Ferret Food for Thought
Understanding the ins and outs of ferrets’ dietary needs is essential for helping pet owners make the best and most appropriate food choices for their pets.
Ferrets have highly specialized dietary needs. They are obligate carnivores, which means they must eat meat, and their gastrointestinal systems are designed to process a predominantly meat-based diet. The only fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts and seeds a wild ferret consumes is what can be found partially digested in the stomach and intestines of their prey, so if these types of foods are included in a domestic ferret’s diet, they should only be in very limited quantities.
Fortunately, commercial ferret foods have really come of age with a wide variety of diets to choose from, including those for all life stages. In the past, when there were fewer choices of diets made specifically for ferrets, many pet owners fed their ferrets kitten food instead. However, kitten food tends to be too high in fat, carbohydrates or fiber to be a healthy diet for ferrets. Ferret food should be at least 34 percent protein and contain no more than five percent fiber.
In today’s commercial ferret foods, protein content ranges from 34 to 62 percent, fat from 15 to 25 percent and fiber from two to five percent. Retailers can confidently assure ferret owners that even if it costs more, ferret food is the best investment they can make in the health of their ferrets.
Because ferrets are small and have fast metabolisms, they should have access to food at all times. However, these animals will ignore stale food when they are fed free-choice, so retailers should instruct ferret owners to put out only as much food as their ferrets will eat in a day. Dry food can be made more palatable for kits or finicky animals by offering a small amount of food moistened with warm water several times a day. There are also several brands of canned and semi-moist ferret foods available for pets that do not like dry food.
It is impossible to compare the nutritional content of dry foods with that of canned and semi-moist food just by looking at the labels. This is because of the varying moisture content of the different types of foods. Dry food usually has a moisture content of around 10 percent. Soft-moist foods can have as much as 25 percent moisture, and canned foods usually have around 75 percent moisture content.
Because the percentages of nutrients listed on the label are based on the weight of the food, the amount of protein listed for a semi-moist or canned food will appear to be less than that for a dry food. In order to directly compare them, you must calculate what is called the “dry-matter basis.” First, you subtract the percentage of moisture from 100. For a canned food that contains 75 percent moisture, this would be 25. Then divide this number—.25—into the nutrient percentage that you want to compare. For example, a canned food that is 75 percent moisture and 10 percent protein, would actually be 40 percent protein on a dry-matter basis.
Obesity can be a problem in ferrets. The best way to get a ferret to slim down is by encouraging more exercise rather than restricting access to food or switching to a food higher in fiber. One study showed that a group of overweight ferrets housed in a room with lots of toys that were rotated weekly played vigorously and quickly slimmed down to a healthy weight. When several of these same ferrets were housed in a 23-in.-by-47-in. cage instead and let out for only occasional exercise, they gained significant amounts of weight. However, older ferrets that are putting on weight should be fed a food specifically for older ferrets that might help maintain a healthy weight.
Because ferrets are such specialized eaters, they do not do well with quick changes in their diets. Retailers should advise customers who want to change their pets’ food to make the change slowly over about a week. For the same reason, retailers that sell ferrets should send customers home with a bag of the same food the ferret kits have been eating in the store. This will not only prevent new pets from experiencing digestive upset from a change of diet, it will encourage the new ferret owner to return to the store to buy the same food.
Also note that because ferret food is fairly high in fat, storing the food in the refrigerator after opening it will help prevent the fat from going rancid.
To promote and market these products, retailers should consider offering sample bags of ferret foods to give to customers so they can see if their pets like the new food. This could help convince them to switch from a basic food to a premium food.
Like dog and cat food, small animal food also lends itself to frequent buyer clubs through which purchases are recorded on a card that either the customer carries or that is filed at the store. Purchases can be recorded by the number of bags of food bought, total weight of food bought, or dollar amount of each purchase. When a certain total is reached, the customer is rewarded with a free bag of food or some other premium.
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.