Ferret FAQ

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Ferret FAQ (Single File)

This page has been accessed more than [lots of] times since May 29, 1996.

The Ferret FAQ is available as a set of HTML documents, a single HTML file [259 kB] or plain text (by FTP).

Also see:

Part 1: About Ferrets and This FAQ

0. About this FAQ

1. Where to get more information

2. Revision history of these files

3. Introduction to ferrets

Part 2: Ferret Care

4. Getting a pet ferret

5. Getting ready for your ferret

6. Ferret supplies

Part 3: Training and Behavior

7. Basic ferret care and training

8. Things ferrets say and do

Part 4: Health Care

9. Basic health care

10. Problems to watch for and related information

Part 5: Medical Overview

11. Common health problems

12. General medical information

13. Medical reference material

Medical FAQs

Other FAQs

Where to get this FAQ

This FAQ is available as an indexed, cross-linked set of HTML documents, as a single HTML document [260 kB] which can be easily downloaded and browsed locally, or as a set of five fully-indexed, text-only files (by FTP).

The text files are posted around the 20th of each month to the rec.pets, alt.pets.ferrets, alt.answers, rec.answers, and news.answers newsgroups. It's stored on various internet access systems and BBS's, including Compuserve and (I think) AOL, and it can be found in either English or Japanese (possibly a slightly older version) in library3 of the FPETS forum in Japan's NiftyServe system. For information about translations of the FAQ, email me or see the list at Ferret Central . It can be found, along with hundreds of other FAQs on a wide variety of topics, at any of the news.answers archives or mirrors; for instance, by FTP or on the Web.

If you don't have access to FTP, or if the server is busy (as it often is), you can also request them by mail. You can receive all five parts in separate email messages by sending a message to <listserv@cunyvm.cuny.edu> with the single line (in the body of the message)

To receive only a single part, instead send a command like

If all else fails, send me <pamg@rice.edu> email and I'll be glad to send you a copy.

Goal of this FAQ

A number of books exist which were written by experts and are intended to be comprehensive discussions of all sorts of ferret behavior and medical problems. This FAQ is not intended to replace any of those. However, there seemed to be a need for a document which covers many of the basic questions in a fairly light way. Originally, this was intended to be a FAQ in the purest sense of the term: a document to answer questions which keep coming up in the newsgroups and Ferret Mailing List.

However, over the months -- and years -- the FAQ grew, and its purpose broadened. More general questions, and especially more medical information, were included. Although I can't claim that this is now a comprehensive guide to ferret ownership, it is a good source of information and collective opinion about a wide range of subjects. Whether you're new to ferrets or a long-time owner, chances are this FAQ will have something interesting for you.

Credits and editor's notes

Contributions of individual respondents are marked as such and indented. Other sections were either written by me (Pamela Greene, <pamg@rice.edu>) or compiled from a number of contributions.

Special thanks to Chris Lewis and Bill Gruber, moderators of the Ferrte Mailing List; and to veterinarians Bruce Williams, Charles Weiss, Susan Brown, and Mike Dutton, for all their efforts on behalf of the members of the Ferret Mailing List and all "ferret friends". Thanks also to the dedicated ferret enthusiasts who have helped to translate the FAQ and Medical FAQs into other languages, inlcuding Japanese and French, with others in progress.

Thanks also to the many people from the Ferret Mailing List who contributed (perhaps unwittingly!) responses, comments, and corrections, too many to list here (at last count, the list included 97 different people).

Ferret FAQ copyright and redistribution information

This compilation, which includes five main files and several "auxiliary" pages as described on and "pointed to" (directly or indirectly) by its main Index page, is copyright © 1994-1998 by Pamela L. Greene. It may be freely distributed by electronic, paper, or other means, provided that it is distributed in its entirety (all 5 files), including this notice, and that no fee is charged apart from the actual costs of distribution. It may not be used or included in any commercial or for-profit work without prior written permission. (For-profit service providers such as Compuserve and America Online are granted permission to distribute the files provided that no additional fee beyond standard connection-time charges is levied.)

Anyone who wishes to is encouraged to include a link to the main Index page of this document set wherever it might be appropriate.

Is there a shorter FAQ to hand out at meetings? Are there FAQs for particular diseases?

There are five parts to the main Ferret FAQ. The contents of those parts are listed in the index.

If you're looking for something to hand out at pet stores, vets' offices, club meetings, and so forth, you might want the Ferret mini-FAQ, a much shorter document which covers all the basics and is formatted to be printed out. There's also a single-page tri-fold brochure with the most important information, ideal for vets' offices and pet stores. They're each available as a Postscript or PDF file (which can be read using the free Adobe Acrobat Reader) by FTP, or you can email your postal address to me at <pamg@rice.edu> to get copies on paper.

There are also FAQs dedicated to several common diseases:

These FAQs are not posted to any newsgroup, but you can FTP them. You can also receive them from a mailserver. To get a copy of all the files, each in a separate email message, send email to <listserv@cunyvm.cuny.edu> with the single line (in the body of the message):
To receive only a single part, instead send one of these commands:
Finally, there is a single-part Ferret Natural History FAQ, which contains information on ferret biology, history, domestication, taxonomy, and so forth. It's available from Ferret Central , or from the CUNY listserver using the command
You can also send me <pamg@rice.edu> email and I'll be glad to send you whichever files you'd like.

How can I find a ferret breeder/shelter/vet/catalog?

An extensive list of ferret clubs, breeders, organizations, vets and catalogs is maintained by STAR*Ferrets. It is also available from a list server. Send email to <listserv@cunyvm.cuny.edu> with the line
in the body. Note that the file is rather long, which may give some mailers problems.

The American Ferret Association (AFA) also maintains a list of shelters, and a local ferret club may know about one not on either of the lists.

What mailing lists are there, and how do I join?

The Ferret Mailing List (FML) is strongly recommended. To subscribe to the FML, send email to its moderator, Bill Gruber, at <ferret-request@cunyvm.cuny.edu> and ask to be added. You can also try subscribing automatically by sending email to <listserv@cunyvm.cuny.edu> with the command
SUBSCRIBE FERRET <first-name> <last-name>
in the body of the email.

You'll get a note back detailing policies and such and explaining how to send letters to the list. Back issues of the FML are available by sending the command INDEX FERRET in the body of email to <listserv@cunyvm.cuny.edu>, and an unofficial WWW archive is also available, though not quite as complete.

The Ferret Forum mailing list tends to be shorter and perhaps more international in flavor than the FML. To subscribe, send email to <majordomo@bolis.com> with a blank Subject and either "subscribe ferret-forum" (for the regular version) or "subscribe ferret-forum-digest" (for the daily digest) in the body of the message (no quotes in either command).

The "Ferret Tails" mailing list is a digest of ferret stories, adventures, poems, and other entertainment. Email <kingfshr@northcoast.com> with "subscribe ferret-tails <your email address>" in the body of your message.

There are other mailing lists, too, including several regional lists. A list is available, or email Christine Code for information.

What about interactive online chats?

There are several interactive WWW chat/talk servers; for a list, see Ferret Central.

Various IRC chats exist, on servers such as undernet.org, irc.mcgill.ca, irc.quarterdeck.com, or irc.eskimo.com. Specific server/channel combinations include

For more information about IRC, consult the IRC FAQ. A weekly online chat also happens on AOL, Saturdays 10 pm - midnight Eastern time. Sometimes there are guest speakers. This chat is only accessible to AOL users: go to keyword "Petcare", then select "Animal Talk Room 1".

Where can I find pictures or clip-art of ferrets online?

[Photo of a ferret, full side view]
The Ferret Photo Gallery has a large collection of JPEGs and GIFs much like this one. There are also the Equipment How-To Photos, which show and describe examples of cages, shoulder bags, collars, and so forth.

The Oregon Ferret Association has a clipart archive, and Bob Nixon maintains an archive with many ferret pictures, too. Files there which start with "clip-" are clip-art.

Most of the pictures at one site are also at the other.

Is there any other information available online?

Discussions of ferrets sometimes come up in the Usenet newsgroups alt.pets.ferrets and rec.pets. The FAQ "Fleas, Ticks and Your Pet" is distributed there as well, and is also available by FTP. Several bulletin board systems keep pet FAQs and discussions, as does the Compuserve Small Mammals forum (GO PETSTWO).

An index of ferret information is available from Ferret Central .

Various ferret-related information is available from the file server at CUNY; send the command

to <listserv@cunyvm.cuny.edu> for a complete list, with descriptions.

What are some of the books available?

Lots of books have been written about ferrets, ranging from brief treatments to extensive discussions of behavior and medical issues. Introductory books, all most owners will ever need, are usually available in pet stores. A few of the more popular are
Biology and Diseases of the Ferret, by James G. Fox. Lea and Febiger, Philadelphia (1988). ISBN 0-8121-1139-7

The Pet Ferret Owner's Manual, by Judith A. Bell, DVM, PhD. ISBN 0-9646477-2-9 PB, 0-9646477-1-0 LB. Clear, well-written and comprehensive, with lots of color photographs. Dr. Bell is an internationally known expert on ferret medicine and care.

A Practical Guide to Ferrets, by Deborah Jeans. Contact the author at Ferrets Inc., P. O. Box 450099, Miami, FL 33245-0099; fax 305-285-6963.
"Excellent, easy to read, very thorough and up to date, and written with a lot of love and care," says Dr. Susan Brown, DVM.

Ferrets: a Complete Owner's Manual, by Chuck and Fox Morton. Barron's Educational Series, Hauppauge, NY, 1985. ISBN 0-8120-2976-3
A relatively short, but well-written guide. Not as in-depth as some, but a very good, friendly introduction to ferrets as pets.

Ferrets in Your Home, by Wendy Winsted. T.F.H. Publications, Inc., Neptune City, NJ, 1990. ISBN 0-86622-988-4
Longer and more in-depth, but still very readable. Includes, for instance, more information on reproduction and breeding, but also more expensive.
For somewhat more in-depth medical and natural history information, Bob Church recommends
Ferrets, Rabbits and Rodents - Clinical Medicine and Surgery, by Elizabeth Hillyer and Katherine Quesenberry (1997)

Wild Mammals of North America, by Chapman and Feldhammer (1989)
Use the section about mink, perhaps tempered somewhat with the black-footed ferret. Together, they are very similar to the polecat, which is the driving force behind our ferrets.

Ethology: the Mechanisms and Evolution of Behavior, by James Gould (1982)

How do I start a ferret club or shelter?

Extensive advice on starting a ferret club, shelter, or other service, including sample forms and other materials, is available from STAR*Ferrets for a nominal fee. Contact Pamela Troutman of STAR* at P. O. Box 1714, Springfield, VA 22151-0714 or email <starferet@aol.com>.

Revision history

For links to sections with significant changes, see What's New in the Ferret FAQ.

The most accurate description of the version of this FAQ is the date at the bottom. For really minor changes, I won't necessarily change the version number, but I'll always change the date.

What are ferrets? Do they make good pets?

[Photo of a ferret, full side view]
Ferrets are domestic animals, cousins of weasels, skunks and otters. (Other relatives include minks, ermines, stoats, badgers, black-footed ferrets, polecats, and fishers.) They are not rodents; taxonomically they're in between cats and dogs, a little closer to dogs. They are friendly and make excellent pets. If you've never met one before, the easiest way to think of them is somewhere between cats and dogs in personality, but rather smaller. They can only see reasonably well, but they have excellent senses of hearing and smell. Some are cuddly, others more independent; they vary a lot, just like other pets.

What's good about ferrets as pets?

[Photo of a ferret pushing an empty ice cream cone across the floor]
Ferrets are a lot of fun. They are very playful, with each other and with you, and they don't lose much of that playfulness as they get older. A ferret -- or better, two or more -- can be a very entertaining companion. They are smarter than cats and dogs, or at least they act it. They are also very inquisitive and remarkably determined, which is part of their charm but can also be a bit of a bother. They are friendly, and they do know and love you, though for some of them it can take a year or so to fully bond.

They can be trained to use a litter box and to do tricks, and most of them love to go places with you, riding on a shoulder or in a bag. They sleep a lot, and they don't particularly mind staying in small places (a cage, for instance, or a shoulder bag) temporarily, although they need to run around and play for at least a couple of hours a day. A "single" ferret won't be terribly lonely, although the fun of watching two or three playing together is easily worth the small extra trouble. Barring accidents, ferrets typically live 6-10 years.

Okay, what's the catch?

Ferrets have lots of good points as pets, but there are some negatives as well. Like kittens and puppies, they require a lot of care and training at first. They're "higher maintenance" than cats; they'll take more of your time and attention. Ferrets have their own distinct scent, which bothers some people, and many of them aren't quite as good about litter pans as cats are. Although most ferrets get along reasonably well with cats and dogs , it's not guaranteed, so if you have large, aggressive pets (particularly dogs of breeds commonly used for hunting), keep that in mind. Likewise, small children and ferrets are both very excitable, and the combination might be too much.

Finally, the importance of ferretproofing must be emphasized. Ferrets are less destructive than cats, but they love to get into EVERYTHING, so if you keep them loose you'll need to make sure they can't hurt themselves or your possessions. They love to steal small (and not so small!) objects and stash them under chairs and behind furniture. They like to chew on spongy, springy things, which must be kept out of reach or they'll swallow bits. Accessible boxes, bags, and trash cans will be crawled in, and houseplants within reach are liable to lose all their dirt to joyful digging. Finally, many ferrets tend to scratch and dig at the carpet. Naturally, these traits vary from one ferret to another, but they're all pretty common. If you're not willing to take the necessary time to protect your property and your pet, a ferret may not be for you.

Are ferrets wild? Why are there ferret permits?

Domestic pet ferrets, Mustela furo (sometimes called Mustela putorius furo), are not wild animals. They have been domesticated for a very long time, perhaps two or three thousand years. They're not equipped to survive for very long on their own; escaped pets suffer from dehydration, starvation and exposure, and usually don't survive more than a few days unless someone takes them in. Unlike cats and dogs, ferrets aren't even large enough to push over garbage cans and scavenge.

Domestic ferrets are generally believed to be descended from the European polecat; they were originally used as hunting animals to catch rabbits and rodents. They weren't supposed to kill the prey, they just chased them out of their holes and the farmers (hunters) killed them. This practice is now illegal in the U.S. and Canada, but it's still fairly popular in the U.K. and some other places.

What's an FFZ, and why do they exist?

A "ferret-free zone," or FFZ, is a place where ferrets are banned or illegal. In some other places, ferret owners are required to have licenses or permits. States, counties, and municipalities outlaw or restrict ferrets for a variety of reasons, pretty much all invalid, but I'd say that the fundamental problem is that many people don't understand what a pet ferret is.

What are some of those invalid reasons, you ask? Well, a common one is that ferrets are seen as wild animals like raccoons or skunks, rather than a domestic species like housecats. Of course, ferrets have been domesticated for at least 2500 years. Another popular misconception is that ferrets pose a serious rabies danger; in fact, studies have indicated that it's very hard for a ferret to catch rabies, and when one does, it dies very quickly, so the danger is very small indeed. Besides, there's a ferret rabies vaccine which has been shown to be effective. A third common reason for banning ferrets is the idea that escaped pets (nearly all of which are spayed or neutered) will form feral packs and threaten livestock or native wildlife. There are no confirmed cases of feral ferrets (as opposed to polecats or polecat-ferret crosses, for instance) in the U.S., and a few deliberate attempts to introduce domestic ferrets to the wild have failed miserably, so this, too, is an unfounded fear -- even if one could picture a ferret harming a cow or breaking into a commercial poultry farm.

The only states which now ban ferrets are California and Hawaii. In the face of overwhelming evidence, many areas are being persuaded to change their outdated regulations.

Why so much confusion?

Most of the misconceptions regarding domestic ferrets probably come from mistaking them for their wild cousins. It's very difficult to tell a polecat or a mink from a domestic ferret when all you've seen is a flash of fur disappearing into a burrow, and polecats and minks are quite common in the less-developed areas of Europe and North America.

Because of the similar names, domestic ferrets have also been confused with their cousins the North American Black-Footed Ferrets, Mustela nigripes. Black-footed ferrets (BFFs) are wild remote relatives of the domestic ferret. They are an endangered species: the only BFFs known to exist are in zoos or in a breeding program in Wyoming. However, despite similar appearances, the BFF is not very closely related to the domestic ferret.

Are ferrets legal where I live? Do I need a license?

Depending on where you live, ferrets may be completely unregulated, require a license to breed but not to own, require a permit to own, or be entirely illegal. This varies by state or province, county, and city.

You can find out about your town by calling the local Wildlife Department or Fish and Game Department, the humane society, or veterinarians (recommended in that order). Note that some pet stores in FFZs sell ferrets anyway, so the presence of one in your corner store may not be any indication of their legality, and I wouldn't necessarily trust the pet store to be honest about local laws.

Katie Fritz has compiled an extensive, though not complete, list of FFZs. If you have or want more information, contact her at <redshoes@ix.netcom.com> or on CompuServe at 71257,3153.

Here's a list of some of the larger places where ferrets are illegal, as of April 1997. A more extensive list is also available.

California, Hawaii

Washington, DC; Dallas, Ft. Worth, Beaumont, and various other cities in TX; Bloomington and Burnsville, MN; Tulsa, OK; Columbus, OH; London, York, and East York, Ontario, Canada; Puerto Rico

Although ferrets aren't actually illegal in New York City or Minneapolis, MN, they are not welcomed and may be confiscated or ticketed. Similarly, although it's legal to own ferrets in South Carolina, it's not legal to sell them there, and the state is known to be pretty ferret-unfriendly.

Many military bases ban ferrets. It seems to be at the discretion of the base commander.

Permits or licenses are required in order to own ferrets in the following places: New Jersey ($10/year), Rhode Island ($10/year), Illinois (free). Permits are also required in St. Paul, MN, and may be difficult to obtain.

These lists are by no means complete, so check locally before you buy a ferret.

I'm allergic to cats. Will I be allergic to ferrets?

There's really no way to tell. You could be highly allergic to some other animal and have no problems at all with ferrets. If you think you might be allergic, visit a pet store, breeder or friend who has one and check. Allergies might make you sneeze, or you might have a skin reaction from touching or being scratched by a ferret. One person wrote me to say he was allergic only to intact males, so you may want to try contact with females or neutered males as well. Also note that some people are allergic to the perfumes pet stores often put on animals, but not to the animals themselves.

How long do ferrets live?

Ferrets typically live 6 to 10 years, with 6 apparently more common than 10. The oldest ferret I know of is 15.

How much do ferrets cost?

Prices for ferrets vary widely from place to place, and depending on where you get the ferret. Prices for stores and breeders are usually in the US $75-$250 range, typically around $100. Plan on another $100-$250 for a cage and supplies, plus around $75 for the first batch of vaccinations.

Of course, there are also regular costs of caring for the ferret. They don't eat much, so food and litter aren't a huge expense, but there are also treats and hairball remedies, plus the annual checkups and vaccinations. In addition, though it might not happen, you should be prepared to pay for at least one $300 vet visit in each ferret's 6- to 10-year lifetime, from his getting sick, being in an accident, or eating something he shouldn't.

Do ferrets smell bad? What can I do about it?

Ferrets have an odor all their own, just like any pet. Some people like the musky scent, a few can't stand it, and most are in between. (Personally, I think it's much better than wet doggy smell or cat box stench.) If the ferret isn't yet altered, having that done will cut down on the odor a lot; whole (un-neutered) males, particularly, have a very strong smell. Young kits also have a peculiar, sharp scent which they lose as they get a bit older.

Descenting a ferret doesn't change the day-to-day smell. Only the scent glands near the tail are removed, which prevents the ferret from releasing bad-smelling musk if it's frightened, but doesn't stop the normal musky oils which come from glands throughout the skin.

The two big things you can do to cut down on your ferret's odor are to bathe him less -- yes, less -- often and to clean his bedding more often. Most of the musk stays in the cloth, on the litter or paper, and on your floors and furniture, not on the ferret himself. Cleaning them can be a big help. Also, right after a bath the ferret's skin glands go into overdrive to replenish the oils you just washed away, so for a few days the ferret will actually smell worse. Foods containing fish may make your ferret, or his litter pan, smell worse than those with chicken, lamb, etc.. You may also find that your ferret smells more during shedding season in the spring and fall.

Some people have had good luck with Ferret Sheen powder and various air filter systems.

Is a ferret a good pet for a child?

Many people have both children and ferrets without problems, but there's a difference between having both children and pets, and getting a pet for your child. It's important to remember that a ferret is a lot like a cat or dog, and will require the same kind of attention and care. It's not at all like keeping a pet hamster or guinea pig. If your child is responsible, careful, and not too young, and you're willing to supervise and help out with the care, a ferret will be a great pet. Otherwise, consider getting a low-maintenance pet you can keep in a cage instead.

Supervise children with any pets

It is definitely necessary to monitor interactions between young children and ANY pets closely, and to make sure children know the proper way to handle pets. A living creature needs, and deserves, to be treated with more care than a toy. Ferrets in particular love to pounce and wrestle when they play, which may frighten children, and children tend to play rather roughly, which may prompt a more vigorous response from an active ferret than from a typical cat.

Just as some very friendly dogs become nervous around children because they don't look, smell, or act like adults, some ferrets who aren't used to kids don't quite know how to behave around them. Make sure both your child and your ferret understand what's expected of them, and what to expect from the other one. At least one person suggests that ferrets brought up around other animals, including other ferrets, will adjust to a child better than ones only used to adult humans.

What about ferrets attacking babies?

There are several stories floating around about ferrets attacking babies, some more true than others. Ferrets are unfamiliar to most people, so it's easier for them to make sweeping statements on the basis of a tiny amount of information. Some of the reports are simply rumor, or the result of confusing another animal with a ferret. Others are based in fact, but omit important information (for instance, that the child and pets had clearly been neglected or abused prior to the attack). A small number are unfortunately true.

However, plenty of children have been attacked and even killed by dogs and cats. The number of people injured by ferrets each year is a tiny fraction of the number wounded or killed by dogs. People don't claim that all dogs and cats are too dangerous for pets, but rather that more responsible parenting and pet ownership is needed.

According to Chris Lewis, former moderator of the Ferret Mailing List:

The FML has carried confirmed reports of two, possibly three, cases where an animal identified as a "ferret" has seriously injured, and in one case, I believe, killed, infants. One in the UK, and one or two in the US. In none of these cases has it been proven that the animal was a ferret - particularly in the UK, it is quite possible that the animal was actually an European polecat which are raised for fur and sometimes for hunting (in the UK). And in each case gross child and animal abuse is well documented. But it's important to remember, that even the most pessimistic statistics on ferrets show that a ferret is about a thousand times *less* likely to cause injury than a dog. Indeed, every year there are hundreds of very serious or fatal dog attacks in the US alone. Worst case statistics show approximately 12 ferret attacks ever recorded in the US.
Dr. Bruce Williams, DVM, adds:
I can say from personal experience that there are many, many more bite incidents with the household dog or cat, and that either of these species tend to do a lot more damage. I have seen children require over a hundred facial stitches from getting between the dog and its food, but never anything like this with a ferret. But I've also been nailed by my share of ferrets too.

Personally, I don't recommend ferrets for people with children under 6 or 7 - either the child or the ferret ends up getting hurt.

What are the different ferret colors?

Ferrets often change colors with the seasons, lighter in the winter than in the summer, and many of them lighten as they age, too. Different ferret organizations recognize different colors and patterns, but unless you're planning to enter your ferret in a show, the exact label isn't particularly important. Some of the more commonly accepted colors are described in general terms below, adapted from summaries written by William and Diane Killian of Zen and the Art of Ferrets and Pam Troutman of STAR*Ferrets.

The albino is white with red eyes and a pink nose. A dark-eyed white can have very light eyes and can possibly be confused with an albino. These can actually range from white to cream colored with the whiter the color the better. A dark-eyed white (often called a black-eyed white) is a ferret with white guard hairs but eyes darker than the red of an albino.

The sable has rich dark brown guard hairs with golden highlights, with a white to golden undercoat. A black sable has blue-black guard hairs with no golden or brownish cast, with a white to cream undercoat.

The chocolate is described as warm dark to milk chocolate brown with a white to golden or amber undercoat and highlights.

A cinnamon is a rich light reddish brown with a golden to white undercoat. This can also be used to describe a ferret with light, tan guard hairs with pinkish or reddish highlights. Straight tan is a champagne.

A silver starts out grey, or white with a few black hairs. The ferret may or may not have a mask. There is a tendency for the guard hair to lighten to white evenly over the body. As a ferret ages each progressive coat change has a higher percentage of white rather than dark guard hairs. Eventually the ferret could be all white.

White patches on the throat might be called throat stars, throat stripes, or bibs; white toes, mitts (sometimes called silver mitts), or stockings go progressively further up the legs. A blaze or badger has a white stripe on the top of the head, and a panda has a fully white head. A siamese has an even darker color on the legs and tail than usual and a V-shaped mask; and a self is nearly solid in color.

What do you call a ferret male/female/baby/group?

[Photo of a male and a female ferret] [Photo of a young ferret kit]
A male is called a hob, and a female is a jill. To some people, neutered males (first picture, on the right) are gibs and neutered females are sprites (on the left), but these are new terms and aren't as commonly used. A baby ferret of either sex (second picture) is a kit.

The most commonly accepted phrase for a group is "a business of ferrets". Some people spell it "busyness" instead. Another possibility, "fastening" or "fesnyng," is thought to be due to a misreading of "bysnys" long ago.

How can I help the ferret community?

There are lots of ways you can help the ferret community at large. If your ferrets are very trustworthy and have had their vaccinations, take them with you to the park or pet store and show people what wonderful pets they are, to counteract all the false rumors. (Be very careful, though: if your ferret should nip or scratch someone, even by accident, some states will kill him for rabies testing, even if he's been vaccinated. You may want to only let people pet his back.) Give good ferret information, perhaps a copy of this general FAQ and the Medical FAQs, to your vet.

Adopt, foster, or sponsor a ferret from a local shelter, or donate old towels, shirts, food, litter, cages, money, or time. Many shelters could use help with construction projects, computer setup and use, recordkeeping, etc., as well as day-to-day ferret care, cage cleaning, and trips to the vet. (However, shelter directors are very busy people, and may have established routines they'd rather not have disrupted, so don't be offended if your offer of help is refused. Ask if there's something else you could do instead.) To find a shelter near you, see the STAR*Ferrets list of clubs, shelters, etc. or contact a local ferret club.

Participate in the "Support Our Shelters" coupon book program, in which you send $25 and receive a book of grocery store coupons of YOUR choice worth at least $200. More information is also available by sending the command

in the body of email to <listserv@cunyvm.cuny.edu>.

Which color is the best? Male or female? What age?


As with people, a ferret's inherent personality is more important than color or gender. Choose whatever color you like best.


[Photo of a male and a female ferret]
There's no consistent personality difference between a (neutered) male and a female. Males are generally considerably larger, around 18" and 2-5 pounds (that's 45 cm and 0.9 to 2.3 kg, in the US; European-bred ferrets differ a bit) compared to 15" and 0.75-3 pounds (40 cm and 0.4 to 1.3 kg) for females. Males' heads are usually wider, which can give them a more cat-like appearance. If you're getting an unneutered ferret, bear in mind that the cost to spay a female can be higher than the cost to neuter a male. (Unless you're specifically planning to breed them, you will NEED to "alter" your pets.)


[Photo of a young kit playing in a coffee mug]
There are two contradictory opinions regarding what age ferret is best for a new owner. Adults tend to be a bit calmer and may already be litter- and nip-trained, but they are larger and may have acquired bad habits, too. Kits are very cute, and their small size and (for a young kit) sleepiness can be less intimidating for a new owner, but they require more care and a lot more training and will become very active before too long. Ferrets under 7 or 8 weeks probably shouldn't be away from their mothers yet, and many breeders prefer to keep their kits for 10 weeks or more.

Is this ferret male or female?

If you can't tell whether you have a male or female, it's probably a female. :) Look on the belly of the ferret, about halfway between the tail and the bottom of the rib cage. If you see what looks like an "outie" belly button, it's a male -- and it's not a belly button. Otherwise, look just in front of the anus for a second opening, perhaps with a tiny flap of skin. If you see that, it's a female.

To double-check, look at a once-used litter pan. Ferrets usually urinate and defecate in one "sitting," and because of the anatomy described above, males leave puddles a few inches in front of their piles, females right on top.

How many should I get? All at once, or one at a time?

Ferrets don't need other ferrets to be happy, but if you won't be around much, two or more will keep each other company. They'll also be more fun, but more responsibility. Many people have three, five or more ferrets, which may be more fun than you can take. :-)

I'd recommend getting one at first, so you can get to know it, and it you. There's some advantage to only having to train one at a time, too. I'd suggest at least a month between them, if you're going to get several, although it's certainly not necessary. If you decide you want more later, you can always get another; they usually get along just fine. There's no problem mixing (neutered) ferrets of either gender in any combination.

Where can I get a pet ferret? What should I look for?

Where to go

Many pet stores have ferrets, and there are often ads in the newspaper placed by small breeders with kits to sell or people who want to sell older ferrets.

A ferret from a ferret shelter is also an excellent choice. They're often a little older than kits from a pet store, but they've probably already been litter- and nip-trained, and the shelter director will know more about their individual habits and personalities. It's also less expensive to adopt from a shelter, and of course you're giving a home to a ferret in need. A local ferret club or a veterinarian who treats a lot of ferrets may be able to help you find a nearby shelter.

What to look for

In any case, look for bright, clear eyes, healthy skin and whiskers, soft coat, and a curious, alert attitude. You can't tell just how a kit's colorings will turn out, but if you watch and handle a group for a while you can tell a surprising amount about their personalities. Young kits will generally be pretty sleepy and uncoordinated, but they'll grow out of that soon enough.

What are these little blue dots on my ferret's ear? What's the deal with Marshall Farms?

Blue dots on the ear

If your ferret has two blue dots tattooed in his right ear, chances are he's from Marshall Farms, a large breeder located in Western New York. They tattoo one dot when the ferret is spayed or neutered and the other when it's descented. Several other breeders also mark dots in their kits' ears, so a tattooed ferret may not be from MF. Hagen, a Canadian breeder, uses a red X (for females) or Y (for males).

Marshall Farms (MF) has been the subject of some controversy because they sell ferrets to laboratories as well as for pets. Some people feel that MF's efforts to produce ferrets for lab use might have resulted in their pets being genetically less healthy, but there's no evidence to support that. In fact, for many types of research, genetically diverse animals are needed.

About Marshall Farms

Dr. Bruce Williams, DVM, says:
There have been a lot of rumors going around recently concerning Marshall Farms ferrets. I'm not sure where they got started, but let's try to put this subject to bed.

Sure, Marshall Farms ferrets develop tumors. So do ALL ferrets . We don't know why ferrets develop most tumors - we know that they are most likely to develop them between the ages of 4 and 6, but not why. But it is certainly not Marshall Farms' responsibility when a ferret that they sold two years ago develops a tumor... To my knowledge - there are no inherent "defects" with Marshall Farms ferrets. Don't get me wrong - I know that Marshall Farms is the biggest breeder of laboratory as well as pet ferrets. I don't condone laboratory research on ferrets, or other animals for that matter and I don't do any. But I have never seen any problems with Marshall Farms ferrets that I could relate to Marshall Farms.

Jeff Johnston, an epidemiologist (though not a ferret vet), adds:
The bigger risk for so-called "congenic" animals is not cancer, which seems to be the alleged association with MF ferrets, but infectious disease since a microbe that is seriously infectious to one animal, will be equally infectious to all. And I haven't heard anyone report that MF ferrets are more susceptible to infectious disease than other ferrets.

I don't believe that the evidence exists to convict Marshall Farms of breeding ferrets with defects. And now that so many allegations have been lobbed against them, the information gathered about MF ferrets is almost certainly biased. This happens all the time in the epidemiology of genetic diseases. A particular defect occurs twice in a family--perhaps coincidentally--and the family and their doctors go out of their way to look for it.

How do I introduce a new ferret to my established one(s)?

[This section was written by Kelleen Andrews, with contributions from me and others.]

Dominance fighting is normal in ferret introductions. The severity can range from nearly nonexistent to all-out war. Prepare for the worst, and then anything less than that will seem like a piece of cake! Patience is the most important virtue. Often all is well in 3-14 days but sometimes peace is not achieved for 3, 5, or even 7 months. Ferrets that have been away from other ferrets for two years or more tend to take longer to adapt. Keep in mind that your final goal is well worth the work and that having two or more ferrets that have each other to love and play with is the greatest joy you -- and they -- may ever know!

It's often easier to introduce a new ferret when the others are still fairly new themselves. A ferret who's used to being an "only ferret" or a group which has been together for several years may resist the newcomer more strongly. It's also sometimes easier to introduce two at once, to divide everyone's attention.

Many techniques can be used to ease the transition. No one technique works on all ferrets; a combination of them has the best chance of success. Reassure all ferrets often that everything is OK and they are loved.

Unfortunately in very rare instances peace is never achieved and a new home may need to be found for the newcomer. Of course you'll want to be sure the new home will be understanding and loving, but also make sure the prospective new owner is aware of the problems the ferret has had getting along with yours, since even if he wasn't the aggressive one it will affect his relations with other ferrets. You don't want him to end up being passed from house to house, never able to fit in.

Sometimes, even after an established ferret and a newcomer have stopped fighting, the first ferret may start to act depressed, especially if he's used to being an "only ferret". Ferret psychology is still an undeveloped field, but most people interpret this glumness as jealousy or resentment of the new ferret. Be sure to pay plenty of attention to all your pets, and give the depressed ferret a couple of months to adapt. Chances are he'll come to see the new ferret as a playmate instead of an interloper. In extreme cases, you may need to resign yourself to only having one ferret, and find a good home for the other(s).

Will my ferret get along with my other pets?

[Photo of a young ferret and a cat]
Most ferrets don't get along with birds, fish, rabbits, rodents, lizards, and the like, though there are some exceptions. For a dog or cat, patience is the most important part of the introduction. Give the new animal a chance to get used to you and your home before introducing it to the other pets one at a time, very slowly.


Cats are generally less dangerous than dogs, simply because of their size. For the first week or so, hold both the cat and the ferret (two humans is handy here) and just let them smell each other a few times a day. Over the next week or two, gradually give each animal a bit more freedom, watching them closely, until they're used to each other. Once you're convinced that they're used to each other and get along all right, let them interact freely, but supervise them for a while to be sure. Make sure the ferret has an escape route, a barrier the cat can't get through or a safe hiding place.

It's generally believed that ferrets get along with cats better if they're introduced when the cat is still a kitten and is more willing to play, but there are plenty of exceptions. The same is probably true of dogs.


[The following information on dogs and ferrets comes from Marie I. Schatz.]

(1) First, do some work training the dog. Buy a dog training book, go to beginning obedience school (this should be something you do anyway). You want the dog to listen to your commands without fail.

(2) Try putting the dog in a carrier or crate (modified so the ferrets can't slip through) and let them run around the room while he watches. Interact with the ferrets so he knows they're part of the "pack".

(3) Hold the dog very firmly, with your hand right under his muzzle, while you let the ferrets run around and sniff him. Give LOTS and LOTS of encouragement to the dog and make loving noises over the ferrets. The ferrets are going to want to nibble his feet and jump at his face - try not to let this happen (two people will help). If the dog snaps at the ferrets, even with your hand right there, you won't have enough time to react. (Swift, loud assertive NO!'s right away if this happens.) So you may want to invest in an inexpensive cloth muzzle. You can't keep a muzzle on the dog long since he won't be able to pant, and it will tend to stress out the dog. I used one for the first couple of 10 minute intro's - still holding the dog.

(4) If the dog seems to be doing well, i.e. fairly low prey and chase drive with good bite inhibition - put a leash on the dog when you finally get to the point where they are loose together. Stay close. You may want to use the muzzle again for the first time. The leash will allow a faster grab if the dog starts to chase the ferrets.

(5) Do the "advanced" stage introductions in a room where there are lots of places for the ferret to get under or hide, or create some in the room temporarily.

(6) If things work out reinforce by giving treats to the ferrets first, then the dog - reinforce that the dog is lower in the pecking order.

(7) No matter how good things get, NEVER leave the dog's toys, rawhide chews, etc. lying around. The ferret will naturally want to investigate and hide them, and no matter how good the dog is it's just asking for trouble.

(8) You should also try feeding the dog separately, when the ferrets aren't around.

All any of this does is allow you to ascertain what kind of prey drive your dog has, without risking the ferrets too much. If the dog has a low prey drive and good bite inhibition and is just playful it should be apparent, and all this may be unnecessary or go relatively fast. If the dog does seem to have a very high prey drive, try a different older dog. Sometimes rescue groups can help with this as the foster homes may know a little about the dog's personality.

How can I best ferretproof my home? What do I need to worry about?

[Photo of a Plexiglas door barrier]
As every ferret owner knows, our little friends love to get into trouble. Whether your ferrets live in a cage when you're not around or are free all the time, whether they live in a single room or have the run of the house, the first line of defense, both for your ferrets and for your possessions, is a well-ferretproofed home.

Ferrets love to worm their way into any little hole (as small as 2 X 2 inches, or smaller for kits and some adults), which can be very bad if the hole in question is under or behind a refrigerator or other appliance (with exposed wires, fans, insulation, and other dangers), into a wall, or outside. Crawl around on your stomach to look for holes near the floor and under cabinets, especially in the kitchen and laundry area. Even holes inside cabinets (which are particularly common in apartments, where plumbers are often rather sloppy) should be blocked, just in case.

Ferrets can open cabinets and drawers, which can be dangerous or just annoying depending on what's inside them. Also watch out for heaters or furnace ducts. You can block openings with wood or wire mesh; be sure to leave ventilation around appliances. For doorways, try a smooth piece of plywood or Plexiglas slid into slots attached to the sides of the doorway. Recliners and sofa-beds are very dangerous; many ferrets have gotten crushed in the levers and springs underneath. They're difficult to ferretproof, except by putting them in a forbidden room. Even regular couches and beds can be dangerous if the ferret digs or crawls his way into the springs or stuffing.

Next, look around the area your ferret will be playing. Remove anything spongy from reach, and put fragile items out of the way. Keep in mind that many ferrets are good climbers and jumpers, and they excel at finding complicated routes to places you never thought they could reach. They can get onto a sofa, into a trash can, onto the third shelf of a set of bookcases, into a bathtub or toilet (from which they might not be able to jump out), and into the opening on the back of a stereo speaker. They can also open cabinets and drawers, unzip backpacks, and climb up drawers from underneath or behind to get onto the desk or kitchen counter.

So many things to investigate

Apart from obvious dangers such as bottles of household cleaners, which ferrets do sometimes like to drink, be particularly careful with sponges, erasers, shoe insoles, foam earplugs, Silly Putty, foam rubber (even inside a cushion or mattress), styrofoam, insulation, rubber door stoppers, and anything else spongy or springy. Ferrets love to chew on that kind of thing, and swallowed bits can cause intestinal blockages. For some reason, many ferrets like to eat soap, so you'll have to keep that away from them. (A little lick won't hurt your ferret, just give her a bit of diarrhea, but large amounts can be a problem.) Human foods should also be kept out of reach, since even the ones which aren't dangerous to ferrets aren't good for them in large quantities.

Be careful about full bathtubs, where your ferret might possibly drown, and consider keeping your toilet lid closed for the same reason. Buckets of water, paint, etc. can also be drowning or poisoning hazards, or might just be tipped over. Toilet paper and paper towel rolls are a problem because ferrets get their heads stuck in them and can choke or suffocate, and if you let your ferret play with plastic bags, you may want to cut off the handles and cut a slit in the bottom.

Certain ferrets may also have special ferretproofing needs; for example, some like to eat paper, cloth, or plastic bags, which can easily cause a life-threatening intestinal blockage. A few ferrets like to chew on electrical cords or plants, and some common plants are quite poisonous. Liberal application of Bitter Apple paste to the cord or plant can help persuade your pet to stop gnawing on it.

What's that about cats and curiosity?

Finally, once your home is done, it's important to keep it safe. Watch your ferret's toys to make sure they're not beginning to crack or break apart, and keep in mind that you can be dangerous to your ferret, too. Always double-check your dishwasher, refrigerator, clothes washer and dryer (even top-loading models) before closing them or turning them on, and watch where you sit and walk: that chair, throw rug, or pile of laundry might be hiding a napping ferret.

How can I protect my carpet, plants, cabinets, bed, or couch?


Many ferrets dig at the carpet, especially near doors that are closed. It's very difficult to teach them not to do it. You're better off protecting your carpet by putting down a piece of plastic carpet protector from an office-supply store. Chances are your ferret will get bored with digging when she sees she's not getting anywhere, though it might take a while for that to happen. A carpet scrap or sample from a carpet store might work, too, although your pet will be able to shred it, so she might not give up as quickly. For out-of-the-way places, wire mesh can be nailed to the floor through the carpet; be sure to protect any sharp corners or points.


Also be aware that ferrets like to dig in and possibly chew on houseplants, and some common ones are quite poisonous. Plants can be protected from digging (but not chewing) by putting large rocks or metal mesh over the tops of their pots.


Many ferrets like to rip the cloth on the bottom of a box spring and climb into it, where they can easily get crushed or caught. To prevent that, try putting a fitted sheet on the bottom of the bed, anchored in place with small nails or brads, or attach wire mesh or a thin piece of wood to the underside of the box spring. You may need to drill air holes in the wood so the box spring can still compress.

Cabinets and drawers

Depending on how your cabinets and drawers are constructed and how determined your ferrets are, you might be able to keep them closed using strong tape, rubber bands around a pair of handles, a nail or wooden dowel through the handles, or a strip of strong Velcro-type tape on the door and frame. Attaching eye hooks (screws with a ring shape at the top) to the door and cabinet and putting a nail through them both has worked for some people, and the latches with a pair of rollers on one piece and a mushroom-shaped catch are said to be strong enough for most ferrets.

Some kinds of child-proof locks also work very well, though others are too weak or open wide enough to let a ferret through. The magnetic latch-and-key system works best for many people; they're available at many hardware or childrens' stores, or from the Woodworker's Store catalog (1-800-279-4441) or the Safety Zone catalog (1-800-999-3030). The kind that lock around two handles at once, available from baby stores, have also gotten a good report.


If your ferret scratches at the underside of your couch to get through the fabric into the bottom, try taking off the couch's legs, if it has them. Heavy cloth or plywood stapled or nailed to the bottom can work, too, though ferrets can often rip cloth loose. Sometimes ferrets try to get into the bottom or arms of the couch by burrowing between the cushions and the back or sides. This is much harder to prevent, but some people have had good luck blocking the area with cloth or wood, stapled, nailed, taped or sewn to the couch. You can also give in and remove the bottom fabric and lower stuffing from your couch, putting a piece of plywood on the springs and the cushions on that. Then it doesn't matter as much if your ferrets get into the bottom, as long as they don't get caught between the cushions and the springs.

Many ferret owners find it simpler to give up and get a futon or a "suspended" couch that doesn't have an inside in the first place.

What will I need to take care of my new ferret?

You will need:

More details

[Photo of a ferret wearing an H-type harness]
Ferretone and Linatone are similar vitamin supplements that nearly every ferret considers a wonderful treat. Bitter Apple is a bad-tasting liquid or paste intended to stop pets from chewing things. The paste will probably be much more effective. You may want an H-type harness and a leash for walks. Ferrets love to play in, and empty, water bowls, so you might want to give them a rabbit-type water bottle instead, or at least provide one in case their bowl gets tipped over.

About litter pans

You will almost certainly need more than one litter pan, particularly if you have a large home. Small-size cat litter pans work fine, as do plastic dishpans, storage boxes, or large school supply boxes. Many ferrets don't seem to like the special triangular corner boxes, probably since they can't climb all the way in, but yours might. (Before buying one, ask ferret-owning friends. Chances are somebody has one sitting around that his ferrets never use.) For a travel cage or shoulder bag you can use a Rubbermaid-type plastic container intended for bread or ice cream (about 6 X 9 X 5 inches). Make sure the sides of the pan are at least 4 inches high, since ferrets habitually back into corners to deposit their wastes and you don't want messes over the sides of the pan. However, one side of the pan should be no more than an inch or two high, so your ferret can get in and out easily. This is especially true for a young kit.

If you're particularly sensitive to cleaning pans or to litter pan odor, one novel suggestion was to use empty milk jugs, standing upright, with the circular indentation on the side cut out. Use only a small amount of litter, and the whole jug can then be thrown away when it gets dirty.

Do I need a cage? Where can I get one? How should I set it up?

Many people keep their ferrets in a cage or very well-ferretproofed room whenever they can't be supervised. This drastically reduces the risks of digestive-tract blockages from swallowing indigestible objects, injury, and escape. However, even if you plan to let your ferrets have the run of the house at all times, you'll want a cage at first for litter-training and other kinds of training as well as for temporary use.

A metal mesh cage is probably the best choice. Many pet stores keep ferrets in aquarium-like enclosures, but they are not recommended as cages. They don't provide enough ventilation at the bottom, and your ferret will feel isolated from whatever's going on in the room. Most aquaria also aren't nearly big enough. Plain wood cages aren't recommended because the wood soaks up urine and other liquids, so getting the smell out and getting the cage really clean are nearly impossible. If you use wood, cover the floors with linoleum squares or coat the whole thing with polyurethane.

What size cage will I need?

[Photo of a ferret cage]
If you plan to keep your ferret caged whenever you're not home, and you'll be gone most of the day, a generous cage size is about 2 X 3 feet and 2 feet high (60 X 100 X 60 cm). A second or third ferret could share that size cage. Of course, a nice, big "condo" is even better, especially with lots of levels and hammocks to prevent falls from the top shelf. If you'll only be using the cage temporarily, such as when you're vacuuming or taking your pet on a vacation, 1 X 2 X 1 feet (30 X 60 X 30 cm) is sufficient for one or two ferrets, perhaps three. For trips around town, a shoulder or duffel bag equipped with a litter pan and mesh window works well.

Where can I get a cage?

One option is to make the cage yourself. It may be cheaper than a store-bought cage, and you can get exactly the size and configuration you want. Photos and descriptions of various types of homemade cages, as well as instructions for building one of them, are available. Of course, pet stores and catalogs have lots of cages, too. Multiple-level "cat condos" are probably the most popular store-bought cages. Some people like the easily cleaned medium or large size plastic dog kennels, modified to make multiple levels, although others think that they don't provide enough ventilation or contact with the outside world.

Many of the condos for sale in pet stores are made by Midwest and are available for less from Dog Outfitters (cheaper than Ferret Outfitters). Call 1-800-FOR-DOGS. Safeguard will make custom cages to your design, and also sells several standard cages. You can call them at 1-800-433-1819. Sorry, I don't have numbers for international callers. (This is not intended as an advertisement. Specific products are mentioned here only because people keep asking about them.)

What should be in the cage?

[Photo of a ferret's bed basket]
In the cage, you'll want some sort of "bedroom" for your pet. A ferret won't be very happy sleeping on the open floor of a cage, even on (or, more likely, under) a towel or shirt, but any small cardboard box or basket works well as a bedroom. Old T-shirts and sweatshirts make excellent bedding, as long as they aren't too easily chewed to bits. Old towels usually work well too, though some ferrets tend to get their nails caught in the loops. Don't use wood shavings. The bottom of the cage can be covered with linoleum squares, carpet samples, or cloth cage pads.

Other than food, water, a litter pan, bedding, and a bedroom, what you put in your ferret's cage is largely up to you. Enough room to stretch and move around is important, and different levels, ramps, tunnels made from dryer hose or black drainage pipe, and so on will probably be appreciated. Hammocks made from old jeans or shirts and a set of metal eyelets are very popular for both napping and playing. Most ferrets get bored easily when caged and sleep much of the time, so they probably won't get a whole lot of use out of toys; they'd really rather be out playing. Just be sure nothing you put in your ferret's cage could hurt him, whether by catching a toe, being swallowed, or some other way.

Also be sure your cage door fastens securely, perhaps even with a small lock, because ferrets can be very determined and rather intelligent escape artists. Twist ties, cable ties, or bits of wire often work well for fastening down litter pans or some bowls; and clothespins and small bungee cords can be enormously handy for holding all kinds of things down, up, or closed.

Any suggestions on toys?

Store-bought toys

[Photo of a ferret playing with a plastic ball in a corner] [Photo of a ferret carrying off a squeaky toy]
Cat toys work well for ferrets, though you need to be sure they don't have any small, removable parts or foam stuffing which might cause digestive-tract blockages. Most ferrets are rather harder on toys than a cat would be, so choose accordingly. Plastic balls, with or without bells, work well if they are not easily broken or swallowed (the little "webbed" ones break too easily). Soft vinyl rubber is okay, but not the spongy kind -- it's too easily shredded and swallowed. For hard rubber toys, be sure they can't get stuck in your ferret's mouth, and take them away when they start to crack. Avoid superballs: ferrets love to chew them to bits and eat the pieces. Cat or dog squeaky toys are good if they're tough enough to stand up to chewing and easily squeaked. Catnip won't hurt ferrets, but it doesn't affect them like it does cats. Remote-control cars are also popular, if somewhat expensive, ferret toys, though they may prefer chewing on the wheels.

Homemade toys

[Photo of a ferret in a hammock] [Photo of a ferret playing with a rolled-up sock on a string]
Most ferrets enjoy playing in a hammock made from a piece of cloth and some metal eyelets, and the leg from an old pair of jeans will be fun to crawl through or nap in. For other toys, try umbrellas, bathrobe belts, tennis balls, golf balls, ping-pong balls, film canisters (rinsed to wash out any chemicals), or old socks with bells rolled up in them. Plastic shopping bags are popular, but watch to be sure your pets don't suffocate or eat the plastic. Cardboard boxes are also fun, especially several nested together with ferret-sized holes cut at various places. Plastic bottles can be turned into clear ferret play-tubes by cutting off their tops and taping them together. Carpet-roll tubes and tunnels made of plastic pipe, dryer hose, or black drainage tubing are popular too. Avoid tubes from toilet paper or paper towels, though; they're small enough that ferrets can get their heads stuck in them and choke or suffocate.

[Photo of a ferret in a piece of dryer hose]
An excellent, inexpensive toy is a piece of plastic dryer hose about 4" (10 cm) in diameter. Wrap any loose wire ends. Be sure that your real dryer hose is out of reach (or get a metal one), since you're showing your pets that dryer hoses are great fun to crawl through. Clear dryer hose is even more fun, though less sturdy. One brand is Clear Duct by Dryer Mate, Model No. P48-C, a product of Nemco, Inc.. Several ferret clubs and shelters have begun selling clear hose as a fundraiser. If you can't find any locally, you should be able to order the original hose in 8-foot lengths or by the foot, or new heavy-duty hose in 20-foot pieces or also by the foot. Contact Crissey Fowler Lumber, 117 W. Vermijo Ave., Colorado Springs, CO 80903, 719-473-2411, fax 719-473-0653. Talk to Stan in Plumbing.

Everything else

No matter what you decide your ferret's toys are, he or she will almost undoubtedly choose some household items you never expected, as well. Keep anything that would be damaged with a little chewing, or that might hurt your pet, well out of reach. Unfortunately, digging up houseplants is also enormous fun to a ferret, but there are some things you can do to protect your plants.

What kind of collar/bell/tag/leash should I use?

Collar material

[Photo of two ferret collars and tags] [Photo of a ferret wearing a collar] [Photo of a ferret wearing an H-type harness]
Depending on your ferret, either a nylon kitten collar, a thin, flat leather puppy collar, or a piece of ball chain will work well. A leather boot lace can also make a fine collar; just knot it at the right size. The problem you may run into with a nylon collar is that some ferrets will scratch at it, which pulls the nylon threads and can tighten the collar dangerously. Also, be aware that both nylon and leather can shrink if they get wet, so never leave a wet collar on your pet; it may shrink and choke him as it dries.

Sizing the collar

For either of the collars, you may need to make an extra hole, then trim off the extra length and (for nylon) melt the end together. Be sure to leave enough to go through the little ring after it's buckled. For the ball chain (the kind made for light-pulls or to lift the stopper in a toilet), just snip it to the proper length. The collar should be loose enough to go over your ferret's head easily; if it gets stuck on something, better a lost collar than a choked ferret.

We've never had any problems with either of our ferrets getting hurt by catching their collars in anything, but we make sure to leave them loose enough that the furry snakes can slip out if they happen to get caught. In fact, the easiest way we've found to get the collars on is to fasten them, then shove them over the ferrets' heads while occupying them with Ferretone.


The cord-like figure-8 leash with a screw for adjustments, sold wrapped around a cardboard cutout of a ferret, isn't the best choice for a leash. It's too easy to get out of and too hard to adjust, the adjustment nut can break, and the cord can chafe the ferret. A flat nylon H-type harness with a leash clipped to the back will work much better. Several people have recommended the harnesses made by the WarmFuzzy Rescue (610-926-9087 or <warmfuzzy@aol.com>), andMarshall Pet Products (1-800-292-3424) also makes a popular one.

Bells and tags

A small cat bell and small-size plastic tag have worked well for us on a kit as young as 9 weeks. The slot on some of the smallest bells is easy to get a nail stuck in, though, so you may need to widen it a little with a nail file.

I recommend getting an S-shaped hook for the tag rather than a split ring, since the rings have a tendency to loosen. Twice one of our ferrets got hers caught in a sweater or blanket -- which both frightened her and unraveled the item she was frantically rolling in before she pulled out of the collar. You can also attach the collar and tag using a neatly trimmed piece of stiff wire. For a nylon or leather collar, you'll probably want to poke the S-hook directly through the collar and put the bell and tag on the same hook, though, since attaching them to the ring on the collar makes them hang down far enough to drag on the ground.

Do the ferrets mind?

Neither of our slinkies seems to mind wearing a collar or bell, although the first time we put them on our older pet she spent 15 minutes trying to convince us she was dying and then the next hour playing with the jingly toy that followed her wherever she went.

In short, tags and collars are handy for nearly all ferrets. Ours have never gotten out, but even just around the house it gives enormous peace of mind to be able to tell where they are!

What should I feed my ferret?

The key ingredients in any food for ferrets are fat and protein, specifically animal protein, since ferrets' short digestive cycles prevent them from getting enough nutrition from vegetable proteins. Chicken, turkey, beef, and lamb are all fine; most ferrets don't like fish, and it may make their litter pan smell worse. The food needs to have 30-35% protein and 15-20% fat, and animal protein should be the first ingredient and at least two or three of the next few.

Unless your ferret is overweight, you should just keep her bowl full and let her eat as much as she wants.

The food debate

Cat foods seem to have done okay for many years, but there's a fair bit of debate about which food is best for ferrets, whether high-quality cat/kitten foods are good enough, and so on. The usual conclusion is that while foods designed for cats probably aren't the best we could do, most of the foods with ferret pictures on the bags weren't designed for ferrets either -- they were designed for mink or cats and maybe modified slightly, and priced twice as high. If you choose a food packaged for ferrets, check its label just as you would a cat food.

There is only one food I know of which was designed and feed-tested exclusively for ferrets, and that's Totally Ferret, from Performance Foods. It's very expensive and not available everywhere. (Call Performance Foods at 1-800-843-1738 or write them at 38251 Industrial Park Blvd., Lisbon, OH 44432 to find out the nearest distributor.) Many people feel that it's the best food, at least for ferrets who aren't overweight (it's pretty rich), but most people also agree that cat/kitten foods are entirely sufficient, and that there's not that much difference between them.

Kitten or cat food

Most people feed their ferrets high-quality cat food, such as Iams, Science Diet, or ProPlan. High-quality food may cost a bit more than grocery store brands, but your pet will eat a lot less and be much healthier. We've found that an 8-pound bag of dry food (usually $10-$15) lasts two ferrets a couple of months, so the cost of feeding them even high-quality food is not very great.

Because of their high protein requirement, ferrets up to three or four years old should get kitten or "growth" foods. Older ferrets can have kidney problems from too much protein, though, so they should be switched to the cat versions.

Soft cat food is not good for ferrets, partly because it generally contains much less protein than the dry kind and partly because it isn't hard enough to rub plaque off their teeth and can lead to tooth decay. However, very young kits and those recovering from illness or surgery may need their food moistened with water for a week or two. Note that moistened food spoils much more quickly than the same food left dry, so dump out leftovers every day.

Other stuff

Dog food is NOT acceptable, as it lacks some nutrients ferrets (and cats) need. Among other things, ferrets and cats both need taurine, which is found naturally in poultry; many cat and ferret foods supplement it as well.

Variety and change

In general, feeding your pet a variety of foods, rather than just one brand, is probably a good idea. Ferrets are known to be finicky eaters, and if the brand you've been using changes or is suddenly unavailable, you may run into problems if it's all your pets will recognize as edible. To switch from brand A to brand B, start mixing them before you run out of A. Add B a little at a time until they're getting half each, then phase out A. (Also see information on supplements, as well as fruits, vegetables, and treats.)

About ethoxyquin

Every so often, a discussion starts up about ethoxyquin, which is used in many pet foods to preserve the unsaturated fats. In short, it's very unlikely that there's any problem. The amount of ethoxyquin used in cat food is far below the maximum concentration allowed by the FDA. No adverse effects have been shown in any studies, including some done by researchers not affiliated with any pet food company. In fact, ethoxyquin has been shown to have an anticancer effect in cats. Foods which don't contain ethoxyquin use high levels of vitamin E instead, at greatly increased cost and generally reduced shelf life.

Laura L'Heureux Kupkee, a veterinary student, says:

The original reports about ethoxyquin were started by one single dog breeder whose bitch lost pups. They did not know why, so they thought they'd send a [food] sample to a chemist friend. The friend analyzed it, and said it contained ethoxyquin, a component in car-tire manufacturing [but then, so are a lot of things, including many compounds remarkably similar to Petromalt and probably water]. The breeder was shocked and immediately blamed the ethoxyquin, the newspapers grabbed it, and now here we are. There was never any mention of the fact that the bitch in question may also have had some autoimmune problems. Nor was there *any* proof that the chemical caused the abortion of the pups.

Should I give my ferret any supplements?

Ferretone and Linatone

Ferretone and Linatone are two popular vitamin supplements. They are also one of the most common treats, since nearly every ferret loves them. They're very similar and can be used interchangeably, although their exact composition is a bit different. Both of these contain vitamin A, which can be very harmful or even fatal in excess, though it probably takes a whole lot more than you'd ever give your ferret. Still, some people prefer to dilute them 50/50 with olive oil or vegetable oil (not mineral oil), which shouldn't hurt. Also, as with hairball remedies, too much Ferretone or Linatone can give your ferrets loose stools. No more than a few drops to one pump a day is recommended, and it's not thought to be necessary to give them any at all if you're using a good food.

Hairball remedies

Similarly, many people give their ferrets a small amount of a cat hairball remedy such as Laxatone or Petromalt on a regular basis. This can help them pass the styrofoam, rubber bands, and such that they seem to love to eat, as well as helping to prevent hairballs from fur swallowed during grooming. Even better, most ferrets seem to think of this as a wonderful treat, too. As with all treats and supplements, give them only in moderation; you can estimate how much by taking the recommended cat dosage and adjusting for a ferret's smaller weight.

What are good treats?

Lorraine Tremblay has compiled a WWW page with advice and suggestions about ferret treats.

Most ferrets enjoy some fruits and vegetables. Although they're not necessary for good nutrition if you're feeding your pets a high-quality cat food, small amounts of these won't hurt. Just be sure you don't fill your ferret up on fruit, since he'll need to eat his regular food to get the required protein. Too much of nearly anything can be harmful, so try to vary your treats.

Some popular suggestions: a slice of banana (mashed, so it's more digestible), raisins, peanut butter, bits of pear, peppermint (small licks), freeze-dried liver (sold as cat treats), Pounce cat treats, puffed rice cakes, green beans, wheat crackers, Ferretone, Petromalt ... Try feeding your ferret pretty much anything, in small pieces. You never know what yours will consider a fabulous treat. I've heard of ferrets going wild for everything from spaghetti to blueberries.

Things to avoid

Although most ferrets love milk and ice cream, they shouldn't be allowed to have much. This is especially true for young kits, since the lactose in cow's milk gives ferrets diarrhea, which can easily cause them to become dehydrated. Goat's milk, available in some pet stores, is okay. Likewise, I've heard that soy milk is good for them and generally liked, but I haven't seen any verification.

Too much fiber can also give ferrets diarrhea, so limit raisins, bananas, prunes, oatmeal, apples, and anything with bran in it. Sugary treats aren't good for them either, since they can cause dental problems. (Despite the rumors, there is no evidence that sugar causes diabetes or other metabolic problems in mammals.)

Be careful with chocolate. Most ferrets like it, but the xanthines/theobromine found in it may be toxic to them in large enough quantities; nobody's sure. It's not recommended as a treat. (However, many people give their ferrets an occasional chocolate chip with no problems.) Likewise licorice -- the real thing, not the plastic, fruity, red stuff that goes by the same name -- is surprisingly strong. It's been used for medicinal purposes in the past; it might not be a good treat. Both chocolate and licorice are more likely to be dangerous to ferrets with heart problems. Onions, garlic, and other members of that family can cause Heinz body anemia in dogs and cats; nobody's sure about ferrets, or what the dangerous dose might be (the tiny bit in some meat baby foods is probably fine), but caution is advised.

What kind of litter should I use?

Some people have had problems with the clumping varieties of litter, due to some ferrets' habits of sniffing at their litter corners or dragging their rumps across the litter when done using it. The litter can get into their noses or rectums, where it clumps and causes problems. You may not want to take the chance.

Likewise, cedar shavings are not recommended, for the same reasons that they don't make good bedding.

Other than that, any kind of litter meant for cats is okay for ferrets. You and your ferret may prefer one to another, since they all control or cover odors differently, track more or less dust, cost more or less, and so forth. Many people favor pelleted wood litters (or wood stove pellets, available inexpensively at many large hardware stores). Others even use alfalfa pellets (rabbit food), which are often cheaper than cat litter but generally don't cover odor as well. If your pet is used to one and you switch, it may take a while for him to connect the scent of the new litter with where he's supposed to go. (Also see the information on litter training.)

Pet stores use wood shavings as bedding. Should I?

In short, no. Many pet stores and some breeders use cedar or pine shavings as bedding/cage lining for their ferrets, but it is not recommended. Cedar in particular has been associated with allergies and respiratory problems in various animals, including, for example, humans and rabbits, but pine and other woods also produce a fair amount of dust and such which isn't very good to breathe. Why take the chance?

Furthermore, wood shavings are completely unnecessary. Ferrets are more like cats than hamsters: they'll be quite happy with a clean towel or old T-shirt placed in a small "bedroom box" or basket for sleeping. Sure, some pet stores and breeders use shavings, but they don't really have the option of using towels.

Dr. Williams' article

Of course, it would be better if pet stores didn't use wood shavings either. Corn cob bedding is just as convenient for them and is dust-free and safe. If you need some authoritative information to convince your pet store to stop using wood shavings, here's an article by Dr. Bruce Williams, DVM:
(The following short article may be reprinted by anyone desiring to disseminate this information in a newsletter or non-commercial publication. This material may not be altered or changed in any way. Under Title 17 of the U.S. Code, Section 105, copyright protection is not available for any work of the United States Government.)


For years, cedar shavings have been used as bedding for many species of small mammals including ferrets. Over the last ten years, increasing evidence is cropping up that this may not be a good choice.

Cedar shavings, as well as other aromatic soft woods, such as white and yellow pines, release volatile hydrocarbons which affect those animals living in them. Plicatic acid, a volatile hydrocarbon, results in asthma in humans and rabbits. Other hydrocarbons result in changes in the liver, which may impair its ability to detoxify certain drugs, including various anesthetic agents. Cedar shavings have also been incriminated in increased mortality in rat pups, and various scientists over the years have alluded to possible carcinogenicity. In chicken litter, cedar shavings harbored more bacteria than other types of litter.

On the more practical side, a 1986 article in Lab Animal evaluated many of the common bedding materials, also including hardwood chips, sawdust, paper chips, newspaper, ground corncob, rabbit pellets, straw, and hay (along with several others) for the following: absorbency, dust, endogenous effects on the animal, cost, use in nesting, and disposability. In all categories, cedar shavings was not recommended. Interestingly enough, paper products and heat-treated softwood chips scored highest overall.

In my experience, ferrets are happiest in old sweatshirt or towels, which rarely cause problems. Beware, however, the bored caged ferret, who may ingest parts of these items for lack of other stimulation, and obtain a gastrointestinal foreign body in the process.


1. Weichbrod RH et al. Selecting bedding material. Lab Anim. Sept 1986, pp.25-29.
2. Kraft LM. The manufacture, shipping, receiving, and quality control of rodent bedding materials. Lab Animal Sci. 1980 pp. 366-372.
3. Weichbrod RH et. al. Effects of Cage Beddings on Microsomal Oxidative Enzymes in Rat Liver. Lab Animal Sci. 38(3): 296-298, 1988.
4. Hessler, JR. Design and Management of Animal Facilities. In Laboratory Animal Medicine, JG Fox, ed. Academic Press Inc, Orlando. 1984.
5. Chan H. et al. A rabbit model of hypersensitivity to plicatic acid, the agent responsible for red cedar asthma. J Allergy Clin Immunol 79(5) : 762-767.

How do I train my pet not to nip?

Like kittens and puppies, ferret kits must be taught not to nip. A ferret which has been bred to be a pet shouldn't be vicious or bite, but ferret play does include mock combat, and young ones won't know how hard they can put their teeth on you without hurting you. A playing ferret may run at you with his mouth open or even put his teeth on your hand, but if he presses down hard enough to hurt, you need to discipline him. Just remember, ferrets aren't malicious, they just need to learn what behavior is acceptable.

A very few otherwise calm, gentle ferrets will react in an extreme way to a high-pitched noise such as a squeaky toy (perhaps only one particular toy) or the sound of rubbing fingers on a window or a balloon. Nobody's quite sure why that sets them off, though it seems to be a protective instinct of some sort. If your ferret is one of those few who bites wildly at the source of such a sound, my best advice is, don't make that sound around them.

Sometimes a ferret which has been mistreated will bite out of fear, or an older ferret might bite because of pain, either in the mouth or elsewhere. In either of these cases, strict discipline isn't going to do any good. For an animal in pain, of course, take it to the vet. For an abused ferret, try one of the alternatives mentioned below, and have a lot of patience: the ferret has to learn to trust someone when all it has known before is abuse. Regina Harrison has created a Web page about caring for and rehabilitating such "problem" ferrets.

In all cases, positive reinforcement (giving treats and lots of praise when the ferret does well) works much better than punishment, but if you need one, use a "time out" for a few minutes in a cage or carrier. Similarly, don't set the ferret down when he struggles and nips -- you'll be teaching him that that's the way to get what he wants. Finally, whichever method you use, consistency and immediacy are very important.

Alternatives to nose-flicking

Flicking the ferret's nose while his teeth are on you is a pretty common form of discipline, but it might not be the best. Your ferret might end up associating you with bad things rather than good ones. Also, it's a very bad idea to use nose-tapping or other physical discipline on a ferret who has been mistreated or who acts unusually aggressive or frightened. There are several alternatives, which you might want to try in combination:

I'm having problems litter-training. What do I do?

Ferrets can be trained to use a litter pan, but unlike cats, they don't take to it automatically. To litter-train your ferret, start him out in a small area, perhaps his cage, and expand his space gradually as he becomes better trained. If it's a big cage, you might need to block off part of it at first.

Fasten the litter pan down so it can't be tipped over. Keep a little dirty litter in it at first, to mark it as a bathroom and to deter him from digging in it. Don't let it get too dirty, though; some ferrets can be pretty finicky about their pans. Likewise, ferrets and cats often don't like to share pans with each other. Most ferrets won't mess up their beds or food, so put towels or food bowls in all the non-litter corners until your ferret is used to making the effort to find a pan. Bedding that has been slept in a few times and smells like sleeping ferret will be even better than clean bedding for convincing a ferret that a corner is a bedroom instead of a bathroom.

Ferrets generally use their pans within fifteen minutes of waking up, so make sure yours uses the pan before you let him out, or put him back in the cage five or ten minutes after you wake him up to come play. When he's out running around for playtime, keep a close eye on him, and put him in his litter pan every half hour or so, or whenever you see him "pick up a magazine and start to back into a corner" (as one FML subscriber put it).

Whenever your ferret uses a litterpan, whether you had to carry him to it or not, give him lots of praise and a little treat right away. Ferrets will do almost anything for treats, and they're fast learners. Within a few days, your ferret will probably be faking using the pan, just to get out of the cage or get a treat. That's okay; at least it reinforces the right idea.

Positive reinforcement (treats and praise) are usually much more effective than any punishment, but if you need one, use a firm "No!" and cage time. Rubbing the ferret's nose in his mess won't do any good. He can't connect it to it being in the wrong place, and ferrets sniff their litter pans anyway. As with all training, consistency and immediacy are crucial. Scolding a ferret for a mistake that's hours or even a few minutes old probably won't help a bit.

If he picks the wrong corner

If your ferret's favorite corner isn't yours, you have a few choices. could put a pan (or newspaper, if it's a tight spot) in it; ferrets have short legs and attention spans, so you'll probably need several pans around your home anyway. Otherwise, try putting a crumpled towel or a food bowl in the well-cleaned corner, making it look more like a bedroom or kitchen than a latrine.

"Accident" corners should be cleaned very well with vinegar, diluted bleach, or another bad-smelling disinfectant (don't let your ferret onto it 'till it dries!), specifically so they don't continue to smell like ferret bathrooms but also as a general deterrent. For the same reason, you probably shouldn't clean litter pans with bleach, certainly not the same one you're using as a deterrent elsewhere. Urine which has soaked into wood will still smell like a bathroom to a ferret even when you can't tell, so be sure to clean it very well, perhaps with Simple Green or a pet odor remover, and consider covering wooden cage floors with linoleum or polyurethane.

Nobody's perfect

Although almost every ferret can be trained to use a litter pan, there is individual variation. Ferrets just aren't as diligent about their pans as most cats, so there will be an occasional accident. Even well-trained ferrets tend to lose track of their litter pans when they're particularly frightened or excited, or if they're in a new house or room. In general you can expect at least a 90% "hit" rate, though some ferrets just don't catch on as well and some do considerably better. At least ferrets are small, so their accidents are pretty easy to clean up.

Finally, if your ferret seems to have completely forgotten all about litter pans, you might need to retrain him by confining him to a smaller area or even a cage for a week or so and gradually expanding his space as he catches on again.

How can I get my ferret to stop digging?

Many ferrets love to dig. They'll dig in their litter pans, under the cushions of the couch, and at the carpet near closed doors. To get your ferret to stop tossing litter all over, start out by putting less in the pan, and keep it just clean enough that there's a dry layer on top. Litter digging tends to be a kit behavior, perhaps because kits have so much energy and are often cooped up in cages, so with time and luck your ferret will grow out of it. It's nearly impossible to train a ferret not to dig at all, so you're better off protecting your property and removing the temptation. Some digging, especially in the litter pan, can be out of boredom, so playing with the ferret more can help, too. You can also help control your ferret's digging by giving her somewhere approved to dig. A box filled with dirt, sand and gravel, then set into a larger box to contain the mess, can be great fun to a ferret. Your ferret may also enjoy digging outside, closely supervised of course.

How can I stop my ferret from digging in his food or water?

A lot of ferrets like to dig in their food or water bowls. If the bowls are in contained areas and the ferrets are willing to eat off the floor, the easiest solution is to provide a back-up water bottle and ignore the digging. You can also put the bowls in larger pans to contain the mess; use separate pans for the food and water, so the spilled food doesn't get soggy and spoil.

Heavy bowls that angle inward can help, or for more diligent water-bowl diggers, you can switch to a bottle. Likewise, some people find that a J-type rabbit feeder works well for food, though others find that just gives their ferrets a lot more food to joyfully spread around the room. At least one person used a PVC p-trap with a smaller opening instead. Another nearly dig-proof design is to put the food in a covered plastic Tupperware-type container and cut a hole in the top just big enough for the ferret's head.

Any advice on baths, ears, and nail-clipping?

First of all, unless your ferret goes snorkeling in butterscotch pudding or has a bad case of fleas, you really don't need to bathe her very often at all. It doesn't affect the odor much; in fact, many ferrets smell worse for a few days following a bath. The best thing you can do to control your ferret's scent is to change her bedding every few days and keep the litter pans clean.

The problem with frequent bathing is that it can cause dry skin, especially in winter. There's nothing wrong with bathing your ferret only once a year. Once a month should be okay, but switch to less often if you have problems with dry skin. Most ferrets don't seem to mind baths much. Some ferrets enjoy a bath quite a bit, swimming around in the tub and diving for the drain plug.

Nail trimming

The first step in bathing a ferret (well, after catching her) is to check her nails and trim them if necessary. Jim Lapeyre describes the recommended procedure like this:
Thus saith the Wise:
"When Haz-Abuminal saw that clipping the claws of the domestic ferret was grievous, he pondered day and night for a year and a day. After the year and the day had passed, he rose, and, taking the ferret in his lap, dropped three drops of Linatone upon the belly [of the ferret], which, perceiving that its navel had Linatone, turned to lick. Thus distracted, the ferret heeded not that the claws were being trimmed, and there was much rejoicing. And when the claws were all neatly trimmed, the people were amazed and astonished, saying, Who is this who, alone among mankind, has tricked a ferret?"
If you have trouble even with this method, and you have a helper, have the helper hold the ferret by the scruff of the neck and put Ferretone on one of his fingers. Scruffing a ferret will generally make her calm down and possibly even go limp, and if not, the Ferretone should keep her distracted.

Cut the nail just longer than the pink line inside it. Place the cut parallel to where the floor will be when the ferret stands, to prevent the tip from breaking later. (A drawing is available.) Be careful not to nick the line or the toe, since in either case it'll bleed a lot and your ferret will decide nail clipping is not a good thing. Kwik-Stop or some other styptic powder is good to have around in case this happens, to stop the bleeding quickly, or you can hold a piece of tissue or paper towel over the nail and elevate the foot for a few minutes until it stops.

Cleaning ears

Next you should check your pet's ears. They shouldn't need cleaning more than once a month at most, but if they seem unduly dirty, dampen a cotton swab with sweet oil (made for cleaning babies' ears) or an alcohol-based ear cleaner (only if dry skin is not a problem) and gently clean them. Peroxide, water, and ointments are not recommended, because wet ears are much more prone to infections. Hold the swab along the animal's head rather than poking it into the ear, to avoid injuring the ear. Yellowish or brownish-red ear wax is normal, but if you see any black substance your pet probably has ear mites, which should be taken care of [10.10].

There are also several excellent products made for cleaning cats' ears, which you just squirt in and they shake out. They're just fine for ferrets, and your vet should be able to tell you about them.

The bath

[Photo of two ferrets swimming in a tub]
Now fill a tub or kitchen sink partway with warm water. Many people have found that ferrets prefer their baths warmer than you'd expect, probably because their body temperatures are pretty high. You don't want to scald your ferret, but if you can put your hand or foot into the water and feel comfortable right away, it should be okay. If you want to let your pet play in the water, fill a tub just deeper than the ferret is tall, and provide some sort of support (a box in the tub) in case she gets tired of swimming. You can also take her into the shower with you; many ferrets who don't like baths are perfectly happy being held in a shower.

Finally, bathe the ferret. Ferret shampoos are available, or no-tears baby shampoo works fine too. Some people like Pert for Kids if the ferret has dry skin. Wet the ferret completely, either in one half of a double sink or in a tub. Lather her from head to tail. Our ferrets both start to struggle at this point, so we let them put their hind legs on the side of the tub while they're being washed. Rinse the ferret thoroughly in clear, warm running water. For dry skin, some people then dip the ferret in a dilute solution of moisturizer in water, being careful to keep her head out.

Older, sick, or weak ferrets can be gently cleaned using baby oil, which can also help get gooey things out of fur.

Drying off

Drying a wiggly, dripping ferret can be a lot of fun. Some people put a couple of towels and the ferrets together in a cardboard box or small, clean garbage can and let them dry themselves. I find it's easiest to keep the ferret in a towel at chest-level, holding her head and torso in one hand while drying her with the other. Wearing a terry bathrobe is helpful here too. You could also put your ferret on the floor in a towel and rub her dry, but she'll probably think you're playing a rowdy game of tousle and try to run away. Once you've got her mostly dry, put her somewhere warm with a dry towel to roll in and she'll finish the job, although it's been mentioned that a damp ferret seems to lose all sense of judgment, suddenly thinking that walls, cage floors, milk cartons, and everything except the towel must be remarkably water-absorbent. You can also try using a hair dryer on its coolest setting, but many ferrets won't stand for that.

[Photo of a ferret dancing]
Immediately after a bath, many ferrets pretty much go nuts, thrashing and bouncing from side to side and rolling against everything in sight. Mainly they're trying to dry themselves, with a good bit of general excitement from the bath and drying process too.

What games do ferrets like to play?

Most ferrets enjoy mock combat, chase, tug-o'-war, hide-and-seek, and so forth, with each other or with you. Ours love to bounce around on our fluffy comforter, swat at us from behind the bookcases, and attack each other through the throw rugs. They like to explore new things and places, sniff new smells, dig and roll in the dirt. Most of them love human interaction and will gladly include you in their play if you make the time for them. It may take you a little while to learn what each ferret's favorite games are, but soon you'll be one of their best playmates.
[Photo of a ferret carrying off a pen]
Ferrets also love to swipe things and drag them into the most inaccessible location possible. Protect your keys and wallet.

[Photo of a ferret dancing]
If your ferret jumps back and forth in front of you or tugs on your pants leg, he wants to play. An appropriate response would be to get down on your hands and knees and chase him around, or to dangle a washcloth in front of him and start a tugging game, for instance. If he dances around, chuckling and dooking and bouncing off the walls, he's having fun.

Here are a few more specific game suggestions, from the fertile imagination of "Mo' Bob" Church. Note that many of these games need you to supervise (or join in!), to make sure the ferrets don't get hurt or stuck or swallow anything they shouldn't.

Melissa Litwicki adds these suggestions: Other ideas, from various sources:

Can I teach my ferret tricks? How?

[Photo of a ferret rolling over] [Photo of a ferret sitting up]
Yes, ferrets are plenty smart enough to learn to sit up, turn around, roll over, stay on your shoulders or in a hood, and perhaps even walk on a leash. To train your ferret to stay on your shoulders, for instance, stand over a pile or basket of crumpled newspaper, and when she falls into it, shout, "No!" The combination of the fall, the noise, and your shout should persuade her to pay more attention to staying on. Give her a treat when she does, and she should learn quickly.

The trick to all of these is getting your pet's attention while you teach her. Don't try teaching tricks, or even trying to get a ferret to perform, in an unexplored area -- it's nearly futile.

Unlike dogs, ferrets generally won't do a trick for the sheer joy of it, or simply to please you. Usually there must be some kind of reward expected, though that could be anything from a lick of Ferretone to a bite of apple to a good head-scratching.

One very good trick to teach your ferret is to come when you make a particular noise (for instance, whistle loudly) or squeak a particular toy. Just make the noise each time you give the ferret a treat for a while, then make it when your ferret isn't nearby and give the treat as a reward when he comes to you. Ferrets often won't respond to their names, and it's enormously helpful to have a way to call your pet when he has escaped or is lost somewhere.

My ferret trembles a lot. Is that normal?

Generally, yes. Ferrets normally tremble for two reasons. First, they often shiver right after waking up, in order to raise their body temperatures. Second, they shake or quiver when excited or frightened. For a young kit, this could well be all the time, since everything is new and interesting. For older ferrets, a bath or even a good scolding could prompt trembling.

If your ferret's trembling persists with no apparent cause, first make sure there's no cold draft around. (Ferrets can live fine outdoors, with blankets and shade, but indoor lighting can cause their winter coats not to come in until long after it's gotten cold enough outside to need one.) If that's not the problem, check with a vet.

My ferret is losing hair!

Ferrets shed their coats twice a year, in the fall and spring. The times for these changes vary somewhat for ferrets kept in indoor lighting conditions. Fur will come out by the handful, all over the ferret, and his coat may look a bit sparse before the new one grows in. If it's obviously not just normal shedding, see the information about bald tails and other kinds of hair loss, some of which can be very serious.

Is he really just asleep?

[Photo of a sleeping ferret]
In general, ferrets sleep quite a bit, even adults. A two- to four- hour playtime followed by a several-hour nap is typical. Ferrets sometimes appear to be sleeping with their eyes partly open, and they sleep very heavily, often not waking even when picked up. You can take advantage of this and try to cut their nails while they're asleep. It means you have to be especially careful where you walk and sit, though.

What does such-and-such a noise mean?

Most ferrets don't make much noise. This doesn't mean they're unhappy, it just means, well, they're quiet.
Clucking, "dooking," or chuckling
Indicates happiness or excitement. Often uttered while playing or exploring a new area.
Kits, especially, do this as a general excitement noise. It can also be uttered by the loser in a wrestling match.
Frustration or anger. Ferrets often hiss while they're fighting [150 kB sound], even if it's just in play.
Screeching/loud chittering
Extreme fright or pain. This is your cue that it's time to go rescue your pet from whatever it's gotten itself into. It can also be a sign of anger.

What else should I probably not worry about?

[Photo of a ferret dancing]
A happy ferret will "dance," flinging himself about on all fours with an arched back. Clucking is common too. Dancing or just careening into walls or bookcases is not at all uncommon, but ferrets seem to just bounce off of such obstacles. Unless they actually injure themselves, don't worry about them; they're having fun.

Occasional sneezes
If you crawled under bookcases and couches, you'd sneeze too. Also, ferrets have a pair of scent glands near their chins, and sneezing can be a way of forcing some of the scent out so it can be rubbed on something.

"Reverse sneezes"
These sound almost like asthma, about the same duration as a sneeze, and often occur several in a row, maybe after the poked her nose somewhere dusty. They don't look or sound like a cough. You might see the ferret's rib cage or body move once or twice a second with the force of the inhalation.

Sniffing/wiping/licking the rear
This is a normal thing to do, especially after a bath. It helps spread the ferret's scent around.

Licking urine
It's not uncommon for a ferret to take a few laps of urine, its own or another ferret's. Nobody's really sure why they do it, but it won't hurt them.

Hiccups are not uncommon, especially in young kits, who sometimes seem alarmed by them. A comforting scritch, a drink of water, or a small treat can help.

For some reason, many ferrets wag their tails quickly when they have their front ends in a tube or under a rug and they see something interesting (a toy, a sock, another ferret) at the other end. It's a normal sign of excitement.

Tail puffing
A ferret's tail will bottle-brush when he's excited or upset. He's not necessarily frightened. He'd have to be really worked up for the hair on the rest of his body to stand up, though.

Ear suckling
Often ferrets will suck on each others' ears, and sometimes even cats' or dogs' ears, especially when they're sleeping. It's probably a lot like thumb-sucking in humans, and nothing to worry about as long as the one doing the sucking is eating well and the other one's ears aren't getting sore.

Licking soap
For some reason, many ferrets love to eat soap, stealing it from the bathroom or even licking the tub. A little bit of soap won't hurt your ferret, though it may give her diarrhea. Don't give it to her as a treat, of course, and try to keep it out of her reach, but it's nothing to panic about unless she manages to eat a lot.

Summer weight loss, in males
Normally, weight loss is something to be concerned about, but many males lose a fair bit of weight, even as much as 40% of their bulk, in the summer and gain it back in the fall. It's mainly preparation for breeding, but it's common in neutered males, too. If your ferret seems otherwise healthy and happy, don't worry.

Do ferrets travel well?

In general, yes.
[Photo of a duffel bag modified for carrying ferrets]
Around town
Ferrets love going places. You can fix up a shoulder bag with a litter pan and space for a water bottle and food dish and carry them with you wherever they're welcome. Be careful not to let them get too hot or cold, though.
[Photo of a collapsible ferret cage]
Automobile travel
Car trips don't seem to bother ferrets, although being closed up in a travel cage may irritate them -- and you, if they scratch to get out. Keeping them loose in the car is not recommended, since they could get under the driver's feet or through some undetected hole into the engine compartment or onto the road. You can use a water bottle in a car, but fasten a deep dish or cup underneath it, since it will drip, and put down a towel to soak up the inevitable spills.
Airplane travel
Only a few airlines allow ferrets on board their planes, in under-seat carriers, for an additional charge. (America West, Air Canada, and Delta do, and I once got a special exception from Continental after talking with their customer service folks for a while. Any others?) Sending your ferret in the cargo area is not generally recommended, largely due to problems people have had with temperature, pressure and general handling of pets who travel this way. If you make any travel arrangements for your ferrets, whether it's in the cabin, as baggage, or as freight, get them in writing. Several people have reported experiences in which one person at an airline said ferrets would be fine only to have another person prohibit them, sometimes on very short notice.

Tranquilizing the ferret isn't recommended -- it'll disorient him and may affect his ability to keep his body temperature regulated. Medications can also be affected by altitude, leading to a risk of overdosing.

Several people have been able to sneak their ferrets aboard aircraft by carrying them through security, then transferring them to a duffel bag in a restroom, but I have no experience with that.

If you have to fly your ferrets somewhere and no airline will take them, a courier service such as Airborne Express or FedEx might be able to help. This might be the only way to fly your ferrets to some international destinations.

Many hotels allow pets in cages, although it's a good idea to call ahead and make sure. Also leave a note to reassure the maids.

Canada/U.S. border crossings
As of January 22, 1997, an import permit is no longer needed to bring a ferret into Canada, whether it's a Canadian or U.S. ferret. Ferrets are now treated like dogs and cats, and only require proof of rabies and distemper vaccinations. However, if you do not have a residential address in Canada, a quarantine period may be imposed, apparently at the discretion of the agent at the border.

Bringing ferrets from Canada into the U.S. is much the same. All I've ever needed was a rabies certificate. Proof that the ferrets came from the U.S. in the first place might also be helpful (a NY state license, in my case; if you don't have one, register your pets with U.S. Customs before you enter Canada). I don't know much about Canadian residents bringing ferrets into the U.S., but I wouldn't expect it to be any different.

Legal issues
You should also check with the Wildlife Departments of any areas you'll be passing through or staying in to make sure that ferrets are allowed, and carry documentation of the vaccines your pets have had, just in case.

Help! My ferret is lost!

[This section was written by Bev Fox, with additions by Carla Smith, and has been edited slightly.]


The most important things to do only work if you do them before one of your ferrets makes a break for the big outdoors.

Teach your ferrets to come to a sound (a word, squeaky toy, whistle, etc.) and reward them with their favorite treat when they do. Deaf ferrets can be trained to come by using a flashlight and blinking it off and on rapidly for a strobing effect. (Hearing ones too, for that matter.) Introduce your ferret to your neighbors so they will be familiar with what a ferret is and what it looks like. Put a collar or harness with a bell and name tag on your ferret whenever it is out of the cage. This way if somebody sees it they will know that it is a pet and not a wild animal.

Missing ferret

Check through your house carefully, including places where your ferret "couldn't possibly go." Look inside drawers, under dressers, in hampers, under and inside refrigerators, etc. Check your backyard, bushes and garage. Most ferrets when exploring a new area will cling to the side of a building or structure before venturing out into an open area. Put food and water out, preferably in a familiar cage or carrier with a blanket or shirt that has your scent on it. Place food on the front and back porch. You may also want to sprinkle the area with flour to make it easier to identify tracks left by any animal coming up to eat and drink.

Use your word processor or graphics program and design a missing ferret poster now before you need it and have it on file so specific information can be added and copies can be printed up in a short period of time. The poster should include your phone number, the ferret's name and picture, a description of any collar or harness he was wearing, date missing, last known location, and mention of a reward. (Never place how much money offered on the poster as some people may not think the amount offered is worth their effort.) Some people suggest that you say that the ferret is ill and needs medication (even if it's healthy). (This little white lie might make someone who finds your ferret and is thinking of keeping it for themselves have second thoughts and call you to come get it.)

Call your local police, animal control authorities, ferret club, ferret shelter, pet stores, veterinarians and radio stations. Get the word out. Canvass your neighborhood door to door and let your neighbors know to watch for a missing ferret in the area, perhaps in their garages or dryer vents. If you have another ferret, take it along to show them what one looks like. Ask your neighbors, especially children, if they will help you look around. Hand volunteers a noise maker that you use to call your ferret or tell them your call sign. Also hand out treats so if the ferret is spotted by someone they can keep it in sight until it can be retrieved. Alert your mailman, newspaper boy, and anyone else who passes through your area often. Post signs everywhere and place ads in your local newspapers. Don't limit it to your immediate neighborhood. Ferrets have been found many miles from home after crossing major highways and busy streets.

If you own more than one ferret, take one with you. It can show you small openings that you may otherwise overlook and may also draw the missing ferret out into the open to see its friend.

Remember, look low. Ferrets love dark places so check under porches, shrubs, dumpsters and cars. Ferrets also like small places so check behind trashcans and any little nook and cranny you find. Look for the telltale " a ferret has been here" signs. (Leaves, dirt and grass that have been dug at and little piles of poop that we all know so well.)

Don't give up hope. Missing ferrets have been found days, weeks and occasionally even months after their great escape.

Do I need to spay/neuter my pet? How about descenting? Declawing?

Spaying or neutering: yes

Ferrets intended as pets must be neutered or spayed. Neutering drastically reduces the odor of a male, prevents him from marking his territory with smelly slime, and makes him less aggressive (males in season may kill other ferrets, even females). Spaying saves a female's life, since once she goes into heat she will need to be bred or she will almost certainly die of anemia. However, many people disagree with the common practice of performing the surgery at a very early age, and prefer to wait until the ferret is at least six months old and has reached nearly full size. It should be done before the first time the ferret would go into heat, but apart from that there's no rush.

A female can be spayed even after she goes into heat, but if she's been in heat for a month or more, your vet should do a blood test before the surgery. Females can be brought out of heat without becoming pregnant with a hormone injection or by breeding with a vasectomized male, either of which will lead to a false pregnancy which will last long enough to let her be spayed. Neither one is a good long-term solution, though.

Breeding ferrets is difficult and time-consuming. Before even thinking about breeding, you should have owned ferrets for some years, be a member of a ferret organization, and find out as much about it as you can. The actual mating is rather violent, and jills tend to have problems giving birth, producing milk, and so forth. If you're serious about breeding, talk to someone who has first. You'll need to have more than one whole male available (in case your female goes into heat when your male isn't) and more than one breeding female available (in case you need a foster mom because your jill has milk problems) -- and be prepared to lose some or all of the kits and perhaps the mom too. Grim, but true. To learn more about breeding or where to find a good breeder, get a sample copy of the Breeder's Digest by sending $2.75 to P.O. Box 2371, Leesburg, VA 22075.

Descenting: maybe

There's debate about whether descenting ferrets is necessary or useful, and some belief that it's harmful. It's bad for a ferret's health to descent it before 6 or 7 weeks of age, and it may be somewhat harmful when done at any age. Many people feel that the procedure accomplishes no purpose; that is, that neutered ferrets who aren't spraying smell the same whether or not they've been descented. Note that, like a skunk, a ferret will use its scent if it's greatly distressed or feeling amorous, but ferrets can't spray their scent as effectively as a skunk, it doesn't smell as bad, and it dissipates in just a few seconds. How often a ferret sprays and how bad it smells depend on the individual ferret, and different people have different tolerances for the scent, so if given the option you may want to wait and see if you think descenting is necessary in your particular case.

Most pet stores sell neutered and descented kits. Many breeders sell kits which have been neutered but not descented.

Declawing: probably not

Ferrets have nails like dogs, not retractable claws like cats, and declawing them is more difficult that it is for a cat. I have only ever heard of a handful of declawed ferrets; most of them are doing well, but a few had long-term problems from the surgery. Many people feel very strongly that ferrets should never be declawed, and nearly everyone agrees that declawing should be done only as a last resort, when non-surgical solutions to the problems have failed. Still, a few people support declawing, and in the end, it's a decision you and your vet will have to make for yourselves.

What vaccinations will my ferret need, and when?

Canine distemper

Fervac-D or Fromm-D canine distemper vaccine
The manufacturer recommends shots (1 ml subcutaneously) at 8, 11, and 14 weeks. (Some vets recommend four shots, three weeks apart, instead. Two is not enough.) Then a yearly booster shot. Although rabies gets more press, the canine distemper vaccine is much more important for your ferret's health.

Adults who have never been vaccinated, or whose vaccination status is unknown, should get two canine distemper shots, three weeks apart, then yearly boosters. If you know they've been vaccinated within the last year, then one shot is enough.

If you can't get Fervac-D or Fromm-D, or if your ferret has reacted to them in the past, Galaxy-D is an acceptable third choice. If you can't get either of these, you're taking the risk that your ferret won't be protected, or worse, that he'll become sick from the vaccine. At least be sure that it's a vaccine for canine distemper which is a MODIFIED LIVE virus and was NOT cultured in ferret tissue. Chick embryo culture is best.


Imrab-3 rabies vaccine
One subcutaneous vaccination at 14-16 weeks, separated from the distemper vaccines by 2-3 weeks, then boosters yearly. This is the same rabies vaccine that's used for dogs and cats, so your vet should have it around. It's good for three years in cats, but only one year in ferrets, mainly because the company hasn't done tests to see how long it lasts in ferrets. This is the only rabies vaccine approved for ferrets.


Ferrets do not need to be vaccinated for feline distemper or parvo. They don't need a 5-way dog vaccine.

They can contract Bordatella (a common cause of kennel cough in dogs), but it's very rare, and the effectiveness of the vaccine is unknown in ferrets. Don't vaccinate for it unless you'll be boarding your ferrets at a kennel, and possibly not even then. The intranasal Bordatella vaccine has been known to give ferrets the disease.

It's best to give the distemper and rabies vaccines be spaced a couple of weeks apart, since giving them at the same time seems to increase the chances of an adverse reaction (see below).

If you want to change a ferret's vaccination schedule, for instance to move all your pets to the same schedule, you can safely give another vaccination as long as it's been at least a month since the last one.

Most states don't recognize the rabies vaccine for ferrets, because official studies of virus shedding time in ferrets are yet to be done. This means that even if your ferret is vaccinated, it may be destroyed if someone reports to the authorities that they were bitten. However, having the vaccination may keep the person from reporting a bite in the first place, and of course it will protect your ferrets from getting rabies. (Even closely watched ferrets do occasionally escape.)

Vaccine reactions

Like any other animals, ferrets occasionally have adverse reactions to vaccinations, typically on the second or third exposure to a particular vaccine. Reactions are rare, and giving the rabies and distemper vaccinations two weeks apart is thought to reduce the chance, but they can be life-threatening.

There are several kinds of vaccine reactions. The most dangerous, anaphylactic reactions, usually occur within an hour after the vaccination. You may want to stay at your vet's for 30-60 minutes after a vaccination, just in case. Watch for vomiting, diarrhea or loss of bladder/bowel control; signs of nausea or dizziness; dark bluish-purple blotches spreading under the skin; difficulty breathing; pale or bright pink gums, ears, feet or nose; seizures, convulsions, or passing out; or anything else that's alarming -- bad reactions are hard to miss. Get the ferret back to the vet right away, probably for a shot of antihistamine (Benadryl) and perhaps a corticosteroid or epinephrine. Ferrets who have had mild to moderate anaphylactic reactions to a particular vaccine can be pre-treated with an antihistamine the next time, or you might consider switching to a different vaccine (from Fervac to Galaxy or the other way, for instance). If your ferret had a severe reaction, you and your vet can discuss the relative dangers of leaving that ferret unvaccinated.

Most delayed reactions aren't dangerous. You might notice the ferret acting tired, showing flu-like symptoms, or possibly even vomiting a little within a day or two after the vaccination. As long as the symptoms don't last longer than a day and don't seem too extreme, there's no need to worry. If the ferret has trouble breathing, is more than a little lethargic, or shows other worrisome symptoms, call or visit your vet. Antihistamines don't help much with delayed reactions, but your vet might suggest pre-treating the ferret next time anyway, in case it helps.

Jeff Johnston, an epidemiologist (though not specifically for ferrets), comments:

One thing that isn't proven but is worth a try is to give your ferret the contents of a small-dose vitamin E capsule (say, 100 IU) a few days before the injection. Vitamin E in large doses suppresses inflammatory responses (also suppresses vitamin K and clotting, so, warn your vet if blood is taken for any reason). It may help blunt any reaction. Vitamin E is also fairly non-toxic, too, so 100 IU once every few months shouldn't hurt. [Don't use more than that, though; anything can be toxic in large enough doses.]

Can I vaccinate my own ferrets?

It's not recommended. Giving an injection to a squirming or nippy animal is not easy. Even experienced veterinarians with good technicians sometimes get bitten. Also, an injection in the wrong place can injure the sciatic nerve and permanently paralyze the ferret's leg; and in case of a bad reaction to the vaccine, a vet has the experience and equipment on hand which may be needed to save the ferret's life.

In addition, a licensed veterinarian's signature is required for a rabies certificate to be legal. The annual trip to the vet (or semi-annual, for older ferrets) is also the best time to have your ferrets checked for other health problems.

Dr. Bruce Williams, DVM, adds:

Unfortunately, vaccination are what supports the vets - sick animals don't. The extra few dollars is what pays the help, and the electricity, what feeds the strays that are dropped off weekly to your vets, or the dogs that nobody bothers to pick up. Or the ones that are hit by cars and dropped off by Good Samaritans.
However, if you have a lot of ferrets to be vaccinated, you may be able to save yourself some money by purchasing the vaccines themselves directly from the manufacturer and taking them to your vet to be used. You save on the materials, but you still get your vet's expertise. Check with your vet to see if he or she will work with you like this.

What kind of checkups should my ferret be having?

Dr. Bruce Williams, DVM, says:
I know that some practicing vets consider a 3-year animal to be "geriatric" and to require a CBC [complete blood cell count] and a fasting blood glucose yearly, but as one who stands to make no money on this deal anyway, I don't recommend it until age 5. Three years is just too young to consider a ferret geriatric.

Now, remember, all ferrets are different. If you have one that is sort of "puny", never eats well, sluggish, etc. a yearly CBC and glucose is a good idea every year. But if your three or 4 year olds are healthy, well, then it's just not required. I start mine at 5 years.

Considering dental work - have your vet check the teeth and then recommend who needs it. Not every ferret will need to have it done, and if your 4 year olds have been on hard food all of their lives, chances are good that they may not need any work yet.

Remember - a healthy 3- or 4-year old doesn't necessarily require any annual bloodwork, but a sickly 2 year old should get it on at least an annual basis.

What should I look for when I check over my ferret myself?

It's a good idea to give your ferrets a general check-over from time to time. This should not substitute for the annual vet visit, but you might notice something before it gets bad. Anytime you notice anything unusual, take the ferret to the vet.

Start by checking your ferret's ears, which should look clean and pink. If you see wax, clean them. If the wax is black or has dark flecks, the ferret might have ear mites [10.10]. Check the cartilage for swelling or distortion. Check the ferret's eyes, which should look clear and alert, with no films or discharge. (Ferrets do have a "second eyelid" which might appear as a bluish-white rim around the edge of the eye.) Feel carefully all around the neck, throat and chin area, looking for lumps or swelling. Check the gums, which should be pink and healthy-looking, and the teeth, looking for excessive tartar or discoloration. Whiskers should be long and strong, not brittle or broken.

Now hold the ferret under the front legs, with the back legs on your lap or a table. Run your hands lightly along the ferret's body, checking for lumps. You can also check muscle tone and weight this way: you should be able to feel ribs, but not see them, and the ferret should feel firm and supple, not loose, flabby or skinny. Pull gently on the ferret's legs to check for lumps or swelling on the legs, knees, or feet; the ferret should pull the legs back in. The pads should be pink and soft, with maybe a bit of callus, not irritated or cracking.

Your ferret's behavior is also a good indicator of its general health. Sleeping a lot is normal, and older ferrets will slow down a bit, but they should always be curious, alert, and playful. Any change in normal habits might be a sign of a problem.

Do I need to brush my ferret's teeth?

Ferrets do get plaque and tartar buildup on their teeth. You can see it as dark patches on the cheek teeth if you gently lift the ferret's upper lip. You can help control it by brushing their teeth with a pet enzymatic toothpaste and a small cat toothbrush at least twice weekly, especially after sticky or sugary treats. The dry food most ferrets eat also helps to keep the teeth clean; ferrets eating soft food on a long-term basis will need their teeth cleaned more often.

However, most tartar and plaque starts out under the gumline, and it takes a proper cleaning by a vet to get it off. The job will be easiest and most thorough if the ferret is under anesthesia during the cleaning; ferrets tolerate isoflurane very well, and the risk from anesthesia is very slight. A professional cleaning should be done every one to three years, depending on how dirty the teeth get.

Is my ferret overweight (or underweight)? What can I do?

Ferrets come in all different sizes and body shapes. A healthy adult male is normally anywhere from 2 to more than 5 pounds (900 g to 2.25 kg), and a female from 0.75 to 2.5 lb (340 g to 1.1 kg). Ferrets, especially males, normally gain up to 40% of their weight in the winter and lose it again in the spring. Some ferrets are naturally "chunkier" than others, too. When you run your hand down your ferret's flank, you should feel his muscles ripple a bit and be able to feel the ribs, but they shouldn't stick out or feel too bony. Small "love handles" are common in the winter. If he feels soft and "mushy" or looks pear-shaped, he might be overweight, or just have poor muscle tone from insufficient exercise.

Too heavy

If you think your ferret might be overweight, make sure he doesn't have some other health condition that makes him appear overweight. If the weight isn't evenly distributed, especially if you feel a large mass or a number of smaller masses in his abdomen, he may have an enlarged spleen. He might also have heart disease which is causing him to retain fluid in his abdomen. Unless you are absolutely certain that he is simply overweight and does not have another condition, please take a trip to the vet just to be sure.

If your ferret is indeed overweight, he needs to eat a "leaner" food and get more exercise. To reduce his calorie intake, mix his regular food with a high quality food for cats (as opposed to kittens) or Totally Ferret for Older Ferrets. You still want to keep the protein and fat content relatively high, but not quite at the top of the recommended range. Mix the new food in gradually so he accepts it better. Of course, also reduce the number of high-calorie treats, especially sugary ones and those designed for weight gain (NutriCal, FerretVite, etc.). To give him more exercise, make sure he's not spending too much time in his cage, especially since many ferrets will eat when they're bored. Play with him as much as possible, particularly games like chase; if he enjoys going outside, consider taking him on a short walk each day.

Too light

If your ferret is underweight, there's probably some underlying medical condition. In addition to the obvious diarrhea and vomiting, many diseases can cause loss of muscle mass, especially in the hind end. If your ferret seems to be eating and he's still underweight, take him to a vet to find out what's wrong. On the other hand, perhaps he hasn't been eating because he's been nauseated, congested from a cold or allergies, or stressed from some change in the environment. He might not like a new food, or the bag he's been eating from might have spoiled. If he isn't eating and you've recently changed something, try changing it back; if that doesn't work, get him to a vet right away. "Duck Soup" and other things have been suggested as good ways to put weight back on a recovering ferret or to help persuade a ferret to eat.

Are ferrets really as prone to disease as it seems?

No, in fact they're pretty hardy animals. It's always worth knowing what signs of disease to look for, and every species has common problems that tend to crop up in elderly individuals, but most ferrets go for years without even catching a cold.

A lot of the discussion about ferrets on alt.pets.ferrets, rec.pets and the Ferret Mailing List (FML) deals with health problems, and it's easy to get the incorrect impression that ferrets are constantly ill.

As Dr. Bruce Williams, DVM, puts it:

Ferrets are no more prone to disease than other animals. However, they do have a much shorter lifespan, so these problems come up an a more frequent basis. Plus, most of us own anywhere between two and fifteen animals, and many own more than this, or run shelters. When you are dealing with such large numbers of animals, you will have proportionately more health problems.

Also, the FML also has several vets that give health advice. We are well known as a place where you can get a prompt response to a question about the health of your animal, and several of us also are involved with the health care of many of the animals which you read about.

Another thing to consider is that many of the FMLers live in areas where vets are not very familiar with ferrets and their diseases, so the FML is a good place to get a second opinion or advice for their vets. I field anywhere from 3-8 phone calls daily on ferret matters from veterinarians around the country.

Any type of animal that you may obtain as a pet will have predisposition to disease. Ferrets should be expected to get diseases of their own, too. But as most people on the FML will tell you, the benefits are far more than the risks.

How do I contact Dr. Williams? I hear he'll help with diagnoses.

Dr. Bruce Williams, DVM, is a ferret expert who works at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology. He also operates a pathology lab, AccuPath, on his own time. He can be contacted at <AccuPath@primenet.com> (new address as of 9 Sept 1997) or <williams@afip.mil>. Please include your phone number in your email, since complex questions are often easier to answer by phone. There is no consultation fee, but he says, "Due to the number of calls that I receive, I must reverse [phone] charges when contacting ferret owners and their veterinarians."

Tissues of all kinds can be sent to Dr. Williams at AccuPath for low-cost, expert examination with a short turnaround time. Email <accupath@primenet.com> or call (301) 299-8041 for more information.

What special needs do older ferrets have?

[This information was provided by Sukie Crandall.]

The age at which a ferret should be considered "senior" varies from one ferret to the next. Some 5-year-olds are as active as they were at three, while others are settling into ferret retirement. Pretty much every ferret is an oldster by 7, though many do very well for several more years.

There are three big things you need to take into consideration for older ferrets: physical health, diet, and mental health. First, get a full medical checkup for your ferret, including full blood work. Depending on the results, you might want to start getting checkups every six months.

Although older ferrets sometimes have trouble eating dry food, you might not want to eliminate crunchy food, since that will keep your ferret's gums and teeth healthy. Some people swear by Totally Ferret for Older Ferrets. There's no reason you can't supplement the dry food with something like one of the "Duck Soups".

Be sure that your ferret has a lot to do, plenty of of old knotted-up socks to stash (at which point you must, of course, move them to continue the game), tubes and so on. Play with him as much as you can each day, and provide him with things to keep him interested and alert. These can be anything from culinary herbs in a box to dig up and roll in, to tricks, to some easy barriers to defeat. Exercise is good! Mental exercise is, too. Older ferrets often seem to need a bit more direct attention than young ones so try to set aside some time just for your ferret every day.

Even if your ferret is ill, give him a bit of self-sovereignty, too. Having someone else control all your choices makes life a drag for anyone.

What warning signs of disease should I look for?

An outline of noninfectious, parasitic, infectious, and cancerous health problems in the pet ferret is also available, as are brief explanations of some of the more common ones.

NOTE: I am not a veterinarian. I haven't even owned ferrets very long. (Dr. Bruce Williams, on the other hand, -is- a vet and ferret expert.) The following is by no means a comprehensive list of symptoms of disease in ferrets. However, some of the more common problems are often accompanied by these symptoms. If you notice one of these, or any other unusual behavior, see your vet.

ALSO: Ferrets are small. While they generally enjoy good health, any kind of disease or disorder can be fatal in a surprisingly short time, so if you suspect a problem, see your vet immediately.

Lethargy, lack of playfulness, loss of appetite, dull/glassy eyes, etc.
Symptomatic of a number of problems.

Lack of bowel movement
If your ferret has gone longer than usual without using the litter pan (or some other corner) productively, he may have an intestinal blockage. Certainly by the time it's been 24 hours you should go to the vet immediately. Note that a ferret can continue to defecate for as much as a day even with a blockage, since there's still waste in the intestines to be eliminated.

Dr. Bruce Williams, DVM, adds:

More often than not, [the cause of a lack of bowel movement] is a lack of food intake for some other reason. Ferrets generally go to the litter three or four times a day. Owners should look for adequate stools, although some may be a little loose. Also look for string-like stools. Ferrets with intestinal blockages can continue to pass stool which is very thin- like a pencil lead. But adequate ferret-proofing is much more important than stool-watching.

Swollen or painful abdomen
Bloating may come from many problems such as heart disease, splenic enlargement, or even just fat animals. Pain could be from any of several disorders, but the most common is an intestinal blockage, caused by eating something indigestible such as a sponge or an eraser. Not all blockages cause abdominal pain, though.

Change in "bathroom" habits
Suddenly refusing to use a litter pan or missing a lot more than usual, signs of discomfort or distress while using a pan, or any funny color or texture in the feces or urine could be a sign of any of a number of problems. Stress, perhaps from a change in environment, can also cause this.

Lumps on the body or feet
These may be cysts or infections, or they might be associated with a tumor, usually benign but sometimes malignant. They can also be a sign of dietary problems or a vaccine reaction. Have any swelling or lump checked out and probably removed by your vet, and have anything that's removed sent to a pathologist. For more information, see the Ferret Medical FAQ on Skin Tumors.

Difficulty using the hind feet, awkward gait, lack of movement
Most often a sign of an adrenal or islet cell tumor (insulinoma), or arthritis, in older ferrets. Could also be an injured back, the result of having been stepped or sat upon, closed in a door, or the like. Ferrets have very flexible spines, but they're easily injured.

Says Dr. Bruce Williams, DVM, about hind-end awkwardness:

This is a common finding in older animals of many species - the most common cause is a mild degeneration of the nerves in the spinal cord or those innervating the legs. In most of these cases, there is nothing to be done, but it also rarely results in paralysis, just variable amounts of weakness.

Ferrets do not tolerate high temperatures well at all. They (like any pet) should NEVER be left in a hot car, and if you're keeping them outdoors be sure to provide some shade and plenty of water in summer. Allowing them to sleep under hot radiators is probably also a bit risky. Temperatures as low as the 80's can be life-threatening to ferrets without shade and cool water.

Loose skin and dull eyes
Generally caused by dehydration, which is quite serious in such a small animal. Get your ferret to drink more, take him to a vet for subcutaneous fluids, and look for the underlying cause.

Unexplained hair loss
Not the usual seasonal shedding, which should happen twice a year (but the times may vary due to indoor lighting conditions), but a severe loss, especially if more than the tail is affected.

It's pretty obvious that these indicate some kind of problem. Most often the result of insulinomas in the pancreas causing extremely low blood sugar, but there are many other causes too.

This can be serious, since ferrets are easily dehydrated. Diarrhea may be caused by milk products, which contain lactose that ferrets do not tolerate well, or by a number of diseases. A green or orange color or a bit of mucus just means the food didn't spend the usual amount of time in the digestive system, not that it's necessarily ECE (Epizootic Catarrhal Enteritis, or the "Green Diarrhea Virus"), but for more information on that, see the Ferret Medical FAQ on ECE . One thing you can try for mild cases, especially after consulting your veterinarian, is Pepto Bismol. Most ferrets don't like the taste of the liquid, but you can give them 1/15th of a tablet crushed up in food instead. A compounding pharmacist can also prepare the medication in Pepto Bismol in a different suspension to minimize or mask the taste. Call 1-800-331-2498 to locate the nearest compounding pharmacist. Dr. Mike Dutton suggests the prescription anti-diarrheal medication Amforol for cases that Pepto Bismol doesn't help.

Ferrets do sometimes vomit from excitement, stress, a change of diet, or overeating, but if it's repetitive or if there are any signs of blood, get to a vet. During shedding season ferrets may "spit up" a bit due to hair in the throat. This can be helped with Petromalt.

Sneezing, runny nose, watery eyes, lethargy
Yes, ferrets catch human flu. They'll generally rest and drink a lot. A visit to the vet would probably be a good idea, particularly if the flu looks bad or lasts more than a few days. According to Dr. Susan Brown, "The antihistamine product Chlor-Trimeton may be used at 1/4 tablet 2 times daily for sneezing that may interfere with sleeping or eating."

Broken tooth
If only the tip is broken, the tooth may discolor slightly, but it's nothing to worry about. A more extensive break will cause pain, a definite unhealthy look to the tooth, and possibly gum problems, and should be treated (probably root canal or removal) by a vet or a veterinary dentist.

Persistent hacking or coughing
An occasional cough might be caused by dust or swallowed fur, and can be treated with a bit of cat hairball preventative. A cough from a cold can be treated with children's cough medicine; ask your vet for a recommendation and dosage. A persistent cough is most likely a respiratory infection, probably viral. A fever, yellow or green discharge from the eyes or nose, or congestion indicate a bacterial infection. In either case, see a vet. Another possibility is cardiomyopathy.

Swollen vulva
In an unspayed female, she's probably going into heat, especially if it's springtime. For young spayed ferrets, under 18 months or so, the most common problem is pieces of the ovary that were missed in the spaying and have begun to produce hormones. These pieces might be scattered around the abdomen. For older ferrets, however, by far the most common cause of a swollen vulva is adrenal disease, usually cancer.

Return to whole male behavior (in a neutered male)
The most common reason for a neutered male to try to mate, dribble urine or mark his areas, become aggressive, or have erections is unusual hormone production caused by adrenal disease. Other possibilities include cryptorchidism (a testicle which never descended into the scrotum and so wasn't removed) or bladder stones. The treatment for any of these is surgery.

Why does my ferret scratch so much?

Ferrets just seem to be itchy little critters, and a certain amount of scratching is normal. Even waking up from deep sleep for a "scratching emergency" is normal. However, itching can also be a sign of several problems.

If it's fleas, you'll probably see fleas or "flea dust" (bits of dried blood) if you look closely. Other possibilities include mites, bacterial or fungal infections, dry skin, allergies to food or cleaning supplies, or poor nutrition. Excessive itching can be a sign of serious illness, including adrenal disease, so see a vet if you're at all concerned. In some cases, an appropriate dose of children's Benadryl can help an itchy ferret, but please use this only under the supervision of a qualified vet.

What do I do for my ferret's prolapsed rectum?

Diarrhea, constipation, irritation from surgery (especially descenting), and other things can cause a ferret to strain more when defecating, which in turn can push a portion of the rectum out the ferret's anus. It's similar to hemorrhoids, but the particular tissue that leads to hemorrhoids in humans doesn't exist in ferrets. If only a small portion of tissue (1-3 mm) is protruding, a softened diet and creams such as Preparation H can help. If there are any other symptoms (constipation, pain, diarrhea, redness or swelling), or if more than 3 mm (about 1/8 inch) is showing, have a vet look at it.

My ferret's had funny-looking stools for a few days. What's wrong?

Maybe nothing. If there are no stools at all, though, he may have an intestinal blockage.

According to Dr. Bruce Williams, DVM:

Ferrets occasionally have dietary "indiscretions" and may get hold of something that is not particularly to the GI tract's liking. They may get loose or discolored stools, and if no groceries are going in for a day or so, their stools will lose volume and may become somewhat thin. As long as they are playing and acting okay, they can usually tolerate this for 48-72 hours. If it goes on any longer than this, or their play/sleep cycles become affected, then it's off to the vet for a check. Most problems resolve within 72 hours on their own. If it doesn't, then there may be a problem. (However watch for dark tarry stools - they are more than just discolored and indicate GI bleeding. If you ever see these - go see your vet. Likewise for profuse green diarrhea.) A one- to two-week course of Laxatone is also a good idea following changes in stools. If there is some foreign matter in the intestine, it will help it move along, and, at any rate, it won't hurt.

I caution everyone - don't throw out those abnormal stools without going through them (pick them apart in a bowl of water) and seeing if there is any foreign material in them. It may sound "gross", but it can tell you if your ferret is eating something it shouldn't.

Dr. Charles Weiss, DVM, adds that GI parasites such as giardia and coccidia can sometimes be the cause, though it's not common; and even lymphosarcoma may cause funny-looking stools. Both of those will generally present other symptoms, too, though.

What is that huge bruised-looking or orangish patch?

If your ferret was recently shaved for some reason or just finished shedding, it's probably the tips of the new fur growing in. Dark-colored ferrets look bluish-black, and albinos and other light-colored ferrets often look orange. Wait a day or two, and you should see the stubble start to poke through the skin.

My ferret is going bald (tail only or all over).

[Photo of a ferret in the late stages of adrenal disease, side view] [12k] [Photo of the same ferret being held] [10k]
Hair loss on just the tail is generally nothing to worry about. It can be caused by stress, such as a change of environment or the arrival of a new animal in the household. Even the normal seasonal coat change can be enough stress to make your ferret's tail go completely bald, and sometimes it will take several months for the fur to grow back. Often this seasonal "rat tail" shows up with tiny black spots.

If your ferret is losing hair other places, there's something wrong. Apart from shedding, by far the most common cause of hair loss in ferrets of any age is adrenal-associated endocrinopathy, a serious, but treatable, disease of the adrenal glands. Even if the hair comes back at the next coat change, it's probably still an adrenal problem. There's a separate Ferret Medical FAQ for adrenal disease, which you should take a look at if you even think your ferret might have this problem.

Other possibilities include poor nutrition, fleas, a severe mite infestation, a bacterial or fungal infection, dry skin, or allergies to food, detergents, or cleaning products.

What are these little (black oily)/(red waxy)/(orange crusty) spots on my ferret's tail/skin?

Reddish-brown wax or black spots on the tail

Ferrets sometimes get tiny black spots on their tails, often accompanied by a reddish-brown waxy deposit and hair loss. They look a lot like blackheads, and in fact that's probably pretty much what they are. Gentle cleaning, perhaps with a medicated cleanser (a dilute benzoyl peroxide shampoo or cream will work better than ones with coal tar or sulfur) that your vet can recommend, should help, though it may take many weeks. Often this is a seasonal problem that clears up on its own in a few months.

Orange-speckled, crusty patches

Dr. Bruce Williams, DVM, says:
An orange, flaky discoloration of the skin is a very non-specific finding in the ferret. The crustiness of the skin means that the skin is not coming off in small microscopic flakes (1 to several cells at a time) like normally happens. When you see a crust - it means that the normal way that a ferret sheds devitalized epidermis [dead skin] has been impaired.

As far as the cause - there is not just one cause. Many things can cause this change - skin parasites, fleas, ear mites, bacterial infections of hair follicles, fungus, endocrine disease, even distemper.

Minor skin disorders such as these are more common with age. They may be exacerbated by poor husbandry, or excessive bathing (more than once per week to ten days.)

Most cases are due to a very superficial bacterial infection which will respond well to a weekly application of a gentle bactericidal shampoo. Other tests that can be done at the time of diagnosis by your vet would include a skin scraping and fungal culture. Should all tests turn up negative, and a four-week course of topical therapy not help, then the next step would be biopsy and submission to a pathology lab for microscopic examination.

Allergies are another possibility; and the area around bites, whether caused by fleas or another animal, may take on a pink or orangish color from dried blood.

How well do ferrets handle heat? What about cold?


Ferrets don't tolerate heat well at all. Even temperatures in the 80s (say, above 27 C or so) can cause problems, and older ferrets can be even more sensitive. The first thing to do, of course, is to prevent heat exposure in the first place, by providing shade and plenty of cool water. If you live in a hot climate, you must realize that your ferret will need special care in mid-summer. Never leave a ferret or any pet in a car in hot weather, even with the windows partly open. It just doesn't do enough good.

There are a couple of ways to keep your ferrets cooler if you don't have air conditioning. Fans are an obvious idea, but unless you can blow in some cooler air, they don't do very much good for ferrets, who can't sweat. A plastic bottle of ice wrapped in a towel is helpful. Finally, you can drape a damp towel over your ferrets' cage, set a bucket of water on top, and drape another wet rag over the side of the bucket so one end is at the bottom of the bucket and the other is on the cage towel. The rag acts as a wick to keep the towel wet, and the cage stays cooler from evaporation.

Ferrets in distress from heat will first pant, then go limp, then lose touch with their surroundings. The first thing to do is to get the ferret out of the hot place and start cooling him down slowly. Cool water is best, but not too cold, since the ferret's body temperature will drop way too far, with him unable to stop it. Anything you can get him to drink is good, but never force liquids into an unconscious animal.

After these emergency measures, get your pet to the vet immediately. Even ferrets that seem to have recovered may die within 48 hours due to the massive shock they've undergone. Things to watch for include tarry stools and vomiting.


On the other hand, ferrets handle cold pretty well. If they have full winter coats, they'll be perfectly happy living in a chilly room, say 60 F (15 C). They can easily handle going outdoors in cold weather, and many of them love to play in the snow. Use common sense, though. Don't take your ferrets out in really frigid (much below freezing) or wet weather, and bring them inside if they shiver too much, paw at the door, or try to climb up into your coat.

How can I get rid of these fleas?

Even if your ferrets are never outdoors, you can bring in fleas or their eggs on your shoes or clothing.

There's a whole FAQ dedicated to ridding your pet and your home of fleas and ticks. It's distributed in the usenet newsgroup rec.pets. You can also get it by FTP or by sending email to <mail-server@rtfm.mit.edu> with the line

SEND usenet/news.answers/pets/fleas-ticks
in the body of the message (with an empty subject line).

In general, most products which are safe for use on kittens are safe for ferrets. Products containing pyrethins are okay, but don't use anything containing organophosphates, carbamates, or petroleum distillates. Be especially careful with dips and sprays; shampoos are much safer. Follow the directions on the bottle carefully. Dr. Bruce Williams, DVM, adds:

You can use a premise spray around the cage, but often, the house requires bombing, too. Get a bomb from your vet which contains methoprene (a flea growth regulator). This will allow you to complete the job in just two applications - one to kill the adults and larva, the second two weeks later to get the ones that have hatched out since the first spray. (Make sure of course to remove your ferrets from the house at the time of the bombing...) Fleas can be a real nuisance - before you bomb, make sure to wash all of their bedding and vacuum carefully so you only have to do it twice....

Most insect foggers don't have a strong enough residual effect to hurt your ferrets. We routinely bomb our house for fleas and two hours later, the ferrets and dogs are romping through the house. (But I know that Siphotrol has a weak residual.)

Signs of trouble - lack of appetitie, rumbling stomachs, diarrhea, vomiting, salivation, dilated pupils, stumbling. You probably won't see them, but it's nice to know what to look for...

Long-term flea treatments

None of the three common long-term flea treatments -- Program, Advantage, and Frontline -- have been tested on ferrets, so use them at your own risk. However, many people have been using them in ferrets successfully for some time. At least one vet prefers Advantage because it's entirely external and never makes its way into the ferret's bloodstream.

Program is used at the cat dosage per pound, administered monthly. The medicine circulates in the blood and prevents fleas which have bitten the ferret from laying viable eggs. Therefore, every pet in the house should be on Program to completely break the cycle; and you may need to use this in combination with another product temporarily, to kill most of the adults. The pills can be crushed and mixed with a treat or food, or the suspension can be put directly on the food. Be sure that the right ferret gets the whole dose. It should be taken with a meal; in fact, the more food it's taken with, the more effective it will be. Have your vet call Ciba-Geigy at 800-637-0281 with questions.

Advantage comes in a tube. It's applied once a month to the shoulder blades, where the ferret can't easily lick it off (but other pets could). Ferret owners report that it works very well. It's water soluble, so you shouldn't bathe your pet except right before another application, and the ferret must be completely dry before the next dose. The idea is to kill the fleas before they can lay their eggs, and hopefully before they bite.

Frontline is also applied externally, and is also said to work very well. It's alcohol-based and smells a bit until it dries, but it's also water resistant. This means it may last longer than Advantage, but if your ferret should happen to have a reaction to it (which I've never heard of), getting it off could be more difficult.

How do I tell if my ferret has ear mites? What do I do about them?

Check when you clean your ferret's ears, perhaps once a month. Reddish-brown ear wax is normal, but if you see any thick, black discharge then you probably have mites. It's also a good idea to have your vet check the ears whenever you visit. You can't catch ear mites from your pet, but your cats, dogs, and other ferrets certainly can.

Dr. Williams, DVM says:

Ferrets very commonly get ear mites, so you don't need to get upset. Check with your vet and get two products: a ceruminolytic (such as "Oti-Clens"), which will dissolve the wax that the mites live in. This is far preferable to trying to dig the wax out with Q-tips. Then get a good ear miticide from your vet (I use Tresaderm). Put a little of the ear cleaner (which dissolves the wax) in the ear and massage. Let it sit for about a minute. Your ferret will probably shakes its head, sending wax all over you and the floor. Use a Q-tip and gently collect the rest of the wax from the ear canal. You won't hit the ear drum, as the ferrets ear canal is roughly L-shaped - you will just be cleaning the vertical part of the canal. After you have cleaned the wax, put the ear drops [miticide] in. Make sure that the fluids that you are using are body temperature - put them in your shirt or pocket for a few minutes before using. No one likes cold water in their ears!!!!

Clean every day for a week to 10 days, stop for a week, and go again for another week to take care of mites. If your problem is just dirty ears (some ferrets have a lot of wax) - just use the ear wax remover once a week.

Ivermectin can be used in bad cases, either orally, injected, or directly in the ear. Today I ran across an article (Bell, JA. Parasites of Domesticated Pet Ferrets, Comp. Clin. Educ. Pract. Vet. 16(5): 617-620), which gives a dosage for topical administration of ivermectin:

Injectable ivermectin is mixed with propylene glycol at a ration of approximately 1:20 - then 0.2 to 0.3 ml (4-6 drops) into each ear canal daily. Ferrets on ivermectin for heartworm prevention should not have problems with ear mites.

Dr. Susan Brown, DVM says:
Do not depend on the oil [used for cleaning] to completely rid your pet of mites either although it will help to suffocate them. Mites are easily taken care of by using Ivermectin directly in the ears at 0.5mg/kg divided into two doses to be used in each ear and then repeated in two weeks. You need to have a positive diagnosis of mites made by your vet and get the medication from him or her.

Oterna causes problems

On at least two occasions, Oterna ear mite drops from Pitman-Moore Ltd England (containing betamethasone BP, neomycin BP and monosulifiram) have caused damage to the (outer) ears of ferrets, necessitating the surgical removal of a portion of the ear. It is recommended to avoid using this medication for ear mites in ferrets, and to check other medications for those ingredients.

Do I need to worry about heartworms?

If you live in a heartworm-endemic area, yes. Heartworm is transmitted by mosquito, so generally areas with lots of mosquitos have a lot of heartworm too.

Dr. Deborah W. Kemmerer, DVM, writes:

My practice has been "ferret-intensive" for about nine years. I've diagnosed and treated about thirty ferrets for heartworms. Many who were not on preventive have been found to be heartworm- positive on necropsy when presented for "sudden death syndrome". In my opinion, any ferret in a heartworm-endemic area should be on preventive even if he never goes outside.


The American Heartworm Society recommends Heartgard for use in ferrets. In theory this is great, but sometimes less than practical. Most ferret owners are not comfortable with giving tablets and most ferrets will not consume the entire "brick" of the canine chewable monthly tablet. The new Feline Heartgard is promising, however. In a taste test using ferret patients conducted at this hospital, we observed about 60% acceptance of the small feline chewable tablet. This will be a relief to many owners who do not enjoy administering the liquid mixture described below.

If a ferret will not eat the chewable feline tablet, this is what I use as an alternative: Mix 0.3 cc's of Ivermectin 1% Injection in one ounce of propylene glycol (Ivermectin is not water-soluble). this makes a 100 microgram/ml suspension. Administer 0.1 cc per pound of body weight once monthly by mouth. We dispense the mixture in amber bottles with appropriate warnings about sunlight, and we put a two- year expiration date on it. The injection itself has a longer expiration date, so this should be adequate.

I have been using this mixture since 1988. Owner compliance is very good, complications and side effects are virtually nil, and no ferret who is taking it has been diagnosed with heartworms. I do see heartworm-positive ferrets who are not taking preventive. I don't worry too much about the lack of USDA approval for ferrets, because there is virtually nothing approved for any use in ferrets with the exception of two vaccines anyway.

Diagnosis and treatment

The CITE Snap test for occult heartworms has proven to be very accurate and dependable for use in ferrets. It has shown positive results even in the face of only one or two very stunted adult worms. I cannot attest to personal experience with accuracy in any other antigen test.
Dr. Kemmerer reports that in her experience, all heartworm-positive ferrets die without treatment. If your ferret tests positive for heartworm, contact Dr. Kemmerer at 352-332-4357 for information about the regimen she recommends, which she has found to give about a 75% survival rate.

If your pets are on heartworm preventative, consider giving it to them all year. That removes the possibility that a worm might sneak in before you start it up again, so your pet will be safer, and won't have to have another heartworm test every spring.

Just so you know, the signs of a heartworm infestation include chronic cough, lethargy, labored breathing, fluid accumulation in the abdomen, fainting, and a bluish color to the tongue, gums and lips.

Is there an animal poison control hotline?

The National Animal Poison Control Center (NAPCC) can be reached one of two ways: either call 1-900-680-0000 ($20 for the first 5 minutes, $2.95 for each additional minute) or 1-800-548-2423 ($30 flat fee on your credit card). Give them as much information as you can: what your ferret got into, what the ingredients are, how much he ate or contacted, and how long ago it was.

The NAPCC Web site offers advice on preventing animal poisoning, what to do if your pet is poisoned, and so on.

Common diseases in ferrets

Once again, I'm not a vet or even a ferret expert, but here's a list of several of the most common medical problems in ferrets.
Intestinal blockages
Caused by eating something indigestible, such as an eraser, a rubber band, some fabrics, or even a good-sized hairball (accumulated from grooming), which gets stuck. Symptoms may include (one or more of) lack of bowel movement, constipation, bloating, vomiting or heaving, drooling, and others. Blockages may occur at any point in the digestive tract, from the throat through the lower intestine, even in the stomach where the object may move around and produce only intermittent symptoms. Blockages are serious and occasionally fatal; the most important immediate concern is to keep your ferret hydrated, which you can do by giving him 5 cc of water every 4 hours from a baby feeding syringe. You can try giving your ferret large doses of hairball remedy every 30 minutes for an hour or two to see if the blockage passes, but if not, take him to a vet right away for an X-ray, barium study, and/or surgery to remove it. Laxatone or a similar hairball remedy/laxative can help prevent this.
Tumors or lesions of the adrenal glands
Symptoms vary, including hair loss spreading from the base of the tail forward, lethargy, loss of appetite, and loss of coordination in the hindquarters. In females, often the most prominent sign is an enlarged vulva as in heat. Often, however, a tumor will be present without showing any signs at all, so if your ferret is going in for any surgery, the vet should take a look at the adrenal glands as well (if time permits -- ferrets lose body heat very quickly in surgery). The left gland seems to be affected more often than the right. More information is available in the Ferret Medical FAQ on Adrenal Disease.
Islet cell tumors (insulinoma)
These are tumors of insulin-secreting cells in the pancreas. Their main effect is a drop in the blood sugar level, and they are also common enough in older ferrets, even without symptoms, that if your pet is having surgery for something else, a quick check is worthwhile. Symptoms include lethargy, loss of appetite, wobbly gait, and pawing at the mouth; in more severe cases attention lapses (staring into space) or seizures may also occur. If you're more than a minute from your vet and your ferret has a low enough blood sugar level to be having seizures, call the vet and ask if you should rub Karo (corn sugar) syrup or honey on your pet's gums to raise it just enough to bring him out of the seizure. More information is available in the Ferret Medical FAQ on Insulinoma .
Lymphoma or lymphosarcoma
This is a cancer of the lymphatic system. There are two main types, "classic" and juvenile. Classic lymphoma occurs in older ferrets and causes enlarged lymph nodes and irregularities in the blood cell count, but often the ferret doesn't show any outward signs until the disease has progressed pretty far, at which point the ferret suddenly gets very sick. Conclusive diagnosis is by aspiration or biopsy of a lymph node, and treatment is chemotherapy. Juvenile lymphoma is completely different. It affects ferrets under 14 months, doesn't generally cause enlarged lymph nodes, and hits very hard and fast. Also see the Ferret Medical FAQ on Lymphosarcoma.
Splenomegaly [enlarged spleen, usually a swelling in the upper abdomen]
In situations where a neoplasm is not present [this is a common symptom of lymphosarcoma], the pros and cons of splenectomy should be discussed with your veterinarian. If an animal simply has a large spleen, but shows no signs of illness or discomfort, it is safer for the animal to leave it in. However, if the animal shows signs of discomfort, such as lethargy and a poor appetite, or a decrease in activity, the spleen should probably be removed. These animals also need good nursing care care to get them back on their food. Often caused by H. mustelae infection (see below). With proper care - recovery rates are over 90%. Also see the Ferret Medical FAQ on Splenomegaly.
Helicobacter mustelae infection
A bacterial infection of the stomach lining, Helicobacter mustelae is extremely common in ferrets. Animals with long-standing infections (generally older animals), may develop gastric problems due to the bacteria's ability to decrease acid production in the stomach. Signs of a problem include repetitive vomiting, lack of appetite, and signs of gastric ulcers (see above). Helicobacter infection and gastric ulcers often go hand in hand - the relationship between infection and gastric ulcer formation has not been totally worked out, although there is currently a lot of research in this area. Also see the Ferret Medical FAQ on Gastric Ulcers / Helicobacter mustelae.
Cutaneous vaccine reactions
Subcutaneous vaccination with rabies or other vaccines may, over a period of weeks, cause a hard lump at the site of vaccination. The lump simply consists of a large area of inflammation and most commonly are seen around the neck. The lumps can be removed, and generally do not cause a major problem for your pet. Similar lesions may be seen in vaccinated dogs and cats.
Urinary tract infections and prostate trouble
Signs include frequent urination, straining to urinate, and possibly funny-looking or smelly urine. Un-spayed females in heat, and spayed females with swollen vulvas due to adrenal disease , are particularly prone to UTIs. Treatment generally consists of a course of antibiotic (usually Amoxicillin); if the ferret doesn't respond to that, the possibility of bladder stones should be considered.

In males, what looks like a UTI may be (or be aggravated by) an inflamed prostate, also generally caused by adrenal disease. In this case the prostate, which is normally tiny, can be palpated, and a greenish goo can often be expressed from it. Taking care of the adrenal problem should clear up the prostate trouble too.


by Dr. Susan Brown, DVM

  1. GI Foreign Bodies
    • This is the MOST COMMON cause of wasting and acute abdominal disease in the ferret under 1 year of age. It occurs with less frequency in older ferrets.
    • Ferrets love to chew and eat rubber and "sweaty" objects. The most common foreign bodies we remove are latex rubber pet toys, foam rubber, insoles and soles of shoes, pipe insulation, chair foot protectors, along with towels, cotton balls, plastic, metal, and wood.
    • Hair balls are VERY COMMON particularly in the ferret 2 years of age and older.
    • Most foreign bodies remain in the stomach if they are too large to pass and cause a slow wasting disease that may last for months. (This is the way that most hairballs present.) However, if the foreign material passes out of the stomach and lodges in the small intestine, then the pet becomes acutely ill, severely depressed, dehydrated, in extreme abdominal pain and finally coma and death within 24 to 48 hours if surgery is not performed.
    • Other signs that your pet may have a foreign body are pawing at the mouth frequently, vomiting (although remember that many pets with foreign bodies do not vomit), appetite that goes on and off, black tarry stools that come and go.
    • Prevention is by use of a cat hairball laxative either every day or every other day (about 1") and ferret proofing your house on hands and knees for potential foreign body items.
    • Treatment is generally surgery, because if it is too large to leave the stomach, it has to come out somehow!

  2. Aplastic Anemia
    • A common cause of death of unspayed breeding females.
    • The cause is a condition caused by high levels of the hormone estrogen that is produced during the heat period which in turn suppresses the production of vital red and white blood cells in the bone marrow. This suppression is irreversible as the disease advances and death occurs from severe anemia, bleeding (because the blood can't clot properly), and secondary bacterial infections because there aren't enough white blood cells to fight.
    • Signs are seen in animals in heat 1 month or longer (they can stay in heat up to 180 days if unbred), and include general depression and hind limb weakness that seems to occur suddenly and sudden loss of appetite. Additionally there may be marked hair loss and baldness on the body.
    • Upon closer exam the gums appear light pink or white, and there may be small hemorrhages under the skin. A complete blood count should be done to determine the severity of the damage to the bone marrow.
    • If the condition is advanced, there is no treatment as it is irreversible, and euthanasia is recommended. If the disease is caught early, treatment may include a spay, multiple transfusions and other supportive care.
    • Prevention is by having animals not designated for breeding spayed by 6 months of age. Those to be used for breeding should use the hormone HCG for taking them out of heat during cycles when they will not be bred. The use of vasectomized males can sometimes be unreliable, and we do not recommend it.

  3. Anal Gland Impaction
    • Caused when the animal has a blockage to the outflow of anal gland secretion or abnormally thick anal gland material.
    • Signs are few, doesn't seem to cause them much pain. If the gland ruptures, a draining hole will be seen near the anus, and the pet may lick at the area frequently.
    • Treatment is by surgical removal of the anal glands. Even if only one is affected now, remove both as the other may become affected later.
    • There is no prevention, and this disease does not occur with sufficient frequency to warrant routine anal gland removal in all ferrets.

  4. Cataracts
    • Caused when the lens of the eye becomes opaque. Light can no longer reach the retina and the animal becomes blind. In ferrets it is primarily seen in animals under one year of age and is considered to be hereditary. In other cases it may be caused by aging of the eye in very old animals or as a result of injury to the eye.
    • Signs are almost nonexistent. Ferrets have very poor eyesight and do not depend on it for much. Many people are surprised to find that their ferrets are blind. They eyes will have a whitish blue cast to the area of the pupil.
    • Treatment is unnecessary.
    • Prevention of hereditary cataracts is by not repeating the breeding.

  5. Cardiomyopathy

    There is a separate FAQ devoted to cardiomyopathy.

    • Seen generally in animals over 3 years of age, rare in young. Caused by an abnormal thinning or thickening of the heart muscle which interferes with blood flow through the heart.
    • Signs include a marked decrease in activity, the need to rest in the middle of the play periods, great difficulty in awakening from sleep, and as the disease progresses one may see coughing, difficulty breathing, fluid build-up in the abdomen and a general loss of condition.
    • Diagnosis is by x-ray and EKG.
    • Treatment is dependent on which type of heart muscle abnormality is present. There is no cure for this disease, treatment helps to alleviate symptoms and reduce he work load on the heart and attempt to prolong life.

  6. Urolithiasis (Bladder Stones)
    • The cause is not completely understood. A high ash content of the diet and possible underlying bacterial or viral infections, and even some genetic predisposition may all play a part. This condition is rarely seen in animals on a low ash cat food.
    • Signs include blood in the urine, difficulty in urinating (may be accompanied by crying when urinating), "sandy" material being passed in the urine, and in the most severe cases there may be a complete blockage leading to no urine being passed and eventual depression, coma and death.
    • Treatment depends on the size of the stones. Surgery may be indicated or a change to a special diet may solve the problem.
    • Prevention is by feeding a low ash diet.

Parasitic health problems

by Dr. Susan Brown, DVM

  1. Ear Mites [10.10]
    • Caused by a small mite that lives in the ear and sucks blood and is picked up from other animals with mites (including dogs and cats).
    • Signs are very minimal to none. Ferrets seem to tolerate mites very well. Occasionally there may be an excessive amount of ear wax produced, extensive scratching of the ears, and small black pigmented areas that appear on the ear.
    • Treatment is with Ivermectin at 1 mg/kg divided into two doses with each dose dropped into each ear. This is repeated in two weeks. All the animals in the house should be treated. Wash bedding the same day as treatment and a bath for the pet wouldn't hurt, either. They also may be treated with Tresaderm daily for 14 days.

  2. Fleas
    • Caused by an insect that spends a small portion of its life on the animal and lives in the surrounding environment laying eggs the rest of the time.
    • Prevented by spraying or powdering your animals 2 times a week with a pyrethrin product if they go outside. If you already have them, the house must be treated also.

Infectious diseases

by Dr. Susan Brown, DVM

  1. Influenza virus
    • Caused by the same complex of viruses that cause disease in humans. They can catch it from humans or other ferrets.
    • Signs include a runny nose (clear discharge), runny eyes, sneezing, coughing, decrease but not total loss in appetite, lethargy and occasionally diarrhea. In newborns it may be fatal.
    • Treatments is generally nothing specific except rest and loving care. They generally get over it in 3 to 7 days (recall how long your flu lasted, and they will generally be the same), The antihistamine product Chlor Trimeton may be used at 1/4 tablet 2 times daily for sneezing that may interfere with sleeping or eating. If the appetite is totally lost or if any green or yellow discharges appear or if there is extreme lethargy, these animals should be seen by a veterinarian.
    • Prevention is washing hands and no kissing when you are dealing with a cold. Also remember, they can give the flu right back to you!

  2. Canine Distemper
    • A 100% fatal disease that is still very much out there! It is caused by a virus that attacks many organs in the body. The virus can stay alive for a long time on shoes and clothes that have come in contact with infected material. (Such as from walks in parks or other areas where animals roam).
    • Signs range from acute [quick] death to a slow progressive disease which usually starts as an eye infection and progresses to a rash on the chin and lips and abdomen, and thickened hard pads on the feet. Diarrhea, vomiting, severe lethargy are other possible signs. The disease may be very drawn out with seizures and coma at the end.
    • There is no treatment for distemper. Euthanasia is the kindest solution as it is a long and painful way to go.
    • Prevention is by vaccination with the Fromm-D [or Fervac-D] distemper vaccine. Use of [some] other vaccines have occasionally caused cases of distemper in ferrets. The schedule would be the first shot at 6 weeks of age then 8 weeks, 11 weeks, 14 weeks and annually thereafter. The vaccine WILL NOT last for 3 years in the face of an outbreak. Ferrets do not need vaccines containing leptospirosis, hepatitis, parainfluenza or any other dog virus.

Neoplasia (Cancer)

by Dr. Susan Brown, DVM

  1. Lymphosarcoma
    • This is a disease of the lymphatic system of the body which is an important part of the immune system. The cause is unknown but investigation is being done to determine if there is a virus involved. It can occur in ferrets of any age.
    • Signs are very variable, and many animals show no outward signs until they are very ill, or changes are picked up on a routine veterinary exam. Changes may include enlarged lymph nodes anywhere in or on the body, a greatly enlarged spleen, wasting, difficulty breathing, and extreme lethargy. A complete blood cell count may indicate abnormal (cancerous) cells present, although this occurs in a very small percentage of cases.
    • Diagnosis is generally by biopsy of a lymph node, spleen or fluid from the chest.
    • Treatment is by chemotherapy of the animal fulfills certain criteria that would make it a good candidate, Chemotherapy has been successful in about 75% of our cases, allowing life to be prolonged in a quality way for 6 months to 2 years.

  2. Insulinoma
    • This is a tumor of the pancreas leading to a high insulin production and a low blood sugar.

  3. Adrenal Adenoma or Adenocarcinoma
    • This is a tumor of the adrenal gland.

  4. Skin tumors
    • There are a variety of skin tumors occurring in the pet ferret. The most common are sebaceous gland adenomas, and mast cell tumors. Most of these should be removed particularly if they are ulcerated, bleeding, or have a rough surface.
    • Chondromas occur with some frequency on the tip of the tail as a hard round lump. They are generally benign, but may become large and bothersome and can easily be removed.

Do I need to worry about toxoplasmosis?

Toxoplasmosis is a disease which is sometimes spread through animal feces, especially cats'. It's nothing to worry about, unless you're pregnant, have a very young child, or have a weakened immune system -- it's very dangerous to a human fetus in the first stages of development, it may be dangerous to infants and toddlers, and it's a concern for those who are HIV+. Ask your doctor if you think you might be susceptible.

Dr. Bruce Williams, DVM, says:

Toxoplasmosis has been reported twice in ferrets. Ferrets will not shed the toxoplasma organism to the extent that cats do, but if they are exposed to cat feces, they may contract the disease and shed very low amounts of oocysts.

Here's the bottom line. Because of the devastating effects that Toxoplasma can have on a developing human fetus in the first trimester - you don't want to take ANY chance at all on exposing [a pregnant woman] to Toxo. So [someone in the household who isn't pregnant] inherits all litterbox duties for the next nine months. Actually, she probably stands a higher chance of getting Toxo from poorly cooked beef. The doctor says - if she's a carnivore - better get used to well-done steaks....

How can I get my ferret to take this medication?

If your ferret is just starting long-term medications and you're not looking forward to an hour-long struggle twice a day forever, take heart. Most of them resign themselves to the routine after a couple of weeks. If you only have to give your ferret medication for a week or two, at least there's an end in sight!


Also see Rick Beveridge's description, with pictures.

If you're really lucky, your ferret will like the taste of the medication. In that case, either hold the dropper in front of the ferret or empty it into a spoon and let him lick it. If you squeeze the medication into his mouth, be sure not to squirt it down his throat, since he may inhale some and get pneumonia. Putting the dropper behind his back teeth and aiming in from the side helps.

If he doesn't like the medication, you'll want to mix it with something that tastes better, such as Ferretone, Petromalt, Pedialyte, or apple juice. Check with your vet to find out what won't interfere with the medication or its absorption. Some can't be given with oils, others with sugary foods, others with dairy products, and so on. You might be able to just mix the medication and the bribe on a spoon and get your ferret to lick it that way.

If not, suck the medication into a small feeding syringe, the kind without a needle, draw in a few cc's of the bribe, and shake it to mix them. Put a big old towel on a table or the floor, put the ferret on it, and see if he'll lick the mixture willingly. Be warned, ferrets can spit several feet. Don't wear your nice clothes.

If you have to force the mixture in, hold the ferret's head and shoulders with one hand so he can't back away. Put the syringe tip in on the side of his mouth and slowly squirt the stuff in, being careful not to aim it down his throat (or he might inhale some) and making sure to give the ferret enough time to swallow. You may need to hold the ferret's head up and his mouth closed, and rub his throat so he swallows. Once the medication is gone, give the ferret another small treat and tell him what a good ferret he was.


Some people have good luck with crushing a pill or pill piece and mixing it with a liquid treat, after checking with a vet to see which ones are all right. Otherwise, try completely covering it with something gooey such as Petromalt or peanut butter, then holding it on the tip of one finger. Gently pry the ferret's mouth open with a finger on one side, and scrape the goo and treat onto the ferret's tongue. Get it pretty far back if you can, but don't gag him. Hold his mouth closed so he can't push the pill out with his tongue, and rub his throat to get him to swallow. If he manages to spit out the pill, just keep trying.

Where can I get medications at a discount?

A fairly new company called PetMed Express offers common veterinary medications at a discount. Flea treatments, prednisone, and so on are available. The require a faxed prescription or the phone number of your vet's office so they can call for the prescription information. Call 1-888-233-PETS for information.

Can ferrets have transfusions?

Yes. Ferrets have no apparent blood types, so if your ferret needs a transfusion any other ferret can be a donor -- the bigger, the better. Dr. Susan Brown writes, "Approximately 20 ml of whole blood can be removed by cardiac puncture from a healthy male ferret weighing 1 kg [2.2 lb] with no side effects; it can then be used immediately for transfusing. 12 cc may be removed from a female weighing .75 kg [1.6 lb]."

If your ferret is going in for extensive surgery, ask your vet whether it might be a good idea to also bring along a big, healthy ferret as a potential blood donor, just in case it's needed.

What anesthetic should my vet be using?

Isoflurane, an inhalant. Dr. Bruce Williams, DVM, says:
The only acceptable type of anesthetic agent for general anesthesia in the ferret is gas, and preferably a gas anesthetic called isoflurane. Most vets use it, but other types of gas anesthetics, such as halothane are still in use. Isoflurane currently is the safest, with the least chance of generating a life-threatening cardiac arrhythmia or causing liver disease, both of which may be seen (rarely) with halothane. Most ferrets, even with severe disease, will go down quickly with isoflurane, and come up within 5-10 minutes. No other premedications are necessary [unlike for the injectable ketamine].

I would not use a vet who used injectable anesthetic for surgery - chances are much higher for overdosing. The effects of injectable anesthetics are extremely unpredictable in the ferret, and older ferrets are at risk for arrhythmia and cardiovascular shock.

How do I care for my sick or recovering ferret?

The following information comes from Sukie Crandall, who generously sent an account of her experiences with Meltdown and Ruffle, two of her ferrets with heart disease.

At first, your sick or recovering ferret will be a big drain on your time, energy, and humor. It's amazing how stubborn a sick ferret can be. If you're unfortunate enough to have a chronically ill ferret, you may find that she becomes easier to deal with after a while, as you both get used to her new routine and limitations.

You may have an assortment of medications for your ferret, whose schedule and doses might change according to her health. It's very important to keep a complete and accurate chart. Note how and when medicines must be given, and whenever you give medicines write them down and note the time. Keep information on side effects, when to skip doses, how to deal with missed doses or accidently doubled doses, which medicines should not be given close together, which must be shielded form light, and all other related information. Do not keep medications in a room which gets too hot, too cold, or too humid. Never give a laxative close to when you give a medicine. Be aware of side-effects and interactions; for instance, some medicines increase the chance of sunburn.

Pill cutters work much better than scalpels or other things, and a tweezers will also be handy. Keep in mind how different medicines must be given, and find the best way for each to minimize the stress to you and your ferret. Some must be given in ways which minimize the exposure to water or saliva. They are most easily given with a narrow pill gun such as your vet will probably carry, or mixed with a fatty gel like Nutrical. Liquids are pretty straight forward, but some ferrets get good at bring those up or spitting them out. If your vet or the manufacturer's research pharmacists say they may be given with fats try putting some Linatone or Nutrical on the ferret's nose and while she is licking that off squirting in the dose at the posterior side of the mouth. (Do not use a laxative such as Petromalt for these.)

You may need to cut down the sides of a litter pan for easy access, and folded towels can be used to make gentle ramps. For recovering ferret who is ready for play but isn't quite up to speed yet, put extra ramps, pillows, and climbing boxes around the room she'll be playing in, to make it easier for her to get into and out of boxes and jump down from furniture. (Be careful not to let her be more active than is safe, and always supervise her in play.)

Weak ferrets can't play normally, but they still enjoy encountering new things. Ruffle loved being carried for walks, being given herbs to smell (especially mints and basil), having the sun on her belly for short periods, listening to music (especially songs with her name), hugs and kisses, and other peaceful entertainments.

If your ferret has a reduction in smell try moistening a cotton puff or swab with a bit of perfume and putting it on the lower back above the tail, and behind the ears. That will keep it from sensitive areas but let the ferret enjoy the comforting status of having a ferret-proper level of smell.

If at all possible cancel your trips away. If not possible have a familiar, friendly, knowledgeable pet sitter such as a vet tech. Have a schedule, with some minor variations for interest, so that your pet knows what to expect. When your ferret has to be at the vet's office bring along a favorite toy or blanket which smells like home.

My ferret won't eat. What should I do?

If your ferret gets sick, chances are your vet will tell you to feed him softened food for a time while he recovers. Even so, sometimes an upset or recovering ferret will simply refuse to eat on his own. If that happens, a good thing to try is Gerber's Second Meals chicken baby food. It's full of nutrients and water (though it's not a good full-time food) and most ferrets love it. Put a little on your finger and let your ferret lick it; if he won't try it, carefully smear a little on his nose. He should lick it off and eat the rest from your fingers eagerly. In general, ferrets like attention, and they love to be hand-fed. For a stubborn case, try letting another ferret "raid" the sick one's food bowl in front of him. Sometimes there's nothing like competition to get a ferret to eat.

You can add Nutri-Cal, Pedialyte, medications, and so forth to the baby food if your vet recommends them, and as your ferret's recovery progresses, you can mix in portions of his regular food, moistened somewhat, to gradually work him back to eating dry food on his own.

Sustacal and Ensure are sometimes recommended as short-term diets for very sick ferrets, possibly in a mixture such as "Duck Soup" but they aren't nutritionally complete and should never be used as the only long-term food for a non-terminal ferret. According to one report, Ensure has the preferred flavors, but is also more likely to cause diarrhea. The best solution seemed to be combinations of the two.

What's Duck Soup? Anyone have a recipe?

Duck Soup, also called Ferret Soup and similar things, is a high-calorie, high-protein concoction meant to be fed to old or sick ferrets in order to fatten them up and help them regain their health.

To really get the weight back on a sick ferret, some people have suggested giving him whipping cream. It doesn't have much nutrition, but it is full of calories and can help an underweight ferret gain some back.

The following comes from Ann Davis:

ACME Ferret Company --- The Original DUCK SOUP

For years, we have been trying to find a super formula to fatten up sick ferrets, oldsters and ferrets with ulcers. We have been looking for something high in calories and protein, with added vitamins. After trying just about everything on the market for pets, we had just about given up, and were making do with some things that were not quite perfect for the little guys, because everything made for cats that we could find had a condensed milk base.

[If your ferret is really sick, you may have to work your way through] all the steps, from full Sustacal to Duck Soup in caring for a sick ferret.

We have heard of many miraculous recoveries attributed to Duck Soup. It has helped old ferrets, ferrets with insulinoma, ferrets with hair loss, and ferrets who are just plain too sick to eat.


1 can Sustacal (8 oz., or about 230 ml; it comes in a larger size too)
1 can water (8 oz., or about 230 ml)
2 scoops puppy or kitten weaning formula -- OPTIONAL
4 oz. (110 g? or ml?) dry kitten or ferret food, soaked in enough water to cover and soften it completely

[Sustacal is meant for humans; look for it by baby formulas or in the pharmacy section of your supermarket. Debbie Riccio says you can also use Ensure, Discover 2.0, or Just Born (puppy/kitten milk replacer).]

Mix thoroughly. We always nuke it for them to the temperature of baby formula. We serve about 4 fluid ounces at a time twice a day for maintenance; if your little guys eat too much and you feel they are getting fat, you can increase the amount of water. We have tried increasing the amount of dry food, but if it gets too thick some of them won't eat it. This formula also freezes well -- the Sustacal must be used within 48 hours if left only in the fridge.

What are normal body temperature, blood test results, etc.?

Rectal temperature   100-103 F (37.8 - 39.4 C), 101.9 average
Heart rate 216-250/min (225 average)
Respiration 33-36/min
Urine pH 6.5-7.5; mild to moderate proteinura is common and normal Blood volume 60-80 ml/kg
The following information comes from "Normal Parameters and Laboratory Interpretation of Disease States in the Domestic Ferret," an article written by Dr. Tom Kawasaki around 1994. Your veterinarian might find this information helpful.
                            mean    acceptable range
sodium (mmol/L)             153     143-163
potassium (mmol/L)          4.47    3.2-5.77
chloride (mmol/L)           116     105-127
calcium (mg/dl)             8.8     7.5-10.1
inorganic phosphorus (mg/dl) 5.5     3.7-7.4
glucose (fasted) (mg/dl)    110     65-164
BUN (mg/dl)                 21      8-37
creatinine (mg/dl)          0.5     0.16-0.84
BUN/creatinine              42
total protein (g/dl)        5.8     4.4-7.3
albumin (g/dl)              3.3     2.5-4.1
globulin (g/dl)             2.2     1.8-2.9
total bilirubin (mg/dl)     0.2     0.1-0.5
cholesterol (mg/dl)         174     76-272
alkaline phosphatase (IU/L) 37      15-75
ALT (IU/L)                  95      13-176
AST (IU/L)                  61      23-99
CO2                         22      14-30
A/G (g/dl)                  1.3     1.0-2.3
LDH                         274     101-498
triglycerides               98      31-101
GGT                         4.8     1-13
uric acid                   2.2     1.4-3.3
PCV (%)                     45.4    38-54
hemoglobin (g/dl)                   13-18
RBC (X10^6/mm3)             9.0     7.0-11.0
platelets (X10^3)           400     350-600
reticulocytes (%)           N/A
WBC (x10^3/mm3)             5.22    2.8-8.0
neutrophils                 3017    2329-5700
                            (59%)   (39-85%)
lymphocytes                 1157    525-3500
                            (35%)   (11-55%)
monocytes                   119     52-177
                            (2.6%)  (0.76-4.4%)
eosinophils                 133     29-432
                            (2.8%)  (1-8%)
basophils                   0       0
MCV (um3)                   51      46-65
MCH (pg)                    17.7    15.5-19.0
MCHC                        33      29-36 *
Dr. Susan Brown also notes that the normal insulin level is 0-20, but that insulin may appear normal even in animals with insulinoma.

There are, of course, dozens of components in your ferret's blood which can help your vet determine what's wrong. Here are some of the ones people ask about most often, and normal ranges. If you want to know more about what your ferret's tests mean, don't hesitate to ask your vet.

The following information is extracted from an article in The FAIR [Ferret Adoption, Information & Rescue Society] Report, Vol. II, No. 2, by Mary Van Dahm, with a few additions.

Blood glucose
Glucose is a sugar, the main energy source for the body. Its level varies through the day, higher just after a meal, lower when the ferret is hungry, but the body keeps it fairly constant mainly by controlling the amount of insulin in the blood. A non-fasted blood glucose test might give values up to 207 mg/dl, depending on when the ferret last ate. Testing the blood glucose after withholding food from the ferret for 6 hours (fasting blood glucose) eliminates the variation and gives you a more definite number to judge it by. A low reading (hypoglycemia) may be a sign of insulinoma . A high reading (hyperglycemia) is rare, but might be a sign of diabetes. However, insulinoma can also cause a high glucose reading, and since diabetes is extremely rare in ferrets, you should double-check any diabetes diagnosis by looking for sugar in the urine as well.
Pack cell volume/hematocrit (PCV/HCT)
This is the percentage of red blood cells in the blood. Low readings indicate anemia; high readings are usually a sign of dehydration.
Red blood cells (RBC)
Red blood cells carry oxygen to the body's tissues and carbon dioxide back to the lungs. Low readings show anemia.
White blood cells (WBC)
Part of the immune system. Readings over about 7000 may mean the ferret is fighting off an infection, cold or flu. Readings over 10,000 may be early signs of lymphoma or another cancer. Unusually low readings indicate anemia and a bone marrow problem.
Another type of white blood cell. High readings can indicate a "smoldering" infection, possibly Helicobacter mustelae. Many, but not all, cases of lymphosarcoma also show elevated lymphocyte levels.
Another type of white blood cell. Often an indicator of intestinal disorders, infection, or cancer. Other parts of the blood profile must also be considered for a diagnosis.
Protein, Albumin and Globulin
Albumin is a kind of protein, and globulin is a general term for all proteins that aren't albumin, so protein - albumin = globulin. The numbers indicate the ferret's general health and nutrition, and albumin also helps show how well the liver and kidneys are working.
BUN and Creatinine
The job of the kidneys is to filter out impurities, so if they aren't working well, these levels will be high.
Alkaline phosphatese
This is an enzyme found in the liver and bone. When bones are growing or the liver is damaged, lots of this is released into the blood.
Total bilirubin
A by-product of the normal breakdown of hemoglobin in red blood cells. Helps diagnose liver disease and bile duct obstruction.
Sodium, Potassium and Chloride
Controlled by the kidneys, these are commonly called blood electrolytes. They are involved in water balance, acid/base balance, and the transmission of nerve impulses, especially to the heart.
Calcium and Phosphorus
These minerals are controlled by the parathyroid glands and the kidneys. The levels show possible problems with bones, blood clotting, and nerve, muscle, and cell activity.
  1. Wellness, Inc. How to Read Your Report, 1993
  2. Finkler, M. Practical Ferret Medicine and Surgery for the Private Practitioner, 1993
  3. Brown, S. Ferret Medicine and Surgery, 1992
  4. Fox, JG. Biology and Diseases of the Ferret, 1988 *

What tests might my vet want to run, and why?

Dr. Michael Dutton, DVM, writes:
There is no one test for a general check-up. There are not even tests that are specific for some certain diseases. The following is a list of some example tests for common ferret diseases, but in case of some multi-systemic diseases (such as heart disease), they may not show all the abnormalities.

Tests that are specific for one disease

Tests that help determine a particular organ function

(may not be specific to cause, prognosis, etc.) The problem with biopsies is that you need to biopsy the correct tissue. That may not be possible such as some type of spinal cord or brain lesion. Intestinal diseases are easy to biopsy by surgical methods but that entails anesthesia (which may be risky to an ill ferret) and major abdominal surgery. So... you have a number of difficulties from the medical side to run a test for general health. Even if you can target a specific area, there may not be a definitive test and the owner needs to agree to costs, risks, etc.

The advice dispensed by myself is not meant to supplant the advice of veterinarians who are in charge of the patient. If the patient is not currently under the care of a veterinarian, the client is recommended to take their ferret to one.

Who makes this product or medication?

(This list was provided by Dr. Susan Brown.)

Alkeran - Burroughs-Wellcome Co.

Cytoxan - Bristol Meyers

Fervac D vaccine - United Vaccines Madison, Wisc. 53713 (608) 277-3030

Fromm D vaccine - Solvay Animal Health, Inc. Mendota Heights, Minn. 55120

Keflex Pediatric Suspension 100 mg/cc - Dista Products Co. Division of Eli Lilly, Inc. Indianapolis, Ind.

Lasix - Taylor Pharmacal Co. Decatur, Illinois 62525

Lysodren - Bristol Meyers

Nutrical - EVSCO Pharmaceuticals Buena, N.J. 08310

PDS II - Ethicon, Inc. Somerville, N.J. 08876-0151

Proglycem - Baker Cummins 800-347-4774

What books can I get or recommend to my vet?

One excellent medical reference is

Ferrets, Rabbits and Rodents - Clinical Medicine and Surgery, by Elizabeth Hillyer and Katherine Quesenberry (1997)

Another good reference work, a bit outdated but still worthwhile for both vets and others, is

Biology and Diseases of the Ferret, by James G. Fox. Lea and Febiger, Philadelphia (1988). ISBN 0-8121-1139-7.

There is also a series out by the

          American Animal Hospital Association
          12575 West Bayaud Ave.    
          Lakewood, CO  80228
          tel. 800-252-2242  
for practitioners on exotic pets. There are five books in the series. Dr. Jeff Jenkins and Dr. Susan Brown produced the one on Rabbits and Ferrets (he did the rabbit part). Many people feel that it is practical and useful; it has drug dosages, treatments, husbandry, normal clinical pathology values, and diagnostic techniques that might be useful for your vet.

Are there any other useful references?

Dr. Bruce Williams, DVM, recommends these references on cancers:

Lawrence HJ et al. Unilateral adrenalectomy as a treatment for adrenocortical tumors in ferrets: Five cases (1990-1992). JAVMA 203(2): pp 267-270, 15 July 1993.

Marini, RP et al. Functional islet cell tumor in six ferrets. JAVMA 202(3):430-434, 1 February 1993.

Rosenthal KL et al. Hyperadrenocorticism associated with adrenocortical tumor or nodular hyperplasia of the adrenal gland in ferrets: 50 cases (1987-1991). JAVMA 203(2):pp. 271-275, 15 July 1993.

Dr. Susan Brown recommends these, on a variety of subjects:

Blancou J, Aubert MFA, Artois M. Experimental rabies in the ferret (Mustela [putorius furo] Susceptibility - Symptoms - Excretion of the virus. Rev Med Vet 1982; 133(8-9): 553 557. (Translation by NIH).

Daoust PY, Hunter DB. Spontaneous aleutian disease in ferrets. Can Vet J 1978; 19: 133-135.

Forester, U., The adaptability of two rabies virus strains isolated in central Europe to one domesticated and two wild-living species. A contribution to the Epidemiology of rabies. Part 4: Transmission studies on ferrets with a rodent isolate. Zbl Vet Med B 1979; 26: 26-38. (Translation by NIH).

Fox JG, Murphy JC, Ackerman MS, Prostak KS, Gallagher CA, Rambow VJ. Proliferative colitis in ferrets. 1982; 43: 858-864.

Garibaldi ME, Goad P, Fox JG, Sylvina TJ, Murray R. Serum cortisol radioimmunoassay values in the normal ferret and response to ACTH stimulation and dexamethasone suppression tests. Lab An Sci 1988; 38: 452- 454.

Hoover JP, Baldwin CA, Rupprecht CE. Serologic response of domestic ferrets (Mustela putorius furo) to canine distemper and rabies virus vaccines. J Am Vet Med Assoc 1989; 194: 234-238.

Johnson-Delaney C, Nelson W. A Rapid procedure for filling fractured canine teeth of ferrets. J of Small Exotic Animal Medicine 1992; 3: 100-102.

Kawasaki, T. Retinal Atrophy in the ferret. J of Small Exotic Animal Medicine 1992; 3: 137.

Kociba GJ, Caputo CA. Aplastic anemia associated with estrus in pet ferrets. J Am Vet Med Assoc 1981; 178: 1293-1294.

Kreuger KL, Murphy J C Fox J G. Treatment of proliferative colitis in ferrets. J Am Vet Med Assoc 1989; 194: 1435-1436.

Liberson AJ, Newcomer CE, Ackerman JI, Murphy JC, Fox JG. Mastitis caused by hemolytic Escherichia coli in the ferret. J Am Vet Med Assoc 1983; 183: 1179-1181.

Luttgen PJ, Storts RW, Rogers KS, Morton LD. Insulinoma in a ferret. J Am VetMed Assoc 1986; 189: 920-921.

Mainka CH, Heber L, Schneider W. Studies on rabies of ferrets after a singleantibodies vaccination, J Vet Med B 1988; 35: 24-28.

Manning D, Bell J. Lack of detectable blood groups in domestic ferrets: Implications for transfusion. J Am Vet Med Assoc 1990; 197: 84-86.

Nguyen HT, Moreland AF, Shields RP. Urolithasis in ferrets (Mustela putorius). Lab An Sci 1979; 29: 243-245.

Rupprecht CE, Gilbert J, Pitts R, Marshall KR, Koprowski H. Evaluation of an inactivated rabies vaccine in domestic ferrets. J Am Vet Med Assoc 1990; 196: 1614-1616.

Stauber E, Robinette J, Basaraba R, Riggs M, Bishop C. Mast cell tumors in three ferrets. J Am Vet Med Assoc 1990; 196: 766-767.

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Copyright © 1994-1998 by Pamela Greene <pamg@rice.edu>
I am not a ferret expert and cannot guarantee the accuracy of this information.
Last modified: 02 Mar 1998.