Friday, November 27, 2009

What In The World Is A Ferret?

It’s Friday folks. Do you know what that means?

“It’s the weekend?”

No, it’s ferrety Friday!

“Ferrety Friday? What the heck is that?”

It’s the day of the week that I dedicate to writing about ferrets, so my readers can become better informed about these absolutely adorable creatures. As many of you know, my daughter has a pet ferret by the name of Bailey who joined our family about 3 months ago. Since Bailey’s arrival, I’ve learned a lot about these unusual yet adorable animals that I would like to share with my readers. This means you.

“Lucky me...” [yawn]

Oh, cut it out!

Okay, dear readers (anybody there?), today’s post will introduce this furry critter because I suspect there’s a collective question of: “What in the world is a ferret?”

Shall we?

First of all, ferrets are not rodents in any way, shape or form, and they are in no way related to rodents. They are small, carnivorous mammals belonging to the Mustelidae family, which includes weasels, polecats, ferrets, minks, fishers, otters, badgers, wolverines, stoats, martens, tayras and grisons (most of which I have no clue what they are)

Photo from MorgueFile

Second, there are two types of animals that go by the name of ferret: 1) black-footed ferrets and 2) domestic ferrets.

Although the black-footed ferrets and the domestic ferrets look very similar and are in fact distant cousins (same genus but different subgenus and species), the two are poles apart. The black-footed ferrets, which are an endangered species, may look just as cute and cuddly as the domestic ferrets, but they will easily bite off a finger if you try to pick them up and kiss their little noses and scratch their little heads and tickle their little toes like you would with domestic ferrets. The reason for this is that the black-footed ferrets live in the wild, not in your home. Don’t attempt to play with these animals, kids, they’re wild. And I don’t mean party type wild but teeth-chopping-off-fingers wild.

On the other hand, domestic ferrets are adorable little balls of fur that you see in pet shops. They are the ones whose pictures you see splattered all over the internet; pictures of them playing, pictures of them acting like clowns, pictures of their little noses being kissed, their little heads being scratched and their little toes being tickled by ferret-obsessed pet owners (like me). These are not wild ferrets; on the contrary, they are sweet, good-natured – extremely domesticated - little creatures that bond strongly with humans and others creatures (like a cat or dog that they may share a home with).

In fact, they are so domesticated that they cannot survive out in the wild. They don’t know how to hunt for food, search for water or find shelter. Domestic ferrets released into the wild will most likely die. They’ve been tame for so long that they have lost their natural instincts and depend on us for all their needs. Also, because their instincts are not fully developed, they don’t have a natural fear of humans or other animals.

“How could this be? Ferrets haven’t been pets for that long. Or around humans for that matter”

Ah, but that’s where you’re wrong.

After a substantial amount of research, I learned that domestic ferrets have been domesticated from the European polecat ferret (mustela putorius furo ) since ancient times (even before the cat ), most likely by the Egyptians. Domesticated ferrets were once working animals, used for hunting rabbits and for controlling pests, such as rodent extermination. They’ve also been used (and apparently still are in the U.K.) to rid barns of rodents, and even used on ships during the eighteenth century to help control the rodents that were so prevalent onboard.

Furthermore, because of their popularity as “vermin exterminators”, ferrets were being imported by the tens of thousands in the United States by the early 1900s to be used to destroy rabbits, raccoons, gophers, rats and mice, and to protect barns, warehouses and granaries from these pests. This was such an accepted practice that the USDA promoted the use of ferrets for rodent control. So if your farm was infested by some pesky critter, you could call the ferret meister to come and release ferrets on your property.

(I’m not making this up. Unless I’ve run across some bogus information during my research, I’d say this is pretty interesting – and quite amusing. My little Bailey might have ancestors that were, you know, “verminators”. Yuk, yuk, yuk...sorry, I just couldn’t resist. Anyway, rodenticides eventually became available and the – here I go again - “verminators” were out of a job. Sure, why not replace natural extermination with poisonous chemicals?).

“So what’s going on with ferrets now?”

Well now they’re just kept indoors as pets.

“What are they like?”

They are extremely friendly and often very cuddly; they make excellent pets. Other words that define domestic ferrets include: curious, docile, enterprising, intelligent, persistent, playful, fastidious, energetic (when they’re awake) and highly entertaining (downright clownish). They crave human interaction and form strong bonds with their owners. They also become very attached to other ferrets that they may share a home (and often cage) with. They can be trained to do tricks, to use a litter box and to come when called. But although they are in between a dog and a cat, similar to both of these popular pets in many ways, they are unique in their own special way and have their own special needs.

“They sound kind of neat”

They are.

“What else can you tell me about them?”

Well, well, well...look who’s suddenly interested in my ferrety information. You’re just going to have to wait until the next ‘Ferrety Friday’ for more information about these unique little critters.

Until then, Bailey says:

Oh, did I mention they sleep a lot? We’ll get to that.


  1. I can safely say "I did NOT know that !" quite a few times during this tutorial Martha ! haha
    Bailey is such a sweetie pie she should be the "poster ferret-kid" so people will know how cute and intelligent they really are !
    I'm typing this as I throw springs for Emma in the family room .. she thinks she is a dog concerning this subject .. but don't tell her THAT .. it would be demeaning to her .. even though we have nothing against dogs ? LOL

  2. Really interesting information, Martha. I knew very little about ferrets and had no idea they had such a fascinating history. And of course, you know I loved your "verminator" phrase---ha,ha---that was hilarious (as was the picture in my head of Arnold Schwarzenegger with a ferret in each hand instead of a gun). :-) Thanks for a very interesting post.

  3. Bailey truly is a sweetie, Joy. She's so amazingly gentle and playful. As she gets older, and learns to trust us more and more, she seeks our affection. She climbs up against my leg so I can pick her up and place her on my lap where she can curl up into a little ball and sleep - and, of course, be petted. She's adorable.

    Beth, after I wrote the "verminator", you immediately came to mind. I thought to myself "Beth will probably like this" It's nice to know that there are people out there with the same type of silly imagination.

    I had no idea either that ferrets had such an interesting history; it's amazing what you learn when you so some research. I'm an information junkie, so I really enjoy learning new things.