A couple of years ago, a friend's then 11 year-old son found out that we had owned a ferret as a pet, and asked me to tell him all about ferrets. This was email written to him.
Ferrets are cool pets. My wife gave me a female sable (that's a color type) ferret for Christmas many years ago. I named her Sasha.
My observations and comments about ferret behaviors and characteristics are based upon having Sasha as a pet. I also read a few books about ferrets - there are plenty of books available in pet stores (even here in California, where they are not legal to have as pets).
Ferrets are weasels - I guess you probably know that. Other members of the mustelidae family include minks, skunks, wolverines, otters and badgers. Though ferrets are among the smaller mustelids (males of the domesticated species rarely reach 4 pounds, females typically don't exceed 2 pounds), they share a lot of characteristics with their family members:
THEY ARE CARNIVORES - They might look like the other small animals in pet stores (rabbits, chinchillas, rats, hamsters, gerbils), but all those animals are strictly vegetarians. Ferrets in the wild eat most of those other animals that pet stores sell. Ferrets have been used to hunt rabbits for humans, who send them down into rabbit warrens on long cords, then drag the ferret out with a rabbit in its mouth (which weighs twice as much as the ferret). Commercial ferret food, unlike rabbit, hamster, etc., is made of animal meat - like cat food. In fact, there tends to be more animal protein in ferret food than cat foot. Ferrets can and will eat cat food (and I fed some cat food to Sasha), but ferret experts typically suggest that you stick to the higher-protein foods custom-made for pet ferrets.
THEY ARE FEARLESS - I've seen film of a 30-pound wolverine chasing away a 250-pound black bear. Ferrets can be like this - they seem to have no sense of being smaller than other creatures. Sasha used to play with a cat of mine that was over twice her size, and they ran and wrestled and had a great time. Domestic ferrets aren't usually too aggressive to handle - they can actually be a bit affectionate (more about this in a minute), but they can and do bite, though I've never been injured by a ferret's biting.
THEY ARE HYPERACTIVE - Ferrets don't stop moving unless they're asleep. They're not like cats - they can't really focus their attention on one thing for a long time. A cat can watch a bird out a window for minutes - stalking it. Ferrets don't work like that. When we put Sasha in a room with an unfamiliar cat, the cat would hunker down on the floor and watch the ferret without even blinking, following it around the room, and not sure what to make of it. Sasha constantly moved around the new room, poking her head into every crack and crevice, climbing under every chair, table, sofa, etc. At the point where Sasha noticed the cat, she paused for maybe three seconds - then she kept on going. Eventually, she walked right up to the cat. The cat kind of arched it back, not quite sure whether to run or fight. Sasha just walked right up toward the cat. When she got six inches away, the cat whacked her on the top of her head with her paw. Sasha backed up about a foot and blinked a few times, then just tended to walk in a bigger circle around the cat from then on.
THEY ARE CURIOUS - On the Christmas morning I got Sasha, I put a cardboard tube from wrapping paper on the floor near Sasha (who was probably only 3 or 4 months old). When she noticed the end of it, she immediately walked through to the other end. When she popped out, she looked around until she noticed that end of the tube, then she went through again. She would do this almost indefinitely, until I removed the tube. I think you could do this to many adult ferrets, and they couldn't resist going through - it's how they hunt in the wild, so it's an instinctive trait, but it represents how they are inquisitive about their environment. I remember reading an article 25 years ago about scientists at a Particle Accelerator facility sending a ferret through the tiny tubular core of their miles-long underground loop to make sure there were no obstructions before they fired a high-energy stream of subatomic particles through it. The ferret would happily walk through the long tube until it popped out the other end of the giant loop.
THEY ARE TOUGH - Sasha was about the size of a small sock. But I stepped on her with pretty much my whole weight at least once, and it didn't seem to matter. She kind of squeaked (probably just the air getting forced out of her lungs), but was none the worse for wear. On more than one occasion, she fell from the second floor down onto the hardwood stairs below (she was always poking around between the railing around the stairwell) - but she'd just kind a blink a few times, and start running up and down the stairs again.
THEY ARE INTELLIGENT - Very much unlike all those rodents and Leporida (the family name of rabbits) in pet stores, these are pretty clever animals. They are hunters, remember, so they tend to need skills which exceed those of their prey.
IS A FERRET A GOOD PET? - This depends upon what you want out of a pet. Sasha wasn't exactly capable of affection - certainly nothing like the devotion of a dog, and not like the mutual affection which a cat can provide. But they do know who you are, and will come when you call. Sasha understood when she was being told not to do something - she'd stop, whine a little, then go do something else. We handled her a lot, and she was very patient about it, and I think she even liked it, if only because it was less boring than nothing. She'd always come to see what we wanted if we called her, and on rare occasions, she'd fall asleep in your lap. It's pretty cool to have any animal trust you like that.
Ferrets probably aren't really to happy being kept in a cage. If they were out in the wild, I think they'd travel miles every day on their short little legs. This means you have to give them a lot of attention - more than a dog or cat. I actually let Sasha run around on her own in one of my houses while I was home. Keep in mind that keeping a ferret contained is really tricky. I used to find Sasha in our hall linen closet, with the door closed. The first couple of times, I thought she'd run in while the door was open. Then I began to wonder. The gap under the closet door was maybe 3/4" of an inch high. Sasha was about 2" in diameter. So one day, I got in the closet, and called to her. First, she scratched at the floor, and whined a little. I called her again. She scratched some more. Then, I started to see her nose under the door. For about 20 seconds, she squashed herself under the door, squishing her body so it looked like a half-full water balloon, until she was inside the closet with me. The moral of that story is - you'd better be very careful about the space in which you think you can enclose your ferret. If the hole around the pipes under your bathroom sink have a 3/4" gap - a ferret might give that a shot.
Sasha had a great time with our cat Sonja. Sonja came into our household when she was just a 4 month old kitten, and pretty soon Sonja and Sasha were racing all over the house together. Sonja would run sideways along the back of an old sofa (in our bachelors' pad house) and leap across the furniture - Sasha could get to almost any place Sonja went by climbing or falling. They'd start to wrestle and bite at each other sometimes. Sonja could bite Sasha anywhere, and Sasha never seemed to care much. But occasionally we'd hear Sonja meowing, and see that Sasha had her cheek or ear or something in a vice-like grip. They loved playing rough, and never seemed to take anything personally.
Ferrets will use a litter box. This is great, and a pretty important factor that makes them potential pets. But Sasha wasn't above using a convenient corner if she was a long way from her box, so be warned if you leave a ferret unsupervised for any period of time.
Some people carry ferrets with them in public, in pocketbooks and handbags, and in custom-made ferret carriers that you wear like a chest-pack. So some ferrets are "tame" enough to be in that kind of hostile environment (some cats couldn't deal with this, for instance).
Ferrets have a strong, sweet, musky odor (remember, they're related to skunks). Domesticated male ferrets typically have some scent glands surgically removed when they are young (all pet store ferrets will have been neutered and de-scented), but they still have strong scent. My wife and I didn't mind it - it's actually kind of interesting. But you might want to test-smell a ferret before you decide to keep one as a pet. They're not so smelly that you can smell one at a distance - you pretty much have to hold them up to your nose, but you can do this in a pet store.
Ferrets can be more destructive to personal belongings that you might think. Sasha loved rubber things: she'd drag a video camera tripod (which weighs about 10 pounds - she weighed 1.5 pounds) all over the house by a rubber ring around part of the center post. She ate about 1/4 of a Nerf football over a year or two's time (it showed back up, sort of, in her litter box). She'd steal and chew up the insoles out of my roommate's running shoes, and chew through the end of his dirty socks (the smellier the better) until she came out the other end. So they need some supervision. We were just bachelors living in a mostly empty house, so we weren't too concerned (though my roommate didn't really like having to replace his insoles and socks all the time).
Sasha was a good pet. We had her until she passed away when she was eight years old. Ferrets can live longer - usually 10-12 years, and sometimes more, but Sasha also contracted feline leukemia from a feline leukemia vaccination when she was young. She wasn't expected to live - the disease is almost 100 per cent fatal to ferrets. But she survived, and was a great curiosity to North Carolina veterinarians. We suspect that might have shortened her life a bit.
Ferrets are legal in every state of the U.S. except California and Hawaii (as of the end of 2007). I'm not sure what these states' real objections are, but I think the fact that California is a huge state with enormous agricultural business and Hawaii has such a small ecosystem makes them sensitive to altering their ecological balance. There are certainly plenty of examples where man has introduced a species of plant or animal to a new environment with disastrous results. So far, pet ferrets have not created a significant ecological problem. Despite this, pro-ferret organizations in California claim that hundreds of thousands of families in the state own ferrets as pets. We've had many people in California pet stores say that if we wanted a ferret, they knew who to call, and several years ago, all the major pet store chains in California started carrying ferret supplies - even though ferrets are illegal in California. They continue to campaign to state government to legalize pet ferrets here.
Ferrets can be interesting pets, but require a bit more attention than dogs or cats, and should be appreciated as being far higher-order mammals than rodents and rabbits. Perhaps a ferret would be a good pet for you.