So You Have a Ferret!
Congratulations! You have chosen to share your home and heart with a little animal who will bring you joy, love, and laughter all of the days of his life. Your ferret lives to frolic, bounce, dance, play and steal and stash anything he can get his thieving little paws on!
He also needs daily care and a lifetime commitment from his owner to keep him safe, healthy and happy. Like dogs and cats, ferrets require regular grooming and a diet that meets their unique nutritional needs. They need regular vet checkups and annual vaccinations. And a vigilant owner must always be on the lookout for hazards to their ferret’s safety as well as warning signs that the ferret may be ill or developing some common ferret diseases.
Ferrets need their ears cleaned, nails clipped, and teeth brushed on a biweekly basis. They need to live in a safe and secure cage with enough room to separate their litter box, food dishes and a comfortable hammock or blanket for sleeping. They need to be kept away from the things they love to get into, such as drains and pipes, insulation, rubber or spongy toys, cupboards that may contain dangerous chemicals and chairs and sofas that they can crawl into and get trapped or crushed in.
Ferrets require a committed level of care and vigilance, and it is our hope that this brochure will provide you with some help to make your home a safe and happy place for your ferret.
Daily Care and Needs
Your ferret has basic needs like all pets – fresh water daily, plenty of food, a comfortable place to snooze away the majority of its day and the affection of its humans.
The best diet for a ferret is one that is designed specifically for a ferret’s unique dietary needs. Ferrets need a very high percentage of protein. Ferrets lack the digestive capability to process vegetable proteins, and most cat foods contain a significant amount of plant fibers, corn or grains.
NEFFER uses and recommends Totally Ferret food, available in many pet stores as well as on the Internet.
A ferret’s daily diet should consist of its regular food. Although ferrets love treats and have a notorious sweet tooth, treats should be kept to a minimum and sugar should be excluded from a ferret’s diet.
Ferrets spend up to 18 hours a day in either deep sleep or nap mode. They need a sturdy, safe wire cage for their home, with ramps to reach higher levels. Hammocks are a classic ferret favorite, and they love to pig-pile on top of each other in a soft, cozy hanging bed. A cage setup should not allow a long drop between levels or between the hammock and the cage bottom. Ferrets do not land on their feet like cats, and even a small drop can injure them if they land on their side or back.
Ferret bedding can be old sheets and blankets, sweatshirts, denim, or other soft but sturdy material. Avoid fabrics like terry cloth with loops that ferret nails could get caught in, or material that will disintegrate quickly and may be chewed and swallowed. Some ferrets are “fabric-eaters” and will happily gnaw at their bedding. Swallowing fabric can cause a life-threatening intestinal blockage. Sawdust and cedar chips are not safe in a ferret cage – ferrets have delicate respiratory systems, and the heavy oils and dust found in sawdust and cedar irritates their nose, throat, and lungs and can cause respiratory distress.
Ferrets also need time out of their cage to play, exercise and interact with their humans. At least two to four hours a day is necessary to allow your ferret some time to explore his environment and play with you!
Ferrets love to play with anything they can find – but not all household objects are safe. Even some toys sold as ferret toys are not really safe. Ferrets should not be allowed to play with anything soft, rubbery, or foamy that they could chew and swallow. Ferrets should be kept away from electrical outlets and cords, as they are often tempted to chew them. “Ferret-proofing” is the fine art of making a home safe for a ferret.
A ferret’s litter box needs regular changing. Cat litters that clump or are dusty should not be used – a swallowed piece of clumping litter may cause a blockage, and dusty litter will cause respiratory problems (some ferrets are litter snorkelers). A litter box should be cut down on one side to allow the ferret easy access, and have a high back to prevent spills over the side. Litter boxes can be lined with non-clumping litter, litter made from recycled newspaper, or simply lined with newspaper for easy cleaning.
Ferrets have opaque or sometimes transparent claws that grow very rapidly and need to be trimmed on a biweekly basis.
Before you start to clip, look closely at your ferret’s nails. You will see a thin red line that tapers and stops before the end of the actual nail. The red line is the quick of the nail, and if you cut into that part, it will hurt the ferret and make it bleed. You should cut the nail within a millimeter or so of the quick, leaving some nail before it.
Ferrets can be distracted with some cat or kitten laxative (we recommend Petromalt, but any malt-flavored cat laxative will do). Place the tube between your knees, hold the ferret on your lap, and let it lick the laxative while you pick up its feet one at a time and carefully clip its nails. A regular human nail-trimmer will do the job quite nicely. If he gets squirmy because he’s finished his treat, give the tube another squeeze so you can finish his nails!
Ears can be stinky and are often the cause if a ferret seems to have a disagreeable odor. Changing and washing their bedding cuts down on odor problems, as does ear cleaning.
You don’t need a bottle of pricey ear-cleaning solution. On a biweekly basis, mix a solution of equal parts warm water and hydrogen peroxide, wet a Q-tip, and gently swab just into the very front part of the ferret’s ear first with the wet end, then with the dry tip. You will probably have to scruff the ferret (hold him by the loose skin on the back of his neck) to accomplish ear cleaning.
Ear cleaning is a delicate process, and if you have a smaller ferret, ear cleaning can be a challenge. NEFFER, Inc. offers free demonstrations and assistance with learning to clean ears, clip nails, and brush teeth.
A small finger toothbrush, available at most discount stores, works best for ferret tooth brushing. The longer-handled brushes sold for cats will not work as well. A pea-sized amount of cat toothpaste (do not use human toothpaste) rubbed onto the bristles should be brushed gently along the ferret’s teeth, especially the back molars that are used to grind food and start to build up tartar as a ferret age.
If your ferret violently objects to the toothbrush, spend some time just running your finger gently along his teeth, getting him used to the feel of something in his mouth. Most ferrets don’t object to the taste of cat toothpaste, but some really hate it. You may have to scruff to get a thorough tooth-brushing session completed!
One of the biggest threats to your ferret’s health is intestinal blockages. Ferrets are especially prone to hairball troubles, and a hairball is a potentially life-threatening problem for a ferret. Hair that is licked and swallowed, especially during shed season, can build up until it forms a solid blockage in the ferret’s intestines, resulting in costly surgery for you and a lot of unnecessary pain and suffering for the ferret.
A small dose of cat laxative such as Petromalt once weekly as a rule and more often (even daily) during heavy shed times will keep the swallowed hair sliding through the digestive system and will prevent the danger of a hairball blockage.
Ferret Illness and Disease
Ferrets are susceptible to human illnesses such as colds and flu, as well as other animal diseases. Canine distemper is fatal to ferrets, and they must be vaccinated against it, particularly if they live in a home with dogs who play and interact with other outside dogs. Some ferrets have life-threatening allergic reactions to their vaccines, and cannot have them. Talk to your vet about the possibility of vaccine reactions, wait at the vet’s office for at least 30 minutes after vaccinations, and watch your ferret carefully for the 24 hours following the vaccination. Any signs of distress such as vomiting, diarrhea, wheezing, or extreme lethargy should earn him a quick trip back to the vet. Rabies and distemper vaccines should be given separately, never together.
Ferrets are prone to a variety of cancers and diseases as they approach middle age, and unfortunately, some illnesses develop even earlier.
Ferrets are especially prone to adrenal disease, a disease that attacks the tiny adrenaline-producing glands that nestle on top of the kidneys in all animals, even humans. a variety of symptoms can signal the onset of adrenal disease, but the most common is a loss of hair along the tail, hind end, lower back, naked heels and knuckles, increased or even manic energy, or a swollen or “popped” vulva in spayed female ferrets. Adrenal disease can be halted, and in 90% of cases cured, with the removal of the affected gland.
Insulinoma, cancerous tumors that develop on the ferret’s pancreas, wreak havoc with insulin production and cause the ferret’s blood sugar levels to rise and fall unchecked, putting him at risk for seizures and collapse. Unchecked and untreated, insulinoma can result in a very painful death.
Some of the insulinoma warning signs are a vacant stare that goes on for prolonged periods of time as if the ferret is dazed or confused (sometimes accompanied by swaying or hind-end weakness), and lethargy. Symptoms that precede seizures and signal more advanced insulinoma are salivating, pawing at the mouth, vomiting or diarrhea, and smaller twitching seizures that build into larger seizures.
A ferret experiencing a seizure can have honey or Karo syrup rubbed on his gums to bring him out of the seizure, then he should be kept warm and brought immediately to the vet.
One of the more deadly cancers, lymphoma spreads rapidly, and the ferret’s body may already contain large tumors before his owner notices that anything is wrong. Juvenile lymphoma strikes ferrets as young as one year, while adult lymphoma is seen in older ferrets.
Lymphoma symptoms can vary depending on the location of the growing tumors. Sometimes lymphoma symptoms mimic insulinoma symptoms, particularly if a tumor is pressing on the pancreas. Lethargy, significant weight loss, loss of appetite, any unusual lumps, and sometimes ongoing vomiting and diarrhea, are symptoms that can signal lymphoma.
Any change in a ferret’s appetite, physical condition, or personality should signal a trip to the vet to determine what is wrong with your fuzzy friend!
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