Selecting A Healthy Diet for Your Ferrets

For many years, ferret owners had to make do with only kitten foods for their ferrets. Due to the rising popularity of our little fuzzies, there are now many high quality foods available. But what food is best for your ferret? There are certain things you should know before choosing one kind or another.

First, ferrets are carnivores – this means they need a diet that’s very high in animal protein. Ferrets cannot process vegetable protein because they lack a cecum (where fiber is digested), so vegetables are nutritionally useless to them. Too much fiber in the diet can lead to a very sick, malnourished ferret. Keep this in mind when you choose a diet, and find one where three or four out of the first six ingredients are meat. Avoid foods where the first ingredient is listed as corn meal or other plant material.

Second, ferrets have a very short digestion period – the time when the food enters the body until the food exits is only a few hours. Therefore, it is very important to make sure you choose a food that is high enough in protein and fat, so your fuzzy can get the most nutrients and nourishment out of the food he eats. The diet you choose should contain no less than 34% animal protein and no less than 20% fat.

Third, ferrets tend to imprint on the food they are fed – this means that if that food becomes unavailable, you might have one very hungry and stubborn fuzzy on your hands! It is best to feed your ferrets at least two foods in their daily diet.

Having said that, there are some kitten foods out there that are okay to feed your ferret. However, they should only be fed in conjunction with actual ferret diets, and be sure to read the ingredient listing carefully to make sure it has the proper nutrients.

So how can you tell if your ferret is getting the proper nutrition and the diet you have chosen is the right one? Healthy ferrets have soft and shiny fur, bright clear eyes, supple skin, and normal feces. Feces that aren’t normal include the following:

  • Weird color – yellowish, greenish, dark brown almost black
  • Very strong smell
  • Wrong consistency – ferret feces should be firm. If they are very squishy, mucousy, or liquidy, this is a sign that something – either diet or health related – is wrong.

If you do need to switch your ferret’s food, do so gradually. Switching them too quickly can result in stomach problems and diarrhea. Also, as mentioned before, ferrets imprint on the food they are used to, so you will need to slowly switch them over to a new food so they continue to eat. You can do this by adding only a small amount of the new food to your ferret’s current diet. Gradually increase the ratio of new food to old food over a period of 10 to 14 days. This method works quite well with most ferrets, and allows your ferret to get used to the new food at his or her own pace.

Ferret owners are very lucky that we have so many different foods to choose from, but just because there are a lot of choices now doesn’t mean that all ferret foods are created equal! Remember, when you’re choosing a food, compare ingredient listings, look for the animal protein sources, and avoid foods high in fiber and vegetable protein.

Which Treats Are Best?

Choosing the proper treats for your ferret is just as important as choosing the best diet. While ferrets should only be given treats in moderation, it is still important to make sure that the treats you choose are healthy and have nutritional value.

Ferret treats should be chosen in much the same way that we choose their diets – you want treats that are high in animal protein and low in sugar. Ferret diets and treats that are high in sugar are thought to be a leading factor of insulinoma in ferrets. Some treats can also aggravate the condition of chronic bowel or irritable bowel disease. Treats that are best for your ferret’s health include meat and chicken based treats.

Some people give their ferrets their regular kibble out of their hand – many ferrets will view this as a treat since they are taking it from your hand, and it has the advantage of keeping them on a fairly strict diet. It is also a good way to acclimate them to a new food.

Avoid giving your ferrets the following treats no matter how much they beg!

  • Alcohol and other high-sugar drinks
  • Coffee, tea products, and any other caffeine drinks
  • Dairy products – they can cause diarrhea
  • Seeds & nuts – they are indigestible and can cause blockages
  • Chocolate
  • Sugary foods, such as candy
  • Salty foods
  • Raw egg whites – they contain a substance that can cause anemia in ferrets
  • Processed meats – yes, they are meats, but they also contain a lot of salt and additives.
  • Uncooked vegetables – they can get lodged in the intestinal tract.

A small taste of one the items listed above is not going to kill your ferret, and even good treats can be bad if given in mass quantities. Find healthy treats that are low in sugar to satisfy your ferret’s treat needs, and give them to your ferret sparingly. No matter what treats you feed your ferret, moderation and common sense are the key to a healthy and happy fuzzy!

The Sugar Factor

There are many schools of thought as to what is the best diet for a ferret, what treats are the best for ferrets, where treats fit into a ferret diet, but out of all of these opinions and practices, there is one absolute: sugar and other carbohydrates in high doses are not good for ferrets!

Ferrets’ bodies are designed to process animal proteins, and both their diets and treats should be high in protein and low in sugars and carbs. They are carnivores, and you wouldn’t find them munching on sugary treats in the wild! Feeding ferrets sugary treats and food will actually leave you with an undernourished, lethargic ferret, as sugar and other sweets have no nutritional value for them. Too many sugary treats will fill them up with empty calories, causing them to eat less of their kibble and other nutritious foods. For a generally healthy, happy and active ferret, it is best to feed them high protein, meat based treats and food.

The following is a list of treats that should only be given to ferrets in very strict moderation:

  • Yogurt treats
  • Fruit treats
  • Peanut butter treats
  • Nonacidic Fruits – melons, banana, apples, papaya
  • Low salt & low sugar cereals

We all know that certain cereals are a favorite treat of fuzzies everywhere, and although they contain sugar, they are acceptable in strict moderation – such as once or twice a month. Kim Schilling, author of Ferrets for Dummies, suggests that two good cereals are Cheerios and Kix.

Besides the general lethargy and undernourishment that comes from a diet high in sugar, there are other health problems that have been tentatively linked to it. Ferrets are very prone to a disease called Insulinoma; it is one of the most prevalent forms of cancer diagnosed in ferrets. Feeding ferrets food and treats that are high in sugar and carbohydrates has not as of yet been proven to cause Insulinoma. However, many people believe that the high levels of sugar cause an increase in the level of glucose production, which leads to constant production of insulin. This is similar to the effects of Insulinoma – a ferret with Insulinoma has tumors of the insulin-secreting pancreatic cells, which cause the pancreas to overproduce insulin. Since a ferret’s pancreas works to release insulin as it is needed to regulate blood sugar levels, this causes rapid drops in blood sugar. While this disease is treatable to an extent, it definitely requires a reassessment of your ferret’s diet and lifestyle, as things that trigger symptoms include exercise, stress and diet. For these Insulinomic ferrets, it is vital that they are given food and treats very high in protein.

It is important that all ferrets – sick or healthy – are provided with the proper food and treats they need to live a long, healthy & happy lifestyle. While treats that contain sugar can be given, it should only be in strict moderation, and only in conjunction with a diet high in protein.