Fostering and hand-rearing kits

by Dr June McNicholas

Orphaned or abandoned kits are hard to deal with. There is no doubt that the best solution is to find a suitable foster jill wherever possible. However, this is not always easy. Even where jills with litters are reasonably local, jills will usually only adopt kits that are close to the age of their own kits. In part this is because a jill's teats are very small when the kits are new-born. They only expand or enlarge as the kits grow, so matching the age of the orphans to the age of the mother's natural litter is very important for successful fostering. Tiny orphans cannot cope with large teats whre the 'natural' litter is substantially older than they are. You also need to remember that jills only have a certain amount of resources to give when rearing kits (only eight teats, for example!). They can rear large litters of up to twelve, but you need to be mindful of the welfare of the jill herself.

Survival often depends on whether the kits have received that all-important first feed of colostrum, a special 'first starter' milk from their mother. If this is not possible, as in cases where the mother has died, do seek veterinary advice as soon as possible. There are ways of milking a poorly (even a dying) jill of the colostrum that her kits need, even if she is unable to continue feeding them. Your vet will also be able to advise on potentially suitable artificial colostrum if no natural colostrum is available.

Where no foster jill is available, you may have to consider hand-rearing if you wish to the save the litter. Sadly, ferrets are not easy to hand-rear and you may lose some, if not all of the litter but it worth trying if you are prepared to put in the time and effort. Newborn kits require warmth immediately. Personally, I put them down my shirt next to my skin while I take them to surgery to get them checked for any need for glucose or rehydration (Well Officer, I know I was speeding but......!). I would recommend that you get a vet to check orphan kits since often injections into the peritoneum may be necessary to kick-start them into wanting to live.

Then you need to work out what milk formula is best for ferrets. Unsurprisingly in the UK there are no ferret-milk subsitutes on the market, so you have to improvise. The chart below shows the difference between the various milks that are availabe:

Ferret Cat Dog Cow
Protein 6.0% 7.0% 7.5% 3.3%
Fat 8.0% 4.8% 10.0% 4.0%
Lactose 3.8% 4.8% 3.8% 5.0%

You can see from the table that no proprietary milk subsitute fits a ferret's needs, so you have to tinker a it with whatever is available.

I usually favour a slightly diluted (about 10% dilution) form of Whelpi (a milk for rearing puppies) although I have also used Cimicat (for orphaned feline kittens) supplemented by a small spoonful of cream when mixing feeds to increase fat content. Obviously your vet may be able to give further advice on your particular kits' needs according to size, weight and age.

Although kits can be fed by stomach tube, most owners tend to prefer using a dropper or a very small sized bottle intended for kittens. The choice has to be that of the person rearing the kits. Your vet can show you how to tube feed, but do not feel inadequate if you feel that this is not for you. It does take a little time to get confident in inserting a tube into a tiny body!

Whatever method you choose to feed your kits, you will need to be prepared to feed every two hours day and night for the first week or two. It's hard work! Hygiene needs to be at the level of what would be done for human babies, so have some Milton/baby utensil sterilising fluid at hand. You will also need to remember that young kits are unable to urinate of defecate on their own. The jill licks the kits' bellies and hindquarters until they empty the bladder and bowels. When hand-rearing, this can be done by using a small cotton wool ball, slightly moistened in warm water, and gently stroking it on the kits' lower tummies and around their hind quarters. Clean, moist balls should then be used for the clean-up afterwards! Some kits get constipated when being bottle fed, a little cream (say about 15% of the feed) added to the milk feed can often cure this.

Keeping the kits warm between feeds can be a problem and not everyone can keep the kits down their shirts (not always socially acceptable). If you are lucky you may still be able to find a motherly jill who look after and mother kits even if she can't feed them. If not, you will need to make sure that they are warm and comfortable in a nest of your making. A heat pad or a heat lamp as used for brooding chicks is useful if you can get hold of one. Alternatively, a warm (body temperature) hot water bottle wrapped in a towel or fleece can do the job, although you will need to make sure it is always warm while they are tiny.

The first 2-3 weeks are the most vital, and will most likely bring the most heartbreak as very few litters survive in total. However, some may thrive and live on to become full-grown ferrets with a normal life span ahead of them. On balance, I have had more successes than failures, but I have never managed to hand rear an entire litter successfully. Quite simply, you do what you can.

Foster jills are always the best resort for orphaned kits and I personally welcome any move to help motherless kits find a suitable jill to rear them. Second best, is a jill who will clean and look after kits, even if she cannot feed them herself, so it is worth possibly having a register of mumsy jills who are kit oriented and may accept the task with pleasure (I had one, Poppy, who loved kits and regularly accepted kits until whe was nine years old, even though she'd never had a litter herself. On three occasions she even lactated, although never quite enough to feed a foster litter). Failing that you are faced with the task of hand-rearing. This difficult and time consuming and often laced with failure. However for the survivors, it is well worth it.

Some older NFWS members may remember my Harry Polecat, a real rogue in the shows and racing events. He was an orphan and thanks to a foster jill (his grandma) and some slightly disorientated nocturnal help from me and a bottle of Whelpi, he lived an eventful nine year life.

Hope some of this helps. Fingers and paws crossed for a successful season for rearing healthy kits from whatever circumstances.

First Published in NFWS News #81 May 2008
Articles, stories etc. from NFWS Newsletters