Posted: April 25, 2013, 2:15 p.m. EDT
Ferret Cinnamon/Courtesy Richard Hamilton
How do you answer the question: What is a ferret?
Weighing in at about 1.5 to 3 pounds (sometimes up to 5) with males being a bit larger, most pet ferrets can be described as explorers extraordinaire. When awake, ferrets seem to have endless energy. When asleep, which is often, they can sleep so soundly that it’s difficult to wake them. But this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Ferrets are so much more.
The Ferret Look
Ferrets are members of the weasel family (Mustelidae) and are not — repeat, not — rodents. Like weasels, ferrets have a long, slender body and short legs. They have a very flexible spine that allows them to turn around in tight spaces. Ferrets typically measure about 18 inches, which includes a tail that is about 5 inches long. Their life span is 5 to 7 years.
Ferret fur is typically short, approximately an inch long or less (angora ferrets have longer fur). Ferret coat colors range from shades of brown to black to white, with sable being the most typical. In addition to coat color, ferrets also have coat patterns/markings, which help distinguish them. Eye color can be shades of black, brown or red. The American Ferret Association gives more information about colors and patterns on its website.
Ferrets have five toes on each foot and 34 permanent teeth. Adult ferrets have about 200 bones in their body, which is quite similar to the 206 bones of an adult human. Another unseen similarity is that ferrets are very susceptible to human influenza virus, which means they can catch the flu from people and transmit it to people.
The Origin Question
Although the exact date of ferret domestication is unknown, historical writings mention ferrets and indicate that they were already domesticated as far back as 2,500 years ago. They were used to hunt rodents and rabbits, which is a job that likely got them on ships to the New World in the 16th and 17th centuries.
According to the Integrated Taxonomic Information System, the domesticated ferret is in the genus Mustela, the species putorius and the subspecies furo. Although it’s not completely certain, they are thought to be descended from the wild European polecat.
Although they share the same genus and might look similar, pet ferrets should not be confused with black-footed ferrets (Mustela nigripes). Black-footed ferrets are the only ferret native to North America and are wild. Black-footed ferrets are also endangered. Read more about them, here>>
On The Pet Scene
Certainly working ferrets could have done double-duty as pets through the years. In the United States, the trend to keep ferrets as pets really took off in the 1980s. Although ferrets were illegal to keep as pets in some areas, those "ferret-free zones” have dwindled to include the states of California and Hawaii, along with some notable cities or areas elsewhere, such as the five boroughs of New York City.
Ferrets are interactive pets that enjoy playing with their owners and having free time outside their cage. In fact, it’s recommended that ferrets "free roam” in a safe, ferret-proofed area outside their cage for at least four hours every day. During such playtime, ferrets get a chance to frolic and might even display the famous "weasel war dance,” which indicates happiness.
Ferrets are obligate carnivores that don’t have the digestive capability to get nutrients from anything except animal-based protein. This means they require a ferret-specific food or a high-end kitten food (dog food does not have enough animal protein).
Three of the most common questions regarding pet ferrets involve odor, biting and litter training.
Regular cage cleaning is needed to maintain hygiene and prevent odor. Owners must determine if this needs to be weekly or more frequently. Ferrets have a natural slightly musky scent, which requires bedding to be laundered weekly to prevent odor buildup. Frequent baths can send the glands in a ferret’s skin into overdrive and increase odor, too. Neutering reduces odor. In addition, ferrets have the ability to "poof” a scent from their anal glands if startled or scared, but the odor dissipates quickly, unlike that of a skunk. Most ferrets in the United States are neutered and de-scented (have their anal glands removed) before reaching pet stores.
Ferrets can bite, just as any pet with teeth can bite. Young ferrets are most apt to be nippy, because they’re exploring their world as puppies do. Most ferrets grow out of such nippiness unless environmental factors (not socialized correctly, abused, etc.) or a medical issue prevents this. For more about biting, check out the following article.
Litter training is possible for ferrets, but don’t expect them to be as good about it as cats. Most ferrets have accidents now and again, and some ferrets confound their owners by ignoring the litter box or, worse, going right next to it. Sometimes you just need to change litter or litter boxes, or move the box to solve the problem. Other times, you need to be more of a detective to figure out how to improve your ferret’s litter box habits. Mary Van Dahm offered good advice about this in several of her expert answers.
Fascinating Ferret Facts
• Both a ferret’s nose and coat color can change throughout its life. Coat changes can occur after seasonal shedding and nose changes can be gradual over the years.
• The following collective nouns have been used to describe a group of ferrets: business, busyness, fesnyng.
• Ferrets typically lose weight and have shorter fur in summer, and gain weight and have longer fur in winter.
What Ferret Owners Say
We asked ferret owners on our Facebook page to tell us their answer to the question: "What is a ferret?” Many responses boiled down to ferrets being love, a friend, a child and a great pet. Following are some other responses.
"The tiniest bundles of joy, love, nosiness, and the masters of being utterly bonkers.”
– Mario Mora
– Leiwolf Crook
"The best part of my day.”
– Sharifa Carter
"An ankle biter.
A plant lover (err, I mean plant-digger-outter).
An escape artist.
A vet bill maker.
And still, 'The best 2 pounds of pure love ever!'"
– Caroline Bowden
"They are a cross between the best qualities of a puppy, kitten, a 2-year-old child, a merry-go-round, and a tornado. They love life and want you to love life with them.”
– Nancy Taylor
"Hyperactive, attention-deficit, dysfunctional cat that steals, gets into everything, puts you in the poorhouse, poops, dances, dooks - and doesn't live anywhere near long enough.”
– Dian Feral
"A ferret is a bundle of joy that melts your heart, a teacher of unconditional love that lives to play and after all that curls up in a ball and sleeps bout 18 hours of the day.”
-- Sas Price
"A mischievous, lovable poop machine.”
– Toni Rader
"Thief of Hearts and my slippers!”
– Kathy Aston
"Adorable thieving little furry snakes with legs. Owners of my heart, house and purse! Snoring bundles of fluff!”
– Helen Dalyrmple