Frisky ferrets are America’s third-most-common

uncaged household pet

One afternoon when I was 10, my mother started shrieking “A RAT ! A RAT !” while clinging to the wall from her perch on top of the living room couch. My father grabbed a nearby jacket to capture the critter and was surprised whenit playfully scampered into the sleeve and poked a little whiskered nose out the cuff.

It was Memorial Day weekend, in the days before off-hours animal control, so it appeared we had a guest. We weren’t sure what it was, but we knew it wasn’t a rat, and it was strangely friendly for a wild animal. My parents were leery, but I was enamored and begged to be allowed to feed my new friend the hot dogs it loved instead of the carrots my mother insisted it should eat.

When animal control arrived on Tuesday, they identified our guest as a ferret (Mustela furo), a
cousin to the weasel. With parental assurances that it would be taken to a rehab center and released into the wild, I bid my temporary pet goodbye.

Years later, when I became a ferret parent, I learned the sad truth that ferrets cannot be released
into the wild, since they are domestic animals lacking instincts to survive on their own. That ferret was a pet that had gotten lost, and spotted our open garage door as an invitation
into another human family.

Ferrets can make great pets; they are frisky, inquisitive, and playful. They are the most common uncaged pet in the U.S. after dogs and cats (although illegal in some states and municipalities). They are quiet—usually silent unless they are chuckling as they play or when they knock the books off a shelf just for fun. They are known thieves, and my socks were the favorite item to drag under the couch to stash with all the others. On laundry day, we always knew we had
to move the couch!

Ferrets are somewhat trainable with treats such as raisins, and they love to play with their humans or ride on a shoulder for a walk in the yard. They get into everything, although they are not generally destructive. The world is a grand place to explore, from a ferret’s viewpoint, and mine never tired of digging the dirt out of houseplants, exploring the depths of the couch cushions, and pushing things off tables just to see what would happen.

Because they are curious, it is important to ferret-proof your home and ensure that they have a safe cage to snuggle in when unsupervised. Special cages are made for ferrets, or some rabbit cages may be used. Aquariums are not suitable, as ventilation is important.

Which brings me to the downside of ferret ownership. Ferrets have a distinct smell, even the ones that have been “de-scented.” While a clean ferret isn’t smelly, it is critical that the cage be kept immaculate, or their odor can overwhelm the house. Ferrets are clean animals and use a litter box like a cat, but their excrement is pungent, and the sooner it is removed, the better for all. Ferrets are not generally good pets for families with very young children, since they are easily hurt by an enthusiastic child.

Like so many other pets, ferrets become displaced from their families for various reasons. They can live 6 to 10 years and require human interaction—more like a dog or cat than a hamster or guinea pig. I was a foster home for ferret rescue for many years, and encourage you to consider contacting a rescue group before heading to a pet store to plunk down cash. Rescue groups often know the temperament of the animals in their care, and will be able to find just the right “Weezil” for you.