I’ve been asked by many people about how to breed ferrets and my answer has always been the same. “Are you stark raving mad? Why on earth would you want to breed ferrets?” followed by Joey’s “DUH!” look!
Ask any ferret breeder how to breed ferrets and they’ll usually agree - you're going to need deep pockets so that you can send all your vet’s children to private school with the money you would have forked out!
The list of things which could – and often do -- go wrong is pretty long, and there is always the miserable chance of losing your jill, or losing all the kits, and even worse, losing the whole kit and caboodle!
Another point to consider is the temperament of both ferrets. Obviously you don’t want to mate a skittish male with a ditzy female, as no one would want to end up with neurotic, frightened ferrets that twitch then bite from fright!
Anyway - you want to know how to breed ferrets? Let's start here....
How to Breed Ferrets Part 1 "The Courtship"
A typical male, the hob has no sense of romance whatever. No companiable fireside drink. No gazing lovingly into the jill’s eyes. No flowers, no soft music.
No sirree! The hob’s “How to Woo Your Jill” handbook is straight from the cave. The typical ferret mating game is an incredibly rough-and-tumble episode, something right out of a Neanderthal’s book of courtship.
Female ferrets are polyestrous, meaning they usually come into heat more than once a year. For us down under, that means they usually come into season around September and again in December. For those in the northern hemisphere, that’s around March and August. But like anything, it’s not a hard and fast rule.
About 7 years ago, both Friskie and Fidget came into season about 4 times during spring to autumn, and others in the Ferret Society had the same problem.
Males go into rut a month earlier and I really must stress this – the “whole male” (one with all his bits) during this period is absolutely gross. They smell vile and have rather unsavory habits! I think even their own mothers would find it hard to love them in this state!
By the way, that is one thing you better not ever try – putting a son with his mother – because even if they don’t care, it would be disastrous for the kits. Inbreeding can cause problems such as deformities in the kits’ jaws and hind legs, sometimes so bad that the kits have to be put down. And that goes for brothers and sisters, too. No incest allowed!
I thought having a teenage son was grotty enough but it doesn’t hold a candle next to a hob in rut! Their hair gets very greasy and they smell and they piddle and drag their stomachs through the piddle puddle, marking their territory, and they also get really aggressive with other males so have to be kept on their own.
Hmmmm. Kinda does sound like a teenage male..
Oh it really is revolting and the smell - oh the smell - it is BAD!
When the female goes into season, her vulva pops out and looks like a garbanzo (chickpea).
When this happens, wait for 14 days before putting her with the hob. If the jill isn’t ready, she won’t take kindly to having a bully grab her by the scruff so will fight and it could end up with her getting hurt.
Most breeders feel it is better for the jill to be brought to the male’s territory for the union to take place.
How to Breed Ferrets Part 2 "The Mating Game"
The actual mating process is not for the faint-hearted - it’s pretty vicious!
When put together, the male (the hob) will aggressively grab the female (the jill) by the scruff of her neck and drag her around the cage, mounting her several times, and even causing the jill to scream with pain. At least it certainly looks like it’s pain! Even if the jill goes limp and allows herself to be dragged around, it’s still a very distressing sight for the jill’s owner!! It’s almost like you’re waiting for the hob to bring out his wooden club!
Tip – don’t watch! Just let the two of them get on with it. Incredibly, this whole drama is essential for ovulation to occur. The hob has a j-shaped "penis bone" and once he is locked into the jill, there is no way you'll separate them without causing damage. (So don't try)
The whole process can take several hours to complete and once finished, the pair will usually stop to clean themselves up and eat and drink before the hob starts on the female again.
If you want to be sure that your jill has conceived, leave her with the male for a whole day. That should be sufficient time for pregnancy to take place.
Once finished and the pair have been separated, make sure you inspect the jill’s neck to make sure there aren’t any deep punctures which need attention and also check that there are no signs of vaginal infection in the days following the mating.
The vulva will usually start to decrease in a week, sometimes two. If the vulva has not gone down within 14 days, the jill will have to be taken back to the hob for another session. Lucky girl…
There are some video clips of ferrets mating on Fons Reijsbergen’s excellent Dutch ferret site so if you want to take a look at the rough and tumble of it all, you can see it here.
How to Breed Ferrets Part 3 "The Pregnancy"
If the mating is successful, the pregnancy will last approximately 42 days and the jill will become noticeably “clucky” during that time. She will start yanking the hairs out of her tail, I guess to feather her nest so to speak, and you will notice her getting fatter over the time. She might even get broody with you, and start pulling the hairs out of your head when she gets close enough.
Of course even if the mating was a dud, you will notice all these things happening anyway, as the jill will be going through a phantom pregnancy. This is pretty common and I wonder if it causes the jill as much frustration as it does to the owner!
As I said earlier, breeding ferrets is nothing like breeding dogs and cats. It is fraught with difficulty and can cost a lot of money in vet bills, as well as causing the death of your little jill. The ferret kits don’t always all survive and for the ones that do, have you got good homes lined up for them?
I bred Friskie and Fidget with CJ at the same time and they had their kits within hours of each other. Fidget had 12 kits and only 6 survived, 3 boys and 3 girls. She didn’t get any problems, thank goodness, but with Friskie it was a different story.
She gave birth to 6 kits and I noticed she was still straining but nothing was happening. We took her to our vet and after feeling her stomach, he found that she still had more kits inside. I had to leave her with the vet for a couple of hours while he put her on a drip to stimulate her uterus to continue with its contractions.
Rushing home, I put all of Friskie’s kits in with Fidget’s lot, then raced back to the vet. By the time I got there, 4 more kits had arrived but they were all stillborn.
I took Friskie back and reunited her with her babies and everything was fine until about a week later, when she developed mastitis. Back we went to the vet for treatment.
Thank heavens we didn’t encounter any further problems after that and we ended up with a total of 6 boys and 6 girls, all of whom were just the sweetest and most affectionate little babies ever to have been born.
I had a list of people wanting to have a ferret and having vetted them, I picked the ones I thought would be the best parents. I also gave them a 5-page information pack with all the information they would need about bringing up ferrets, sterilizing them, feeding them and whatever else I could think of, as well as a money-back guarantee if they decided that they had made the wrong decision with their new ferret.
Fat lot of good it did me. One lady, who was a teacher at my kids’ high school, bumped into me at the supermarket and when I asked how her boy was getting on, she advised me blandly that he’d escaped from his cage and gone missing. I asked her if she had sterilized him, as I had instructed, and she said no. I asked if she had advised Ferret Rescue or done any of the other things I had written down in case of a lost ferret, and she said no.
I could almost feel the pulse in my temple about to burst with anger. It was obvious that everything I had told her, and everything I had given her, had not been absorbed or acted upon.
So much for all my vetting! It turned out to be quite a waste of time and effort, because I also found out later that a couple of other owners of my babies did stupid things.
Tip – just because potential owners look like they’re paying attention to what you’re saying, don’t assume anything!
I vowed I would not breed again unless I kept all the babies myself. At least then I would KNOW they’d be looked after properly and would have a long and happy life.
You can hold your breath for about 42 days and see if your little girl will become a mother or if she will need to be mated again.
How to Breed Ferrets Part 4 "The Big Day"
Assuming the union was successful, then you can expect the jill to produce tiny, hairless, blind and deaf little kits that look rather like a pile of caterpillars rather than ferrets!
Don’t disturb the mother or the kits for the first week, otherwise you might find that the mother will get spooked and eat her babies.
Let me repeat – the mother may eat her babies.
You will have to put food in the cage and will be able to check the litter when the mother is distracted or eating, and then you can make sure there are no dead kits in the pile and perhaps be able to count the number of babies. Of course if you find that you have more kits than the mother has nipples, then you might have to rethink about how to fix the problem.
As long as the jill has a good diet, she should be able to feed a large litter without any hassles, so it might not be necessary to find a substitute mother to help out.
After a week, you can handle the kits and talk to the mother but don’t throw out the soiled bedding just yet, as that might upset all of them. However make sure that there aren’t any kits caught up in the bedding or shoved to the back of the cage whenever you check up on them, especially around the 3 week mark, as the kits will start wandering about then, but will still be blind. Unless the mother yanks them back to the ‘nest’, they might find themselves out in the cold and be unable to get back.
Around this time the kits will be interested in trying out their mother’s grown up food. At this stage it is sensible to put the food in on a flat surface (like the top to an ice cream container) so that the kits can’t fall into a bowl and hurt themselves. I used to give the kits (human) baby food at this stage, as I reckoned it would give them everything they needed nutritionally. They seemed to thrive on it. As they got a bit older, I changed the diet to softened Iams kitten food before leaving just the dry kitten food for them at around 5-6 weeks old.
You should also give a small amount (like a teaspoon) of freshly chopped liver to the mother so that she can build up her iron levels but don't give too much, as it can cause diarrhea. Also good is a smoothy made of some Whiskas lactose-free pet milk, with an egg yolk and a squirt of Nutrigel whisked together for added vitamins and minerals.
If you give them fresh meat, make sure you check the cage and remove any old uneaten food so that it doesn’t go off.
The kits should have fur after 9 days, with a decent coat after 5 weeks. Their eyes and ears open within 3-5 weeks and their canine teeth burst forth in their 7th week. Obviously they will have their baby teeth before then and you have to make sure they become socialized so that they know that latching onto your finger with their sharp little teeth is a definite no no. And yes, they CAN bite, so it’s up to you to handle them and socialize them properly.
It should go without saying that the cage should be protected from extreme weather conditions and have good circulation, because newborn kits are really, really smelly!
One thing I noticed with our babies is how they'd fall asleep suddenly. One minute they’d be playing and crawling over each other and then it would be like one of them died. A head drops and the body stops … enough to make you gasp with worry. But then you find they are just fast asleep.
Kits aren’t ready to leave their mother until they’re 8 weeks old AT THE EARLIEST, preferably 12 weeks. I’ve known breeders who’ve sold their kits off at 6 weeks old and I’ve taken them and put them with a motherly type so that they wouldn’t feel abandoned.
Whatever your reason for breeding ferrets, DON’T RUSH THIS BIT.
See how small ferrets are at 5 weeks? That's Marshmallow in Philip's pocket.
She was sold to a young girl way too early, and when the girl's parents wouldn't let her keep the ferret, we got her.
I don't know if the fact that she was separated from her mother too early had anything to do with her personality, but she was a totally neurotic little girl. Gorgeous - without a doubt - but very flaky!
We also got Mulder when he was 6 weeks old. The guy I bought him from didn't care about my suggestion that he should keep his kits with their mother longer. He just wanted to sell the babies and be done with it.
Fortunately, Mulder wasn't anything like Marshmallow when he grew up. He was like a big, soft teddy bear!
Personally I believe that the longer you leave the mother to look after them, the easier they are to train later on.
How to Breed Ferrets Part 5 "Wrapping Up"
Assuming all goes to plan, this is pretty much it. Like anything else though, things can go wrong, so always make sure you have a ferret-knowledgeable vet you can call.
You may have decided that it’s all too much to worry about. If that’s the case – good! I’ve always thought that breeding any animal “because they’re cute” is a pretty lousy reason, and if you’re hoping to make an income from breeding ferrets – well, you probably won’t!
Enjoy your ferrets and sterilize them! The boys will be happy as eunuchs (at least, it doesn't seem to trouble my husband) and the girls won’t mind being spinsters.
Trust me, I know about these things. ......
However, if you ARE planning to breed your jill, it's important that you're aware of the following conditions which can affect her and/or her kits ...