He’s on your shoulder, he’s under the bed, he’s somersaulting over the couch, he’s digging up the plant in the hall…Welcome to the wacky world of ferrets.
These playful, energetic members of the weasel family are catching on in popularity in North America as pets. While to some they may be an odd choice, owners absolutely love their frisky friends and will argue that dogs and cats pale in comparison to a ferret’s intelligence, charm and entertainment value.
The ferret/weasel family is placed in the animal kingdom somewhere between cats and dogs (closer to dogs.) The weasel family includes such colourful characters as otters, wolverines, skunks, minks and badgers. Just as wild dogs and cats were developed over time by people into pet breeds centuries ago, today’s ferrets also were developed from wild cousins and have been domesticated perhaps as far back as 3000 years. They were originally used to hunt rabbits and control rodent populations until cats took over that job many centuries later. Today’s pet ferret would not survive long in the wild having lost much of its hunting prowess. An escaped and lost ferret will have a tough time, perhaps dying in a few days of starvation, so collars with a ID tag are a must for any ferret that leaves the house with its owner.
Life with a ferret is very interesting, even challenging. Imagine a frisky kitten or puppy and then adjust the VCR to fast forward. And ferrets maintain that spirit throughout their 6-10 year lifespan. A ferret’s life is all about playing. Wrestling with toys (or other ferrets), rolling over, chewing everything, digging in the plant soil, hiding—the fun never stops. Well, that’s not completely true. The ferret “plays until it drops”, it is said, because when it’s naptime there’s no sounder sleeper than a ferret. New owners have been convinced their pet has died as they hold a limp, ferret in their hands completely unresponsive to poking and prodding. No fear, it’s just a serious ferret power nap! A good chance for an owner to relax as well.
Ferrets have bad reputations for biting, and have been banned as pets in some U.S. states and Canadian cities. The guilty ferrets typically have used their sharp on young children that probably were harassing the ferrets without being supervised properly by their owners. This risk however should be explained properly. Ferrets, like dogs and cats, naturally love to play rough with each other and that includes biting. All three pets will bite if they feel threatened or at least seriously bothered. The trick is to train dogs, cats and ferrets at an early age to be comfortable around humans (that includes strangers) and not to use teeth when playing around. The other side of the biting risk is not to allow a young child to be alone with any pet that can bite—and that includes cats, dogs, parrots, iguanas as well as ferrets. While ferrets have been known to bite there are only a handful of cases compared to dog and cat maulings. A well-raised ferret makes a wonderful pet.
Like a dog or cat, ferrets need to be taken to the vet for vaccinations and check-ups. Ferrets seem to be particularly susceptible to human colds and flu and it’s recommended keeping some distance with your pet if you’re really feeling under the weather. Ferrets should also be spayed and neutered like cats. As for litter training, it will happen but it takes a bit more work than with cats (it’s a bit like litter training a dog.)
A few quick words on the ferret’s interesting odour…all members of the weasel family have oil glands that give off a musky smell. Some of these scents are highly prized and are used in the most expensive perfumes. Others can be, well, skunky. Ferrets do have a particular mild perfume of their own, you’ll just have to be the judge for yourself if you find it unpleasant or not.
Photo: L. Leszczynski & B. Cain
Ferret owners rave about their pets, loving the spectacle of frolicking ferrets or the experience of taking a ferret out in public sitting on its owner’s shoulder (a harness/leash is important to avoid escape.) Owners claim a serious intelligence is at work in their pets—noting their alertness, curiosity and determination. Ferrets are high maintenance (ferret-proofing one’s home is not easy) but with the right owner they make fantastic little companions, perhaps the most entertaining domesticated pet around.
Some good sites for info on ferrets: