Domestic Ferret

STATUSLeast Concern

COMMON NAME (SCIENTIFIC NAME)Mustela putorius furo

DIETFood for domestic ferrets should contain taurine and be composed of at least 20% fat and 34% animal protein

RANGENo progress has been made in determining the center of the domestication of ferrets

HABITATForested and semi-forested areas near water sources

Domestic Ferret

Domestic ferrets have a long and slender body and reach their adult size at about one year old. Females are typically 33 to 35.5 cm long and males are 38 to 40.6 cm long. (Ferrets measure from 14 to 18 inches and weigh between 2 and 4 pounds.)  Average tail length is 7.6 to 10 cm. Domestic ferrets have large canine teeth and 34 teeth total. Each paw has a set of five, non-retractable claws.  They have lithe, flexible bodies, and their fur grows vertically from its body.

They have a long tail and because they are a mustelid and are related to the skunk and badger, they have musk glands that produce very strong scents.

Domestic ferrets have been bred for a large variety of fur colors and patterns. The seven common fur colors are called: sable, silver, black sable, albino, dark-eyed white, cinnamon, and chocolate. The most common of these colors is sable. Examples of pattern types are: Siamese or pointed patterned, panda, Shetlands, badgers, and blazes.

Aside from selection towards particular fur colors, domestic ferrets closely resemble their wild ancestors, European polecats (Mustela putorius).

(Schilling 2000)

Habitat/Range: Currently almost no progress has been made in determining the center of the domestication of ferrets. It is thought that ferrets may have been domesticated from native European polecats (Mustela putorius). There is evidence of domestic ferrets in Europe over 2500 years ago. Currently domestic ferrets are found around the world in homes as pets. In Europe, people sometimes use ferrets for hunting, which is known as ferreting. (Davidson 1999, Schilling 2000)

The native habitat of domestic ferrets were forested and semi-forested habitats near water sources. Domestic ferrets are kept as pets or as working animals in human habitations.

Diet in Wild: Small mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians in the wild.

Diet in Zoo:  Domestic ferrets are natural carnivores, and require a meat-like diet. Food for domestic ferrets should contain taurine and be composed of at least 20% fat and 34% animal protein. Most domestic ferrets are fed manufactured ferret, cat, or dog food. They can also be fed raw meat, but that alone is not sufficient. If they were in the wild, they would get nutrients from eating all parts of an animal, such as the liver, heart, and other organs.  Our ferrets are fed cat food.

Predators:  Domestic ferrets don’t have any natural predators since they are domesticated. Predators such as hawks, owls, or larger carnivorous mammals would hunt them given the opportunity. Domestic ferrets on the other hand can be predators to certain animals. They have been known to kill pet birds. Domestic ferrets will also hunt rabbits and other small game when their owners use them for ferreting.

Life Cycle/ Social Structure:  Male domestic ferrets go into rut between December and July. Females go into heat between March and August. Males are ready to breed when they develop a discolored, yellowish undercoat. An increase in the oil production of the skin glands is what causes the discolored undercoat.

Healthy domestic ferrets can have up to three successful litters per year, and up to 15 kits. Gestation length is about 42 days. Young domestic ferrets are altricial at birth, and need about 8 weeks of parental care. Kits are born deaf and have their eyes closed. Newborns typically weigh about 6 to 12 grams. Baby incisors appear about 10 days after birth. The kits eyes and ears open when they are 5 weeks old. Weaning of the kits is done while they are 3-6 weeks old. At 8 weeks, kits have 4 permanent canine teeth and are capable of eating hard food. This is often the time that breeders let the kits go to new owners. Female kits will then reach sexual maturity at 6 months old. (Kaytee 2001, Schilling 2000)

Ferrets have a keen sense of smell and hearing.  Their lithe, flexible and slender bodies allow them to chase mice and rats in burrows.  They also make shrill screams when fighting.  They are curious and playful.

A healthy domestic ferret will often sleep 18-20 hours per day. Domestic ferrets are naturally crepuscular, having activity periods during dawn and dusk. They will often change this activity period depending on when their owner is around to give them attention. Domestic ferrets are playful and fastidious. They will often interact with other pet ferrets, cats, and dogs in a friendly manner. Domestic ferrets will seek attention. They are naturally inquisitive and will tunnel into or under anything. They can be taught tricks and will respond to discipline. Domestic ferrets have an instinct to habitually urinate and defecate in the same places, and therefore can be trained to use a litter box.

Domestic ferrets use a variety of body language. Some of these behaviors are dancing, wrestling, and stalking. They will ‘dance’ when they are happy and excited, hopping in every direction. Wrestling is a behavior that includes two or more ferrets. They will roll around with each other, biting and kicking, usually in a playful manner. Stalking is sneaking up on a toy or other animal in a low crouched position. (MNAALAS date unknown, Schilling 2000)

Domestic ferrets have many forms of verbal communication. They will ‘dock’ or ‘cluck’ as sounds of giddiness or excitement. They will ‘screech’ as a sign of terror, pain, or anger. They will ‘bark’ if they are very excited. Finally, a domestic ferret will ‘hiss’ if it is annoyed or very angry at another ferret or animal. (Schilling 2000)

Common Diseases/Medical Issues:  Some of these diseases and disorders include: canine distemper, feline distemper, rabies, parasites, bone marrow suppression, adrenal gland disease, diarrhea, colds, flus, ringworm, heat stroke, urinary stones, and cardiomyopathy. (Kaytee 2001, MNAALAS date unknown, Schilling 2001)

Life Span: Being a domesticated species, these animals would not survive long in the wild at all. They can, however, survive 6 to 10 years in captivity.

 Interesting Facts:

  • Vision is secondary to smell and hearing
  • Domesticated from the Wild European Polecat
  • Male ferrets are called hobs
  • There is also records of ferrets being used to control rodent populations on ships during the American revolutionary war. (Schilling 2000)
  • Useful in controlling mice and rats on farms
  • Ferrets can contract both feline and canine distemper

Conservation Message: The black-footed ferret was thought to be extinct in the 1970s until a last population was discovered in Meeteetse, Wyoming in 1981. Under initial protection measures, this population increased in numbers but then became infected by canine distemper and plague, which threatened to completely wipe out the species.  In 1986, the original 18 black-footed ferrets were brought into AZA-accredited zoos and the Black-Footed Ferret Species Survival Plan ®  (SSP) Program carefully managed their reproduction.  Since then, the Black-Footed Ferret SSP, along with other AZA conservation partners including the US Fish and Wildlife Service has reintroduced over 700 ferrets into Arizona, Montana, South Dakota, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and Mexico with the hopes of reintroducing a total of more than 1500!

The number of black-footed ferrets plummeted in the first half of the 20th century, primarily as a result of habitat loss. Prairies have been modified for intensive agriculture and there is now less than two percent of the original ferret habitat left. The ferret’s main prey, prairie dogs, were systematically poisoned in vast tracts of their habitat by a government eradication programme in the mid 1900s. Prairie dog burrows were thought to damage cropland and ferret numbers fell in direct proportion with the dramatic decline of their prey. The final threat to black-footed ferret numbers, and perhaps the most pertinent today, is disease, particularly canine distemper and plague. Plague, introduced to North America, causes even greater devastation in populations of prairie dogs and ferrets than it caused in human populations of Europe and Asia.

What You Can Do:

Do research before deciding what pet is best for you. Ferrets are incredibly inquisitive animals and can be difficult pets to own. They have a distinct odor and require lots of activity and supervision. A ferret can easily chew through electrical wires or anything else with in reach. If you decide you want a pet ferret, do your research and make sure you are aware of the amount of time and money it requires to have such a pet.