North Pennine Ferret Welfare & Boarding - (aiming to give Ferrets a better chance!)
Ferret Fact Sheet



Background Information

Ferrets are members of the Mustelid family which also includes Weasels, Stoats, Polecats, Martens, Mink, Badgers and Otters.

Ferrets are a domesticated species of Polecat, originally intended for the control of vermin. They may have been kept by the Ancient Egyptians over 3000 years ago and were possibly brought to Britain almost 2000 years ago by the Romans.

Like other members of the Mustelid family, ferrets are lively, fun-loving creatures with a highly developed sense of curiosity. They are not vicious, smelly creatures as most people would lead us to believe; they can make affectionate pets. In America they are one of the most popular pets and are gaining popularity in Britain, where people are recognising the appeal and intelligence of these often misunderstood little animals.

With responsible care and gentle handling, ferrets can be excellent family pets and live up to ten years or more.

Ferret Colours

Most people are familiar with the white, albino ferret, but there are a number of other coat colours.

True albino ferrets have pale coats ranging from pure white to almost primrose yellow but will always have red eyes.

Less common is the Dark eyed Whites which also have the pale coats but have black, dark blue or brown eyes.

Silver ferrets are pale coated with dark tips to each hair giving a silvered, frosted appearance. Often with very dark eyes, they are striking ferrets and were once sought after for their appearance, but are much less rare now.

Polecat ferrets are so called not because they are bred from true polecats, but rather they have the same markings as their wild cousins. They have a dark mask across their eyes and dark coloured limbs & tail. The body may also be very dark, but can be just dark guard hairs over a lighter undercoat.

Sandy ferrets can range from pale gold to deep red, sometimes carrying a polecat style mask.

Housing Ferrets

Ferrets are gregarious, enjoying the company of their own kind, so we recommend you have at least two if possible. (Two are much easier to take care of than one, for this reason).

Neutered males and females will usually live together harmoniously and provide companionship and play with each other. If you are only planning to keep one ferret, you will need to provide extra playtime and exercise for him to compensate for lack of company. Ferrets are very active so the more living/playing space you can provide the better. Male ferrets (hobs) can grow quite large so a roomy cage is a must. For one or two ferrets, a cage should ideally be at least 4 feet long by 3 feet wide and two feet off of the floor. It should have an enclosed sleeping area, free from draughts, and a good solid floor that must be easy to clean. Ferrets are good diggers so make sure the floor is secure.

If your ferret(s) are to live outdoors the whole cage should be weatherproof and in a sheltered place away from winds, rain or too much sun. In cold or wet weather it is best to use a cover for the cage to keep the ferrets cosy. Bedding can be shredded paper (not newspaper), straw in the summer, and hay in the winter. Alternatively woolly jumpers or fleece can be used. Bedding should be checked daily to make sure it has not become damp.

Ferrets are very susceptible to damp and this can lead to health problems. Ferrets also suffer from heat stroke so avoid allowing the cage to be in direct midday sun in the summer.

Another way of housing ferrets, especially if more than two are to be kept is to provide them with a shed with an attached outdoor run, similar to an aviary. This is often called a Ferret court and allows for a lot more space for exercise. Again, it needs to be weatherproof and have warm sleeping boxes. Provide two or more sleeping boxes if more than three ferrets are to be kept.

Always provide objects for your ferrets to play with. Wide tubes, boxes, cat toys, even carrier bags are a source of entertainment and are especially appreciated. They keep your ferrets fit and alert. Bored ferrets become excellent escape artists, so keep them occupied and check the housing area regularly for small holes and gaps.

Ferrets are naturally clean animals and use only one area for toilet purposes. If this is lined with sawdust or cat litter, daily cleaning is kept all ferrets enjoy play times with their owners. Some people keep their ferrets indoors as house pets and only cage them when they are being left alone or when they would be in the way for hovering or cleaning. They are very easy to house train provided you let them tell you which corner they want to use! Line this corner with a plastic litter tray and fill with cat litter (be warned, ferrets do like to throw cat litter about!) so just cover the bottom of the tray. There will be accidents (the same as kittens) but place the latest toilet in the tray and be patient, in a short time they will learn.

House-ferrets are entertaining pets and soon learn to love sleeping on laps like cats, however, unlike cats; they can not be let out of the house on their own. Sadly many ferrets manage to slip through an open door and get lost.

Whether your ferret lives in the house, a cage or a court, you will have hours of fun with your new friends, given the care they need, for years to come. Simple and quick. Do clean their toilet corner at least once, preferably twice, a day and give the cage a good clean at least once daily.

Handling Ferrets

Ferrets should be handled gently but firmly. They soon learn that handling is fun and enjoy being cuddled and tickled behind the ears. Pick your ferret up around his front legs and support his bottom in your other hand. Stroke and talk to him gently and he will soon learn to trust you.

Like puppies and kittens, ferrets tend to ‘test’ things with their teeth. They are not vicious, but can make one or two experimental nips, so until you have got to know your ferret and established mutual trust, do not allow him too near your face. Although many owners allow their ferrets allow them to lick or kiss their face, this can only be achieved after considerable handling and getting to know each other.

If your ferret nips fingers at first, try not to alarm him by quick movements or loud shouts. Take things slowly as you get to know him, especially if he is a rescue ferret. He may have had some rough treatment from uncaring owners in the past, and may take time to trust you. Offer him titbits of food and stroke him gently while he eats. You may have to teach him not to be afraid of you. There are very few ‘nasty’ ferrets, only scared ferrets who have been subjected to harsh treatment. Time and patience is needed but this will be rewarded by an affectionate, trusting pet.

Very young ferrets are hooligans; they think the world was made just for them to try their teeth out! Again this is not viciousness, only rough play. Just as puppies and kittens have to learn that biting is not acceptable, young ferrets (kits) have to be persuaded not to gaily chomp your fingers? Play biting is different from fear biting and a light tap on the nose and a firm (NOT LOUD) ‘No’ is often all it takes to teach them that this is not acceptable play. Kits are often more prone to nip when hungry or when they expect to be fed, so a good tip is to feed them first and then handle them once they are fed. As before, gentle handling makes gentle ferrets, and they soon grow out of their uncivilised ways.

In the words of the National Ferret Welfare Society………NEUTERING!

No, this is not a Monty Python sketch; it’s simply to pose a few questions. What’s the difference between an ‘entire’ ferret and a ‘neutered’ ferret? Why would someone want to keep a ferret ‘entire’ or ‘neuter’ them? Do people know what is involved and what it means for their ferrets?

In most domestic species, especially pet animals like cats and dogs, the distinction is clear. You either have your animals sexually active and able to breed (entire) or you have them neutered. However, in ferrets this distinction is a little blurred. Ferrets, like all of their mustelid cousins, do not make the same distinction that we do; there is also a category that is ‘in-between’.

The 'Entire' Ferret

These are ferrets that have not undergone surgery to their sexual organs. Hobs will develop very obvious testicles; have a pungent smell and a propensity to fight other males.

They will also be highly motivated during spring and summer to seek out potentially receptive jills who they court with the somewhat cave-man tactics of grabbing the jill around the neck and very roughly forcing her to accept his advances. As pets or workers they tend not to be very co-operative during this time. If you need a breeding hob, this behavior is fine however, if you want a gentle, playful, odor-free pet, or a co-operative worker you are onto a loser! He will be driven by thoughts securely situated in his underpants and he will not want to know YOU at all!

Jills come into season at the same time of year, when the hours of daylight increase and when the temperature suggests that spring is in the air. In practical terms, this can mean as early as February. Jills will stay in season until she is taken out. SHE DOES NOT NEED TO HAVE A LITTER OF BABIES! However, if a jill is left in season there can be complications to her health as a high level of oestrogen circulating in her body during her season can lead to a bone marrow disease called ‘aplastic anaemia’ which carries a high risk of fatality.

If you are responsible and already have homes for any kits produced, then obviously you need entire ferrets, but what if you don’t want to breed at all?

Hobs

If you have no intention of breeding from your hob then the best solution is to have him CASTRATED – surgical removal of the testes and all internal male plumbing associated with being sexually active. It’s a quick and easy procedure and is usually over in minutes. Hobs generally don’t know what has happened! The result is that they will lose any pungent smell, become totally disinterested in jills and often develop a better quality of coat. More importantly for pet owners, they are more sociable and playful. It should also be noted that castration DOES NOT impair their working ability; also there are no long-term health problems associated with castration.

Hobs can be castrated at any time and any age from around 5 months although some vets may have preferences to when the operation is performed. It usually takes two or three weeks before the hobby smell to subside and for them to start ignoring the jills. Castration is a ‘one-off’ operation.

Vasectomised Hobs

An alternative to full castration is to have a hob vasectomised. Again, this is a simple surgical procedure which your ferret will hardly notice, but it DOES NOT have the same effect as a full castration.

Vasecomisation involves the cutting of the ducts that allow active sperm to be released during the mating process; a vasectomised hob fires ‘blanks’ so he cannot make a jill pregnant. However to all intents and purposes, he will still behave like an entire hob, retaining his smell, his aggression towards other males, and his over-riding interest in jills, often to the exclusion of his owners and any other work you may wish him to do!

The value of a vasectomised hob is simply to mate with jills to bring them out of season as it is the act of mating rather than the conception that halts the jills period of season.

It is important to remember that he may carry viable sperm for up to six weeks after being vasectomised so you can still have the patter of little paws if you put him with un-neutered jills too soon!

Jills

Jills are lovely, mercurial little creatures, full of life and mischief, great pets and great workers, but they DO NEED some care from their owner to keep them in good health. Jills come into season early in the year and will stay in season until mated or until they are given hormonal injections or surgically operated on to render them sterile. The onset of the season is clear by the enlargement of her vulva. This is barely visible at other times of the year but will swell to several times its normal size when she comes into season.

Sadly, there is still an opinion that jills need to have a litter of kits or they will die, producing in quite a few cases, a large number of unwanted kits with no caring homes to go to!  The truth is ‘Entire Jills’ need some sort of intervention to prevent them becoming potentially fatally ill through aplastic anaemia.

There are several options available…

Spaying

If you have no intention of ever breeding, then spaying is the ideal solution. This can be carried out at around 5 to 6 months of age, but can take place at any age after this quite safely.

Spaying involves the removal of all reproductive equipment: ovaries, uterus and the connecting ‘plumbing’.  She will never come into season again, nor become pregnant. It’s the equivalent of a hysterectomy. It’s a one-off operation which is relatively easy and from which your ferret will quickly recover. Post-op jills should ideally be kept in warm surroundings while they work off the anesthesia. A couple of days in a hutch or small cage until you know they are back on their paws is all that is necessary.

Surgery does not affect character or personality; it simply frees her from the problems of reproducing and all the hormonal upheaval that this involves. It is certainly the procedure recommended for all owners of PET jill ferrets.

Jill Jabs 

These are hormonal injections given by your vet that will prevent or halt a jill’s season. Ideally, they should be given before a jill comes into season but since jills do not give advanced notice they are frequently given at the onset of a season. The jabs can last for a whole summer but may need topping up if they wear off before autumn. As an alternative to spaying, they are effective in that they prevent a jill becoming fertile and therefore prevent pregnancy. A potential disadvantage is that some jills appear to lose condition and some of their ‘bounce’ becoming a little sleepier and less alert for a few weeks however, this doesn’t happen to all jills with many carrying on as normal. Either way this is better than unwanted pregnancies.

Vasectomised hobs to bring jills out of season 

A jill’s season is ended by the act of mating, not by conception, so a vasectomised hob can be used to mate jills without them becoming pregnant. To all intents and purposes, this is just like the mating of two entire animals since the hob has no knowledge that he is infertile. Mating can be a rough business for a jill, so be prepared for scarred and bitten necks. Sadly, the hob ferret has little idea about romance! However she will come out of season within a week or so. Unfortunately this will only last about six weeks during which time she may develop a phantom pregnancy and believe herself to have given birth. This can be bad news for all the ferrets in her pen as she will identify them as her babies and even the heftiest hob may find himself being dragged off to bed by an insistent ‘mother’! After a couple of weeks of phantom motherhood, the jill will need to be returned to the vasectomised hob as she will come back into season.

Vasectomised hobs do play an important role in preventing unwanted pregnancies, but there are some caveats:

1.  If you ‘borrow’ a vasectomised hob, make sure that he is coming from healthy stock and from a clean, disease-free environment.

2. You also need to be aware that repeated use of a vasectomised hob may predispose a jill to pyometra, an infection of the womb of which the only treatment is an emergency spay operation which is more risky than a spay op under normal circumstances when the jill is not sick or infected.

Implants

There are hormone implants available to jill ferrets that take the place of spaying, jill-jabbing and the use of a vasectomised hob. They are not widely available in the UK and little is yet known about their general usefulness so for most owners, the choice remains between spaying, jill-jabs and a vasectomised hob.

So, the choice is yours. You just need to know what you are paying for, what the treatment does, and for how long. For owners of purely PET FERRETS the National Ferret Welfare Society would recommend castration for hobs and spaying for jills, it gets all of the hassle out of the way once and for all! If for some reason you do not wish to go for such a permanent measure.

DO PLEASE MAKE SURE YOU ARE AWARE OF THE ADVANTAGES AND DISADVANTAGES OF VASECTOMISATION, JILL-JABS AND UNWANTED PREGNANCIES.

Illnesses

Ferrets are tough little animals and it is not hard to keep them fit and healthy. However, they can catch human colds and flu, so be very careful handling your ferret if you have a cold. This could be fatal to your ferret. They can catch canine distemper and it a good idea to have your ferret vaccinated against this, especially if you are planning to walk or show your ferret around others.

Damp is also a problem to ferrets. Make daily checks that all their bedding is clean and dry and make sure their cage or court is well protected from rain if they are outdoors.

Equally dangerous is heat stroke. Ferrets do not sweat, nor do they have a very efficient body cooling mechanisms. Keep the cage out of fierce sunshine in the summer and provide lots of shallow water bowls for paddling to cool off in the very hot weather. Wet towels to roll in or half filled bottles of cold water to lie against are also appreciated. If your ferret should become over heated, roll him in cool (not cold) water to revive him and contact your vet.

Keep your ferret clean and checked for fleas or ticks, especially if you take him out for walks. Some ferrets enjoy baths, but you only need to bath him if he is dirty or if he needs freshening up.

Ears should be inspected weekly and cleaned if there are any deposits of brown wax.

There are many ear cleaning solutions on the market for kittens and rabbits which are safe to use but take care not to probe too deep as this will cause damage to his ears. A small drop of cleaning solution in the ear, rubbed gently from the outside and then wiped around with a wet wipe will normally do the job.

UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES STICK COTTON BUDS IN YOUR FERRETS EARS!!

If your ferret seems poorly, please take him to see your vet immediately. Ferrets go downhill rapidly once they become ill, so there is often no time to ‘Wait & See’.

Feeding Ferrets

Ferrets are carnivores, their staple diet should be meat based however, and we recommend you never feed your ferret/s pork, only because it is high in fat and salt content. Raw chicken wings make a good addition to the diet and help to keep teeth strong and healthy. Meat is not sufficient alone; we also recommend you give them complete ferret kibble (biscuit) which contains the nutrition your ferret(s) require. Kibble is a dried food rather like cat biscuits so make sure that plenty of fresh water is always available.

There are several kibble manufacturers on the market:

  • Dr John Merlin
  • James Well-beloved
  • Vitalin
  • Chudleys
  • Alpha Ferret Feast


We personally buy several varieties and mix 2 parts ferret kibble with 1 part good quality cat biscuit. This ensures that should you not be able to buy one variety, the ferrets will not become finicky about their food. The cat biscuit helps to supplement the diet and spread the cost a little.

Kibble is cleaner to feed in the summer months when flies will be attracted to raw meat.

Clean, fresh water MUST always be available. Many ferrets enjoy splashing around in a water bowl, so also provide water in a larger sized water butt to allow for spillages.

The amount of food a ferret needs depends on its age, the amount of exercise it gets, and how large it is. Males need rather more than females. The dry foods can be fed freely so that the ferret can take whatever it wants. If you feed fresh meat it is better to give them just small amounts twice a day, so that it does not become smelly and unappetising, or attract flies. You will soon learn how much your ferret/s need as he will eat his fill and then start to store any extra.

DO NOT ALLOW FOOD STORES TO ACCUMULATE AS THIS WILL BECOME UNHYGIENIC.

Ferrets are lactose intolerant and therefore should not be given cows milk. A lactose free kitten milk or goats milk is readily available in supermarkets and given sparingly will be enjoyed as a treat.

Ferrets often enjoy other foods as treats. Ice cream is especially popular! Given sparingly it is much appreciated as it can cause diarrhoea, as can raw eggs. Ferrets are unable to digest fruit and vegetables even though they seem to love the taste! Water melon in VERY SMALL quantities is both thirst quenching and enjoyable.

Cat treats are readily available in supermarkets and these are always a big hit with ferrets.

Although it is fine to give your pets occasional treats, please do not overdo it. You want a sleek fit ferret, not a fat sluggish ferret!!

Fun & frolics with your ferrets

Lots of game fairs have ferret shows and ferret racing, and this is a good place to meet other ferret owners, or to take your ferrets to show them off. Rescue ferrets, pet ferrets and working ferrets are all welcome. The common theme of these events is to promote ferret welfare and to educate the public that ferrets are not the evil, smelly animals that they are made out to be.

You never stop learning new things about ferrets and these shows bring like minded people together to chat and exchange ideas.

Before deciding to have a ferret, remember that it is quite a responsibility. They live almost as long as cats and dogs and you need to ask yourself if you are prepared to give care and attention for the next 10 years or more. You will also need to make arrangements for when you go on holiday. There are some boarding establishments for small animals but you need to find out where these are well in advance of your holiday and make sure your ferret is vaccinated if this is required. Alternatively you can arrange with friends to feed, clean and check on your ferrets on a daily basis.

Finally, have fun with your ferret(s). You, like many other people, may find that they are ’addictive’ and go on to acquire one or two others! Like all animals, ferrets respond well to kindness and affection and will more than repay you by becoming gentle, entertaining and mischievous companions. 

The above valuable detail has been gained from
the National Ferret Welfare Society Website and we are very grateful for that source of information.



If you have any questions or require any further information, please do not hesitate to contact Barrie on:

Telephone 01207 237458 or mobile 07935 931473