This month, we will be continuing our series on “pocket pets” by discussing another furry creature — the ferret. Ferrets were brought to the Americas by early British settlers to be used to control vermin. Ferrets are excellent hunters and because of their small size, were easy to transport. Of course, these days, you won’t find ferrets as working animals.
Today, ferrets are a popular pet. They are clean and groom themselves like cats do. They are also very intelligent and curious. With their affectionate and amusing personalities and ability to get along well in groups, many people own more than one.
Ninety percent of ferrets purchased in the United States come from the same breeding operation — Marshall’s in Pennsylvania. You can tell if your ferret is from there because it will have two blue dots tattooed in its ear. The ferrets are neutered or spayed and descented (the anal glands are cauterized) and are given a first distemper vaccine before they leave the facility. Spaying female ferrets is very important because when the female comes into heat, she will remain in heat until she is bred. If no breeding takes place, she can eventually die because of the long-term effect of estrogen on the bone marrow. Male ferrets that are not neutered have a very strong odor.
Caring for ferrets is usually not too difficult. They are strict carnivores, which means their diet is based solely on meat. They have a very high protein and fat requirement and the best food for them is a commercial ferret diet. Kitten food is an alternative, but ferret food is still superior. Ferrets need a good-sized cage, preferably with lots of things to jump on and crawl into. Old sweatshirt sleeves, tubes and “ferret hammocks” (which are exactly what you think) are great fun for them. Being very social, they also want lots of attention. You can buy a special ferret harness to take your pet out and most will adapt to it fairly quickly.
Ferrets do need to be examined yearly and receive basic preventative care. They should be vaccinated for canine distemper (the vaccine we use is just for ferrets) and rabies. These vaccines are both given annually — the three year rabies vaccine is not recognized in ferrets. Ferrets that spend a lot of time outdoors should also receive heartworm preventative. They are very susceptible to heartworm disease and one heartworm can kill a ferret.
There are a number of serious diseases that ferrets are prone to that are quite unusual in other animals. One is a tumor called an insulinoma. This is a tumor on the pancreas that secretes insulin. The result is very low blood sugar. Ferrets with insulinomas will be lethargic and may grind their teeth. They will perk up for a short time after eating. It is not always easy to treat, but may be managed medically or surgically. Ferrets can also get hyperadrenocorticism which is a big term for an overactive adrenal gland. These ferrets can lose all or most of their hair and in females, the vulva may become enlarged. This disease also can be managed medically or surgically. Ferrets are also prone to lymphoma (a form of cancer), heart disease and splenomegaly (big spleen). They also can get the human influenza virus, so if you are sick, it is best to stay away from him. With any ferret, if you notice any of the signs mentioned or weight loss, lack of appetite or lethargy, we would want to examine him right away.
Overall, ferrets make entertaining and enjoyable little pets. If you have any questions or are interested in purchasing a ferret, feel free to call and ask for advice.