home : 2. ferret care : diet & teeth
diet & teeth
What do I feed them?
PRINCIPLE: Feed as closely to what they would eat in the wild as you can.
GREAT: A variety of whole prey & meaty bones. Mice, rats, day old chicks, quail, rabbit, chicken.
GOOD: A variety of small raw meaty bones and a small portion of organs (around 5-10%).
Necks, wings, thighs, breast with bone-in, drumsticks, ribs, liver, kidneys, brain, heart, etc; from quail, rabbit, chicken, turkey (even beef, mutton and pork occasionally for variety).
Provide as much variety as possible, so that many parts are provided over time.
Include the bone whenever possible, and keep items WHOLE and LARGE (golfball size), so the ferret has to rip, tear & crunch through the food.
If small prey is not available (mice, chicks, etc), edible bone from other sources should be provided, as most rabbit & chicken bones are too large to be completely edible. Chicken frames (cut into manageable pieces), or quail meaty bones provide edible bone.
NOT HEALTHY: Processed foods (biscuits & canned) and meat alone (mince or chopped up pieces).
What are ferrets designed to eat?
Ferrets are carnivores, which means that they are designed to eat whole carcasses of a variety of whole small mammals, birds, amphibians and occasional insects.
Carnivore should actually be translated as "carcass eater" not "meat eater", as muscle meat alone is not a balanced diet.
Providing a diet as close to what the ferret would eat in the wild, is the best diet you can provide. Availability and cost will affect how close you can get to this ideal, so strive for as close as you can, and always be on the look out for suitable foods.
Keeping as close to what the ferret would eat in the wild as possible:
* provides the perfect balance of ingredients - proteins, fats, vitamins, and minerals
* provides it in the right form - whole!
* means food will act as the toothbrush, toothpaste and floss for your ferret.
* Food should be provided in large enough parts (golf ball size) so that each piece requires ripping and tearing by the ferret. This way, the food cleans teeth and gums, promotes good oral health, provides stimulation and enjoyment, and works jaw and neck muscles.
(click photos to view large)
L-R: Absolute with a mouse, Squirt with a mouse, and Tyson with a rabbit meaty bone.
Whole prey gives the additional benefits of fur, heads, and other interesting parts, and provides it in an easy-to-feed complete little package!
Providing lots of variety in sources (mice, chicks, chicken, rabbit, turkey, quail, etc) and different parts (necks, wings, thighs, frames, etc) means your ferret is receiving an interesting diet, and a great balance over time.
Sources and buying tips
Frozen mice, rats and chicks are usually available from reptile pet shops, or can be ordered through various online shops around Australia. Chicks are also available from most hatcheries (male chicks are humanely dispatched).
Rabbit and chicken from the supermarket or butcher are also excellent, and can be given in manageable pieces (ie parts of prey such as chicken wings, chicken necks, rabbit leg, chicken liver, etc).
Chicken wings can be divided into 3 pieces by dissecting along the bone joint. Turkey wings can be split in half lengthways.
Quail and turkey parts are available from some supermarkets, or can be ordered in by most butchers.
Rabbit, chicken and quail can also be obtained from local breeders. Contact "meat rabbit breeders", or "quail breeders" in your area.
As ferrets need fat for energy, try to avoid overly lean parts, however too much fat will make your ferret overweight.
Most "pet meats" & "pet minces" available from butchers and supermarkets are not suitable, as the chunks of meat are too small.
Fresh, whole foods are healthier than processed foods for all living creatures - including humans and ferrets!
Processed foods (dry biscuits and canned) contain less-than-ideal ingredients, and do not clean teeth. If a carnivore's teeth are not cleaned on a very regular basis, periodontal disease is the result. Today, the majority of pet dogs, cats and ferrets have periodontal disease - the result of consuming processed foods which fail to clean their teeth.
Periodontal disease (also called "dental disease" or "mouth rot") destroys the tissue and bone which supports teeth, leading to tooth loss; and introduces bacteria directly into the blood stream. Heart, kidney, spleen, gastrointestinal, pancreas, and liver disease are commonly associated with periodontal disease in many species, including humans and ferrets.
Bad breath, plaque, calculus, red inflamed gums, and gum recession (teeth appear longer) are all signs of periodontal disease.
It is a common misconception that dry biscuits clean teeth because they are crunchy - this is not true. Biscuits not only fail to clean teeth & gums, but can also damage teeth due to constant wear from their hard and abrasive nature.
The Australian Dental Association advises "The increased consumption of highly processed foods containing carbohydrates (eg sugars) and in particular, the regular snacking on these types of foods exposes teeth to an increased risk of dental disease."
Processed foods (dry biscuits & canned) - even premium brands - also contain too many carbohydrates (roughly 20-25%) - ferrets have a carbohydrate requirement of ZERO. Consuming more carbohydrates than they are designed for, can overstimulate the pancreas, which is thought to lead to the development of insulinoma (the opposite of diabetes). A safe level of carbohydrate consumption is not known.
We do not recommend feeding your ferret any processed foods, including canned or biscuits.
These ferrets were fed premium biscuits and small chunks of meat, but switched to whole prey & parts of prey after their dental procedures, to ensure future good dental health. They had 5 teeth removed.
How do I store / feed these foods?
Foods can be put into freezer bags in meal-sized portions, then frozen. Defrost one or two meal-sized bags at a time, either overnight in the fridge, or in several hours on the counter or draining board.
A different food can be given each day, eg: Monday: chicks, Tuesday: chicken necks, Wednesday: adult mice, Thursday: rabbit leg & small piece of chicken liver, Friday: small mice, Saturday: quail drumsticks, Sunday: large chunks of beef, chicken wing segments.
Ferrets instinctively hoard food into small, dark spaces, so if you provide somewhere for them to do this, they will choose this spot instead of hoarding food under the couch or into the wardrobe.
An open travel carrier, a plastic crate or cardboard box with a hole cut in the side are all great "hoarding spots".
Provide enough food to last about 12 hours (or whatever fits your schedule), and check that their bowl and regular "hoard spots" are empty before putting down more food.
Flies can be a problem for a period during summer, for both your and your ferret's fresh food. If your ferrets are inside, ensuring doors are kept closed and flyscreens are secure is usually effective; if your ferrets are outside, an area protected by flyscreen may be useful.
L-R: Chicken wings, turkey wings, chicken necks, heart (lamb), kidney (lamb)
Can I just feed these foods sometimes, and continue feeding biscuits?
The foods that we recommend are not effective if only given sometimes. Wild carnivores get their teeth cleaned with every meal, so we recommend getting as close to this as possible, by feeding whole, fresh foods at every meal.
If "teeth cleaning foods" are fed only as part of the diet, they are not effective in keeping the animal's teeth and gums clean. Similar to if your dentist recommended that you only brush your teeth once a week.
It is not known what percentage of the diet needs to be "teeth cleaning" foods in order to prevent periodontal disease, so we recommend feeding only "teeth cleaning foods" to be sure.
How do I get my ferret to accept new foods?
If your ferret is old or sick, they should not be fasted for a long period.
* Take away all other foods, and put down just the new item (eg mouse or chick). Most ferrets will accept the new food and eat it when they are hungry. Many owners will want to give in and provide their regular food, however persistence is the key!
If your ferret has not eaten the new food within 24 hours, your ferret is particularly stubborn, and you should try other methods.
If you have any questions about diet, or how to get your ferret to accept new foods, email us or phone on 0428 7466 20.
* Many ferrets find mice and chicks less intimidating than items such as chicken wings, so try these first. Start with small mice, and work up to adults.
* Hand feed your ferret small pieces of meat (eg chicken), and slowly work your way up to larger pieces, then eventually whole pieces such as chicken necks.
* Food can be warmed up by placing in a plastic bag, then placing the bag in a bowl of warm water. Warm foods smell more, hence are more appealing than cold foods. Never use the microwave to defrost or warm foods.
* Try spreading something which you know they love (such as Nutripet, butter or beaten whole egg) over the new item, so that they will lick it and realise the food underneath is also edible.
* For the very stubborn ferret, or "biscuit addict", grind up biscuits and mix them with mince meat. Slowly add less biscuits, and more meat, then work up to small chunks of meat, then larger chunks of meat, then whole pieces.
Fresh water should be available at all times in a heavy non-tippable dish. Water bottles are not recommended as they can become blocked.
If you are providing a varied and interesting diet, where your ferret enjoys every meal, treats aren't really necessary. However they can be useful for training and bonding, so here are a few tips:
* animal based products are much more appropriate for ferrets than grain, fruit, vegetable or dairy products
* keep treats to a minimum, as even a few treats a day can replace a large portion of their daily intake, as they are a small animal and don't eat large amounts each day
* whole raw eggs are loved by most ferrets
* insects such as crickets and mealworms are a nutritious treat, available from most reptile pet shops
* dehydrated liver is great, just soak in water to rehydrate first (dehydrated products can cause blockages)
* most ferrets love nutripet and other vitamin supplements, but use these sparingly to avoid vitamin overdose
While ferrets are recovering from an illness, they may be temporarily unable to eat their normal diet.
* Some will manage on smaller pieces of their regular diet, such as baby/small mice, cut up meaty bones, and smaller chunks of meat. Try to avoid giving your other ferret/s access to these smaller pieces, as they will choose the "easier" option rather than their regular larger items.
Once the ill ferret begins to recover, you can gradually work back up to their regular diet of larger pieces.
* If your ferret is very ill, they may need to be fed a liquid diet. Their normal diet (including bones) can be blended into a paste or soup, and fed every few hours by spoon or feeding syringe.
As this diet will not clean their teeth & gums, it may be necessary to brush your ferret's teeth with a toothbrush until they are well. As soon as your ferret is able to eat on his/her own, they should be returned to their regular diet.
Dental disease is the most common illness in ferrets, and affects the whole body. Keeping their teeth clean is one of the most important things you can do to keep them healthy.
If your ferret has slight to moderate calculus build-up, changing to a diet which will clean his/her teeth (recommendations are above) will probably clean most of it away.
If your ferret has severe periodontal disease: bad breath, loose teeth, red, inflamed gums or any other serious problem, a visit to the vet will be in order.
Teeth will be cleaned under anesthetic, and any compromised teeth will be removed.
For several days or more after the procedure, it may be necessary to feed smaller items while the gums heal. It is important that they are worked up to large items as soon as possible to keep the gums and any remaining teeth clean, preventing any further disease.
If your ferret has most or all of their teeth removed, they will probably need to be given a liquified diet for the remainder of his/her life. They should also be encouraged to work on larger items as often as possible to encourage good "mouth health".
* Pastas, bread, pet food (biscuits and canned), and other foods containing carbohydrates
* Confectionery, dried fruits, and other foods high in sugar
* Mince meat or small pieces of meat, which don't require ripping and tearing, hence do not clean teeth.
* Dogs, cat and ferrets are all designed to eat raw bones, however DRY-COOKED bones and extremely hard, large bones (such as cow legs) should be avoided.
* Raw hide chews, dehydrated pig ears, nuts, etc
* Small pieces of raw or cooked fruit / vegetables (such as peas) as they don't have time to digest and may cause intestinal blockage. It has been suggested that sultanas can cause renal failure, we suggest avoiding them altogether.
* Ferrets are lactose intolerant, so dairy products like milk and cheese can cause diarrhea. Milk also contains more sugar than both fat or protein. Lactose-free milk can be given sparingly as a treat.
Written by Shona Whaite
Ferret Society of Canberra
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