Posted: August 3, 2009, 6:45 p.m. EDT
© Isabelle Francais/I-5 Publishing
People believe many misconceptions about ferrets, mainly because ferrets aren't well-known like dogs and cats.
People familiar with ferrets know at least some of the wild misconceptions about ferrets. And many ferret enthusiasts are weary of the constant battle they fight to dispel such misconceptions. The best weapons in this fight? Remaining calm and focusing on educating others about ferrets. Also, keeping an open mind. Some stereotypes don’t just come out of thin air, but originate from a grain of truth.
What are these misconceptions? Let’s explore 10 common ones.
People commonly think ferrets are rodents that are very closely related to rats. "I get a lot of calls where people have come into contact with wild weasels here. People don't know the difference,” said Robin Jones, a ferret owner and rescuer. "And many people just flat don't know what ferrets are period. I get asked, ‘What kind of animal is that?’”
People mistake ferrets for many things, such as large rats, weasels and, my personal favorite, baby wolverines. Ferret people are mischievous and often fight the urge to joke around and make up their own ridiculous names. I’ve had a giggle or two referring to them as very rare Polish cats while trying to break the ice with people who ask what the long, furry thing in my arms is. The joke being that ferrets are likely a descendant of the European polecat.
Ferrets can be wild animals, but not wild in the sense that they are untamed and undomesticated. They are wild in the good sense of the word, meaning they are outrageously fun, active, acrobatic, little balls of chaos. They are no doubt God’s little clowns.
The domestic ferret, Mustela furo, is and never was found in the wild. Domestic ferrets cannot survive outdoors for very long, because they lack the instincts and skills to do so. In addition, they can succumb to extreme cold, while higher temperatures (above 85 degrees Fahrenheit) can be deadly to them.
Ferrets are not nocturnal, they are crepuscular (most active during dawn and dusk), but they do sleep a lot. Domestic ferrets have been bred over the centuries to be good companion animals for people and are right at home fitting into our daily lives.
As often is the case, some people fear the unknown, which can lead to jumping to some pretty outrageous conclusions. I have come across people who assume ferrets carry all sorts of disease. However, this simply is not true.
Phyllis Spy, president of Massachusetts Ferret Friends, a ferret club and rescue, reports that there is a widespread belief that ferrets are carriers of rabies. The fact is that ferrets are unlikely to become infected and are very poor carriers of the disease. Rabies is only transferred through saliva from a bite that punctures the skin. Ferrets usually die from the disease before it can shed in their saliva. You’ll be happy to know that there has never been a recorded incident of a person contracting rabies from a ferret.
Unfortunately, the belief that a ferret can eat pretty much anything or live on rabbit or dog food can prove to be extremely harmful to ferrets. Donna Spirito, a ferret shelter operator and co-founder of The Educated Ferret Association in Massachusetts, said that people often tell her that they feed their ferrets fruits, vegetables, chocolate, candy, soda, raisins and more. "[People think] it is OK to give it to them, because they like it,” Spirito said.
Every single item on that list is unhealthy for a ferret and some of them can be fatal. Ferrets are obligate carnivores. This means their gastrointestinal system is specialized for digesting meat and is unable to digest vegetable protein. Death due to an intestinal blockage from fruit or veggie consumption is excruciatingly long and painful. In fact, a ferret can become extremely unhealthy and be at risk of dying just from not eating kibble that is high enough in protein. Ferret food should be at least 36 percent animal protein; however, a higher percentage is better.
This could not be further from the truth. "[Ferrets] need time out of the cage to play,” said Jon Spelbring of Illinois. "Many of the people I’ve talked to assume that ferrets, like hamsters or rats, should stay in their cages most of the time. Many people, even some ferret owners, don’t realize how smart and inquisitive they are. With that intelligence comes a need for stimulation — play.”
Just like any other living being, ferrets enjoy the outdoors. But be aware, you cannot turn them loose outside and expect them to come back. Before taking your ferret outdoors, make sure its shots are up to date and that it is well protected from outside pests.
What shots, you ask? You were told that your baby ferret had already been given shots and that it would rarely need veterinary care? Kiss those myths goodbye. Ferrets need regularly scheduled rabies and distemper shots, as well as checkups from a veterinarian. In addition, ferrets also need to be protected from fleas, ticks, heartworm and other parasites, just like a dog or cat.
Many people believe that ferrets will use a litter box just like a cat. That is only partially true. Yes, ferrets do use litter boxes. Some ferrets are good at it too. But some ferrets miss the box quite a bit. That is just a reality of owning a ferret.
Another reality is that ferrets potty frequently, sometimes every two hours. Possibly that is one of the reasons some people believe they are dirty. "Ferrets are very clean creatures,” said Anne Kaelber of Arizona. "They don't like to poop in messy spots, so they continually find clean spots to go in. The cleaner the spot they like is, the less likely they are to find a new spot!”
Possibly the most annoying myth to ferret lovers is that ferrets stink. Alexandra Busch of Kentucky thinks it is the most misunderstood thing about ferrets. ”People seem to think that it's like having an animal that's been sprayed by a skunk running around your home,” she said.
Ferrets do have a unique odor that is unlike any other pet. Because it is alien to most people, it can be interpreted as being a bad smell. But they might think the same about a dog if they had never been around one before.
Ferret odor is very easy to control by frequently changing their bedding, feeding them a high-quality diet, cleaning their ears and bathing them every few months.
This is one of the most common and negative myths surrounding ferrets, but this stereotype does have a tiny grain of truth.
Ferrets use their mouths as much as a human baby. Because of their high intelligence and curiosity, ferrets seek out information in any way they can by using every sense and physical tool available. This is how they explore their environment, stimulate their brain and gather knowledge. The belief that ferrets are vicious biters probably emanates from this behavior, coupled with the perception that their teeth are large in proportion to the size of their heads. Their teeth are actually smaller than a kitten’s, and their actual bite strength is not anything unusual.
Fear can lead people to leap from one assumption to another. The strangest of all rumors about ferrets is the notion that they eat babies. In fact, ferrets are far less likely to bite than a dog, cat, rabbit or even a person. Dogs are five times more likely to bite, and their bite is far more damaging. The press loves to sensationalize those rare instances when ferrets bit children. No baby should be left unattended with any type of pet, doing so poses great danger to both the baby and the pet.
So, ferret enthusiasts, if you hear people spouting a barrage of offensive or silly "facts” about ferrets, keep calm and work to peel away the myths, rumors and misunderstandings. Afterward, everyone will see our old friend, the ferret. And ferrets are by far more exciting and marvelous than any animal people might forge from misconceptions.