Lots of people are crazy about ferrets. “I think most veterinarians that work on ferrets will tell you they’re pretty darned adorable,” says Valarie V. Tynes, DVM, DACVB.
But people who love them want you to know about the challenges of living with them.
“The first thing I always ask people is, ‘Why do you want a ferret? What are you attracted to?’” says Karen Lamb, shelter coordinator for the American Ferret Association, who has run Nirvana Ridge Ferret Rescue since 1998. “The right answer is they’re curious, they’re interactive, they’re affectionate. But people still don’t know what comes along with this.”
Time and Space Needs
The first misconception is that this is a small animal who can spend a lot of time in an appropriate cage. “They’re more like dogs in a small package,” says Lamb. “They’re very high maintenance.”
Because they’re agile escape artists, ferrets must be caged for safety when unsupervised. They need the largest cage possible, and they require plenty of time out of the cage, with social interaction. “I tell people, don’t get a ferret if you can’t get the largest possible cage, and provide some sort of indoor environment for playtime and have the time to observe,” says Dr. Tynes.
Lamb recommends a minimum of four hours a day out of the cage for an adult ferret; active youngsters need six to eight. A recent study concluded that ferrets with more space and more room to roam had fewer behavior problems, Tynes says.
Is Your Home a Ferret Folsom?
Ferret-proofing is serious business. Ferrets can go through very narrow openings, climbing inside beds, recliners, and sofas. “People don’t always understand they can open kitchen and bathroom cabinets,” Tynes says. She learned this the hard way years ago when a ferret opened the bathroom vanity and got through a three-quarter-inch opening where the drainpipe went into the wall. “It got underneath the cabinet and I had to bust it apart with a crowbar to get it out,” she says. “Luckily the ferret was fine and not injured, but my landlord was not happy.”
Ferrets not only need supervision, they also need interaction. “Ferrets evolved as solitary animals but it appears that in the process of domestication, they’ve been made more social,” says Tynes. Although there are individual differences, it’s generally recommended to have at least two. Some ferrets get along with other pets, but interactions must be closely supervised, especially where there’s a size difference.
But play with other pets isn’t a substitute for time with their person. Learning the right kind of play is important so it will be fun for both of you. “They’re very mouthy with each other, and can play very aggressively, but they have thick skin, so they don’t hurt each other,” says Tynes. “So they have to be taught to play with people.” This means using safe and appropriate toys, not your hands. “They’re very object-oriented, so it’s very easy to entertain them with objects,” she says.
Ferrets are Fragrant
They have their own special scent. It’s innate and bathing doesn’t entirely remove it.
“Don’t get a ferret and expect to make that odor to go away completely,” Tynes says.
Any pet requires research beforehand, but when considering a ferret, some information is crucial. Most important: make sure it’s legal to own them where you live. Although the species kept as pets has been domesticated for thousands of years, in some places they fall under laws restricting ownership of wild animals. For instance, ferrets are illegal in California, Hawaii, and New York City, so check local and state ordinances before acquiring one.
You will need access to a veterinarian who treats ferrets. Ferrets need regular preventive care, including vaccinations against rabies and distemper. They are also prone to endocrine and metabolic disorders, including Cushing’s disease. Treatment is available, but it’s not inexpensive, and Lamb warns that the majority of ferrets will eventually suffer from one or more of these conditions. Tynes says it’s also not uncommon for them to chew up soft rubber or plastic objects and need surgery for blockages.
Purchase a cage in advance. Pet stores sell cages labeled for ferrets, but they’re usually not large enough. (Lamb recommends Ferret Nation cages by Midwest). Research ferret food and treat needs as well. Ferrets are obligate carnivores – that is, they eat meat exclusively – but Lamb has seen products for other small animals, such as hay and salt licks, inappropriately labeled for ferrets.
Ferrets are a long-term commitment: their lifespan ranges from five to nine years.
Never get a ferret if you’re looking for an easy pet. But if you can rise to the challenge, a lot of people think it’s worth it. “They’re so interactive – they want to be with you. They’re so therapeutic and so entertaining,” says Lamb. “Those are all the right reasons get a ferret.”
This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.
Linda Lombardi writes about the animals that share our planet and our homes for magazines including The Bark, websites including National Geographic and Mongabay.com, and for the Associated Press. Her most recent book, co-authored with Deirdre Franklin, is The Pit Bull Life: A Dog Lover’s Companion.
Published May 11, 2020