When I first started volunteering with a ferret shelter, I had owned ferrets for over 13 years, but I still knew very little about them. I understood my own ferrets, but the species and its behaviours were something of a mystery. What I didn’t know at the time was that ferrets were something of a mystery to everyone back then! Even though current research shows they may have been domesticated as far back as 2,500 years ago, they are still a bit of a new guy on the scene, and research remains scarce compared to other domesticated species.
The domestic ferret, Mustela putorius furo, is part of the weasel family. They are an obligate carnivore—they need meat to survive, like domestic cats—and are crepuscular; active at dawn and dusk like dogs. They spend a lot of their time sleeping, averaging between 15 and 18 hours a day. The companion ferret will adjust its sleeping schedule to that of the house or shelter it is in, which is ideal for those keeping ferrets. Although they require a lot of resting time and can adjust to your routine, when awake the ferret is a high-energy animal. This leads to the question: As ferrets are subterranean predators, how do we meet their needs, and what can we do to ensure they are getting appropriate exercise when living in our homes?
They’ve Got Backbone
With their long, slender bodies and elongated spinal column, members of the family Mustelidae are very different from other mammals. Mustelids are known to overpower prey that is several times larger than they are. Their elongated necks allow them to carry or drag larger prey without it becoming tangled under their front paws. They also have a very strong bite and are known to be very efficient predators. These unique physical adaptations are just some of the advantages that have enabled the mustelids to be one of the most abundant mammalian predators in the world.
The ferret spinal column is a part of the axial skeleton, which is made up of the skull, vertebrae, ribs, and sternum. The neck (cervical spine) has seven vertebrae, the chest (thorax) has 14 or 15 and the lower back (lumbar) can have between four and six. The sacrum has three fused vertebrae and the tail (caudal spine) has an additional 18, which become smaller in size as they descend to the tail tip. By comparison, a human has 12 and a dog has 13 thoracic vertebrae.
Above ground, ferrets move in a hunchback motion with the back bent into an arch. This results in a back length that is proportional to that of other small mammals. When moving underground the ferret elongates, keeping the back straight. This results in a 40% reduction in back height on average, and a 25% reduction in hip height. Despite this drastic change in posture, a 2009 study indicated that on average there is no reduction in velocity whether the ferret is traveling above or below ground. Although the ferret is well adapted to moving through tunnels, it has been suggested this may come at a higher metabolic cost due to the frequent postural changes as well as thermal regulation, especially in cold climates. Further research is being done in this area. It is known that members of the mustelid family have relatively high metabolic demands, meaning they need to hunt more frequently and more successfully than similarly sized predators in other families.
Most of the time we humans will witness ferrets moving above ground or outside of tunnels; it is at this time that we can interact freely with them. Anyone who has spent time around ferrets will have noticed their wide range of motion, including symmetrical and asymmetrical bending gaits. It is the latter that the ferret is best known for—their unique above-ground hunting style has been referred to as “the ferret happy dance” and “the weasel war dance” among other nicknames. It is a series of jumping manoeuvres, turning, rotating about an axis, in all directions.
The shorter trunk, during above-ground hunting, allows for greater manoeuvrability and improves turning performance. This allows for quick adjustments that are essential in predator/prey interaction. In addition, current research suggests there is an advantage for low-to-the-ground animals to be able to make these adjustments, as dense undergrowth provides a difficult and irregular substrate that is more difficult for larger animals to adjust to.
Whether in my home or in a shelter, I am always asking myself how I can best meet my ferrets’ needs. How do I build a ferret gym that provides the exercise they need, that will help them burn off energy, while also being safe and affordable?
Providing a flexible tunnel such as a dryer hose will allow for a variety of shapes. You can stretch it out into a single long line or bend it into curves, around chair legs, in any shape you choose, giving variety each day for the ferret to explore. You may also find that the ferret will run through at such force that often they will move the tunnel themselves, thus if you want to keep it in one place you will have to affix it with zip ties to a more solid object.
A rigid tunnel is also recommended. A popular option is a black drainage tube, which can be purchased at most hardware stores. Using a tunnel with a sturdy shape is helpful if you want to adjust the incline. This will support the ferret’s body weight and you can use zip ties to secure the tunnel to an object such as a cage or platform, allowing the ferret to use the tunnel to climb up and down. This will help them use different muscles to stabilize as they go through the tunnel, and is more like a burrow that would have many different angles they would have to negotiate.
Whether you use a plastic storage tub, a child’s summer pool, or a large cardboard box, having a container that you can fill with a variety of objects will give your ferrets something to explore on a regular basis.
In most shelters I have visited, a rice bin is a common enrichment tool. To make one, just put four to five inches of long grain rice* along the bottom of the box. Hiding small toys and objects can create a treasure hunt for the ferret, though most ferrets will simply dig for the fun of digging. If you have enough rice, ferrets will often bury themselves fully in the rice, which can also have the added effect of absorbing excess oils on the coat. It’s sometimes nice to have a jasmine scented ferret! One concern with rice is that you cannot sterilize it, so although you can clean the bin itself, should you ever have a virus or if you are in a shelter with a need to sterilize toys between each animal, this is not a good option for you.
*Important : Never use instant rice as this can be ingested, expand and cause intestinal blockages.
Another popular dig box filling item is dirt; not surprisingly, ferrets enjoy digging in dirt. The downside to this is definitely the mess. Like rice, dirt can track everywhere, and ferrets will fling it around. Having a dig box with a lid, such as a Rubbermaid tub, will help, and using a tunnel entry can reduce the amount of dirt that is tracked in and out.
Ball bins are also very popular. It doesn’t matter if it’s ping pong balls or plastic balls for a child’s ball room. The goal is to provide an uneven surface for the ferrets to explore. With just a small layer of these balls, the ferrets will not only tunnel under them but they will soon learn to walk across them, making short hops and quick turns as they go. At first, like any new skill, you will find the ferrets will tumble and fall a lot, but as they practice they will move more quickly and begin to hunt for toys or play wrestle each other, testing their balance and ability to move on this ever-moving surface. The downside to this is it can be a very loud toy; if you are housing multiple species nearby you may find that a box full of shaking ping pong balls is too much for the cats to handle, or perhaps it will cause the dogs to bark non-stop, so appropriate placement is definitely something to consider.
A quieter option would be cornstarch packing peanuts. As with rice it’s important to purchase the right ones. Styrofoam peanuts can be ingested and cause blockages, but the starch ones dissolve in water. It’s always a good practice to ensure that your ferrets are not eating them no matter what kind you buy, but if one should be eaten, you want to be sure that you have only brought the dissolvable kind into the home or shelter. The easy way to test is simply to put one into a glass of water!
Video credit: The Ferret 500.
Once you have a large bag of the right kind of packing peanuts, enough to cover the bottom of your container with about six inches of material, then release the ferrets. This has a similar benefit to the ball bin, in that it gives them an opportunity to dig and play on an uneven surface. The downside to packing peanuts is you could never sterilise them because they would dissolve in any solution you made. Not that sterilising 600 ping pong balls is fun or easy—I’ve tried! It’s a pretty miserable task and I’m not sure I was 100% successful, but in our situation it was a necessary extra precaution, and it is nice to have the option.
Finally, one of the most important things you can give your ferrets is space to run and play. Whether in a home or shelter, a ferret-proof room is important. Having open space to explore allows them to decide whether they want to tunnel, chase, dig, or hunt. Keeping a ferret in that room is often the challenge. With all that spine and flexibility comes the ability to go under doors, leap from desks, climb over baby gates, and even to remove vents and tunnel out. When ferrets are roaming a room, stay with them. It takes a long time for a human to learn where ferrets will go and what they can do, and each ferret is different, so ferret-proofed for one ferret isn’t ferret-proofed for another. In a shelter environment, a dedicated space isn’t always possible, but putting a ferret playpen on your wishlist will go a long way towards giving your ferrets a change of scene. A ferret playpen will give them time out of the cage and, while it’s not permanent housing, it will give them an opportunity to play with toys, run, and socialise with people.
One last thing I feel it’s important to mention are a few items that are commercially available and marketed for ferrets, but that you want to avoid.
There are a lot of rubber chew toys that you will find in the ferret aisle at pet stores, and if you’ve ever given your ferret anything rubber you’ll know why they are marketed to them: ferrets love rubber. Unfortunately, it’s also downright dangerous. Ferrets love to chew, and with their little needle-like teeth and great bite strength they will often tear little bits of rubber off the toy quickly and easily. These can be ingested and cause a blockage that can become fatal fast—ferrets have a very small intestine. It’s better to give your ferrets an edible chew if you feel they need an outlet for this; there are some marketed specifically for ferrets and some cat treats are also quite popular.
Just like hamster balls, these clear plastic enclosures have been marketed as an option to keep the ferret safe while they explore their environment. I would not recommend them, however. Even the largest size of ferret ball doesn’t allow the ferret to fully extend in its natural gait as discussed above, and the rolling motion of the ball can destabilize a ferret in motion, putting it at risk of injury. Nail injuries are also common. A ferret will dig to try to escape an object and these containers often have long thin ventilation strips, which can easily snag a nail. In addition, there is no access to a litterbox, water, or food should the ferret require it.
I hope this gives everyone a way to engage with these curious little predators. They can be a challenging animal, or the best companion— it just depends on how you approach your relationship, and if you want to get down on their level and start playing in the tubes. As a lifelong ferret companion, I can say the only thing more fun than watching these animals chase each other through the tunnels is when you finally get one chasing you through them full tilt. Pro tip: This game involves sitting on the ground with a collapsible tube and what Dr. Stanley Coren called “hand spider.” Be quick and good luck!
Shannan Skitch began working with ferrets at The Ferret Aid Society in Toronto, Canada in 2004. Since then she has teamed with shelters and advocacy groups to help educate the public in regards to small mammal care and best practices.