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Your Ferrets -- Their Health (and Your Happiness) Depends on It
course I think all ferrets are cute, but there is nothing quite so
adorable as a baby ferret (called a kit). When I went to pick out Zodiac
from her litter, I was absolutely entranced by each and every fuzzy
youngster! Their darling paws, ultrafluffy baby fuzz, angelic little
eyes, and delicate ears put together a captivating package. How could I
just pick one? As I in turn picked up each baby ferret to inspect,
Precious, the mommy ferret, patiently retrieved the kit and firmly
returned the baby to the nest cage. She had to make many trips, because
I kept wanting to see each kit over and over.
Wouldn't Zodiac's own babies, if I bred her, be equally adorable? I
understand the temptation to think about breeding your ferret. But the
truth is, ferrets who have been fixed—males and females—are happier,
healthier pets. Let common sense prevail (as I did) and leave
breeding to the experts. For Zodiac's health and my own sanity, I
had Zodiac fixed as soon as she was old enough.
If you adopt a ferret from a shelter or get
one at a pet store, your new pet will most likely be a gib (a neutered
male) or a sprite (a spayed female). Pet stores often fix ferrets as
early as 5 or 6 weeks of age, though some experts suggest that this
"early alter" practice is partially responsible for certain
health problems later in life, such as the development of adrenal
Kits from breeders will typically be unaltered. Many breeders require
buyers to sign a contract guaranteeing that the ferret will be fixed at
5 months or 6 months of age. Sometimes, in fact, the fix price is
prepaid in the purchase, and you are given a certificate to give to the
A ferret who hasn't been fixed is known as "whole" ferret. A
whole female is called a jill, and a whole male is called a hob. If you
get a hob, plan to have him fixed at about 6 months (or when the testes
begin to develop). A jill should be fixed before she goes into her first
heat; typically this happens the spring after her birth. (Flower was
born in December, but when I rescued her in late March, she was already
going into heat, so I had her spayed immediately.) If you notice any
swelling of your female ferret's vulva, have her spayed right away. The
further your jill is into the heat cycle, the more risky the surgery, so
Letting your female go into heat is
dangerous for her. Unlike humans and many other animals who produce eggs
according to a biological clock, ferrets are "induced
ovulators": When a female ferret goes into heat, her body is
waiting to be bred by a male before it will produce eggs to be
fertilized. When she is "bred" (either by a real whole male,
by a vasectomized male, or artificially with injections of hormones),
her body will produce eggs and she will either get pregnant or have a
false pregnancy—all the symptoms but no kits.
Ferrets do not come out of heat on their own; they stay in heat until
they are spayed, are bred, or die. Staying in heat for longer than a
month causes severe health problems, including aplastic anemia and
I once rescued a beautiful silver female—I named her Crystal—who had
been in heat for two months and was already too sick to survive surgery.
The veterinarian tried all the options available in this situation.
First, we tried to breed her with a vasectomized (sterile) male ferret
to see if this false breeding would cause her to ovulate and bring her
out of heat. This is often an unreliable method, and Crystal did not
respond, so the vet then gave her injections of hCG (a human hormone
shot) to stimulate ovulation. Although this works for many ferrets, it
did not work for Crystal.
As a last resort, the vet gave her a blood transfusion, fluid therapy,
B-vitamin supplements, and antibiotics in an effort to stabilize her
enough for surgery. Sadly, it was too late for Crystal; as with most
ferrets in prolonged heat, she did not survive. Don't let this happen to
your girls—get them fixed!
Whole male ferrets cycle through their
breeding season by going into "rut." During this time, they
mark territory with a mixture of slimy oils and urine, groom themselves
with this same blend of "ferret cologne," and go through
dramatic weight changes. These ferrets also suffer anxiety and stress.
Rutting males can also be quite aggressive, even killing other male
ferrets. Female ferrets and humans are attacked less often, but the
When Thor showed up on my doorstep, he was a whole (and incredibly
stinky) male. He tried to bite anything that moved, and drew plenty of
blood from me and the vet who neutered him. Thor is now the sweetest
ferret—he loves to cuddle and give kisses on the scars he left on my
But fixing your ferrets doesn't just make
for happier, healthier pets; it makes your life better, too.
Hormonal activity is the strongest contributor to ferret odor. Ferrets
have tiny musk glands scattered throughout their skin, with heavier
concentrations in the face and legs. When ferrets (both male and female)
are whole, hormones cause these musk glands to produce lots of smelly
When I worked with whole ferrets at the Fort Worth Zoo, the ferrets were
so greasy with musk, they made my hands sticky. Bathing them helped for
only a few hours—and did nothing to brighten their yellowed fur,
discolored by sebum. When I came home from my zoo volunteer work, my
mother made me take off "those stinky ferret clothes" in the
Fixing your ferret will reduce musk production by about 90 percent,
because the skin glands shrink. It's actually the single biggest thing
you can do to reduce ferret odor. Combine that fact with the serious
health and behavioral problems whole ferrets are prone to, and the
question of whether to fix your ferrets is a no-brainer!
to breed your ferrets
Breeding ferrets is
difficult, usually unprofitable, and best left to the experts.
Also, keep in mind that there are many thousands of unwanted and
abandoned ferrets in shelters who need good homes.
You should not attempt to breed ferrets unless you are already
an experienced ferret owner and are prepared to spend lots of
time and money on breeding. You'll need to have a close
relationship with a veterinarian familiar with ferrets, because
there are often complications during breeding and birth, and kit
mortality rates are high.
If you are considering breeding ferrets, do plenty of research
long before you start. Join a ferret club and a breeding
association. Do some volunteer work at a shelter, and practice
with other breeders in your area. In the meantime, be sure to
get your pet ferrets fixed!