Why I Love Animals: The Funny Ferret

By Michelle Mantor as published in Houston PetTalk, March 2019, Photography By Prudence

Is this little fuzzy girl not the cutest thing? You may agree or you might say “ick, how could you hold that critter?” Which, oddly enough, is what my mom would say! Depending on your “animal gene” as I like to call it, you may fall anywhere on the spectrum from seeing the value in ALL animals and their relevance in the ecosystem to having no respect for animals at all.  If you are like me, you’re fascinated by all creatures and the brilliance of their design both in respect to their physical being as well as their intended “job’ in the universe. However, I have to qualify this statement by saying, although I find all creatures interesting, I still get squeamish regarding certain ones (namely snakes) – which doesn’t mean I don’t value them or wouldn’t fight for their welfare, it just means I prefer to view them from “afar” LOL!

For those that fall further down the spectrum with their appreciation for all creatures great and small, I like to believe that with a little nudge and some fun facts, you might be willing to open your mind to the role every animal plays in our existence (without them, we would not survive). To quote sadly missed legendary diva Aretha Franklin, maybe you will give them a bit more R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

With that goal in mind, this month I chose to feature a ferret.  One of the many reasons I LOVE ANIMALS is because they possess an inherent CURIOSITY that never wanes, yet they know when to inhibit curious tendencies for self preservation. Exemplifying a robust curiosity of all things is probably best represented by my little friend here, LUNA,  a cute and funny member of the scientific family, Mustelidae. I have done only two photoshoots with a ferret and I have to compliment the photographers for photographing a “constantly moving” target. They are busy little creatures and they always make me laugh!

Ferrets are rather comedic and entertaining, which can be both good and bad. On the good side, they provide lots of giggles with antics like hiding your car keys behind the sofa because they love shiny objects. On the bad side, they love shiny things and will hide your car keys! Hence the name “ferret” which is derived from the Latin furittus, meaning “little thief”. I just love that they are so busy and allow their curiosity to guide them rather than crouching away in fear of all things. 

I’ve often heard people say that they would love to have a ferret for a pet but “they smell bad”. It’s true they have a musky scent but in my research I’ve found that there are many things you can do to minimize odors. More on that later but let’s explore the role of ferrets in the environment first. 

For millennia, ferrets were used for “ferreting” out rodents, rabbits and moles from their burrows. Their curious nature combined with their slim build makes them perfect for such a hunting role. They have been used in various places around the world to control overpopulation of rabbits including by Caesar Augustus. Although the domestication of the ferret appears to be about 2500 years ago from the  European polecat, these furry critters were first introduced into the New World in the 17th century. They were used extensively from the mid 1800’s to the start of World War II to protect American grain stores in the West from rodents. 

Ferrets are closely related to polecats and can easily hybridize with them. Their colorings range from dark brown to to black, white or mixed and their size varies depending on sex, with males being larger than females. Reproductively, females can have several litters per year ranging from 3 to 7 “kits” who become weaned at 6 weeks, independent at 3 months, sexually mature at 6 months and the ferret’s life span is around 8-10 years. 

Behaviorally, the ferret prefers the company of other ferrets – they are not loaners – and they are most active at dawn and dusk although they sleep up to 18 hours per day in an enclosed area. They can be territorial and will let you know if they are upset by squeaking (if scared, they will hiss). If excited, they are known to perform the “weasel war dance”, characterized by frenzied sideways hops, leaps and bumping into nearby objects. Despite its name, it is not an aggressive behavior but rather a joyful invitation to play. It is often accompanied by a soft clucking noise, commonly referred to as “dooking”. 

As pets, ferrets are not for everyone and they require a good deal of maintenance. Caring for a ferret falls into several categories including feeding, exercise and cleanliness. Feeding ferrets is not as challenging as the other two categories! They are obligate carnivores (eating small prey in the wild) and there is specialized ferret food on the market that is primarily made of meat. Next up is exercising and play. As noted, they are busy bodies and would prefer to have full rieign of the house to check out every square inch of the place! However, it’s a good way to lose them so keeping your ferret in a confined area is best –  but they do need time each day for some exploration and handling. 

Moving on to the BIG ONE – cleanliness is a key factor in how much your ferret and your house will smell. A number of things can be done to reduce the odor of these mustalieds to the point that it’s not a problem but it takes a concerted effort. I have heard that removing scent glands helps with odor control but in my research what I found is that the scent glands near the anal sacs are obviously there for a reason and removing them is not necessary (it’s considered mutilation and illegal in some countries). The primary odor is not coming from the scent glands but rather from hormones. Therefore, a big factor in odor control is to have your ferret spayed or neutered. This is said to reduce odor by approximately 80%. In addition to altering your ferret, there are several other things you must do to keep odor down. Clean the cage everyday…yes, everyday. They eat frequently and they poop frequently. Next, wash their toys and any washable bedding on a very regular basis, but also use newspaper strips for bedding that is changed out daily. Essentially, you are washing everything your ferret touches to reduce smell – but that doesn’t mean wash the ferret! By over-bathing, you will make odors worse rather than better because their skin will produce even more oils to combat the drying effect. 

So it seems to me if you really want a ferret and you are committed to lots of cleaning and watching after them for a number of hours per day as they play and explore, they’re otherwise a fun and fairly non-complicated little friend to have. 

I have to admit I have fantasized about having a little weasel-esque buddy but I know my dog Jeda would make lunch of this moving “prey” in no time so it’s not an option…I just have to get my critter fix in photoshoots! 

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