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What is a Ferret? It is a very close and silly relative of the weasel, polecat and the mink. Ferrets are also related to otters, skunks and badgers. They are all part of the Mustelidae family. The scientific name for a ferret is Mustela furo. Furo is Latin for thief.

Ferrets are not related to rodents. They are carnivores. In fact, wild ferrets enjoy a tasty mouse. All Mustelidae have various scent glands for marking and protection. Most reknown is the skunk. While the ferret cannot spray, it can mark its territory or emit a smell when frightened. Today, most pet stores sell ferrets that have been descented. The anal scent gland is surgically removed when they are neutered or spayed. While ferrets have various scent glands throughout the body, the anal scent gland seems to be the main culprit. Both male and female ferrets are also surgically altered so that they cannot reproduce. This has the added benefit of reducing certain hormones in ferrets and in turn leads to a further reduction in their scent. Therefore, the descented animal's smell is no more an issue with a ferret than it is with a hamster, dog or cat.

There are both wild ferrets and domesticated ferrets just as there are wild cats and domesticated cats, wild dogs and domesticated dogs. In North America, the wild Black- footed ferret is an endangered species. However, while it is a ferret, it is biologically and genetically different from your run of the mill pet ferret. The ferrets you see in your local pet store are domesticated and have been especially bred so for perhaps two thousand years or longer. Your pet ferret is not wild and would most certainly die if let loose in the the wild. A pet ferret may kill a mouse if it comes across one, but it not longer possesses the instinct to eat it.

The pet-store domesticated ferrets are most closely related to the European polecats which have the same number of chromosomes and similar colorings. Ferrets can be cross-bred with the European polecat and have fertile offspring. This lends credence to the theory that they are indeed very closely related. One common theory is that the pet ferret is really just a domesticated European polecat. Sort of like a German Shepherd being a domesticated version of a wolf. It is the fact of domestication which makes all the difference, not the difference in appearance of the animal.

HISTORY

Ferrets were thought to be first domesticated by the Egyptians to control rodents around 1300 B.C. However, they were probably displaced by cats which were domesticated shortly thereafter. While hieroglyphic records depict a ferret-type animal, some argue that this animal was actually a mongoose. Also, ferrets are not really hot or warm weather animals and can easily get heat stroke. So unless the weather in ancient Egypt was much more temperate than it is today, ferrets probably did not come from the pharaohs.

Today's domesticated pet ferrets, the lineage that you will find in todays pet stores, probably came from the Romans and later Europeans who used the ferret in hunting. "Ferreting" meant the chasing of small game from their holes. The painting on the right is from a French book know as The Book of the Hunt written by Gaston Pheobus, around 1389 a.d. It demonstrates the hunting of rabbits with ferrets. The man in the green sleeves is placing a muzzled ferret into a rabbit hole. The rabbit's exits have been covered with nets. Ferrets are most adept at tunnel-hunting but are susceptible to larger carnivores above ground. They are knowm to kill game twice their size. They were also used by farmers to rid barns of rodents and mariners to control rodents on ships. What rodents weren't killed by ferrets were frightened from the barn for months due to the ferrets' scent. Rodents are deathly fearful of the ferret's scent. Queen Victoria had ferrets in 1875. Ferrets also appearing in the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie "Kindergarten Cop." Ferrets were used in rodent control in the U.S.A. until they were displaced by chemical poisons and traps. Ferrets were even used by Boeing to run wires through tight spaces in aircraft assemblies. Strangely, in 1999 Lt. Co. Blaisdell came to the U.S. Space Commands rescue when it was having trouble wiring its new missile warning center. The good Lt. Col. recalled the aircraft exploits of ferrets long ago and volunteered his ferret named Misty. Misty ran wires for computers in conduits at the the Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado in areas that no humans could access. The ferret apparently worked for strawberry Pop Tarts.

While commercial and hunting uses for ferrets have disappeared, ferrets seemed to explode in popularity as pets once someone figured out how to descent them back in the 1970's. Once the odor of the ferret was controlled, the ferret became a pet you could keep in you house without stinking it up.

PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS

Female ferrets weigh from 1.5 pounds to 2.5 pounds. Males are much larger in comparison, weighing from 3 to 5 pounds. Male ferrets are said to be more "lap ferrets" while females are notorious for being fidgety. Ferrets come in a variety of colors such as sable, albino white, cinnamon, silvermit and black. There are also many color permutations such as white paws, bibs around the neck, stripes on the head or back and colored tips of the tail. In the old days, albino ferrets were bred because they were particularly easy to spot and retrieve when used in hunting.

Ferrets reach adulthood rapidly in around six months and live an average of 6 to 8 years. The age rule for ferrets is 1 year of a ferrets life = 12 years of a human's life. Ferrets retain their playfulness throughout their lives. But the older a ferret gets, the more likely it is that he will like to sit in your lap. Young ferrets are very fidgety, old ones are more likely to be cuddled.

Adult ferrets sleep around 15 hours a day. They usually coordinate their sleeping habits to conform to their owner's schedule. They will awaken when you're ready for breakfast and go back to sleep while you're out at work. They will awake and be ready to play when you get home again.

Ferrets love to play. They will play with you, another ferret and usually another pet. They love to be chased and to chase you. They enjoy playing tug-of-war, running in tubes of pvc piping, jumping on blankets, hiding behind throw pillows, chasing small fuzzy balls, attacking squeaky little cat toys and in general, being very silly. They are also somewhat uncoordinated. When a ferrets gets excited and begins to dance and jump in little circles of joy, don't be surprised if he jumps himself off of a sofa or runs zig-zaggedly into a wall. Fortunately, they usually aren't phased by this.

All ferrets seem to like to steal whatever they can drag away, either in their teeth or by dragging something like a shoe with their paws. Even things as big as a boot. They like to hide whatever they steal. They usually just put things they find interesting in a place that they consider safe and convenient for themselves. They usually have one or two stashes in your home. Once you find them, you can find anything that turns up missing.

Ferrets are also relatively intelligent for having such silly small brains. They are able to solve problems which interest them. For example, how to get into the cabinet to drag away all the rolls of paper towels. However, this ability to get into and open things can be a problem, so see the section on ferret-proofing. Ferrets have good memory and know where they put things, like a squirrel remembers where he buries a nut. If you move a ferret's "possession," it won't be long until they are back where your ferrets thinks they belong. Ferrets can also develop special attachments to certain toys. One of my ferrets goes crazy when you squeeze her squeaky hedgehog. She immediately comes tearing around the corner to the sound of the toy and tries to snatch it out of your hand. It's as she thinks it's one of her babies crying for mother. I can even squeeze it 100 feet from my house on the lawn and both ferrets will come running out an open door to the sound of the toy. One ferret, Pookie, is the panicky mother of the toy, while the other comes running alongside like a concerned aunt helping to insure the safety of the "baby." The mother ferret grabs it out of my hands and they both run back into the house with tay and tails all puffed up. Pookie grabs onto it so tight with her teeth that you can actually carry her around by the hedgehog as she dangles from it.My males do not seem to care for squeaky noises.

MALE AND FEMALE STEREOTYPES

Like most other species of animals, male and female ferrets display certain characteristics that one might call stereotypical. For instance, females are quick to rise from a slumber whereas a male tends to lounge a little before finally getting up. Females spend more time making sure toys and other ferret possessions are in order. Males are less picky. Females spend a lot of time house cleaning, moving about, checking the territory and making sure toys are in the correct place. Males, on the other hand, have more extreme states of activity. Males are lazy most of the time, but when it's time to get active, they're more rambunctious than the females. Females dance around the home on their toes like cats while the males have heavy steps and stomp like small dogs. Female ferrets get very possessive of squeaky toys as if they were crying babies. Males could care less about the squeaking and often move away. Females are fairly fidgety and usually do not like to be held for extended periods of time. Males are far more likely to accept the pampering. Females feel more delicate when being held while the males feel heavier and more muscular. Females consume less food and water and also produce less waste in your litter box than males. Males require a little more cage space and definitely a large litter box. Males need a larger litter box not just because of their size, but because of the way their anatomy is.  Females are neater and less messy than males when it comes to using the litter box. Females generally pile fecal matter while males usually do not. Males and females also pose differing logistic and security concerns. Males can get to places females might not because they are stronger climbers, higher jumpers and can open or move heavier items. But by the same token, since females are generally smaller, they can squeeze into places males might not be able to.

 

THE BOTTLE-BRUSH TAIL

When ferrets are nervous, scared, upset, or exploring new territory, they often exhibit a characteristic known as the "bottle-brush tail." When this occurs, ferret tails get really big and puffy and the hair sticks straight out in a most silly fashion. But fear not. This is a normal ferret reaction to environmental stimuli and does not mean your ferret is sick. It usually lasts only a few minutes and then the tail will return to normal. Fruity on the right was freaked out from being outside. Pookie on the left got nervous around a cat. It's probably good for a ferret to get excited once in a while like this. It makes them feel all wild and silly.

 

 

FEEDING REQUIREMENTS

Ferrets require a high protein diet and plenty of fresh water. Protein levels should be at least 33%. The protein should also come primarily from chicken or poultry. Steer clear of food that lists fish meal as its first, second or third ingredient. Ferrets are not big fish eaters. Minks are. Many so-called ferret foods are nothing more than an adaptation of mink feed. This is not acceptable for ferrets. I have been feeding my ferrets Iams chicken flavored kitten food and have had good results. Recently, I have also found an acceptable ferret food called "8 in 1 Ultimate Ferret Food." It is high in protein and mostly chicken. I mix the Iams with the 8 in 1 for variety for my ferrets.

Ferrets also can be given meats such as turkey cold cuts. Mine do not like beef. Many ferrets will not even try real meat. They can also be given moderate amount of cereals and grains and some fruits and vegetable like, raisins, banana slices, bean sprouts, bland Cheerios, goats milk and cooked egg. What one ferret may love another may turn up her nose to. Their diet should also be supplemented with vitamins such as Ferretone or Ferretvite by 8 in 1 products. Remember that treats are just that, treats, and ferrets should be given them in very small amounts only.

Ferrets eat many small meals a day due to their short digestive tracts. There should always be a supply of food in a bowl for them to eat on their own schedule. Feeding them dry food helps keep their teeth in excellent condition. Canned food tends to go bad too quickly for the feeding habits of ferrets.

Ferrets should never be given any chocolate as you will find your ferret vomiting violently all night or perhaps dead. Chocolate is very toxic to ferrets. They are also lactose-intolerant, so do not feed them milk, ice cream, cheese or other dairy products, no matter how much they beg. Ferrets can ingest goat's milk since it contains little lactose. Things made from goats milk should be fine for your ferret. Do not feed your ferret dog food or sugary sweets.

 

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