Ferrets have a very specialist diet, which must be carefully met in captivity if they are to remain fit and healthy. Here’s what the caring pet owner needs to know…
What Do Ferrets Eat in the Wild?
Ferrets are mustelids – related to stoats, weasels and otters. As you might imagine from this lifestyle, ferrets are naturally hunters. They’ll chase down virtually any other animal they might be able to catch. Primarily their diet is made up of rodents – rats, mice and voles. They may also take small rabbits, birds and their eggs.
Ferrets do not naturally consume plant material in any quantity as they are unable to digest it and extract nutriment. In other words, the wild cousins of ferrets are obligate carnivores and consume only foods of animal origin.
Basic Nutritional Requirements of Ferrets
Experts now recognise that ferrets require a diet that is primarily meat-based. Furthermore, it should offer high levels of protein (30-40% of the diet), plenty of fat (20%+) while keeping carbohydrates and fibre much lower.
While this typically means providing a diet rich in meat, other elements can also be incorporated including bones, fur and skin. Almost without exception this food should be provided in a raw state; this is especially so for any bones as cooked bones can shatter, causing serious damage.
In truth, there are plenty of foods that shouldn’t be included in your ferret’s diet. According to the Pet Food Manufacturers Association, for example, grain-based diets (including bread) should not be provided, while dairy or highly-processed foods are also best avoided.
Ferrets tend to have a sweet tooth, but sugary foods are generally best avoided for all but the odd treat to prevent an overweight pet or dental complications.
Captive Foods for Ferrets
Unlike many other pets, ferrets require very careful feeding on a limited range of food stuffs. Here are some of the more popular options…
The easiest way to replicate a ferret’s wild diet is to provide dead rats or mice for them to consume. These can be bought from many specialist pet stores, and are typically made available for reptile keepers to feed their snakes.
By offering entire prey items you’ll not only be providing a measure of environment enrichment as your pet works hard to eat their dinner, but the bones and organs can also provide additional nutrition and roughage.
Meat that is fit for human consumption can also make a useful basis of your ferret’s diet. Experts recommend focusing your efforts on red meat, such as ground beef, but other meats such as chicken or turkey may be given in moderation.
Dry Ferret Kibble
Arguably the most practical and cost-effective solution is to base your ferret’s diet on one of the pre-made premium dried foods made specially for ferrets.
Looking rather like standard dog food, the kibbles contain a complete and balanced diet for your pet, while the pieces are small enough to prevent choking in ferrets. Lastly, the inclusion of solid foods like this in the diet (like the bones of whole carcasses) can help to exercise and polish the teeth, improving dental hygiene.
Ferrets love eggs in all forms. Cooked eggs (scrambled, for example) can be a popular food, while raw eggs are equally popular. Standard hens eggs can be broken into a bowl, and provided in liquid form. Alternatively, for some extra environmental enrichment, a whole egg can be provided to your ferret, who will try to figure out how to get inside.
Note that egg stains are famously difficult to get out of fabrics, so it is normally safest to only feed eggs outside the home. A broken egg dripping into your bedroom carpet is unlikely to end well.
While standard dog and cat food is unsuitable for ferrets, some experts claim that dried foods intended for kittens can be suitable for ferrets – at least over the short term. The primary difference between kitten food and that designed for adult cats is the higher protein content, which makes it especially suitable for pet ferrets.
Ferrets are known to have a fast metabolism and a short gut. This means that they need large volumes of food, but can only consume so much at a single sitting. The end result of this is that ferrets should be provided with continual food throughout the day. A once-a-day feeding regime simply won’t work well for ferrets, unless large volumes of food are provided.
Of course, in the summer months raw meat will quickly turn, taking on an unpleasant smell while attracting flies and bacteria. This is of particular concern for house ferrets.
Possibly the best all-round feeding regime is therefore to offer dry ferret kibble in a bowl. This won’t spoil, even in hot weather, and means that your ferret can eat whenever they’re hungry. Raw meats and eggs can then be provided at specific times when you’re at home, so that you can remove uneaten food and clean up soon afterwards.
A good regime can involve the provision of dry kibble first thing in the morning. Upon arriving home in the evening, offer a range of raw foods. Then remove anything uneaten before you head off to bed, ensuring there is still kibble available for a “midnight snack”.
Note that water should be available at all times of the day, and is most easily provided in a water bottle. The water should be changed at least once a day, and the bottle should be cleaned thoroughly with a bottle cleaner and a weak bleach solution each week to prevent the build-up of algae or bacteria.