Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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The Ferret: An Unusual Pet

Pet Column for the week of July 16, 2001

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Jennifer Stone
Information Specialist

Ferrets have become very popular as household pets. They are related to the weasel and the skunk, but they are domesticated animals, which means they cannot survive on their own in the wild. Because ferrets are such gregarious animals, most ferret owners have more than one to provide companionship for the pets when the owner is away. Most ferret owners agree that antics between two ferrets can be wonderfully amusing.

Ferrets are playful and mischievous animals that tend to get into things. According to Dr. Gary Brummet, an Urbana practitioner and adjunct faculty member at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine, "Ferrets make very good pets as long as you realize their limitations." Their curiosity can be a danger to them when they decide to explore dark areas like the inside of sofas. Sofas, reclining chairs, and rocking chairs are hazardous to these animals because people unwittingly sit down without realizing their furry friend is inside.

Ferrets also have a tendency to ingest foreign objects that can cause blockages in the intestine. "I have removed everything from pieces of plastic to orange seeds from ferrets with an intestinal blockage," comments Dr. Brummet. Unless you are willing to go to extreme lengths to make your house a safe place for your ferret, it is best to confine your ferret to a large cage or to one room that has been completely "ferret-proofed."

If you decide to house your ferret in a cage, a cage with a solid bottom is best. Wire-bottomed cages can be used only if you make sure that the ferret has a solid surface to lie on. Over an extended period, wire can become very uncomfortable.

Many types of ferret accessories can be purchased to make ferret homes more fun. There are tents and hammocks that ferrets can burrow into and explore and ferret-proof toys that can be left inside the cage.

Like cats, ferrets need a higher level of protein in their diets than most animals. You can safely feed a diet made especially for ferrets or a high-quality cat food. Ferrets are also like cats in that they can be trained to use a litter pan. Many people like to use litter made out of pelleted newspaper because it does not have dust particles that can get into the air and cause breathing problems like regular litter can.

"Ferrets have a reputation for biting, but the truth is that they are no more likely to bite than a cat or a dog," says Dr. Brummet. Young ferrets are just like puppies in that they want to gnaw on things. This type of behavior is usually transient and can be discouraged by saying "NO" in a firm voice and then removing your attention from the animal for a while. As the ferret grows older, this type of unacceptable behavior will usually subside.

Most ferrets are neutered and descented by the breeder before they reach their new owners. Male ferrets have oil glands in their skin which give off a very musky odor and are much more active when the male is unneutered. Neutering not only helps reduce the smell but can also help curb aggressive behavior toward other ferrets.

Descenting is the removal of anal glands located on either side of the anus. These anal glands have a very pungent odor, and the ferret may release their contents when it becomes excited. To prevent this, these glands are usually removed at the time of neutering or spaying.

In female ferrets, spaying is absolutely essential. Once a female ferret has gone into heat, she will not go out of heat again unless she is bred. If she remains in heat, within just a few months the excess hormone, estrogen, will eventually cause depression of bone marrow activity. This causes fewer red blood cells to be produced, leading to fatal anemia.

Ferrets usually live to between 6 and 8 years of age, but can begin to show signs of old age as early as 4 years. They share susceptibility to influenza viruses with humans, which means that the flu can be transmitted back and forth between you and your ferret. Ferrets are also very susceptible to cancer. Insulinoma, one of the most common forms of cancer in ferrets, is an insulin-secreting tumor of the pancreas that causes the ferret to have very low blood sugar (hypoglycemia). Ferrets also frequently suffer from adrenal tumors, which cause weight and hair loss.

If you are thinking about getting a ferret, be sure that you are prepared to handle its special needs. For people who are prepared to accept this challenge, ferrets can be wonderful companions. If you have any questions about ferrets, talk to your local veterinarian.