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Pet Trends: Along Came Ferrets

Ferrets scampered into the national spotlight this year when the comedy "Along Came Polly" featured a running gag about Jennifer Aniston's character's blind pet ferret.

These sleek, furry creatures, once used for vermin control and later as hunting companions, are now pets. Resident veterinarian Debbye Turner offers these important facts to know before you rush out to get a pet ferret, and some tips on caring for them.

Ferrets are actually a member of the Mustelidae family. They are related to minks, polecats, skunks, weasels, and otters. They have been domesticated for a couple thousand years and were used for controlling rodents. Ferrets are quite playful, inquisitive and friendly. However because of their inquisitiveness, they require constant supervision and plenty of care.

Ferrets are not a good choice of pet for a very busy person who doesn't have the necessary time, patience, or resources. Just like their cousin the skunk, ferrets do have scent glands in the anal region. They are able to spray a noxious smelling substance if they feel threatened or frightened. However the spray from a ferret is not nearly as intense as that of the skunk. De-scenting is a surgical procedure where a veterinarian removes the scent glands. This eliminates the spraying. However, ferrets have a natural musky smell that even de-scenting will not completely eradicate. In fact, many report that de-scenting does little to eliminate the natural odor of a ferret. Many ferret owners feel the occasional spray isn't objectionable enough to warrant having a ferret de-scented. The American Ferret Association says that spaying and neutering your ferret will do more to reduce odor than de-scenting.

There is really only one breed of ferret that is kept as a pet. But there are many combinations of colors and patterns. They include champagne, albino, sable, chocolate and blaze.

Males are called hobs, females are jills, and babies are kits. Ferrets can live 6 to 10 years. Kits should stay with their mom until 6 weeks, but it is best to wait until ferrets are 9 or 10 weeks old before bringing then home. They will be stronger and healthier, and perhaps will live longer. Male ferrets grow to 2-5 pounds. Female ferrets typically are a little smaller and grow to 1-3 pounds.

The personality of the ferret is very playful, inquisitive, and adventurous. They like to explore, which means when a ferret is allow to roam free in the house, the house must be "ferret-proofed" to prevent injury or danger. It is important to keep electrical wires, valuable clothing, shoes, and other materials away from ferrets that you don't want them to chew to pieces. Ferrets may make a slight panting-type noise. This means they are ready to play!

Ferrets can peacefully co-exist with dogs and cats. However because ferrets are natural hunters, and carnivores, it is not a good idea to own rodents like hamsters and gerbils, rabbits or birds along with ferrets. These animals might look like a good meal to your pet ferret.

Ferrets can be good pets for almost anyone. You must have time to show affection and play with your ferret, be willing to keep their cage and litter clean, provide a good quality diet, and provide the necessary veterinary care to keep him healthy. It is not a great idea to get a ferret if there are small children, especially toddlers, in the home. Youngsters can be too heavy-handed with the small, delicate frame of a ferret. Children over 10 years old are probably the best age to have a ferret. However, parents should understand that they will more than likely bear the burden of care of the family ferret.

Ferrets should have a very roomy cage. The multi-level cage is best. A good idea is to have a large litter pan on the first level, bedding, food, and water on the second level. And if there is a third level, toys can be placed there. The wire bottom of the cage should be covered with soft cloth (like old sheets) to protect the ferret's feet. You should NOT use litter, or wood shavings, as flooring in the cage.

While ferrets will sleep up to 20 hours a day, they do need time out of the cage to socialize with you and explore. The American Ferret Association recommends that ferrets be out of the cage at least four hours a day. Often ferrets are most active at dawn and dusk. So it's a good idea to plan their out-of-cage time during these active times.

Wood shavings are best used in the litter pan. Do not use cat litter, especially the clumping kind. It will take some effort and time to litter-train your ferret. It will most likely not come naturally to the ferret. Typically a ferret will need to relieve himself within a few minutes of being let out of the cage. So a good method would be to take the ferret out of the cage after sleeping for about 5 minutes. Then put him back in the cage, in the litter pan. It's good to say, "potty time" or "go potty" as a cue to the ferret. Then leave the ferret in the cage until he does his business. Once he has, give him a treat and plenty of praise. Please note, that unlike cats, ferrets will not seek out their litter box. So when the ferret is out of the cage, you should have a few litter pans near the ferret to make it convenient if the ferret gets the urge to go.

Ferrets like to play! So provide plenty of appropriate toys like balls with a bell inside, tubing, fleece toys, and stuffed animals. Just be sure to remove anything that the ferret can choke on, like button eyes. Keep all rubber and latex items away from your pet ferret. And beware: ferrets love to chew up phones, and remote controls. You must keep these out of their reach.

Ferrets are carnivores. Their diet should be a protein rich diet from meat with low carbohydrates and low sugar. They need a diet of 34 percent animal meat protein and 22 percent fat. A good quality food formulated especially for ferrets will do just fine. Of course your ferret needs fresh water at all times. There is no need to supplement vitamins and treats if the ferret is fed a good ferret food. Do not give your ferret fruits or vegetables. Many are hard for them to digest or can cause health problems. A substance called "Ferret tone" is a good choice to use as an occasional treat or reward when litter training. This will keep the ferret's skin and fur healthy and shiny.

Your ferret should see your veterinarian at least once a year for a physical exam and vaccination boosters. Ferrets should get vaccinated against canine distemper - fatal if they contract it but completely preventable through vaccination - and rabies. It is important to keep your ferrets teeth clean and nails clipped. It is good to clip the nails once every 2 or 3 weeks.

It is not uncommon for a ferret to suffer intestinal blockage from eating a foreign object or hairballs. So it is a good idea to have money earmarked in your budget in case of a surgical emergency. Also, many ferrets develop certain cancers of the pancreas or adrenal glands. A yearly veterinary exam will help in preventing these or discovering them early for a better chance at successfully treating the ferret.

It is very important to spay or neuter your ferret. Unspayed females will develop a fatal condition called aplastic anemia. Unneutered males are aggressive, in constant search for female attention, and generally not an appealing pet.

It is important not to overbathe a ferret. Bathing too often with dry out and irritate the skin. Once a month is plenty. Plus bathing too often causes the ferret's oil glands to work overtime, causing them to smell even more.

Almost all animals will bite in self-defense or out of fear. So if you or a child display unexpected, threatening type behavior, the ferret may react by biting. There are some ferrets that are born deaf and often they bite more because they are surprised more often. If they don't hear you coming, then a sudden touch can be disconcerting and they may respond defensively by biting. If a ferret is handled roughly or improperly, there is a good chance he will respond by biting.

Because ferrets are so playful and active, it is a fine idea to have more than one. They will entertain each other. But it is best to get them at the same time so they grow up together. Adding a new ferret to a home with an existing one may create problems. Ferrets are territorial.

Ferrets are not legal everywhere. For instance, California, Hawaii, New York City, and the District of Columbia have laws banning ferrets as pets. So be sure to check your state, county, and city governments before obtaining a ferret.


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