The ferret is a small furry creature that belongs to the same family as weasels and mink; and is more distantly related to otters and badgers. The European polecat is its closest wild relative. Ferrets were domesticated by the Egyptians around 3000BC and have been used for rodent control and kept as household pets ever since - as such they can't survive in the wild.
They have a bit of an image problem either being represented as smelly animals that Northern Englishmen keep down their trousers1, or as vicious little creatures in outtake footage where they are seen clinging gamely onto various extremities of screeching reporters.
Ferrets are actually entertaining and companionable creatures, which, if properly looked after, make good pets.
Working ferrets were used to clear docks and wharfs of vermin such as rats. Their sinuous bodies meant that they could easily wriggle into narrow holes and tunnels that would otherwise be inaccessible. Ferrets were sent in to flush out the rats so that they could be killed to prevent them from doing any damage to ships' cargo.
Ferrets are also used for hunting rabbits. A warren is selected, and nets placed over all the entrances. A ferret is then released into one of the burrows and it then drives the rabbits out of their holes and into the nets to be dispatched.
Ferreting takes place during late autumn and the winter once the main rabbit-breeding season is over. If it can, a ferret will kill while it is in the burrow; a litter of young rabbit kits provides an easy meal for a hunting ferret. Once it has killed, it'll eat all it can and then curl up and go to sleep. The only way to retrieve a ferret if this happens is to leave the nets in place wait for it to wake up and hope that it trundles into a net so that it can be returned to its home. You can try and dig them out, but locating a single ferret in a complex warren is difficult and can require many hours of digging.
Many ferrets are lost because they have killed and eaten while they have been out ferreting. They can't survive in the wild, and while some are rescued and find new homes others either starve or are mistaken for vermin and killed.
There are two varieties of ferret, the polecat ferret which has a masked face and brown eyes; and the albino ferret which is white with red eyes. A male ferret is referred to as a Hob, while the female is known as a Jill. Males are larger than the females and typically weigh between three and five pounds, while the females average around two pounds.
Unless a female is being kept for breeding she needs to be spayed. If she goes into heat and isn't mated with she will stay in heat. This can lead to her developing aplastic anaemia or septicaemia, serious conditions that in most cases result in death.
A ferret has a life expectancy of between six and ten years. They are carnivorous and have a high metabolism, so need a diet that is high in animal protein and fat.
In an ideal world you could go out and work your ferret so that it'll feed itself. However, if the idea of rabbiting doesn't appeal, or isn't practical, you can buy a complete dry ferret food mix. They can also be fed on a good quality dry cat food but this must have a high animal protein content. This can be supplemented occasionally with tinned cat food. Fresh water should always be available.
Housing a Ferret
Traditionally these creatures have been kept outside and for this a large hutch is needed. It should include an enclosed area with solid walls that can be used as a sleeping area, and another section that should provide a 'day'; area with a small-holed wire netting front and a lot of space so that your ferret can play. Cardboard boxes, flower pots and off-cuts of drain pipe can be placed in this area and will provide ideal ferret toys for exploration and exercise.
If you're going to keep a house ferret then you'll need a large cage; this isn't to pen the animal in, but to be used by your ferret as a sleeping place and somewhere to hide if it becomes spooked by anything happening around it. A cage for a single ferret should be a minimum of three feet square to provide room for the ferret to eat, sleep, stand upright and to stomp around a bit.
Character and Behaviour
Ferrets are naturally very curious and playful. They like to explore their surroundings and are able to wriggle through, and into, surprisingly small spaces. Consequently if you're going to keep your ferret indoors you'll need to ferret-proof the rooms that it will have access to. This means blocking up gaps behind appliances such as cookers and fridges, as well as ensuring all cables and wires are well out of reach.
One of the most striking behaviours is called the Weasel War Dance; a mad twisting and tumbling 'dance'; of sheer exuberance and high spirits. During these scatty moments some ferrets have been known to come and jump up against their owner's legs and then bounce away, signalling that they want to play. They are very quiet creatures, but they do make a strange 'dook'; or 'cluck'; like sounds when they are excited or scared.
Exploring the Great Outdoors
Ferrets can be trained to walk on a harness and lead, which it is advisable to use if you are going to take a ferret outside. They won't walk in a straight line and will want follow interesting scents, or scramble into and explore any hole they find. Having the ferret on a lead means that it can be allowed to investigate a limited area and it is less likely to become separated form its owner. Specially-designed ferret harnesses are available, or you can use a small cat harness. It needs to provide a comfortable but snug fit, otherwise a determined ferret will be able to wriggle out of it and ultimately easily become lost.
What about their Reputation?
Ferrets have a reputation for being very smelly creatures. It is true that all ferrets have a unique musky odour, which is secreted from oil glands in their skin. This is much stronger in males because the odour is related to sex hormones, but neutering and regular bathing will minimise its pungency.
Like skunks, ferrets also have a pair of anal scent glands that they use to emit a couple of drops of un-pleasant smelling fluid - musk, if they are angry or become very frightened. This smell disperses fairly quickly, and isn't noticeable for long.
Ferrets are also thought to be very vicious. While it is true that a ferret that feels threatened will bite and then hold on (very painful!) so will any animal with teeth that feels it's being attacked. Yes, even cute fluffy bunnies can inflict nasty wounds.
Ferrets need to be handled from a young age. A ferret that has no reason to fear humans will quickly become a friendly and amusing companion.