Melissa J. Nixon, DVM
As of this writing, ferrets are still illegal in California and Hawaii. Since this may change in the future, and since we may be deployed to other states where ferrets are legal to keep as pets, I would still like to cover some basics on ferrets.
California outlaws ferrets as pets because of the concern that escaped domestic ferrets may cause damage to endemic wildlife or to crops. However, ferrets do not survive well out in the environment. Most ferrets are totally acclimatized to life indoors, with ready access to food, water, and shelter. Outdoors and loose, ferrets quickly succumb to predators and exposure. Never think the solution is to turn a ferret loose.
Should we end up with a ferret needing care in our facility in California, we will report it as per law to the California Department of Fish and Game. Unclaimed ferrets are usually turned over to the California Domestic Ferret Association for relocation out of the state. Transport of owned ferrets is also facilitated by the CDFA but often at the expense of the owner.
When holding a ferret, be sure you give support to the body and all four feet. Air swimming is no more popular with ferrets than with other critters. Friendly, well-trained ferrets can be carried with support under their chest. If necessary, they can be held by the scruff much as a mother cat holds a kitten. Be aware that when scared, they can bite. Also recognize that ferrets often investigate by grabbing something with the mouth. Avoid putting any part of your body such as fingers or face immediately in front of a ferret's face. If a ferret does bite, it is more likely to hold on tighter if you try to pull away. Rabies is very rarely encountered, but a bite from a ferret should be dealt with in the same manner as a bite from a strange cat or dog.
Do not take them from the cage unless it is unavoidable; be sure you are in an enclosed area such as the command center with the access door closed and temporarily guarded.
While ferrets like a roomy space, they can do very well housed temporarily in a small confined space such as a cat or small dog airline flight carrier; however, an enclosed sleeping nest box or a place to curl up under is a must. Bedding can be hay, towels, or newspaper. Ferrets are excellent diggers, so a good solid floor to the cage is a must. They are also excellent escape artists and can get through any space larger than about 3 cm. Do not try to confine them in cardboard boxes, they can dig out in minutes.
Ferrets do not bury feces or urine as cats do, so a thin layer of litter is all that is needed. Newspaper or cat litter - clay, wheat based, or newspaper based - is fine; shavings are not.
Ferrets will often chew on non-digestible items, especially rubber or foam. This can result in intestinal foreign bodies and intestinal blockages. It is best to avoid any items or toys that might be chewed up by the ferret.
Ferrets are carnivores. If we are unable to find ferret chow, then cat food will suffice - preferably kitten chow. Never feed ferrets sweets, including raisins!
Since ferrets may play in their water bowl, it might be better to offer their drinking water in one of the bottles we have stockpiled for rabbits.
Ferrets, like rabbits, are intolerant of high environmental temperatures.
Ferrets are susceptible to a number of human respiratory viral conditions, especially influenza. Rescue workers with respiratory infections should avoid handling ferrets.
My thanks to Rene Gandolfi, DVM, for the gift of his expertise in putting this information sheet together!