Editor’s note: This post is a Care2 favorite, back by popular demand. It was originally published on October 10, 2013. Enjoy!
It’s easy to fall in love with a ferret when you see a cage full of young kits in the pet store. Over the past few decades, these pets have experienced a massive boom in popularity, becoming more and more common in households across the United States — in fact, they’re now the third most popular pet after cats and dogs. In 1996, a government study estimated that more than 800,000 ferrets were being kept as pets throughout the country, and the number has undoubtedly grown since.
Unlike cats and dogs, most people don’t know much about ferrets or how to care for them. Many people simply aren’t prepared for how much work they can be to care for. So if you’ve been thinking about adopting one of these adorable (and sometimes downright goofy) creatures, today I want to share 15 facts every prospective ferret owner needs to know before taking the plunge.
1. Ferrets are NOT wild animals.
While ferrets may have only become a “cool” pet in the last 20 years or so, the truth is that humans and ferrets have coexisted for thousands of years. Ferrets were first domesticated more than 2,500 years ago, but not as pets — much like early cats or dogs, ferrets were working animals, used for hunting rabbits or controlling pests near farms or grain stores.
This misunderstanding may stem from people confusing domesticated ferrets with the black-footed ferret, a wild endangered animal native to the Western United States. While related, these animals are completely different species, and bear about as much resemblance to each other as a house cat does to a wildcat. After so many centuries living side-by-side with humans, pet ferrets are unlikely to survive on their own in the wild and prefer being with their human families.
2. Ferrets aren’t rodents, either.
It’s easy to see how someone could mistake a ferret for a member of the rodent family, but they’re actually carnivores that are descended from weasels and polecats. The horrifying truth (at least for pocket pet lovers) is that these animals were domesticated and bred to be highly efficient rodent-eliminating machines, much like domestic cats. So if you keep pet rabbits, rats, hamsters, or mice, a ferret probably wouldn’t be a good addition to your animal family. 3. Ferrets are very social animals and bond strongly with their families.
Perhaps one of the biggest mistakes people make when they buy a ferret is assuming that they don’t bond to their owners the way a dog or a cat would — and so if the family doesn’t get along with the pet, it’s no big deal to give them up. Actually, ferrets bond with their humans for life. When you adopt a ferret, you need to be willing to make a life-long commitment to your new pet.
Because ferrets are such social creatures, they do better in groups of two or three. A single ferret will require much more time and attention from an owner than a ferret who has friends to keep him or her company while their human is gone during the day. Be careful, though: ferret ownership can be addictive!
4. Ferrets are incredibly intelligent and can be trained — to a point.
Okay, so you’re probably not going to be able to train your ferret to sit, stay, or fetch. But ferrets are very smart animals who can and will respond to their names when you call (some more reliably than others), and ferrets are usually very easy to litter-train. They naturally seek out corners to use as bathrooms, so usually just putting a litter box with cedar or newspaper pellets in the corner of their cage on the opposite end from their food is enough to get them started.
Much like dogs, ferrets truly do want to please their people — you can even teach them to do tricks. But like cats, they’re always trying to push the envelope to see exactly what they can get away with.
5. Ferrets are not aggressive toward humans.
While it seems like everyone’s heard a horror story about domestic ferrets being vicious or unfriendly toward humans, nothing could be further from the truth. Ferrets are incredibly playful and friendly, and they are incredibly safe pets unless they’ve been hurt or abused. They’re often able to coexist peacefully with cats and dogs, as well.
That being said, very young ferrets sometimes like to play rough and may nip their human companions during play. Like kittens or puppies, this is their natural way of interacting with each other. Ferrets have very thick skin, so a nibble that wouldn’t hurt another ferret can be painful for a human. Again, this is a behavior that your ferret can be trained not to engage in. Most ferrets outgrow their nipping phase as they reach adulthood.
6. Ferrets cannot live their lives in cages.
A lot of people buy ferrets thinking it’s like getting a gerbil or guinea pig — that they can stay in their cage most of the time and just come out once and awhile for play when it’s convenient. The truth is, ferrets need lots of freedom to roam, play, and exercise. They’re actually very high-maintenance and require 3-4 hours of supervised playtime every day.
Some people let their ferrets roam freely like a dog or a cat, but I don’t recommend it. For one, ferrets tend to get tired and fall asleep after 1-2 hours of play, so they’re probably not going to appreciate the extra freedom anyway. It’s also very difficult to completely ferret-proof your house (or even just one room), so it’s safer and healthier for them to be caged when they’re not playing with you.
Just be warned: if you don’t let your ferret out to play often enough, he or she will start to get frustrated and act out. I’ve seen ferrets overturn food dishes, rip water bottles off the wall, and even toss dirty litter across the cage when they aren’t able to let out their energy in a more productive way. If you don’t have several hours a day to dedicate to a ferret, do yourself a favor and get a goldfish instead.
7. Ferrets MUST be spayed or neutered to live healthy, happy lives.
Unlike dogs or cats, pet ferrets must be spayed or neutered unless you plan to breed them, or you’re putting them at risk of serious health issues. Intact male ferrets tend to be more aggressive and may fight more with other animals in the home, and intact female ferrets will eventually die if they’re not bred. (Yes, literally.) For these reasons, it’s very difficult to buy pet ferrets in the United States that haven’t already been spayed or neutered — most pet stores and breeders will only sell them to prospective owners after the surgery.
8. Ferrets are not dirty animals.
In fact, ferrets are very clean creatures. They will naturally develop the habit of using a litterbox if you provide one and they are constantly grooming themselves to stay clean. Now, it’s true that ferrets can have a distinctive natural odor — males more than females. Most pet ferrets have had the glands that produce their strongest scents removed during spay or neuter surgery, but their natural aroma still takes a little getting used to. (Personally, I think dogs are smellier — and I even like dogs.)
There are steps you can take to reduce the ferret scent in your home, and surprisingly enough, bathing your ferrets regularly isn’t one of them. Washing a ferret with shampoo strips its natural scent temporarily — until its body goes into overdrive to rebuild its identifying odor, and then your pet will smell even worse than before for a few days. Instead, cleaning the litterbox and washing your ferret’s bedding regularly is the best step you can take to keep your house from smelling overwhelmingly like ferret.
9. Ferrets are very affectionate, but they don’t show it the way a cat or dog does.
If a ferret’s not deeply asleep or eating, it’s probably bouncing off the walls. Ferrets are affectionate animals, but most of them are just too excited about life to sit and snuggle with their people. There are definitely exceptions to this rule. Lap ferrets exist, but they’re hard to find.
Be warned: even the cuddliest ferret will still want to spend more time playing with you than snuggling up. Instead, they show their love for you by trying to engage you in play. They might try to steal things out of your hands to get you to wrestle, pounce on your feet, follow you around the house to get your attention, or even try to get you to chase them across the room. It will take a little time to figure out what games and toys your ferret likes the most — after owning four different ferrets, I’ve never stopped being shocked at how different every ferret’s personality and preferences really are.
10. Ferrets love to get into trouble!
That old saying, “Curiosity killed the cat?” That’s literally true for some ferrets. When they’re out and about they require constant supervision to make sure they aren’t slipping under (or inside of) furniture, behind appliances like ovens and refrigerators, or chewing on rubber bands or other objects that could cause a life-threatening intestinal blockage.
They’ll frequently fall sleep in piles of laundry, under furniture, or even nestled in the sheets of your bed — so if the house has gone strangely silent and your ferret isn’t responding to your call, be very careful where you step and don’t sit down anywhere until you’ve found your furry friend and have them safely napping back in their cage.
More often than not, your ferret’s habits won’t be dangerous, merely incredibly annoying. Some ferrets will steal every dirty sock in the house and stash them all in a huge pile under your bed — I even had one who would knock over laundry hampers to get at them. Other ferrets might be obsessed with stealing toilet paper tubes out of your bathroom trash can. If these don’t sound like situations you can handle with grace, tact and a sense of humor, ferrets are not the right pet for you.
11. Ferrets live almost as long as some dogs.
While most small animals live only a couple of years, ferrets can live substantially longer — most live anywhere from 5-7 years, but a healthy ferret without any chronic health conditions (more on this point later) can live to be 10, 11, even 12 years old. Are you ready to make that kind of commitment? You need to be prepared to spend at least half a decade caring for and sharing your life with a ferret if you decide to adopt. If this seems like too long, consider another small pet, or maybe adopt an adult or senior ferret from a local rescue.
12. Ferrets can be delicate animals, so handle them with care.
Ferrets originated in northern Europe, so while they can handle reasonably cold temperatures fairly well, they’re not acclimated to the summer temperatures of many parts of the United States. They can get dehydrated easily, and because they don’t have sweat glands, they become uncomfortable at temperatures around 80 degrees, and can become severely heat stressed and die at temperatures higher than 85 degrees. Consider your local climate — and how much you’re willing to spend on air conditioning — before you bring home a ferret.
There are other health risks to consider when you have a ferret. The human influenza virus and some bacterial infections can be passed between people and ferrets — so if you’re sick, you need to either get a friend or family member to take care of your pet for a few days, or you need to thoroughly wash your hands before handling your ferret, and avoid touching him or her as much as possible.
Ferrets also need to be vaccinated against canine distemper — even if you don’t have a dog. The virus can be picked up from the ground or dogs you encounter outside the home and you can inadvertently bring the disease back to your house. This virus is 100% fatal in unvaccinated ferrets, so stay on the safe side and talk to your vet about getting the vaccine.
13. It’s not easy to find a good exotic animal veterinarian.
The sad fact is that most vet’s offices are only equipped to handle dogs and cats. Even vets who say they are willing to treat ferrets may not know that much about their unique health needs. If you’re going to get a pet ferret, you owe it to yourself to research your local options before making the commitment. Get online and look for reviews. Connect with groups of local ferret owners and ask for recommendations. Call vet’s offices and ask if they treat ferrets. If they say yes, ask for more details — try to find out how many ferrets a particular vet has treated, where they studied, if they have any pet ferrets themselves, and how long they’ve been practicing.
Then, once you’ve found one vet who knows what they’re doing, keep looking. Always have a backup plan in case your primary vet is out sick or on vacation. Find out what emergency veterinary options exist in your area while you’re at it, because you never know when you’re going to have a late-night or weekend problem come up.
14. Ferrets may not even be legal to own in your area.
Several countries and parts of the United States have banned ferrets completely for a variety of reasons. Ferrets cannot be imported into Australia at all — and this makes sense, once you realize how many problems they’ve had with invasive, non-native species. In New Zealand, wild ferret-polecat hybrids were intentionally bred to control rabbit populations in the 1870s, disrupting native wildlife populations.
In the United States, ferrets are banned from Hawaii and Puerto Rico due to concerns about the potential spread of rabies. In California, ferrets are banned because of fears that escaped pet ferrets might breed and disrupt the local ecosystem. (I think this is an unrealistic concern, given that most ferrets have been sterilized, but the law is the law.) They’re restricted in New York City and Washington, DC. Some states, like Rhode Island, allow ferrets only with a permit. Always check your local laws before you set your heart on adopting a ferret — you don’t want your pet to be taken away from you, euthanized, or denied medical care due to local laws.
On that note, most states require rabies vaccinations for ferrets, the same way they’re required for dogs and cats. Make sure you’re complying with your local laws even if ferrets are legal in your area.
15. Last, but not least, ferret ownership may end in tragedy.
Ferrets are, without a doubt, my favorite animals in the world. I love everything about owning them as pets. I love their quirky personalities, their habit of finding new and interesting ways to create mischief, their sudden surprises and their infectious enthusiasm for life. So while I don’t want to discourage anyone from adopting one of these wonderful pets, there’s one major drawback to ferret ownership potential pet parents need to know about.
Sadly, pet ferrets aren’t very healthy animals. They have a high rate of chronic illnesses and cancers, including cancer of the lymph nodes, adrenal disease, pancreatic cancer and even heart disease. If caught early, these conditions can be treated, but it’s often expensive and always stressful for both owners and their furry companions.
While you need to be prepared for the potential emotional pain of caring for an ill pet, you should also be financially prepared to pay expensive vet bills (potentially upwards of $1,000) when your ferret enters its senior years. Do not adopt a ferret if you know you can’t emotionally or financially handle the possibility of a very sick older pet.
That being said, owning ferrets is incredibly rewarding, and these pets can offer many years of loyal, affectionate companionship. If you’re prepared to stick with your furry friend through the good times and bad, and you’re committed to getting regular checkups as your pet enters its senior years, congratulations. You’re well on the path to being the best pet parent a ferret could hope for.
Photos by author