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Find information on animal health topics, written for the veterinary professional.

Providing a Home for a Ferret

By James K. Morrisey, DVM, DABVP (Avian), Companion Exotic Animal Medicine Service, Department of Clinical Sciences, College of Veterinary Medicine, Cornell University

Ferrets do not require much space, making them suitable for apartments and other small living spaces. However, appropriate housing must be provided for times when ferrets are alone or unsupervised. Ferrets also require a high-quality diet, good hygiene, and appropriate levels of exercise and attention in order to remain healthy.

Housing

A wire cage at least 3 feet by 3 feet deep by 2 feet high is sufficient to supply a ferret with room for roaming while confined. Check the cage for sharp, jagged, or rough wire, and any openings large enough for the ferret to escape. Pad the bottom of the cage or buy one that has a solid bottom. Bare wire may harm the pads on a ferret’s paws.

Most ferrets prefer to sleep in a relatively small, confined space. Ferrets often enjoy hammocks or fabric huts as sleeping quarters. For bedding, a clean towel or small blanket works well, but if fabric is used, check that it will not unravel and that the ferret does not eat it. Do not use newspaper or wood chips. These items can harbor bacteria or create dust that may irritate the respiratory tract. Cedar releases oil that may be toxic to ferrets.

The cage should contain feeding and watering areas. Ferrets often tip over water and food bowls, so use sturdy containers. Water bottles may be attached to the side of the cage as can several styles of food bowls.

Ferrets can be trained to use a litter box. They prefer to urinate and defecate in the same spot, away from sleeping and eating areas. Also, ferrets will drag the hindquarters across the floor after urinating or defecating to “wipe.” This is not a sign of illness, but normal ferret behavior.

A cat litter box cut down to size and cat litter may be used. However, avoid using the clumping types of cat litter as these may cause respiratory problems in ferrets. Place the litter box in the cage, but do not place it too close to the ferret’s sleeping or eating areas or it will not be used.

Place the cage away from drafts and dampness, and do not place it directly in front of windows. Ferrets are sensitive to heat and humidity because they do not have sweat glands. A temperature range of 65 to 75°F (18 to 23°C) is usually comfortable. Although they handle cold better than heat, food consumption may double when exposed to low temperatures.

Diet

Food and fresh water should be available at all times. Ferrets easily overheat and become dehydrated. They also have a high metabolism and short digestive tract, which require them to eat frequently.

Ferrets require high levels of fat and protein in the diet and should be fed commercial ferret food or high quality cat or kitten food. Because it is a carnivore, a ferret’s diet should be meat-based. A diet high in plant proteins and ash (found in low quality foods) can cause bladder stones. Check the ingredients label before purchasing commercial food.

A diet of dry food (that is, kibble) is recommended. Prolonged feeding of soft, wet food leads to disease of the gums and teeth. Do not feed milk or other dairy products or foods rich in carbohydrates. All of these items are difficult for ferrets to digest. In addition, sugary foods may increase the risk of disease. Do not feed ferrets honey, raisins, fruit, or snacks containing sugar.

Keep treats to a minimum, no more than 5% of a ferret’s daily caloric intake. Too many treats may lead to malnutrition. Good choices include meat, eggs, and freeze-dried muscle or organ meat, sold as cat or dog treats.

Ferrets do not react well to frequent diet changes. If changes must be made, introduce them gradually to avoid stressing the animal. For example, mix a new food in with the usual food for several days, slowly increasing the amount of the new food given. Vitamins and vitamin supplements are not necessary, except under special conditions or for older ferrets. Your veterinarian can advise you if these are needed.

Exercise

Ferrets are energetic, social animals that require a great deal of play and interaction. At a minimum, ferrets need 2 to 4 hours every day outside their cage to remain healthy. Leave the door of the cage open so that the ferret has access to food, water, and the litter box. Exercise also ensures your ferret will not mind being caged when necessary.

Temperament

Ferrets are often likened to kittens. They are playful, curious, highly active, and sociable, even as adults. They are quick learners and can be trained to do “tricks.” They also are fearless and have short attention spans. Ferrets do not have a strong sense of territory or a homing instinct and will wander off if left outdoors. A young ferret may be frightened by sudden movement or a loud noise. It will hunch its back, puff out its fur, and screech. Older ferrets will only display this behavior if truly under attack by another animal. Talk quietly to the animal, but do not attempt to pick it up unless necessary for its safety. It will eventually calm down.

When first let out of a cage, ferrets may run, jump, twist in the air, and violently collide with household objects. This is normal, healthy ferret behavior, and may be a sign of high spirits or simply good health.

Ferrets will sleep up to 18 hours a day. Young ferrets sleep especially deeply and may be difficult to wake, even when pinched or thumped on the chest. Many new owners worry the animal is dead or in a coma. A ferret that has a moist pink mouth, feels warm, and is breathing slowly but regularly is sleeping soundly. It is also normal for ferrets to shake and shiver when they wake up, and this should not be cause for alarm.

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