The Origins of the Ferret
ferret– 1398, from O.Fr. fuiret, dim. of fuiron “weasel, ferret,” lit. “thief”, from L.L. furionem (related to furonem “cat,” and also “thief”), probably from L. fur (gen. furis) “thief”.
The verb (c.1450) refers to the use of half-tame ferrets to kill rats and flush rabbits from burrows; the extended sense of “search out, discover” is 1580.
Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2001 Douglas Harper
Ferrets belong to the Mustelidae family and, according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica (15th edition), that group contains a variety of animals unmatched by any other family in the Carnivora Order except the civets (Viverridae).
The family includes the weasels, polecats, minks, martens, fishers, wolverines, otters, badgers and a number of less well-known animals, a total of about 70 species in 25 genera.
The smallest member of the Mustelidae family, the least weasel, weighs 30-70 grams (1-2.5oz).
The largest mustelid is the sea otter, which may weigh 41kg (90lbs).
Skunks were classified as a subfamily of Mustelidae but recently, thanks to DNA, it has been suggested that skunks should be placed in their own family, i.e. Mephitidae, (mephitis is Latin for ‘bad odor’).
In most mustelids the males are larger than the females.
Being highly carnivorous, mustelids have well-developed carnassials and a reduced number of premolar and molar teeth, the total number of teeth being between 30-38 (average 34).
Mustelids are either digitigrade (walk with most of the length of their digits, but not the soles of their feet, in contact with the ground e.g. dogs and raccoons) or semi-plantigrade (those that place the full length of their foot on the ground during each stride, e.g. humans and bears) and they have five toes on each foot.
All members of the mustelid family have anal glands with powerful musk. Ferrets give off a “stink bomb” when they get frightened or excited but the smell usually dissipates quickly.
Male mustelids have a baculum (os penis). This is a bony structure which serves to “lock” the pair when they are mating.
Most mustelids have short legs and many tend to have an elongate, slender body. They are quiet, agile, and graceful in their movements. They are also basically silent animals, usually making only a sound like a squeak, whistle or bark. Many will snarl or growl when annoyed.
The giant otter is the most vocal, giving off a high-pitched whistle, while excited yellow-throated martens make a harsh cry and often chuckle in a low tone.
Almost all mustelids are active both day and night, although most of their activity is nocturnal.
Mustelids are found worldwide, except for most oceanic islands, Antarctica, Australia and Madagascar.
There’s a whole lot more information about the ferret – including things like where it originated from, the etymology of its Latin name (Mustela putorius furo) among other things – on the page about Mustela putorius furo.
The Physical Ferret – Tech Specs
Here are some facts and figures about ferrets
Blokes (boys): Length – 43 – 61cm (17″ – 24″)
Weight – 1.3kg – 2.2kg (2.8lb – 4.8lb)
Sheilas (girls): Length – 30.5 – 41cm (12″ – 16″)
Weight – 450g – 1.3kg (15oz – 2.8lb)
Unsterilized male ferrets are called hobs while unsterilized females are called jills.
In America, they call neutered males gibs and sterilized females sprites but I’ve never come across any one using that term here in Australia.
A group of ferrets is called a business but I prefer to spell it busy-ness. If you know ferrets, you can just imagine how busy they are all when they’re getting up to mischief!
Another collective name for them is fesnyng – a very strange word and I’ve heard that it came from misreading the word fesynes in Middle English and that word does, in fact, mean busy-ness!
Ferrets can live up to 10 years old. However there have been occasions when ferrets have lived up to 14 years.
Because they are so prone to cancers, it’s hard to tell how long they’ll be with you. In America they reach middle age around 3 years old, whereas in Australia and probably England, 6 years is considered middle age for ferrets.
There is a belief that because American ferrets are sterilized when they are just weeks old, that affects their lifespan.
200-250 (beats per minute)
30-40 (breaths per minute)
Unsterilized vs sterilized
Unsterilized females can die from aplastic anemia if left on heat. It is therefore much better for both the ferret and its owner for the females to be sterilized around 6 months old.
Unsterilized males have a very strong and unpleasant smell when in rut, and they tend to be aggressive with other males and drag any females around by the scruff of their neck so would need to be caged on their own. Unless you are a breeder (and it is NOT RECOMMENDED that you breed just for the heck of it), it is strongly advised that males be sterilized as soon as they start smelling a bit high and getting rough with the rest of your ferrets or with you – usually around 6 months old at the latest.
A jill’s pregnancy lasts around 41-42 days and litter size can range from 1 to as many as 18, but usually there are 6-10 kits in a litter.
Kits are born naked, deaf and blind, and they are entirely dependent on their mother.
Their eyes and ears open 21-37 days after birth, and you can see their coat coming through within 5-7 days. They will have developed a decent coat by their 4th week.
They should stay with their mother for at least 9 weeks, but preferably until they are 3 months old.
Kits play rough – they have thick coats and when fooling around with their brothers and sisters, they tend to use their teeth. Constant handling will train them to be less “enthusiastic” with their playing habits when being held.
They are highly intelligent animals, and it doesn’t take them long to know right from wrong.
Bits ‘n’ Pieces
As they have poorly developed sweat glands, they’ll suffer if the temperature goes over 32C (90F).
They also have a bony covering over the middle ear known as the “auditory bulla”. This covering not only protects the ear, but it also improves hearing. (Hah! Obviously my lot don’t know about that as they have very selective hearing when I call them!)
Male ferrets have a baculum (os penis). This is a bony structure which serves to “lock” the pair when they are mating.
If you check a boy’s stomach, it looks a bit like a ‘belly button’. Girls don’t have anything like that on their stomachs so that’s an easy way to tell the difference between the two sexes.
Another way to tell if you’ve got a boy or a girl is to look at the litter tray (or alongside the tray, depending on how good your ferret is at using the tray!) … if you find that your ferret has pooped and piddled in the same spot, you’ll know you have a girl.
If there is poop and a couple of inches in front of the poop there’s a patch of piddle, you’ve got yourself a fellah
Caecum / Appendix
Interestingly, ferrets don’t have a caecum or appendix.
Are Ferrets Crepuscular? Diurnal? Nocturnal?
I have seen statements that feral ferrets are solitary and nocturnal (active at night) but show diurnal (active chiefly in the daytime) activity as pets. I have also seen websites claiming that ferrets are crepuscular (meaning they like to play at dawn and dusk).
As ferrets sleep for around 18-20 hours a day, when are they active and happy to play with their owners?
Well, as someone who has only had “free range” ferrets, I can tell you that they are up and active when they wake up and decide they’re done sleeping and want some fun.
Sometimes Kaos or Muis will climb up onto the bed and poke me, as if to say “Wake up and let’s boogey!” at 2 in the morning. Other times Kahlua thinks it’s good fun to crawl under the sheets at 4am and play bite the tootsies. And sometimes everyone is fast asleep from when I go to bed (I’m one of those boring early to bed, early to rise types) and they’re all still snoring away when I get up at 5:30 to make my coffee.
The same thing goes for the daytime. Sometimes the youngsters are super active from about 6am till 9, then they crash. Then the oldies potter around from 10 till whenever. Other days the rolls are reversed!
I guess if you keep your ferret in a cage, then you’ll probably find your ferret waiting to be let out when it hears you moving around in the morning and again when you come home from work so that he can have fun with you.
The Quirkiness of Ferrets
I think the term weasel war dance is basically a misnomer. I reckon it should be the wacky weasel dance, or even the weasel wacky dance!
Ferrets don’t do their war dance to prepare for a bout of martial arts but because they are happy and exuberant and full of the joys of spring, autumn, summer, winter — whatever! It just doesn’t matter. What a fabulous way to embrace life – I reckon we should all take a page out of their books and live our lives like that.
Talk about carpe diem!
Ferrets certainly seize the day and if you let them out of their cage, say, after a while of being cooped up, they will pronk and prance and do twists and twirls from pure joy!
When we first got Mash, I had no idea about war dancing and confess to thinking she was in attack mode when she used to lunge at me with her mouth open. What a fool I was. Well, perhaps not a fool as I just didn’t know better, but I certainly missed out on a couple of weeks of fun because I never interacted with her when she behaved this way.
There she was, beckoning me to join in the fun and games and I stood there, fearfully wondering what was wrong with her.
That’s why I don’t want you, the ferret newbie, to miss out on a wonderful experience with your ferret!
Ferrets act this way when they are happy so don’t be shocked if you see your new pet acting like a loon while it twists, tumbles and dances across your living room floor with its mouth wide open with happiness
To see a short movie clip on the weasel wardance, click here.
Ferrets aren’t particularly vocal.
Some will ‘chuckle’ as they wander around the place, as if they’re talking to themselves. Others will ‘chuckle’ when with another ferret. It sounds like a low pitched “dook dook dook dook dook” coming from their throats.
When angry or scared, ferrets can hiss loudly or even let out a short, loud ‘scream’ almost.
Kaos is happy to let out a series of loud shrieks when she’s annoyed with the others, usually one of the boys. As she’s now the matriarch, she doesn’t like it when the youngsters overstep the line and makes it perfectly obvious.
Kits will make a sound like “hhrrkkkk” when they’re separated from their mother and are frightened.
When a ferret gets excited or frightened, it will puff up its tail like a bottlebrush.
If the tail fluffs out from fright, it will most likely be accompanied with a stink bomb, or a puff of musk, if you prefer.
Not all ferrets wag their tails but the ones that do, do so because they’re excited. It’s very cute if they do it when they’re in a pipe because they’re out of sight and all you can hear is this ‘thump’ ‘thump’ ‘thump’ coming from within!
Ferrets come in quite a number of colors but for simplicity’s sake, I will just concentrate on the 4 basic models —
- Black-Eyed (or Dark-Eyed) Whites (BEWs/DEWs)
Obviously there are different variations of sables, silvermitts and BEWs and if you are interested in entering your ferret in shows or want to know what the specific colors are, then you should check out the American Ferret Association’s website for more information.
There’s information on ferret colors and patterns with photos on this site
However, as stated earlier, I’m just going to focus on the basics.
All albinos have white or creamy colored fur and red eyes. There are no other colors involved with that particular type.
As I’ve said before, Mash was our first ferret and I admit to being so disappointed when I first saw her as I wanted to have a ferret with a mask. I didn’t really like those red eyes — she looked angry and rat-like.
Well, I’ve since discovered that albinos are special! All the ones I’ve had have been so cuddly, so affectionate and just so adorable that I know I would never be without an albino ever! And the boys are equally as cuddly as the girls.
Both Mash and Muis are “frenetic nibblers”, a term which Fara Shimbo coined. I don’t know if it’s just an albino quirk or not, but I haven’t come across any other type of ferret with that particular habit.
Mash used to come along and nibble Philip’s arm, pulling out the hairs at times. Muis does it to my head, usually in the middle of the night. She comes up onto the bed, sticks her nose in my ear, snorts, then licks and starts chewing my ear lobe before going on top of my head and grooming me.
They look so silly when they’re nibbling frenetically – like mice chewing on an ear of corn, their little noses screwed up!
And I’ve noticed that the smallest, most delicate jills are all albinos. Mash weighed in at 600g and would fit in my hand when she was asleep. On the other hand, Muis is a big poombah, so don’t take that to mean all albino jills are small.
Unsterilized albino boys’ coats will look nicotine colored, quite a horrible orange color in fact, but once they get snipped, you’ll find that their coats turn snowy white once their hormones settle.
When I talk about sables, I’m referring to any ferret with a mask on his face.
The various colors for sables can vary quite dramatically as well, going from a pale cinnamon color to jet black, with pronounced or pale masks.
Here in Australia, sables can also be referred to as ‘polecats’, as they do look a lot like the European polecat which is found in the UK and on the Continent.
Interestingly enough, I’ve noticed that Americans refer to skunks as polecats!
This model can have a really mixed bag of personalities for either male or female. There are phlegmatic sables, very sanguine ones who are the life and soul of the house, or placid and super-cuddly ones, as well as nippy sables.
Silvermitts are called that because of the white “socks” they have on their feet.
Some silvermitts have little socks, like Kahlua, while others look like they’re wearing knee highs. They also have white bibs on their chests,
I’ve only had silvermitt girls so have no idea about what the boys are like. However, ALL my silvermitt girls have been completely flaky! I kid you not.
They were/are the naughtiest and most scheming of all the ferrets in our household — and — a lot of fun!
However if you’re getting a first ferret, you might want to make sure that you don’t have one quite as scatty or as much as a challenge as a silvermitt girl.
I’d also drop my BEW girls in the same category. Both types love climbing up my track pants to get onto my shoulder and surveying their world from there,
One of my silvermitt girls called Marshmallow used to think it was great fun to scamper up to my shoulder while I was preparing dinner and then launch herself onto the surface.
If I was doing something with flour in a bowl, she thought that was the perfect vessel for her to do a swan dive into. Then she’d clamber out and shake herself on the worktop before I grabbed her and put her back on the floor. The mess she used to make doing that was quite impressive!
Talk about mad as a cut snake!
I’ve had a couple of emails from people who have silvermitt boys and it would seem that they are just as crazy as the girls!!
I was contacted by Holly recently who told me that Deuce, her silvermitt boy, is into everything and a real handful. I’ve also read in the WAFFS newsletter about a couple who took in 2 silvermitt boys and they turned their lives, and the lives of the couple’s established ferrets, completely upside down with their mischievous antics.
Photos of Deuce, compliments of Holly. What a cutie pie!
So there you go! If you think your life is dull, boring and colorless and you were contemplating bungee jumping or sky diving for some excitement — think again!
A silvermitt will bring that to your life and you’ll have all the adrenaline you need pumping 24/7, plus a whole lot of kisses as a bonus!
Black-Eyed (or Dark-Eyed) Whites (BEWs/DEWs)
Black-Eyed Whites can have pure, snowy white coats or they can have black guard hairs peppered throughout, which turn them into silvers, like Kaos was when we first got her.
When she reached her 4th birthday, her coat lost all the black guard hairs and she turned white all over.
We’ve had several BEWs over the years and I don’t know if it’s a coincidence or a trait, but all the girl BEWs have been completely dotty!
Scully used to be best friends with Fidget and the pair of them used to plot how to cause trouble together.
It was awful when she died in 1996 but then we got Mulder. He was like a cuddly little polar bear. Big, boofy and so sweet. No trouble, no mischief – he just liked hanging out with CJ.
When we lost him to pneumonia in 1999, I didn’t want to get another BEW because it seemed that the ones that we had all died young.
However my friend, Lyn, had other thoughts. She had a female BEW which was … you guessed it … completely mad. The poor thing was first handed into the Ferret Society when she’d been left at a vet’s surgery in a box. She had been rehoused 4 times but was always handed back to the Ferret Society because she was loco and no one knew how to handle her.
Lyn got her son to bring her to me and it was love at first sight. When she was let out of the carrier, she tore around the perimeter of the room several times, hugging the wall.
She jumped on the dog, she flew around the house like a banshee. What else could we call her other than Kaos?
Fortunately she’s settled down now and is the matriarch of the gang of six. She still does a very ridiculous weasel war dance every morning and shows us glimmers of the young Kaos occasionally, which makes us shake with laughter.
Some ferrets blow their coats when they’re young and can go from having a brown coat to a grey one overnight so be aware about that little quirk when you get your first ferret.
Fidget did that to us during her first summer and it was like we had a new ferret in the family, the change was so incredibly spectacular
You can see more ferret colors on this page …
Ferret Colour Chart (Frisky Business Ferretry)