Caring for your Ferret

Ferrets are probably one of the most misunderstood domestic animals. They have a reputation of being smelly and vicious, often mistaken for rodents, but this couldn’t be further from the truth – ferrets make wonderful working animals and pets.

FACT: Male ferrets are called hobs, females jills and youngsters kits.

Like any animal, ferrets need looking after properly. They should not be treated as an easy to manage pet and are most definitely not to be recommended for children to care for without constant adult supervision. They can be easily hurt by an inexperienced child and require just as much attention and level of care a dog or cat would.

They need to be handled daily from a young age, need a secure place to live, and as they’re really intelligent animals, they need loads of mental and physical activity to stop them getting bored. A ferret’s life rotates around food, sleep and play, so make sure you can fulfil all these aspects before deciding to get one. Ferrets are a long-term commitment; they can often live ten years or longer so make sure you are ready and able to care for them this long. They are exceptionally clean animals and their living quarters need to be cleaned regularly. Feeding a healthy diet will ensure your ferret remains healthy and is fit enough to endure a full days’ work. Many serious illnesses are now linked to improper feeding – a balanced diet will help to avoid this.

An eight-week-old hob: (Picture courtesy of Folly Bridge Ferretry)
A jill, left, is smaller than a hob.

Where to get a ferret

The best way to go is to find a reputable breeder. Always make sure you visit the breeder to see the animals and how they are kept. Kits are always born over the summer, as jills come into season in spring when the days get longer (never buy kits born outside of the natural breeding season). When buying ferrets from a breeder, you can usually count on them to provide support, tips and information on how to work your ferret and what equipment you’ll need.

Picking the right ferret

Whatever gender you decide to go for, always make sure that the kits are playful, healthy and alert. Unlike puppies, a kit will be wary of you at first, so expect to have your fingers nipped occasionally – that’s just what they do! Offering them your knuckles rather than fingers is always a good idea to start with.

Young ferrets are ready to go to a new home at eight weeks of age, by which time they have opened their eyes and are fully weaned. Be very careful not to purchase a kit that looks too young; just like cats or dogs, ferrets have a lot to learn from their mother and siblings.

Making a home

The size of cage you’ll need will depend upon the number of ferrets you intend to keep.

Having an indoor cage is an option to consider, especially for a lone ferret.

If you are considering having more than one ferret, keeping them outside is a good option, either in a hutch or in a purpose-built court.

A hutch is suitable for a smaller number of ferrets as the space is quite limited. When purchasing a ready-made hutch, you need to be aware that some ‘improvements’ might be necessary as ferrets are excellent escape artists. A concrete floor, or mesh underneath the ground is a must, as ferrets love to dig. Make sure that any wire mesh has a gap size of no more than 12mm so that even a youngster can’t squeeze through.

A ferret court. (Picture courtesy of Folly Bridge Ferretry)

TIP: Putting a short length of drain pipe in the hutch will encourage ferrets to go into dark holes – never force them in or they may develop a fear of tunnels.

If you are thinking of having more than a couple of ferrets, a court would probably be the best choice. You can either build it yourself or find an experienced joiner to help you. Courts are usually made of timber, mesh and plastic and are relatively easy to build. They can be tailored to suit your specific needs. The court should be high enough for you to stand up in as crouching makes cleaning uncomfortable.

Give your ferrets plenty of opportunity to exercise. (Picture courtesy of Folly Bridge Ferretry)

Exercise keeps ferrets fit when they are not working, so make sure they have plenty to do. The court should have separate sleeping quarters, which should be warm and cosy to keep them happy. Fitting separate ‘nest boxes’ is a good idea, however, you will often find all the ferrets sleeping in a big pile.

Diet

Beautiful healthy teeth of a raw fed ferret

Never give your ferret cat or dog food as this is full of plant matter which ferrets simply cannot digest. They are what you call obligate carnivores, which means they need to eat meat to survive and thrive.

A general rule for feeding is that anything apart from meat is potentially poisonous to your ferret. Ferrets are lactose intolerant, so feeding dairy products is also a no-no. Complete dry foods are readily available from most pet shops. However, take care as many contain plant matter which can cause blockages and can be fatal to your ferret. Always read the ingredients carefully before purchasing dry food and avoid brands using plant matter in their products.

Most experienced ferret owners will advise to use fresh meat as often as possible to keep your ferret in tip top condition. Ferrets don’t eat a lot, and you will find they eat a lot less meat than dry food. As a general rule, an average jill will eat around two ounces of meat per meal, an average hob around four ounces per meal and kits can eat considerably more than adults. It’s best to offer them more food until you find the ideal amount. Most owners feed ferrets twice a day and do not leave the meat lying around for too long to avoid it becoming smelly and attracting flies.Make sure you introduce your ferret to all kinds of meat early on, as they tend to imprint on foodstuffs and then might refuse to eat anything except the things they’ve been fed on most often. Another important thing to remember is to clean the cage regularly because ferrets WILL stash meat and bones all over the place. A massive benefit of feeding meat is that it can usually be sourced either cheaply or at no cost at all. Feeding meat will give the ferrets a stronger hunting drive and will ensure they remain healthy.

Ferrets eating a chicken carcass. (Picture: Nina Harvey)

The BARF (Biologically Appropriate Raw Food) diet is gaining popularity with many cat and dog owners nowadays. However, there is a bit more to it with ferrets. Just like cats, they need high levels of taurine* to survive, so a variety of meats in a ferret’s diet can literally save its life. People keeping ferrets as working animals should find feeding them meat a lot easier. If you start feeding meat from an early age, you’ll find that the kit takes to it like a duck to water. You don’t need to worry about chopping the meat up, just throw in a whole carcass and let your ferrets do their job. Tearing off meat and crushing bones keeps their teeth and gums healthy, enabling them to work longer. Providing whole prey, complete with fur, will also keep their intestines clean.

TIP: Do not feed egg white as it can lead to baldness. However, raw egg yolk is nutritious and loved by ferrets. It is also a good remedy for blockages and hairballs!

If you decide that using dry food is easier, you can still feed meat as an extra – ferrets will benefit from it hugely. You might also want to think about using salmon or fish oil as a supplement and treat – all ferrets enjoy it. Feeding raw egg yolk regularly is also very beneficial – raw egg yolks contain one of the highest concentrations of biotin* found in nature.

To spay or not to spay

Generally, there are three options available. One is to have the jills spayed, another is to get them implanted. The latter allows you to breed from the jill once the implant stops working. The third option, and the one most commonly used by ferreters, is ‘mating’ the jill with a vasectomised hob. This will temporarily take the jill out of season but she will come back on later on that year. There’s often a vasectomised hob doing the rounds in some areas, so speak to other owners to find out who might have one available. It is essential to remember that jills might not come out of season unless they’re mated, spayed or implanted. This can be a very serious, even fatal, risk for the jill and should never be overlooked.

Males can also be temporarily neutered with a hormone implant – which also reduces the intense smell they tend to give off during the mating season. Vasectomising or castrating your hob also works, but this means you won’t be able to breed from him.

TIP: Always make sure to keep the ferrets’ pen clean and tidy, especially during the breeding season when the jills’ vulvas are swollen and open to infection, as well as when the kits are born. Keeping their pens clear of fleas will make your ferrets a lot happier.

If you don’t want to breed from your ferrets, it is advisable to have your jills spayed or implanted (Suprelorin implant lasts for around two years). If they are left intact without implants and remain in season there may be serious health risks which could be fatal.

The Suprelorin implant.

It has been clinically proven that spaying ferrets can cause adrenal disease so if you can afford a little extra money, most vets now recommend trying the implant first. If you decide to spay, do so only after the jill is fully grown and preferably after her first season.

Hobs are, by nature, far more laid-back than jills and can be considerably larger. Temperaments shouldn’t be much different, as both sexes are equally playful and curious. Both jills and hobs can turn a little boisterous and difficult to handle during mating months because of the raised hormone levels but this is perfectly natural. Males have a more intense smell than females when mature and in season, but neutering or implanting can reduce this to some extent.

Breeding your ferrets

If you plan on breeding from your ferrets, you need to prepare separate runs for jills rearing young. Breeding ferrets can be relatively easy provided you are prepared. Ensure the hutch/run is large enough to accommodate upwards of ten ferrets and you have more than enough food ready to feed them.

Difficulties can arise for several reasons. During mating some hobs can be too rough and aggressive and can even end up killing the jill. Conversely, some jills can also be quite uncooperative and can seriously damage the male’s genitals so the hob can’t be used for breeding again. Infections spread easily during the mating season, so you have to make sure all your ferrets are healthy before deciding to breed.

TIP: Unmated jills can die of various infections, or even develop cancer.

Photo by Nick Ridley

Even when the ferrets have successfully gone through the breeding process, there are other things that could go wrong. Mated jills are still at risk of various infections, for example Pyometra, (see November/December 2015 issue of Shooting & Conservation magazine). All infections to the vaginal canal or uterus can be life-threatening and must be treated by a vet.

There is always a risk of miscarriage with ferrets. It is often caused by stress or trauma so keeping your pregnant jills separate and quiet is essential. There is a serious risk of uterine prolapse which can result in her death unless you desex her quickly. There is also a risk of the jill being unable to deliver her kits and she might need an emergency C-section. There is always a risk of internal bleeding which will obviously result in death if not treated quickly.

Hobs should always be kept away from jills with kits. Jills tend to be quite moody when pregnant and prefer to be left alone when rearing their kits. Make sure to provide extra nutritious food (raw meat and bone is the best source of all necessary nutrients) for the pregnant jills or when they are feeding their young. Don’t bother the jill too often and most definitely leave her alone when she is due to give birth and for at least seven days after giving birth (she can bite, and she will bite hard, to protect her young). When startled and feeling threatened, some jills will kill their new-born kits.

TIP: Provide extra shavings, shredded paper or rugs for jills to make a nest. Don’t use hay as it can get damp or mouldy and can lead to health problems, especially for younger ferrets.

There are also various risks to the kits. Poor diet or genetic issues can result in them developing all sorts of defects, for example, the Swimmers Syndrome. Kits will be lethargic, unstable and unable to lift their chest and bellies off the ground.

Some of the most serious ferret diseases

Ferrets are susceptible to a number of diseases. Here are a few of the most common ailments, along with some of other dangers your ferrets might face.

Insulinoma is a cancer of the pancreas and is thought to be largely caused by the consumption of sugars and carbohydrates (kibble). Older ferrets, over the age of five, are most susceptible to it. One of the functions of the pancreas is to supply insulin, a hormone that regulates blood sugar levels. If a ferret suffers from insulinoma its pancreas produces too much insulin which causes sugar levels to drop too low. Signs to look out for are lethargy, inactiveness and confusion. As the disease progresses, the ferret could vomit and/or drool and it will lose its appetite and lose weight. It is also common for them to start dragging their rear legs. Very advanced insulinoma will result in twitching, seizures and finally coma.

Adrenal disease is a cancer of the adrenal glands and it’s thought to be caused by desexing at too young an age or possibly exposure to unnatural light cycles. Adrenal glands are forced to be overactive after spay/neuter. This can potentially lead to cell overgrowth which can lead to tumours. Even though they are not malignant at first, there is a risk of them becoming malignant with time. Common symptoms of this disease include balding and prostate enlargement, which causes difficulty urinating, leading to urinary blockage. Other signs can be depression, aggression and muscle wasting. This disease is usually treated with Suprelorin implant.

Adrenal disease before and after treatment

Hairballs (bezoars). Unlike cats, ferrets cannot cough-up hairballs; they must be passed through their digestive system. Whole raw eggs (or just yolks) and a properly balanced raw diet help to prevent hairballs. If you notice your ferret is finding it difficult to defecate, feeding extra egg or fish oil should help to push out the hair.

Heat. Ferrets cannot tolerate hot weather. Anything around 26℃ is risky; anything above is dangerous and can lead to heat stroke (and death) in as little as 10 minutes. It is true that we very rarely get hot summers, however, it only takes one hot day to lead to tragedy. Ferrets do not sweat, so cooling them down is even more difficult than with other animals. Providing very cold water for them to drink and even soak in is a great idea. Frozen bottled water wrapped in a rug or a sock also works really well.

Spending time with your ferrets will make them more sociable and easier to train and most people don’t realise how much fun playing with ferrets can be until they try.

TIP: Regular handling is essential so that ferrets like being picked up by you.

The more training you do with your ferret, the stronger the bond between you will be. Ferrets that see their owners as a safe haven will be more likely to run towards them than away when spooked – and they do spook easily!

*Taurine – a beta amino acid that is found in the bile and muscle tissues of mammals. The highest concentration is found in excitable tissues – in the heart, retina, central nervous system and skeletal muscles. Taurine works as a neurotransmitter aid to facilitate communication between the brain and muscles. It supports the proper development of neurons used by the central nervous system, strengthens the pumping muscle in the heart and prevents enlarged heart disease.

*Biotin – a B-complex vitamin that is an essential nutrient for mammals. Deficiency results in dermatitis, hair loss, loss of muscular co-ordination and can even lead to death.

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