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Ferrets get a really bad rap! Major Frank Burns from M.A.S.H. was often called ‘ferret face’ and someone slyly snooping around is deemed to be ‘ferreting about’. Even the word ferret is derived from the Latin word furritus meaning ‘little fur thief’. But to those that own these playful, mischievous creatures, they are terrific pets that have a personality like no other.

Ferrets are not rodents but are in fact a member of the weasel family which also includes skunks and otters. They are a domesticated species introduced to Australia by the early settlers to keep the rodent population down and for catching rabbits.

Ferrets have a notorious reputation for being sly, clever animals with a tendency for escaping and for thieving. Their short legs, narrow head and long body make it easy for them to fit through the smallest gaps which can be dangerous for them and certainly worries their owners. A healthy ferret kept safe and in clean conditions will live between 6 and 10 years.

Owners of ferrets say that if handled often and treated gently, ferrets are actually very affectionate, playful and intelligent pets. They are quite sociable and so it is recommended that they are kept in pairs giving them someone to play and be active with. Although they play quite rough with each other, doing so with humans can encourage them to become nippy – a difficult habit to break.

Ferrets may not be the most ideal pets for children unless they are old enough to understand the need for gentle and calm handling.

Ferrets are intelligent animals that will soon learn to identify their owner and jump with joy when they see them come home. A single ferret will form a strong bond with their owner however if kept with another ferret, they will prefer to stick with each other and so require less attention from humans.

A ferret can be cuddled but only once it has exhausted himself through playing and running. Start by using a damp cloth to clean his face much like another ferret would when licking him. Clean his nails and ears whilst at it and then give him a long pat and massage that he will love. If he won’t sit still easily, give him a treat to lick which will calm him and make him easier to cuddle and hold. As the ferret matures, he will become more used to this experience and allow himself to be held for even longer.

Ferrets are meat eaters and require a high protein diet of meat and animal by-products. A balance of dried cat food and red meat such as mince, liver or kidney is suitable as are commercially prepared ferret foods. An occasional hard boiled or poached egg is very nutritious for them as is an occasional treat of unseasoned turkey, beef or chicken jerky. Fresh water must always be available but use heavy ceramic bowls for both the food and water so that they can’t be tipped over.

Ferret digestive systems are designed for meat and no matter how much they love the taste of fruits, vegetables and cereals, they have a hard time digesting them and may end up with diarrhea and intestinal problems. Begin offering meat to a ferret whilst it is still a baby as if it hasn’t tasted it by the age of six months old, it may refuse to eat it.

Two ferrets are actually easier to care for than one since they entertain and keep each other active and healthy.

Ferrets are actually quite clean and have similar grooming habits as a cat. They will lick their fur as they clean themselves, sometimes swallowing it causing them to have hairballs. Unlike cats though, they are not able to regurgitate these and if they don’t pass, a trip to the vet for a laxative treatment might be necessary.

Ferrets shed their fur two times a year so that in the warmer months they have a soft, lightweight coat and during winter it is thicker and denser. They need to be brushed once a week with a soft bristle brush and during the shedding season, once a day is probably necessary.

Although baths are not a ferret’s idea of a good time, it does need to be done once a fortnight to remove the smell from their fur. Use warm water and always close the door to the bath area in case the slippery little creature manages to get out of the water. Some ferrets will actually have a swim in the sink or bathtub whilst others will hate it. Use a specific ferret shampoo and conditioner. After washing, place a pile of towels on the floor and the ferret will probably dry himself by rubbing all over them.

Many ferret owners allow their pets to free range around the home or apartment which is fine if the area is ferret proofed and well prepared for this busy little animal. Ferrets love nothing more than to curl up in a dark, cosy spot to sleep and will choose areas behind the furniture, at the back of fridges, air ducts and in closets if they get the chance. Block access to any areas such as these and provide a plastic crate with towels or old clothes for bedding. Enclosed cat igloos with an entrance hole would also be very attractive to indoor ferrets but avoid using wood shavings or sawdust as bedding.

Most ferrets can be trained to use a litter tray which should be placed in the corner of each room that it can access. Recycled paper litter is better for ferrets than clay or silicon based cat litters which, because the animal drags its bottom after going to the toilet, can get into their anus and cause a blockage.

Provided that ferrets get exercise at least twice a day, they can be housed indoors in a large ferret cage with fairly close bars. The cage can be divided into levels using hammocks, ramps and flexible pipes to provide more fun and exercise. There should be enough space to contain a litter box and some bedding and needs to be kept in a cool area out of direct sunlight. Plastic base enclosures help to reduce any leakages and are easily cleaned and disinfected.

Ferrets are very curious and will wander if they escape from the property. If they are to be allowed outside, part or all of the backyard can be ferret proofed but great care is required to ensure that the pet hasn’t found a gap that you may not have considered. Since ferrets will dig in soil or sand, fences need to be buried 60cm in the ground and made from a material that they can’t climb. Keep shrubs and climbers away from the fence but provide plenty of low growing plants that they can hide under.

Ferrets can be taught to walk on a harness and lead which allows them to go outside with their owner. Never use a collar as they will easily slip out of it. They don’t behave like a dog when walking and will decide themselves where to go and how long to be there. Be sure to put the harness on tightly but not so much that it can’t walk normally and test it first indoors to make sure that the ferret doesn’t slip out. Always walk them away from dogs, cats and aggressive birds such as magpies.

Toys are essential for ferrets. Avoid rubber toys that they can chew and swallow but hard plastic toys, ping pong balls and cardboard tubes are lots of fun. Pipes make fun tunnels that keep them busy for ages and provide lots of exercise.

Ferrets love a dig box which is simply a cardboard box or cat litter tray filled with rice (not instant rice), shredded paper or soil that they can ferret around in. Put it in their enclosure on days when they may not get a chance to get out for a run and replace the rice or paper regularly to keep it clean.

Old cardboard boxes are great fun for ferrets. Cut holes in them for the ferrets to enter and join some together to build a cardboard maze. Alternatively, wrap a treat in crinkled up paper that they have to unwrap to get their reward. Even a small change to a room or access to a new area will keep ferrets intrigued and entertained. Move the furniture around or drape a sheet between the sofas under which they can play.

Ferrets also enjoy cat teaser wands, especially those with bells, and will spend ages trying to get kibble out of treat dispenser balls often used for dogs. To encourage ferrets to use toys, try mixing a tiny bit of spice or herb such as oregano or basil with water and paint it on to them. Ferrets love the new smells and will think an old toy is a brand new treat.

Ferrets can become depressed, unsociable and difficult to handle if they don’t get the opportunity to run and play every day. Provide lots of toys and opportunities for them to get out of their enclosure to play.

Ferrets rarely bite unless handled roughly, stressed or frightened and so handling a young one gently for at least 30 minutes every day will make it accustomed to being around humans.

If the ferret does nip, it should be disciplined with a loud ‘no’, held by the scruff of the neck (which won’t hurt it) and given a tap on the nose with the finger. They should never be hit on the head.

Ferrets are prone to heat stroke so need to always have access to fresh water and be kept in a cool area. They are susceptible to canine distemper for which they should be vaccinated. They can also be infected with heartworm but they can be protected with a suitable dog heartworm treatment. The common cold can also be a problem and if this happens, rest and plenty of water is the key.

It is recommended that both males and females are desexed unless there are plans for them to breed. Mature females remain on heat until mated which can lead to a condition of the uterus called pyometra which may lead to death. Desexing will also reduce the strong scent emitted from the glands at the base of the tail as a defence and to attract a mate.

Ferrets are highly susceptible to heat stroke and can quickly die at temperatures above 27°C. Signs of heat stress to look out for are the nose and gums turning dark pink, open mouth when resting, salivating, redness on footpads and being lethargic and lying flat on the floor.

Don’t rely on fans and breezes as these do not cool ferrets since they cannot sweat or pant however, if a fan is available, make it more effective by covering the ferret’s cage with a wet towel with the bottom hanging in a water filled bucket. Frozen water bottles wrapped in a towel will also help keep them cool.

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