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Ferrets sold in stores in the United States generally come from one of two very large breeding facilities. As a result, they are extremely inbred. While inbreeding can help select for desirable traits like great temperaments and attractive coat colors, it can also increase the chances for developing certain diseases. The majority of inbred ferrets in the United States ultimately develop diseases such as adrenal gland tumors and a type of pancreatic tumor called an insulinoma. These illnesses can occur in ferrets as young as 1 year old.
Older ferrets can also develop heart disease. Ferrets from private breeders develop these conditions, but they are generally not as common as in those from the larger facilities, since the ferrets aren’t typically as inbred. When selecting a ferret, keep in mind there are several reputable ferret rescue facilities throughout the country, as well as private breeders where ferrets are less inbred and may ultimately have fewer medical problems than ferrets sold in pet stores.
Regardless, if you’re planning on getting a ferret, you should be mentally and financially prepared to deal with treatment for cancer as well as heart disease at some point.
Ferrets are born with scent glands near the bases of their tails. The glands are typically surgically removed by the breeder’s veterinarian when the animals are very young, before they are sold, or they would probably never sell because they smell so musky. Most people don’t mind the lingering scent, but for some people with sensitive noses, a musky pet might be a problem.
Wild ferrets typically hunt for and eat rodents and rabbits. Ferrets are exclusively meat eaters and are unable to digest plant material. Breeders or store clerks who are ignorant of this fact inappropriately recommend feeding ferrets fruits and vegetables. Instead, ferrets should be fed high-protein food that is moderate in fat and low in carbohydrates. Several commercially prepared kibble diets are made specifically for ferrets and readily eaten by them.
Ferret owners have been known to feed their pets cat food. In general, however, the well-known commercially available ferret diets are preferable to cat food because they meet the needs of ferrets more closely. Certain ferret breeders promote feeding raw meat diets. However, due to the concern over potential infection from salmonella bacteria often found in raw meat, many veterinarians do not recommend feeding raw food. Though wild ferrets’ GI tracts may have adapted to tolerate the presence of this bacteria in their food, most pet ferrets’ GI tracts have not. Infection with salmonella can lead to diarrhea, vomiting and even death, so it’s generally better to avoid feeding uncooked meat. Salmonella can also sicken other household pets and family members.
Ferrets typically shed a lot of hair and can ingest this hair as they groom themselves. If they ingest a great deal of hair, it can wad up in balls in their GI tracts, leading to potentially life-threatening obstructions. Ferrets with adrenal gland tumors commonly lose lots of hair as a result of hormones secreted by their tumors, which often predisposes them to hairball development. To help prevent hairballs from forming, ferrets should be brushed several times a week and, if shedding is excessive, given hairball laxatives manufactured for either ferrets or cats by mouth once or twice a week.
Just like cats and dogs, ferrets should be checked by a veterinarian every year. Since ferrets commonly develop certain diseases, diagnosing these conditions early and implementing treatment sooner can help ferrets live longer and happier lives. All ferrets should be vaccinated annually, and ferrets older than 3 years should have blood tests conducted annually, too, to ensure their blood sugar levels and kidney and liver functions are normal. After 5 years of age, ferrets ideally should be checked every 6 months, as they tend to develop several of the diseases they are prone to by this age.
A ferret can make a terrific pet if you want a spirited, playful, energetic companion. Ferrets do require a lot of attention and some space in which to run around. They also generally need more care — including medical care — as they age. Given that they can live as long as 9 to 10 years (on average 6 to 8 years), they are a long-term commitment. As long as you’re prepared to stand by your fluffy friend for that long, a ferret may be just right for you.
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