Over the course of the 5 years that I have owned ferrets, I have noticed many people always ask me the same questions about them. Most of the questions are based on word of mouth rumors, myths, and exaggerations. I'm going to cover the MOST frequently asked questions about ferrets.
1) Are ferrets wild animals?
No. Ferrets are NOT wild animals. They have been domesticated for over 2,000 years. Originally, after they were first domesticated, ferrets were used for rodent control in homes and places where food and grain were stored; later being replaced by cats for this purpose. In the UK and other European countries, many ferrets are used for rabbit control. This is called "ferreting". This practice is illegal in the United States and our ferrets are kept strictly as spoiled pets. Because ferrets have been domesticated for so long, they have become totally reliant on humans for all their needs: food, water, shelter, etc. If left to fend for themselves, they'll die within 2-3 days, if they survive that long. They have no instincts for survival in the wild or for hunting food. There are no feral (wild) communities of ferrets anywhere in the United States. Some people get the North American Black footed ferret confused with the ones we keep as pets. BFF's are wild and are an endangered species. Though they are very similar in appearance, they are only distantly related. The ferrets we keep as pets are descendents of the European polecats.
2) Are ferrets rats?
No. Ferrets are not rats nor are they related to rats. Rats are members of the Rodentia family, while ferrets are members of the Mustelidae family. One way to see the difference between rats and ferrets is to look at their teeth. Ferrets have canines like dogs and cats (though not related to them), while rats have incisors. Ferrets do have incisors, but they are very tiny and stay the same size throughout their lives. Rats' incisors are constantly growing and get trimmed down by the rat gnawing on wood and other things. Ferrets' diet also is immensely different from rats'. Rats eat nuts, seeds, and fruits while ferrets are obligate carnivores and must eat a high protein and high fat meat/protein based diet. There are obvious physical and behavioral differences as well. Rats are much smaller than ferrets. Rats, as well as most rodents, are nocturnal, meaning they are active mainly at night. Ferrets are neither nocturnal nor diurnal (active during the day); they are active during both day and night hours.
3) Do ferrets bite?
Well, yes and no. Any animal that has teeth has the ability to bite, ferrets included. Do ferrets bite more often than any other pet? No. A properly socialized ferret will not bite. However, there are reasons why a ferret, or any other pet for that matter, will bite. An animal that is frightened, abused, angry, starving, or ill will be more likely to bite. This doesn't go just for ferrets--it goes for ALL pets. Baby ferrets, like any other baby animal, go through a "nippy" stage, but given time, patience, proper handling, and socializing, they will outgrow it. Someone had asked me if it was true that if you don't handle a ferret EVERY single day, they become vicious. This is completely false. If your ferret was properly handled, cared for, and socialized, it should stay that way--it will not turn on you simply because you did not handle it for a day or two. If you abuse or mistreat it, then yes, it may bite you, but only out of self defense and fear. Ferrets do not bite anymore than any other pet. As a matter of fact, ferrets are LESS likely to bite than dogs and cats and their bites cause far less damage. See the "for more information" below for ferret bite statistics.
4) Do ferrets smell?
All animals have their own unique odor, ferrets included. Ferrets have a mild musky odor produced by oil/scent glands located on various areas of their body including behind their ears and between their shoulder blades. People have various reactions to a ferret's odor. They either like it, hate it, or barely notice it. People only really notice a ferret's odor because it is different from the pet odors they are used to. A ferret's musky odor can be kept down to a minimum with proper diet, grooming, and maintenance. The majority of ferrets sold in pet shops are neutered/spayed and "descented" before they are shipped to the stores. Many people thinks if a ferret is descented, then it means the ferret is odorless. This is not true at all. When a ferret is descented, it's anal sacs, located on either side of the rectum, are removed. The anal sacs are capable of being expressed by the ferret when it is frightened or angry, releasing a strong, but quickly disipating odor. Removing these glands only renders them unable to express the odor. However, removing these glands does NOT rid a ferret of it's natural musky odor. Descenting is actually considered an unnecessary procedure as the glands are fueled by the ferret's hormones. Once a ferret has been neutered/spayed, the hormones cease, thus rendering the anal glands almost totally useless. Various things can make a ferret's musky smell increase: poor diet, bathing the ferret too often, poor maintenance of their living area, and illness.
These are the 4 most asked questions I get about ferrets. There are many other ones I've gotten asked, but not as often as the above. Most of the erroneous information and myths flying around about ferrets usually come from people who have never owned or been around ferrets. Or from people who have had a past bad experience with a ferret. When around a well socialized, properly maintained ferret, people usually change their negative thinking about them.
*animated ferret courtesy of A.J's Animated Ferret Gifs*