What are ferrets and do they make good pets?
Ferrets are domestic animals, cousins of weasels, skunks and otters.
(Other relatives include minks, ermines, stoats, badgers, black-footed
ferrets, polecats, and fishers.)  They are not rodents; taxonomically
they're in between cats and dogs, a little closer to dogs.  They are
friendly and make excellent pets.  If you've never met one before, the
easiest way to think of them is somewhere between cats and dogs in
personality, but rather smaller.  They can only see reasonably well,
but they have excellent senses of hearing and smell.  Some are cuddly,
others more independent; they vary a lot, just like other pets.

Ferrets are a lot of fun.  They are very playful, with each other and
with you, and they don't lose much of that playfulness as they get
older.  A ferret -- or better, two or more [4.3] -- can be a very
entertaining companion.  They are smarter than cats and dogs, or at
least they act it.  They are also very inquisitive and remarkably
determined, which is part of their charm but can also be a bit of a
bother.  They are friendly, and they do know and love you, though for
some of them it can take a year or so to fully bond.

They can be trained to use a litter box [7.2] and to do tricks [8.2],
and most of them love to go places with you, riding on a shoulder or
in a bag [8.8]. They sleep a lot, and they don't particularly mind
staying in small places (a cage [5.4], for instance, or a shoulder
 bag) temporarily, although they need to run around and play for at
least a couple of hours a day.  A "single" ferret won't be terribly
lonely, although the fun of watching two or three playing together is
easily worth the small extra trouble [4.3].  Barring accidents,
ferrets typically live 6-10 years.

Ferrets have lots of good points as pets, but there are some negatives
as well.  Like kittens and puppies, they require a lot of care and
training at first.  They're "higher maintenance" than cats; they'll
take more of your time and attention.  Ferrets have their own distinct
scent [3.7], which bothers some people, and many of them aren't quite
as good about litter pans [7.2] as cats are.  Although most ferrets
get along reasonably well with cats and dogs, it's not guaranteed, so
if you have large, aggressive pets (particularly dogs of breeds
commonly used for hunting), keep that in mind.  Likewise, small
children and ferrets are both very excitable, and the combination
might be too much [3.8].

Finally, the importance of ferretproofing must be emphasized.  Ferrets
are less destructive than cats, but they love to get into EVERYTHING,
so if you keep them loose you'll need to make sure they can't hurt
themselves or your possessions [5.1]. They love to steal small (and
not so small!) objects and stash them under chairs and behind
furniture.  They like to chew on spongy, springy things, which must be
kept out of reach or they'll swallow bits.  Accessible boxes, bags,
and trash cans will be crawled in, and houseplants within reach are
liable to lose all their dirt to joyful digging [5.2].  Finally, many
ferrets tend to scratch and dig at the carpet [5.2].  Naturally, these
traits vary from one ferret to another, but they're all pretty common.
If you're not willing to take the necessary time to protect your
property and your pet, a ferret may not be for you.

 The domestic ferret has been a useful member of the human household for a few thousand years. Today they have reached true companion animal status and are appreciated throughout much of the world.


The domestic ferret (Mustela putorius furo) is thought to be a domesticated Western or Eastern European polecat. The Eastern European or Steppe polecat (Mustela eversmanni) and the Eastern European polecat (Mustela putorius putorius) are very similar in appearance and skeletal structure. The ferret can interbreed and produce fertile offspring with either of these species of polecat. The domestic ferret is not a domesticated form of the black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes) which was native to the western United States. Black-footed ferrets recently became extinct in the wild, but they are gradually being reintroduced through captive breeding programs.

The name Mustela is a Latin derivation of the term mus for mouse. Animals in the Mustela genus include weasels and other "mouse catchers". Putorius is from the Latin putor, which means a stench referring to the musky odor of the ferret. Furo comes from the Latin furonem meaning "thief". So we have a "mouse-catching, smelly, thief"! The word ferret most likely comes from the Latin furo or the Italian furone with the same meaning of "thief".

Currently there is still controversy over which species of polecat the domesticated ferret actually came from. Studies have been performed comparing skull structure, coat color and behavior in all three species. In addition, there is little archeological evidence to suggest exactly when ferrets were domesticated and what path they took in becoming established in Europe. This maybe because their tiny bones decay rapidly or because archeologists previously overlooked their remains as insignificant and did not record these findings. Some suggest that the ancestors of the domestic ferret originate in Northern Africa and then were spread to Europe with Roman and/or Norman invasions. Many researchers believe that the spread of ferrets through Europe was accompanied by the spread of the rabbits that they hunted, as we shall see in the discussion under Historical Use.

 History on Black footed ferrets

The black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes) is the only ferret species endemic to North America and has been classified as an endangered species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service since l967. Within the genus Mustela, ferrets belong to the subgenus Putorius, from which there are only three extant species: M. putorius, the European polecat; M. eversmanni, the Siberian, or steppe polecat; and M. nigripes, the black-footed ferret. The European polecat lives in open forests and meadows, and is thought to be the ancestor of the domestic ferret. The Siberian polecat looks nearly identical to the black-footed ferret and leads a similar life on open grasslands and semi desert regions across Russia, China and Siberia.

Ferrets probably evolved in Europe, between three and four million years ago, from weasel-like ancestors. The earliest known ferret species, M. stromeri, probably gave rise to M. putorius and M. eversmanni during the middle Pleistocene. Ferrets dispersed from Siberia into North America during the late Pleistocene across the Bering land bridge, and advanced southeastward to the Great Plains through ice-free passageways. Over thousands of years of coevolution with prairie dogs as prey, their behavior and biology gradually changed to suit their environment, and thus, they evolved into today's black-footed ferret. Although the first occurrence of black-footed ferrets is uncertain, scientists speculate that the species has probably been present in North America for at least 100,000 years. Molecular data collected from black-footed ferret specimens indicates that this species diverged from its Siberian counterpart between 0.5 and 2 million years ago.

Caring for you ferret


Feed your ferret a high-quality ferret or kitten food that's high in protein (34 to 38 percent) and fat (19 to 22 percent) but low in fiber. Make this readily available throughout the day, as ferrets digest food quickly and eat 7 to 10 meals a day. Avoid giving your ferret any moist, canned cat food, which can contribute to dental-tartar formation.


Offer treats such as meats. Give no more than 1 tsp. a day, and mash or chop food into small pieces to make it easier for him to consume.


Provide a cage that's equipped with a water bottle and lined with newspaper on top of linoleum. Make sure the cage is large enough for exercise. For one or two ferrets, the cage should measure 18 by 30 by 36 inches and contain at least two levels. Keep your ferret in his cage unless supervised.


Give your ferret 2 hours of playtime and exercise outside the cage each day. Be sure to ferret-proof your home by removing hazardous products before allowing him to roam the house. If you take your ferret outside, always keep him on a leash made for small animals.


Protect your ferret from extreme weather and temperatures, especially direct sunlight and heat (anything over 80 degrees F can be harmful).


Have a ferret-savvy veterinarian vaccinate your ferret for rabies and canine distemper. Also, remember that ferrets can get fleas, heartworm and intestinal parasites. Consult a veterinarian for preventative measures and treatment.


Spay or neuter your pet ferret. This is especially critical for females, as female ferrets are induced ovulators (they ovulate when bred). If she is not bred when in heat, she can die from anemia.


Give your ferret toys such as tennis balls, cardboard boxes and cat toys. Make sure none of your ferret toys have small, removable parts, as your ferret can ingest these and develop an obstruction in the digestive tract.


Pick up your ferret from behind. Use one hand to support his chest and the other to support his hips.

 Leaving your ferret home alone?

You should never leave your ferret home alone longer then 24 hours! Get a family member or a friend to watch them while you are out!

 Ferret Behavior                                    


Alligator roll-   Ferrets generally exhibit this behavior when they are playing with other ferrets.  One ferret usually grabs the other ferret by the scruff and "flips" the other ferret over.  This action is important in establishing dominance between two ferrets.  The "alpha ferret" is the one doing all of the flipping,  while the more submissive ferret is the one constantly getting flipped!  Sometimes a single ferret will roll around by his or her self  while excited during play.   Young ferrets and ferrets who have not been nip trained will sometimes try to "scruff" and roll a human by grabbing lose skin on the back of a hand, socks, or feet.  This is all done in good fun, however if it is painful the behavior should be discouraged.  Ferrets have much tougher skin than humans, so what may feel like a "pinch" to another ferret can feel like a bite  to a human.


Backing into a corner- Ferrets do this for different reasons.  If your ferret backs up into a corner or wall while hissing and getting all "puffed" up,  your ferret is telling you that he or she is frightened.  It is important to not try to grab or pick up a frightened ferret.  If your ferret is frightened,  just speak soft kind words and leave him or her alone.  Your ferret will soon recover once he or she feels that the threat or danger is gone.  Another reason ferrets back into corners is a more common one.   Ferrets will often back up into a corner to use the bathroom!    If you see your ferret backing into a corner, and he or she is not frightened, look out.   Your ferret is about to use the potty on the floor!  It is helpful to quickly place your ferret into the nearest litter box as soon as possible (before the deed is done).

Bottle brush tail-  Ferrets will often get a "puffy" tail when they are frightened or excited.  If a ferret has a bottle brush tail and is backing away from you and hissing, he or she is frightened and needs to be left alone until calm.  However, if your ferret gets a "puffy" tail while exploring a new environment (like going outside for the first time), or during vigorous play, he or she is just very stimulated and excited.  Puffy tail can also be a precursor to having a "wired weasel" on your hands!  


Chasing- Ferrets LOVE to play chasing games.   They will chase one another and they will chase you (and want you to chase them).    Many new ferret owners get frightened when their ferret jumps around and "lunges" at them and then starts to run around like a crazed animal.  Don't worry.  Your ferret is just trying to entice you into a game of chase.  If you decide to turn the tables and chase your ferret back,  just make sure you have several feet between you and your ferret.  Ferrets can stop suddenly and get stepped on!

Dance of Joy-  This is one of my favorite aspects of ferret behavior.  The "dance of joy"  consists of a ferret jumping around from side to side, flipping on the floor, bouncing off of furniture and generally loosing all control!  Your ferret may slightly open his or her mouth during the display and make "chirping or dooking" sounds.  Basically, your ferret is telling you that he or she is full of energy, incredibly happy and ready for some serious playtime!  Many first time ferret owners can be frightened by this display (I have had people write to me thinking that their ferret was attacking them).   Don't worry.  Your ferret is simply bursting with joy and energy.  

Dooking-  This term refers to the sound a ferret makes when excited and happy.  My husband prefers to call it "chirping."  The next time you play with your ferret, listen closely.  Sometimes it is hard to hear the soft vocalizations ferrets make when excited.  My ferrets "dook" quite loudly when playing with one another and when I take them outside.

Food digging-  This is often an "unwanted" ferret behavior, however many ferrets do it.  Ferrets are born to dig, and to them a bowl of chow is as good as a pile of dirt when it comes to digging.  I have learned to live with this behavior and have not attempted to get my ferrets to stop.  Most ferrets will just eat the food that they dig out of the bowl. It is nearly impossible to stop ferrets from exhibiting behaviors that are a part of their nature.

Food and water bowl tipping-  This is another unwanted ferret behavior, however many ferrets do it often.  Ferrets are playful animals and will play with their food and water if given the chance.  Sometimes ferrets will tip over their food and water if they are bored from being caged too long.  Your ferret may be trying to tell you that he or she is upset or lonely.  Other times, a ferret will knock over the food or water bowl to play in the spilt food or water.  Many ferrets love to play in shallow water and to dig in food.  A bowl of water is just plain irresistible to a ferret and it can eventually get knocked over during play.   Purchasing heavy ceramic food bowls or food bowls that attach to the side of the cage can help in solving this problem.  Ferrets do also tend to like to mix a little water in with their food.  I discovered my ferrets  "scooting" the food and water bowl (they are attached) across the kitchen floor until some of the water splashed into the food side of the bowl.  They then drank the water out of the food side of the bowl and ate the food.  If your ferret does this, try moving some of the ferret food aside and splashing a little water into the food bowl.  This may help in keeping the food and water bowl from getting  tipped over accidentally.  Just  be aware that moist food spoils quickly, so you should remove any uneaten portions and replace it with fresh food.

Hissing-   A hissing ferret can be an unhappy or angry ferret.  Always use caution in trying to pick up a ferret who is backing away and hissing.  You could get bitten.  Ferrets usually hiss to show fear or anger.  However, ferrets can sometimes hiss when engaging in play with one another.  If your ferret hisses while displaying an arched back and "bristled" fur,  just speak softly to your ferret and leave your ferret alone.  He or she is not a happy ferret and could bite.  Only pick up your ferret after he or she has calmed down.

Litter box digging-  Ferrets LOVE to dig, and litter is no exception.  To avoid litter box digging, try keeping a small piece of stool in the litter box at all times.  A squeaky clean litter box can be a wonderful digging toy to a playful ferret.  If your ferret can smell excrement in the box, he or she may see it as a place to do business and not a place to play.  You can also purchase some "play sand" or potting soil from a hardware store and make a "sand box"  for your ferret to play in.  If you give your ferret appropriate places to dig, he or she may leave the litter boxes alone.

Obsession with a particular object-  Ferrets can and do become obsessed with particular objects or toys.  Your ferret will probably pick his or her favorite toy and hide it in a secret hiding place.  If you find the toy and remove it,  your ferret could become very anxious, angry or stressed.     Ferrets can also fight with one another if one tries to take the other's favorite object.  Your job is to make sure your ferret becomes attached to a safe item.  Ferrets are notorious for stashing things that they like all over the house (even car keys and wallets!).

Object "scooting"-  This is another one of my favorite ferret behaviors.  Ferrets will sometimes try to move large or awkward objects by grabbing them with their paws, holding them close to their chest and "scooting" backwards.  The funny aspect of this behavior (besides the fact that they look funny) is that they often just move around in a circle, not really getting anywhere at all!   
Running into things -  Believe it or not, ferrets actually have very poor eyesight.  They can only see about two feet in front of them.  Their peripheral vision (side to side) is better than their frontal vision.  This is why a playing ferret may run head on into a wall or piece of furniture while running.  Ferrets also have very poor depth perception and may suffer from "high rise syndrome."  For this reason, it is not advisable to let your ferret run around on a balcony or high patio.  Ferrets have also been known to scratch through window screens and fall to their deaths.   Be sure to watch your ferret closely if you have a two story home with an open balcony on the second floor.  Many people put Plexiglas barriers around open banisters on the second floor.

Screaming-  If your ferret lets out a scream,  you can be sure your ferret is not a happy camper.  Ferrets can let out a scream when very frightened, injured or unhappy.  It is not a sound you want to hear.  If your ferret screams due to an injury, you want to get him or her checked out by a vet as soon as possible.  Sometimes, ferrets may scream during rough play or dominance wrestling.  This is especially true when a new ferret is being introduced into the family.  Ferrets do have a pecking order and the submissive ferret may be getting bullied by the "alpha ferret" of the group.  If you hear your ferret scream while playing with another ferret, always check out the situation.  You want to make sure there are no bites or serious scratches that need medical attention.  If no injuries are taking place, continue to let the ferrets "duke it out" for short supervised periods of time.  Ferrets will usually sort out their differences on their own.  However, if one ferret is injuring another ferret, they should be separated.

Scratching-  Ferrets tend to be itchy animals.  If your ferret suddenly stops during play and scratches like crazy, don't worry to much about it.  Ferrets tend to scratch often.  However, always check your ferret over for fleas, skin redness or skin lesions.  If you find any lumps or bumps on your ferret's skin, go see a veterinarian.  If fleas are present, talk to your vet about topical flea products, or use a ferret specific flea shampoo.  Be sure to treat your house for fleas as well.  If your ferret's skin looks fine, your ferret is just displaying typical "itchy" behavior.

Sneezing- Ferrets do tend to sneeze a lot.  This is usually due to their close proximity to the ground and their habit of smelling everything in sight.  If they sniff something that is dusty, they will sneeze. However,  if the sneezing is accompanied by a runny nose or lethargy, you may have a sick ferret on your hands.  Ferrets can catch human viruses.  If your ferret does not improve in a few days, or if he or she starts coughing or has a thick mucus discharge, take your ferret to a veterinarian for a check up.

Tail wagging-  This is another adorable ferret behavior.  If you are lucky, you may see your ferret wag his or her tail very rapidly when excited.  This behavior usually takes place when two ferrets are playing in a tunnel or tube.  It just means that your ferret is very excited and is anticipating something fun.   

Toe Nipping-  Ferrets will often nip toes and feet when they are young.  They are basically treating your foot  like another  ferret.  Ferrets will often nip one another to entice play.  They also scruff one another using their mouths during play.  Because ferret skin is tougher than human skin, a playful nip can feel like a bite.  You should discourage this behavior in young and old ferrets.  Wearing socks is usually the best deterrent for foot and toe nipping.  Ferrets seem to LOVE stinky feet.  So, if your feet stink (or even if they don't), try wearing socks around your ferrets at all times.  If this does not stop the behavior, purchase some Bitter Apple and apply it to your feet.  It tastes terrible and should deter your ferret from nipping.  Say "no" very loudly each time your ferret nips your foot.

War dance-  This ferret behavior looks a lot like the "dance of joy," however it has a very different meaning.  If your ferret is arching his or her back with bristled fur,  jumping from side to side, backing away and hissing-  look out.  Your ferret may be pretty upset.  While the general movements of the war dance are similar to the dance of joy, the body language is different.  Ferrets can do the war dance when frightened, injured or angry.  If your ferret has not been descented, he or she may release a very stinky smell during this display.  Your ferret is trying to look big and scary and stinky.  He or she is telling you to stay away- and you should listen to your ferret until he or she feels comfortable again.

Wrestling-  Ferrets often play with one another in the form of wrestling.  One ferret will usually use his or her mouth to "scruff" the other ferret behind the neck.  He or she will then try to "alligator roll" the opponent and pin him or her  to the floor.  This can be done with much dooking and hissing (and sometimes screaming).  Ferrets wrestle to establish dominance and to "mock fight"  during play.  Ferrets are very elaborate and talented wrestlers.  Their antics may look dangerous, however more often than not they are just playing rough.  However, if you hear a lot of screaming coming from one ferret, be sure to look the ferret over for injuries.  Not all ferrets like one another and they really could be fighting!

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