What Kind of Ferret?

As you walk into a pet shop or a breeder's display area, it may be hard to tell how many ferrets they have, simply because the ferrets are busy bouncing around, playing tag and generally keeping themselves amused. With their masked clown faces and busy hands, these clever creatures endear themselves to just about everyone they meet.

Despite the fact that many people in the United States have never even seen a ferret, these delightful, mischievous little animals (Mustela furo) have been household pets since around 450 BC -- as long as rabbits, and longer, for example, than birds, fish, guinea pigs, hamsters or gerbils. Like dogs and cats, they were originally domesticated to help mankind with hunting and pest control, and in many parts of the world, they are still used for that purpose. In fact, that's where the term, ferreting -- as in to ferret out something -- derives, as ferrets were used to flush game from their burrows. Although ferreting is illegal in the U.S., the popularity of ferrets in the U.S. has climbed steadily, with ferrets now being the third most popular pet behind dogs and cats. But owning a ferret takes a very particular personality type, and before you consider the specific kind of a ferret you want, you want to make sure that you are up to taking the ferret challenge.

The Ferret Challenge

All ferrets have certain traits in common, and to own a ferret is to deal with those traits -- keeping in mind that different ferrets have different ways of showing those traits. Simply put, your ferret's reason for existence is to enjoy life, intensely, comically and fully: He'll throw down the gauntlet of his existence and assume a capable response. Incompatibility spells an unhappy ferret, an unhappy owner and ultimately adoption or disaster for the pet. How can you be sure you are compatible? Ask yourself how you would respond to the following list of statements that might be made (or at least implied) by any typical ferret caught in the throes of mischief:

  • Mischief is my job. I'm persistent, and I simply won't stop until I have what I want, especially when it's your attention, affection and involvement.
  • It's my nature. I'm a living thing, and I'll let you know I'm around by making noise, giving off odors and creating messes.
  • It's my time too! I'm here in your home, and I expect you to be here at home for me, too -- Don't run off constantly on vacations or business and expect me to do well without you.
  • What's money? I'm capable of fitting into your current lifestyle, but only if you help me -- That means you have to make some adjustments to your home, your routine, your budget and your outlook on the world; I can't fit in if you don't make room for me.
  • What's that? And that? And that? I'm a strong mind in a strong body: Don't expect me to sit idle all day, using neither body nor mind. I love solving puzzles, trying new and interesting things and exploring the world, just like you do. Don't always try to block my natural instincts and drives -- work with me, and find alternative channels for what I do that are acceptable to both of us.
  • Fair's fair. If you give me your best efforts, then I'll do the same for you.

Of course, your ferret's viewpoint is only half the story. What kind of person does it take to own a ferret and deal with the ferret challenge? It doesn't necessarily take a special or rare type of person; many ferret owners have already owned dogs, cats or both, before getting their first ferret. However, you need certain qualities to own a ferret, and even if you have them, there is no guarantee that the relationship between you and your ferret will be a success.

Meeting the Ferret Challenge

To meet the ferret challenge, ask yourself if you meet the following criteria. Do you:

  • Have a sense of humor? Many of the things ferrets do are funny, but only in retrospect: You're not likely to be amused when cleaning up the latest break-in of your cleaning supplies cabinet or when raiding their stash of your stolen car keys, rings, jewelry or coins.
  • Have patience? You'll need patience for specific things your ferrets do, like those above, but you'll also need patience in general, because ferrets are permanently juvenile -- no matter how old they get, they still act up, cause messes and get into trouble.
  • Ensure consistency? Get your ferret routine together, and stick to it: Your ferret will respect you for it.
  • Have plenty of time? Your ferret isn't maintenance free, and you'll need time not only to care for his physical needs, but also to play with him and be his companion.
  • Have stamina? Keeping up the ferret routine takes energy, and you'll need to keep it going for the rest of your ferret's life: You'll need extra bursts of energy for times when your ferret takes ill or when training him to accept another pet, not to mention for those times you feel too tired to keep moving yourself.
  • Have love and affection to offer? Your ferret wants very much to include you in his sphere of affection, as long as you return it -- Many different kinds of affection are possible, from playing games, to holding your pet, to just letting him know you're watching.

Unlike the many breeds of cats and dogs, there are only a few characteristics that differ between domestic ferrets.

Color Varieties

Ferrets come in different colors, and breeders are actively trying to develop more. Ferret colors include those listed below.

  • Albino - white coat color, red to pink eyes, and a pink nose.
  • Black sable - deep black from nose to tail tip; the mask pattern on the head is hood-like and extends to the nose; the undercoat is cream to white color.
  • Black sable mitt - the coloration is the same as the black sable, except it has four white feet (mitts), with the white fur going from toe tip to no more than two-thirds up the legs.
  • Blaze - body is any color or combination; an unbroken white stripe, usually starting on the face, runs between the eyes, over the top of the head and (ideally) down the back of the neck: There are four mitts and a white bib.
  • Chocolate - the coloration is like the sable, except the banded mask, tail and legs are dark brown with red tints. The body, neck and head have brown guard hairs, and the undercoat is cream to wheaten color. The eyes are usually black, but they may be deep ruby; the nose is pink to brown in color.
  • Chocolate mitt - the color is the same as chocolate, except with mitts.
  • Cinnamon - the guard hairs are reddish brown; the legs and tail are darker reddish brown. Mask color (present in darker shades of cinnamon) should be complementary to the overall ferret's color; the nose is pink; the eyes are usually deep ruby to red, but may be black.
  • Cinnamon mitt - same as cinnamon but having mitts.
  • Dalmatian - mostly white, with black or dark ruby eyes, and a pink nose; a pattern of spots or blotches (normally black) usually appears only on the back, with the rest of the coat any color but black.
  • Heavy silver (pewter) - a deep, gunmetal gray with black and a pink, mottled or black nose. The mask looks like a smudge under each eye, and mitts are customary.
  • Panda - the head should be as white as possible from nose to shoulder; there is a white bib, and white runs the length of the underside. The body color (any) is a saddle shape; Pandas usually have a white-tipped tail, mitts, a pink nose and any color eyes.
  • Pattern, light - mostly white coat, with a scattering of darker hairs throughout the coat; the nose is black or pink, with black, ruby or red eyes.
  • Pattern, medium - similar to light pattern, but with a much heavier concentration of dark hairs.
  • Sable - black legs with a full mask, and the undercoat can be dark to cream, with dark guard hairs. Color intensity is even through body, neck, and head; the eyes are black, and the nose is pink, to mottled, to black.
  • Sable mitt - the same as the sable, but with mitts.
  • Siamese - any standard sable, chocolate or cinnamon ferret that has a body color several shades lighter than its feet and legs. The mask is V-shaped, and it's the same color as the leg and tail; the length of the underside has a dark line the same color as the extremities.
  • Siamese mitt - the same as the Siamese, but with mitts.
  • Striped white - mostly white, with a dark stripe down the backbone; the stripe may extend into the tail. The eyes are either pink or dark ruby, and the nose may be pink or shaded to black.
  • White with dark eyes (black-eyed white) - the body is usually white, but some animals have a few dark hairs along the backbone. The eyes are black; the nose is usually pink, but may be black.

Body Types

There is also variation in the basic ferret body type -- with one type being the "whippet," or slender body, and the other being the "bulldog," or stocky body. As per the name, the "whippet" body type has an overall long, slinky appearance, especially when compared to the "bulldog" body type. The "bulldog" body type ferret is not as tall as the "whippet", and not as long, with ab body that is more block-shaped than the "whippet." There is no reason besides personal preference to pick one or the other body type, since they are both equally healthy.

Fur Types

A recent development in ferret variation is the Angora ferret, which has long hair, like the rabbit after which it is named; however, ferrets do not have nearly the variation in other characteristics, like size, skeletal structure and temperament, which dogs have. Ferrets, besides coat variation and body type, are pretty homogenous in appearance when compared to dogs or cats, the top two domesticated pets.

You're the Best Judge

Different people prefer different ferrets -- Once you know that you truly want a ferret, the kind of ferret is an easier decision; But if you have your heart set on a particular coloring or body style, you may be hard pressed to find it at a pet store or shelter. If all you want is a wonderful pet, then you should go ahead and interact with ferrets through whatever sources you have available, and then pick your ferret based on health, personality and personal preference. If you absolutely have your heart set on a particular color, especially one of the rarer colors, then a ferret show might be the place to start your search. A popular event with both participants and spectators alike, a ferret show will offer you the opportunity to really see the different colors and body styles displayed, and to see all the ferret characteristics that make this animal such a charmer.