The Ferret Owners Manual

Ferrets love to collect things

Unaltered male ferrets are called “hobs;” altered males are “gibs”. Unaltered female ferrets are called “jills;” altered females are “sprites.” Even though most private breeders and knowledgeable veterinarians do not recommend altering ferrets until after they have sexually matured, most ferrets born on the large breeding farms are altered a few weeks after birth. Unless you are a breeder, both the male and female should be altered shortly after sexual maturation. A jill may come into “heat” at about 5-6 months of age, typically in the spring. Unless bred she will remain in heat. This condition will likely lead to either a fatal infection or aplastic anemia – fatal in nearly 50% of the cases. Hobs will exhibit a very strong, musky odor when he comes into season, and proceed to “mark” his territory (your home and even you) with urine.

If you get an unaltered ferret, be sure to have him/her altered. A jill’s life, in particular, will depend on it.

The temperament of altered males and females is similar. The unaltered male tends to become twice the size and weight of the unaltered female. On the average, the gib tends to weigh between 2 -5 pounds (with the hob generally at the higher end of the scale), while the sprite tends between 1 – 2 1/2 pounds (with the jill at the lower end of the scale). Males (particularly the late alters) also tend to have a broader face than the females, making them easily identifiable once you know what to look for.

Young ferrets are called “kits.” They generally reach full size at around 5 – 6 months, but may put on an additional growing spurt at around 8 months. They are considered adults at 1 year. During this process, the ferret goes through several behavioral stages. The earliest stage is the “Gee, I have teeth!” stage.

Gee, I have teeth! Kits love to play, and all of their young life they have played almost exclusively with their littermates . Ferret kits, unlike humans, are blessed with incredibly tough skin. Normal play involves biting and shaking that would rend most other tiny animals into small bite-sized pieces. To the kit, this is just great fun.

Suddenly the kit finds itself with a great, new, funny-looking playmate – you. One of the first things he will try to do is engage you in “play.” However, you will probably find this “play” somewhat painful. Kits are very intelligent and will quickly learn that their new playmates don’t appreciate that type of play, if you firmly and consistently discourage him. The main thing to remember is that all young animals will use their mouth to grasp things. They aren’t being mean. They don’t mean to hurt. You, as the owner, are responsible for teaching them what constitutes acceptable behavior. The ferret learns faster than most animals (including many human children) just what is acceptable. (See the section on Training, for tips on training a ferret not to nip.)

At this stage in their life, they love to explore. Put them in a new room and they’ll examine every nook and cranny. Then they’ll go around a second time to make sure that they haven’t missed anything the first time through. Then they’ll go through it again to make sure nothing has changed since the last time. Kits tend not to like to be held for long periods of time. There is just too much that they want to see and do. However, if you want a cuddly pet, hold them often. Even when they wriggle and struggle to get down, continue holding them until you are ready to set them down. Often they will give a big sigh and then relax. At that point, praise them and give them a small treat (a lick of Ferretone, for example) then set them down.

Kits sleep for considerable amounts of time, and sleep very soundly. Many an owner of a young ferret will think that there is something terribly wrong because they can’t get their ferret to wake up, or if they do he shakes uncontrollably. This is normal in a ferret, particularly in a kit. I’ve heard many stories of people rushing their limp, unconscious ferret kit to the vet, only to have him yawn and stretch as soon as they get into the office. I’ve come close to doing that more than a few times myself. Some call it the AND (Asleep Not Dead) syndrome.

The Ferret as an Adolescent Just when you think you have all the training behind you, your ferret becomes an adolescent and forgets everything you’ve taught him. At least it seems that way. At about 6 months of age, the ferret begins to mature and develop his adult personality. Like a human adolescent, this is a time for testing boundaries. Just be firm and consistent. Provide play and love in large measures. Be patient. It only lasts a few months.

Adulthood The ferret reaches adulthood by one year of age. By then you will probably notice a change in his personality. Although still very playful, he may begin to seek you out and “ask” to be picked up and held. He will actively seek your approval and take an interest in things you are doing. Most owners of adult ferrets are well aware of “weasel help” when it comes to sweeping or mopping the floor, or doing a little home repair. He will enjoy going on “outings” with you, sometimes even uninvited. One of our first, Valentine, decided to hide in my wife’s purse after we told her that she couldn’t go shopping with us. After we were a mile down the road, Valentine popped her head out and looked around as if to ask, “Are we there yet?” Many knowledgeable people recommend that first-time ferret owners consider the adult ferret as their first choice.

Old Age The domestic ferret, barring accident or early onset of cancer, will typically live to be 6 – 8 years old. Nine year old ferrets are not uncommon with some reported living to the ripe old age of 12 or older. Although the ferret will sleep more as he gets older, he will continue his kitten-like behavior for his entire life.

After the age of three, an annual physical exam is a good idea. Some vets recommend a blood test just to make sure that problems are caught early. Once your ferret reaches this age you may want to discuss the pros and cons with your vet. You should realize, however, that by the time the ferret reaches 6 years of age, nearly half of them may have undergone at least one major surgery.

A mature ferret, upon reaching four years of age, may require less protein in his diet. Some owners and vets recommend a switch to a high quality adult ferret food, rather than the regular formula. At least one manufacturer of a premium ferret food (Totally Ferret) has an “adult” formulation of their product. The lower protein is said to be easier on their kidneys. Again, this is a good topic to discuss with your vet for your particular ferret’s age and health.  Ours, some of whom are going on 7 years, do just fine on the regular formulation rather than the adult fair.


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