This is only the beginning, but it is a start..........Let's jump in!
Make it Safe - Your ferret requires some sort of safe confinement. This is usually a cage or a 'ferret proofed' room of their own. You will hear a great deal about 'ferret proofing'. Trust me when I tell you there is no such thing. You make things as ferret resistant as you can, and they will still show you that you missed! But try anyway. Your entire house should be inspected from a ferret's point of view. The closest you can get to that is on your hands and knees, so down you go. Look for any nook, crook, crevice or cranny that measures 1/2x1/2 inch. If you find it, plug it! If they find it, they'll go through. These are weasels. It is their nature and duty to explore and get into trouble. Safety has to be your number one concern, because it's not even on their list. Restrict access to refrigerators, stoves, dishwashers, cabinets, washers/dryers, recliners, rocking chairs, anything that heats, cools, or moves. The whole house must be thoroughly inspected because it will be thoroughly inspected! Your baby will eventually escape from its room or cage when you least expect it and when you aren't looking. So make it safe.
Make it comfortable - Your ferret's cage should be the biggest you can afford and have room for. After all, unless your baby will be a `free roam' ferret, that is one with its own room, it will spend most of its life in that cage. Our favorites are Ferret Nation cages or a Midwest 'cat cage' converted to ferret use by adding shelves and ramps. Wire and barred cages are easy to clean and disinfect and allow plenty of ventilation. But rubbing of your ferret's knuckles on the wire or barred floors and ramps can cause serious foot damage, so cut some carpet fragments, available at just about any department or home improvement store, and cover each of the individual shelves. The carpet pieces can easily be removed and tossed in the washer on the gentle cycle. Don't waste time and money on the pretty plastic bottom and shelves models as you'll soon be getting rid of them. Ferrets love to cuddle in old towels, baby blankets, sweat or tee shirts. So place some around for sleeping comfort. Hammocks are another ferret favorite.
Your baby needs a litter box which you should `scoop' daily and change weekly. Yesterday's News cat litter is the best litter available. Do not use gravel (too dusty) or clumping (can get stuck in the nose, throat, stomach, etc) litters as they can pose a serious health risk to ferrets. Use no cedar anywhere! The paper/wood shaving beddings have no place in a ferret cage either. Your baby will sleep in its bed(s) and potty in its litter box. One more thing. Ferrets are meticulous about personal hygenine. Watch. When they eat, they wipe their faces, when they potty, they wipe their bums. I always keep an old washrag tucked just under the edge of the litter box exit. Washable toilet paper! You can change/wash these very easily and cut down on carpet cleaning.
Ferret food is a bit of a hot topic. Ferrets are obligate carnivores. The part of the intestinal tract responsible for digesting plant matter, i.e. grain, fruits, or vegetables, is called the cecum. Ferrets don't have one. So feeding plant matter to your ferret is a waste. Worse, it can actually be harmful. Yes I know there are foods in pretty bags out there with pretty ferrets on them and bananas and fruity breakfast cereals in them claiming to be good for your baby. But don't believe it Obligate carnivores, remember? That means they must get their nutrients from a meat source. So what to feed? A dedicated ferret food made by a premium company. The food should be very high in protein, at least 34% and high in fat, at least 18%. Be aware of where those nutrients come from. You and I can derive protein and fats from plants, our ferrets can't. Plan on spending $20-$40 for a medium sized bag. Which ever quality food you settle on, it should be available at all times. Caution: NO PEAS. Peas have resulted in more than one ferret having to have urinary stones surgically removed. Water should be kept fresh, clean and available always. We prefer to use water bottles hung over water bowls. Many ferrets prefer to drink from one or the other, and the bottles make an ideal emergency back up in case of a spilled bowl while the bowl can catch the occasional drip from a bottle.
Make it to the Doctor - More and more I am hearing from people whose ferret has never been to a vet and they boast, “he looks just fine to me.” They are oblivious enough to be proud of the fact. Then, inevitably, I get an urgent phone call, usually in the middle of the night, “Help! Help! My ferret is dying!” and it's too little too late. This is called neglect and it's totally unconscionable. Make it to the Doctor!
Veterinarian care by a ferret doctor or specialist is an absolute necessity. I cannot emphasize this strongly enough on two counts. I have first hand knowledge of vets claiming to know ferret medicine who have actually killed ferrets with their ignorance and arrogance. Contact a local ferret shelter for a referral and interview your prospective vet thoroughly before your baby needs to see him/her. Second count; there are illnesses out there that are not ferret specific or exclusive.
You're not done yet! Turn it over!
Don't give up, read on, there's a lot to learn!
Canine distemper is an air borne virus; you can carry it home on your clothes and never even know you were exposed. Canine distemper is 100%, read that again, one hundred percent, fatal to all ferrets. There are NO exceptions. Your ferret MUST receive the protection gained from vaccinations against this killer unless medically prohibited.
Most areas have laws requiring rabies vaccination. If your ferret even inadvertently scratches someone breaking the skin and the authorities are notified, that rabies certificate makes the difference between quarantine for a few days or decapitation to check for rabies, for all your pets.
There are 3 major `cancers', two of them medically manageable to a great extent by your ferret doctor, that 99%, virtually all, ferrets will manifest before they are 4-5 years old. Those are: 1st-Adrenal gland disease, characterized initially by hair loss & balding. 2nd-Insulinoma. Everyone has heard of diabetes. This is the exact opposite. Most people first notice either weight loss, hind leg weakness or a tendency to stare into space. The third and thankfully a little less common, is lymphoma. I call it the silent killer. Too often by the time lymphoma is diagnosed, it is too late to stop it. It strikes with no usual symptoms, in no usual way, and it is deadly. To compound these medical challenges, cardiac problems, usually cardiomyopathy, diagnosable in the early stages only by an x-ray, is going to hit at the same time.
There are studies and information that indicate a yearly shot of 'lupron' or an annual deslorelin implant may delay or deter adrenal. Additionally melatonin implants done in conjunction may also help. A `vaccine' is also being studied. Ask your vet about these.
Insulinoma requires prednisolone plus high animal based protein snacks and meals, and easy access to those especially when weak, to control. It will take a couple of weeks and blood sugar tests to get the initial dosing correct with follow up tests every 2 or 3 months, if not sooner, as doses must gradually be increased as the disease progresses over time. Learning to check your baby's sugars at home is not difficult and can be a tremendous help. Your vet can show you how. We'll be happy to help you select an affordable, accurate glucose meter.
Cardiomyopathy can manifest a lot like insulinoma with some subtle differences. If you notice leg weakness, an `oh my gosh, help me!' look from a ferret laying on the floor after having melted there like hot butter. If you are holding your ferret with a hand over its chest and there is a disharmony to its heart beats, some slow some fast, with no change in activity, or their heart rate is easy to count, then there's a good chance there is a heart problem going on and its time to get to the doctor. And if so you'll need to visit the doctor every 2 to 3 months, sooner if necessary. Both insulinoma and cardio complications can sneak up on you and so require constant supervision by both you and your vet.
Your baby is susceptible to your colds and flu, and you to theirs. Many times these can be dealt with at home, some times call or visit to the vet is needed. Don't take chances with diarrhea. Ferrets can dehydrate to where medical intervention is necessary very rapidly.
Ferrets are very emotional creatures bonding tightly to their cagemates, surroundings, friends and families. Change, the loss or addition of a family member (ferret, feline, canine or human), a move to a new home or even rearranging your household furniture with a rare few, anything different, is often enough to cause a deep depression in some. Ferrets suffering from emotional issues must be watched very closely to make sure they continue to eat and drink sufficiently to maintain their health. Many a ferret has grieved himself to death because a parent or vet didn't realize the depth of emotion a ferret is capable of.
During times of change or with any ongoing illness, ulcers are a real threat. Any ferret who goes to the food bowl, just stares at it, puts their face in the bowl but doesn't eat, smacks their lips or grinds their teeth (some times loud enough to hear!), or just doesn't eat, needs to be taken to a ferret doctor, and that doctor needs to be told exactly what is and has happened. These are signs of stomach distress, ulcer or otherwise. Talk to your doctor about adding pepcid to your ferret's diet or other medications if this occurs.
Ferrets are also very prone to ingesting indigestible items, pieces of toys, part of your shoe, even their own hair, and ferrets are not built to 'throw up'. A `hairball' or other ingested indigestible can be deadly. A vomiting ferret is usually a ferret in trouble. Watch closely, if its more than just one fast 'blaaap' or even if it is and it reoccurs, it's time to go to the vet. Once ingested and then usually stuck, it generally requires surgery to get out. This is truly a case of an "ounce of prevention...." Choose ferret safe toys, no soft rubbers or removable parts, lock away your remotes with their easy to pull off buttons, and give your baby the kitten recommended dose of a good hairball laxative or treat 2-3 times weekly, more often during those twice a year shedding seasons.
Wow! So now you are having second thoughts...Good! Not good that you don't know if you can actually properly care for your darling. If you have made it this far and are still reading you have the beginnings of an excellent ferret parent - congratulations! But good because those second thoughts, and all the doubts and questions that come with them will motivate you to be vigilant and to learn. And THAT is what will make your life with these incredible creatures rewarding beyond measure for you and safe, secure, happy and healthy for them. You will never find more unconditional love packaged in laughter anywhere. Enjoy each other and be safe!
Revised January 2017