Pets in The Weasel Family

When someone says ‘pet’, most people think of dogs and cats. Some pet owners prefer rodents like rabbits, rats and mice while more adventurous people may opt for birds or reptiles. The more unusual animals are becoming more popular as we begin to understand more about their behavior. In this pet profile, we will look at members of the weasel family.

Ferret as a pet

Of all the pets in the weasel family, ferrets are by far the most popular. From their spritely character to their love of puzzles, these furry fellows have made a big impact over the last few decades. So, are ferrets good pets to have?

Ferret history

Ferrets were first domesticated around 2500 years ago. Although it is unclear of the reasons for domestication, it is widely accepted by experts that ferrets were used for ratting and hunting rabbits.

They are believed to have been used for rabbit hunting as early as 600 CE in Spain and by the early 1200s, Germany and England were also prominent ferret breeders. It was not until the 1700s that ferrets made their way to America with colonists, but they did not become widely used as ratters until the 1900s.

From the middle of the 19th century, ferrets were also bred for their fur. Fortunately, this practice is now almost obsolete and is either banned or strictly regulated in many countries. As ratting and hunting become redundant thanks to advances in rodent eradication, domesticated animals became companion animals instead. For ferrets, this happened in the 1960s.

Ferrets can be credited for helping scientists to made huge leaps in terms of advancing our understanding of certain diseases such as influenza and asthma. A small number of ferrets are used for biomedical research for studying respiratory illnesses like cystic fibrosis and the development of annual flu vaccines.

What is a ferret?

Ferrets are small weasel-like animals that look like a cat with a long body and the face of a bear. Male ferrets (hobs) will grow up to 15 inches, with females (jills) being smaller at 12-13 inches. They are descended from the European polecat, which still lives wild and are generally not kept as pets. They are carnivores, hunting small rodents like field mice, voles and rabbits, birds, frogs and insects. They do not possess the enzymes needed to break down vegetation.

Pet ferrets can be fed on commercially produced kibble specially formulated for ferrets or they can be fed a raw diet. This means feeding them raw organ meat such as heart and kidneys, chicken thighs or wings with bones and whole prey items such as duck and rabbit. Ferrets should not be given dog food as this contains ingredients that ferrets are not able to digest. While they can eat cat food, they cannot be fed on cat food alone as there is not a high enough fat or protein content.

They are naturally inquisitive animals and will investigate new surroundings and objects with apparent fearlessness. They also love to dig. A healthy, happy ferret will engage in vigorous play sessions with other ferrets or nearby objects. Sleeping generally covers around 15 hours of the day, however, ferrets sleep longer during winter and also as they age.

Are ferrets good pets?

Any experienced ferret owner will tell you that they make excellent pets, but they require near-constant supervision and are a lot more demanding than dogs or cats. While ferrets are easy to tame and love interacting with humans, they have a very high enrichment requirement. This means they need a lot of mental stimulation to prevent themselves from getting bored.

An unsupervised ferret can quickly chew through the lining of a sofa or find a gap behind the fridge. If you cannot provide them at least 4 hours of playtime per day, plus the time to clean their cage, prepare their meals and walk them, then a ferret is definitely not the pet for you. They can live as long as 8 years, so they are a serious commitment.

See: Long-Haired Ferret

Can I take my ferret for a walk?

Yes, you can walk your ferret! Many ferret owners find that their furry friend loves a stroll around the neighborhood as they get to explore a whole new environment with different sounds and smells. You can purchase specially designed ferret harnesses and leads that prevent them from wriggling out. It is very easy to train a ferret to walk on a harness thanks to their intelligence and curiosity.

Where to buy or adopt a ferret

It is most common to get a ferret from a shelter or ferret rescue. They are run by experts who are knowledgeable regarding ferret care and will match the ferret’s personality to the best-suited person. Typically, shelter ferrets are desexed/neutered before being rehomed. They will also be vaccinated, treated for fleas and ticks if they have them and socialized with other ferrets. Most shelters or rescues will charge a donation fee between $50 and $150.

Ferret breeders are usually very careful about tracing the breeding lines of their ferrets to ensure a reduced chance of their ferrets suffering from certain diseases. Reputable breeders will have their ferrets tested for common diseases, match them well with prospective partners and will ensure any potential owners are given information on ferret care.

Unfortunately, there are some less trustworthy breeders who are only interested in money. The breeder should always allow you to see the kits (babies) with their mother and they should ask you lots of questions to make sure you are a suitable home for a ferret. Generally, ferrets from breeders will cost up to $350.

You can also purchase ferrets from pet stores, however, this should be a last resort unless the pet store can confirm where the ferrets have come from/who bred them. Most pet stores source their ferrets from large-scale commercial farms where there is a high risk of disease and poor breeding practices. Although pet store ferrets are more affordable – priced around $100-$150 – they are the least healthy and come with less information regarding appropriate care.

It is important to note that it is illegal to own a pet ferret in three American states; Washington DC, California and Hawaii. It is legal to own a ferret in New York state, but they are banned as pets in New York City and residents of Rhode Island must have a permit to own a ferret. The penalty for owning a ferret could be a $1000 dollar fine, a misdemeanor charge or even up to 6 months in jail!

What pets do ferrets get along with?

Ferrets are hunters so they should never be kept with rodents. This includes larger rodents like guinea pigs, chinchillas and rabbits. Even a calm and placid ferret has the potential to react to a rodent animal as this is their natural prey.

Ferrets can live quite happily with cats or dogs if they are introduced at an early age and socialized properly.

Otters as pets

Otter as a pet

Otters are adorable furry water babies found either in riverways or in the ocean. Many people are surprised to learn that there are 13 species of otter across the world. Unlike other pet species, otters have not been domesticated. Any animal can be tamed but many species have not been bred specifically for work. For example, dogs were domesticated to help protect village livestock or pull sleds. Cats were domesticated for ratting purposes. Otters have never been domesticated and there are still wild populations in many countries.

Is it legal to own a pet otter?

As a general rule, there is only one species of otter that could be possible as a pet in America. The Asian short-clawed otter has wild populations along the riverways of North America so they do not fall under the Marine Mammal protection act as most other otter species do. Although they are not a banned marine animal, most states still ban the ownership of otters. Even in a state where it is possible, owning an otter is incredibly difficult, time-consuming and expensive.

States where owning river otters is legal with a permit or license are:

  • Florida
  • Michigan
  • Missouri
  • Nebraska
  • North Carolina
  • North Dakota

The state of Nevada has the loosest animal restrictions regarding ownership. Otters, both river and marine species, are not listed as requiring a permit or license to import or export, so you could own an otter there without a permit.

In states where permits are required, they will outline certain guidelines that must be followed. These include things like having a home inspection, providing a shelter and den that meets or exceeds the minimum specifications and proving that you have the appropriate knowledge to care for an otter. In most other states, it is illegal to own an otter as a pet and you cannot apply for a permit. Only rehabilitation centers or private animal parks may apply for special permission.

In the UK, you must apply for a permit to own, capture or sell otters. This is because there are otter species native to Britain and they have been brought back from the brink of extinction. Otters are a protected species and as such, permits are only approved under certain conditions.

Where can I find an otter?

You cannot go down to your local pet store to buy or adopt an otter. They are wild animals and very rarely kept as pets. The only place you can get one is from a broker or exotic pet breeder. This is a tricky situation to navigate as many brokers will not tell you where they source their animals. Many wild otter species are listed as endangered or threatened.

Pricing varies between brokers and also by country. Since owning otters as pets is not very common, there is no guideline to follow when it comes to price. To draw appeal, some brokers or breeders will advertise babies or young otters because they are so cute. This causes serious problems as the otter is often not old enough to leave its mother.

Do otters make good pets?

If you do manage to find someone who has a healthy otter to sell and you have the required permit, you need to consider how you will care for your new pet. Otters are not like a regular cat or dog. They are not suited to living indoors because they smear their droppings and create a very pungent odor.

The best enclosure will provide a pool for swimming, a heated den area for sleep and a large outdoor space for exercise and foraging. There are two things you must be mindful of; digging and climbing. Otters are great at both, so the fencing must be sunken well into the ground and the enclosure must have a roof.

Diet is also very important. Otters require a variety of insects, fish and crustaceans to get all the necessary nutrients to keep them fit and healthy. Combining their feeding routine with enrichment will prevent boredom. This includes hiding their food so they have to search for it or putting it inside something so they have to work out how to release their food.

Otters are extremely vocal animals with high pitched squeaks and chirps. You will certainly not win any popularity contests with your neighbors! Otters are also known to nip. Mostly this is play behavior but they have sharp teeth and even a playful bite can draw blood. It is not advisable to own an otter unless you understand their behavior. They require constant enrichment to prevent them from becoming stressed. This is simply not possible to provide if you work a 9-5 job where you are away from home 8 hours or more of the day.

American Mink in Surrey, England.

Mink as a pet

Like Otters, Mink are semi-aquatic animals and like ferrets, they require hours of playtime each day to keep them entertained and exercised. Part of the weasel family, mink look very similar to ferrets, however, they have not been domesticated so their temperament is more like a wild animal. They have been bred for their fur quality, not their personality!

Mink are still bred in many countries to supply fur for the fashion industry, although over the last few years, a large percentage of these countries have established strict guidelines to protect the animals’ welfare. Most mink that are kept as pets are rescued from fur farms. As with ferrets and otters, you will require a permit to own a mink.

You may also be able to purchase mink from a broker or breeder, but they are not common and they too require a permit to own, breed and sell them. The average price in US states is $250, however, prices do vary per state.

There are three different coat colors; black, jaguar (black and white) or seal (grey). Occasionally, a breeder or broker may sell a mink with a brown coat which is their natural color in the wild.

Do mink make good pets?

Mink are similar in their care requirements to both ferrets and otters. The most important thing is that they are kept in a secure enclosure. Mink are escape artists and can easily bend wire cages. It is best to purchase a custom-built cage with closely spaces wire panels. A tall enclosure with multiple levels provides opportunities for mink to climb and explore.

If you are keeping their cage indoors then you will need to allow your mink daily bath time. Being semi-aquatic, mink need access to water so they can swim and exercise. In the wild, they would hunt in water for fish and crustaceans.

They are easily bored if left alone, so you must be able to devote at least 3 hours per day to play with your mink. This includes playing with cat toys, making your own enrichment objects and swimming time. Mink love ball pits, tunnels and hides. Anything that gives them the opportunity to explore and play is great for preventing stress.

Their diet must be exclusively meat as they are carnivores. The best diet to feed them is a high protein, high-fat mink kibble supplemented with raw meat such as rabbit, duck and deer. You can also give fish or crustaceans as this mimics their diet in the wild.

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