Ferrets are sometimes mistakenly put into the rodent family. But ferrets are mustelids – a member of the weasel family and cousins of otters, minks, badgers and others. The reason the difference is important to know is diet.
Rodents eat vegetable and plant matter. Rabbits will happily munch on grass and certain flowers. But ferrets are meat eaters!
In the wild, ferrets evolved to feed on a diet of rabbits, mice and other small rodents, though they’ve been known to eat insects. As such, they need a diet high in protein and fat. A food that contains around 38% meat protein and 15% fat is preferred. Note that not all proteins are created equal.
Meat protein and vegetable protein are chemically different and ferrets don’t digest the latter well at all.
Fresh meat is a popular option with ferret owners. Ferrets will often prefer chicken to beef, though. Mutton is a possible choice, but it’s high in fat, so take care. Naturally, any fresh meat has to be obtained from a quality source to ensure it’s free of parasites, bacteria and toxins.
Some ferret owners will feed their pet day-old chicks, mice and other live or recently killed animals. Even rabbits can form part of their diet, as it did in the wild, and ground up can make for a balanced meal. From a dietary perspective, that’s all fine, again provided that the source of those foods is reliable.
Commercial dry ferret food is another option and pets will do just fine with it. Again, it’s important to check the label to ensure that it contains at least 35% protein from meat sources, and 15% fat.
They should also be relatively low in fiber, 3% or less. In a pinch, they can be fed cat food for short periods. But the protein and fat levels, and other ingredients, are not ideally balanced for ferrets.
Many ferrets are fond of sweets, enjoying raisins and bananas. But any treat like that should be given in very small quantities and only occasionally. Ferrets, whose name is derived from the Latin for ‘thief’, earned the appellation by their habit of hoarding small objects.
Ensure that any raisin or other small treat is eaten before giving any more. It’s possible for them to store up enough to present dietary imbalance that can lead to stomach upset or health problems.
Let out of their cages, ferrets can be extremely curious and clever about finding food (or things that aren’t food).
They’ll roll over on their backs and claw at cabinets to open them. That hurts your cabinets and leaves open items that can be harmful or fatal. Even if they do no more than get into a cereal box, they can make a mess and eat more than is good for them.
They’ll even try to open the refrigerator door. Those are usually too heavy and well-sealed, but their sharp claws can easily tear up the rubber seal on the bottom. Also, they’re quick and agile, and good climbers. If not watched carefully, they can wind up inside the fridge (or stove or dryer) when you open it.
Apart from fresh meat and/or a commercial pet food designed for ferrets, it’s a good idea to have some mineral and vitamin supplements on hand.
Most pet foods will have these supplements built in, but ferrets are individuals and may need extra elements. They’re prone to adrenal ailments and certain bone deformations so supplements can be helpful for some.