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My Ferrets Don't Stink! (But Thank You for Asking)
When I tell people I am owned by
ferrets, I often hear, "Peeeeyew! Don't ferrets really stink? How
can you stand it?" I refrain from telling the person how offensive
their cologne is! Instead, I patiently explain that all animals,
even humans, have their own unique smell. Humans are used to the smells
of other animals, such as people, cats, and dogs. It's true that to the
uninitiated nose, natural ferret aroma can be an unusual surprise (I
personally think ferrets smell great!). But a healthy
ferret and a clean ferret environment keep odors under control.
Ferrets are born with anal scent sacs, but
these don't contribute significantly to ferret smell. The distinctive
ferret odor comes from musk glands in the skin, which are concentrated
around the face and spread over the rest of the body. The strongest
contributor to ferret odor is hormonal activity. Hormones stimulate musk
production in the skin glands, so the best way to reduce odor (by about
90 percent!) is to spay or neuter your ferret.
When I got my first ferret, Critter, I bathed her every few days, in a
vain effort to reduce odor. Unfortunately, bathing your ferret too often
actually makes her smell worse! Bathing strips the ferret's skin of
essential oils. The dry ferret overcompensates by producing extra musky
oils, which result in a smellier ferret.
I now bathe my ferrets regularly twice a year (during coat changes) and
then as needed (for instance, when Thor digs up a potted plant or Misty
rolls around in sooty fireplace ashes). Others bathe their ferrets every
two or three months. Remember to use ferret-safe (or kitten-safe)
shampoos, and avoid added scents, which may cause allergic reactions or
respiratory upsets in your ferret.
Never spray your ferret directly with human perfume, cologne, or air
fresheners in an attempt to mask odors. Don't use powders, either. These
products can damage skin and fur, cause allergic reactions, exacerbate
respiratory problems, and damage mucous membranes in the eyes, nose, and
mouth. There are many spray products marketed specifically for ferrets
or other pets. Avoid alcohol-based products, and look for those that
neutralize odors rather than masking them.
Dirty ears can be another cause of odor problems. Ferret ears produce
lots of smelly earwax, so you need to clean your ferret's ears every few
weeks. If your ferret's ears are particularly stinky and the wax is
almost black, your ferret may have ear mites. This was Critter's
problem, and as soon as the ear mites cleared up, so did her smell.
In ferrets as in humans, bad breath can indicate dental problems. Ferret
teeth should be brushed regularly with a special pet toothbrush and pet
toothpaste. Otherwise, tartar can quickly build up. Tartar by itself can
be smelly, but long-term tartar buildup causes gum and tooth infections,
which cause bad breath, as well as some kidney diseases.
Be sure your ferret's cage is made of
washable materials, such as plastic or coated wire. Wood will
permanently absorb ferret aroma. Cage accessories should also be
washable or disposable. If your ferret sleeps in a cardboard box,
replace it every month. Run plastic play tubes or balls through the
dishwasher. Line cage floors with linoleum or washable bath mats. Carpet
will quickly absorb ferret smells and is difficult to clean. Note that
many household cleaners and deodorizers are poisonous to ferrets. A weak
bleach solution (2 percent) is the best cleaner and deodorizer for a
One of the most effective ways to keep your ferret smelling fresh is to
keep your ferret's bedding clean. Frequent laundering of hammocks, sleep
sacks, snuggle tubes, cage mats, or rugs will do a great job of keeping
odors down. Don't be tempted to buy a nifty ferret bed or tent unless
you can wash it. Don't use perfumed detergents or fabric softeners,
which may cause allergic skin reactions or respiratory problems. I do
ferret laundry every week! It's easier (and more effective) than washing
Keeping the litter box clean will significantly reduce odors. Clean
solid waste from the litter box morning and night, and completely change
out all litter weekly. Never use cedar in the litter box (or anywhere
else)—cedar causes respiratory problems in ferrets. In general, wood
shavings don't do a very good job of absorbing either moisture or odors.
Other problematic litters are clumping litters and those made of corn
cob or clay; all of these cause serious ferret health problems.
Most ferret owners recommend pelleted litter (with the exception of the
new silica pearl litters). Alfalfa pellets (rabbit food) are highly
absorbent and inexpensive. Stove or wood pellets are a great alternative
(my favorite is Gentle Touch, a compressed aspen-wood pellet). Other
pellets are made out of recycled newspaper.
Remember, a happy owner results in a happy ferret. Keep those odors down
by spaying or neutering your ferrets, cleaning litter boxes, and doing
laundry. A proper diet, clean ears and teeth, good health, and an
occasional bath can also help keep your ferret and your home smelling
Animal waste causes odors. You can control
both the strength of the smell and the amount of the waste with
a proper diet. Ferrets fed a poor-quality diet will let you know
it, both in their general health and in their eliminations.
Preservatives, artificial colors and flavors, and low-quality
fats (such as beef tallow) will produce extra-stinky
eliminations. Foods high in vegetable fiber, cereal grains,
water, and other fillers will result in unnecessarily large
stool volumes, as the ferret has to eat much more food to get
Ferrets should eat dry food low in fiber and high in fats and
meat-based protein. Look for a food that is a minimum of 32
percent protein and 18 percent fat, and a maximum of 3 percent
fiber. The first ingredient should be some sort of meat, and the
other ingredients should not include too many grains. Don't feed
your ferret canned food (unless she is ill) or dog food of any
Finally, even some healthy ferret-food ingredients (such as fish
oils) might offend your nose. Try different foods that work for
both you and your ferret.