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20 Fascinating Facts About Ferrets

Pet ferrets still have secrets after a couple of thousand years of domestication.

Sukie Crandall
Posted: February 18, 2014, 9:05 p.m. EST

ferret and magnifying glass
© Gina Cioli/I-5 Studio
What do you know about ferrets?

Ferrets arrived on the pet scene in the United States in the 1970s and surged in popularity in the 1980s. Many people share their home with these cute, furry pets, but not everyone knows all of the fascinating ferret facts below.

1. The first and most important fact to remember about ferrets is that vastly more is unknown about them than is known, especially in health needs. The first ferret veterinary text, Biology & Diseases of The Ferret, was published in 1988 with a second edition in 1998.

2. Studies in the last dozen years show that ferrets have visual cones for both long wavelength colors like reds and short wavelength colors like blue. How much those can be used will probably vary among individuals. [And ferrets likely see some ultraviolet, according to this new study. — Eds.]

3. Ferrets are mustelids. The oldest known mustelid fossils are from more than 20 million years ago and may share a common ancestor with another group that is often masked, the procyonids like raccoons. They are very different from yet another group that looks somewhat similar but instead is descended from the cat branch, that group being the viverrids, including civets and genets.

4. The closest wild relatives of ferrets are some European polecats that live in burrows and mostly have crepuscular activity. Crepuscular means that they are most active in twilight periods such as dusk and dawn. The diets of these animals differ depending on location, with the main food source being small rodents in some areas but frogs in others.

5. The black-footed ferret is a cousin but you can see some shared behaviors. Have you watched your ferret grab a toy and scoot backward, dragging it between the front paws? That is how black-footed ferrets move rocks away from burrows.

6. You can teach your ferret to blow his nose into a cloth handkerchief. That actually comes quite naturally. To "wash” their faces with scent from glands that are below and behind their ears, ferrets will hold their hands over their nostrils and blow, sometimes sneezing, to dislodge some scent, then they will rub their hands behind their ears and forward over their faces. Once a ferret trusts you enough you can simply transfer that behavior over into blowing into a soft handkerchief.

7. Being descended from crepuscular ancestors who often ate animal organs, the vitamin needs of ferrets differ from humans. For humans it is easier to overdose vitamin A, but many need more vitamin D. Ferrets are the opposite. They can more easily get too much vitamin D, and actually will develop calcium deposits in organs if they do, but they are adapted to higher levels of vitamin A. One study shows that sufficient vitamin A (without going over) even helps minimize the effects of canine distemper virus in ferrets.

8. Speaking of canine distemper, when people new to ferrets first get them they tend to assume that the vaccinations the pet store kits have had is sufficient. Actually, ferret kits need a series of canine distemper vaccines about two to three weeks apart to have lasting coverage, and need a separate rabies vaccines, IMRAB 3, which is approved for annual use in ferrets. Consult your veterinarian about whether it is possible for adult ferrets to use distemper titers instead of annual vaccines.

9. Did you know that like dogs and cats there have been ferrets who suffered kidney problems from raisins and grapes? The ASPCA has a wonderful Animal Poison Control Center website to help you avoid additional toxins.

10. Ferrets are great at hiding themselves and hiding things. The list of items you probably would rather not have them hide is long and varied. They may hide where they poop until you happen to move out that bookcase (yuck!), or may drag your handbag behind the bathroom door causing you a four-hour search. We even found the TV remote and a costly pair of eyeglasses dragged up to the top of our bedroom closet by our ferrets.

11. Ferrets getting down from the tops of closets or curtains may imitate pirates from old movies. Do you recall seeing those pirates dig a knife into a sail and sliding down on the resulting slash? Ferrets can do the same by latching in their hand claws and then letting their bums hang. I had dresses that had to be remade to skirts due to shredded bodices.

12. You can reduce such risks and make your ferrets more comfy with regular nail trimming. The easiest approach is to put an oily treat like Ferretone on the ferret’s belly (with the ferret atop a towel on your lap) and then clip the nails while the ferret licks up the treat.

13. Remember that ferrets hide themselves? You can train your ferret to come to a bell or a squeaky toy. But never let your ferret actually play with vinyl or rubber toys, as he might chew and ingest pieces of them. Intestinal blockages are among the common and very sad ways that people new to ferrets suddenly lose them. There is a narrow window before toxins can build up in a blocked ferret, which will compromise survival chances if surgery is done too late.

14. What if the ferret does not come out? In your search you may find a ferret who is in the state known as "sleeping not dead.” Ferrets have the ability to sleep very deeply and have scared more than a few people. Blowing gently across the nostrils often gently rouses the ferret.

15. Ferrets get into mischief, and sometimes this can be deadly. Ferret-proofing is never over. Similar to child-proofing, the goal of ferret-proofing is to eliminate any hazards to your ferrets. But even if you have had ferrets for decades, an accident can happen.

16. There are ferrets who work for a living. Some have dragged wires or cleaning brushes on harnesses through tubes, others are used to scare rabbits or rats from burrows so that dogs and people can capture or dispatch them.

17. There also are ferret heroes. Most of the reports I have read involve warning families of fires, but our ferret Hilbert gently awoke me with face nuzzles and kisses when we had a furnace-related malfunction.

18. Ferrets will not catch your colds according to pathologists, but they can catch your influenza and some of your sinus infections. Use precautions!

19. Ferrets have a great need for play. You and other creatures will be their favorite playthings followed by tubes, boxes they can crawl under and run around blindly in, toys they can stash with bells in them, and many more pleasures. They need their time out in an area that has been ferret-proofed, being active and happy.

20. Finally, if you are new to ferrets and you have one out who is playing, and the ferret begins to pop and otherwise jump all over the place, even slamming into walls, that is not a convulsion. Your ferret is engaging in the Ferret Wardance or Weasel Wardance, a normal expression of joy.

Like this article? Check out:
20 Strange But Common Ferret Behaviors, click here>>
Ferret behavior questions and answers, click here>>

Posted: February 18, 2014, 9:05 p.m. EST


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20 Fascinating Facts About Ferrets

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Reader Comments
I enjoyed this article. I have two ferrets and I agree with all 20 facts!!
Diana, Chicago, IL
Posted: 4/26/2014 2:26:10 PM
In reference to suggested annual rabies shots this is no longer the standard instead of annual shots rabies titters are recomended to show whether or not ferret needs a booster
Wendy, Coram, NY
Posted: 2/28/2014 10:38:30 AM
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