Ferrets are domesticated pets, like cats and dogs. They have been domesticated for a long time, probably a couple of thousand years. In the Middle Ages, they were used for hunting rabbits, in some places this practice is still done. They were also used for rodent control in barns and on ships. Since ferrets can catch the common cold from humans they have also been used in research.
The domesticated ferret (Mustela Putoris Furo) belongs to the family of mustelids. Some of its relatives are mink, polecat, otter, weasel, skunk, ermine and badger. The ferret is either descended from the European polecat or the Steppe polecat (or maybe a now extinct relative to them, no-one knows for sure), just as the dog is descended from the wolf. The ferret and the polecat are so closely related that they can get fertile offspring, they are however different animals with different dispositions. The domesticated ferret is curious, affectionate, fun-loving, cuddly and has almost no hunting instincts left. These attributes varies of course with each individual. Some are very cuddly and want to lay in their owners' lap. Others love humans company, following people around like a dog but does not like to lay still in a lap. All ferrets are individuals, that's part of their charm. Most ferrets also enjoy the company of other ferrets, while the polecats are solitary animals.
Like all the mustelids the ferret has scent glands with which they mark territory and use for defense. The most well-known species with scent gland is the skunk, but ferrets' spray is not that bad. They normally only spray, or poof as it's also called, when they are extremely upset or hurt. The smell is unpleasant, but airs out in a few minutes. In the U.S. ferret kits are routinely descented when they are neutered or spayed at the big breeders. It is not such a common practice for minor, private breeders, nor in Sweden. The operation is often completely unnecessary since the day-to-day smell of the ferret is not affected by this.
Neutering or spaying should be done when the ferret is approximately 6-7 months old. He has then reached sexual maturity and could go into heat. Male ferrets in rut smell strongly, they mark territory with urine, and some can become aggressive, especially towards other ferrets. Female ferrets in heat that is not bred will stay in heat for a long time. This puts a lot of stress on the body, and they can become anemic, which may ultimately result in death.
There are no major differences between males and females apart from the size. Females can weigh between 1 - 3 pounds. Males can weigh between 3 - 5 pounds. Some think that males tend to be somewhat calmer, but there are so many individual differences that it's not something you can take for granted.
Kit - Kits are being weaned around 8 weeks. Around 8-12 weeks he's ready to come to a new home. (In the U.S. many petstores sell kits that are younger than 8 weeks...) His milk teeth is being replaced at this time.
Adolescent ferret - When you finally have gotten to know your ferret and he has learned not to nip, to use the litterbox and so on, he might change... Around 6 months the ferret matures and, like human teenagers, often test the limits you thought was firmly set and understood. Be patient and consistent, he will grow out of it. This is the time when your ferret should be neutered/spayed. (Again, in the U.S. young kits sold in petstores are often already neutered/spayed and even descented.)
Adult - At one year of age your ferret is an adult. He's still very active, seeking you out to play, checking on things around him (for the thousandth time) and generally getting into trouble. This is the time when it's appropriate to get another ferret if you want to have more.
Middle age - A ferret will remain playful all his life, but he will probably play for shorter periods of time and accept to be cuddled more and more. When a ferret reaches three years it is recommended to get physical exams yearly. After four years the ferret will need less protein and fat in his diet. This is when you should switch to a "senior" ferret food or an adult cat food.
Senior ferret - Nearly 50% of the ferrets that reach six years of age has undergone some kind of surgery (apart from neutering/spaying of course). If your ferret does not have an accident or get ill he can live six or eight years, some ferrets even become over ten years old.
Ferrets come in a variety of colors. There are sable, albino, cinnamon, silvermitt, etc. You can see many different colors on LIFE's homepage and AFA's homepage on show standards.
Ferrets change their coats twice a year. In spring, they get a thinner and sometimes shorter coat and they loose weight. Males especially can loose a lot. In the autumn the coat is changed to a thicker one and they gain weight. Young ferrets can even change markings with these sheddings.
Yes, they sleep a lot. Around 15 hours a day. They can sleep very heavily and many new ferret owners have thought there is something wrong because they can't get their ferret to wake up. I've heard stories of people that have rushed their limp ferret to a vet, only to have him yawn and wake up when they arrive. They are not nocturnal, but will accommodate their daily schedule to fit yours, when they learn what time you are normally up and ready to play, they will be too.
After waking up a ferret often trembles. This is in order to raise the body temperature. They can also tremble when they are very excited or frightened.
When they are happy, they are so without restraints. A ferret doing a weasel war dance, or dance of joy, is wonderful to watch. They jump and run and throw themselves about with an arched back, mouth open, sometimes hissing, sometimes dooking. Sometimes they jump into things but that hardly faces them at all. If anything, the dance can become even more intense after a crash into a wall...
Ferrets are normally quiet animals. There is one sound that many ferrets do when they are very happy or excited and that is dooking. It's a low sound, sort of clucking or chuckling.
An angry ferret can also hiss. Pain will make a ferret scream, but it can also be a sign of anger. My female, Phoebe, screams as if she was dying when she is the one chasing after the boys...
Ferrets that are excited, angry or scared can also get a bottle brush tail. All the hairs on the tail is standing straight out, making the tail twice as thick.
Practically all ferret owners have seen the ferret doing "the speedbump" or "flat-ferret" pose. The ferret simply drops down as flat as possible and looks pitiful. This can have several meanings. Either your ferret is taking a short break from the intensity of the play, he might be bored and want some attention, or he might pretend he's invisible. If your ferret is doing this unusually often or he appears to be weak in his legs, take him to the vet for a check up.
Author Camilla Englund. Last updated September 1999.