A ferret resembles what you'd imagine a cute giant mouse might look like, but they have more in common with cats. These adorable creatures are fierce rabbit hunters in the wild and have become popular pet choices. If you have a pet ferret or intend to get one, you'll enjoy the twenty interesting ferret facts we share in this article.
A ferret belongs to the Mustelidae (weasel family), which relates to badgers, minks, European polecats, otters, and martens. Scientists think of the ferret as the domesticated form of the European polecat. They are so closely related to the European polecat that they can interbreed4.
Ferrets have long, tubular, pear-shaped bodies with short legs, small, rounded ears, and a tail. Ferrets weigh about 2 pounds and have a body length of about 20 inches, including tails of about 5 inches. Male ferrets are called hobs, females are called jills, and baby ferrets are called kits. A group of ferrets is called a business.
Related read: More Types of Weasels.
The two types of ferrets are the common ferret (Mustela putorius furo) and the black-footed ferret (M. nigripes). The Mustela Putorius furo has yellowish fur on its body with lighter fur on its face.
The black-footed ferret has similar coloring except for the dark fur across its eyes that looks like a mask. We also call black-footed ferrets wild ferrets or American polecats.
Wild ferrets' lifespan is unknown, but the average lifespan of domesticated ferrets is 8-10 years5. To ensure your pet ferret lives long and healthy, vaccinate it against canine distemper and rabies. They are also susceptible to the flu, feline distemper, heat stroke, diarrhea, urinary stones, insulinoma, and adrenal gland diseases.
Related: Check out our tips for sustainable pet ownership.
Ferrets are friendly with other animals (that are not natural prey to them). A ferret will fit right into a household with other pets, especially cats and dogs. They will wrestle, dance with, and playfully stalk other animals.
To express happiness, they make a cluck or dock sound and screech when terrorized. A ferret will bark at the height of excitement, and when angered, it will hiss.
By 1987, only about 18 ferrets were left in southern Canada to Northern Mexico. That was due to agricultural developments that wiped out most of their prey.
Scientists started a breeding program in which seven female ferrets had surviving kits3 (baby ferrets). The repopulation program has been relatively successful. However, the black-footed ferret is still an endangered species in some places.
Even before the Roman Empire, domesticated ferrets were used for hunting rabbits and exterminating rodents. This practice was known as ferreting and was still largely practiced across Europe and America up until the 19th century. After World War II, most ferrets were introduced to households as a means of rodent control.
In rabbit hunting, they release a ferret into one end of a burrow. It chases the prey outside, where human traps are waiting. They were so skilled at this job they gave rise to the expression “ferret out.”
In the UK countryside, people gather to watch ferrets run. In ferret racing, the animals are made to run through long pipes. Ferret races are staged at fundraising events, corporate events, county fairs, etc.
The animal is also celebrated in the United States. According to the American Ferret Association, April 2nd is National Ferret Day.
In Argentina, a couple got tricked into buying ferrets as purebred miniature poodles. The sellers injected the ferrets with steroids and gave them a nice haircut to pass them off. The scam wasn't discovered until the buyers took their dogs to the vet for “shots.”
So be sure to confirm that you aren't being sold a ferret while trying to buy an exotic dog.
In the wild, when threatened or hunting, polecats and other types of weasels will perform a dance that has a hypnotic effect on their predators or prey. They arch their backs, puff their tails, and move from side to side. Domestic ferrets also perform this dance but for play and not for defense. They do it to show that they are having fun.
The ferret's name originates from the Latin word “furittus,” which means “little thief.” This name most likely comes from the ferret's habit of spiriting away small items. Much like weasels and raccoons, they are known to steal.
If a ferret's head can fit through an opening, its whole body can get through. That's why getting the right cage for your ferret is essential. Ferrets are adventurous and will tunnel under anything. So even when you let yours play outside its cage, supervise it carefully so it does not wander away.
Pet ferrets can become over-dependent on their owners, so much so that they die within a few days of neglect.
Whereas ferrets kept as pets can seem to enjoy company so much, but in stark contradiction, ferrets in the wild are solitary animals. They put their solo living on hold during the breeding season. Also, young ferrets stay with their mother for about eight weeks before venturing out independently.
If females go too long without mating, they can build up too much estrogen2. This estrogen toxicity can cause anemia, blood clotting, or death. In the wild, ferrets mate around March and April. The female ferret can have one to six babies at once after a 35 to 45-day gestation.
Most female ferrets sold in pet stores are neutered to prevent this condition.
Black-footed ferrets predominantly prey on prairie dogs; in some places, feral populations of common ferrets also prey on native birds and small wildlife. They start out with milk from their mothers before learning to hunt themselves. Their large canines and sharp claws make them capable hunters.
Like house cats, a domestic ferret will survive on water and meat. You should feed newborn ferrets with low-lactose milk; introduce kitten food and raw chicken into their diet as they grow. Don't feed your ferret with high-lactose dairy, sugar, and carbohydrates; they can not digest those foods.
Ferrets sleep for most of the day, almost 18 to 20 hours each day. They are usually active at dawn and dusk but will adjust their schedule to when their owners are available to give them attention. Sleeping so much gives them the energy that we know them to display.
Ferrets have a strange smell that emanates from their anal scent glands and the oils from their skin. Some people believe that bathing their pet ferret every day is the solution.
In reality, bathing your ferret won't make it less smelly. In fact, it strips it of oils, prompting them to produce more oils, hence more smell. Cleaning the ferret’s cage and litter box daily is a better way to manage the smell. Limit bathing to once a month.
Surgically removing the anal scent gland may reduce the odor but won't eliminate it altogether.
Ferrets in the wild are great at many things but not building their own homes. They take over tunnels built by other animals. They typically go for old prairie dog tunnels.
Ferrets have a long history of usefulness to humans. In addition to being used as working animals, people also bred them for the pet trade and their fur. The animals have different colors and fur patterns used historically for clothing, primarily for royalty or the wealthy.
Another way that humans use ferrets is as test subjects for medical research. The animal is susceptible to many human diseases, making it useful for medical experiments. Ferrets have been useful in studying human influenza1, severe acute respiratory syndrome, cancer cystic fibrosis, and much more.
Pet ferrets are tame, playful, and curious. You can train them to do simple tricks and to use a litter box. There is evidence of domesticated ferret pets from over 2,500 years ago. Some paintings show that Queen Elizabeth and other royalties may have had ferrets as pets.
Some countries like South Africa, Puerto Rico, and Portugal prohibit domesticated ferrets. Also, you can't keep a domesticated ferret in New York City, Hawaii, California, and Washington, DC. Even where you can keep them, there are strict regulations to follow.
That is because the animal can carry diseases that they can transfer to humans, and feral populations endanger native wildlife.
A ferret sleeps like a cat and plays like a dog. Taking on a ferret as a pet is a big responsibility because of the attention they require. However, they offer much in the way of companionship and entertainment. In this article, we have looked at 20 facts that people who love ferrets should know.
Related: To further explore the animal kingdom, check out some of the other animals that start with F.
Smith, H., & Sweet, C. (1988). Lessons for human influenza from pathogenicity studies with ferrets. Reviews of infectious diseases, 10(1), 56-75.
Nicola Di Girolamo, 4 - Disorders of the Urinary and Reproductive Systems in Ferrets, Editor(s): Katherine E. Quesenberry, Connie J. Orcutt, Christoph Mans, James W. Carpenter, Ferrets, Rabbits, and Rodents (Fourth Edition), W.B. Saunders, 2020, Pages 39-54, ISBN 9780323484350.
Clark, T. W., & Clark, S. G. (2005). Averting extinction: reconstructing endangered species recovery. Yale University Press.
Blandford, P. R. S. (1987). Biology of the polecat Mustela putorius: a literature review. Mammal Review, 17(4), 155-198.
mes McKay (1994) The Ferret—A Neglected Species?, Veterinary Nursing Journal, 9:2, 42-47
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.