14 Things to Consider Before Buying a Ferret

What Every Prospective Ferret Owner Needs to Know

Ferrets are playful, active, curious and loving. They make wonderful pets, but before you fall in love with one at a pet store or rush off to get one after talking to a delighted ferret owner, there are a few things that you must consider.

Ferrets make excellent pets for people who have the time for them, and who bond well with animals. Ferrets are naturally quiet, friendly, inquisitive, intelligent, and companionable. At certain points in the day, they are also exceedingly active and capable of getting themselves into trouble unless they are supervised. Their intelligence makes them interesting companions, and they are able to amuse themselves when you are not around. But they do require attention and interaction with their owners; their mental and physical health depends on it.

City, county, state, or military regulations can all dictate whether or not it is legal for you to own, breed, or sell a ferret where you live. The regulations can be quite involved. California, for example, allows only neutered males to be kept; and in Carson City, Nevada, it is illegal to own a ferret if you have a small child in your household. To determine the regulations in your area, check with your local Wildlife or Fish and Game department, with the Humane Society, or with your local veterinarian. These organizations should also be able to advise you on license and permit requirements. Depending on where you live, you may need a license or permit for your ferret. The costs for this can range from free to $15 or more.

The purchase price of a ferret can vary widely, ranging from $65 to more than $250. But the cost of buying the animal is only part of your initial cost. In addition to the purchase price, you can expect to pay another $150 to $350 for vaccinations (including rabies), veterinary examinations, and basic supplies. You will also need to budget for spaying or neutering your new pet, so check with your veterinarian for costs before making your purchase decision. You may wish to consider purchasing an older, already altered animal in lieu of a young kit.

Once you bring your new ferret home, you will need to budget for renewals of vaccinations, routine veterinary care, and applicable licenses. Your ferret will, of course, need food, plus you will need to regularly buy litter, deodorizing cleaners, over-the-counter medicines including hairball remedies, and vitamin supplements, shampoos, collars and leads, etc.

Many prospective ferret owners are naturally concerned about how well a ferret would get along with their children or other pets. A ferret is a demanding pet for a child, requiring careful adult supervision and the maturity of the child. The child must be able to recognize that a ferret behaves differently from a dog, cat, or other pet. The child must also be old enough to handle the responsibility of caring for the ferret. Ferrets are not recommended for a household with children younger than 6 or 7 years, and especially close supervision would be required around infants or babies.

Because they are natural hunters, ferrets usually can't be trained to get along with birds, fish, rabbits, rodents, or lizards. If you have these animals in your home, you will need to provide vigilant supervision at all times. But ferrets can generally be trained to get along with cats and dogs. Note, however, that terriers and similar dogs were originally bred to hunt.

If you have a dog or cat, you will want to introduce them to your ferret gradually, and vice versa. You will need two people, one to hold the cat or dog and one to hold the ferret. Allow your pets to smell each other while providing encouragement and reassurance-your cat or dog will be bewildered and anxious as well, so be certain to provide them with extra attention. Let the animals' behavior guide you. As they seem to accept each other, you can gradually allow them to interact freely under close supervision. Make certain, however, that the ferret has an escape route available. And no matter how well your pets seem to get along, you will want to be sure to continue to provide supervision when they are together. Feed them separately and be certain that you don't allow your ferret to play with your other animal's toys.

Ferrets must be taught not to nip or bite, much the same way that kittens and puppies are taught what behavior is appropriate. A domestically bred ferret will usually not be vicious or aggressive, but it is in its nature to enjoy games that simulate hunting, tug-of-war, chasing, or mock combat. A young ferret will not understand what hurts you and what doesn't hurt you until you communicate the boundaries. It will be up to you to establish those boundaries appropriately, without hurting your ferret or teaching it to fear or mistrust you.

Some ferrets do respond to fear, pain, or to certain noises or actions by biting. The key to altering that behavior is to understand and eliminate the underlying reason. If it is a noise, eliminate the source of the noise. If it is some action on your part, try to assess your behavior from your ferret's point of view. Your ferret isn't doing it to be mean or with the intent to harm you.

What Age to Get
Because ferrets retain a lot of wild tendencies, they require affection, care, and understanding. Without the necessary time, patience, or knowledge of a ferret's needs, unfortunately some people do get into trouble with discipline. As a result, ferrets are neglected or even abused, and then given away or resold. Most of the older ferrets that you encounter when searching for your new pet will not fall into this category. If you are not able to devote the added time and energy required for raising a kit, adopting or rescuing an older animal may be the perfect solution. Just be careful to understand why it is being given away or how it came to be abandoned, and be doubly certain that you will be able to give it a good environment.

If you wish to get a kit, for most people, the ideal age kit will be between eight to sixteen weeks, although they are often sold as little as six weeks old. A kit less than eight weeks is not really old enough to leave its mother and siblings, and it is best to wait until they are 12 weeks old. A kit, while requiring more time, training, and patience than a mature ferret, will reward you with added playfulness and adaptability; and you will have the joy of watching it grow.

How Many Ferrets
Depending on the companionship, time, and home environment that you can provide, your ferret may be happier having you to itself. Alternatively, you may wish to have other ferrets to provide companionship when you can't. Ferrets are playful, so they like to have interaction and lots to do. There are some people who point out that the ferret's wild relatives are solitary animals. On the other hand, many ferret owners observe how delightfully ferrets will play together. The choice of how many ferrets you will have is up to you; however, if you wish to have more than one ferret it usually works best if you obtain them both when they are young and then introduce them gradually, as described above for introducing a cat or dog.

Male or Female
Jills (female ferrets) and hobs (male ferrets) each have their advantages, most of which have to do with the reproductive cycle. If you wish to breed your ferret, then you will need to do more research. If you do not intend to breed ferrets, then it is kinder to spay or neuter your pet. An unaltered, unmated jill will remain in "heat" for six months out of each year, and that will involve changes in her behavior as well as her physical characteristics. In addition, the hormones involved can increase the risk of leukemia and stress-related illnesses. An unaltered male can become aggressive to other males during breeding season, and you should be aware of this tendency if you intend to keep more than one ferret at a time. Another argument in favor of neutering is the issue of scent.

Buying a Healthy Ferret
While the color, age, or gender of a ferret may not matter in the long run, the health of your new pet matters very much. As you pick out your new ferret, you need to be sure that it is in the best of health. The key to judging a healthy ferret is in its behavior and general appearance.

A healthy ferret should be playful, alert, and curious. Its eyes should be bright, its ears should be erect, and its movements should be smooth and supple. There should be no discharge from its ears, nose, mouth, eyes, anus, or sexual openings, and its ears, mouth, and pads should be pink and clean.

Scented or Descented
Healthy ferrets naturally have only a slight musky odor that comes from a gland under the skin. But they also have a scent sac near the anus, and some of the scent is passed in the feces to help the animals mark their territory. Males also have stronger-scented urine. Descenting your ferret, removing the scent sac, will not help the natural musky healthy odor and it can lead to a host of medical problems. Neutered ferrets will rarely release their scent unless they are extremely agitated or frightened. Even then the scent dissipates quickly and can be treated with special solvents or left to evaporate on its own. Keeping your litterboxes scrupulously clean can also control any unwanted odor.

Litter Training
Unlike cats, ferrets don't naturally prefer to use a litterbox. But they can be trained. Start a ferret using a corner box inside its cage or in a very small area, and then gradually allow more freedom as it continues to use the box. You may need to keep a small amount of dirty litter in the pan for a little while to help your pet understand the box's purpose, and you can discourage the ferret from using other corners of the room or enclosure by covering them with bedding or food bowls. Use lots of positive reinforcement-verbal praise and petting along with treats. Prepare to be patient, to regress now and then, to clean up mistakes very carefully using an enzyme or bacterial-based odor remover, and to be vigilant until your pet gets the hang of it.

Ferret-Proofing Your Home
In addition to litter training, you will want to take some additional precautions for your ferret's safety and for the safety of your home and possessions. Because of their curiosity and energy as well as their physiology, ferrets can-and do-squeeze into very small spaces. Depending on the size of your ferret (hobs are about twice as big as jills), you will want to be certain to block all holes over 1/2" x 1". Be particularly cautious around kitchen appliances, cabinets, and heating and ventilation ducts. Protect electrical cords and outlets. Block doorways with specially designed safety gates, or with wood or Plexiglas pieces slotted into the doorframe. And be extra certain to watch your feet-and ask any guests to your home to watch their feet. Ferrets are prone to playing literally underfoot.

Furniture is another area of concern. Ferrets like to nest, so be wary of allowing them near couches, sofas, beds, and sofa beds. Fasten heavy fabric or thin plywood across the bottoms of couches, sofas, etc. Avoid futons, which are difficult to safeguard. And be wary of springs or levers inside sofabeds or reclining chairs. Also, because ferrets love to nibble on floor fabrics, you may need to place a plastic carpet protector over any sections that your pet finds especially appetizing.

Be extra careful to safeguard the contents of drawers and cabinets to prevent your ferret from opening them, and to keep medicines, soaps, cleaners, etc. safely out of your ferret's reach. Close toilet lids to avoid drowning accidents, and supervise sinks, bathtubs, buckets, etc. any time that they are filled with water. Aquariums should also be covered.

Be wary of your ferret with houseplants. Many plants are dangerous, toxic, or deadly, and you should check every plant in your home for safety before allowing your ferret to run loose. To keep your ferret from chewing on your "safe" plants, you can try coating the leaves with Bitter Apple or a similar solution.

Like a cat, dog, or child, you will need to protect your ferret from suffocation hazards including plastic bags and drapery cords. But because of your ferret's small size, you will need to also consider items like the cardboard tubes that hold toilet paper, paper towels, or gift wrap. These may seem like inexpensive toys, but they can pose a danger to your pet.

Ferrets love to play, so be sure to provide lots of toys in lots of variety for them. The more that they have to do, the less mischief they will be inclined to find. (If you don't provide a toy, they'll find or make one!) And, you will delight in watching them at play. Most cat toys are great for ferrets, but ferrets are harder on them than a cat would be. They chew more vigorously, and foam or rubber or small parts can get lodged in their windpipes or cause intestinal blockage. Be sure to buy toys that are durable. Specially made ferret tunnels, hammocks, and swings are also great favorites and will provide hours of amusement.

Your ferret needs plenty of fresh water and a diet high in fat and protein. While many ferret owners feed cat or kitten food, that is in large part because there are simply very few ferret foods available. Kaytee makes a good ferret food specially formulated for your pet's nutritional requirements, and we offer it through our Web site or mail-order catalog. In any case, avoid fish and fish-flavored cat food, which can create a litterbox odor problem, and do not feed your ferret dog food as that will fill your ferret up without providing some of the necessary nutrients.

Do not feed human snacks to your ferret, as many foods are toxic or indigestible. Avoid chocolate, caffeine, tobacco products, colas, coffee, tea, ice cream, milk, and onions. Ferrets do need variety, though, and they will do just about anything for a treat-including learning tricks such as sitting up, walking to heel, begging, and rolling over. You can reward your pet for desirable behaviors or just add variety to your ferret's diet with vegetables, fruits, and treats. Safe, specially formulated ferret treats are available through companies like Ferret Fiesta, in flavors ranging from carob raisin to peanut butter.