Basic Information Sheet: Ferret

Ferret (Mustela putorious furo)

ferret

Natural history



The domestic ferret is probably derived from the European polecat (M. putorious putorious) (Chitty 2009). Ferrets serve as working animals (in the age-old tradition of “ferreting”), pets, and laboratory animals. In the United States, ferrets are raised on ferret farms where they are spayed or neutered at 6 weeks of age. After each procedure, a tattoo is placed on the ear pinna. Male ferrets are called “hobs”, females are “jills”, and juveniles are “kits”.

Taxonomy



Class: Mammalia

Order: Carnivora

Family: Mustelidae – weasels, skunks, stoats, otters, badgers

Colors



Ferrets come in a variety of colors with albino and sable or fitch being the two original ferret colors. Other color standards listed by The American Ferret Association lists include black, black sable, champagne, and chocolate. Pattern standards  include panda, dark-eyed white, roan, and color point or Siamese.

Ferrets with strong white features on the head have a genetic disposition for deafness (Fehr and Sassenburg 2015).


Diet


Ferrets are obligate carnivores. Free-ranging ferrets feed on fresh whole carcasses of their prey (Chitty 2009). In the US, pet ferrets should be fed a high-quality ferret food. Cat food that contains animal-based protein can be used if no ferret food is available (Bell 1999). Crude protein should be 30-35% and fat content should be 15-20%. Avoid kitten food as this contains higher fat levels than is necessary.

In the UK and Europe, pets are sometimes offered high-quality, fresh carcass instead of ferret food (Chitty 2009).  Vitamin supplements may be necessary when feeding defrosted carcasses (Chitty 2009).

Taste preferences develop in the first months, therefore different food should be offered to ferrets in a young age (Quesenberry & Carpenter 2012).


Husbandry



Although technically nocturnal, ferrets easily adjust their schedule to human activity (Ball 2002). House ferrets in multilevel cages with solid-bottom flooring. Provide toweling and other items for burrowing and hiding. Ferrets are also commonly litter pan trained (Boyce 2001).

Never allow ferrets free roam of the home. Instead supervised play should be limited to a ferret-proofed room or region of the home.


Normal physiologic values


Temperature100-103 F37.8-39.4 C
Pulse180-250 bpm
Respiration30-40 bpm
Body weight600-2000gMales are larger
Mean life span6-10 y
Sexual maturity9-12 months
Gestation41-42 days
Litter size8
Birth weight6-12 g
Teeth first erupt3 weeks
Eyes open32-34 days
Weaning age6-8 weeks
Daily water intake75-100 ml
Target environmental temperature:65-70 F
Target environmental humidity:40-65%


Anatomy / physiology


IntegumentarySeasonal molts occur, especially in ferrets living outdoors, coats lighten during the summer and darken during the winter. Even when descented and castrated, sebaceous skin glands convey a musky odor (Chitty 2009). A lack of sweat glands makes ferrets vulnerable to heat stress.
Dental formula GastrointestinalI3/3 C1/1 PM3/3 M1/2
Short, simple digestive tract with no cecum or ileocolic valve.
MusculoskeletalFerrets have a slender and elongated body shape with a very flexible spine. The vertebral formula is C. 7, T. 15, L. 5-7, S. 3 (fused), Cd. 18. The thorax is very long with 15 paired ribs.

The extremities are relatively short, and there are five toes on each paw (Chitty 2009).

Ferrets possess powerful jaw tone due their very strong masticatory muscles (Chitty 2009).

Special SensesSmall pinnae and well-developed bullae. Olfactory sense highly developed; visual sense moderately developed (Chitty 2009).
UrogenitalRenal cysts are common incidental findings. The male ferret possesses a J-shaped os penis. Females are induced ovulators.
CardiovascularThe heart lies more caudal in the chest than in similarly sized dogs and cats.
RespiratoryA very narrow ventral space in the nasal conchae makes passing a nasogastric tube difficult.
HematopoieticBlood types have not been identified in ferrets and transfusion can be performed (sans cross-matching) with little risk (Marini 2014).
EndocrineEarly neutering and a lack of natural photoperiod may predispose ferrets to adrenocortical disease.




Ferrets are sweet natured, gregarious animals that may be minimally
restrained. Ferrets may be manually restrained:

  1. Scruff and stretch. Instead of holding the rear limbs as in a cat, grasp the pelvis in one hand.
  2. Roll the ferret up in a thin towel to create a ferret burrito.



The total blood volume in ferrets is 40-60 ml; up to 10% can be withdrawn in healthy individuals.

Large volumes:  Jugular vein, cranial vena cava
Small volumes:  Cephalic vein or lateral saphenous vein

The ferret jugular vein is located more lateral than in a cat.
There is thickened skin over the skin of the neck in hobs.


Preventive medicine



Annual examinations are recommended until ferrets are 3-4 years old, then biannual exams are recommended. Almost all pet ferrets in the United States are descented and neutered before they enter the market. As induced ovulators, all female ferrets should be spayed to prevent the risk of persistent estrus and potentially fatal anemia.

Surgically sterilized females also have a high risk for the development of hyperadrenocorticism. Chemical castration with a Deslorelin implant reduces the risk of adrenal disease (Schoemaker et al 2018).

Vaccinate against rabies virus and canine distemper virus (CDV). Ferrets are exquisitely sensitive to CDV and postvaccinal distemper infection has been reported after use of vaccines for dogs. Therefore ferrets should never be vaccinated with products intended for use in dogs (Meredith 2009).


Important medical conditions


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References