Named after the Latin word for thief, furonem, Ferrets are among the most popular of household pets today. Like cats, they can be both curious and friendly, and with some effort can be trained. They’re very social animals and prefer to be in groups.
Often, humans are a part of that social group. Ferrets have been domesticated pets for possibly as long as 2,500 years. They were a favorite among royalty in the late Middle Ages.
As members of the large weasel family, they are cousins to 65 different species, including badgers, otters, ermine and mink, and – of course – weasels. They’re sleek, with short fur and come in a variety of brown colors with black highlights. There’s even an albino form, with all white fur and pink eyes. Males are typically around 18 inches and 2.5 lbs, females slightly smaller.
The Latin name is appropriate since ferrets will often take toys, food or other small objects and hide them. No one has a definitive answer on why, but like squirrels and others it probably derives from the need to hoard food. That behavior helps them feed through lean times, especially winter.
Often mistakenly believed to have an unpleasant odor, they do give off a natural musky scent from glands. Those glands are often removed by commercial ferret vendors, but the odor is just as often a buildup of smells from improper care. Many pet stores and some ferret owners will simply put a few ferrets in a cage with food and water – sometimes with a litter box – and then forget about it for days.
But ferrets, unlike cats, require a little more care than that to keep the odors down and keep the ferret in optimal health. They’re prone to a number of diseases if they don’t get the proper diet.
That diet should consist of high protein and high fat foods, such as fresh chicken or commercial ferret food with around 38% meat-based protein and 15% fat. For the first few years after ferrets became popular household pets, owners would feed them wet or dry cat food. But that diet is best for cats, not ferrets. If fresh meat, which is the ferrets natural diet, isn’t an option then a carefully balanced commercial ferret pet food is preferable.
Ferrets are, like dogs, intelligent animals and can be trained to perform a number of amusing, and sometimes useful, tasks. Ferrets were used in the preparation of recent Royal ceremonies to string cable through conduits. That task is a natural for these slender hunters who for centuries have been used to hunt rabbits down holes.
Possibly descendant from (and often hybrid bred with) polecats, they can be unintentionally fierce. They sleep for 18 hours a day, but when awake are very active and love to play-bite. They’ve often been observed to engage in something owners have dubbed a ‘war dance’. The ferrets stand up on their hind legs, and jerk their heads and move sideways.
Fun, loyal, cute and smart. Now that’s the kind of pet everyone should have.