Back to Basics - So You Think You Want A Ferret?Dr June McNicolas and Michael Sanderson team up to help you decide if a ferret is the right companion for your family.
Believe it or not, not all readers of Ferrets First are ferret owners. Quite a few are people who are considering getting ferrets and doing some background reading first.
Some readers are very new to ferrets themselves and, as many admit, 'have found out the hard way' by taking in a ferret without knowing what they were taking on.
Most of you, 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 a ferret. So how do you answer someone who is genuinely asking whether a ferret would suit them?
Some of the questions people ask may seem basic, even daft, but we were all first time owners once and I bet we'd 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. So here we go.
WHAT ARE FERRETS LIKE?
Usually this means that someone is asking 'are ferrets like cats/dogs/rabbis/hamsters, etc' to give them some idea based on an animal they 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 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. Ferrets are probably the most unique pet you can have but this provides hours of fun for new owners as you get to know how this animal thinks and behaves. Watch them though, mischief is the ferret's middle name! Some ferrets are so playful and mischievous it almost seems as if they never grow up.
ARE THEY HARD TO KEEP?
This deceptively simple question demands a complex answer. What is meant by 'hard to keep'? Expensive? Demanding? Need a lot of complicated equipment or routines? 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 housing first, where it would go etc as a major step in deciding to proceed any further. If you want to keep your ferret outside you must have somewhere in the garden out of direct sunlight as ferrets don't cope well in heat. Judging whether ferrets are demanding as pets is a bit tricky. They certainly need daily exercise, 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. Ferrets are amazing time keepers. Once you've got your ferrets into a daily routine they will be waiting for you at the hutch wire. One of the hardest things with ferrets at first is understanding the breeding cycle and knowing when your jills are ready to be brought out of season, etc. For your first year at least it is best to seek advice from another ferret owner rather than just guess. Apart from that just give them a nice big house, feed them and clean them out daily, give them lots of love and attention and they'll be happy. It may seem difficult at first but, like everything else, once you know how, it's easy.
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 it says a great deal for the general temperment of ferrets that most of even the most horrific rescue cases quickly become gentle when well fed and treated with affection and respect. 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 where time and effort has been taken to restore a ferret's trust and affection for people.
CAN I TRUST THEM WITH MY CHILDREN?
A well handled, well looked after ferret makes a brilliant pet for kids. Supervise them at first and show them how to treat the ferret properly. If they are confident with the ferret, and you trust it yourself, then no problems should arise. Believe it or not, huge cuddly castrated hobs are often better for smaller children. They are less wriggly than sometimes flighty jills and tend to be more tolerant. It's funny to watch smaller kids trying to pick up a small jill ferret because they just wriggle out of their grip and flee! When it comes to a big hob, the kids tend to wrap their arms around the bigger body and carry them around like a baby! Ferrets love to play, and so do kids, therefore they make brilliant companions as long as they understand one another.
CAN I OWN JUST ONE FERRET OR DO THEY NEED COMPANY?
It is highly advisable for you to have a companion for your ferret. They are very sociable animals and many don't like to be kept alone. For a first time owner it's best to home two, then, within a few months, you'll probably fall in love and end up with 12 (we've all done it!). Remember if you buy your new pets as kits then the hobs will need to be castrated in the spring or given their own home until the end of the summer.
WHAT DO I FED THEM?
Ferrets eat a wide variety of food. You can feed them anything from complete ferret biscuits to raw chicken wings, tuna fish, mince or fresh rabbit and birds if you go ferreting or shooting. If you vary their diet to include all these things then you will have a diet that includes all the vitamins and protein needed for their body to function, as well as keeping teeth clean and coats soft. Make sure any meat you give them is raw as this is better for them. Give them extra supplements like cod liver oil or Ferretone as a treat (or as a form of bribery when you're cutting their nails!)
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 to 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, ferrets is a wonderful experience. If we can help and support new owners we can ensure more ferrets find loving permanent homes. As mentioned before, many people fall in love with ferrets and end up with many more once they've learned how to handle and care for them. There are loads of shows and racing events that you can take your ferrets to and have a bit of fun while getting to know other people who share your hobby. One thing for sure is tht as a ferret keeper you'll never be bored!