All About Ferrets

Written by Oxbow

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June 9, 2022🞄

by Dianne Cook, LVT

Known for their mischievous hijinks and fondness for human interaction, it’s not hard to see why ferrets are common companion animals around the world. While many people are tempted to run out and adopt a ferret based solely on their quirky charm and impish good looks, it is important to know there is more to these amazing animals than initially meets the eye. Keep reading to learn all about these spunky little friends.

What Exactly Is a Ferret?

Despite a somewhat popular belief, ferrets are not rodents. Ferrets are domesticated members of the mustelid family and share an ancestral link to species such as weasels, otters, badgers, martens, minks, and wolverines. Like other mustelids, ferrets are staunch carnivores and have an elongated body, short limbs, and rounded ears. Unlike their mustelid kin, however, ferrets are much less territorial and are often comfortable living in social groups.

Destination: Domestication

The domesticated ferrets we think of today are most likely descendants of the European Polecat and were native to the grassy plains of Western Europe and North Africa. They first gained popularity as a domesticated species more than 2000 years ago when they were used to hunt pests in the field and aboard ships. By the Renaissance Era, ferrets had proven themselves to be such proficient yet playful allies, that wealthy individuals (including Queen Elizabeth the First) often kept them as house pets.

In the mid-1860s, a significant number of ferrets were imported to the United States as an efficient and inexpensive way to protect crops and grain stores from rodents and other troublesome small animals throughout the West. By the early 1900s, however, most farmers and homesteaders began to favor the use of pesticides, rendering a great number of ferrets’ impressive hunting skills of no use. Luckily, their playful antics and appreciation for human attention made for a successful transition from field to family.

By the 1980s and 90s, ferrets had weaseled their way into the hearts and homes of thousands, solidifying them as one of the most common companion animals in the United States to this day.

Male vs Female: Is There a Difference?

Though similar in many ways, there are a few differences worth considering between male and female ferrets. It is important to remember, however, that every ferret is an individual and your little ones may not fit exactly within these parameters. In general, however, both sexes tend to be equally friendly, inquisitive, intelligent, mischievous, and (of course) adorable.

 MalesFemales
Terminology Hob (intact); Gib (neutered)Jill (intact); Sprite (spayed)
Adult Weight (avg)Slightly larger: 3 – 5 pounds

Slightly larger: 3 – 5 pounds

Slightly smaller: 1.8 – 3 pounds

Adult Length (avg)Slightly longer: 16 – 24 inchesSlightly shorter: 12 – 16 inches
“Typical” PersonalityA bit lazier and more likely to hang around for extended snuggle sessionsTend to be more independent and may be less cuddly, though they still love human interaction

How Long Do Ferrets Live?

Just like all living things, human and animal alike, an average lifespan is never a guarantee. There are many factors that play into just how long an animal will live, including (but not limited to):

  • Diet
  • Husbandry
  • Lineage
  • Access to routine vet care
  • Overall systemic health, etc.

In general, though, ferrets tend to live 5 – 10 years, with an average of 7 years being the norm. As with other exotic species, focus on proper nutrition and husbandry have shown to improve overall quality of life and gives your furry friend the best chance of living the longest, healthiest life possible.

Common Ferret Behaviors

Ferrets are incredibly social animals and crave interactive attention from their human family members. Though ferrets have a reputation for being sleepy weasels, spending much of their days and nights slumbering, these crepuscular cuties are incredibly active in the morning and evening. A benefit of ferret’s natural circadian rhythm is the fact they’re generally awake and active during the same hours their humans are home.

Providing daily access to an enriching and carefully ferret-proofed environment will provide your slinky friend with a healthy outlet to simultaneously exercise their minds as well as their physiques. It is also important to ensure proper adult supervision any time ferrets are out and about to ensure their inherently meddlesome antics don’t result in an accident or injury.

Do Ferrets Bite?

Despite their close ancestral links to notoriously aggressive species like badgers and wolverines, the domesticated ferret species with whom we share our homes are not known to be biters. That said, young ferrets can be quite “mouthy” during play (like puppies and kittens) and may carry this playful chewing and biting into adulthood. As any animal with teeth, however, ferrets may lash out and bite aggressively when startled, provoked, poorly socialized, or in pain. If a previously docile ferret suddenly shows aggressive behavior, it is always best to seek the counsel of a skilled exotics veterinarian.

Are Ferrets Difficult to Care For?

Despite their small size, properly caring for ferrets is a big responsibility and requires a significant time commitment and financial investment. The following list provides the basic care items and wellness considerations that need to be considered before adding a ferret to your home.

Enclosure

Because ferrets sleep most of the day and night, they tend to do quite well in a species-appropriate enclosure while their pet parents are at work or in bed. It is important to make sure the habitat you choose meets the following minimum requirements:

  • As large as possible with multiple levels
  • Narrow bars to allow for plenty of ventilation while lessening the risk of escape or entrapment
  • Plenty of tunnels and bedding to burrow through
  • Multiple hides, hammocks, and fleece pockets
  • Multiple water sources (heavy no-tip crocks are strongly encouraged)

Bedding

Multiple layers of soft, washable bedding work well to wick away moisture while also providing an enriching way for your ferret to tunnel, dig, and hide.

Litter and Litter Box

Ferrets like to back into corners to go to the bathroom. Providing a large, corner litterbox in your ferret’s favorite potty corner is a great way to initiate the litterbox training process. It is always best to use a highly absorbent, all-natural litter to limit the risk of digestive concerns if consumed.

Enrichment

Every ferret-friendly enclosure and secure play area should provide multiple sources of enrichment. While the hides and hammocks mentioned above are certainly enriching, providing access to various toys and activity centers will ensure your ferret’s instinctive inquisitorial behavior needs are properly met. To learn more about ferret enrichment click here.

Nutrition

As obligate carnivores, ferrets are unable to properly digest fruits, vegetables, and grains. As a result, they require a specialized high-protein, high-fat diet comprised predominately of animal-based ingredients. To learn more about ferrets’ unique nutritional requirements read our ferret nutritional article.

Vet Care

Though not a happy topic of conversation, it is important to note that domesticated ferrets do run a higher risk of developing certain health conditions. As a result, it is incredibly important to ensure you have a trusted ferret-savvy veterinarian that you visit for routine wellness exams and preventative care. For more information about some of the most common health concerns seen in ferrets, read our latest blog!