LEGAL WEASELS

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Ferrets are not always legal to be kept as pets. Learn more about legal issues impacting ferrets and how you can protect your own fuzzies.
by Erika Matulich, Ph.D.
Volume 3, Number 1
January/February 2000
 
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Disclaimer:
You should not rely on the veterinary advice or information provided on this site for diagnosis or treatment of any specific situation. Always consult your own veterinarian for specific advice concerning the medical condition or treatment of your own pet or animal.

WHERE ARE FERRETS LEGAL?
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 ANIMALS
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 definitely domestic.
 
RABIES VACCINATIONS FOR FERRETS
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 READING
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 OF RESTRICTION?
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 scenario:
 
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 ferret.
 
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 rabies vaccinations.
 
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!
 
BUSTED!
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 facility).
 
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!
 
CONCLUSION
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!

HELPFUL INFORMATION:
 
The 1999 Compendium of Animal Rabies Control from the AVMA:
http://www.avma.org/pubhlth/rabcontb.html
 
LIFE (League of Independent Ferret Enthusiasts) Ferret Information search page
http://www.acmeferret.com/search.htm
 
Rabies Resources for Ferret Lovers
http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/ilena/rabies.htm
 
Ferret Central
http://www.ferretcentral.org/
 
Californians for Ferret Legalization
http://www.ferretnews.org/
 
California Domestic Ferret Association
http://www.cdfa.com/index.shtml