"Don't ferrets smell?" That is one of the first questions people ask me when I tell them I keep ferrets as pets. The answer to that question is yes, ferrets do have an odor. All animals have their own unique odor. The reason people seem to think ferrets have a strong odor is because it's different from what they are familiar with. People tend to notice "unusual" odors more often than they do common ones, like dog and cat odors. Ferrets have a musky odor. Some people find it offensive, some find it pleasant, while others hardly notice it at all.
The ferret's musky odor is produced by oil/scent glands located on various parts of their body. The heaviest concentration of these glands seems to be in between the shoulder blades, behind the ears, and hind end (above the tail). There is a stronger scent coming from these areas than on any other part of the body. A ferret's odor, though, should not be overpowering. There are things that can increase their aroma. Poor diet can be one of them. Ferrets on a low quality diet (one containing less than 34% protein and 20% fat) tend to have a stronger body odor and large, smelly, poorly formed stools. Illnesses such as adrenal gland disease can also be another cause.
Intact (not neutered) males will have a very strong odor when they are in rut (heat). The increase in hormones makes their glands produce more oils which in turn makes the ferret's fur yellow, greasy, and smelly.
Many ferrets who are intact (and even ones that aren't) still have their anal glands/sacs and, when frightened or angry, can release a foul smelling, but quickly disipating odor. All ferrets sold in pet shops in the United States are neutered/spayed as well as descented (anal glands removed) before they are shipped to the stores. Reputable private breeders do not condone the descenting procedure and will advise against it, as it is highly unnecessary. Once a ferret is neutered/spayed, a ferrets anal glands will lose their "potency". What I mean is since the anal glands rely heavily on the ferret's hormones, once those hormones are removed (by neutering/spaying), the glands are rendered almost useless. The ferret still can and will release it's anal glands, but it is usually with far less frequency than before.
As more and more people are becoming "multi ferret" households, there needs to be ways to keep the odors down to a bare minimum.
Here are some suggestions that may help:
1) Feed a high quality ferret diet containing at least 34% protein and 20% fat. If a ferret diet is not available to you, you can use a high quality kitten diet as long as it meets the above requirements.
Avoid foods that contain fish oils; these will also make the ferret's body and stools smell stronger.
2) Litter box train your ferrets (if they aren't already). Make sure to use a litter that is absorbant of wetness and odors. Litters made of pelleted wood or plant fibers are highly recommended. Change the litter daily and scrub the litter boxes out at least once a week.
3) Change and wash your ferret's bedding (hammocks, sleep sacks, etc.) at least once a week. You may have to change the bedding more frequently if you have unneutered males in your home. When you do change the bedding, you may want to lightly spray your ferret with a ferret deodorizer. It kind of defeats the purpose to put a stinky ferret into a clean hammock.
4) Clean the ferret's cage/living area at least once a week. If you have carpet squares on the floors of your cage, they will need to be changed every 2 months (or more frequently than that). The carpet absorbs odor and will make the room smell even if the cage is clean. You may want to consider using linoleum on the cage floors instead of the carpeting. Linoleum doesn't absorb the odors that carpeting does and it is also easier to clean if you ferret has any "accidents" outside of the litter box. Carpeting in your ferret's play area will also be a prime source for odor as well. You may want to allow your ferrets to play in a room that doesn't have carpeting or remove the carpet from the room that they do play in; if you have that option, of course.
5) Clean up any accidents that your ferrets have inside or outside of their cage immediately.
6) Do not bathe your ferrets more than once a month. Bathing them any more than that will increase their body odor and dry out their skin as well. In between baths, you can use a ferret deodorizing spray.
7) If you have intact ferrets in your home and you do not plan on using them for breeding, then please neuter/spay them.
8) You may not realize this, but a ferret's ears are also a big source of odors. Try and clean your ferret's ears at least once a week or every other week.
Using these suggestions will help keep household odors from your ferrets down to a bare minimum.