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Sunday, January 29, 2012

Ferrets as Pets

I was talking to a 7th grade girl a few days ago about having a ferret for a pet. She said she wanted one, but she wasn’t serious about getting one. I told her she’d probably be better off with a rabbit or rat or something else, explaining that ferrets can be somewhat complicated. I don’t want to discourage anyone from buying one or better yet, rescuing one from a shelter, but one should learn all they can about ferrets before becoming a keeper.

Young ferrets are cute as can be and I understand the attraction, but I personally have never kept a ferret. Having worked at Midwest Bird and Exotic Animal Hospital for nine years, I learned just how popular they had become and how expensive they can be to keep for the duration of their 5 to 9 year lifespan. I remember a veterinarian telling me that it’s almost guaranteed that a ferret will have a major illness or disease after it turns three years. This can certainly cause some grief and a significant monetary investment. Ferrets of this age are actually considered “senior” ferrets by veterinarians.

If you’re thinking of getting a ferret, there is much to consider. These pets love attention and cannot be left in a cage all day. They are very entertaining and loving so they must come out to play and interact. While playing and interacting, there’s a good chance of a ferret getting into trouble so they need to be supervised. We used to see a good many ferrets that came in very sick and ultimately in need of surgery to remove a foreign object they’d swallowed. It’s recommended that a home or designated play area be made ferret proof before any free play or exploration is permitted.

Ferrets bite. Most well handled ferrets know the difference between a nip and an outright bite, but either one has to be tolerated, though there are various non-violent approaches to curb biting behavior. Ferrets are carnivores and require a specialized diet. Ferrets are from the Mustelidae family, which includes skunks, weasels, fishers, martens, wolverines and otters. Mustelids have well developed anal scent glands. This is another aspect of ferret keeping that must be tolerated. There are ways to curb ferret odors, but even a ferret that’s had its anal glands removed (known as descenting) will still produce odor through its skin.

The considerations I’ve mentioned are just a few to mull over. I highly recommend prospective ferret keepers do some research first. While there are numerous websites with good advice about ferret keeping, I visited two that I like for the honest information they provided:

I also recommend visiting a ferret shelter and trying to rescue one. Some ferret shelters are so full that they have a need for foster ferret keepers. In this case, you’re caring for the ferret in your home, but the shelter will incur any medical costs. This also means that the shelter gets the final say on medical decisions. This option is a great way to learn about all that’s involved in ferret keeping. I’ve had ferret owners tell me that once they’ve had one, it’s hard to keep just one and another will often be added. I’ve also been told it’s hard to give up the ferret habit, even after pets have died. I kind of feel the same way about my pet rats, but their life spans are shorter (3 years) and they don’t incur substantial medical costs.

Since I’ve never kept a ferret, I don’t have any good stories to tell. They are smart animals and can be trained if a keeper is dedicated to teaching and shaping various behaviors. This is another facet of what makes ferrets fun and you may have seen such training in a few movies and TV shows. All I ask is that you think things through before taking one on as a pet. Too many ferret shelters have their hands full. And for goodness sake, if you do end up leaving your ferret with a shelter, do make a significant monetary donation then and there because they will need it. I welcome ferret keepers to share their comments or stories.

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