Because ferrets have a very short gut transit time (3 to 4 hours) there is very little time for actually digesting and absorbing all the nutrients that they require; therefore a ferret diet must be based on a high quality easily digestible meat protein with a high concentrated fat energy source which is ideal for the rapid digestion and assimilation time. Vegetable protein and fibre poorly utilised because ferrets are carnivores and their digestive system is designed for meat. Carbohydrates are not essential as they get their energy source from fat.
The most appropriate diet for a ferret would be whole prey foods such as rats, mice or chicks, their digestive tract is designed to eat the whole of their kill. Other things to offer can be chicken wings, stripped carcasses and necks, turkey necks, rabbit, and game birds or pigeons. If this is not possible then there are dry biscuit diets available. A dry biscuit diet should at least contain 30-40% crude protein and 15-20% fat. The protein source must be of animal origin. Ferrets are lactose intolerant, don’t give them cow’s milk as this can cause diarrhoea.
The best treats to give a ferret are a bit of raw liver, heart or raw egg. Step away from the junk food, things like biscuits, bread, cereal, cake, fruit are sources of carbohydrates. Too many carbohydrates in ferrets could be one of the possible links to insulinomas.
Ferrets are very active and need plenty of exercise; given the opportunity they will escape.
Housing should be as big as you can allow, with an enclosed sleeping area being raised off the floor and free from draughts. Ferrets are Hudeanies at escaping so make sure it is ferret proof. The whole area must be sheltered from wind, rain and hot sun. Ferrets are susceptible to damp and to heat stroke; they cannot regulate their body temperature very well either. This is why it is essential that they are warm in winter and cool in summer.
The sleeping area can be as simple as a soft towel to a padded sleep sack. Hay, straw, shredded paper or wood shavings are unlikely to provide sufficient warmth in winter.
Ferrets are naturally clean animals and usually only use one area of the cage for toileting. This could be used to your advantage and train them to use a litter tray. Some examples of materials to use are pelleted or shredded recycled paper.
Toys – always provide objects for your ferret to play with. The best type are those that stimulate what their natural surroundings and habits would be. Tunnel toys and things that move, but take care with cloth toys as young ferrets may chew them; and no latex or foam rubber toys as ferrets like to chew these and then they become a potential foreign body.
One ferret or two?
Ferrets are very sociable animals. if you have a single ferret you will need to provide them with ample toys and play times so they can entertain themselves. If you can’t decide on whether to have one or more, don’t worry as most ferrets will accept the arrival of a new ferret coming into their home. A word of warning though, entire males should not be housed with other ferrets as they become very territorial during breeding season and can harm other ferrets around them.
Travelling abroad with your ferret
Common conditions and diseases
Ferrets are highly susceptible to the human influenza virus or the ‘flu.’ They do not get the common cold, which is caused by another set of viruses. Ferrets can get the flu from humans and humans can contract the flu from ferrets through contact with respiratory secretions. Adult ferrets develop a watery discharge from the eyes and nose, sneezing, coughing and a fluctuating fever. Occasionally they also develop diarrhoea. They feel miserable for a few days but usually recover uneventfully. Baby ferrets can be more severely affected, so avoid handling baby ferrets if you have the flu.
Fatal anaemia of female ferrets
This is a condition you must be aware of if you have an entire female ferret. This occurs when the ferret goes into oestrus (heat) and isn’t bred from. She can stay in this state for several months during which time her oestrogen levels remain quite high. The oestrogen can eventually stop the production of blood cells in the bone marrow, thereby leading to a severe anaemia and ultimately death. There are various options available for preventing this condition, you can call the surgery for advice.
Fleas, ticks and mites
Ferrets are susceptible to these parasites, particularly if they are kept outdoors, but can also be infested if other pets bring them into the house. Treatments are available from the practice but it is also vital to clean up the environment to completely eliminate the problem.
Ferrets, like dogs and cats, are susceptible to infestation by the heartworm. Mosquitoes transmit the larvae of this parasite when they feed on a host. The adult worms live in the heart of the pet and in a ferret, the heart is so small that the presence of even one or two worms could be fatal. This is important when taking your ferret abroad to a high risk area.
Foreign bodies in the stomach or intestine
Ferrets, particularly under a year of age, love to eat foam and latex rubber, which can become lodged in the intestine or stomach. In addition, ferrets over one year of age can develop large masses of hair in the stomach, which also can cause an obstruction. All of these situations are dangerous and usually require surgery to remove the foreign material. Signs of a foreign body obstruction includes lethargy, extreme dehydration, vomiting (but they often don’t), lack of stools, painful abdomen, seizures and death. Any ferret who acts lethargic (like a limp rag) needs to be taken to a veterinarian as soon as possible. If there is an obstruction, a 24-hour delay could be the difference between life and death. The best prevention for this problem is to adequately ferret-proof the environment.
Ferrets over 2 years of age can develop heart disease. The most common type seen is cardiomyopathy or heart muscle disease. We do not know why ferrets develop this problem; however, it could at least be in part genetic. The signs of the disease are weakness, particularly after exercise, and an overall loss of energy. Ferrets usually don’t cough, but may have more rapid breathing. There are three basic types of cardiomyopathy in ferrets and each is treated with a combination of heart medications. Diagnosis of the type of disease requires a ultrasound of the heart and sometimes an ECG (electrocardiogram). The prognosis for control of heart disease depends on the type of disease and its severity.
As ferrets age they are more prone to develop lumps and bumps on their skin. Most of these lumps are neoplasms or tumours. Fortunately the majority are benign, but it is best to have them removed because one cannot tell benign from malignant without a biopsy. The longer you wait to have them removed, the greater the possibility for complications.
This is a very common disease of ferrets over 2 years of age. It is either a neoplasm (cancer) or hyperplasia (unusually high activity) of the adrenal glands, which are located near the top of each kidney. These glands are part of the endocrine or hormone producing system of the body. For unknown reasons, in ferrets the adrenal glands become diseased and can enlarge and cause pressure on surrounding tissues, such as the kidney and vena cava, but more importantly they produce excessive amounts of androgens or sex hormones. This overproduction of hormones results in a variety of signs including a symmetrical loss of hair, increase in body odour, enlargement of the vulva in spayed females, return of the mating or aggressive urge in neutered males, dry brittle hair coat and itchy skin. In addition, some males can develop an enlargement of the prostate gland, which constricts urinary outflow. These ferrets have difficulty urinating and eventually may not be able to urinate at all.
This is neoplasm of the beta cells in the pancreas. This disease often occurs at the same time as adrenal disease and is just as common. The pancreas, like the adrenal glands, is also part of the endocrine or hormone producing system. The beta cells produce insulin, which acts to move glucose from the bloodstream into the cells. Diabetes is a lack of insulin that prevents glucose from getting into the cells, resulting in a high glucose level in the bloodstream. Insulinoma is an excessive production of insulin that drives the glucose out of the bloodstream and into the cells too quickly, resulting in a low blood sugar level. This leaves the brain and red blood cells with an insufficient supply of ‘fuel for energy’, which results in weakness, excessive salivation, seizures and eventually death. These signs are seen intermittently because the body is constantly trying to replace the glucose and early in the disease it can successfully do so for periods of time. The signs may disappear on their own. As the disease progresses, however, the ferret has longer and more frequent periods of abnormal behaviour. The treatment for this disease is usually surgery to remove as much of the cancer as possible combined with lifelong medication. It is critical to remove as much carbohydrate from the diet as possible as well because carbohydrates will only aggravate the condition.