Temperament: playful, active, mischievous
Lifespan: 6-10 years
Recommended for: units, families with school aged children
Ferrets are a domesticated strain of Eurasian carnivorous weasel, closely related to the polecat. Some zoologists believe that the Egyptians were the first to keep ferrets, which they may have domesticated around 1500BC to catch mice.
Ferrets were introduced to Australia by early settlers and although they are notorious ‘escape artists’, their numbers in the wild have not risen to the feral stage, as has happened in other countries. This is probably due to the Australian climate and predation by cats and dogs.
Ferrets are still used in many countries to control rabbits, rats and mice, but this is illegal in some states of Australia. Ferrets are banned in Queensland and the Northern Territory, while in the ACT and Victoria you need a licence to keep them.
Ferrets look like otters or weasels with short legs and long bodies. The head is no wider than the body, enabling the ferret to crawl through very small spaces. Males are called ‘hobs’, females ‘jills’ and babies ‘kits’. Hobs are about 45cm long from nose to tail tip, jills are around 35cm. Hobs weigh about 1.2-2.3kg, while jills weigh about 500g-1.2kg. Ferrets have an outer guard coat which, if coloured, is usually brown with a beige undercoat, dark legs and tail and a dark mask across the eyes.
In the United States there are up to 38 colours and patterns known in exhibition ferrets. Colours commonly found in Australia are sable, albino (white with pink eyes) and white with black eyes. Sables vary from deep brown (chocolate) to light brown (butterscotch). Many albinos are not pure white but have a creamy or even an orange tint, caused by the activity of sebaceous (oil) glands. Albinism is due to the expression of recessive genes which result in a lack of pigmentation in the skin. Black-eyed whites may also have some black flecking through the fur.
Ferrets are very playful, inquisitive and intelligent. While usually typecast as vicious animals, regularly handled ferrets can become very affectionate towards their owners and live alongside cats and dogs in relative peace. However pet birds, chooks, rats and mice need to be securely caged to prevent possible attacks. According to breeders and owners, well handled ferrets are very rarely vicious but can be nippy on occasions, depending on the amount of handling. Children should be supervised when playing with ferrets, because if ferrets are handled roughly they can easily be frightened and may bite.
Ferrets are social animals, which appreciate the company of other ferrets rather than being alone. It is important that kits not be taken away from their families before nine weeks of age as they need pack socialisation. It is not uncommon for ferrets to sleep for large periods of the day, even up to 16 hours.
Feeding and maintenance
Ferrets are meat eaters and need a high protein diet consisting of meat or animal byproducts. A balanced diet of dried cat food and red meat such as mince is appropriate. As ferrets are prone to heat stroke, fresh water must be provided at all times.
Ears need regular cleaning and nails need cutting weekly. Ferrets should be washed once a fortnight and the litter cleaned regularly. Ferrets need daily exercise and owners should be prepared to spend time playing and interacting with their pets. Owners say they are easy to house train and common kitty litter can be used.
Health and breeding
Ferrets should be vaccinated against canine distemper once per year. They should be wormed every six months to protect them from hookworm, roundworm, whipworm and tapeworm. To prevent heartworm infection, use a heartworm preventative such as Heartguard.
Ferrets are susceptible to colds, which they can catch from humans (and vice versa). Treatment includes isolation, rest and plenty of water. If the condition does not improve, seek veterinary attention.
A mature female comes into season around September and will remain that way unless mated, desexed or receives an injection from the vet to bring her out of season. Unmated females are susceptible to infection and anaemia, and will eventually die. Desexing of all ferrets, particularly females, is strongly recommended. Jills will usually produce a litter of 4-10 kits, which are only about 3-4cm long when born.
Both sexes have musk glands under the tail. These are like anal glands in dogs and are used in ‘fight or flight’ situations. While ferrets can be descented, this operation is only necessary in some cases on medical grounds.
Space and exercise
As long as ferrets are let out to exercise at least twice a day, they can be housed in a clean cage inside the home. A large cage able to contain a litter box and an enclosed space with very narrow gaps between the wire is ideal. Whether they are kept indoors or outdoors it is vital that there is shelter available to escape the heat and to allow for quiet retreat when sleeping. When exercising ferrets outside they should not be left unsupervised unless the yard is ferret proofed or a fully enclosed ferret run is built.
Cost and lifespan
A desexed ferret will cost about $100 or you could pay $170 for a desexed pair from ferret welfare societies. Included in this price is vaccination and worming. A healthy ferret will live between 6-10 years.
People with time to share with their ferret friends, families with school aged children and people who live in units.
New South Wales Ferret Welfare Society
This is a non-profit organisation run by volunteers. The Society accepts stray, neglected and surrendered ferrets, with a view to rehoming. Each ferret sold is vaccinated, wormed, desexed and nip trained. New owners are also advised on how best to keep their ferret. For more information phone (02) 9635 9212 or visit the website http://members.tripod.com/AliFerret/
Warning – NZ – Ferrets are going to be banned in New Zealand since ferrets like to eat kiwis and other native wildlife.