Pet Talk: Mischievous ferrets make good pets

By Sarah Netherton/University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine

Playful, compact ferrets have pet qualities similar to a cat or dog, and they make good pets for apartment dwellers or others with restricted living space. A distant cousin to weasels and skunks, ferrets were domesticated more than 2,000 years ago, according to Mark Mitchell, an exotic animal veterinarian at the UI Teaching Hospital in Urbana.

Typically, before a ferret is made available for adoption, it will have been spayed or neutered and given a distemper vaccine. Its scent glands will have been removed.

"Ferrets tend to do well in pairs," Mitchell said. "So most ferret owners have more than one."

Mitchell recommends keeping ferrets in a cage when no one is available to supervise. The cage should have multiple levels so the animals have plenty of room to run around. Hammocks and enclosures that they can burrow into make good playthings for inside the cage. Newspaper can be used as a substrate for the floor of the cage, and ferrets can be trained to use a litter box.

"Ferrets need to be observed whenever they are out of their cage because they will eat anything, especially rubber," Mitchell said. "The rooms the animals have access to should be ferret-proofed. That is, wires need to be protected and cabinets locked, just how a parent would baby-proof a room."

If ferrets ingest something they shouldn't, their intestines can become obstructed. This can be life threatening and requires surgical removal of the foreign object.

Ferrets are natural hunters and, like cats, are carnivores. They need a commercially formulated diet to ensure they are getting the proper nutrients as well as a minimum of 40 percent of calories from protein and 20 percent from fat.

Ferrets usually live between seven and 10 years. Common diseases of ferrets include adrenal gland disease and insulinoma, a tumor of the pancreas that causes an excessive production of insulin. Female ferrets can develop an increased production of estrogen.

Mitchell recommends an annual veterinary examination for every pet ferret.

"A ferret vaccination schedule includes vaccinations against canine distemper and rabies, and the rabies vaccine should be given annually," Mitchell said. "The veterinarian will want to give the distemper and rabies vaccinations on different visits because adverse drug reactions commonly occur in ferrets. Ferrets can get heartworms, so they should also be on a heartworm preventive medication."

An archive of pet columns from the UI College of Veterinary Medicine is available at http://vetmed.illinois.edu/petcolumns/. Requests for reprints of this article may be directed to Chris Beuoy, beuoy@illinois.edu.

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