- Pick out Some Furniture Ferrets' ancestors were den animals, so the home you create should be like a den, too. Use a wire cage that's at least 18 inches long, 18 inches deep, and 30 inches wide. Many ferrets prefer bi-level cages that feature stairs or ramps that they can climb, and shelves or hammocks where they can perch. Avoid aquariums, which provide poor ventilation. Because ferrets are accomplished escape artists, the cage should feature a secure latch and openings no larger than one inch by two inches. Since wire flooring is uncomfortable to a ferret's feet, place linoleum tiles on the floor or line the cage bottom with soft material such as washable carpet. Not all materials will work, however: Wood flooring is difficult to disinfect, newspaper will blacken a ferret's feet, and cedar chips hold in bad odors and may even cause respiratory problems. Place the cage away from direct sunlight, in a cool, shaded area where temperatures range between 55 and 70 degrees. Clean bedding with a mild detergent and hot water, then disinfect the cage.
- Teach 'Em Litter Literacy You can save time cleaning a ferret's cage by simply teaching the animal to use a litter pan. Find a small cardboard or plastic tray that is three to five inches high to serve as a litter box, and secure it to one side of the cage, away from sleeping and eating areas. Clumping litter will irritate a ferret's eyes and may cause respiratory problems, so fill the litter tray with one inch or more of pelleted litter products made from paper or plant fibers. Ferrets aren't as fastidious as cats and may not cover their waste regularly, so you will probably need to scoop the litter more often.
- Show 'Em a Good Time Like cats, ferrets enjoy their naps and will often sleep 15 to 20 hours a day. But when awake, ferrets like to be active, so the more you entertain them, the happier -- and less mischievous -- they'll be. Ferrets love to crawl through almost anything, including PVC piping, cardboard boxes, paper bags, clothes dryer hoses, and even denim blue jeans. Safely secure a toy to the top of the cage, and your guest may be content to bat the object around for a while.
- Set the Table Ferrets are obligate carnivores and their good health depends on a quality ferret diet that contains at least 34% animal meat protein and 22% fat. Cat and dog foods are not appropriate. Snacks, such as chicken or turkey, are recommended. Vegetables should be avoided because they are difficult to digest and may cause choking or gastrointestinal blockages. Fruits should not be given because they contain fructose and sugars that have been shown to exacerbate insulinoma conditions. Egg whites (albumin) and raw onion can lead to hemolytic anemia.
- Hold on Loosely Ferrets are social creatures who enjoy visiting with people, so let them roam frequently in a secure area outside of their cages. Although they have a great sense of smell and acute hearing, ferrets have limited vision, which means you should avoid sudden movements and speak in a gentle voice before approaching. Because ferrets have fragile skeletons, be sure to handle them carefully. Never pick up a ferret by the tail; instead, let the ferret come to you, then lift him from behind using two hands�one to support his chest and one to cradle his hips. You can also grasp the scruff of a ferret's neck and support his bottom with your hands. Remember, too, that ferrets are known to nip. If you point a finger at a ferret or poke him, he may think you're an enemy or a source of food.
- Keep 'Em Clean To put it kindly, ferrets don't always come up smelling like roses. A ferret's sebaceous glands, which are used to mark territory, secrete oil with a natural musky odor, and the animal's anal scent glands can spray just like a skunk's. You should spay or neuter your ferret to minimize odors, and also change the bedding frequently. Bathing a ferret with kitten shampoo, ferret shampoo, or diluted baby shampoo can also help. But too many baths will only force the animal's scent and oil glands to work overtime.
Ferrets are prone to ear mites, so every few weeks their ears should be cleaned with a cotton swab soaked in a cleanser purchased at a pet supply store. Like dogs and cats, ferrets are prone to fleas and ticks, but a veterinarian should help you meet their needs in that department.
The HSUS recognizes that domestic ferrets have become increasingly popular as pets in recent years and can be kept legally as pets in nearly every state. As with any companion animal, domestic ferrets deserve lifelong, responsible homes and caretakers. The HSUS believes that ferrets, like other companion animals, should not be bred for commercial purposes or sold in retail pet stores.
Ferret owners, individuals interested in adopting ferrets, and animal shelters should be aware of several issues surrounding the care of domestic ferrets. These include:
Ferrets are very different from more traditional companion animals such as dogs and cats. They are marketed by the pet industry as "unusual," but individuals considering adopting a ferret should be wary of the industry's claims that unusual pets are easy to care for. Ferrets require a high level of commitment to be cared for responsibly and humanely; individuals not prepared or able to make such a commitment should not keep ferrets as pets.
Like all mammals, ferrets can carry and transmit rabies. Therefore, all ferrets should be vaccinated against this fatal viral disease. In addition, all rabies-control policies for ferrets should mirror those recommended for dogs and cats. Towards that end, The HSUS urges state and local health departments to follow the rabies-control procedures for ferrets recommended in the Compendium of Animal Rabies Control, 1998, disseminated by the National Association of State Public Health Veterinarians. These recommendations pertain to vaccinations, removal of strays, preexposure vaccination and management, interstate movement, licensure, postexposure management, and management of animals who bite humans (e.g., quarantine requirements).
Ferrets have sharp teeth and occasionally bite when startled, excited, or handled improperly. Because small children have been seriously injured by ferret bites, The HSUS recommends that children, particularly infants, never be left unsupervised with ferrets (or with any other companion animal).
Keeping ferrets humanely may be a challenge for individuals who are unfamiliar with their needs and habits. Ferrets sleep much of the time, but when awake are both curious and highly active. They should not be confined to a cage at all times, yet need close supervision when allowed out of their enclosures. It is usually necessary to take special measures to "ferret-proof" homes where ferrets are kept to ensure their safety.
Like other companion animals, ferrets require periodic veterinary check-ups and veterinary care when needed.
Pet ferrets must be spayed or neutered to prevent them from adding to the numbers of unwanted and homeless ferrets in need of shelter and rescue. Sterilization is particularly important for female ferrets, who can contract a disease called fatal aplastic anemia if kept in prolonged estrus.
Continued on page 4: Hamsters