Raising Ferrets as Pets

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PHOTO: KATHY WENDLIN
Domestic ferrets make fascinating pets. These are just a few of the 60 ferrets Laura Wendling has raised.

MOTHER’S CHILDREN: A young author shares her experiences raising ferrets as family pets.

Raising Ferrets as Pets

MATT AND LAURA WERE JUST TWO months old when Dad brought
them from the fur farm. The two ferrets were soon put to
work keeping rats out of our barn, but we liked them so
much that they’ve become pets, as well.

Matt and Laura may seem like strange names for ferrets, but
my dad thought the names suited them just right. He named
them after my brother and me, because they squabbled all
the way home in the car, just like the two of us.

It’s been four years since Matt and Laura came to live with
us. Now we also have two of their children. We’ve learned a
lot about raising ferrets and have grown very fond of the curious
little animals. Domestic ferrets are related to the
endangered black-footed ferrets found in Wyoming, but they
are not wild animals. In fact, some people believe that the
ancient Egyptians kept tame ferrets to catch mice long
before cats were used for the job. Farmers often kept
several pairs in their barns and granaries to catch mice
and rats. And ships’ captains used to let as many as two
dozen ferrets loose in the holds of their ships to catch
rats. Being small and weasel-shaped, ferrets can go right
into rat holes after their prey. They are ferocious hunters
and sometimes kill more than they need to eat.

Rats had tunneled into our own barn to eat the feed our
chickens scattered. Dad didn’t want to put poison out
because he was afraid owls and snakes might eat poisoned
rats and die. And the intelligent pests were difficult to
catch in traps. So when Matt and Laura arrived, Dad let
them run through the barn’s rat holes to leave their scent
in them. Then he put them in a cage in the barn.

Just their being in the barn scares rats away–we
haven’t seen one in years. Life is not all work and no play
for our furry pets. Whenever we want to have fun with them,
they’re ready and willing. We play outdoors when the
weather’s nice. The ferrets hop forward, backward and
sideways, with their backs humped up in an inverted U
shape, all the while chattering at us. They like to dig in
the grass and look for holes to crawl into. Once Laura
crawled up my pants leg and got stuck at my knee. Her
whiskers tickled me so much I could barely keep still to
let her back out. She also likes to crawl into my coat
pocket and peek out the top while I take her for a bike
ride.

When it’s cold outside, we play together in the house. We
make a ferret playground in the basement out of carpet
scraps, boxes, bags and large plastic tubes. Matt crawls
through the obstacle course and flops the carpet pieces up
with his back. When I hold him on my lap and stroke his
chin, he stretches his head back and yawns to show he likes
the attention.

Our ferrets live in pairs in all-wire rabbit cages. Inside
its cage, each pair has a wooden box measuring 10 inches by 12 inches by
12 inches, with a four inch-round entrance hole. I pack straw
bedding in these “giant birdhouses” when the weather is
cold.

I give them fresh food (dry cat food with raw
hamburger or cooked chicken gizzards for treats) and water
twice a day. They come out of their houses and wait for me
at feeding time. If I don’t pick them up, they try to crawl
up my pants into my arms. They are affectionate animals and want to be petted and played with. Laura always checks my pockets to see if I’ve brought her a treat.

Although you can let an indoors ferret have the run of the
house, it’s best if it has a cage to rest in. They sleep
about half the day and prefer resting in dark, secluded
places. (Watch out that your dad doesn’t squish your pet
when he sits down in the easy chair with the evening
paper.) Ferrets also like to slip out the door when you
open it. One of my friend’s ferrets snuck out the door one
afternoon and turned up the next morning-in her next-door
neighbor’s bed!

Ferrets are tidy animals. Put a litter box in the corner
they habitually use for their toilet (with a sample of
their droppings in it), and they’ll soon learn to use it.

They are also quiet. A ferret doesn’t ordinarily make any
noise, but if you step on it or close its tail in a door,
you will discover that it does have a voice! Your ferret
may also chatter happily when you’re playing with it.

Still, a ferret may not be the right pet for you. They have
to be properly cared for, just like any other pet. They
also produce a strong musky smell to attract mates. Other
ferrets may enjoy this odor, but most people don’t. So you
either need to bathe a house ferret regularly or have a
veterinarian surgically remove its musk glands.

Unneutered female ferrets need to be bred during their
mating season, or they may become sick and even die. Since
we bought a male and a female, we became ferret raisers.
Females generally have one litter a year, with anywhere
from five to 10 kits (babies).

Young ferrets play rough and bite each other. They may nip
you, too, until you teach them not to (tweak their noses
and say “No” firmly). A few young ferrets nip a lot and
need to be handled with gloves until they outgrow their
nipping stage and are comfortable being handled.

I have raised about 60 young ferrets and sold them as pets
when they were eight to 10 weeks old. You can purchase them
as pets from a fur farm, pet store or small breeder, such
as myself. Be sure to get a healthy one with bright eyes,
soft (not rough and broken) fur and an active, playful
personality.

And learn all you can about them by reading a good book,
such as Wendy Winsted’s Ferrets (T.F.H.
Publications).

I’m really glad we have ferrets in our family. They do a
good job of scaring rats out of our barn, so we don’t have
to use rat poison. And, on top of that, they’re the best
pets I’ve ever had.