Ferrets: Behaviour and training

Ferrets are domesticated animals which can develop strong links with their owners. They like to interact with humans, and can mope if they are kept isolated, with no contact from humans or their own kind. Because they want to share activities with you, it's quite easy to teach them to do what you ask, though you need to work with their natural instincts to channel their behaviour into directions that suit you. The suggestions here are for people with pet ferrets. The best way to learn how to train a working ferret is to go out ferreting with someone who is experienced. It also helps to get to know ferrets with someone experienced who can help you to interpret their sounds and body language.

Ferrets have happy 'clucking' sounds, frightened 'chittering' sounds, angry hissing sounds, and whimpering, which may be just from excitement or from anxiety. They may also sneeze and hiccup. An experienced ferret person can help you work out whether your ferret is happy when playing with another, or whether you should separate them. Ferrets can also shiver from excitement or cold, wag their tails when they are excited or interested in something, and puff out their tails from excitement or upset. The more you understand ferret language, the easier it is to train your pet.

Pet ferrets should learn the very basics, such as housetraining and not nipping people. They learn the basics more easily if you spend time ensuring that they are happy ferrets and can follow their instincts. You need to work harder if you have a single pet ferret, because ferrets need stimulation. They spend a lot of time sleeping, but when they are awake, they like to be very active, digging, tunnelling, chewing, and playing with you, or with other ferrets. Ferrets left shut in a cage all day will tend to develop personality quirks, like being hyperactive when they are let out, and behaving in repetitive ways in their cages. You'll find your ferret much easier to train if you give him a lot to do. Instead of seeing digging and tunnelling as behavioural problems, provide a sand box for digging, and lengths of drainpipe to explore. Invent games that allow your ferret to be a hunter, like following a titbit on a piece of string, jerked erratically like a darting mouse. Get to know people with other ferrets, or keep more than one ferret yourself, since ferrets also like to have fun with each other, and there is a limit to how far you can imitate another ferret when you play with your pet.

Socialization with other ferrets

Polecats tend to be territorial, but ferrets have easier access to food, and don't need to defend a territory as much. They are more accepting of outsiders, and can enjoy the company of other ferrets. You can't take it for granted that two ferrets will get on, however, especially if one or both have been isolated for a long time. They are much more likely to get on if they meet on neutral territory, have been neutered, and have been used to the company of other ferrets. Novice ferret owners may want to wait up to a year between taking on a new kit and buying a second ferret. This can create problems, because kits that live alone from about seven weeks' old don't develop the social skills they need to get on with other ferrets. It helps to get to know people with kits the same age as yours. You can have enjoy watching your kit play with other kits, and they tire each other out with wrestling games, while learning bite inhibition and other useful skills. Do separate the kits if the play seems too rough though, and one kit looks like it is being bullied. This is especially likely if they are of very different sizes. Normal playfighting can seem very rough if you aren't used to it, but you can tell whether they are happy playing, because happy ferrets go back for more. If one kit appears to be a bit of a bully, try pairing that kit in play with a confident and even-tempered older ferret, who should teach the youngster some manners, though go carefully with introductions, since not all older ferrets tolerate kits well.

Adult ferrets need much more time to get used to one another, and it's safer to wait until they have got used to being near each other in different cages before letting them out together. Some ferrets simply don't like the company of their own kind, so don't force the issue if all attempts at slow-paced introductions fail.

Learning not to bite people

Kits learn from play how not to nip other ferrets very hard. They need to learn from you that they are not allowed to bite people at all. We don't have fur, and it hurts us! Ferrets don't realise this unless you teach them. You can give your ferret time out in his cage if he gets too manic and nippy during playtime, so that he realises that biting means that the fun ends. You can also use gentle aversives - things ferrets don't like - to get them to release their grip on you. Mouthwash on a finger put up to the ferret's nose, or a very, very gentle squirt from a water pistol can surprise them enough to get them to let go. Holding the ferret by the scruff of his neck, or hissing in his face can also get the message across. Use gentle aversives, and just use the aversive while the kit is biting, and then be nice once he stops. You just want the kit to get the message that biting people is wrong, but not terrify the kit. Combine this with very small titbits to reward him for doing things you want him to, so he sees being with you as fun, and obeying you as a good thing. Ferrets aren't naturally obedient, but they can learn fast how to get rewards and avoid things they don't like.

The younger you teach your kit that you don't want to be bitten, the faster he will learn, so teach this from the first day you get your kit. If you never allow nipping, your kit will be much easier to handle as an adult. It's not easy for a novice to handle an older ferret that is still biting, and if you do take on such a ferret, you will need some help from an experienced ferret person. Gloves and titbits can help with adult nippers - the gloves protect your hands, and the titbits help convince the ferret that you are a good person to be with, even if you don't allow biting. It's easy to drop a ferret if you are afraid of being bitten, and a pair of supple, thin suede or leather gloves can give a lot of protection, keeping you safe from being bitten, and your ferret safe from being dropped. Be firm, but gentle, and persistence should pay off.

Ferrets may also bite if they are in pain, so get your ferret checked by a vet if he suddenly starts biting for no apparent reason. He may generally feel under the weather, or have a painful spot due to an abscess or other problem.

Teaching your ferret not to bite people is the most important message you can get across - it makes all other training much easier! You may still get the occasional nip if your ferret is very excited or scared, which is one reason why children and ferrets don't mix well.


Kits need to learn to use a litter tray, so start out with one in their cage, which is clearly marked as a litter tray for a ferret. It should be non-tippable, and cleaned every day, but you can leave just one piece of ferret poo there as a marker, and use bedding already slept in by your ferret for the rest of the cage, so the ferret knows where the toilet is. Ferrets like to wee after they have woken up, so give your ferret time to 'go' after waking and before playtime outside the cage. He should wee within about ten minutes of waking. Reward your ferret for performing, by giving him playtime, and even a little titbit at first, but make sure he actually 'goes' and isn't just pretending, to get the reward - this has been known.

You'll also need litter trays in the room where you play with your ferret, especially in areas he seems to see as good places for a toilet! Use a lot of trays for a kit, or just keep the kit in a small area, so he doesn't have to go far to find a tray. Even adults need quite a few pans in a large room. Don't expect your ferret to use the cat litter tray, after all, would you want to poo somewhere a lion has been? If you catch your ferret looking like he needs to 'go' away from a tray (which often happens after a short spell of exciting games) say 'toilet' and and if you are close enough to pick him up, put your ferret on a litter tray. Reward your ferret each time he uses a litter tray outside the cage, again using a small titbit. Give rewards whether or not you have had to show him the toilet, and put him on a litter tray after 20 minutes or so of exciting games outside his cage - activity stimulates bowel movements. After a while he should get the idea, though he may get caught short a long while from a toilet during an exciting game. It helps just to let him play in a small area at first, so it's easier for him to get to a toilet. You may even want to build a large playpen with a mesh roof for a young ferret, so you can have more control of where he goes to toilet, and what he gets up to generally.

Rewards are the quicket route to housetraining. Your ferret may not understand if you shout at him when you catch him in the act, and may simply hide from you to do it, so you end up finding little 'presents' in unexpected places. If you act irritated when you find a poo he has done half an hour earlier, he will just think you are an irritable human, he's not going to make the connection between his pooing where you don't want and your irritation. Clean up accidents with a deodorising pet product, rather than vinegar or disnfectant. It's less smelly, and vinegar just makes the spot smell more attractive to a ferret looking for a toilet. If he decides on favourite places for a toilet where you haven't put a tray, see if you can work with him, and put a tray there, or, if you really don't want to, put a food bowl there instead, to get him out of the habit of using that spot.

New adult ferrets may take a while to work out where the litter pans are, so treat them as you would a kit, to help them work out where they are meant to go. The occasional accident doesn't necessarily mean they aren't housetrained, they may just not know where the toilets are!


Ferrets are designed to dig, and kits especially love to make a mess, of your carpets and plant pots, and their food and water bowls, and litter trays. Training ferrets not to dig in a particular spot is difficult, though you can try distracting them by calling them to you with a titbit, if you see them digging the carpet. Ferrets also tend to dig more when they are bored, so lots of playtime will mean less digging in the cage. Protect your carpet with plastic at favourite digging spots, remove potted plants, don't leave uneaten food in the cage for a long time, use a water bottle, and only use a little litter in the litter tray. Digging is what ferrets like to do, so give your ferret a 'legal' digging box outside the cage, just a box with sand or earth in it, on newspapers so the dug up dirt doesn't get into the carpet. Bury treats in it, so the ferret knows this is a good place to dig.

Walking on a leash

Ferrets like to see the outside world, but you may be worried that they will run off. One solution is to use a leash with a harness or a collar. They don't take to it as well as dogs, but you can get them used to it. Take the collar or harness off when the ferret is indoors, because of the risk of it getting caught in something.

Passing dogs can be a problem when you take your ferret to public places, so watch out for dogs coming close, and make sure your ferret has a bolt-hole down your sleeve. Ferrets also like travelling on shoulders, so long as you train them first, walking round at home, where you can catch them more easily if they fall. Your ferret may wriggle when being carried, and this is sometimes a sign that he wants a wee! You can carry a ferret in your coat, for short distances, though a duffel bag is better for transporting ferrets when you are out for a long time.

Learning recall and other commands.

Ferrets aren't as obedient as dogs, but they will obey commands if they can get something out of it. You can use a whistle or other noise to get them to come to you, if you reward them with a treat, though some ferrets respond better to the sound of a squeaky toy than a human whistling.

You can also get ferrets to sit up and roll over if you reward them for doing this. Just hold the treat as a lure, and the ferret follows, whether it's upwards, or down and rolling over.

Games for ferrets

Ferrets love exploring, and if you can't take them out much, be inventive with their indoor habitat. The more you can give them fun things to do, the less likely they are to get up to things you'd rather they didn't, like rushing round the room and knocking things over from high shelves. You can get some drainpipe and change its position each time they are let out, so they have 'new' tunnels to explore. They shouldn't need much encouragement, but you can tempt them in by putting titbits in the tunnel. You can turn the drainpipes into slides by propping them against the arms of chairs. Flexible large tubing can also provide fun tunnels.

Cardboard boxes offer endless possibilities, for example joined together with pipes or hoses. You can sometimes beg boxes from supermarkets and markets. Ferrets also like climbing up curtains. You can set up cloth 'ladders' for them to climb and swing on, just make sure the cloth is of a type that won't catch on their nails.

Ferrets also like hunting and tugging games, and you can attach objects like cloth, or titbits to string, attached to a makeshift rod in your hand, moving the object as though it were prey, and let the ferret pounce and tug. Ferrets also like to amuse themselves with objects on a string, with the other end of the string tied to something high, so the object is left dangling, and swings when touched. Have a handy collection of home-made toys for your ferret, so you can direct his play. The ferret himself will help you design the toys, and refine your designs, by giving you a consumer's opinion of them. You may find your family objects to having the living room designed as a ferret playground, but at least your ferret will be happy.

See also:

Ferrets: General care

 Reviews of books on ferret care, health, training, and working ferrets 

Further reading:

 Hernádi A1, Kis A, Turcsán B, Topál J. (2012) Man's underground best friend: domestic ferrets, unlike the wild forms, show evidence of dog-like social-cognitive skills.PLoS One.7(8):e43267. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0043267. Epub Aug 15 2012.

Ferrets: General care

Ferrets are descended from European polecats, and belong to the same family as stoats, weasels, otters and badgers. They have long been used to hunt rabbits in Europe. Working ferrets are still popular in parts of the UK where wild rabbits do a lot of damage to gardens and allotments. Ferrets can also be used to hunt rats and mice. Increasingly, though ferrets are being kept simply as pets. They do make wonderful pets, so long as you are prepared to put the effort in.

They are intelligent animals and can bond strongly with their owners. They live between six and thirteen years, which is time enough to develop a strong relationship with them, while being less of a long-term commitment than a dog or a cat. You don't need to take them out for a wee in horrible weather, as you do a dog, but they do benefit from training, especially when they first come to live with you, and they will get bored unless you play with them and give them an interesting habitat. They love to explore, and, like cats, can reach high places that a dog can't get to. They may chew and burrow into what they find, including house plant pots, your jacket pockets, and even your bed!

Is a ferret the pet for you?

You need to give them something to do, either work them, or play with them. and you need a ferret-proof room. You also need to think seriously about safety if you have young children and want ferrets. Encounters between younger children and ferrets should be closely supervised so that they don't get too rough and frighten each other. Ferrets do need time to get used to children, who have higher pitched voices and jerkier movements than adults, so just let the ferret and child look at each other, the first time they meet. Ferrets may nip, and though it doesn't hurt as much as a dog bite, it's safer not to expose children to this risk. One solution is to keep the door to your ferret room locked, or you could simply wait to enjoy your first ferrets when the kids are a bit older.

What about ferrets and other pets?

Rodents, birds and reptiles may be seen as prey by ferrets, so they should always be kept apart. Ferrets can get on well with cats and dogs, but there is no guarantee that a particular cat or dog will get on with a ferret. Always carry out introductions carefully, with no direct contact for a few days letting your cat or dog get used to watching and smelling the ferret first. Get the message across to dogs that ferrets are protected species, but don't be too relaxed, even if your dog pretends to agree with you! You can secure your dog in a crate or have someone hold him on a leash, while he watches you play with the ferret. If your dog seems unperturbed by the ferret, you can allow the ferret to sniff the dog while someone holds the dog. Do deter the ferret from taking too many liberties with the dog - that really is asking too much of any self-respecting canine. The dog will need lots of encouraging praise for keeping still and quiet. Only let them off together once the dog seems to have accepted the ferret, and then always supervise their interactions, and separate them at the first sign of any trouble. Be especially careful about the ferret stealing the dog's treasured possessions, like his chews - clear the floor before letting your ferret out. Feed ferrets and dogs separately - your ferret may try a mouthful of the dog's food, and it's really asking too much of your dog that he tolerate this.

Choosing a ferret, and new ferret introductions

Generally, it's better to get a young ferret, or kit, because you can more easily train your pet, though it helps if you also have ongoing advice from an experienced ferret owner, so you can avoid novice mistakes. You may not have enough time to train a kit, and would prefer an adult ferret that has perhaps been rejected as not a very good rabbiter, and which comes ready house-trained, and doesn't nip! There are often adult ferrets available at shelters, and you may be able to get ongoing help if you adopt one. Whether a kit or an adult is better for you depends on your circumstances, and how much time you have. Local ferret clubs and vets are possible sources of information about where to buy ferrets. Ferrets should be at least seven-weeks' old before you take them away from their mothers, and even at this age they are still babies, and need a lot of attention. Do be careful if you take on an adult ferret, because some 'rescue ferrets' have been seriously neglected, and are not good pets for novices. An adult ferret who nips, and is not housetrained takes a lot more work than a kit. Some ferrets are rehomed after having been neglected in a shed for years, and have gone slightly mad from boredom. You really need to know what normal ferret behaviour is like before you try rehabilitating one of these ferrets, and seriously neglected adults often retain odd quirks, even after rehabilitation. Choose your ferret with the help of someone who is experienced, so you can be sure that the ferret you go home with is one who suits you.

Ferrets do like company, and you may be tempted to take on two together. This does mean that you have to work overtime training them, so it is easier to wait a few months between taking on your first ferret and the next one. Three ferrets at once is really not advisable unless you really know what you are doing!

The first thing you will probably notice when you look at ferrets is that they come in different colours, such as white, silver, chocolate, cinnamon, and sable. You may be drawn to one particular colour, though do remember that looks aren't everything, health and temperament are more important in the long run. You'll get to love your ferret whatever he or she looks like.

Healthy ferrets look alert rather than moping, their eyes are clear, and they have no discharges from their eyes or nose. They should have a nice soft coat with no bald patches or sores, and check the rear end for squittiness.

Should you get a male ferret (also called a 'hob') or a female ferret (also called a 'jill')? And should they be neutered? This depends a lot on what you want to do with the ferret. You do have to neuter female ferrets if you don't want them to breed. There are differing opinions as to whether neutered males or females are better as pets. Females tend to be smaller, and some owners say they learn better than neutered males, but others report no difference. Entire males tend to be a bit too smelly as indoor pets, and they can also be aggressive with other ferrets, but handlers of working ferrets often prefer entire males to neutered males, and say they make better hunters. Descenting is not carried out in the UK, and if you live in the UK and want an entire male, you will just have to learn to love his smell!

There are more factors to take into account if you already have a ferret, and want to acquire another. Ferrets generally like each other's company, and live together happily, but introductions are not always easy. Serious fighting is very likely if you have an older entire male that is not used to the company of other ferrets, and you introduce another older entire male. 'Serious' means that fighting could result in the death of one or both ferrets. Introductions are much easier if both the ferrets are quite young, the males are neutered, and both ferrets have recent experience of living or just playing with other ferrets.

Some ferrets get on so well that you can let them share a large cage early on - though you need to give them a lot of supervised play together to make really sure they get on fine, and two ferrets need more room than a ferret living alone. One way of seeing whether your existing ferret will like a newcomer is to take your ferret along with you when you choose his or her playmate. After all, think of all the people you know. Would you get on with just anyone who was plucked from the street and put in your house? Or would you prefer to choose someone you felt comfortable with?

Generally, it's safer to go for slow introductions. This is especially true if you have to take on a ferret urgently, say one who is homeless. It's also better to go slow with introducing a kit to an older ferret, in case the kit is hurt in a fight, or is so seriously frightened that this affects how the kit gets on with other ferrets in the future. Slow introductions means keeping the ferrets in separate cages at first, not letting them out together for a week or so, and then only under strict supervision. Separate cages are also a good idea if you are worried that a new acquisition may not be healthy, and you want a quarantine period.

Ferrets react to other ferret smells, and after a while your new ferret will smell more like your existing one, rather than smelling 'foreign', because they will be eating the same food and using the same sort of bedding. You can speed up this process by swapping a little bedding between cages, so they get used to each others' smells. Only do this if you are sure your new ferret is healthy. You may also want to bathe both ferrets, though ferrets shouldn't be subjected to baths very often.

After your ferrets have spent a week or so in cages near each other, you can try letting them meet close to each other. If you want to be very cautious, try this somewhere where no ferret has been - in an unused guest room in your house, or even in someone else's house. This means that it's neutral territory, and your existing ferret is less likely to want to defend his territory from an intruder.

Just let the ferrets have a sniff of each other at first, and see how they react. If they seem curious and peaceful, give them more freedom. Allow them space, so that neither ferret feels cornered, but not too much space, because you also need to be able to catch them if they start to get too rough. They are quite likely to scrap at first. This is not serious if they keep going back for more, but watch out for one desparately trying to get away from the other. If you don't feel confident about understanding ferret play, get an experienced friend to help with the introduction. Rough fighting tends to be faster, more furious and noisier than playfighting. Separate the ferrets if they get too rough, and wait another few days before trying again. Try not to be rough with the aggressor, just be patient, so that you keep stress levels down. Give the ferrets several meetings with supervised play time before putting them in a cage together, and only cage them together after they have met for three days in a row with no serious scraps.

Introducing a ferret to a group is trickier. A group of ferrets (also called a 'business) tends to develop its own hierarchy and social rules after a while, and an outsider can take a while to fit in. It helps to split up the group, so that the new ferret can meet them one at a time first, before allowing them playtime all together. You need to be especially careful with two or more ferrets which have grown unused to meeting new ferrets, and have only had each other's company for years. Just take it very slowly and cautiously. Rehoming may be the only solution if your new ferret and your existing ferret(s) don't get on. It may be kinder to find the newcomer a home where he or she is the 'only ferret' if you think they don't fit in because they are socially inept. This may be the case with adult ferrets that have not been socialized with other ferrets from when they were tiny kits. You could try out the newcomer with friends' ferrets to see if they get on, if you think that the newcomer is a sociable sort, and your ferrets have been a bit too snotty about outsiders. Usually patience pays off in the long run, however, and rehoming is not necessary.


Working ferrets are often kept out of doors, in a hutch, or in a shed with straw and shredded paper as bedding. They can withstand cold, so long as they are kept dry, and have a cosy den with plenty of bedding, but should be protected against direct sunlight. Pet ferrets are usually kept in a cage indoors. You may want to give them the run of a room, but they can get up to too much mischief if left alone in a room, knocking over objects and burrowing into furniture. They will tend to sleep happily when you leave them alone in a cage, so long as you give them enough exercise when you are with them.

Metal cages allow your ferret to keep in touch with the outside world, and can be cleaned more easily than wooden cages. Tanks are used by some people, and are easy to clean, but they aren't really good ferret homes. Ferrets do like to put their noses out to twitch at passing smells, and tanks also don't allow for much ventilation. Aim for the largest cage you can afford, or have room for, at least 0.5 metres by 1 metre wide, and 0.5 metres high, for one ferret, and some 1.5 metres wide for two ferrets. The cage should fasten securely, because ferrets are good at escaping. You may even want a lock. You can use a cardboard box for a den, with drain pipes running off it, and a lid, which allows you to clean the den, while giving the ferret privacy the rest of the time You can put an old T-shirt in it for the ferret to sleep on, washing this regularly with very hot water and unperfumed soap. Some people use carpet samples or lino for the cage floor. Whatever you use should be washable, dust-free, and not offer bite-sized lumps that the ferret might chew off and swallow. Wood shavings tend to create dust, so aren't recommended, and there is concern that both cedar and pine shavings could harm pets from the chemicals they give off.

Provide your ferret with a litter tray in a corner, with non-clumping cat litter. The clumping variety can get stuck to them. You also need a food bowl that can be cleaned easily and doesn't tip if stood on, ie an earthenware bowl rather than plastic or metal. The water bowl should also be heavy, or you can use a water bottle.

Ferrets like to tunnel, so you can provide drainpipe lengths, and they like to nap in hammocks! You can make little ferret hammocks from old clothes, using eyelets to draw the string to hold the hammock. Hammocks are useful placed below a top shelf, in cages with several levels. This way your ferret is less likely to fall from a height and get hurt. You can put other toys, like golf balls, in the cage, but don't overdo it. Your ferret is likely to sleep most of the time when you are not providing entertainment by letting him out, and there are risks of intestinal blockages from some toys that ferrets can chew and swallow. They can also get their toes caught in some materials, like towelling, and get their heads stuck in narrow tubes like toilet paper tubes. The best way to make sure your ferret is entertained is to take him out of the cage at least once a day, and give him a run.

Letting your ferret out means ferretproofing a room. This is by no means easy, since ferrets are agile, inquisitive and slender creatures which can worm their way through the smallest hole. Ideally, you want a room where the skirting board meets the floor, with no little escape holes, and you need to be able to check behind all the furniture and appliances. They can get under doorways, and into the backs of sofas. This is dangerous because it's easy to crush a ferret if you don't know he is there. Always check that you know where your ferret is before you try moving heavy furniture, opening sofa beds, or putting washing in the washing machine. It's easiest to have chairs and sofas of a simple design that ferrets can't get lost in - with wood frames and cushions rather than an inside that looks like a ferret playground with lots of space to tunnel in.

Ferrets can knock over bottles and ornaments, and chew anything they get their little teeth into, which can be dangerous if they swallow it. They are good climbers, so it doesn't help to put dangerous things like rubbers, earphones, or whatever high up - just take them out of the room. Bathrooms can be hazardous, because ferrets can fall down the toilet and not be able to get out! They may try to eat your house plants, and will probably dig holes in the earth. They will of course taste any food you leave lying around, as well as soap, candles, and vegetables in the vegetable rack. They may even chew on wiring, which is of course dangerous, so make sure that wires are blocked off from your ferret, using casing or other barriers. Bitter apple is a good deterrent to chewers, but by the time your ferret has tasted it, it may be too late, so it's safer not to allow ferrets access to electrical wiring. Ferrets can also get into cupboards and small drawers, so use fasteners and locks.

The only way to test whether your ferret proofing is adequate is to let your ferret loose and see what happens. Constant supervision is important, because ferrets can surprise you with what they can get up to, and they can easily take a nap in a dangerous place, like the back of a sofa or laundry in a washing machine and get hurt. Kits are fast movers, and they also need house training, with numerous litter trays in strategic places. You may want to build a large playpen with a mesh roof for a kit, just to make sure he wees where you want him to, and to be able to control what he gets up to.


Ferrets are predators and carnivores. They will eat some vegetable matter, but don't overdo it, and make sure that most of their diet comes from animal sources. There are special ferret foods available. Some people use cat food, though the fishy varieties may make your ferret smell more. Polecats in the wild are partial to fish, frogs, small birds, and rabbits. There are enough pressures on wild amphibians without adding to them by catching them for ferrets. Wild rabbits are, however, numerous to the extent of being pests in much of Europe, especially in the UK (they are scarce in some of southern Europe, like Spain, where Viral Haemorrhagic Disease is a problem). Boiled wild bunny is a good treat for your ferret. Boiling is a safety measure, since wild rabbits can harbour parasites and bacteria that cause infectious diseases. Make sure that any wild food you feed your ferret does not contain lead pellets, which could poison your pets. If you do feed your ferret raw food, make sure it's from a reliable source, and is fresh, so is not likely to poison your ferret with bacterial toxins. Ferrets and polecats will also eat slugs, worms and some insects. Ferrets will enjoy some home-prepared food as a treat, but you need to read up on ferret nutrition if you plan to feed nothing but home-prepared food. An all-meat diet, for example could leave your ferret with a calcium deficiency, and if you use calcium supplements, or crushed eggshells as a source of calcium, you need to get the dosage right.

Ferrets need higher protein levels than dogs, so dog food is not suitable for ferrets. Kits and young ferrets need more protein than older adults, so higher protein kitten food is better than food designed for adult cats. Use a good quality brand, and avoid foods with artificial colourings and high levels of grain protein. Ferrets don't eat much, and they need less of the premium-quality foods, so it's not really a saving to buy cheap, low-quality food. You can rotate foods in case one brand is deficient in any nutrient, and in order to ensure than your ferret doesn't get too 'picky' and just want to eat one brand that may not always be available. Be careful with sudden changes in diet though, especially with kits, since this can trigger reactions. Introduce new foods slowly, mixing them with the old food, and completing the changeover over a few days.

What shouldn't ferrets eat? Generally, avoid giving them sweets, especially chocolate (which contains a stimulant that can have bad effects on ferrets) and sweets that stick to their teeth. Acid fruits are not recommended because they damage teeth and are not needed. Onions or garlic, can cause changes in ferrets' blood, so should also be avoided. Ferrets are also lactose-intolerant, so should not be fed cow's milk or milk products, though goat's milk is less of a problem. Bran can be helpful for constipated ferrets, but only in tiny amounts. Very salty pub snacks, that tend to be packed with additives, should also be avoided. You can use your own cat treats if you take your ferret to the pub, or freeze-dry liver, and give your treats to anyone who wants to feed your ferret.

There is a debate as to whether wet or dry food is better. Polecats do eat raw 'wet' food, so the argument that ferrets need dry food to keep their teeth clean is a little suspect. Ferrets with tooth decay have often been fed on unsuitable foods, like sweet biscuits, and that, rather than wet food, is likely to be the cause of their problems. Dry food can stick to the teeth where it can be a breeding ground for germs.In any case, inflammation tends to be the big problem with gum disease, and inflammation is linked to your ferret's general health and nutrition, rather than whether you feed wet or dry food. Dry food can leave ferrets dehydrated, especially if they run out of water, and canned wet food does not contain preservatives. Wet food doesn't keep long though, so it may be more wasteful, since uneaten food has to be thrown away. Dry food should be stored according to instructions, since it can deteriorate, especially if bought in bulk and left open in a warm place. Generally, it's safer to give kits and sickly ferrets at least some wet food. The best way to ensure your ferret has healthy gums and clean teeth is to give him something to chew, either raw food or a special chew, and to clean his teeth regularly.

How much should your ferret eat? This depends on the ferret's age and activity levels. Kits tend to consume a lot for their weight, whereas older ferrets tend to be less active and need less food. Nursing mothers have especially high nutritional needs. Go by the manufacturer's recommendations if you feed a special ferret food, and adjust if your ferret seems too skinny or too fat. Many people free-feed their ferrets, always leaving food out. This is only advisable if your ferret is not obese, and if you feed dry food. Wet food tends to get dirty and pick up bacteria if it hangs around for too long, especially if not stored in a fridge. Feeding a ferret twice a day, and removing uneaten food after a while allows you to train your ferret more easily with titbits, because food becomes more interesting if it isn't there all the time.


Ferrets can suffer from many of the ailments that affect cats and dogs, and more! Vets vary in terms of how well they handle ferrets. It's well worth ringing up your local vets, to find one who sounds really enthusiastic about treating ferrets, and who also sounds like they know what they are talking about. You can do this before getting your ferret, so you already have a good vet in the case of an emergency. Kits have to be vaccinated against canine distemper, so it helps if you already have a ferret-friendly vet lined up. They do not have to be vaccinated against rabies in the UK, though check with your vet about this if you live elsewhere in Europe.

A particular characteristic of jills is that their health is seriously at risk once they go into season, unless they are mated, or you take them to the vets for an injection, which tricks their body into thinking they have been mated. Otherwise the season continues, and the jill may suffer anaemia. You can use a vasectomised male, if you don't want to breed from your jill, but it's simpler just to have her spayed when she is around six months' old.

Entire males tend to loose weight in the breeding season, especially if there are entire females about, and this is normal. Their minds are on other things! Neutered males can also lose weight. If your ferret seems otherwise healthy, this is not something to worry about.

Ferrets can suffer from parasites, like fleas and ear mites, so you need to check them for fleas, and check their ears for dark wax, which can indicate mites. It's best not to bathe ferrets very often. They don't always like it, and may struggle, though they can swim, and some have fun at bath time. They tend to rush round like mad things while they are trying to get dry. The main problem with bathing ferrets is that their skin dries out easily, so they shouldn't really be bathed more than once a month. You need to be very careful to ensure that all the shampoo is rinsed off, to avoid any reaction to it, and make sure that the ferret's ears don't get wet, since wet ears are more likely to become infected. You can use baby oil for cleaning ears. If you have to remove muck from a recently bathed ferret, or one that is too young or sickly for a bath, try baby oil, or just warm water with no shampoo. Bathing ferrets can actually make them smellier, because bathing triggers their glands into replacing lost smelly oils! If you think your ferret is too smelly, try changing his diet, and avoid fishy and other smelly foods. The best way to keep ferrets clean, sweet-smelling and free of parasites is to ensure that their bedding is kept clean, and their cages are cleaned out regularly. Vets can supply products to control fleas and earmites.

You also need to check your ferret's teeth and gums regularly, and have the vet see to them if the teeth have a lot of tartar, or the gums look swollen. You can help your ferret keep his mouth healthy by cleaning his teeth, using a pet toothpaste with enzymes, by never feeding him sweets or snacks designed for humans, however much he seems to like them, and by giving him something to chew.

Your ferret should wear down his nails naturally, so long as he gets enough exercise on hard surfaces, but they may need trimming now and then, especially if you have an older, less active ferret.. Get someone experienced to show you how the first time. You need to keep the ferret still, and cut carefully so you don't damage the quick.

Ferrets can handle cold quite well, but don't like to get too hot, so make sure you don't leave them in a cage in a car with the window closed, or in a cage by a window with direct sunlight that they cannot escape from, or even outdoors in a cage that gets the full heat of the sun.

One problem that particularly affects kits is the tendency of ferrets to eat non-food items! You do need to ensure that your ferret doesn't have access to any non-food object that he might eat, which could cause a blockage in his insides. Take him to the vet if you suspect he has eaten something he shouldn't, or if he is off his food and isn't defecating. It's also worth taking him if he has diarrhoea that doesn't clear up after a couple of days.

Ferrets can also suffer from tumours, especially as they get older. They are not always serious, but it's still worth having lumps checked out by a vet.

European ferrets come from different breeding stock from US ferrets, so US ferrets are prone to more diseases than European ferrets. Inbreeding, however, should be avoided, and ferrets that are bred from should be exceptionally healthy, to avoid producing sickly ferrets.

You'll get to know your ferret's moods after a while, and will soon sense if he is down in the dumps. Ferrets like periods of intense activity, punctuated with long sleeps. They will calm down a bit as they get older, but should still look alert when they come out to play. It's worth having your ferret checked by the vet if you feel he is moping, because this could mean he has a health problem. One excellent ferret health book is Hillyer and Quesenberry's 'Ferrets Rabbits and Rodents', which is especially helpful for experienced owners with several ferrets. If you are a novice with just one ferret, you may find yourself poring over the book imagining the worst, so if in doubt, see the vet, who can give you peace of mind.


Ferret breeding is a complicated affair, as you will have guessed from reading the 'health' section! Entire Jills (female ferrets) are usually ready to mate in the spring, and their seasons are affected by daylight hours. The age at which they first come into season varies according to the amount of daylight which their bodies think they are getting, and when their bodies think it is spring - this can be affected by artificial light. A jill may have her first season at between six months and a year. Ferrets have been known to breed much younger though, so it's safest to separate entire males and females after weaning. Jills must mate if they come into season, with a vasectomised or an entire male, or you need to take them to the vets for an injection.

Mating can appear violent and last a long time. The gestation period is some 44 days, and around 6-12 kits are born in each litter. The female can come into season some two weeks after the birth. This means forward thinking - lining up prospective owners on a provisional waiting list (you can't make definite promises in case something happens to the kits), and working out what to do when the jill is back in season again. It helps if you don't have a very demanding job when your ferrets are breeding.

There's a lot of work involved, then, and this isn't the only reason why it's worth asking 'why breed'? Yes, kits are enchanting little creatures, but that is perhaps not the best reason to produce them! There are plenty of unwanted ferrets being looked after by rescue organizations, so there is no shortage of ferrets. The parents you select should be very special in more ways than just being your beloved pets. You could lose the mother during the birth, and owners aren't always the best judges of whether our pets are good breeding material. It helps to have an experienced ferret breeder check out the ones you plan to breed from, and give an objective opinion. You need to ensure that the hob and jill are in peak condition, and come from ancestors which have no known inherited health problems. It's worth checking how long their ancestors lived, and what they died from.

Breeding ferrets involves skills as a handler, such as being able to 'read' your ferrets, to be able to tell if anything is going wrong. So it's safer to breed them only after you have built up a lot of experience and really know your ferrets. First-time breeders also benefit enormously from the support of a ferret club, or help from an experienced ferret breeder. You may need to borrow an entire male for the mating if your own male is unable to perform for any reason. The jill may have trouble with the birth. She may not have enough milk, so a friend with a potential foster mum could save some or all of the kits. It can be a stressful time for you, as owner, or you may simply want to share your joy about how the kits are coming along. You can read books and articles, but a good support network of experienced ferret owners can be a life-saver, for you and your ferrets.

See also:

Ferrets: Training and behaviour

 Reviews of books on ferret care, health, training, and working ferrets 

Further reading:

Lindeberg H1. (2008) Reproduction of the female ferret (Mustela putorius furo).Reprod Domest Anim. 43 Suppl 2:150-6. doi: 10.1111/j.1439-0531.2008.01155.x.

Risi E. (2014) Control of reproduction in ferrets, rabbits and rodents.Reprod Domest Anim. 49 Suppl 2:81-6. doi: 10.1111/rda.12300.