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Preparations before getting your first ferret

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So, you want to have a ferret? The first thing you must consider is if you're willing to make a commitment for seven, ten or even more years. Yes, ferrets can live a long time. They need a lot of attention, training and care, they can get sick and could wind up costing a lot in veterinary bills. Are they worth it? Oh, yes!! :)

Ok, so you are committed. Then you should consider where to acquire your companion. In Sweden where I live, the most common is to buy from private breeders, but it's also possible to get older ferrets that needs to find other homes for different reason. In the U.S. you can often buy from a pet store. That's not always the best option, most ferret people in the U.S. are strongly advising getting the ferret from a shelter. There are plenty of shelters that take care of unwanted ferrets that would be great pets. Due to the many long hours of hard working volunteers, the worldwide shelters list compiled by the FML now has its own homepage.

Before bringing home your ferret it's also advisable to find a good veterinary that has experience with ferrets. You will need to get the ferret vaccinations and check-ups, and some emergency can always arise when you need to know where to turn.

Preparations

Cage?

You will probably want a cage. In Sweden (and to some extent also in the U.S.) people have their ferrets free in their home just like a cat. Many do suggest that to have a cage available can be of help at least in the beginning, for example when litter-training and until you are perfectly certain that your home is ferret-proofed. In Sweden there's a rule that says the ferret must have an area at least 5 square meters large with at least 1 meter in height for the greater amount of his/her time. This means that you cannot keep your ferret in a cage more than temporarily! Many people have set aside one room for the ferrets to live in, others have them in the whole house, maybe apart from just a room or two, there are plenty of different solutions.

Equipment

You'll need bowls for food and water. Maybe also a bottle of water - many ferrets like to dig in their bowls and to have a bottle in case the water is spilled is a good idea. Ferrets must have access to fresh water at all times. You also need a good quality of food for your ferret to eat.

Your ferret will want a cozy place to sleep. A box of some kind with soft fabrics in it will be fine - do not use wood chips! Use sweatshirts, pillowcases, fleece, etc. You can also buy or try to make your own hammocks, many ferrets like those. All bedding should be washed once or twice a week, this will reduce the odor markedly.

A harness and a leash will be useful, most ferrets enjoy going out for walks.

Litterboxes - yes, plural. Ferrets in general are not as good with litterboxes as cats, so you will need several. One in the cage or near their sleeping area and probably at least one in each room the ferret is allowed in. At least one side should be low so the ferret has easy access with his short legs. Some people use dust-free clumping cat litter, and as long as your ferret doesn't think it's a fun sandbox to dig in or sticks his head in it trying to tunnel, that's fine. You can also use non-clumping clay litter or paper pelleted litter. Some have reported good results with rabbit pelleted food, but it does not conceal odor very well, so you might have to change it more often.

Toys

Toys are important - but not difficult. Ferrets are usually amused by the simplest things. If you buy a big expensive toy you shouldn't be surprised if your ferret has more fun with the box it came in than the toy itself. A big box with newspaper-balls is wonderful to dive and roll in. Ferrets love the crinkle-sound of paper and plastic. Some let their ferrets play with plastic bags (I am one of them) but watch carefully since some ferrets eat the plastic and that could result in a blockage that will need surgery. Tubes are fun to run in, there are tubes for ferrets available on The Ferret Store and other places that sell ferret products.

Ferret proofing

Ferrets are intensely curious and often utterly fearless, they can fit through very small openings and they can climb and jump better than you think. Ferret proofing your home is an ongoing process.

Make sure there is no way to get under refrigerators, washers, stoves, etc. Check that cabinet doors can not be opened by the ingenious little animals. Be careful of opening windows and balcony doors or be very sure the ferret cannot access them. Ferrets are nearsighted and could easily jump out a window even if it's a long way down. If you leave a piece of Styrofoam, foam rubber, a small button, a rubber band, vinyl rubber (a toy or balloon, for example) lying about, your ferret will most likely eat it. This will block the digestive systems and require emergency surgery to save their life. Place all plants out of reach, ferrets loves to dig. Some can open zippers and some are strong enough to push rather heavy things where they will be used to climb onto (supposed) inaccessible places. (One of my ferrets have repeatedly pushed an old sewing machine a couple of inches from the wall - it weighs 12 kg!)

Sofa beds and recliners should not be in any area the ferret has access to. They are almost impossible to ferretproof and the ferret when exploring them usually gets inside and risk being crushed in the mechanism.

Don't let your ferret play with toilet rolls. Small ferrets can get their heads in them but sometimes find themselves stuck and may panic. Be careful of where you walk and sit, ferrets like to burrow under carpets, pillows, etc.

If you add another ferret to your ferret proofed home, you will probably find that it is not as secure as you thought. Ferrets are individuals, one might be able to jump very high while another can climb anything...

One ferret or more?

Many ferretowners have two, three or even more ferrets. It often works well having just one, but they are social animals and if they have a friend they can play those special games we humans have trouble doing. Chase each other, wrestle and just getting into mischief together. It also gives security and companionship during those hours you are away from home.

If you want to get another ferret after some time you will have to be prepared for some fighting in the beginning. I know that some have introduced ferrets to each others and they have became friends immediately, but it's more common that they do fight at first, they have to come to an understanding who is the boss. In some few instances two ferrets will not get along. It does happen, but with patience most ferrets can learn to live together and often they become good friends.

 

New ferret owner

Training

A ferret will need training on a couple of things.

Nipping

Ferrets have thick skin. When they play with each other they often bite quite hard and they need to learn that they can't do that with humans. Young kits especially have a lot of energy, they can be teething or they might simply be hungry. Make sure your ferret has enough food and for teething kits give them something to chew on, maybe hard dog biscuits or a Cheweasel.

First of all, do not let the ferret down if he nips, that will teach him this is the way to say he wants down. You can use a travelcage for time-outs if you need to, leaving a kit anxious for play in a confined area for a couple of minutes is punishment enough in many cases. Unless your ferret is deaf, make a high pitched scream whenever you get nipped or bitten. This is the way other ferrets say that their friend is too rough. Sometimes this is all it takes, but usually you will need to do more. Scruff and hold the ferret in front of you and say NO! in a firm voice or hiss at him. You can add dragging him gently on the floor a couple of feet while hissing and holding him by the scruff. All these things are similar to what the ferret mom does to discipline her kits. If you still have trouble I suggest you read "Problem Ferrets" for further inspiration.

Some people use Bitter Apple on their hands to prevent nipping. I prefer to use this on things that shouldn't be bitten on, instead using Ferretone or olive oil on my hands. This makes my hands something pleasurable and nice. Give lots of cuddles, treats and praise when the ferret is behaving well. After play when he is sleepy, pick him up and hold him in your arms, letting him know that you provide a safe and comfortable place.

Litter-training

Some ferrets are easily litter-trained, others are more difficult. Ferrets prefer to do their business in corners. Place the litter-box in an appropriate corner and keep a close eye on your new friend. If you see him using the litterbox, give lots of praise and a small treat as a reward. If you see him about to go someplace else (backing and lifting the tail), shout NO! and pick him up quickly and place him in the litterbox. Make sure he finishes his business, then praise him and give him the Ferretone treat. (You might sometimes experience a "trail" where you have carried him, when ferrets need to go, they often do not stop. The best way to prevent this is being one step ahead and anticipate his actions.) You might want to place some paper around the box, ferrets wipe their butt on the floor when they're done.

Most ferrets will quickly learn that they get a treat when they go to the right place, some might fake it in the box just to get more treats. If your ferret uses corner you don't want him to use, place used bedding or food there. Ferrets are clean animals and most won't go where they have sleeping or eating places. Clean any accidents thoroughly, if it smells as a bathroom, it is a bathroom in the ferret's point of view. Diluted vinegar is excellent for cleaning up, products with ammonia in them is not recommended.

Finally, very few ferrets get 100% litterbox-trained (I've heard of some, but they are rare). Accidents do happen to most of them. Some will be great at 95-99% but many are only about 70-80%, a few even less. If you cannot stand an accident once in a while, get a cat.

Digging

Many ferrets dig in their food and water bowl. They will not leave any plant alone, and a closed door is an anathema to them. They will dig and scratch to get it opened. I wish you good luck trying to stop your ferrets more than temporarily. If you find a way to stop any digging or scratching permanently - please tell the ferret owners of the world - we would be grateful. :)

The bowl digging is often worse with kits, but some adults do this too. Just make sure he has access to a waterbottle if the water is spilled and that the food doesn't get wet and spoils and let him dig. Plants should be placed out of reach and doors - well, unless he does damage to them just be prepared to scold him every time when you hear him or get used to the noise. If you have a carpet that is being dug at and you wish to protect it you can use plastic runners (available in carpet stores and some building supply stores). Cut these about 6 inches wider than the doorway; notch the middle of the sides such that it fits between the door jams (sort of a wide, sideways figure "H").

Tricks

Yes, you can teach your ferret tricks. Coming when you call their names are usually not successful with ferrets, but using a squeaky toy or shaking the treat box will probably get results (most of the time). They won't do tricks like a dog, just for the pleasure of it, but in order to get a treat. I have taught one of my ferrets to roll around. To do this, get a treat, hold it in front of him, then rotate it around his head and he will try to follow the treat. If you hold it low enough (and he doesn't catch it) he will not simply walk in a circle, but will roll on the floor. Repeat this a couple of times a day while saying "Roll around" or some similar command. Eventually he might get the drift. Another trick is to make the ferret ride on your shoulder or in a hood. Stand (on your knees so it's not so high) over a pile of crumpled newspaper or something else that makes a sound. Place the ferret on your shoulder and when he falls of say "NO!" in a loud voice. The fall, your command and the sound of papers will make him not want to fall off and he'll hopefully soon concentrate on keeping his balance.

Any tricks should be taught over a period of time. Ferrets get bored easily, so keep the training sessions to a couple of minutes only but do them every day. Even when your ferret knows a trick, don't expect him to do it while in a new place - their curiosity takes over and he will only be frustrated because he wants to check out the surroundings.

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Author Camilla Englund. Last updated November 2000.