Category: ferrets

Handling your ferret

When awake, ferrets generally exhibit constant activity. However, they can be easily picked up and gently restrained by using both hands to support their weight and provide security from falling and injury.

It is important that you pick up your ferret correctly in order to avoid frightening or injuring your ferret, which could lead to it becoming aggressive.

The best way to pick up a ferret is to grasp it around the shoulders under the front legs with your thumb under it’s jaw, and at the same time supporting it’s hindlegs with your other hand. Ferrets should be handled gently, but firmly.

If your ferret struggles while holding it, it is possible to calm them down by gently swaying them backwards and forwards, this relaxes them and they seem to enjoy it. Do this by grasping them gently, but firmly around the shoulders as described above.

It is thought that the relaxation that results from this method is similar to that exhibited by very young kits as they are carried in their mother’s mouth from place to place.

It is important to handle your ferret as often as possible, to ensure they become tame and affectionate.

Viral and bacterial infections in ferrets

Ferrets are prone to a number of viral and bacterial infections. There are vaccines available to prevent some of these, but good management practices go a long way to lower the risks of infectious disease in ferrets.

Ferrets are not susceptible to the viruses that commonly produce upper respiratory disease in domestic cats (rhinotracheitis, calicivirus), nor are they susceptible to canine hepatitis. There is also no definitive evidence that ferrets are susceptible to canine parvovirus or feline leukemia virus; therefore, vaccination against these diseases is probably unnecessary.

The most commonly seen viral disease in ferrets include canine distemper and influenza; rabies, epizootic catarrhal enteritis and Aleutian disease are occasionally seen.

Ferrets are susceptible to infection with several strains of human influenza (“flu”) virus. Signs of this illness may mimic those of canine distemper (listlessness, fever, poor appetite, sneezing, nasal discharge, etc). In general, influenza causes only mild disease in ferrets. Unlike distemper, however, influenza usually passes within 5 days of the onset of illness and ferrets recover. Bacterial infections may complicate the viral infection. If you are suffering from a cold or flu, it is advisable not to handle your ferret until you are well again.

A few cases of lymphoma and lymphosarcoma (cancer) have occurred in ferrets over the years. Some of these cases tested positive for feline leukemia virus, while others tested negative. Though a cause-and-effect relationship cannot be proven by such a small number of cases, the possibility exists that ferrets may become infected with feline leukemia virus. Cancer can be one possible result of such an infection. Some researchers believe that leukemia and related diseases among ferrets may be caused by a virus or viruses specific to ferrets.

Bacterial infections aren’t as common as viral infections in ferrets, however a number of bacteria can produce a variety of diseases in ferrets, including botulism, tuberculosis, dysentery (caused by Campylobacter fetus), and abscesses and infections caused by bite wounds and other injuries.

Bacterial pneumonia, proliferative colitis (proliferative bowel disease) and helicobacter gastritis have also been seen in ferrets.

Bacterial pneumonia usually occurs secondary to another disease, such as viral pneumonia. Signs of infection can include nasal discharge, difficulty breathing, increased respiratory rate, loss of appetite, lethargy, discolouration of the mucous membranes, and fever.

Proliferative colitis and helicobacter gastritis causes diarrhoea which leads to severe weight loss. These are often referred to as “wasting diseases” because of the rapid weight loss seen. They occur in ferrets of any age, but most commonly affect young kits up to 20 weeks of age.

Judicious use of antibiotics is usually sufficient for treatment of most, but not all, of these conditions.

Parasitic diseases in ferrets

Most of the external parasites of domestic dogs and cats (fleas, mange, ear mites, etc.) can cause disease in ferrets. However, less is known about the ferret’s susceptibility to the more common internal parasites (roundworms, etc.) of dogs and cats.

Ferrets can suffer from both internal and external parasitic diseases.

Although internal parasitic diseases are uncommon, ferrets can suffer from intestinal parasites.

Ferrets are commonly affected by external parasites such as mites, ticks and fleas.

Intestinal protozoan parasites, also shared by dogs and cats, can cause intestinal disease among ferrets. Coccidiosis is the most common intestinal parasitic disease of ferrets.

Infection with worms (helminths) is rare, but roundworms can potentially pass between ferrets, puppies and kittens. Cryptosporidiosis, a parasitic disease caused by Cryptosporidium, is also occasionally seen in young ferrets, and can potentially pass between ferrets, puppies and kittens. Other protozoan diseases are possible, but rarely seen.

Most ferrets with intestinal parasites won’t show any signs of being infected. However, the following signs may be seen: diarrhoea (with or without blood), weight loss, dehydration, decreased activity, dull hair coat, straining to defaecate, prolapse of the ferret’s rectum, and even death.

Periodic faecal examinations should be performed by your vet to check for such parasites.

Most intestinal parasites can be treated with antiparasitic drugs. Hospitalization may be required in severe cases, but most can be treated with a spot on treatment which is easy to give and stress-free for your ferret.

External parasites are common in ferrets.

Ferrets housed indoors rarely have a problem with fleas or ticks. Fleas and ticks are more common in ferrets that spend time outdoors or who come into contact with infected dogs or cats. Mange and ear mites are common in both ferrets that are housed indoors and those that live outdoors.

Fleas can cause itchiness in your ferret which will result in red patches of skin, scabs and hair loss. Severe infestations can cause blood loss and weakness. Infestations need to be treated vigorously; the ferret, its home environment, and all infested household pets must be treated with an appropriate anti-flea treatment.

Ticks are rarely a problem, but if you do find a tick on your ferret make sure you wear gloves when removing them to avoid exposure to their disease-carrying saliva.

Mange, also known as scabies, is caused by microscopic Sarcoptes scabiei mites. These will cause your ferret to scratch resulting in red patches of skin, scabs and hair loss. Mange also affects the foot pads, known as foot rot, where the feet become red, swollen and sore. Your vet will probably need to do a skin scrape to determine the cause of the itching as the mites cannot be seen with the naked eye.

Ear mites will cause your ferret to scratch its ears or rub its head on the floor in an attempt to scratch its ears. Your ferret may have a dark, waxy discharge from the ear, and in severe cases, your ferret may develop an infection which will require antibiotics.

Most external parasites can be treated with antiparasitic drugs. Most can be treated with a spot on treatment which is easy to give and stress-free for your ferret. However, if your ferret is suffering with ear mites, a more aggressive treatment regime may be necessary which will involve an ointment which will need to be placed directly into your ferret’s ears.

Routine health care

We are all familiar with the phrase “A healthy pet is a happy pet” – but there is probably also something to be said for keeping your ferret happy in order to maintain its health. If you know your pet you will probably quickly recognise the signs that suggest it is not well.

A healthy ferret will have bright eyes, clean ears, eyes and nose and be interested in what is going on around it.

If your ferret’s weight remains constant then they are eating the right amount of food. You should be concerned if their appetite or water consumption suddenly changes or they suddenly start to gain or lose weight. When in good condition the coat should be shiny, soft and free of parasites.

Your ferret must be fed a healthy diet and allowed regular exercise.

The closer your ferret’s diet and environment is compared to how it would eat and live in the wild, the healthier and happier it will be. Giving them plenty of enrichment in also hugely important for their mental wellbeing.

A healthy diet is a balanced diet containing all the nutrients your pet requires.

Ferrets are obligate carnivores, which means they are only designed to eat protein, however very occasionally it is possible for them to eat other food in small quantities as a treat.

There are a number of measures that can help prevent your pet developing diseases. You should discuss the special needs of your pet with your vet.


It is a sad truth that the number of pets born every year is far greater than the number of good homes that can be found for them. As a result, thousands of healthy animals are destroyed and many unwanted ones are abandoned. Having your ferret neutered will help to reduce the number of unwanted animals and can also help to safeguard your pet’s health and welfare.


Ferrets should be vaccinated against canine distemper.

Dental care

Ferrets tend not to suffer from dental problems unless they are fed a poor, moist diet.

If your ferret has a poor coat condition, dull eyes, dirty ears, eyes or nose it may indicate that they are unwell. Changes in behaviour (a normally happy and affectionate animal may become grumpy and avoid human contact, preferring to hide away by itself), altered appetite or water consumption should also alert you to the possibility that there may be a problem.

Most animals recover from illness in 24-48 hours – if your pet does not seem to be improving in this time or is getting worse then you should contact your vet.

Ferrets: a history

The ferret, also known as Mustela putorius furo (which in Latin means ‘bad smelling weasel’) comes from the ‘Mustelidae’ family and is a domestic pet, not a wild animal. However, ferrets are descendants of the European polecat (weasel) and are, therefore, close relatives of skunks, mink, otters and badgers.

Ferrets are unusual animals, but not “exotic.” They have been domesticated for thousands of years and can be treated under the same set of disciplinary rules you would use for any other domesticated animal. Ferrets are also extremely intelligent and can be easily trained.

Is has been documented that the Romans brought ferrets into the UK in the 1st century, but they weren’t recognised until the 11th century when the Normans brought them over as a form of rodent control.

Since then ferrets were only really used on farms and estates as a form of pest control, and it wasn’t until the1960’s that ferrets became popular as pets.

There are two main varieties of ferrets based on coloration: the fitch and albino ferret.

Fitch ferrets, more commonly known as polecat ferrets, are buff-coloured with black masks, feet and tails. These seem to be the most popular.

Albino ferrets, also quite popular, range from pure white, to cream and yellow, but will always have pinky red eyes.

Other colours now seen include sandy, silver, black, cinnamon and chocolate.

Female ferrets are called jills, male ferrets are called hobs, and babies are called kits.

Hobs are typically twice the size of jills, but both sexes undergo periodic weight fluctuations. It is not uncommon for the average ferret to add 30-40% of its body weight in fat deposited beneath the skin in the autumn, and lose this fat the following spring.

The gestation period of ferrets is 42-44 days, with the average being 42 days.

The average litter size is 8, but it can range from 2-17. Kits are born deaf, with their eyes closed. Their eyes open and they begin to hear between 3 and 5 weeks of age.

Their deciduous (“temporary”) teeth begin to erupt at 2 weeks of age, at which time they can begin to eat solid food. Kits are usually weaned onto commercial kitten feed at around 8 weeks of age, and they will reach their adult weight at about 4 months of age.

The average lifespan of a ferret is 9-10 years.

Miscellaneous health problems in ferrets

Two medical conditions of ferrets that demand special mentions are the ferret’s extreme susceptibility to canine distemper and the unusual consequences of female ferrets coming into heat. These are therefore covered in separate factsheets.

However, there are other medical conditions that affect ferrets that are briefly covered here.

Ferrets lack sweat glands and are somewhat compromised in their ability to maintain normal body temperature in extremely warm environmental temperatures.

If the temperature rises above 32°C/90°F, and if water is restricted or not available to ferrets, heat exhaustion is likely and death quite possible. Providing ample shade and spraying your ferret on hot days will help reduce the likelihood of this problem.

Ferrets can also suffer from either kidneys or urinary bladder stones, which can cause serious problems in ferrets. Both sexes seem to be affected equally.

Signs of urinary stones include blood in the urine, inability to urinate, a swollen and painful abdomen, vomiting, lack of energy and poor appetite.

Surgery is usually necessary to correct this problem, though a special diet may eliminate certain types of stones or prevent recurrence.

Cardiomyopathy is a condition of the heart muscle seen in dogs and cats, which ferrets can also suffer from. Most affected ferrets are males over 3 years of age. The cause for this condition is unknown.

The muscle walls of the heart become thickened, reducing the ability of the heart to pump adequate quantities of blood to the rest of the body. Signs include poor appetite, fatigue, increased periods of sleep, intolerance to exercise, fainting and shortness of breath.

Cardiomyopathy is diagnosed using chest x-rays, an electrocardiogram (ECG), and echocardiography (EKG). All ferrets older than 3 years should have an EKG to screen for this disease.

Ferrets are prone to ringworm, which is a fungal disease of the skin, similar to Athlete’s foot in humans. It has been reported in young ferrets and may be transmitted by infected cats.

As a rule of thumb, products manufactured and intended for use in and on cats (dewormers, flea products, ringworm medications, etc.) are safe and suitable for use with ferrets, with one exception: flea collars should never be used on ferrets.

Canine distemper in ferrets

Ferrets are highly susceptible to canine distemper – a disease normally seen in dogs that is transmitted through moisture droplets. Dogs usually pick it up when sniffing where infected dogs have been, and since the incubation period can be as long as three weeks, it is usually too late to vaccinate once any outbreak has begun.

The initial signs of the disease appear 7-10 days after exposure to the virus and include a lack of interest in food and a thick mucus and pus-laden discharge from the eyes and nostrils.

A rash commonly appears under the chin and in the groin area 10-12 days following exposure, and the pads on the feet become greatly thickened.

Prevention of this disease should be an absolute priority because treatment is useless. Canine distemper is considered 100% fatal in ferrets, with infected ferrets dying approximately 3 1/2 weeks after initial exposure.

Kits should first be vaccinated against canine distemper at 6-8 weeks of age (4-6 weeks of age if kits are from unvaccinated mothers).

A booster vaccination is essential 2-3 weeks later. Yearly boosters are recommended thereafter.

Neutering your ferret

Neutering your ferret not only prevents unwanted or accidental pregnancies – it is a fact that every year many litters of unwanted kits are born. It is also important when considering other factors such as breeding, accommodation and health.

Female ferrets are seasonally polyoestrus, which means they can come into heat more than once during the breeding season (usually March through to August).

Female ferrets, also known as ‘jills’, are also induced ovulators, which means that once they come into season (oestrus), they will not come out of it again until they have been mated. While they remain in oestrus, the vulva swells dramatically and can becomes sore and inflamed.

If she is mated, the swelling of the vulva usually regresses to normal within 2-3 weeks. Sustained oestrus can be dangerous, even life-threatening because persistent production of oestrogen usually results in bone marrow suppression, which in turn can lead to anaemia and decreases in the number of circulating white blood cells.

At one time, the only answer to this was to breed from the jill every year. This leads to a considerable population explosion unless the kits are to be euthanased at birth.

Currently, a popular method for owners of a number of jills is to run a vasectomised (sterilised) male ferret, also known as a ‘hoblet’, with them – he mates with the jills and stops the oestrus without a pregnancy resulting.

Another option is to take your jill to the vets to have a hormone injection which prevents them from coming into oestrus, or suppresses it if they are already in oestrus – if given in the spring it usually lasts the whole of the breeding season, however sometimes a repeat injection in the summer may be needed, which can prove costly depending on the number of jills you have.

Yes, she can.

Female ferrets not intended for breeding should be spayed at about 6-8 months of age.

This is the best solution if you own a jill. It is a routine operation, although there are always some risks associated with any surgery. There aren’t currently any anaesthetics licensed for use in ferrets in the UK, so combinations of anaesthetics used in dogs and cats are widely and reliably used for ferrets. Ferrets tend to take surgery well and recover quickly.

A spayed jill is often referred to as a ‘sprite’.

Male ferrets, also known as ‘hobs’, are generally castrated for social rather than medical reasons.

One of the characteristics of the ferret is their distinctive smell which is much stronger on an entire hob than in a castrated hob. This smell is the result of the influence of sex hormones on normal skin secretions. Consequently, castrating your ferret is usually sufficient to control this problem. It is usually done at around 8 months of age. A very pungent and equally objectionable secretion is occasionally produced by the ferret’s scent (anal) glands – some owners also have their pet ferrets descented, however this doesn’t get rid of their musky smell.

Another reason for castrating a hob is that they are inclined to be more aggressive and snappy than jills. There is probably an element of sexual frustration in this, and it is reasonable to suggest that, in the abscence of plenty of jills, they are happier without their testosterone!

Castrating a hob is quite a simple operation, although there are always some risks associated with any surgery. There aren’t currently any anaesthetics licensed for use in ferrets in the UK, so combinations of anaesthetics used in dogs and cats are widely and reliably used for ferrets. Ferrets tend to take surgery well and recover quickly.

A castrated hob is often referred to as a ‘gib’.

Both sexes can be neutered from 4 months of age.

The breeding season starts in the spring, so the best time to get kits neutered in during their first winter.


Ferrets make wonderful pets because of their engaging personalities, playful activity and fastidious nature. They can also be easily trained to use a litter tray because they tend to habitually urinate and defaecate in the same places.

Ferrets are extremely intelligent, naturally inquisitive and generally have an affinity for people, and the older a ferret is, the more mellow it is likely to become.

To ensure you interact better and bond with your ferret, it is important that you understand your ferret’s behaviour. The following are some of the most common ferret traits.

This is seen in response to fear, and if so is usually accompanied by hissing and/or their hair standing on end; if this happens to your ferret, the best thing to do is to leave him be until he calms down. Ferrets also back-up when they go to the toilet, which is usually into the corner of their litter tray or run.

Young ferrets (kits) tend to be nippy, but no more so than a new kitten or puppy, however they tend to nip with a little more enthusiasm! Some kits never nip at all, but those that do usually grow out of it.

Many new owners mistake nipping for viciousness, even though the same behaviour in a new kitten or puppy is accepted, but nipping is normal play behaviour between littermates and is often transferred to their human companions. Because this can be the case, parents should not allow small children to play with kits to avoid any unecessary nipping behaviour.

There have been a number of documented cases of ferret attacks on infants and very small children, some of which involved serious injury to the child. Parents must either forbid encounters between pet ferrets and their infants or very young children, or closely supervise all of these encounters. It is important to point out, however, that these unfortunate encounters are far less common than those involving household dogs and cats.

If accompanied by backing-up and/or hissing, a puffy tail probably means that your ferret is frightened and should be left alone to calm down.

On the other hand, if your ferret’s tail becomes puffy while investigating his environment or playing, it will mean he is very excited.

The meaning behind this normally depends on what is happening at the time.

Hissing could mean your ferret is angry or frightened and you should leave him along to calm down, or if playing with other ferrets, hissing can be a means of communication.

Your ferret’s body language will usually give your ferret’s mood away!

Ferrets can often be seen shivering or trembling. This usually occurs when they first wake up and is due to excitement and anticipation.

Ferrets very rarely shiver because they are cold.

Like dogs, this is a sign of excitement, and is usually seen when they are playing.

Housing your ferret

Ferrets make wonderful pets because of their engaging personalities, playful activity and fastidious nature. Housing is important for your ferret, whether you keep them inside or outside.

They can easily be trained to use a litter box because they tend to habitually urinate and defecate in the same places. Provide a low-sided litter box for easy entry and exit. More than one litter box may be necessary if the ferret has free run of the house.

There is no innate animosity between ferrets and dogs and cats, and all can usually share a household with little difficulty. However, ferrets have been known to attack pet birds, so it is advisable for owners of both to take appropriate precautions to prevent these encounters.

Ferrets are naturally inquisitive and can squeeze through very small spaces. It is important to “ferret-proof” your house before bringing your pet home. Thoroughly check every room it will inhabit, sealing all holes and openings wider than 1 inch in diameter. Make sure that all windows that may be opened have secure screens. It is also important to check the openings around plumbing, heating and air conditioning ducts or pipes and gaps under doors.

Ferrets are small and silent, so you will usually not hear them approach. They are easily stepped on when they are sleeping under a throw rug or suddenly turn up under foot. Their love of tunneling and their inherent curiosity frequently places them in potentially dangerous situations.

They could very easily crawl unnoticed into your refrigerator, into the bottom boiler of a stove, through the rungs of a balcony railing, out the front door, or even end up in the washing machine with clothes under which the ferret was sleeping. Other dangers include folding sofa beds and reclining chairs. The obvious solution to avoiding accident and injury is to learn your ferret’s habits and be constantly vigilant.

To help protect your ferret, especially if it is allowed free run of the house, obtain an adjustable, lightweight cat collar, the kind with elastic on one end, a small bell, and an ID tag. The bell will signal that your ferret is underfoot or has perhaps slipped out the front door and will warn caged birds allowed unrestricted freedom in the home that the ferret is nearby. The collar also indicates to unknowing neighbors (many people have no idea what a ferret is) that whatever it is must belong to someone.

While ferrets are not destructive to most household items, such as furniture, clothing, etc, some have a tendency to chew on soft rubber or other soft materials. This is especially dangerous because the pieces of rubber can become impacted in your ferret’s intestines. This means that you should not give your ferret rubber squeak toys to play with either.

You should ensure that the cage is plenty big enough so that you can give your ferret plenty of toys to play with, tubes to run through and places to hide. You should also provide an enclosed area within the cage where your ferret can go and sleep. If your ferret is kept in a cage you will need to let it out regularly for exercise, either in a safe enclosure outside or in a dedicated “ferret-proof” room of the house.

Ferrets are especially fond of tunnelling under things, like towels, and prefer to sleep in this manner, so make sure you provide plenty of possible nesting material so your ferret can exhibit it’s natural behaviour.

You can use hay, straw or wood shavings on the floor of the cage to make it easy to clean, and they will most probably use the hay and straw to tunnel through as well. Make sure the bedding you use isn’t dusty as this can irritate their eyes. Ferrets are naturally very clean and will usually use one or two corners of the cage for toilet purposes. These areas can be lined with paper and wood shavings so daily cleaning is quick and easy.