Ferrets and humans have a long history together spanning thousands of years. Ferrets started as hunting companions and have since taken on jobs such as controlling rodents and assisting in the laying of electrical wire by squeezing the wires into places that are too small for humans. Ferrets were introduced to North America in the 1800s when they were boarded onto ships traveling from Europe to North America in order minimize the amount of rats and other rodents on board. It wasn’t until the 1980s that ferrets started to become popular pets in the United States. In modern times, ferrets are very rarely seen as working animals and are almost solely purchased as pets.
The word “ferret” is derived from the Latin word ferittus, which in English roughly translates to “little thief,” likely a reference to their fondness of stealing and hiding things they find appealing. There is only one type of ferret that has been domesticated and can be kept as a pet, the Mustela putorius furo.
Ferrets as Pets
Ask any ferret owner and they’ll tell you what wonderful pets ferrets can be. They love to play and can provide hours of entertainment for their owners. They are very smart and can be trained to do simple tricks–the most important of which, many would say, is how to use a litter box! Ferrets are cuddly creatures that love to snuggle and be held, and even appreciate a good belly rub. Most ferret owners find that owning more than one ferret is ideal, as they are social animals and can amuse each other when their owners are away.
Play time is vital to a ferret’s well-being and can make or break its personality. Ferrets require at least 4 hours of out-of-cage play time each day in which they can run freely and be stimulated mentally. Human interaction during this time is the key to keeping a well-behaved ferret. But before letting your ferret roam the house, be sure the rooms he frequents are ferret-proofed. This includes ensuring that there are no small things on the floor that can be swallowed, as these can block the digestive tract and require emergency vet attention, removing items that can be climbed on (ferrets might get stuck in high places), and making certain that there is nothing he can get stuck in, like a recliner or plastic bag. A word of caution: be careful of open windows; ferrets are near-sighted and may not realize the danger of falling out until it’s too late.
Ferrets sleep for an average of 14 to 18 hours a day. Even though this is expected, it can still worry a new owner, as ferrets’ breathing slows significantly, they lie very still, and are not aroused when poked or prodded, all of which make them appear dead. But fear not, this is completely normal behavior! They need their rest after all the playing they do when they’re out of the cage.
As with any pet, owning a ferret isn’t all fun and games, however. If not challenged enough, ferrets can become bored, which can lead to undesirable behaviors such as digging at the carpet and scratching the furniture. Keeping their minds stimulated is essential and can be done through the use of toys and regular play time. Other problematic behaviors can include biting humans and defecating in places other than the litter box. Also worth noting is their unique ferret smell. While not necessarily unpleasant, some people are strongly opposed to this odor. Regular bathing can help, but bathing too much can make the smell worse. Bathing too frequently strips the skin of natural oils, which can make it dry and itchy, and, in turn, will cause the ferret’s glands to overcompensate by producing more oils, leading to an increased odor. Once a month is usually a good rule of thumb when it comes to bathing. Having your ferret spayed or neutered can significantly reduce the odor they emit, as well and changing their bedding multiple times a week. Ferrets are generally well-behaved when properly taken care of, but proper care does take effort on the owner’s part.
Caring for a ferret is easier now than it has ever been. Most pet stores carry ferret-specific products like shampoo and food, so making your own supplies has become unnecessary. Be wary, though, because as easy as it is to provide for one, it’s not always legal to keep one as a pet. Some states, such as Hawaii and California, and some cities, such as New York City and Washington D.C., still consider ferrets as wild animals and they are not allowed to be kept as pets; some states, such as Rhode Island, require a permit to own one.
Opt to Adopt!
With their soft fur, cute faces, and playful personalities, ferrets can very easily win over shoppers at a pet store or buyers from a breeder. For this reason, ferrets often become an impulse buy. Some people just want a cute furry friend, so without any preparation or prior knowledge, they purchase a ferret… then receive a rude awakening. It’s not uncommon for owners to give up their new ferrets when they realize they can’t handle their ferrets’ antics. These poor animals end up in shelters and frequently, since potential owners rarely think to look in a shelter, they die there. Please, if owning a ferret is truly something you are interested in, check your local shelters first or visit the Heart of Ohio Ferret Association’s website for a list of ferret-specific rescues. You could make a waiting ferret very happy, and in return reap the wide array of benefits being a ferret owner can bring. –Jodi Thomas
Jodi Thomas is a secretary with OhioHealth and also works part time at a women’s clothing store. She loves to volunteer and is involved with a few different non-profit organizations. And of course, she loves animals!