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condition or treatment of your own pet or animal.
- WHERE ARE FERRETS
- Ferrets are legal in 48 of the United
States. The two states that have declared ferrets illegal in the
entire state are California and Hawaii. In general, local laws (such
as city or county) can choose to follow state guidelines, or can
provide a stricter law, but cannot relax a law to be softer than a
state law. This means
that individual cities within California and Hawaii canít permit
ferrets, but that individual cities in the other 48 ferret-legal
states can place further restrictions on ferrets. For this reason,
many counties, cities, and townships in states where ferrets are
legal have their own laws that may ban or restrict ferrets, such as
New York City and Dallas, Texas.
- WHY ARE FERRETS
ILLEGAL IN SOME PLACES?
- Most laws that specifically prohibit
ferrets are based on ignorance or misinformation. After interviewing
many animal control officers and government administrators, I found
a number of common "reasons" that ferrets had been
declared illegal. These include "ferrets are wild (not
domestic) animals," "there's no rabies shot for ferrets so
they'll spread this disease," "ferrets are dangerous,
vicious biters," and "a feral ferret population could
destroy the environment."
Let's examine each of these excuses.
- FERRETS ARE WILD
- Not so! Mustela putorius furo
has been domesticated for thousands of years, possibly longer than
the domestic housecat! How is the fact of domesticity established?
First, for an animal to be domesticated, they must specifically be
bred and kept by humans to serve a human need. Records of albino,
household ferrets date back as far as early Greeks, around 450 BC.
Europeans kept ferrets as pets and to hunt rabbits and rodents
during the Middle Ages. In fact, ferrets were a status pet among
high-class nobility in early England. Ferrets have served as working
animals in Europe, Great Britain, and America in the guise of rabbit
hunters, rodent exterminators, mascots, industrial cable runners,
and companion animals for hundreds of years.
- Ferrets are also considered domestic
from a biological standpoint. Domestic ferrets, unlike their wild
cousins, have poor vision, differential DNA, skeletal differences,
size differences, and reproductive difficulties. For more
information on ferret domesticity, see A Primer on Domesticy,
Ferrets USA 2000.
- From an administrative standpoint,
ferrets are also recognized as domestic by the United States
Department of Agriculture. In the January, 1996 revision of the USDA
Title 9 code, ferrets are specifically classified as domestic. The
American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA)
has also officially recognized ferrets as domestic for many years.
In 1996, the Humane Society of the United States updated
their policy statement to officially recognize ferrets as domestic
companion animals. The Pacific Research Institute, an independent
research organization, found in their 1996 study that ferrets were
- RABIES VACCINATIONS
- IMRAB-3 is a rabies vaccination made
by Merial. This vaccine is used to protect against rabies and has
been specifically tested with ferrets (as well as cats, dogs, and
horses). The USDA
approved the IMRAB-3 vaccine for ferrets in 1991 as being 98%
effective (a higher effective rate than cats and dogs!).
This is the only approved vaccine for ferrets. In cats and
dogs, it is effective for 3 years (hence the name IMRAB-3), but not
enough testing has been done on ferrets to see how long it lasts, so
ferrets should be vaccinated on an annual basis.
Even with all this extra protection, scientific studies and
the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) show that ferrets are unlikely
to either catch or transmit rabies. The CDC reports that no human
being in the United States has ever contracted rabies from a ferret.
In 1998, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) issued a
policy statement about ferrets and rabies, after concluding a long
series of studies. Their conclusion was that ferrets, in the slight
possibility that they do contract rabies, expire within a few days.
Therefore, a rabies quarantine policy was set for 10 days, just like
cats and dogs.
- FERRETS ARE
DANGEROUS, VICIOUS ANIMALS
- Ferrets have gained a bad reputation
based on a few incidences widely reported in the media of ferret
attacks on babies and small children. In every case, the ferret was
severely abused in some way. As with any animal, a ferret may bite
when it is frightened or in pain.
However, the number of actual bite incidences reported to the
CDC and studied by the AVMA is very low (estimated at 65 incidences
per year, on average). And the number of severe cases is even lower,
at about 15 per year across the entire U.S. population. In
comparison, dogs bite about 3.5 MILLION people annually, and cats
about a half-million people annually.
But, you might argue, there are lots more dogs and cats out
there than ferrets! That is true, so let's translate the bite
statistics into "per capita" or per ferret incidences.
This calculation requires that one know the actual population of
ferrets, which is more difficult to determine than that for cats and
dogs. An extremely conservative 1991 AVMA population estimate was
278,000. However, Marshall Farms alone has bred and sold over
600,000 ferrets. Performance Foods, manufacturers of Totally Ferret
Food estimates a U.S. ferret population of 8-10 million.
Even at the most conservative (and unrealistically low)
estimate, you are 275 times more likely to be bitten by a dog than a
ferret. In fact, you are more likely to be bitten by a cat, rabbit,
snake, or even a human being than a domestic ferret.
At a more reasonable ferret population estimate, you are
almost 5,000 times more likely to be bitten by a dog than a ferret.
These statistics show that ferrets are just not as likely to bite,
even when provoked. However, the ASPCA and the HSUS warn that
"NO pet should be left unsupervised with a child."
- FERAL FERRETS?
- Another fallacious argument is that if
ferrets became legal everywhere, a number of pets would escape into
the wild and establish feral populations that would destroy native
wildlife species and threaten farm and livestock production. First,
the majority of ferrets sold in petstores are spayed or neutered,
because unaltered ferrets can be pretty smelly and also can
experience health problems. Second,
the small percentage of the ferret population used for breeding
often experience difficulties such as false heats, false
pregnancies, mastitis, and kit mortality. It is not likely that many
ferrets would survive when attempting to breed in the wild. There
are NO feral ferret populations in North America. The black-footed
ferret (<I>Mustela nigripes<I>) is the wild American
cousin of the domestic pet ferret, but they cannot interbreed.
Furthermore, the black-footed ferret remains on the endangered
species list. Finally, domestic ferrets, because they have lived
with man for so long, have lost many of their survival instincts.
They do not see well, have lost some hunting instincts, and have
very little fear. I once had Gizmo at the park, and a loud
motorcycle started up in the parking lot. Gizmo ran TOWARD the noise
out of curiosity, instead of away from the noise out of fear. My
other ferrets heedlessly approach any dog or cat to play, despite
the potential danger. Most pet ferrets survive only a few days in
the wild, particularly in hot conditions.
- RESEARCH AND
- The above information shows that most
of the arguments for declaring ferrets illegal are invalid. However,
rules remain on the books in many areas due to ignorance and
misinformation. How can you find out what the status of your
location is? Even though ferrets may be legal in your state or
province, you need to check county/parish, city, or township codes.
Start with the Department of Fish and Game at the state or county
level and see if ferrets fall under their jurisdiction (usually
indicating that ferrets have been declared as "wild"
animals). Then get a complete copy of animal control codes from the
county or city. Do not rely on a telephone conversation with an
animal control officer. Animal control codes are often lengthy
documents that not all personnel may be familiar with. You also
should request a complete copy of the entire code, not just the part
that mentions ferrets. If
you have access to a fax machine, you may be able to get the code
faxed to you. Otherwise, you may need to pay a copying and
administrative fee to have the document mailed to you. You may even
need to pick the code up in person. When you request the document,
don't mention ferrets. When you receive the document, read the
entire thing, looking for any mention of ferrets, licensing,
permits, or limits on the number of pets per household.
- WHAT ARE THE LEVELS
- Although every animal control code
will vary, there are certain levels of restrictions you should look
for. The following points are presented in a best-to-worst case
- FERRETS ARE NAMED LEGAL.
In this case, ferrets are specifically listed as a legal
household pet, usually in combination with cats and dogs. However,
don't stop here and cheer, because if they are listed with other
household pets, there are usually other restrictions.
One common restriction is that the ferret has a rabies tag
supplied by a licensed veterinarian. Some cities maintain that this
tag must be displayed on the ferret, if you can imagine a ferret
dragging a huge, clanking tag around on his collar when you take him
for a walk (attach the tag to the leash). Ferrets may also need to
be licensed (another tag). License fees may vary depending on
whether the ferret is altered or whole, and how many you have in
your household. A few cities have a one-license-per household rule,
which is easier for multi-ferret households. Another restriction may
be that all ferrets must be spayed or neutered. Keep your
certificates from the petstore or veterinarian as proof. Some areas
have leash laws, and a few even have muzzle laws. Finally, there may
be a limit on the number of pets that can be kept in a single
household. The numbers restriction is designed to keep cat and dog
nuisances at a minimum, but these same restrictions are placed on
indoor ferrets. This means that if a city restricts pets to five,
and you have a dog, two cats, and a rabbit, you can only have one
- FERRETS ARE NOT MENTIONED IN THE
CODE. In this case,
ferrets are never mentioned in the animal control code. By default,
they are legal, which may be a positive situation for you and your
fuzzies. This is also the simplest code because ferrets are not
subject to specific restrictions on dogs and cats such as licensing,
rabies tags, and permits. On the downside, the animal control code
may be open to interpretation if your ferret is implicated in a
bite/scratch case. Because ferrets are not mentioned at all, it is
likely that the animal control office is ignorant about ferret
behavior, rabies vector dangers, and quarantine periods. Some
cities, even where ferrets are legal, automatically euthanize
ferrets when they enter a pound, humane society, or are collected by
animal control. In these cases, procedures are up to the judgment of
officials, because there is nothing in the code that said
authorities should NOT euthanize. To be safe, you should attempt to
follow laws applicable to dogs or cats, particularly in the area of
- FERRETS ARE NOT PERMITTED. In
this case, ferrets are specifically mentioned in a list of animals
that are not permitted as pets. This list usually contains a number
of wild and exotic animals. Note
that just because a ferret is not permitted as a pet doesnít mean
ferrets canít be sold! For
years, ferrets were sold by petstores in Fort Worth and Plano,
Texas, yet ferrets were specifically named as being illegal to own
as pets in these cities. Thankfully, ferrets became legal (with
restrictions) recently. So don't assume that because you see ferrets
in a petstore in your hometown that they are legal! You
<I>must<I> check your animal control codes.
- PROTECTING YOURSELF
AND YOUR FERRETS
- Obviously, when ferrets are
specifically named as illegal to keep as pets where you live, you
are breaking the law. However, if ferrets are permitted with
restrictions but you have failed to follow restrictions (rabies
tags, licenses, leashes, numbers, breeding status, etc.), you are
also at risk. That is
why it is so important to be familiar and keep up to date with your
local animal control codes. If you live in a FFZ (Ferret Free Zone)
where ferrets are illegal, be careful not to take your animal for
walks or otherwise display your ferret in public. Many of your
neighbors may not understand ferrets due to their own ignorance and
could file a complaint. Ignorance of the rules is not a defense when
the authorities follow up on the complaint!
- What should you do if the authorities
knock on your door and want to enter your home to look for ferrets?
Don't let them "talk their way in." To enter your home, an
officer must have a properly executed search warrant.
The warrant must have "probable cause" listed on
the warrant, which is the reason the search is being conducted. A
valid search warrant must also list your accuser and can only be
obtained from a judge or magistrate. Most magistrates don't look
favorably on "anonymous tips" when issuing search
warrants. So if a humane or animal control officer shows up on your
doorstep with no warrant and wants to enter your home, politely but
firmly inform them that you will wait until they bring the proper
documentation so all parties are legally protected. Donít panic,
slam the door in their faces, or get angry, because this could turn
into the "probable cause." Then remove your ferrets to a
ferret-safe zone if you can.
- There is an exception to the search
warrant rule. If any authorities see you committing an offense, they
do not need a warrant. So if a humane officer is strolling down the
street and sees you holding your ferret in front of the window in an
FFZ, the authority has observed you committing a misdemeanor, and
can take action without a warrant. That is why you must be so
careful with your ferrets in restricted areas!
- If all the warrant paperwork is in
order and you have been found to be defying local laws with your
ferrets, your ferrets may be confiscated. Before confiscation, you
should ask for a brief time period to remove your ferrets to a
ferret-legal zone. You will likely need proof of this relocation,
and a statement indicating that the relocation is permanent. Have
the emergency numbers of your local ferret club, shelter, or ferret
rescue organization and contact them for a pickup.
These organizations may also have rescue permits that allow
them to transport ferrets. If your ferrets are seized, make sure
your ferrets will not be euthanized and will receive proper
veterinary attention and care. Provide proof of current vaccinations
(particularly rabies and often distemper). Refer the authorities to
the current AVMA guidelines that recommend a 10-day quarantine in a
bite/scratch incidence, even if your ferrets are not accused of a
bite or scratch (in case something happens at the quarantine
- In the state of California, for
example, if authorities have a valid search warrant, and they find
domestic ferrets on your property or in your home, you have the
right to make decisions about your ferret's safe transport
out-of-state. At your expense, you may choose to have the ferret
shipped (usually by air) to a permanent adoptive home of your choice
out of state. You can also give up your ferret to the California Domestic
Ferret Association (CDFA) for transport to the adoption center of
their choosing, at their expense, under their rescue permit with the
California Department of Fish & Game.
You might also elect to have the confiscating officer handle
the situation at their discretion, but there is no guarantee that
your ferrets will not be destroyed.
- HOW CAN I CHANGE
THE FERRET LAWS?
- The key to changing the ferret laws is
to understand the existing laws, educate people, and work to change
the laws. Again, start by examining the complete copy of the animal
control code. Discuss the code with animal control and humane
authorities to understand the background and thinking behind the
code. Then work to educate people. Misconceptions about ferrets come
from many places. I work to educate people at all levels: at
petstores, in elementary schools, at city council meetings, at
animal control officer training courses, at humane societies, with
scouting organizations, and on the world-wide web. This can be a
long-term process, and patience is the key. If you wish to become
proactive with changing a particular code in your city, become very
familiar with the code, city council members, and the procedures
they use to rewrite code. Make sure you follow all the rules and
procedures, or your case will be dismissed or ignored. Above all,
don't become hostile or angry; this will not further the cause of
ferrets! Work with as many other organizations that you can; don't
try to change laws alone!
- The efforts of ferret folk everywhere
are slowly working to correct ferret misconceptions and change local
and state laws. Progress is being made, but there have been some
setbacks (most recently in New York City). Keep abreast of your
local codes and become involved in a ferret organization that is
working on education. Someday, with lots of hard work, domestic
ferrets will be recognized everywhere as the wonderful pet they are!
- The 1999 Compendium of Animal Rabies
Control from the AVMA:
- LIFE (League of Independent Ferret
Enthusiasts) Ferret Information search page
- Rabies Resources for Ferret Lovers
- Ferret Central
- Californians for Ferret Legalization
- California Domestic Ferret Association