Pet Ferrets: Are They For You?

Ferrets are such cute and playful pets that many people decide to get one without realizing that ferrets are not appropriate pets for everyone.

Ferrets are such charming, playful little creatures that many people want one the first time they see one""usually in a pet store or at a friend's home. And, certainly, for the right type of person ferrets make tremendously rewarding pets. Yet ferrets are not appropriate pets for many people, no matter how much they think they might want one, and if potential ferret owners would take time to learn about ferrets, a lot of them would realize that they are not prepared to take on the responsibility for one or more ferrets.

And make no mistake about it, it is a responsibility. Pets are not self-winding stuffed toys. They are independent beings with their own needs, feelings and personalities. No one should adopt a pet of any sort without realizing that once he has done so, the animal's happiness and health becomes the owner's responsibility.

Ferrets Are Social Creatures

Ferrets need to be played with and interacted with. Despite their small size, they should not be mistaken for "hand pets," like gerbils or mice, that are relatively content to sit in a cage all day, with occasional turns on the wheel. Ferrets need time out of their cage""a lot of time, really""and they need the attention of their owners. Unless you plan on spending several hours a day interacting with your ferret, it probably also needs the company of one or more other ferrets.

Although ferrets get along well with dogs and cats if they have been raised with them, most other animals will only play with a ferret for a short while before getting annoyed and seeking to avoid the little rascal. Besides, ferrets are so small that a larger animal might unintentionally hurt or kill the ferret by playing too rough, so the owner should always monitor interaction between a ferret and another animal.

A ferret that isn't given enough attention and interactive play will become depressed, so a person who plans to get a ferret must also plan on spending quite a lot of time entertaining""and being entertained by""the ferret.

Ferrets Are Smart

Ferrets are smart. That's good, of course, but it can also be dangerous. Ferrets can usually figure out a way to get into what they should not get into, and out of what they should not get out of. Because ferrets are small, and they tend to go from point A to point B by sidling quickly along walls or dashing under furniture, a loose ferret can be out the front door and on its way into the very dangerous wide world without its owner even realizing his pet is gone. When a ferret is let out of its cage, all doors leading to the outside must be carefully watched. Children, friends, and other family members should be trained to watch for ferrets at the door, and never to stand talking with the door open.

A home should be ferret-proofed as carefully as if it were being child-proofed. A ferret's flexible bones allow it to crawl under and into spaces that seem impossibly small, so ferret-proofing is actually much harder than child-proofing. Furthermore, despite being such tiny little things, ferrets are clever climbers. They will find a way to get up on shelves, as many an owner has discovered when unexpectedly finding himself eye-to-eye with his ferret. Some ferrets will even drag things into position to aid them in climbing onto something to check out what they can't see from the floor.

A ferret can open any unlatched cabinet door, so cabinets should also be ferret-proofed with safety latches.

Ferrets Nip

Ferrets, especially male ferrets, are notorious nippers. They nip each other when they play, and they will nip people, too. Bare toes and ankles are often targets, but a ferret held up to the face may bite the nose, or lip, or some other tender part of the face. No one should ever assume an unfamiliar ferret will not bite, because chances are that it will.

A very young ferret will almost always nip, but patient, diligent training can usually cure the tendency, though it is easier to train a female not to bite than it is to train a male. Ferrets' teeth are very sharp, and their bites can be quite deep and painful. For this reason, among others, ferrets are usually not good pets for families with very young children, or for adults who lack the time and patience to train a ferret not to bite.

Ferrets Smell

Ferrets have a distinctive musky odor, and males have a stronger odor than females. Most ferrets have been descented by the time they reach the pet store. This means their anal scent glands have been removed. But they have scent glands elsewhere as well, and though descenting takes care of a lot of their odor, it will never eliminate all of it. Many people do not find ferrets' odors unpleasant""but many people do, and no one should buy a ferret without taking their smell into consideration.

Ferrets Only Live for Five to Eight Years

Ferrets are such personable animals that their owners usually become deeply attached to them. It's hard for many pet owners to deal with the fact that cats and dogs seldom live past fifteen years, but with ferrets, an owner will find himself grieving over his beloved pet after what seems like no time at all. If the trauma of losing a pet is more than a person can handle, he should choose an animal that has a longer life span than ferrets do.

Ferrets Are Vulnerable to a Host of Potentially Deadly Conditions

As if their short life span were not bad enough, many ferrets don't even live that long. Ferrets are susceptible to a number of conditions and diseases that can carry them off in the prime of their life. Insulinoma, for example, is a pancreatic cancer that is strikingly common in ferrets, and many ferrets also get adrenal gland disease, which causes them to go bald, and which may also be malignant, as it is caused by tumors on the adrenal glands. Often, these two conditions occur together in a ferret. These are only two of the diseases common to ferrets""there are many others.

Veterinary care for ferrets is not as advanced as for dogs or cats, since ferrets have only recently become such popular pets. Some veterinarians know too little about ferret diseases to properly diagnose or treat a sick ferret, and it is often necessary to search for a vet who can handle ferrets. There are sources (magazines, internet enthusiasts' sites, local enthusiasts' clubs) that will provide recommendations for competent ferret vets, and such sources also provide a wealth of information about the diseases that can strike down a ferret before its time. A ferret owner really must educate himself about ferret health issues if he hopes to be able to help his pet when it becomes sick.

Ferrets Usually Cannot Be Completely Litter or Paper Trained

A ferret's metabolism is very fast, so it eats often and voids its bladder and bowels often. Up to a point ferrets can be litter trained or paper trained, but it is almost inevitable that there will be accidents, and usually one or more each day. Anyone who adopts a ferret must be prepared for the likelihood that he will spend a part of his day cleaning up the occasional accident.


Too many people buy pets on impulse and then abandon them or drop them off at the local humane society when they turn out to be more trouble than expected, or when the owner realizes that the animal has traits he was not aware of and does not particularly like. It is cruel to abandon a pet. It is much better to take the time to inform yourself about the animal you are thinking of adopting than to decide after bringing it home that maybe it isn't the right pet for you.

Such errors occur more often with ferrets than with dogs or cats, because many people are far less familiar with the nature and behavioral traits of ferrets, and because this species' personality and playfulness make it seem so immediately appealing. There are many sources of information on ferrets, so there really is no excuse for selecting one as a pet without first making sure that you and your lifestyle will be compatible with the ferret's needs.

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