Ferrets were bred for hunting and are designed to eat freshly killed small whole animals, which are really carnivors. That being said, it is not practical (or legal) to feed our pets whole live prey. What we can hope to do is provide food that is safe, nutritious and suitable for their unique digestion.
What do ferrets eat?
Ferrets need a diet high in animal protein and fat with very little carbohydrate, and they are unable to digest plant fibres at all, so unlike most domesticated species fibre does not benefit them.
Actually, ferrets’ digestive systems are comparatively short, so their food must be highly digestible. The only grains or plant matter they are designed to eat would be partially digested in the intestines of their prey. On this note however, many ferret owners do not feed plant based carbohydrates at all so they can reduce how much they predispose their ferrets to the cancer “insulinoma”.
Cooked foods, particularly cooked bones, should also be avoided as cooking and processing changes the structure of food and its digestibility. Don’t be too worried about food poisoning though as Ferrets have been shown to be relatively resistant. Raw foods such as egg and meat are therefore fine, however, Ferrets are not scavengers, so you need to ensure any meat provided for your Ferret is fresh and fit for human consumption.
How to feed your ferret?
You should feed them 2 to 4 small meals each day. Dry foods can be left out, but meat should always be removed it if is not consumed within an hour. This may vary depending on your ferrets age, for example:
- Younger, more active ferrets require more frequent feeding (5 or 6 times per day)
- Older ferrets, particularly those with pancreatic problems, require continual access to food
Also, you need to know that ferrets have a habit of stashing any excess food. This can lead to a smelly surprise if they decide to hide food items in your couch. To avoid this you should offer food for 30-60 minutes then remove any leftovers.
Alternatively, you can provide your Ferret with a ‘hide’ for extra food, a controlled space for them to stockpile food that is easy for you to check and clean regularly. This might be a cosy plastic box with a small hole cut in it.
Ferrets are natural hunters, so providing them with opportunities to express their natural behaviour through hiding food will help with their development. You can also use food to promote game play and reduce boredom. For example, using treat balls with kitten biscuits or simply place food in various places around the room.
What happens if your ferret eats the wrong foods?
Insulinomas, a form of cancer in ferrets, are more common in countries where ferret diets are highly processed and high in carbohydrates when compared with countries where ferrets eat primarily raw diets. The current belief is that high carbohydrate foods means that their pancreas has to over produce insulin to maintain a level blood sugar level. Overtime this constant stimulus leads to cells becoming cancerous (insulinoma). Ferrets with insulinoma struggle to maintain their blood sugar levels and are prone to blood glucose crashes and seizures. species of animal, an optimum diet is more likely to promote better overall health.
Ferrets that are fed unsuitable diets are also more likely to develop skin disease, bladder stones, gastroenteritis and experience poor growth and dental disease. Ferret teeth are also designed for cutting and tearing meat, so large, hard biscuits and soft canned foods can also accelerate dental disease.
Whole prey diets
Ideally a ferret should be fed a variety of different whole carcasses, such as a whole baby chicken, mice or rat. In Australia, as with many other countries, it is illegal to feed live prey to pets. So, as is the case with pet snakes, these are usually supplied humanely killed and frozen.
Understandably some owners are reluctant to feed such food and prefer their meat to look less like the animal it came from. If you do decide to feed a formulated diet, try to feed some meat (vary the meat if possible) and raw egg occasionally.
Raw meat diets
Feeding ferrets raw meaty bones on a regular basis is ideal. Usually ferrets would eat the entire animal, including bones, fur and stomach contents, however, meat off the bone is a good start.
You can easily supplement a raw meat diet with some formulated ferret or kitten food to make up for any nutritional deficiencies. However if you feel you up too it, a basic balanced diet includes 10-15% bone matter, 5% kidneys/lungs/brain, 5% liver, 25% heart and the rest muscle meats. Dont bother cutting fat off ingredients. If raw feeding you also want to provide your ferrets from a range of species (kangaroo, poultry, lamb, cattle and more). This helps to ensure balance as well as ensures your ferret doesn’t imprint on one meat type.
When raw feeding many owners make their own balanced raw mince. Some owners choose to mince at home, however many food processors and abbatoirs have access to industrial mincers. Many of these places are quite approchable and not only can you get a) human grade meats/off cuts and b) have it finely minced for you you can also save A LOT of time and money!
As a rough guide a raw fed ferret will eat 10% of its body weight every day, however many owners will notice their ferrets eat less in summer (and slim down) and fatten up in winter. The best advice to a novice raw feeder is to routinely weight their ferret, if it starts to get too fat you may need to reduce their fat content of the diet or restrict your ferret’s food. If its too skinny you may need to increase fat content!
Feeding raw meat daily in golf ball sized lumps helps ferrets keep their teeth clean and healthy. You should try to avoid so-called ‘fresh’ meat diets in the pet food section of your pet shop, as these can contain dangerous sulphur preservatives which are banned from human meats for obvious reasons, but are allowed in our pet foods. These diets are also usually minced, so do not have the dental benefits of raw meaty bones.
There are a number of pre-packaged ferret diets that provide for the nutritional needs of your ferret, without having to feed whole prey. Ideally 32-40% should be animal protein and 20% should be fat on a caloric basis.
You should also look for packaged diets minimal amounts of soy and corn or other plant fillers that are used to bump up the protein content (but in a form ferrets can’t utilise) and act to bind the food. If you choose to stick to a formulated diet you ideally want to find mixes which provide less than 5% plant matter. One of the better commercial diets is Vetafarm, however, if you are looking for the ideal raw diet it is hard to go past Wysong.
Alternative diets: Premium kitten food
If you can’t access, afford or otherwise use the specialised ferret diets, the next best thing is good quality kitten food. Make sure it is a premium kitten food and not adult cat food. However, this should really be used as a last resort.
Use a good quality brand such as Hills Science Diet or Iams and get used to looking at ingredient labels to ensure meat is the first ingredient and there is minimal corn or other fillers. Add in treats as required or a tablespoon of good quality meat based soft kitten food and some raw meaty bones such as chicken necks.
Treats should not make up more than 10% of the total daily caloric intake of your ferret. Avoid vegetables and fruits and certainly no more than 1 teaspoon per day of these carbohydrates.
Cooked or raw egg and chicken pieces make excellent treats. You can also use liver treats that have been softened in hot water. Avoid any hard vegetables such as raw carrots as they can be a cause of intestinal obstruction.
There are products on the market such as ferretone, ferretvite and similar. These should be avoided! The versions that arent carbohydrate insulinoma bombs often contain carcinogenic ingredients! If you want a similar treat its hard to go past some salmon oil.
Ferrets tend to imprint on certain foods so its important to start on a correct diet early and keep them used to a variety of flavor!
It’s not uncommon for heavily imprinted ferrets to starve themselves rather than eat something healthy! If you wouldn’t let a human child get away with eating fast food 24/7 then a ferret shouldnt defeat you!Introduce raw meaty bones, various different types of meat, raw and cooked egg, kitten dry food and perhaps even a very small amount of pureed meat baby food, which may need to be given as a recovery formula during illness later on.
What if my ferret refuses healthy food?
If your ferret is currently eating large amounts of carbohydrates or biscuits and is reluctant to make the switch, you may need to do a very gradual transition over to a more appropriate diet by slowly mixing in a little more every day. You can also try pouring a little salt reduced stock or fish oil on their new food to tempt them.
Like most animals sometimes it is up to you as the owner to ensure they make healthy choices, rather than eating the ferret equivalent of ‘junk’ food. Give enough of the previous food to avoid starvation, take it away four hours before giving them a meal you want them to eat, and stay strong until your ferret makes the switch!
You may be able to tempt your ferret into to eating raw meat and whole prey by warming it slightly to body temperature. Place the meat in a plastic bag and rest it in hot water for around 20 minutes. For a real biscuit fiend, try grinding up the biscuits in a coffee grinder or with a mortar and pestle to make a powder that can be sprinkled on other foods.
While ferrets like humans will often make unhealthy food choices for themselves, it is up to us as their guardians to ensure they are eating food that will keep them in good condition. A slightly higher outlay for a specialised ferret diet will keep your ferret from needing costly dental care or developing preventable diseases, so will be cheaper in the long run.
Whatever diet you choose, whether it be a formulated ferret diet or kitten biscuits, please consider feeding some raw meaty bones or whole prey for dental health. Ideally, get your freezer stocked with some whole baby chicks and mice and just feed these instead of the processed foods.