General Ferret Husbandry

Filed Under: Pocket Pets, Ferrets, General Care

The scientific name for the ferret is Mustela putorius furo, which literally translates to “stinky thief.” The scientific name is thought to refer to the ferret’s musky odor and mischievous nature. Ferrets are classified in the family Mustelidae. As a member of this family they are closely related to mink, skunks, weasels and otters.

The female ferret is called a “jill”, and the male ferret is called a “hob”. Juvenile ferrets are referred to as “kits”. The musky odor of ferrets is much more pronounced in unaltered ferrets, especially the intact male. A neutered male ferret is called a “gib”, while a spayed female ferret is called a “sprite”.

Ferrets have an average lifespan of six to eight years. There have been reports of a ferret becoming as old as twelve years. A kit will achieve adult size by three to four months of age and become sexually mature by six to twelve months, usually occurring in the first spring after birth. The litter size of a ferret ranges from 1 to 18 kits, with the average being eight. The kits are completely dependent on the mother with ears opening at 24 days of age and eyes opening at 32 days of age. The gestation period in a pregnant ferret is 41 to 43 days. Kits are typically weaned at six to eight weeks of age.

Normal body temperature in the ferret ranges from 100° to 103°F. These pets have a rapid heart rate of 170 to 250 beats per minute.

Ferrets are an obligate carnivore, and as such require animal-based dietary protein. Ferrets digest carbohydrates poorly and fiber not at all. Ferrets should be fed a diet containing 30 to 35% protein and 15 to 20% fat. Ferrets are most commonly fed commercial ferret foods and high quality cat foods. Most ferrets need to be fed free choice and will eat small amounts frequently as is their nature.

Feeding of low quality cat food may lead to the development of struvite crystals in the urine. The struvite crystals in turn may lead to the development of bladder stones.

Ferrets should be allowed playtime outside the cage. Strict confinement has shown to cause an increased incidence of Helicobacter gastritis (the bacteria known to cause human ulcers). The increased incidence of gastritis is believed to be due to stress and boredom.

Young ferrets commonly chew on toys and especially like rubber and sponge material. Unfortunately these materials may lead to foreign body formation, blockage of the intestinal tract, loss of appetite, weight loss and nausea. Nausea in the ferret may include pawing at the mouth, retching, gagging, and drooling. Abdominal pain may also cause grinding of the teeth.

Ferrets like to hide and burrow. While kenneled, a ferret should be provided with burrowing material. Good choices in burrowing material include towels or pillow cases. Ferrets have been known to get caught up and killed in reclining chairs and they should be removed from any ferret-proofed environment.

Ferrets are extremely sensitive to canine distemper virus and human influenza. They should be vaccinated for canine distemper and rabies but are also prone to vaccination reactions. Vaccinated animals should be monitored for 30 minutes following vaccination to watch for reactions.

Ferrets with possible exposure to mosquitoes should be provided with heartworm preventative on a monthly basis. No heartworm preventatives are specifically approved for use in the ferret. Revolution® for kittens and puppies is the most commonly used heartworm preventative in the ferret and will prevent fleas and ear mites as well. The drug is applied topically by parting the hair and applying directly to the skin, usually at the base of the head. The back of the head is the preferred application site because this prevents the pet from licking the medicated area.

Female ferrets should always be spayed when they are purchased as a pet. Ferrets are induced ovulators which means that females in estrous will remain in heat until bred or artificially stimulated to ovulate. Females in persistent estrus will develop an estrogen poisoning that affects the body tissue manufacturing blood cells, typically the bone marrow or hematopoietic tissue. This estrogen poisoning may lead to a fatal lack of blood cells (pancytopenia). This anemia is also termed nonregenerative because the body is unable to manufacture more blood cells due to the estrogen effects. This lead to the old adage when dealing with female ferrets of: “lay them or spay them”. Today most ferret farms routinely spay ferrets before they are purchased preventing the development of estrogen poisoning. When persistent estrus is seen, it usually relates to a remnant of ovarian tissue being accidentally left in the abdomen at the time of the early ovarian hysterectomy surgery.

References:

Lichtenberger, Marla DVM, Editor. Veterinary Clinics of North America, Exotic Animal Practice, Emergency and Critical Care. Volume 10. No. 2. May 2007. pp. 463-466.

Kahn, Cynthia Editor: The Merck Veterinary Manual. 9th Edition. p.1475-1479.

Topics: adoption, diet

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