Feeding your ferret is not at all like feeding a dog or a cat. There are fewer options available and some specialised dietary requirements. Get it right and you will have a healthy and happy companion with less likelihood of illness and expensive Vet bills.
Ferrets are true carnivores. They were bred for hunting and are designed to eat freshly killed small whole animals. 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. In fact, Ferrets are unable to digest plant fibres at all, so unlike most domesticated species fibre does not benefit them.
Ferrets’ digestive systems are also comparatively short, with a transit time of only 3-4 hours (from mouth to faeces production). This means 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?
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.
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.
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.