Ferret Nutrition

Ferrets are very popular pets due to their small size and fun nature. Ferrets can be excellent pets for people who have the time and ability to give them the care they need. However, being a new ferret owner can be challenging; they are so alike yet so different from dogs and cats! One of the most common questions asked by new ferret owners is “What do I feed my ferret?” It is important for ferret owners to learn how to choose a diet for their ferret, and how to ensure their ferret is staying healthy on that diet.

Feeding your ferret

What to feed

Ferret food

Commercial complete and balanced ferret food is generally the best, simplest, and most intuitive option for feeding ferrets. Many ferrets that come from pet stores have been brought up on these diets and are already familiar with them.

It is important to note that the exact nutritional requirements of ferrets are unknown; the studies have not been done on ferrets like they have been on dogs and cats. Scientists assume their requirements are similar to mink (their closest relatives) and the domestic cat (another obligate carnivore). Therefore, commercial ferret diets are based off this principle. Most ferret diets come in pelleted or kibbled form, and they are produced and fed by the leading ferret producers in the US.

Cat food

Cat food is another option for feeding ferrets, and it can be easier and cheaper than feeding ferret food. Ferrets have similar nutritional needs to the domestic cat, and kitten food actually has the best macronutrient profile for ferrets. In general, ferrets require a diet that is high in protein and fat: between 30-35% protein by dry matter, and between 15-20% fat by dry matter. Studies show that ferrets digest low-carb diets better, because their digestive tracts do not digest fiber and simple carbohydrates very well.

Though kibbled kitten food can be great for ferrets, wet food is not the best option. Since wet food has a high moisture content, ferrets cannot eat enough of the food to fulfill their calorie requirements. Therefore, ferrets on wet food may lose weight even though they are eating all they physically can. Additionally, wet food does not require the crunching and chewing that kibble does; therefore, ferrets (and cats!) eating wet food are more likely to have plaque and tartar buildup on their teeth.

When choosing a commercial kitten food for your ferret, it is important not to fall for marketing that says “high protein” or “low carb.” These label claims are misleading and are not well-regulated. It is better to compare diets on a dry matter basis. For more information, visit How to read a pet food label.

Visit How to pick a pet food, part 1 for tips on finding reliable cat food manufacturers.

Raw food

Many owners choose a raw diet for their ferrets. Though raw is a popular choice, it is not without its risks. Raw pet food is notorious for containing pathogenic bacteria and parasites that can infect both pets and people. Babies and children, sick or immunocompromised, pregnant, and elderly individuals are especially at risk of becoming infected with these organisms. Likewise, pets in the home who are sick, elderly, or very young are also at risk (this includes ferrets, especially those with systemic disease). Visit Raw diets for much more information.

If you do choose to feed a raw diet to your ferret, please do so safely.

  • Choose a commercially prepared complete and balanced raw cat food for your ferret that meets their nutritional requirements for protein (30-35%) and fat (15-20%). Feeding a homemade raw diet can be detrimental to your ferret’s health, as it can cause severe nutrient deficiencies (see Homemade diets for more information).

  • Do not feed live prey; this can be very dangerous for both the ferret and the prey. Additionally, it may not be complete and balanced for the ferret.

  • Wash your hands after handling your ferret, their food, and their feces. Disinfect their cage, toys, dishes, bedding, and other surfaces in their room several times a week. Dispose of their feces and discarded food in a sealed container that children and other pets cannot access. Store their food away from human food.

How to deliver it

Providing food in a bowl is the most common and easiest way to feed your ferret. However, ferrets like to rest their paws on the edge of the dish and tend to spill their food all over their cage. Therefore, you may want to consider an immovable dish, like a very heavy ceramic dish or a dish that attaches to the side of the cage. You can also cut holes in a cage platform and rest the bowl inside.

Playing with toys that dispense food can be a great source of enrichment for ferrets. Similarly, food puzzles can be good for this purpose as well.

Providing ferrets with food all day long (free-feeding) or giving them multiple small meals throughout the day is best for most ferrets.

Dishes resting in holes cut in cage platform

Eating habits of ferrets

Unlike most dogs and cats, ferrets do not sit and eat a meal all at once; they are grazers. Ferrets actually maintain their body weight and body condition very well when free-fed, and they don’t gorge themselves like many dogs and cats. This is why free-feeding or feeding multiple small meals each day works for most ferrets.

Due to a natural instinct, ferrets like to hide some of their food. (This is another reason raw feeding may not be the best option: raw food can spoil and cause overgrowth of pathogenic bacteria in the bedding.) Be sure to collect their hidden food each time you feed, so you can get a good understanding of how much they are eating and if this changes.

How much to feed

There is no energy equation for ferrets like there is for dogs and cats; all ferrets have unique energy and kcal requirements. In general, males eat more than females, and sexually intact ferrets eat more than spayed/neutered ferrets. Overall, most ferrets require between 200 and 300 kcals per one kilogram of body weight. However, variation between individuals is very high, so adult ferrets’ food intake should be assessed and they should be allowed to self-regulate.

To assess your adult ferret’s intake. . .

  1. Weigh your ferret every day for several days when you first begin. This will give you a good idea of their ideal weight.

  2. Prepare to free-feed your ferret for several days. Ensure you are providing enough food that there is still some left over at the end of a 24-hour period. Before putting the dish in the cage, weigh the food on a gram scale and record how many grams you are giving. Ensure there is no other food in the cage.

  3. After 24 hours, collect any hidden food and weigh all remaining food. Subtract this from the initial amount you first gave your ferret; this difference is the number of grams your ferret ate in one day.

  4. Repeat steps 2 and 3 each day for 3-5 days. Then, add each day’s total and divide by the number of days: this will tell you how much your ferret eats on an average day.

  5. Start feeding your ferret only what they will eat on an average day. This will ensure there isn’t too much extra food in the cage so it won’t spoil. Additionally, you will be able to better monitor how well your ferret eats on a day-to-day basis.

It is important to note that kits and juvenile ferrets should be allowed to eat as much as they want until they are fully grown (at about 4 months of age). Kits require diets with at least 35% protein DM and 20% fat DM; both of these are at the higher end of adult ferret requirements, so check the label to ensure there is enough protein and fat for your kit or juvenile ferret.

Treats

Some ferrets are very food motivated, while others are not. Some ferrets can be trained to do tricks for treats, while others will just take the treat and hide it for later.

If you choose to reward your ferret with treats, use caution. There are many treats that are unsafe for ferrets. Commercial ferret and cat treats are often high-carb and are therefore not very digestible to ferrets. These treats should be very limited, if given. Processed people food such as chips, candy, soda, and peanut butter should not be given to ferrets, as they are very indigestible and can cause digestive upset. Similarly, ferrets should not be given dairy products, fruit, vegetables, products high in salt, or table scraps. If you wish to give people food as treats, a small amount of boiled, unseasoned meat or egg is a great option.

Like with dogs and cats, ferrets should not be getting more than 10% of their daily caloric intake from treats. You will need to do the math to figure out how much your ferret is eating each day and determine their treat allowance from there.

Example:


Wren eats 23 grams of food per day
Her diet is 4.37 kcal per gram
23 grams x 4.37 kcal/gram = 100.51 kcal per day
100.51 x 10% = 10 kcal from treats per day

Changing the diet

If you must change your ferret’s diet, do so very gradually. Some ferrets can be extremely picky and will stop eating their food if they notice it is different. You can start by mixing a small amount of the new food in with a larger portion of the old food, then gradually increase the new and decrease the old. The process can take several weeks for pickier ferrets.

This process is similar to changing the diet of dogs and cats, so you can visit How to transition your pet to a new diet for more details.

Providing water for your ferret

Ferrets require about three times more water than food by volume. Therefore, it is best to keep their water dish full at all times. Some ferrets can be picky about having clean water, so washing the bowl several times a week is often necessary. Tap water is safe for ferrets (as long as it is safe for humans), but you may provide filtered or bottled water at your preference.

Providing water in a bowl is the best option for ferrets. However, they do like to stand on the lip of the dish and splash/play in the water, so it will need to be an immovable dish. Like with the food dish, this can be a heavy ceramic dish, one that attaches to the side of the cage, or you can cut holes in the cage platforms and rest the dish inside.

Dropper bottles are often not a great choice for ferrets. They may break their teeth trying to use them, and they can often not get enough volume from the spout so they may become dehydrated. Water bottles are also not intuitive; ferrets may not understand how to use them. It is best to stick with a bowl setup when providing water for your ferret.

Water dish that attaches to the cage

Body condition scoring your ferret

Body condition scoring ferrets is similar to body condition scoring other species; you can visit How to body condition score to learn more. Overall, you should be able to feel your ferret’s ribs by gently rubbing their sides, and you should not feel much of a fat covering. They should not have a very pudgy belly or excess fat over their tailhead. In general, males are larger than females, and sexually intact ferrets can be larger than their spayed/neutered counterparts.

Ferrets naturally self-regulate their eating habits and body condition, so obesity generally is not a problem for ferrets like it is with dogs and cats. However, if ferrets are eating an unbalanced diet, or if they receive too many treats, obesity can be seen.

Ferrets may also naturally gain weight in the winter. This is because the shorter day length causes their bodies to begin storing up nutrients and conserving energy. However, this is not seen much with domestic ferrets that live indoors.

Ferrets who are overweight or underweight should see a veterinarian immediately, as weight gain and weight loss can be the first signs of underlying health conditions.

Wren, spayed adult female, 820 grams, BCS 4/9 (ideal)

Exercising your ferret

Having time for exercise is extremely important for ferrets. They are incredibly energetic and playful pets; they tend to play hard for a few hours and then sleep the rest of the day. Ferrets should be allowed to play outside their cage for at least two hours every day. You can break this up into multiple playtimes or whatever works best with your schedule. It is a good idea to supervise your ferret when they are out of the cage, especially if the room is not “ferret-proofed.” Environmental enrichment is also a must: ferrets love to play with cat toys; in tubes, ball pits, and sand boxes; and on cat trees. They love to burrow in towels and blankets and hang out on hammocks. They also love to dig and are notorious for getting into things they shouldn’t!

Ferrets also love friends. Other ferrets are the obvious choice, but many ferrets also enjoy the company of cats or small dogs. If your ferret is playing with another pet, it might be a good idea to supervise them.

Many ferrets also do well outside on a harness and leash. If you take your ferret outside, ask their usual veterinarian about flea and heartworm preventative.

Fawn (beagle) and Wren (ferret) are best friends!

Keeping your ferret's mouth healthy

Ferrets, like cats and dogs, are prone to plaque and tartar buildup on their teeth. Some ferrets may tolerate teeth brushing, and you can use a small amount of veterinary toothpaste with a small toothbrush to get the job done. Visit The importance of oral health for more general information.

Ferrets should not receive bones, as they can pose several hazards such as mouth lacerations, choking, and digestive tract obstructions. To learn more, visit Bones and chew toys.

It is always a good idea to bring all ferrets to the veterinarian yearly for a checkup, vaccines, and a thorough oral exam. Older ferrets, like older dogs and cats, may require a dental cleaning under general anesthesia to remove the tartar buildup and to keep their mouths comfortable.

Assessing your ferret's poop

Pet parents should get in the habit of looking at their pets’ poop, no matter if they are a dog, cat, or ferret. Knowing what’s normal for your individual pet can be very important!

Ferrets have an extremely short digestive tract compared to our dogs and cats. Additionally, their large intestines are short and unsegmented, meaning they are not as good at absorbing water or digesting fiber. Therefore, transit time (time from eating to defecation) is usually between 3 and 6 hours, and ferrets will have a softer stool.

You can visit Assessing your pet’s poop for more information.

Normal ferret feces (left); loose ferret feces (right)