Domestic Ferret

Mustela putorius furo

Order: Carnivora

Husbandry Information

Housing Requirements

  • Plan on a multilevel enclosure as ferrets are very active when awake and will utilize ramps and ladders to use all the enclosure space. Use dryer vent tubing to create a tunnel system.
  • Ferrets are readily litterbox trained.
  • Be deliberate in the placement of where animals are housed if you have predators like ferrets living in the same room as prey animals. Injury or stress can be caused by poor placement.
  • Enclosure security is vital since ferrets can easily escape from enclosures that provide a small gap which is a problem with many wire type enclosures.
  • A good commercial enclosure is available – the Ferret Nation cage. Bass Equipment will custom make a metal tray to fit the bottom of the enclosure which can be turned into a “litterbox level.” Be aware that staff must be vigilant about door closure for this cage to make sure the “pin” seats so the door is secure.
  • Provide hanging hammocks and sleeping beds in several locations.
  • Ferrets will use water bottles and prefer shallow bowls.
  • Ferrets like to get under anything, including food and water dishes. Use heavy ceramic bowls if you have a ferret that likes to dump food and water.

Diet Requirements

  • In captivity, ferrets are fed “Totally Ferret,” a nutritionally complete feed specifically for ferrets.
  • Similarly built species in the wild eat ground squirrels, prairie dogs, mice, birds, and insects.
  • Despite centuries of domestication, ferrets are still adept predators and can catch and kill animals more than two times its own body weight.
  • Some zoos supplement kibble feeds with whole prey. Be aware of their caching behavior, and search for/remove headless mice regularly!
  • Greensboro Science center feeds Mazuri ferret diet, along with wet cat food, and chopped pinkies (pinkies added to pm diet only), They are fed 2xs a day

Veterinary Concerns

  • Many ferret suffer from adrenal disease which can be treated but the treatment only slows the disease and is expensive to treat for long periods of time. A better long term solution is to focus on acquiring healthy animals from responsible breeders. Philadelphia Zoo has better luck with ferrets with “wild” type coloration rather than the many color morphs developed and by avoiding Marshall Farms produced ferrets. The Marshall Farms ferrets are mainly sold by pet stores and have a high incidence of earlier occurring health problems. You may want to consider those animals if it a rescue situation but be aware of the potential for veterinary concerns with these animals.
  • In recent years, ferrets have had adverse reactions to rabies and distemper vaccines. Some of the reactions have been life threatening. This can be mitigated by dosing animals with Benedryl pre-vaccine.

Notes on Enrichment & Training

  • A moderately high level of enrichment is optimal for this species, a high level if the animal is housed solo.
  • Good enrichment items include plastic balls that are too big to swallow, commercial cat, dog and ferret toys, large diameter PVC tubes, dryer vent tubing, novel scents presented to prevent consumption, and outside of enclosure exercise.
  • Ferrets do well in a program animal environment and can usually be handled by a wide variety of skill level handlers.
  • Animals that are not socialized properly when they are young can become nippers and nippers can become biters if not handled properly. Do not engage in play (especially wrestle-type play) with your hand. This conditions animals to bite at the hand because biting is normal play behavior for ferrets. Instead, use toys to play with the ferrets and only use your hands to handle or give a treat.
  • They do well on harnesses and can be walked around the zoo.

Other

Colony or Breeding Management

 

Individual Identification

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Programmatic Information

Transportation

Temperature Guidelines

 

Crating:

Tips on Presentation

  • Gloves can be used if handling an animal who bites, but it is better to focus on appropriate training for staff on how to properly handle and train instead.
  • Binghamton Zoo at Ross Park do not send their ferrets to programs a long distance from the zoo because they constantly scratch inside their carriers when left there for a period of time.
  • Greensboro Science Center adds towels or fleece to crates to make the ferrets more comfortable/ calm while they wait

Touching Techniques

Tips on Handling

  • If possible, bring up young ferrets to be handled from an early age.
  • Gradually increase the length of your handling sessions. Ideally, your ferrets should remain calm being held for up to 15 minutes.
  • The long, flexible body of the ferret is fun to show to your audience. Remember not to go overboard – although it doesn’t hurt a ferret to be folded in half, in can look a little extreme!
  • Train your ferrets to squeeze through a narrow tube; this can lead to discussion on natural adaptation, e.g., down the burrow of a prey animal, or their domestic uses, e.g., running cables through conduit.
  • Ferrets are readily trained. At Happy Hollow Zoo in San Jose, our ferrets know target, up (stand on haunches), spin, step up (on to box/platform), eliminate on cue, dig, and respond to their names. We use small pieces of meat, or chicken baby food from a spoon, as a reinforcer.
  • Training your ferret to walk on leash is a great way to give it exercise. Just be sure to use the correct size harness so the ferret can’t slip out.

 

Potential Messaging

  • Blank Park Zoo talks about responsible pet ownership when presenting ferrets. We also talk about the endangered Black Footed ferret in the Western United States.

Acquisition Information

  • Ferrets are not usually bred in AZA facilities. Often, members of the general public will call to offer ferrets. Be aware that these ferrets frequently have health and behavioral issues so be sure you have the time and money to invest if accepting an animal from this source.
  • Look for reputable breeders in your area. You can find them at small animal expos, pet expos, through online searching and by looking for clubs. Breeders usually know one another and will sometimes make referrals if they do not have animals available when you inquire.

Comments from the Rating System

  • CuriOdyssey: Clear messaging (defenses, habitats, food web, adaptations)
  • Henry Vilas Zoo: They are highly tractable, great as an ambassador for the black-footed ferret story, and while it is not a “wow” species, people LOVE them because they have such character and can be touched. They can demonstrate adaptation, and attributes of mammals and carnivores.
  • Philadelphia Zoo: If well-socialized, they are good for inexperienced handlers. If they are not well-socialized, biting problems can be common.
  • Roger Williams Park Zoo: Susceptible to medical concerns later in life – expensive to keep through retirement
  • Rosamond Gifford Zoo: Ferrets have a lot of health issues and tend to bite a lot on programs.
  • Zoo New England, Stone Zoo: Although they are smelly and can require a lot of attention, they a great program animals.

Natural History Information

Range and Habitat

The ferret is a domestic animal and is not found in the wild. It is, however, owned in captivity around the entire world.

Physical Description

Similar to weasels, ferrets have long bodies (up to two feet long) and short legs. Their flexible bodies allow them to turn and twist through narrow tunnels and passageways. They have a natural musky odor, and can also release a disagreeable odor from their anal glands when threatened. They are generally 2 to 3 pounds in weight.

Since they have been domesticated, there are many color variants, including sable, silver, cinnamon, chocolate, dark-eyed-white, and albino.

Life Cycle

Ferrets can have 1 or 2 litters per year, with 5 to 10 young per litter. They can live 6 to 10 years in captivity.

Behavior

Ferrets are nocturnal, and they rely more on their senses of smell and hearing than on vision, which is generally poor. Ferrets are very playful creatures, and need to have plenty of stimulation/enrichment/play time.

Threats and Conservation Status

Since this is a domestic species, it is very common and has no conservation status or normal predators. Other, similar species are commonly preyed upon by birds of prey, coyotes, badgers, bobcats, foxes, and rattlesnakes.

Black-footed ferrets, which are related to domestic ferrets, were thought to be extinct until 1981 when a small population was discovered in Wyoming. The last 18 known wild ferrets were taken into captivity in 1981 by the US Fish and Wildlife Service for captive breeding – a program that many zoos across the country eventually participated in. Today, about 300 black-footed ferrets live in 7 captive breeding centers across North America. Their offspring have been released in several Western states. The massive hunting and poisoning campaigns against the prairie dog, the black-footed ferret’s main food source, is what caused the population decline in the first place, and prairie dog management is still a threat to the population today.

In some states, it is illegal to have a ferret as a pet because they are considered carriers of rabies, they are considered wild animals like raccoons or skunks, and/or there is the fear that escaped pets will form feral packs and threaten livestock or native wildlife.

Did you know…

  • Ferret females are called jills, and males are called hobs.
  • Ferrets are thought to have been domesticated for a very long time – perhaps two or three thousand years. They are descended from the European polecat and have been used as hunting animals.
  • Minks are more closely related to domestic ferrets than black-footed ferrets are.

Photographs

BlackjackGrr.jpg
Blackjack, who looks ferocious in this shot, but was a wonderful ambassador! – HHPZ

 

ferret.jpg
Silvio, handled by Denise Soden, demonstrating handling position – HHPZ

 

Documents

Any Documents to attach, species spotlights, etc.

Contributors and Citations

  • The Philadelphia Zoo
  • Notes from comments gathered from completed PARIS rating sheets
  • Blank Park Zoo
  • Happy Hollow Zoo, San Jose
  • Baton Rouge Zoo
  • Greensboro Science Center

Top Photo: By de:User:Viki (de:Wikipedia) [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons