Owning a Ferret: What You Should Know

By: Ariana Finkelstein, DVM

TVMA Member
San Antonio, TX

Published September 2014

Ferrets can make great pets, but it is important to know the pros and cons of owning one before you take the leap into ferret ownership. Most of the ferrets in the U.S. come from Marshall Farms. They are all spayed or neutered and de-scented at a young age before leaving the farm. Although they have their scent glands removed, ferrets still maintain their unique “musky” odor, so it is important that you and your family are comfortable with this smell. Marshall Farms ferrets have two green dots tattooed in their ear for identification. Owning a ferret is illegal in several states; however, Texas is not one of them.

What are Ferrets Like?

Ferrets are more than just fuzzy, cuddly creatures, although some do love to cuddle. Ferrets are also carnivores with sharp teeth and claws. They are very athletic and active and need a lot of entertainment. Ferrets manage to get into a lot of things if they are not properly supervised and can make a mess even if they are litter-box-trained. They have been known to chew wires, tear up carpet and damage furniture.

How Do You Care for a Ferret?

Ferrets require specially formulated ferret food. Even though they thrive on a high-protein diet typical of a true carnivore, they still like sweets (e.g., raisins). Sweets, however, should not be fed to ferrets, except in special situations as advised by a veterinarian (e.g., blood draws or if diagnosed with low blood sugar). They often drink from a sipper bottle.

Owning one means their cage needs to be cleaned regularly, as does their litter box. The cage should contain multiple tiers and be as large as possible to encourage their natural behavior. They are very inquisitive and good at escaping. They should not be allowed out of the cage without supervision as they can get lost, stuck in small places or into things that could be dangerous to them. Many people tend to have more than one ferret at a time because they are social animals.

Just like dogs and cats, ferrets also need to see the veterinarian regularly. A new pet exam is recommended to ensure they do not have parasites, are up-to-date on their vaccinations and are started on heartworm prevention. The veterinary visit will also help you know how to care for your new pet. After the new pet exam, annual exams and vaccinations are also recommended. You will need to find a veterinarian who is comfortable treating ferrets, which may be someone different than the veterinarian who sees your dog or cat. There are special vaccinations just for ferrets, like a ferret distemper vaccine. Ferrets also are vaccinated for rabies with only one type of rabies vaccine. Both of these vaccines are currently recommended annually.

What Health Issues do Ferrets Face?

Ferrets, like cats and dogs, can also get heartworm disease, and for ferrets, just one worm can be fatal, so they should be kept on heartworm preventatives, which can be obtained from your veterinarian. Like for cats, the heartworm test is a little complicated, as ferrets only have low worm burdens, meaning they have a small number of worms, generally one to two. Special heartworm testing needs to be done. Also, if they get heartworm disease, the worms cannot be treated as they are in dogs. They have to be removed using specialty equipment or managed medically.

Unfortunately, ferrets can get several types of cancer, including adrenal tumors, insulinomas and lymphoma.

Adrenal Tumors

Adrenal tumors often cause a bilateral symmetricalSymmetrical arrangement, as of an organism or a body part, along a central axis, so that the body is divided into equivalent right and left halves by only one plane. hair loss over their tail and hind end. They are tumors that occur in a gland (adrenal gland) that sits just above the kidneys. These can often be managed medically with an implant under the skin. Surgical removal is often the treatment of choice, as this may be curative.

Insulinomas

Insulinomas are a tumor of the pancreas and cause increased production of the hormone insulin. This in turn causes low blood sugar. Affected ferrets usually become weak, cold and non-responsive if not treated. This is a medical emergency and cannot wait. If your ferret becomes limp, non-responsive or has a seizure, seek veterinary care immediately. If it is after-hours, find an emergency clinic to treat him or her. Insulinomas can often be managed with oral medication; however, surgical removal is often the treatment of choice.

Lymphoma

Ferrets who have lymphoma can present with many different signs. A thorough medical exam and appropriate testing will help diagnose this type of cancer.

Because these diseases are more common in the older ferrets (4 to 8 years), new procedures and medication have become available to help with these diseases. Consult with your ferret’s veterinarian for more information.

Ferrets can make great pets. Make sure you understand what you are getting into, and know that they require veterinary care throughout their lifespan. Consider purchasing pet insurance to help with the costs of medical treatments that may arise with age.

Ariana Finkelstein, DVM currently practices at Mission Pet Emergency in San Antonio, Texas.

  • Anne_Ominous

    Ariana:

    One minor correction. Ferrets are illegal in only 2 states. One is Hawaii, which is understandable because they have a fragile island ecosystem, and they have VERY strong reason to be suspicious of any animal that presents even the slightest risk of becoming an introduced invasive species.

    The other state where ferrets are illegal is California, and many people are working hard to change that. The reason they are illegal is actually a legislative mistake, back around WWII. Prior to that time ferrets were fairly common working farm animals, which were kept around to keep down mice, rats, and other pests which tend to eat the grain or produce. Much like cats still are.

    About the time of the war (I forget whether it was before or after), California passed an “invasive species” law, preventing the import of potential invasive species into the state. Unfortunately, the law was not worded as carefully as it should have been, and ferrets met the definition of a potential invasive species. (Which is silly, as I will explain in a moment.)

    In the U.S., the only other places ferrets are illegal are in a few communities that have local ordinances to keep them out, the most notable of them being New York City. And that one was due to Mayor Giuliani, who got them banned for unknown personal reasons of his own. That is changing too, and ferrets are likely to be legal again in NYC very soon, according to the current mayor.

    The reason that it is silly for the California invasive species law to apply to ferrets, is that there is virtually no danger that they will go feral and endanger any other species. Ferrets have been domesticated for approximately as long as cats, and they have been present in the United States since it was first colonized. Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting “Woman with an Ermine” is actually of a ferret, not an ermine.

    The only place in the entire world where ferrets have become a dangerous “invasive species” has been in New Zealand, where they were imported to reduce the population of rabbits, which were another imported invasive species which bred out of control and became a huge problem. Probably the only reason ferrets became feral in NZ is because of the unique situation there, and the plethora of rabbits for the ferrets to eat.

    Despite their continual presence here in the U.S., ferrets have never been known to go feral or present any danger to other species. It is interesting to note however that common housecats DO often go feral and endanger other species. So if California’s law were actually rational, cats would be banned long before ferrets.