Ferrets are quite unlike any other pet. The carbohydrates and vegetable protein found in most fruit and vegetables can actually make your ferret poorly.
Therefore, they are not fed on a similar diet to rabbits, hamsters or any other small pet. This could come as a surprise to some.
And on a similar note, ferrets should be kept away from any other small animals as they see everything as prey!
Meat, meat and more meat is on the menu for ferrets – but this can be more difficult than it sounds to get just right.
A ferret’s diet should ideally be around 32-38% protein and 15-20% fat.
They have a short intestinal tract and absorb nutrients inefficiently, so their diet needs to be high in meat-based protein and fat. This provides them with plenty of energy and it is easily digested.
As obligate carnivores, a ferret must eat meat. Don’t get a ferret if you’re squeamish, or prefer a pet that doesn’t eat meat as you don’t either. This is not fair on your ferret and they will become ill and die without meat.
Ferret meat should be human-grade and have been sourced from appropriate stores, to ensure there are no issues with it. Raw uncooked meat can be difficult to keep in good condition.
Never catch their food yourself as it needs to be certified parasite free.
Good meat options for ferrets include:
- Chicken wings
- Turkey necks
- Game birds
- Lambs heart
Most of the above are available at local butchers, and some butchers may also be happy to give you some as it is seen as a byproduct of what they sell.
It is also a good idea to give them whole prey, which is a bit more natural for them, such as:
These are available at reptile stores, sometimes to buy in bulk. The whole prey contains raw animal bones. But giving bones to your ferret separately is also a great idea, as they are a source of calcium and good for their teeth. They would eat the entire animal in the wild, so it won’t be an issue for them to digest these.
It is recommended that you avoid beef and pork – the raw components might contain parasites or pathogens that will make your ferret very sick. Pork contains Trichinella in its raw form unless prepared by a properly trained butcher, but a lot of people just don’t take the risk.
Kitten food with high meat content can be given as an occasional substitute, but check the ingredients thoroughly first. It must be kitten food, as dog food does not have the meat content required and cat food doesn’t have as high protein content.
Ideally, they should have fatty acid supplements alongside any kitten food, available from pet shops.
Dried ferret food
Dried ferret pellets or grains with a high meat content are also available. This can be given alongside the meat, but not as a sole source of food – you must be happy to feed your ferret raw meat before you commit to having one as a pet.
But don’t leave the dry food out altogether, as it will help to keep their teeth clean. Look for pellets high in fats and meat content which avoid carbohydrates and anything else they need to avoid (which you can read more about below).
Also look for a round, small shape of a pellet. Anything triangular or too sharp could be painful against the roof of their mouth.
All pets benefit from the occasional treat as a reward for good behaviour, or to keep them happy.
This can be hard with ferrets though, as there aren’t many dedicated treats out there due to their rather limited diets. But good easy treats for them include egg, high-meat-content cat treats, and bits of chicken, turkey, or lamb.
The egg can be raw or cooked, but do limit it to once or twice a week to avoid constipation. It could be worth cooking any treat meat off first, and freezing it and defrosting it as and when needed. Raw meat will go bad quickly if left uncooked or unfrozen.
Food ferrets must avoid
As mentioned, fruits and vegetables are generally advised against. Anything containing complex carbohydrates also has fibre. Ferrets can’t digest fibre, which means the foods have a low nutritional value. Essentially, it is pointless food.
The scientific reason for this is that they have no cecum, which is a part of the digestive tract in most other animals which produces bacteria that digests complex carbohydrates.
A high amount of carbs in their diet could also lead to an excess of glucose in their blood, eventually causing cancer of the beta cells in the Pancreas.
Then there is the vegetable protein, which cannot be digested so will just build up and could cause illnesses such as bladder stones, ulcerations of the skin, gastroenteritis and reduced reproduction ability. If you have a breeding female, her kits could suffer from poor growth.
Altogether, ferrets should avoid:
- All forms of beans
- Brussel sprouts
- Kiwi fruit
- Split peas
- Dried plums
- Sweet potato
- Peanut butter
The above are all particularly high in complex carbohydrates and fibre. But, we would always say it is best to be safe than sorry and to avoid fruits and vegetables altogether – even if you think it is just a little treat.
Some dried ferret food can contain fish, which isn’t bad for them but it is not their natural diet. Some will turn their nose up at this, so it is best to stick to ordinary meats.
What do baby ferrets eat?
Baby ferrets should be fed around four times per day, on a mix of fresh meat, goats/low lactose milk and water.
Give meat with water for one meal, meat on its own for two meals and meat with milk for another. It is a good idea to follow this plan as written for meals, from breakfast through to evening meal.
It is important to try them on various meats when they are kits, as they can become attached to their food if there’s no variation. This way, giving them different meats when they are adults will be easier.
But they will also have to become used to their dried food or any other substitutes you could be giving them when older. The occasional soft food, such as baby food which is high in meat protein, or dried food soaked in water is a good idea.
If they were to become ill, they may have to be fed on soft foods, so their body won’t reject it if the time comes.
Common issues when feeding ferrets
Ferrets should be fed little but often – they can usually offer a good guide as to when they are hungry. They won’t eat more than they want to, so you can grasp the portion sizes easily.
If you do feed them too much, they can actually hoard it for later. If this is raw meat, this poses obvious risks of food safety. Eating meat which has gone off could spell disaster for their health, so always remove uneaten food from their cage.
If you will be gone during the day, stick to dry food so there is less risk. Ferret food is high in fats, which they do need but can also be bad if they don’t burn it off, so you need to ensure they get enough exercise every day.
Tap water is usually fine for them, but if they turn their nose up, it could be because they smell chlorine. Filtering this out will help. All of this dried, raw food can make them really thirsty so they will need a constant supply of water from a vertical bottle.
Urinary tract stones in ferrets are common between the ages of 3 and 7 but usually found in ferrets who have been fed things they shouldn’t have been or if they have been given poor quality cat food which didn’t contain enough meat.
Can I keep ferrets with other small animals?
This may sound like an odd question when talking about ferret food.
But it is a vital (and unpleasant) endnote – if you also own rabbits, hamsters, reptiles, hedgehogs or any other small animals, keep them away from your ferret!
In the wild, their ancestors would have hunted down rabbits, mice, rats or anything similar. Just because your pets are domesticated doesn’t mean that they will stop there. It is instinctive for them, so it is up to you to ensure there is no bloodshed.
We would even recommend to keep them away from larger animals such as dogs and cats. While unlikely that a ferret could catch something that much larger than them, they could still cause injury and could scare or harm your other pet.