungs, and spleen, occurs later on, and the disease may be far advanced before symptoms are noticeable.
As in humans, ferret lymphosarcoma can be treated surgically, with radiation therapy, chemotherapy or a combination thereof. The long-term prognosis is rarely bright, however, and this treatment is intended to improve quality of life with the disease.
ECE, a viral disease that first appeared in the northeastern US in 1994, is an inflammation of the mucous membranes in the intestine. The disease manifests itself as severe diarrhea (often of a bright green color), loss of appetite, and severe weight loss. The virus can be passed via fluids and indirectly between humans. Although it was often fatal when first discovered, ECE is less of a threat nowadays with the right supportive care which usually includes hospitalization with intravenous fluids. The virus is especially threatening to older ferrets and requires immediate attention.
Aleutian disease virus (ADV)
Aleutian Disease Virus (ADV) is a parvovirus discovered among mink in the Aleutian Islands in the early 20th century. In ferrets, the virus affects the immune system (causing it to produce non-neutralizing antibodies) and many internal organs, particularly the kidneys. There is no cure or vaccine for the disease, and ferrets may carry the virus for months or years without any external symptoms. As a result, some ferret organizations and shelters recommend that owners test their pets for the virus regularly, separating them from other ferrets if they test positive.
Canine distemper (CD) is an extremely contagious virus that is almost always fatal. Being strict indoor pets does not necessarily protect ferrets, as owners may bring the virus home on their clothes or their shoes. The only protection against the virus is vaccination, but that is not without controversy as there have been reports, particularly from the USA, of ferrets going into anaphylactic shock after being vaccinated against CD.
Influenza virus isolation using ferrets
Ferrets have served as a good experimental animal models in the study of influenza virus. Smith, Andrews, Laidlaw(1933)inoculated ferrets intra-nasally with human naso-pharyngeal washes, which produced a form of influenza that spread to other cage mates. The human influenza virus(Influenza type A) was transmitted from an infected ferret to a junior investigator , from whom it was subsequently re-isolated.
Dental Health is a very important part of any ferret's health, and should not be neglected.
Ferrets have 4 types of teeth (the numbers includes maxillary(upper) and mandibular(lower) teeth)
Dental tartar primarily comes from wet food which get stuck to the teeth for extended periods of time. The best way to avoid tarter is to feed the ferret raw meat, bones and preferably whole prey. The biomechanics of consuming meat and bones will keep the teeth clean
Tartar, left to itself may lead to gingivitis which in turn can lead to a dental abscess, bone loss, infections which may spread bacteria trough the bloodstream to internal organs and lead to death if not treated. (Note: Tartar on the tooth itself is not dangerous, it only becomes a problem when the tartar closes in on the gumline and starts to irritate the gums)
Tartar can be removed either mechanical or by ultrasound at a veterinarian (this usually involves anesthesia), a small toothbrush can also be used as a preventive measure if one is unable to feed the animal with raw meat.
Prevention is better than treatment, and tartar can be prevented by feeding raw food or giving specially made gelatin treats for ferrets
Eating manufactured dry food (kibble) will erode (due to the hard and extremely dry kibble) the carnassial teeth of the ferret, the wear from the eating kibble can become significant with old age (after about 3-5 years). If the teeth are ground down too much, the ferret will not be able to use them as scissors to eat raw meat. The erosion will eventually affect the ferrets ability to eat solid food
Dental Abrasion can also be caused by excessive chewing on fabrics or toys, and cage biting. If the ferret engages in these activities a lot, it might be a sign of boredom, and more stimulating activities (like play) should rectify the situation.
Ferrets come in a variety of coat colors and patterns. The ones recognized by the American Ferret Association are as follows:
"The Ferreter's Tapestry" is a fifteenth-century tapestry from Burgundy, France now part of the Burrell Collection housed in the Glasgow Museum and Art Galleries. It shows a group of peasants hunting rabbits with nets and white ferrets.
man with a colored pet ferret wearing a red collar on his shoulder. This image was reproduced in Renaissance Dress In Italy 1400-1500, by Jacqueline Herald, Bell & Hyman — ISBN 0-391-02362-4
Gaston Phoebus' Book Of The Hunt was written in approximately 1389 to explain how to hunt different kinds of animals, including how to use ferrets to hunt rabbits. Illustrations show how multicolored ferrets that are fitted with muzzles were used to chase rabbits out of their dens and into waiting nets.
Ferrets have also been used to portray other animals in the film The Big Lebowski (where a ferret portrayed [or perhaps was misidentified by the characters as] a Marmot), and the TV show Ned's Declassified School Survival Guide, (where a ferret portrayed a weasel).
In the, as yet unreleased, movie, Inkheart, based on the book by Cornelia Funke, one of the main characters, the fire-eater, Dustfinger, owns a pet marten, Gwin, which is replaced in the film by a 'polecat' or sable ferret.
HTV Wales has a long-running investigation series called The Ferret.
|Air Canada||Yes||No||No travel between December 19 and January 9 or between June 20 and September 10.||Travelling with your Pet|
|Delta Air Lines||Yes||Yes||Pets as Carry On|
|Luxair||Yes||Yes||Restrictions apply on flights to the UK.||Travelling with animals|
|Northwest Airlines||Yes||No||Travel with pet|
|Ryanair||No||No||What is Ryanair's policy on the carriage of animals?|
|US Airways||No||No||US Airways does not allow pets as cargo because of the heat in some of their hub cities, such as Las Vegas.||US Airways - Pets in the Passenger Cabin|
|Southwest Airlines||No||No||Animals and Pets|
|Eurostar||No||No||Information on taking Pets and Guide dogs on Eurostar|