Feeding Ferrets

Encouraging ferret owners to buy more than one type of food can have several benefits for ferrets.


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The days of ferret owners having to feed their pets kitten food are long gone, as there are now a wide variety of specific diets for ferrets on the market. However, ferret owners often still need some guidance when it comes to understanding their pets’ nutritional needs and how best to meet them. Retailers are perfectly positioned to teach customers the ins and outs of ferret nutrition.

The first thing these pet owners need to understand is that ferrets are obligate carnivores, which means that meat and animal fat must make up the majority of their diet. Ferrets have very short digestive tracts that don’t have the ability to digest complex carbohydrates. Food moves through the digestive tract of the ferret in about three to fours hours. Since there is little time to absorb the nutrients from their food, ferrets require high-quality diets. They also need constant access to food, and owners who have multiple ferrets living together should be encouraged to provide more than one food dish.

Ferret food should contain no more than 1.5 percent fiber and between 34 to 42 percent protein and 20 to 30 percent fat. Ferret treats should also be mostly protein. The main protein source should be high quality, such as poultry meal. Poultry fat is thought to have the optimal balance of fatty acids for ferrets, particularly compared to beef or pork fat. Retailers should encourage ferret owners to read the label on ferret foods and treats to find the products that will best benefit their pets.

Not only do pet owners need to know what they should feed their pets, sometimes they need to know what not to feed them. According to ferret expert Mary Van Dahm, one of the most commonly reported food allergies in ferrets is to corn gluten. A food allergy in a ferret can cause a painful gastrointestinal problem with such signs as gas or bloating and stools that are frequently irregular, soft or contain mucus. Left untreated, the condition can cause thick, hardened intestines or ulcerated bowels. Occasionally, a food allergy can cause skin rashes or swollen feet.

Like many pets, ferrets can benefit from having some variety in their diets. However, pet owners who are looking to add variety to a pet’s existing dietary routine need to tread carefully. While it is a good idea to get a ferret used to eating more than one kind of food, the ferret’s delicate digestive tract does not easily adjust to changes in its diet. Any changes must be made slowly.

Ferrets can be finicky. Ferrets that are only fed one type of food, especially when young, have a tendency to refuse to anything else. This can be a problem if that food is no longer available for some reason. So, retailers may want to recommend that customers give their pets opportunities to become accustomed to a variety of foods.

When introducing a ferret to a new food, pet owners should mix in a few pieces with the usual food, gradually adding more each day. If a ferret continually refuses to eat a new item that is considerably different from its usual fare, suggest that the owner buy something that is similar in size, shape, smell and texture as the original food, to make the transition even more gradual. Once the ferret is eating the new food, then other foods can be introduced again. If a ferret still refuses to eat a new food, the owner can try offering a few pieces dabbed with a little bit of Ferretone or soaked in some salt-free chicken broth, to make the new food more appealing.

Retailers can make the process of introducing new foods easier by offering sample packets of different diets, so customers won’t have to buy a whole bag, only to find out their ferret refuses to eat it. The only real downside to feeding a ferret more than one type of food is the danger of it going stale before it is used up. Retailers should tell customers to buy only as much as their ferrets can eat within three months. The food should also be kept in an airtight container, to protect it from air and moisture.


Mess Control

Ferrets have a tendency to play with their food. They often push the dish around the cage, dig their food out and scatter it. One way to solve this problem is to use food dishes that attach to the side of the cage—although they need to be positioned low enough in the cage so that the ferret can still easily reach the contents.

Here is one last tip retailers may want to share with ferret-owning customers: Pet owners who let their ferrets free-range might be mystified why their ferrets take a piece of food from the dish and carry it to another location, choosing to eat under a chair or a coffee table. What is so annoying about this behavior is that they drop little crumbs of food at their chosen dining location. L. Vanessa Gruden, the executive director of the Ferret Association of Connecticut, taught me that ferrets with this habit are always females. Carrying food to a protected location before eating is an instinct to provide growing kits with their first taste of solid food. A place-mat at the favored eating location can help contain the crumbs.


Debbie Ducommun has a B.A. in animal behavior and has worked in the animal field since 1982. She is the author of the book Rats!, the booklet Rat Health Care and, her most recent book, The Complete Guide to Rat Training: Tricks and Games for Rat Fun and Fitness.

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