Posted: May 23, 2008, 7 p.m. EDT
Ferret Nutrition Question #3
JF: I believe the general behavior and appearance of the ferret are good indicators of the diet’s value.
KJ: No. 1, is the ferret eating the food eagerly? Look for a change in stool. Looser stool over a several-day period may indicate that the ferret is not doing well on that particular diet. Any change in activity level or coat condition also would be a sign the diet may not be suited for this particular ferret.
KS: The best visual signs that a ferret is doing well on its diet are the quality of the ferret’s coat and skin, maintenance of appropriate weight and activity level, and good stool quality. On a good diet that supplies adequate fat, essential fatty acids, protein, and vitamins and minerals, the ferret’s fur should be shiny and healthy-looking. If a deficient diet is provided, the coat will be dull, rough or brittle and the skin will become dry and flaky. A well-formulated diet also will help maintain a healthy weight, without promoting weight gain or causing unusual weight loss. Along with weight changes, a poor diet can decrease activity level, especially when the diet is too low in energy and protein. Frequently in these cases, there is also a decrease in stool quality (loose and/or voluminous) caused from poor digestibility, increased consumption (to compensate for poor nutrient content) or excessive carbohydrate intake. If the food is not agreeing with the animal you might notice that the ferret has stopped eating the food or see symptoms such as regurgitation, sudden weight loss, loose droppings, diarrhea, general weakness or poor coat and skin condition. The important thing to determine in this situation is if these signs are directly related to the diet, such as a transient gastrointestinal upset, or if there is a more severe underlying health issue that requires veterinary treatment.
LG: As with all animals, the telltale signs of health and vitality are healthy coat and teeth, high energy, good spirits and lack of disease – an overall picture of wellness. Absence of these signs indicates possible illness or chronic disease. Unfortunately, an improper and damaging diet often becomes apparent after the problem(s) has reached a dangerous point. Ferrets can experience years of apparent health, but chronic degenerative diseases can be incubating within. The best way to avoid this is to become acquainted with the ferret’s natural diet and feed accordingly.
MM: Generally speaking a ferret will have a very good activity level and it will tend to be calm or well behaved in social situations. If their nutrition is balanced, the ferret acts more balanced. That doesn’t mean they’re not hyperactive, playful or energetic; it means they’re more well behaved. [If you] feed them a bunch of junk food, you get junky behavior. Of course, a good diet also will produce a good, thick coat, a lot of hair with no bare spots, a good sheen to it and a nice hair follicle, so it’s not looking like it’s falling apart at the ends or wearing out too fast. Generally speaking, they should be curious about their environment. A lot of times, erratic behavior, irritability and mood swings in a ferret will be due to a nutritional issue. Improper stools, if they’re unusually different. Another thing you would be looking for is the overall coat and appearance — if the coat isn’t well taken care of, if it’s not well groomed, if you’re losing hair. Ferrets do lose hair at different times of the year but, generally speaking, if they’re on a good food they don’t lose the extremes that you see in some places. So, the outward signs are a little tough on ferrets; ferrets are good at masking their sickness until it’s pretty late. I would always be looking at the eye quality, the eye contact, the playfulness and “has anything been different?” Is your ferret acting differently than it acted a short period ago? That’s always a real good indication, any time there’s a difference in behavior. Generally, differences in behavior change in a couple of weeks. So, if you’ve a nutritional problem that has developed with your ferret, generally that takes two, maybe three weeks to set in.
PR: With a ferret, you want to make sure they grow and develop as they should. Their coat should be very soft and shiny and supple. I think if you have a very dry, rough coat they’re lacking in some essential ingredients or nutrients. Ferrets change coats basically twice a year, in the spring and in the fall. Make sure their new coats are coming in. Nutrients are extremely important during [the transition] time. [Watch] the quality of their hair, their coat, shiny eyes, vivaciousness, energy — all these things go back to nutrients. With proper nutrients [their teeth] will grow properly. Some diets tend to cause a little bit of tartar buildup, but if you watch your animal on a regular basis -- and there’s oral health care products out there for ferrets and other small pets — you should be in fine shape. [Signs of an inappropriate diet include] a dull, matted coat with hair that feels like straw, and maybe a little lethargy. If [the diet’s] not balanced right they may be eating a ton of food just to get the proper energy from it or a proper balance. They should only eat about 2 1/2 ounces a day. As a breeder of ferrets, we know how important nutrition plays a role in not only gestation and lactation, but their overall growth and well-being. Overall, ferrets are strict carnivores and people must realize that it goes back to meat; it really goes back to meat. I’ve had ferrets as pets personally for many years, and the meat-based diets are the only way to go. They cost a little bit more, but you’re taking care of an animal as your companion pet, it’s part of your family and it’s well worth the investment.
SW: Generally a ferret will let you know when a diet is not going well. Frequent vomiting and/or loose stool is a good indication of a "diet gone wrong." A ferret’s coat is another good indication of a diet’s effectiveness. A soft, silky coat is a good indicator of a properly balanced diet. A dry, brittle coat and/or dry, flaky skin usually show a diet to be lacking an essential nutrient.
TW: It’s not just muscle mass as it is muscle tone. You can see the difference, you can feel the difference, and it goes back to meat protein. When you don’t have the right balance of animal protein and amino acids to energy and all the other vitamins, that’s when you’ll see and can really feel the difference. We can almost always tell just by feel and look which ones are on a high meat-protein diet. So it’s just that plain.
AP: You would look at stool first, then coat, muscle mass, overall look and happiness. When your ferret’s got a lot of energy, it’s eating good food. [With stool] you’re looking for form; you want to make sure it’s not too bird-seedy. Diarrhea, of course, is not a good sign. A ferret needs lots of water, so when a ferret has diarrhea and it gets dehydrated, that’s a bad thing. Stools need to look normal, and normal has some form to it. It needs to be brown and not green; green is a problem. [The coat should be shiny and soft.] I cannot stress this enough. You can tell [it’s the right diet] with the muscle mass; you can pick them up and you can feel their muscles. Not only are they getting the protein they need, but they’re happy and they feel good, so they’re going to be getting more exercise and building up that muscle.
GS: As an indicator of good health, ferret owners should always monitor for changes in weight and body condition. Providing adequate amounts of food to maintain good body condition also prevents thinness or obesity.
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Meet The Panelists
Each ferret-food manufacturer representative is identified by his or her initials.
JF: Jack Fallenstein, owner of Triple F Farms Inc.
KJ: Ken Johnson, national accounts manager at D & D Commodities Ltd.
KS: Kathy Schneider, technical services manager for Central Avian & Small Animal, a division of Kaytee Products Inc.
LG: Lucas Gillis, supervisor, office manager at Wysong Corp.
MM: Michael Massey, president of Pretty Bird International Inc.
PR: Peter Reid, president of Marshall Pet Products Inc.
SW: Stefan Wawrzynski, operations director for Brisky Pet Products
TW: Tom Willard, Ph.D., president of Totally Ferret/Performance Foods Inc.
AP: April Pietroiacovo, ferret specialist at Totally Ferret
GS: Gail Shepherd, senior marketing manager at ZuPreem, a division of Premium Nutritional Products Inc.