Every different type of pet has its own adoring fans. Some people are definitely “dog” people, and others are very focussed on a particular breed of dog. There is even a name for people who love cats (“aleurophiles”). Some guinea pig owners have even converted their family living rooms into giant guinea pig hutches. And some tortoise owners spend most of their leisure time attending to their slow-moving, scaly-faced pets.
There is also another type of animal enthusiast. The ferret is not a pet that would appeal to everyone, but people who keep ferrets think that their pets are just wonderful.
Ferrets as Pets
Ferrets have been kept as pets by humans for thousands of years, and the ancient Greeks even wrote about the ferrets that they owned. Ferrets are tough little carnivores with a hunting ability that can make cats look like bungling amateurs. Originally they were used to help humans hunt for food, such as rabbits. They were introduced to the USA to clear vermin from factories and warehouses. However, in the last twenty years, they have become very popular as pets.
Ferrets are long-backed, lithe creatures, around the size of two guinea pigs or one-third of an average cat. Many people do not feel comfortable with ferrets, for two main reasons.
- Firstly, everybody seems to expect ferrets to bite randomly and frequently.
- Secondly, ferrets have a reputation for being very smelly. In fact, both of these fears are not necessarily realistic.
Ferret experts maintain that ferrets are no more likely to bite than dogs or cats. If a ferret is never handled, it will naturally be frightened if lifted out of its hutch by a human. It will try to escape, and biting would be a natural reaction if a human tries to prevent its escape. A dog or cat that had rarely been handled would behave in a very similar way. Most pet ferrets are handled frequently by their owners, and as a result, they have no fear of humans, and they are very unlikely to bite.
The strong smell that can emanate from ferrets is also not has bad as many people fear. Male ferrets (“hobs”) do tend to have a strong, musky smell, but again, this is similar to unneutered male cats.
Castration & Neutering
Male ferrets should be castrated at around six months of age, and if this is done, the body smell reduces to a minimal level. There is a tradition in the USA for removal of the anal glands of ferrets, in the mistaken belief that these are the source of the odour. In fact, the smell emanates from sebaceous glands in the skin, and there are so many tiny glands all over the body that removal is impossible. However, castration reduces the level of male hormones, and this has the desired effect of producing a de-odorised pet.
Female ferrets (“jills”) should also be neutered while young, but for a different reason. Due to an unusual reproductive system, jills remain continually in season if they are not mated. The resulting constant high level of oestrogens has a toxic effect on the rest of their body, causing anaemia. If a jill is not part of a breeding group, she will become very ill and even die. Jills kept as pets by themselves should be routinely neutered, to prevent this problem.
Housing & Equipment
Ferrets are usually kept in wooden hutches, similar to the traditional rabbit hutch. They need a nesting box and a larger play area. They can be kept indoors, or outdoors in a sheltered place.
They can be social animals, and with careful introductions, they can become friendly with dogs and cats. Although, ferrets are serious carnivores, and a guinea pig would be regarded as a delicacy!
In the past, traditional ferret owners fed their pets on whole bodies of mice, rats or rabbits. This is far too gorey for most modern pet keepers, and nowadays, dried cat food kibbles are the standard ferret diet. The high protein level of the cat food is ideally suited to the ferret’s needs.
Ferrets tend to be healthy creatures, although vaccination against distemper is recommended. Like dogs, they are prone to this severe viral infection. Unusually, ferrets are also susceptible to human flu viruses. The infection can be transmitted in both directions. If a human has flu, they should stay away from their pet ferret. And a vet treating a snuffly, sick ferret, should wear a SARS-type face mask to minimise the risk of picking up flu from their patient.