Necessary Expenses of Owning a Ferret
Although many ferret owners, including myself, will tell you that the enjoyment one receives from owning a ferret far outweighs any expense ever paid, you should know before acquiring a ferret as a pet about the necessities of having one. This section only addresses the monetary portion of owning a ferret; for time requirements and energy expenditure go to The Care of a Ferret section.
Many of the necessary expenses of a ferret should be purchased well in advance of actually bringing home your kit or adoptee. First, you need a home for your new addition. Many ferret owners advocate letting your pet run loose about the house, but I see this as a very bad idea for the first few days or weeks of having him or her. The ferret needs to get used to their new environment a little at a time, not to mention having a cozy, safe place to retreat to when in doubt. For this purpose, you need a cage. Usually, the larger the cage is, the better it is, especially if the ferret will be spending a bit of time in it each day. This cage will realistically run you anywhere from $75 up, averaging about $150 for a good-size cage. Try to get one with the plastic lined wire, as this is safer and more absorbent of shock, in case your pet falls or runs into the wall (hey, it happens!). Also, if the cage is pre-used, check over the entire area of the cage for splintered metal or unsafe platforms. Make certain there is enough room for the litterbox, food, water, and at least one hammock or sleep sack.
This brings me to the second expense: necessary accessories for your cage. Most ferret owners litter train their ferrets, to varied success. There are several different styles of litterboxes, but the high-backed corner litterbox seems to be the favorite. Now you need to decide between a water bowl or a water bottle; both are easy and neither one is preferred over the other by ferrets. Unfortunately, ferrets tend to play in water bowls, so perhaps a bottle is the better option. A food bowl needs to be heavy plastic or ceramic, so as not to be easily tipped. Finally, the hammock or sleep sack. Ferrets enjoy curling up to go to sleep (they sleep an average of 16 hours a day), so adequate bedding and hammocks are essential. Lastly, throw in a few jingle balls or toys, but make sure when you're finished that there is still room for the ferret!
Food for a ferret tends to run a tad more expensive than that of a dog or cat, mainly because of their higher protein requirements. There are specially formulated ferret foods, such as Totally Ferret, but a premium KITTEN (not cat) food, such as Iams' Kitten will suffice as well. Many veterinarians will suggest the addition of vitamin supplements such as Ferretone, Ferretvite, or Vita-Sol (which can be simply added to the water). If these supplements are not available at your local pet store, they are available at The Ferret Store, which is highly reliable and does not charge shipping and handling in the contiguous United States.
One last thing: if you plan to take your ferret with you to the park or for walks, get a special ferret harness and leash, also available at The Ferret Store. Stay away from the Figure 8 harnesses though; I have witnessed several ferrets wriggle right out of them.
Wild or Domestic, and Why Does It Matter? The Controversy over Ferrets
The top concern of the opposition groups deals with ferrets and the rabies virus. This is a serious concern, but tinges of myth remain even in this question. For years, the belief that ferrets represented a serious rabies vector dominated all arguments against the ferret; this was due largely to the fact that in ferrets, as in horses, the shedding period of the virus is unknown. Even today, in California and other locales, a ferret that stands accused of biting another animal or human is immediately confiscated and euthanized so the decapitated head may be tested for the rabies virus in a distant laboratory. The U.S. CDC (Center for Disease Control) has published findings that there have been extremely few documented cases of rabies in ferrets (Morton 50). Coupled with the knowledge that there is now a USDA-approved rabies vaccine for ferrets (as well as horses), IM-RAB-3 (Shefferman 71), one would believe that the time for both this concern and these drastic lines of action would be seen as unnecessary and discontinued. Unfortunately, this is not so. In the state of California, even ferrets with proof of current, up-to-date vaccinations are still confiscated and immediately euthanized.
Other arguments have arisen to replace the rabies question as definitive reasons not to legalize the ferret. The newest argument comes with the current global concern for the Earth's environment; the anti-ferret camp contends that ferrets may be a danger to the native flora and fauna of any given area, especially environments that are delicate. Now, any ferret owner knows that ferrets LOVE to dig in wet soil (Buscis 64), and so it is a possibility, though remote, that an escaped ferret could dig up some endangered or protected plants. However, considering that the ferret is thoroughly domesticated, it cannot establish any feral colonies, and even if it were able to, most breeders automatically descent and neuter outgoing kits (Morton 11). This fact is important, though: there are no known feral populations of the domesticated ferret anywhere in the world (Jeans 29). Anyone who owns a ferret will concur that the words "survival instinct" never enter a ferret's head-they lounge about with their soft underbelly exposed to the world and their boundless curiosity makes them investigate anything or anybody that enters their line of vision. Most ferrets would not last two days in the "wild;" they would be too busy trying to play with an alligator to notice that the alligator had a hungry gleam in its eye!
One reason given for keeping ferrets illegal works to protect the ferrets themselves. A problem that has arisen lately is the overbreeding of genetic lines, leading to the dilution of the gene pool. This has resulted in the ferret's high susceptibility to various diseases such as adrenal gland disease, insulinoma (pancreatic cancer), lymphosarcoma, gastrointestinal disorders, and the most common, ECE (epizootic catarrhal enteritis), which is easily passed through the feces and incubates for mere days (Jeans 131). Large breeding mills such as Marshall Farms, which ships over 100,000 ferret kits a year, often underage, have been under scrupulous observation as of late. Mills such as these, that ship ferrets in bulk, are a large part of the problem of diluting genetic lines and are one reason the California Fish and Game Department cites for keeping ferrets, and ferret breeders, out of California. In fact, Ferrets Anonymous, a club rallying to change California legislation concerning ferrets, has had a very difficult time convincing legislators that they are not backed by large-scale breeders (Shefferman 125). Breeding is very big business, and the legalization of California ferrets would be an impressive additional source of income.
Another common contention between pro-ferret and anti-ferret camps is the simple question of whether or not a ferret makes a good pet, or "Why would you want to keep a weasel anyway?" The cost has already been addressed and it is an accepted detriment. The temperament is another concern. First, ferrets are often called "hyperactive," or "excitable," which is misleading; they sleep an average of eighteen hours a day and expend their energy in the remaining six (Shefferman 24). They easily adapt to their owner's sleep schedule-the belief that they are primarily nocturnal is a falsehood. Ferrets have the energy level, attention span, and curiosity of a two-year-old toddler, which requires quite a bit of patience and love from the owner. When awake and out of their cage, a ferret will hop around the room, a behavior commonly called "war-dancing" (Jeans 25). The animal usually has his mouth slightly open (as in a smile) and chatters quietly to himself while "dancing" around. Some people, when confronted with an excited, dancing ferret, will misinterpret the ferret's excitement as aggression. These same people may be mystified, or shocked, when two ferrets start fighting and seem as if they are going to rip each other to shreds. Ferrets have very tough skin, and it is common for them to "play-fight" with one another, either to gain dominance or just to goof off (Morton 67). Another common problem is biting; some ferrets, especially teething kits, will start out being a little "nippy," tending to bite at people. This is not done out of meanness or spite, but more often out of habit, or out of fear. Either way, the habit is usually easily broken, and there are many ways to go about doing so (Buscis 11). Ferrets are easily trainable, being of above-average intelligence and possessing inborn habits that can be taken advantage of. For instance, all ferrets prefer to urinate and defecate in approximately the same area every time; this habit makes for easy litterbox training (Buscis 24). The physical requirements of a ferret can be daunting, however. They need to be out of their cage for at least four hours a day, under constant supervision unless the owner has set aside a completely ferret-proofed room for the animals to roam. This necessary playtime may be cut if the ferrets are caged in a three-level or more enormous cage that gives them room to roam and play. Ferrets require weekly or semimonthly baths (Jeans 86), as well as clean and fresh drinking water daily. All in all, the ferret is a pet that requires patience and time, but considering that the ferret is now the third most popular pet (Shefferman 6), apparently the rewards are well worth the effort to many people.
The ferret is currently illegal in California, Hawaii, Washington, D. C., Dallas, Ft. Worth, Tulsa, Ontario, London, and Puerto Rico (Shefferman 116). There are groups in each locale fighting for those laws to change. The battle is not being waged in Hawaii, however; the importation of other so-called "harmless" pets has wreaked havoc on the frail ecosystem and led to the decimation of their native flora and fauna, resulting in the tragic extinction of many species. Regardless of whether or not the ferret is perfectly harmless, no one wants to risk putting Hawaii's delicate environments even further off-balance. The main battle now wages in California, where the California Fish and Game Department vehemently refuses the passage of AB 363, the bill which would finally allow ferrets within state borders, legally. The fight in California is not the first of its kind, though. Massachusetts, long a ferret-free zone (FFZ), passed the bill that legalized ferrets on March 7, 1996 (Shefferman 116). Pennsylvania, Maine and West Virginia legislators were all bowled over by numerous ferret owners submitting documented evidence that ferrets were domestic animals, not wild, and thus should be treated as any other domestic animal (Morton 69). A similar situation occurred in Alaska. A frustrated ferret owner took the law to court and produced over 400 scientifically documented references to convince the judge that ferrets were not wild animals; the judge removed ferrets from the stringent wildlife regulations (Morton 70). Stories such as these give hope to the ferret owners who are forced to give up their pets when a job transfers them to a FFZ, or are forced to smuggle their fuzzy children in and live like outlaws to protect their pets' lives. Legalization of the domestic ferret is a question that must be reviewed from several different viewpoints; all too often there is an ulterior motive to either side's stance, and all too often political or economical encumbrances interfere. The fact that information on the domestic ferret is so scarce and difficult to come by, and the fact that so many people have such wildly different ideas about them, strongly suggests that more research needs to be conducted by experts to support either side's claims. For information on what is the third most popular pet in the world to be so sketchy and contradicting is pathetic. The information that IS available needs to be much more widely circulated so that people can learn what they need to know, preferably before buying a pet. Until some concrete answers are provided by accredited individuals, this battle could rage on indefinitely.
- Buscis, Gerry, and Barbara Somerville. Training Your Pet Ferret. New York: Barron's Educational Series, 1997.
- Harding, A. R. Ferret Facts and Fancies. Columbus: A. R. Harding Publishing Co., 1943.
- Jeans, Deborah. A Practical Guide to Ferret Care. Miami: Ferrets, Inc., 1996.
- McKay, James. Complete Guide to Ferrets. Shrewsbury: Swan Hill Press, 1995.
- Morton, E. Lynn, and Chuck Morton. Ferrets. New York: Barron's Educational Series,1985.
- Shefferman, Mary R. The Ferret. New York: Howell Book House, 1996.