ferret smiling

Ferrets get a bad rap. They're supposedly smelly and bitey, and in some places they're illegal to own, despite the fact that they've been domesticated for centuries. When she first saw one at the veterinary clinic she worked at, Claudia Johnson says, "I remember being afraid of it."

Johnson has come a long way since then: She now cares for more than 70 ferrets at Oxford Ferret Rescue in Fawn Grove, Pa., one of many ferret rescues across the country.

Like other pets, ferrets often end up in rescue because someone didn't do his research; it turns out that caring for a ferret is way more complicated and costly than you might expect.

Why Ferrets Need Rescue

At a pet store, you'll see ferrets in the cages next to other relatively easy-to-care-for small mammals like guinea pigs and hamsters, but don't be fooled. "Ferrets are the most expensive small pet to own," says Johnson. They also need time and social interaction that's more on par with a dog. The result is that many ferrets are surrendered for reasons familiar to any animal shelter: Kids have lost interest or gone to college, or people say they just don't have time.

It's frustrating to hear those excuses over and over, but Barbara Clay, director of Rocky's Ferret Rescue & Shelter, says what was almost worse were the stories she heard when the economy went bad and surrenders increased dramatically.

She was constantly dealing with the sad situation of wonderful people who really didn't want to give up their animals. "Good people lost their homes as a result of losing their jobs and their incomes," she says. "One day, I had a family pull up here to give me their ferret who had become sick; they were living in their van."

Clay says that she's proactive about looking for cruelty and neglect, but that she often finds that both start with people who meant well and found themselves in over their heads.

"I have found a lot of people with good hearts and bad judgment," she says, like in the rescue of 200 ferrets that started her shelter in 1995. "You think of backyard breeders; you think of some horrible person — it just wasn't the case. These were nice people. They loved these animals, but it was bad judgment. I rescued everything that had a breath left in its body, and I had them sign an agreement that they would never do this again."

Clay has had more than 3,000 ferrets pass through her shelter since it started. On average, they rehab and rehome 300 ferrets per year.

And Johnson says that while she places 25 to 30 ferrets per year on average, she takes in more like 70 to 100. The rest end up staying with her because they're sick or too old. "The majority of people who call want young ferrets," she says.

Ferret Trouble

People who've found they made a mistake getting a ferret often expected a pet who stays in her cage all the time. Instead, they need at least 4 hours a day out of the cage. "In general, a cage is where they sleep," says Johnson.

And they need a safe place to spend that time out of the cage — ideally, a room that's been ferret proofed, which isn't easy. When she and volunteers do home inspections, Johnson says, "One of the first questions I ask is, 'Are your heating vents on the floor or the ceiling?'"

ferret running toward camera

Ferrets are flexible and clever, which makes them good at getting into unexpected places, which can mean trouble. Because of this, both Clay and Johnson are uncomfortable when people say they're going to let a ferret roam free all over the house. What's more, you need a secure cage to prevent that from happening by accident.

"They're too smart for their own good," says Clay. "They are little engineers. They absolutely will sit back and watch how the cage is opened and closed. I've had plenty of ferrets who figured out how to open difficult latches on cages."

And then there's the expense. Ferrets are meat eaters, and their food isn't cheap. They also require a lot of veterinary care. Clay says that in her experience, nearly all ferrets will eventually get the three diseases they are genetically susceptible to: adrenal disease, insulinoma and lymphoma.

Combine that with routine preventive care, any possible accidents and the fact that exotic vets tend to be pricier: "You can expect your ferret in her lifetime of 6 to 8 years to cost you probably upwards of $1,500 in wellness and in bad health," she says.

No Need to Hold Your Nose

While people can quickly find themselves in over their heads with a ferret, one stereotypical problem is much exaggerated. When people ask Johnson if they smell, her response is: "'Please come to my house.' People walk in, and they always say, 'It doesn't smell like ferrets.'"

Although ferrets do have a particular body odor, the problem is more often cleanliness. If Johnson's house doesn't smell with more than 70 of them, anyone can keep the ferret odor at a minimum, but it does take some work.

"They poop a lot, so that litterbox fills up fast, and they don't bury it — it goes right on the surface," says Clay, "so in order to keep them as a welcome pet in any home, you have to be on top of that maintenance."

They also need cloth hammocks and sleep sacks in their cages, which have to be cleaned regularly. "Just like your own bedding, if you slept in the same bed all the time in the same sheets, they'd get stinky," she says. "Those have to be refreshed and replaced."

So Why Ferrets?

It's hard work to have one or two — and these rescuers care for dozens. Johnson gets up 5 hours before she goes to work as a vet tech at a veterinarian who specializes in ferrets and then does about another 3 hours of work when she gets home: cleaning, feeding, medicating and switching groups in and out of play areas. Why do it?

When asked what she loves about them, Clay says, "Ferrets dance; when they get happy, they dance across the room. And they're very gregarious. They're not independent like cats — they seek out the affection and company of a person."

Johnson says that while people sometimes say ferrets are halfway between a cat and a dog, she thinks that what's cool is that they're not like either. And she also loves to watch their playful behavior.

"When you let them out, they make this crazy little sound," she says. "They hop, they jump up and down and sideways. They're so entertaining. I always say, 'You don't need TV if you have a ferret.'"

Think a Ferret Would Be a Good Pet for You?

Clay is passionate about going to a rescue like hers instead of a pet store. You'll get expert information and advice — and a pet who suits your personality, because each ferret is unique.

"We're like Match.com," Clay says. "I know my animals. Tell me about you, and I can hook you up with the right ferret. Do you want someone calm? Do you want someone off-the-chain silly who bounces all over the place? Their personalities are developed, and I know them. There's nothing I love more than matching a ferret up with the right personality."

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