Certainly when I got my first ferret, Mash, back in 1994, there were many different views about what ferrets should be fed.
Farmers here in Western Australia and, I would think, around the rest of Australia as well as in England, seemed to think the poor animals should have a diet of bread and milk.
I think the logic was that if they were fed that on a regular basis, they wouldn’t be ferocious, bloodthirsty creatures that would lust after the taste of blood!
Then there were folk who fed their ferrets canned dog food only; or those who fed them canned cat food or even those cheap boxes of dry cat food from the supermarket. And they even wondered why their ferrets’ poop was technicolored!
However when I explained that it was due to the dyes that were in the cheap cat food, they thought I was exaggerating.
Then there were a few people who used to go and buy sacks of rodent food for their ferrets to eat.
“Rodent food?” I’d squeak and my eyebrows would shoot up in horror at the thought of giving our favorite pets rodent food!
“No!” I would exclaim heatedly. “It is most definitely NOT alright to feed them rodent food because” … drum roll … “ferrets are NOT RODENTS so please don't ever think of giving your ferret any kind of seed or vegetable as its daily diet.”
I would explain that they are … more drum rolls … MUSTELIDS, which means they are obligate (i.e. “strict”) carnivores.
That means that a ferret was designed to get goodness from its diet by eating a large amount of animal-based proteins (i.e. meat) and doesn’t get any nutrition from plant-based proteins (like grains, fruit or vegetables)! In fact, giving those to a ferret could cause problems down the track.
Why a ferret needs a special diet
They have a very short intestinal tract, only about 5 times the length of its body. A cat, another obligate carnivore, has an intestinal tract 10 times the length of its body.
Food usually passes through a ferret’s intestine in about 3 hours, compared to the 5-6 hours it takes to go through a cat’s gut.
The food a ferret eats must be highly digestible and concentrated to allow for the short digestion time, and must also be high in animal protein and fat, to help maintain a healthy immune system.
A diet containing taurine is vital for a ferret's heart. Taurine is essential for a healthy heart and good eye function. If there's not enough taurine included in the diet then the ferret's heart muscle could stretch and become enlarged. That, in turn, could lead to dilated cardiomyopathy, which would result in congestive heart failure then death.
Ferrets don't require carbohydrates in their diet as long as they have enough fat and protein in their diet. If a ferret has too much carbohydrates in its diet it could cause two serious problems in the long term - insulinoma and diarrhea.
Open a ferret's mouth and take a look at its teeth.
Whoa, Grandpa Seamus! They surely are big, strong impressive teeth in your mouth
Check out the well-developed carnassials (specialized teeth that form shearing blades to cut up meat, guillotine fashion).
You sure wouldn’t want those teeth grabbing your finger or nose or even earlobe unless you knew your ferret was just going to gently chew on them, would you?
And it always amazes me at how incredibly gentle a ferret can be when its giving its owner a little friendly nibble, say, on the earlobe. The power that those jaws COULD pack, but don’t, is quite amazing!
As already explained, ferrets have an extremely high metabolic rate so there should always be food available for them so that they can snack away whenever they're hungry.
If you have a talented ferret like Kaos, who could open fridge doors, then you might find her raiding the contents of your fridge at odd hours of the day (or night)!
No, no! I'm joking!! Seriously
She'd lie on her back, scratching, and has wrecked the rubber seal around the bottom of the door but she couldn’t actually open the fridge to get in by herself. Phew!
Eeeny, meeny, miny, mo … mmmm, what to do?
There are many different thoughts about what ferrets should eat. Some people only feed them dry food; some only fresh meat, while others give them day-old chicks and pinkies (newborn hairless mice).
I believe they are referred to as weener mice/rats here in Australia and also in the UK (eeek - not something I could do and I'm sure my lot would look at me as if I were mad if I served those up to them). And there are still some stubborn old fools here who think ferrets should be fed bread and milk ... the mind boggles as to where the logic for that kind of diet ever came from.
If you're planning to give your ferret a fresh meat diet, you have to think about adding certain minerals or vitamins to the food. We can get an assortment of pet meat from pet stores here ... kangaroo, beef, mutton and minced chicken.
Mutton is very fatty and can turn your ferret into a chubby bunny who'll waddle around if it's solely fed that. Now, we know ferrets have short GI tracts so need a diet that has fat but too much is no good.
Some people get a whole chook or rabbit, innards et al, and put it through the mincer so that their ferrets can eat everything. You'd probably be right in thinking that would be an ideal diet for your ferret, as it would have all the goodness of the innards, calcium from the bones and muscle meat, all mixed together.
If you only want to give your ferret raw meat, please think about adding a good vitamin/mineral supplement, like calcium, to the food to the food to avoid the possibility of your ferret developing osteodystrophy. Taurine also needs to be added to avoid cardiomyopathy.
Day-old chicks / baby mice & rats
Day-old chicks? Well, that's up to you. I have known certain people who say that is the best diet for them, as it's what mustelids in the wild would eat.
However I've also heard that ferrets can get blockages and bald patches from a diet of day-old chicks, not to mention
hypocalcemia and actinomycosis. Hmmm!
You usually can get day-old chicks and baby mice/rats from suppliers to reptile keepers but that really gives me the jim-jams.
Somehow the idea of coming across fluffy little chicks stashed in my underwear drawer is just too awful to contemplate - yuk!
It also lists sites where you can learn more about giving your ferret a natural diet.
Now - if you do give your ferrets day-old chicks &/or pinkies, please make sure you check their cages for any food they might stash there. You don’t want to leave a festering piece of food there which, if eaten after a day or two, will give your ferret a bad case of “Montezuma's revenge”. Something like that could very well be fatal to your ferret.
Some ferrets love crunching on insects - I remember being totally grossed out when I caught Friskie with what I thought were a couple of hairy old twigs sticking out of her mouth until I realized she was chomping on a Huntsman spider. Eeeuuww. I wouldn't let her give me any licks for a day or two till her spider-breath dissipated
I guess if you wanted to give your ferrets insects as a treat, then you'd be able to find cans of them at pet stores which also supply food for reptiles.
Premium quality dry foods
Food made especially for ferrets is still quite hard to come by here in Western Australia so we have to dish out the premium quality cat food.
The food for an adult ferret needs to have a high meat protein value, around 31-32%, 18% minimum fat and a maximum of 3% for fiber.
The brands of cat food we use here are the chicken versions of Iams, Hills Science Diet and Advantage.
You don't buy them in supermarkets but in pet stores or places like City Farmers (a local one-stop-shop for pet, garden, animal and pool supplies) in Perth.
Some people buy all 3 brands and give their ferrets a mixture. My lot prefer Iams and tend to turn their noses up at the other two so I stick with that.
Make sure you don't get the Furball type, as that has too much fiber for ferrets to digest.
Kits need food with a higher protein percentage so they should be fed something like Iams Kitten when they are weaned, as that has a 34% protein value.
I came across a site called Pet Food Ingredients Revealed! which lists the worst ingredients found in pet food so it might be useful to check out just to make sure you’re not inadvertently giving your ferret something which might be bad for it.
Dry Ferret Food
We are slowly getting some dry ferret food appearing here in Perth now, thank goodness.
The West Australian Ferret & Ferreting Society (WAFFS) have Eagle Pack Ferret Food available for their members, and certainly from what I’ve read on the Internet, it’s an excellent brand and has everything a ferret needs for good nutrition.
Another brand which I’ve heard good reports about is EVO Ferret Food – you can see the analysis of their food on their site and the best thing is that they don’t put any grain in their food. Ferrets can’t digest fiber so it’d be a good idea to feed them dry food without any grain listed in the ingredients!
There are quite a number of dry ferret foods which have been around for some time. More Dooks has done a Ferret Food Chart, so you’ll be able to see what the good quality cat foods and ferret foods have in their ingredients to help you decide which one is the best for your little one!
Fresh chicken meat
In all the years I've had ferrets, I haven't had one who's been keen on red meat. They turn their noses up at any of the meats from pet stores mentioned above and even ground beef from the supermarket, but they don’t mind fresh chicken meat. So, whenever I'm making a recipe that requires chicken breast or boneless thighs, I buy an extra piece so that I can give it to them.
I just cut it up into little pieces, put it on a dish and lock them all up with it in the bathroom. That way I know they haven't stashed any food around the house and when I open the door, the dog follows me in and eats any leftovers happily.
I was told to give Mash raw chicken wings when I first got her. It was something that ferrets were supposed to love and was good for cleaning their teeth at the same time. Hah! After finding the wings nestled in between my pantyhose in my chest of drawers a few times, I put a stop to that pronto! Haven't had one ferret yet who enjoyed crunching on a wing.
Don't feed your ferret canned cat food from the supermarket. There is nothing nutritional in them and will cause dental problems for your pet.
There are premium quality canned cat foods (like Hill’s Science Diet) but it's not advisable to give them regularly to your ferret either.
However, if you have a ferret which is ill, then you’ll probably find that your vet will suggest giving it the Hill’s Science Diet A/D formula in the short term to help improve its health.
With a sick ferret, always be guided by your (ferret knowledgeable) vet’s advice rather than going on your own!
No dog food, dry or canned
There is nothing nutritional for a ferret in either dry or canned dog food, so please don't give your ferret either.
No cow's milk
Don't give your ferret cow's milk (like the stuff we drink) as they are lactose intolerant and the milk would cause them to have diarrhea.
Another no no is giving them chocolate, for whatever reason. Theobromine, which is in chocolate, is dangerous to most pets.
And bread and milk? ... No No No!
I kid you not .. some people actually think bread and milk is the right diet for ferrets.
Years ago I used to have stand-up arguments with people who criticized me for giving ferrets dry cat food, telling me I was wrong and that bread and milk was the proper diet for them. Amazing!
I'd get one of my ferrets, lift up their lip, show them those sharp canines and say, "See .. they are car-ni-vores" very slowly. but it didn't seem to make a difference.
Arguing with those types was futile. I reckon it's easier to push a boulder uphill. * sigh *
People give ferrets raisins for treats but I wonder about the wisdom of that.
(a) Raisins are sweet and ferrets really shouldn't have sweet things and, (b) ferrets shouldn't have fiber and raisins are high in fiber. And if your ferret can't digest the raisins, they *might* cause problems in its gut. Why take the risk? AND, there have been recent reports that giving your ferret raisins regularly could cause kidney problems down the track. More reason not to give that to your ferret.
If you don't believe me, read what a vet thinks about giving raisins to ferrets here.
Be careful about what you give them and also consider the size, as there have been reports of ferrets having blockages from something as innocent as a piece of carrot which got stuck in their gut.
I've found that some of my ferrets absolute LOVE having chicken-flavored Strapz Schmackos but the others sniff the piece I offer and you can almost hear them say, "Ho hum!" as the turn away. I don't know if you American ferret owners can get them but here in Oz they're the ultimate dog snack and our dog Zac loves them too.
When I give Zac his treat in the morning, I have one or two of ferrets around my feet, waiting their turn for a small piece of the Strapz. But when I say a SMALL piece, I mean that, as I don’t honestly know if ferrets might find it hard to digest. If you want to give your ferret a piece of Strapz, make sure it’s no more than a quarter the size of the nail on your little finger!
That's Otis standing up to have his daily Schmacko!
All of my ferrets are crazy about their daily smoothy!
It consists of 1/2 cup of Whiskas Pet Milk (lactose reduced and with thiamine and taurine added), one egg yolk and some supplements, all whisked together.
You can see them all licking their lips in anticipation when I call them to come and have it. So cute!
Kaos used to get so excited about having it that she used to do her most unco weasel wardance, more rolling over and whipping her head from side to side, than pronking, as she followed me to where I normally put the dish down!! She was such a clown
If your ferrets live in the house with you and you also own other animals, you have to come up with some creative thinking on how to allow your ferrets access to their food without it getting snaffled up by the dog or cats.
In the past, I used to have a large rectangular cardboard box on the laundry floor, with a small hole cut out at one end so that the ferrets could go in and out. Having a crafty cat as well, the box used to end up being pushed along as the cat lay on his side, paw stretched inside the box, as he hoicked the food out. Silly really, as the cats got the same cat food as the ferrets but obviously the grass was greener ......!
The box idea wasn't particularly good but when we reorganized our laundry, Philip had a brainwave and cut a hole in the door to one of our cupboards. That was a perfect way for the ferrets to go in and out without any interference from the crafty cat or devious dog.