So you think you want a ferret

by Dr June McNicholas

Believe it or not, not all readers offered the newsletters or websites are ferret owners. Quite a few are people who are considering getting ferrets and doing some background reading about them and ferret people, asking themselves 'Is this the sort of animal I would like to share my life with?' (the ferret that is, not the people..well, unless you know different of course!).

Some readers are very new to ferrets and, as many admit, 'have found out the hard way' by taking in a ferret without really knowing what they were taking on. Most of you are of course, seasoned ferret owners but it's almost guaranteed that with the increasing popularity of ferrets, the arrival of this year's cute kits, and films like 'Along came Polly' more and more people are going to be considering a ferret as a pet. This means that anyone with ferrets is likely to be asked for advice by people who think they might want one. So how do you answer someone who is genuinely asking whether a ferret would suit them?

Some of the questions people ask may seem so basic, daft even, but we were all first time owners once and I bet we'd all cringe if we remembered everything we'd asked in our early days! At least asking questions means a wish to find out what ferrets are about and that's got to be a good thing.

Some questions may be:

What are ferrets like? Usually this means that someone is really asking 'Are ferrets like cats/dogs/rabbits/hamsters.' or so on, to give them some idea based on an animal they may have had some experience or contact with. The problem is that ferrets are not really like any other pet at all; that's what makes them so endearing to many of us, but it can also mean that new owners enter uncharted waters and encounter problems if they have mistakenly thought of ferrets as being like small dogs, cat-like or rabbit-like.

Ferrets can be as intelligent and sociable as some dogs and as playful as kittens, but they are neither. They may be able to live in cages/runs but they certainly aren't like rabbits either. Perhaps the main point to make to a new ferret owner is that having a ferret will be a totally new experience, no matter what other pets have been kept before.

Are they hard to keep? This is a deceptively simple question which demands a complex answer! What is meant by 'hard to keep'? Expensive? Demanding? Need a lot of complicated equipment or routines? I suppose the basic answer is that ferrets are not hard to keep IF you know in advance what is needed to keep them happy and healthy. It is highly likely that decent, spacious, comfortable ferret accommodation will cost more than the ferret and this might be a significant factor for some potential owners, as might the space it will take up inside or outside the house.

Potential owners of any animal would do well to consider its housing first, where it would go, etc., as the major first decision in deciding whether or not to proceed any further. Judging whether ferrets are demanding as pets is a bit tricky. They certainly need daily excercise, play and stimulation as well as basic cleaning out, feeding and watering. This might mean exercise times in a play-run, or times with you and the family in the house, but they do need it and they do like routine wherever possible. It's not a question of whether ferrets are hard to keep; their needs are quite well defined, it's more a question of whether an owner will find it hard to meet those daily demands.

Do they bite and smell? If you make them, yes, they do! So can most animals (and people) if you work at it enough. The correct diet, clean housing and, for hobs, neutering will eliminate just about all the more pungent ferrety smells. There will still be a smell of course, but it should be just a sort of 'warm animal' smell, no worse than most animals and probably far less than wet spaniels, goats and horses! As for biting, kits bite in play just like kittens and puppies and soon grow out of it with handling. Older ferrets may bite out of fear or hunger but I think it says a great deal for the general temperament of ferrets that even most of the horrific rescue cases quickly become gentle when well fed and treated with affection and respect (see On the Couch). New owners would do best to get a well-handled kit from someone who can advise them about the continued handling while they grow out of play-nips or an adult from a rescue which has taken the time and effort to restore that ferret's trust and affection for people.

OK, I think I want a ferret. How do I go about it? Encourage potential owners to make the effort to visit and handle ferrets first. Put them in touch with local ferret clubs and welfare groups who will give information on feeding, housing and general well-being. Many will arrange visits with members so they can talk about what living with ferrets is really like. It's not a responsibility to be taken lightly; a ferret may live ten years or more and it will need veterinary care and holiday arrangements as well as routine day-to-day care.

For most of us, keeping ferrets is wonderful experience. If we can help and support new owners we can ensure more ferrets find loving permanent homes.

First Published in NFWS News #87 May 2010

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