The history of the ferret's domestication is uncertain, like
that of most other domestic animals. It is very likely that
ferrets have been domesticated for at least 2500 years, but it
is not certain for what purpose the ferret was originally
domesticated. It is known though that the Romans used ferrets
for hunting rabbits. They are still used for that purpose in
some parts of the world today, but increasingly they are being
kept simply as pets.
Being so closely related to polecats, ferrets are quite easily able to hybridize with them, and this has occasionally resulted in feral colonies of ferret polecat hybrids that have been perceived to have caused damage to native fauna, perhaps most notably in New Zealand. As a result, some parts of the world have imposed restrictions on the keeping of ferrets.
The ferret was most likely domesticated from the European polecat (Mustela putorius), though it is also possible that ferrets are descendants of the Steppe polecat (Mustela eversmannii), or some hybridization thereof. Analysis of mitochondrial DNA suggests that ferrets were domesticated around 2500 years ago, although what appear to be ferret remains have been dated to 1500 BC. It has been claimed that the ancient Egyptians were the first to domesticate ferrets, but as no mummified remains of a ferret have yet been found, or any hieroglyph of a ferret, that idea seems unlikely.
The ancient Greeks seem to have been familiar with ferrets. Ferrets, or at least ferret-like animals, are mentioned in a play written by Aristophanes, The Acharnians, in 425 BC. Whether this was actually a reference to ferrets or to polecats is uncertain, as the Greek word ictis is translated by some authorities as ferret and by others as polecat.
Colonies of feral ferrets have established themselves in areas where there is no competition from similarly sized predators, such as in the Shetland Islands. Where ferrets coexist with polecats, hybridization is common. It has been claimed that New Zealand has the world's largest feral population of ferret-polecat hybrids.
The 1st Battalion of the British Armed Forces, the Yorkshire Regiment, keeps two ferrets, Imphal and Quebec, as its unofficial mascots, named after the battalion's battle honors.
For hundreds of years, the main use of ferrets was for hunting, or ferreting. With their long, lean build and curious nature, ferrets are very well equipped for getting down holes and chasing rodents and rabbits ("rabbiting") out of their burrows. Caesar Augustus sent ferrets (named "viverrae" by Plinius) to the Balearic Islands to control the rabbit plagues in 6 BC.They are still used for hunting in some countries, including the United Kingdom and Australia, where rabbits are considered a plague species and the combination of a few small nets and a ferret or two remains very effective despite technological advances. However, the practice is illegal in several countries, where it is feared that ferreting could unbalance the ecology.
In England, in 1390, a law was enacted restricting the use of ferrets for hunting to those of substantial means;
"...it is ordained that no manner of layman which hath not lands to the value of forty shillings a year (the equivalent of about £1,000 in today's money) shall from henceforth keep any greyhound or other dog to hunt, nor shall he use ferrets, nets, heys, harepipes nor cords, nor other engines for to take or destroy deer, hares, nor conies, nor other gentlemen's game, under pain of twelve months' imprisonment."
Ferrets were first brought to the New World in the 17th
century and were used extensively from 1860 until the start of
World War II to protect grain stores in the American West.
Ferrets are energetic, curious, and always interested in their surroundings. They actively solicit play with their owners.
Ferrets tend to be very nippy as kits, requiring patience and persistence in handling. Nipping is the act of biting in a playful manner reminiscent of mock fighting and sparring; young ferrets are also more prone to chewing and teething. Older ferrets tend to chew far less frequently and, when trained correctly, almost never nip a human hand. Younger inexperienced ferrets have a tendency to nip and bite harder, which may irritate an owner who does not understand ferret behavior. For this reason, some young ferrets end up neglected, when owner's patience runs out and the ferret is abandoned to its cage.
Ferret life-span can vary widely, but usually falls between six and ten years, though in rare cases ferrets can live into their early teens.
The popularity of ferrets as pets in the USA, beginning in the 1970s, has been attributed to Dr. Wendy Winstead, a veterinarian and former folk singer who sold ferrets to a number of celebrities and made many TV appearances with her own ferrets.
It has been suggested that ferrets were bred for their curiosity; whether this is true or not, their curiosity often exceeds their common sense. Ferrets are very good at getting into holes in walls, doors, cupboards, or in or behind household appliances such as clothes dryers and dishwashers, where they can be injured or killed by drowning, electrical wiring, fans, and other dangerous items. Many enjoy chewing items made of soft rubber, foam, or sponge, which present the risk of intestinal blockage and death if ingested. Serious and sometimes fatal injuries have resulted from ferrets chewing on electrical cords. Screen doors can be damaged by a ferret's claws, and dryer vents often become escape routes to the outdoors.
Unlike dogs and cats, many ferrets display little homing instinct and often do not thrive as strays.
Recliners are a leading cause of accidental death in ferrets. Ferrets will often climb inside the springs and can be injured or killed once the chair is put into a reclined position. Fold-out sofas cause similar problems.
For these reasons, steps must be taken to "ferret-proof" a home before acquiring one as a pet. Ferret-proofing a house is an ongoing task that involves carefully going through each room, removing items dangerous to ferrets and covering over any holes or potential escape routes. As ferrets can open improperly latched cupboards or doors by rolling over and clawing at the bottom edge, many owners buy childproof latches or keep cleaning products in high, out-of-reach places. However, ferrets can typically fit through any hole as small as the size of their head, making some childproof latches ineffective.
Some people might prefer to house their pets outdoors in sheds, and not indoors. This is becoming more popular, as owners realize the photoperiod effects to the ferret being kept in light after the sun goes down.
Ferrets are obligate carnivores; the natural diet of their wild ancestors consisted of whole small prey—meat, organs, bones, skin, feathers, fur—not just meat.
Some ferret owners feed a meat-based diet consisting of whole prey like mice, rabbits, along with raw meat like chicken, beef, veal, kangaroo and wallaby. This is preferred in Europe and Australia, and becoming increasingly popular in the US as concerns are raised about the high level of carbohydrate in some processed ferret foods.
Alternatively there is a wide variety of commercial ferret foods available. Kitten foods can also be given, so long as they provide the high protein and fat content required by the ferret's metabolism. Most adult cat foods and many kitten foods are unsuitable for ferrets though, because of their low protein content and high fiber. Ideally, a ferret food should contain 32-38% meat based protein and 15-20% fat. Low-quality pet foods often contain grain-based proteins which ferrets cannot properly digest.
Ferrets often have a fondness for sweets like raisins, bananas, peanut butter, and pieces of cereal. Such treats should be given sparingly (if at all), as their high sugar content has been linked to insulinoma and other diseases. In fact, veterinarians suggest not feeding raisins and the like to ferrets at all because they are known to hide their food, raising the possibility of a ferret hiding a large amount of raisins over time and then dangerously consuming them all at once.
Ferrets, like many other carnivores, gradually lose the ability to digest lactose after they are weaned. As a result, lactose-free milk is to be preferred.
If a ferret does not eat enough or loses too much weight, it is a good indication that the ferret is sick, and should be taken to a veterinarian. Sick ferrets and those recovering from an illness or surgery will often need to have their diet supplemented. Often hand-feeding or, in extreme cases, force-feeding may be necessary. This should not be undertaken without the advice of a veterinarian. Many recipes, known informally as "duck soup", are available for feeding sick ferrets.
Ferrets spend 14 to 18 hours a day sleeping, but when awake they are very active, exploring their surroundings relentlessly. Ferrets are naturally crepuscular, meaning they are most active during dawn and dusk. If kept in a cage, they should be let out for a few hours daily to get exercise and satisfy their curiosity. When ferrets are kept in their cages for too long, their walking ability can be affected, and they may become subject to depression or "cage stress." Ferrets, like cats, can use a litter box with training, though are not always completely litter box trainable.
Ferrets are also fine backyard companions and especially enjoy "helping" their owners in the garden. However, they should not be allowed to wander; ferrets are fearless to the point of foolishness and will get into whatever holes they will find, including storm drains. Whenever they are outside, they should be closely supervised and preferably kept on a harness leash designed for ferrets. There are different types of harnesses, and some ferrets prefer certain kinds. The H-shaped harness is the most popular. Collars will not work for ferrets as they do for dogs; a ferret can easily slip out of a collar because their heads are about the same width as their necks.
Additional care should be taken during mosquito and tick season, as ferrets are susceptible to the diseases carried by these parasites. Ticks can attach themselves and begin to draw blood. When the tick gets full, it regurgitates some blood and tick saliva back into the ferret, which is how Lyme and other diseases can be transmitted. Ordinarily, the regurgitation happens between five to 24 hours after the tick attaches. The key to keeping a ferret healthy is early removal of ticks using proper methods to avoid tick regurgitation, and prevention when in environments where encountering ticks is likely. Mosquitoes for their part can carry heart worms and the West Nile virus. Fleas can cause extreme skin irritation and can be intermediate hosts for tapeworms, one of which could potentially kill a ferret because of the ferret's small size. Also because of their small size, ferrets can also be regarded as prey by birds such as the hawk, and by larger snakes. Their small size also makes the venom of a bee, wasp or spider much more serious than for a larger mammal. For these reasons, an owner should be vigilant when a ferret is outdoors.
Many of them are playful by nature and are happy to play with humans. Play for a ferret can involve hide-and-seek games, or some form of predator/prey game in which either the human attempts to catch the ferret or the ferret to catch the human. They also have a strong nesting instinct and will repeatedly carry socks or other items back into piles hidden under objects.
Like a playful kitten, a ferret usually will not bite its human companions enough to cause pain, but will instead gently grab a toe or finger in their mouth and roll around with it. However, ferrets that have been abused or are in extreme pain will bite a human. Ferrets have strong bites and can sometimes bite through human skin, especially children's. Once properly socialized, however, domesticated ferrets will very rarely, if ever, bite humans.
Most kitten toys work well with ferrets. Toys made of rubber or foam should be avoided, however, as ferrets can chew off and swallow small pieces, possibly leading to intestinal blockage and possible choking. Ferrets love playing tug of war with toys and stuffed animals.
Ferrets are easily entertained, so spending large amounts of money on ferret toys is unnecessary. Since ferrets are burrowing animals by nature, they will happily busy themselves with basic household objects such as cardboard boxes, blankets, and shoes. Dryer vent tubing can be used to create an interactive tunnel system, which can easily be collapsed and stored when not in use. Ferrets regularly wrestle with each other, and with their owners.
When ferrets are especially excited, they will perform the weasel war dance, a frenzied series of sideways hops. This is often accompanied by a soft chuckling noise, called dooking by many ferret owners.
Ferrets can make good pets for children. However, like all other domesticated animals, they should not be allowed unsupervised near infants or very young children. There have been cases where ferrets have severely injured babies but in nearly all cases there are the same reasons: neglect, abuse, or roughhousing that the ferret perceives as an attack and retaliates out of self defense. In the particular case of infants, young ferrets are attracted to the smell of milk on the baby's breath. Given that young children and ferrets can both be excitable and prone to rough play, interaction between ferrets and young children must always be closely supervised -- for the protection of both the children and the ferrets.
It is important to note that this danger is often overstated. In comparison, dogs account for 800,000 bites annually that require medical attention in the US and 20 deaths per year.
Ferrets are extremely social animals, and most enjoy playing and interacting with other ferrets. Many ferret owners recommend owning two or three ferrets for this reason, but there is nothing wrong with owning one ferret, provided that it receives lots of play time and attention. Ferrets frequently bond emotionally with their owners as well as to other ferrets and bonded pairs are often observed to die just a few days apart from each other.
Ferrets have been known to play with household cats and non-aggressive dogs. However, great care must be taken when introducing ferrets to any new animal, particularly terriers and other breeds with instincts for catching ferret-sized prey. Ferrets will normally not get along with rabbits, birds, rodents, chinchillas, and small reptiles, some of which would have comprised part of the diet of their wild ancestors, and so may attack them given a chance.
Ferrets have a repertoire of behaviors that can make them both endearing and difficult pets for some people. Ferrets enjoy picking up objects and carrying them off to "hidey holes". It is difficult to predict what objects a ferret will decide are worthy of hoarding, but in addition to play toys owners have found socks, 10 lb bags of onions, keys, calculators, silverware, sponges, toilet paper rolls, textbooks, game controllers, etc... Ferrets will also tear open packages and other containers to see what is inside or explore the inside of the package.
Ferret dragging off toy to hideFerrets have a strong interest in holes, pipes and other small enclosed areas. Ferrets seem compelled to explore holes. This makes them useful for rabbiting and tasks such as running pull lines through conduits but it also makes them prone to getting lost. Ferrets are also very curious animals and relatively fearless. This often puts them in situations in which they will confront and try to play with large animals that are dangerous to the ferret. Ferrets' curiosity can also lead them to wander off until they are unable to find their way home. Though ferrets sleep more than almost all domesticated animals, they are usually very active when awake. Their energy level during play is almost frenetic and can be too much for many other pets, particularly older animals which may feel harassed by the ferret's tenacious attention.
It is easy to confuse this invitation to play and/or expression of happy excitement with a threatening gesture. Posture becomes rigid with wide open jaws, momentary eye contact, followed by thrashing or turning of the head from side to side, arching the back, piloerection and hopping to the side or backwards while facing the intended playmate. This is often accompanied by an excited laughing/panting sound that may sound like a hiss. If responded to appropriately, this behavior will usually break into a game of chase, pounce and wrestle. Ferrets in war dances are very accident prone, often hopping into obstacles or tripping over their own feet to great comic effect.
Pet female ferrets should be spayed if they are not going to be bred.
Ferrets go into extended heat, and an unbred female without medical
intervention can die of aplastic anemia.
Ferrets need their nails clipped and ears cleaned on a regular basis. Regular nail clippers will work, and most pet stores supply ferret-specific ear-cleaning solution. Ferrets usually shed twice a year, in the spring and fall: during this time, it can be a good idea to brush them regularly. Some owners also administer a laxative, to help any ingested fur pass more easily through the digestive tract: others believe that the administration of laxatives to an animal with such a short "mouth to floor" duration may be potentially harmful.
It is a misconception that ferrets smell bad. The bad smell usually attributed to ferrets comes from their bedding and litter box. Bedding should be washed or changed out regularly, and a ferret's litter box should be cleaned every day, or at least every other day. Depending on the cage, it is a good idea to take it apart and hose it down every once in a while, to remove material stuck in crevices.
However, some owners find that their ferrets enjoy baths and/or showers; a specific ferret shampoo that replenishes the oils in the ferret's coat can help to avoid the potential problem of dry skin. Just remember never to leave your ferret alone in deep water from which it may have trouble escaping. Water is a highly subjective taste among ferrets, and some ferrets may become anxious when exposed.
It is recommended that ferrets are taken to a veterinarian for a yearly checkup. Ferrets often hide symptoms of illness very well, perhaps from an instinct to not appear weak to predators in the wild. Any out-of-the-ordinary behavior is good cause for a consultation. Ferrets have high metabolisms and cancers can progress at an alarmingly fast rate. Early detection is critical.
Ferrets have been used to run wires and cables through large conduits. Event organizers in London used ferrets to run TV and sound cables for both the wedding of Charles, Prince of Wales to Lady Diana Spencer, and for the "Party in the Park" concert held in Greenwich Park on Millennium Eve.
Since they share many anatomical and physiological features with humans, ferrets are extensively used as experimental subjects in biomedical research, in fields such as virology, reproductive physiology, anatomy, endocrinology and neuroscience.
This Ferret Page is Copyright The Animal Web Guide © 2004 - 2009 Chuck Ayoub