In general use, a ferret is a Domestic Ferret (Mustela putorius furo), a creature first bred from the wild European Polecat at least 2,500 years ago. Several other small, elongated carnivorous mammals belonging to the family Mustelidae also have the word "ferret" in their common names. For example, there is a rare and endangered North American polecat known as the Black-footed Ferret.
No one knows exactly when the ferret was first domesticated, though archeological remains of the ferret have been dated to 1500 BCE. Most estimates place it sometime around the domestication of the cat. Some say the ancient Egyptians had ferrets, but it is more likely that Europeans visiting Egypt saw cats, and thought using a small carnivore to protect grain stores was a great idea. The ferret was probably bred from the European Polecat (Mustela putorius), and some use the scientific name Mustela putorius furo. It is also possible that ferrets have the Steppe polecat (Mustela eversmanni) in their ancestry.
For hundreds of years the main use of ferrets was for hunting, called ferreting. With their long, lean build and aggressive nature, they are very well equipped for getting down holes and chasing rabbits or other vermin out of their burrows. They are still used for hunting in some countries, including the United Kingdom and, particularly, Australia, where rabbits are a plague species and, despite the availability of a great deal of modern technology, the combination of a few small nets and a ferret or two remains very effective. In countries such as Portugal, where it's feared this activity could unbalance the ecology, ferreting has been made illegal.
Ferrets as pets
In a lot of ways, ferrets act like kittens that never grow up. They have energy, curiosity, and potential for chaos all their lives. However, they are far more people-oriented than cats, and many want to play with their owners. It has been suggested that ferrets were bred for curiosity; whether this is true or not, their curiosity is greater than their common sense and this makes the chances of a domestic ferret surviving in the wild very slim (many die by exploring in reclining chairs without their owners knowing). In addition, virtually all pet ferrets are neutered, so there is no danger of pet ferrets somehow escaping and forming a wild population.
As a pet, ferrets rank third in the US, behind dogs and cats. Ferrets are sometimes accused of being dangerous to small children but this claim is false - proportionally, ferrets do much less harm to children than dogs or cats.
Dangers to ferrets
Ferrets are very good at getting into holes in walls, cupboards, or behind household appliances, where they can be injured or killed by electrical wiring, fans, and other dangerous items. Fold-out sofas are very dangerous for them, since they will often climb inside the springs and then be squashed to death. For these reasons steps are often taken to "ferret-proof" a home before acquiring one as a pet. Ferret-proofing a house often involves removing items dangerous to ferrets and covering over any holes. Many owners opt to restrict the ferrets to a cage at night or when there is no one home.
Ferrets are obligate carnivores. Cat food does not provide the protein or fat content needed by the ferret's metabolism. High-quality kitten food can suffice if ferret-specific kibble cannot be found, however many low quality foods are not appropriate. When reading the label, the first 3 ingredients should be meat-based, as ferrets cannot properly digest the cereal fillers used in cheaper cat and kitten foods. Ferret food should contain between 32–38% protein and between 15–20% fat. While a high protein content is absolutely essential a protein content above 38% can sometimes lead to kidney stones and urinary obstructions in older ferrets. Ferrets usually have fondness for sweets such as raisins and peanut butter, but such treats should be given sparingly, as even a small amount of sugar can increase chances of insulinoma and adrenal failure. While plant products can provide ferrets with some additional micro-nutrients and dietary variability, due to their relatively short gastro-intestinal tract they can not derive much energy out of them, and for that reason they should only be used as supplement, not replacement, for their regular diet.
Ferrets spend most of their time sleeping, but when awake they are very active, exploring their surroundings relentlessly. Ferrets are crepuscular, meaning that they are most active during dawn and dusk. If kept in a cage, they should be let out daily to get exercise and satisfy their curiosity; they need time and room to play. Ferrets, like cats, will use a litter box with little training, but it will be necessary to have boxes in several rooms, as they will not go far in seeking out a box.
Ferrets are also fine backyard companions and especially enjoy 'helping' you in the garden. However, they should not be allowed to wander; ferrets are fearless to the point of foolishness and will get into whatever holes they will find, including storm drains. Whenever they are outside they should be closely supervised, and preferably kept in a harness leash.
Since ferrets are social animals, many ferrets are also very playful and will be happy to play with humans. "Play" for a ferret can involve hide-and-seek games, or some form of predator/prey game in which either the human attempts to catch the ferret or the ferret attempts to bite the humans' fingers or toes. Like a playful kitten, ferrets usually will not actually "bite" their human companions but instead gently grab a toe or finger in their mouth and roll around with it. However, ferrets who have been abused or are in extreme pain will bite a human. Ferrets have extremely strong bites and can bite clear through human skin. Once properly socialized, however, domesticated ferrets will almost never bite humans.
Most kitten toys work well with ferrets. However toys made of rubber or foam should be avoided as ferrets can chew off and swallow small pieces leading to intestinal blockage.
When ferrets are especially excited, they will perform the weasel war dance, a frenzied series of sideways hops.
Ferrets with children
Small children should be supervised around ferrets. Children often get the impression that the ferret is simply a small stuffed animal and will "hug" it, either choking or squeezing the ferret. The animal often reacts by squirming, scratching, or, if truly desperate, even biting. While there is nothing wrong with children playing with ferrets, all activity should be supervised by an adult, as it should with any other animal.
In the UK, ferrets are sometimes used for hunting rabbits or rats. Ferrets used to hunt rats are called greyhound ferrets due to their smaller body size and speed in confined spaces. The owners of hunting ferrets generally train their charges to be very aggressive; therefore, a child that has previously had contact with a domestic ferret may be at risk when exposed to a ferret that has been raised in a non-domestic or irresponsible way, as with any animal.
Ferrets are extremely social animals, and love to play with other ferrets. Ferrets will often pile on top of one another while sleeping. It is advisable that when keeping ferrets as pets, the owner has at least two, preferably three ferrets at a time in order to keep them from loneliness. However, there is nothing wrong with owning one ferret, provided that he receives lots of play time and attention.
Other uses of ferrets
Ferrets have in more recent times been used to run wires and cables through large conduits. They have been employed in this way at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and by event organizers in London. TV and sound cables were run by ferrets for both the wedding of Charles, Prince of Wales and Lady Diana Spencer, and for the Millennium concert in Greenwich Park.
Ferrets are also extensively used in medical and biological research.
Ferrets as mascots
Recently, the Business Software Alliance has chosen to use a Ferret as their Mascot, who will be used in schools to teach children about the dangers of Software Piracy. 
Like many other carnivores, ferrets have anal sacs near their anus. Secretions from these are used in scent marking . It has been shown that ferrets can identify whether such a mark was left by a male or a female ferret, without recognising the individual.
Many domestic ferrets in the United States are known to suffer from several distinct health problems. Among the most common are cancers affecting the adrenal glands, pancreas, and lymphatic system.
Adrenal disease, a growth of the adrenal glands that can be either hyperplasia or cancer, is most often diagnosed by symptoms such as unusual hair loss, increased aggression and, in the case of females, an enlarged vulva. Even if the growth is benign it can still cause a hormone imbalance which can have devastating effects on the ferret's health. In males it can cause life-threatening prostate problems. Treatment options include surgery to excise the affected glands, steroids and/or hormone therapy. The cause of adrenal disease is unknown, but some speculate that the unnatural light cycles domestic ferrets are exposed to in the homes of their owners cause or contribute to the growth of such tumors. Others have suggested that the problem is hereditary, or even might be caused by early neutering.
Ferrets are also known to suffer from insulinoma, a cancer of the pancreas. The growth of cancerous nodules on the lobes of the pancreas sometimes, but not always, leads to an increase in the production of insulin, which regulates the rate at which the ferret's body metabolizes blood glucose. Too much insulin will cause blood sugar to drop, resulting in lethargy, seizures, and ultimately death. Symptoms of insulinoma include episodes of lethargy, drooling, pawing and/or foaming at the mouth, staring "blankly" into space and seizures. A ferret in such condition should be taken immediately to a veterinarian for treatment. If a vet is not available within a reasonable time, the ferret may be brought out of its stupor by the application of corn syrup or honey to its gums. This will cause a brief rise in blood glucose levels, after which it will be necessary to feed the ferret its normal food and transported to the vet for further treatment. It is not appropriate to give a ferret corn syrup or honey at any other time, even if it has never exhibited symptoms of insulinoma.
Treatment for insulinoma may include surgical excision of the cancerous lobes or treatment with steroids that suppress the production of insulin. Unfortunately, the growth of the tumors cannot be stopped and the ferret will eventually suffer a reoccurrence of symptoms.
Like adrenal cancer, the cause of insulinoma is unknown. It is speculated that the diets of domestic ferrets are too-far removed from the natural diets of their polecat ancestors and include too much sugar and/or too many simple carbohydrates.
Terminology and coloring
Male ferrets are called hobs; female ferrets are jills. A neutered female is a sprite, and a neutered male is a gib. Ferrets under one year old are known as kits. A group of ferrets is known as a "business".
Ferrets come in a variety of coat colors, the most common of which are as follows:
- black and white pattern
- black eyed white (onyx-eyed white)
- black sable
- black sable mitt
- champagne mitt
- chocolate mitt
- silver, light
- silver, heavy
- silver, medium
- silver mitt
- sable mitt
- siamese chocolate
White ferrets were favored in the Middle Ages, and ownership was restricted to those earning at least 40 shillings a year (a rather large sum then). Leonardo's painting "Lady with Ermine" is probably mislabled; the animal is probably a ferret, not a stoat, for which "ermine" is an alternative name (strictly applying only to the animal in its white winter coat). Similarly, the "Ermine portrait of Queen Elizabeth the First" shows her with her pet ferret, who has been decorated with painted-on heraldic ermine spots.
Ferrets with a white stripe on their face or a fully white head, primarily blazes, badgers, and pandas, almost certainly carry a congenital defect known as Waardenburg's Syndrome. This causes, among other things, a cranial deformation in the womb which broadens the skull, causing the white face markings, but also partial or total deafness. It is estimated as many as 3/4ths of ferrets with visible Waardenburg signs (pandas, blazes) are deaf. Beyond that, the cranial deformation also causes a higher instance of stillborn ferret kits, and occasionally cleft palates. Because of this, many breeders will not breed Waardenburg-patterned ferrets.
Ferrets as pests
Ferrets (and other mustelids such as the stoat) prey on the indigenous wildlife of New Zealand. When first introduced in 1879 to control rabbits, people were concerned that wild weasels would not go after their intended prey, but birds instead. This did in fact happen, as New Zealand bird species had evolved free from mammalian predators.
Ferret owners in New Zealand are quick to point out that unlike current pet ferrets, the ferrets used for release in New Zealand were fur farm ferret/polecat crosses, to better ensure their survival in the wild. Currently, pet cats cause more damage to bird populations than pet ferrets, which are neutered at an early age (6 to 8 weeks) and are kept indoors.
None the less, many areas around the world have banned pet ferrets due to the difficulties of New Zealand.
It is illegal to keep ferrets as pets in Queensland or the Northern Territory; in Victoria and the ACT a license is required.
Since 2002 it has been illegal to sell, distribute and breed ferrets in New Zealand.
California and Hawaii have laws that restrict the ownership of ferrets. Ferrets are also restricted by individual cities, such as New York City. Opponents of anti-ferret laws claim that these laws stem from ignorance and the mistaken idea that ferrets are wild animals. They argue that the bans make about as much sense as banning poodles because wolves are wild animals. Ferrets are also illegal in Washington, DC; Dallas, Fort Worth, Beaumont, Texas, Bloomington, Minnesota and Burnsville, Minnesota and Tulsa, Oklahoma. A permit to own a ferret is needed in New Jersey, Rhode Island, Illinois.
Last updated: 10-18-2005 13:16:38
Last updated: 10-29-2005 02:13:46