Ferrets are the third most popular pet, according to the American Ferret Association. Credit: zandyz | Shutterstock
A ferret is a small, furry creature with a cone-shaped nose, long tail and a long, pear-shaped body with short legs and long claws. Ferrets are related to wolverines, ermines, minks and weasels in the Mustelagenus. They are popular, though often controversial, pets.
The vast majority of ferrets are the domesticated variety. Experts think they were bred more than 2,500 years ago from either European polecats (Mustela putorius) or steppe polecats (Mustela eversmanii). These polecats should not be confused with skunks, which are sometimes colloquially called polecats.
There is also a wild species called the black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes). These ferrets are rare — North America’s rarest mammal, according to the University of Michigan’s Animal Diversity Web (ADW) — and they are considered endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
The domesticated ferret can be born with a wide range of fur colors, including dark-eyed white, sable, black sable, silver, albino, cinnamon and chocolate. Black-footed ferrets aren’t nearly as colorful. They are a pale color with white foreheads, muzzles and throats and black feet.
Ferrets are around the size and shape of a zucchini. They usually weigh around 1 to 5.5 lbs. (0.5 to 2.5 kg) and have a head and body length of 8 to 18 inches (20.5 to 46 centimeters). Their tails are close to half their body length and range from 2.8 to 7.5 in (7 to 19 cm).
Black-footed ferrets once roamed North America, making their homes in grassy areas. As recently as the 1970s, black-footed ferrets were considered extinct, but 120 were found in Wyoming in the mid-1980s. Unfortunately, two disease outbreaks wiped out most of the remaining population, and the last 18 were captured for a breeding program. In 2006, the offspring of those 18 were released in eight reintroduction sites in the United States and Mexico, where they are making a comeback, according to the Arizona Game and Fish Department.
These animals are true recyclers. They make their homes from old prairie dog tunnels and the burrows of other animals. Each black-footed ferret requires around 100 to 120 acres (40 to 49 hectares) of living space to find adequate food, according to the ADW.
Domesticated ferrets usually live in cages, but need at least four hours per day to run outside of their cages. They also thrive in temperatures that are between 50 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit (10 to 27 degrees Celsius).
Wild ferrets get moving around dusk as they are nocturnal creatures. They live and roam alone, spending their nights hunting for prey. Ferrets have very good smell, sight and hearing. They make chattering or hissing noises when they are frightened.
During the day they sleep. During the winter, ferrets will stay underground for up to a week at a time.
Domesticated ferrets are very friendly and will adjust their sleeping schedule to their owner’s. They love to sleep, though, and will slumber up to 18 hours.