Caring for your ferret
Ferrets are a domesticated version of the European polecat. They're part of the mustelidae family, which includes otters, stoats, weasels and badgers. They have been used for hunting and pest control for a long time and are still kept for this purpose today, though they're becoming increasingly popular as pets.
Females are called jills, males are hobs and babies are kits. Males are usually larger than females and, if they haven’t been neutered, will have a strong, pungent smell.
Are ferrets a good pet?
They are lively, curious and fun-loving pets, and they're very social. This means that they can make great pets, but they're not the easiest to handle and can bite hard if startled. So they don’t always make good pets for children.
How long do pet ferrets live?
Pet ferrets can live for up to 15 years, but the average lifespan is between six and 10 years. So make sure you can commit to keeping them for this long before buying or rehoming one.
Do ferrets need company?
Ferrets are very social and in most cases will want a ferret friend. They can also live in small groups, ideally with littermates of the same sex or neutered males and females, but will still love human interaction and environmental enrichment.
Only keep a single ferret if you have been told to by a vet or animal behaviourist. If they're on their own, they should be played with regularly – lonely and bored ferrets can develop behavioural problems and may find it difficult to mix with other ferrets later in life.
Ferrets can also become friends with other household pets, like dogs and cats if you introduce them carefully, but they should always be supervised if playing together.
When do ferrets sleep?
They are crepuscular, so are naturally active during dawn and dusk and can sleep for between 18 and 20 hours a day.
Do ferrets smell?
Ferrets do tend to smell a bit. Unneutered male ferrets have a very strong smell that many people find overpowering. They can also have a greasy or sticky feel to their coat.
Neutering your ferret can reduce the strength of the smell, make their coat less greasy and enable them to mix socially with other male ferrets.
Where to get ferrets
If you're planning on getting a ferret you'll need to do lots of research as they have very specific needs.
We do not take in or rehome ferrets, but there are rescue organisations such as the RSPCA and specialist rescues that find homes for unwanted or stray ferrets.
Ferrets do not have different breeds, but they come in five colours:
- pole or sable or fitch (cream and brown coat)
- dew (white coat with dark eyes)
- sandy (white and cream coat)
- silver (light or dark grey coat)
- albino (white coat with red eyes)
If you don't want to rehome a ferret, look for a responsible breeder. Rehoming a ferret is often a good choice though, as you'll often get ongoing support to help your ferret as they settle in.
Caring for your ferret
What do I need to buy for my ferret?
- suitable housing
- suitable bedding, blankets and hammocks
- earthenware or stainless steel bowls for food
- a water bottle
- tunnels and platforms
- appropriate bedding, shelter or fabric nest box
- space to exercise
- toys to keep them entertained
- carry case for trips to the vet
As well as the above, your ferrets need a constant supply of fresh water. You may also want to consider getting pet insurance.
Ferret cages and hutches
Most ferrets can live either indoors or outdoors. Wherever you choose to keep your ferret, you should consider the information below which will help you keep them happy, healthy and safe.
Where should ferrets live?
Because of their strong smell, ferrets often live outdoors, but they can be kept as indoor pets too. Lots of housing options are available, but always buy the largest enclosure you can so they have plenty of room to exercise and play.
A pair or ferrets will need:
- housing that's at least three meters long (10 ft) by two meters (six ft) high, by two meters (six ft) wide
- an insulated sleeping area, large enough for them to huddle together or sleep separately if they want
- plenty of enrichment and toys to keep them entertained
- their hutch to be out of direct sunlight, weatherproof and draught-proof
- The wire or bars used for the hutch should be strong and the spaces between them too small for ferrets to fit their heads through. You can buy special wooden hutch-type enclosures with built in runs.
If they are kept indoors you can use tall ferret cages, like those available for chinchillas, with solid platforms and multiple levels.
Good quality hay or shredded paper can be used for bedding and the floor should be lined with newspaper and wood shavings.
Many pet ferret owners also use fleece blankets, hammocks and fabric nesting boxes for bedding as this makes less mess and adds some comfort.
How often do I need to clean my ferret's housing?
Litter trays should be cleaned every day and the rest of the ferret’s housing should be cleaned at least weekly.
Ferrets will hide food, so it’s important to remove this when cleaning them out so it does not go mouldy.
How can I toilet train my ferret?
Ferrets can be litter trained, although they may still have occasional accidents. Litter training will make it far easier to keep their accommodation clean.
A high-sided, corner litter tray is best but you can also used a cat litter tray. Fill them with wood shavings or unscented cat litter. It’s generally best to place the litter tray where your ferret likes to go to the toilet rather than put it where you want it to be, as they'll be more likely to use it!
Keeping your ferret safe
Stopping ferrets from escaping
Ferrets love to dig and are very good at escaping through small holes. To stop them disappearing from outdoor runs, wire mesh can be fitted to the underside, but this should be covered with something like turf or carpet to prevent injury, and it's always a good idea to put bolts on hutch doors.
Keeping ferrets warm in winter
Ferrets do not cope well with sudden changes in temperature. So, it's important to avoid changing their environment quickly eg bringing them indoors at night and taking them outside again during the day. Instead you can keep them warm by:
- giving them blankets to sleep on
- drying them off with a towel if they have played in water or the snow
- adding another barrier to the outside of the cage or run to weather-proof it (make sure that there's still enough ventilation)
- using pet-friendly heat mats
Keeping them cool in summer
Ferrets do not like extreme weather, particularly temperatures over 26ºC, and can suffer and die if exposed to temperatures of 30ºC and above. Here are some tips to keep your ferret cool during hot weather.
- Provide them with plenty of water
- Make sure their housing and run is in the shade throughout the day
- Add cooling freezer blocks or bottles of frozen water and fans to regulate temperatures, but make sure any wires are safely hidden from your ferrets
- Just as you would when walking a dog, only walk your ferret in the early morning or late evening when the temperature and ground is coolest
- Give them somewhere to swim. Make sure it's very shallow paddling pool so they can touch the bottom, as not all ferrets will paddle.
- Know the signs of heatstroke including panting and collapsing. If you suspect that your ferret has heatstroke, speak to your vet immediately.
Ferrets and fireworks
Like other small pets, ferrets can be startled by the bangs, whizzes and other loud noises made by fireworks. Here are some things you can do when fireworks are more common, such as Bonfire Night or New Year's Eve:
- Bring them indoors, along with their housing, if possible
- Give your ferret more bedding so they can burrow down
- Try and cover their cage as much as possible without blocking the ventilation. This will minimise the sounds they can hear.
Read more about small pets and fireworks.
Ferret-proofing your home
If you let your ferrets run around your house then you'll have to make sure it's safe for them to do so.
- Any cables must have a protective covering so they don't chew through them, causing injury to themselves or a fire
- House plants should be removed as they may be poisonous
- Keep any cleaning products or medicines out of reach
Keeping your ferret entertained
Ferrets are naturally curious and like to interact with their owners. But they're very active and can get bored easily, so playtime is important.
Dry food can be scattered around their enclosure to encourage foraging or it can be placed in feeding toys. They rely on their sense of smell, taste and hearing, as their eyesight is poor, so this can be lots of fun and uses their natural behaviours.
Tunnels and climbing
Ferrets love tunnelling and climbing. Using drainpipes and shelves in their enclosure is a good way of keeping them happy (but don’t have the shelves too high as ferrets can fall and hurt themselves).
They also like to sleep in hammocks which can be hung inside their enclosure.
Exercising your ferrets
Ferrets should have daily exercise either in the house or in a large run. They can also be trained to walk with a harness and lead.
Exercising ferrets in your home
If your ferret is allowed loose in the house make sure you remove any potentially dangerous objects first.
Ferrets aren’t natural chewers, but do like to put objects in their mouths and they can eat things they shouldn’t. This means they may swallow small objects (especially rubber) which cause their bowel to become blocked.
Walking your ferrets
Ferrets are very active and curious, and some will enjoy going for walks with you. You'll need to spend time introducing them to their harness and lead and getting them used to the experience.
To take them for walks you'll need:
- a specialist ferret harness – similar to a dog harness (but much smaller!) with two sections that will clip together
- a lead
- to make sure they're used to being picked up and handled
Things to be aware of when walking your ferret
- Their harness will need to be secure so that they don't wriggle out of it
- You'll need to keep an eye on them at all times
- You should avoid public places if they aren't used to being picked up or meeting new people
- Watch out for dogs and pick your ferret up if you can see a dog in the distance – it's always better to be safe
What do ferrets eat?
Ferrets, like cats, are obligate carnivores. This means that they must have meat in their diet. High protein commercial ferret food (kibble), a raw diet (including skin, organs and raw bones) or a mix of the two is best.
Whole raw eggs in their shells can be given as occasional treats and ferrets will also enjoy breaking through the shell.
What not to feed ferrets
Foods that are poisonous to ferrets:
You should also avoid giving them processed meats like ham, or cat and dog food. And they're lactose intolerant, so should not be fed dairy products such as cheese and cow's milk.
Bowls and water bottles
Put food in earthenware bowls (which are hard to tip over), or stainless-steel bowls.
Fresh water should always be available and changed daily. Ferrets can be trained to drink from a gravity bottle or you can use a heavy bowl. This should be placed away from their litter tray.
How much should I feed my ferret?
Always check the feeding amounts on the bag and avoid giving them too many treats. Like other pets, ferrets can become overweight if they're given too much food and aren't exercising enough. But they also naturally put on some weight during the winter and lose weight as the weather warms up.
Speak to your vet for more advice or if you're concerned about your ferret's weight.
How to keep ferrets healthy
Ferrets are very active pets and can easily get scrapes or eat something they shouldn’t, leading to a costly vet bill. So it’s always a good idea to insure your pet.
You should also get your ferret checked out by a vet every year. There are a number of common illnesses that affect ferrets.
Fleas and ticks
Like dogs and cats, ferrets can get fleas and ticks. They are also prone to ear mites. There are no products manufactured specifically for ferrets, but your vet can advise on products which are both safe and effective.
Distemper is a virus which is closely related to the human measles virus. You should vaccinate your ferret against distemper as it's usually fatal to ferrets.
Ferrets can catch and pass on human influenza viruses to other ferrets and to humans. So, to avoid passing flu to your ferret, or your ferret passing it to you, you should wash your hands thoroughly after touching, feeding or cleaning your pet.
Ferrets and coronavirus
As a precaution, your ferret must isolate for 21 days from people and ferrets from other households if:
- you or your household are self-isolating
- you’ve brought your ferret to England from a country outside the Common Travel Area (UK, Ireland, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man)
This is due to evidence that ferrets may be affected by and spread coronavirus.
Find out more about coronavirus and ferrets.
Microchipping and registering your ferret
Ferrets should be microchipped to permanently identify them and help to reunite them with their owners if they go missing.
You should also register your ferret on the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) register if you live in England or Wales. If you own a ferret and live in Scotland, you'll need to follow Scottish guidance.
Claws may need to be trimmed regularly, this doesn’t have to be a chore as many ferrets like the taste of oil (wheat germ, soya, olive, linseed) and, when drizzled on their bellies, this can make claw trimming with small claw scissors very easy.
Will my ferret need a bath?
Ferrets do not need regular bathing. Although some owners think this will reduce their smell it can actually strip their coat of natural oils and cause skin problems.
Both male and females can be neutered, but there are increased risks of adrenal gland disease in neutered ferrets, so it’s best to discuss the options with your vet.
Ferrets become sexually mature in their first spring, usually when they are around nine months old.
Seasons in female ferrets
Jills (female ferrets) come into season in the spring and will stay in season unless mated or the season is stopped using drugs given by your vet. Females that are allowed to stay in season can develop anaemia and even die, so this is something that all ferret owners need to address by discussing their options with their vet.
Options can include:
- a hormone implant every 18 to 24 months
- a hormone injection (a jill jab) every few months
- a combination of these methods
They are still at risk of adrenal problems after neutering, so some vets advise hormonal implants every 18 to 24 months to prevent this.
Why is my ferret fighting?
Ferrets are very social and will often play and sleep together. But they might also fight. As it can be difficult to separate fighting ferrets, preventing them from doing so by introducing them in the right way is much better.
Signs your ferrets may not be getting along
- Bites or wounds around their neck or scruff area
- One ferret shaking another by the neck often causing them to scream
- Your ferret being worried or scared around another ferret
- Keeping their distance from another ferret
- Screaming at another ferret
What to do if your ferrets are fighting
When they're first introduced try and have two people to watch your ferrets in case they start fighting, and wear suitable clothes and shoes.
If they do start fighting:
- step in quickly
- use a towel to separate them and prevent yourself getting bitten
- put them in a suitable pet carrier
- get further advice from your vet and a qualified animal behaviourist
Handling your ferrets
Young ferrets (kits) can be prone to biting, so if you're a first time ferret owner you should look for ferrets that:
- are at least a year old
- have already been handled a lot
- are friendly and less likely to bite
Ferrets that are handled a lot from a young age can form strong bonds with their owners. They love attention and, if they're relaxed, will cuddle up to your body.
How to pick up your ferret
- Wait for them to come to you
- When picking them up, always use both hands
- If they're not used to being picked up you can use a towel to protect your hands
- Pick them up from above, sliding one hand around their shoulders
- Support their back legs with your other hand
- Hold them close to your body
- If they're being wriggly, you can relax them by holding them under their arms with both hands and gently swing them from side to side