If you’re thinking about getting a ferret as a pet, they can be terrific pets, but they’re not great for everyone. Ferrets have a lot of unique requirements and a lot of times people rush out and get a ferret and don’t really know a lot about them. Ferrets are in the Mustelidae family or weasel family. They have many features of cats and dogs and unfortunately get a lot of the same diseases that cats and dogs can get so they do need to be vaccinated. If you’re going to get a ferret, you do need to take it to the veterinarian, and have it checked out. Ferrets should have a checkup once a year for vaccines. When you first get the ferret make sure that you vaccinate for rabies and for the distemper virus. These are diseases that you’re probably familiar with in cats and dogs. You will want to check out the laws in your town because ferrets are not legal everywhere in the U.S and around the world.
Ferret Behavior & Precautions
Ferrets are very curious, mischievous, and they get into everything. If you’re going to have a ferret in your home, you must ferret proof your environment. This means making sure that all little things and little objects are taken off the floor. They’re hoarders that like to run around, gather things and hide them. For example, ferrets are known to collect dozens and dozens of pairs of shoes and hide them away in closets. So, people lose their shoes or lose important objects. They also tend to eat a lot of things inappropriately. They love rubber, soft and chewy things. You never want ferrets to have access to anything that they could chew, like a rubber ball or even the foam on the back of a couch. You must prevent their access to these objects because it can get stuck in their gastrointestinal tract and cause an obstruction, which is potentially life-threatening. If you’re going to let your ferret run around, which it should come out of its cage and run around, you must open an area and make sure that it’s safe. Make sure all the wires and small objects that the ferret could get into are put away.
When ferrets are in a home, they need to be supervised. This means that if they’re not being watched, they need to be in a cage, so they didn’t get into trouble. The cage should be big enough for them to climb and move around. They can live successfully with other ferrets, but they do better when ferrets are raised together. Sometimes when you introduce another ferret later on, you can potentially introduce infection and sometimes they will have some behavioral issues if they don’t know the new ferret. You must do the introduction gradually.
Ferret Dental Issues
Ferrets also get dental problems. They have teeth more like cats and dogs’ teeth. They’re not like rabbits or rodents, whose teeth grow continuously. They’re closed rooted, meaning they grow in baby teeth that fall out and then the adult teeth grow in. Just as you would brush a dog’s or cats’ teeth, you would brush your ferret’s teeth the same. They make little tiny toothbrushes that have meat flavored toothpaste that comes with them. You can get these at your veterinarian’s office or a local pet supply store. You should start brushing your ferrets’ teeth from an early age to get them used to it. Otherwise, they’re going to build up a lot of tartar on their teeth and they do need professional cleaning.
Why Proper Nutrition is Important for Your Ferrets Health
Ferrets are carnivores, meaning they eat meat so they should have a fairly high protein, moderate fat and lower carbohydrate diet. There are some great pellet foods out there on the market that meet those needs. You want to avoid feeding them a lot of sugar and carbohydrates. They are prone to developing a type of tumor in their pancreas called an ‘insulinoma’. Insulinoma is almost the opposite of diabetes. With diabetes you don’t make enough insulin, so you must take insulin if you’re diabetic. With ferret’s, with an insulinoma there is a growth or a cancer that grows in their pancreas and it produces excessive amounts of insulin. This lowers their blood sugar and makes them lose weight and become very weak. We can’t prevent this from happening, but we can prevent surges in insulin if the ferret is developing an insulinoma or is tending toward it. We can prevent these surges in insulin by avoiding a lot of sugary food. If you’re going to feed your ferret treats, try a little piece of cooked meat, deli meat, cooked chicken, lean meat, or little bit of egg or cheese. Feed your ferret things that are higher in protein rather than sugar.
You don’t want to feed them a lot of junk food. You want to focus on protein as the main sources of nutrition and fresh water. You really don’t need to feed them more than that. Remember in the wild they’re eating all kinds of prey animals. They’re eating rodents, rabbits, even some amphibians and fish and all other kinds of things. We don’t feed them that variety in captivity. So, it is important that they’re on a pelleted diet that contains all the vitamins and minerals that they need. There are people that are fans of raw diets. Captive ferrets and their gastrointestinal tract haven’t evolved to adapt to all the bacteria, including salmonella bacteria that comes in raw meat. So, if a pet ferret should eat something that has salmonella in it, they can get diarrhea and a very upset stomach.
Common Ferret Health Issues
Pet ferrets are also susceptible to some other things that people can get as well such as the human flu virus. Pet ferrets are one of the very few animals that do get the flu from people. So if you have a cold or if you have the flu or if you suspect you having the flu, you don’t want to be handling your ferrets. Ferrets can catch it from you, and they can get very sick with respiratory problems. Another disease that you want to be aware of if you have a pet ferret is adrenal gland disease. Adrenal gland disease is a tumor that forms in one or both adrenal glands. The adrenal glands are little glands that sit in front of each kidney. There’s two of them in the ferrets’ body and two of them in our bodies as well. Pet ferrets tend to be inbred in the US, and this is a disease that seems to pop up a lot in ferrets as they age. Usually after age three and sometimes we’ll see it as early as two in some captive bred ferrets.
What happens is that they produce excessive amounts of hormones in the adrenal glands which are sex steroid hormones. Sex steroid hormones cause them to lose hair if it’s a male ferret. The male ferrets will actually have an enlarged prostate. Enlarged prostates can press down on the urethra, which is the tube that drains the bladder, making it hard to urinate. They can strain and sometimes they can suffer urinary tract obstruction, which is a life-threatening thing. You will see hair loss in your ferrets and that they’re very itchy. You’ll see that in females, the vulva, which is the space around the vaginal opening, will enlarge. These are signs with hair loss and itchy skin, even little pimples in the skin that your ferret might have an adrenal gland tumor.
Treatment for Adrenal Gland Disease
Adrenal gland tumors typically have been treated by surgery in the past. Now we have a hormone called Lupron or Leuprolide acetate, which is the name of the technical name for the hormone, that is available through veterinarians that can be used to treat the adrenal gland disease. There are implants of this hormone as well and these implants are called Deslorelin. They look like little rice grains that are implanted underneath your ferrets’ skin that slowly release this synthetic hormone like the Lupron hormone. You can either give it through injection or you can implant them. The hormone is released very slowly over time in the ferret’s body. This synthetic hormone sort of tricks the ferret’s body into thinking that it’s time to shut off all those sex hormones in the adrenal glands that now have tumors in them and are in overdrive. These adrenal gland tumors that form are producing excessive sex hormones are shutting down the formation of these sex steroids.
These hormones that we use synthetically don’t eliminate the tumors in the adrenal gland, but they do control the output of these hormones by these tumors and we control the signs. If the prostate is enlarged, it can help shrink the prostate. If the vulva is enlarged in a female, it can help shrink the vulva. If left untreated, these adrenal gland hormones can suppress the bone marrow of the ferret, making the fat more susceptible to infection. This is something you do want to treat. If your ferret is showing any of these signs, hair loss, swollen vulva, straining to urinate, itchy skin, you should have your ferret checked out by your veterinarian. This is a very common disease in ferrets typically after about age three.
Importance of Vet Visits
Ferrets also get heart disease as they age. So, it’s important to have your ferrets heart examined or listened to by your vet every year. Unfortunately, they get other types of tumors for example lymphoma, a very common tumor in all animals, including people. Ferrets are also susceptible to some gastrointestinal viruses.
You’ve probably heard of the green slime diarrhea that ferrets get which is called coronavirus. Those viruses can be contagious from ferret to ferret. Many times, a young ferret in pet stores who have been around a lot of other ferrets will pick up this virus and carry it without showing any signs. Then an owner may bring this young ferret into their household, where perhaps they have older ferrets and they suddenly break with diarrhea. This is something that you need to be aware of when introducing new ferrets to old ferrets. You should do this gradually. You want to make sure you monitor your older ferrets if they’ve been exposed to these new ferrets for diarrhea and have them seen by a vet if this develops. Ferrets also will often carry bacteria in their gastrointestinal tract called Helicobacter. It’s a bacteria that’s present in the human stomach as well. Sometimes it gets out of control in ferrets who are stressed if they’re undergoing a move or they’re moving homes or there’s a new pet in the house. Sometimes the Helicobacter will sort of overgrow in their intestinal tract and produce diarrhea or bloody diarrhea and even tarry dark stool if it’s digested blood. This is another sign that you want to have your ferret checked out. There are a handful of diseases that if you’re going to have a ferret you should be aware of.
Caring for New Ferrets
Ferrets can be on the other hand wonderful, fun, playful companions. When you first get them, just like a puppy or kitten they might be kind of nippy. You must teach them not to bite. Which means if they’re nipping at you then you want to put them down and give them a time out. You don’t want to reprimand them, because if you yell at them when they’re biting and nipping at you, it encourages or inadvertently reinforces that nipping behavior. You just need to put them down and walk away if they’re nipping at you and over time, they will grow out of that.
You do want to remember also that ferrets can get fleas like dogs and cats. There are topical medications you can get through your veterinarian to prevent that. If you live in an area where it’s very warm and let your ferret outside, ferrets also get heartworm disease like dogs do. You want to get them on a preventative for heartworm disease, particularly if you want to try to walk them outside. Some people do like to walk them on leashes. Not all ferrets love to walk on leashes. It’s something that you must train them to do.
Ferrets can be wonderful, fun, outgoing companions, and they can live many years with good medical care. Unfortunately, a lot of them get these same conditions so it is important to have them checked annually so that your veterinarian can diagnose these diseases early and try to treat them before they get too serious, too quickly. Ferrets can live successfully in houses with cats and dogs but you must supervise your ferret. Remember that your ferret is a predator, like a cat and dog. If you have other smaller animals in the house, like bunnies, gerbils, hamsters, or guinea pigs, your ferret may try to go after those pets, not maliciously, but instinctually. You also must make sure you supervise your ferret around other animals, including birds. They are hunters in the wild, so you don’t want to leave all these animals unattended together.