Ferret dietary needs
There are two key facts to understand when you are planning a diet for your ferrets:
- They are obligate carnivores – they must eat meat.
- A ferret has slightly more than half the length of intestine of a cat the same size. Food passes though the mouth, stomach, intestines very quickly – sometimes in only 3 hours! Add to this their high metabolic rate, and ferrets require food all the time they are awake; they have to eat around 8 to 10 small meals daily.
Ferrets require a higher protein diet than most animals, probably owing to the inefficiency of their digestive process and the need for certain (essential) amino acids in their diet.
Their main source of energy should be fat; when fat is metabolised, it releases twice as much energy as either carbohydrates or protein.
Their simple gut and rapid passage time through the gastrointestinal tract does not allow a ferret to make as much use of complex carbohydrates as other species. Diets high in carbohydrates and fibre (such as plant-based diets, dog food, and some cat foods) will be deficient in both protein and energy for ferrets. Plant-derived foods, particularly plant-based proteins, are not well utilised by ferrets and should not be the basis for a ferret’s diet as this could have significant negative impacts on their health. To make sure that you are feeding your ferrets a commercial food with the animal protein they require, check that the first 3 to 5 ingredients on the label are animal- not plant- derived, as ingredients are listed on pet food packaging in the order of how much is included with the highest amount listed first.
Healthy ferrets at maintenance (e.g., not growing or pregnant etc.) are reported to require about 200 to 300 kcals/kg of body weight per day. This energy requirement requires them to eat a significant amount of food and food should be available all day so your ferrets can eat whenever they are hungry. Note that ferrets who are growing, pregnant, or lactating jills (female ferrets) can require triple the energy requirements compared to ferret maintenance needs.
The nutritional requirements of a desexed adult pet ferret at maintenance can be met by allowing them constant access to clean, fresh drinking water and a palatable, formulated commercial complete balanced ferret food containing 30-40% high quality animal protein, 15-20% fat (a protein to fat ratio of 2:1), low fibre (<3%), a calcium‐to‐phosphorus ratio of 1.5:1, and appropriate calorie density.
Although a high-quality commercial ferret diet should form the basis for your ferret’s diet to meet their nutrition requirements, it is suggested that ferrets are given the opportunity to eat a combination of canned, extruded or pelleted foods, freeze-dried/fresh, and whole prey foods (e.g., thawed humanely killed frozen rats, mice, or day-old chicks [available from pet shops]). This helps to balance their needs (e.g., specific nutrient requirements, dental health, mental needs) with other considerations like logistics (e.g., storage, availability, shelf life), price, and the potential health risks associated with microbiological contamination of raw meat products (mostly a concern for the humans preparing the diet). It is not easy to balance all of the competing considerations, so it is important to talk to your ferret-savvy veterinarian for advice on suitable commercially available ferret diets, other dietary components, and what your ferret’s dietary needs are based on their life stage and health, and how much to feed them.
Feeding your ferrets a variety of food with different tastes, textures, and smells when they are young will also help with any necessary dietary transitions later in life (which can be challenging if your ferret is used to eating just one thing and does not want to change!). It is worth noting that ferrets do not seem to like fish-based diets very much and tend to prefer chicken-based diets.
It is normal for ferrets to eat more food in the winter (30-40% more!) and gain some weight which they then shed in the spring. It is important to monitor your ferrets’ weight, and this will help you to understand their seasonal weight gain/loss pattern over time which will in turn assist you in identifying if there is any abnormal weight loss or gain.
If absolutely necessary, while you source an appropriate ferret specific diet, in the short term, you can feed your ferrets a high-quality commercial kitten food. (Note that this is a very short-term stopgap only – no more than a few days while you source a true ferret diet.)
Lower density diets (such as dog and cat food) should not be fed to ferrets, as these diets have more carbohydrates and less protein than a ferret needs and are associated with poor growth and greater susceptibility to diseases in ferrets.
Your ferret’s dietary requirements may change with different life stages – growing, pregnancy, ageing, etc. Ferrets are generally considered young and growing until 1 year of age and are considered senior or geriatric at 3 to 4 years of age. Seek advice from your ferret savvy veterinarian on how best to manage these different life stages and events.
Remember that, as with all animals, a change in diet must be done gradually. Abrupt changes can trigger gastrointestinal upsets such as vomiting and diarrhoea, or your ferrets may refuse to eat the new food.
What other foods can I give my ferrets?
If your ferrets are healthy and eating a high-quality diet, treats and supplements are not necessary from a nutritional standpoint. However, these can help to provide your ferret with nutritional enrichment and variety. If you do feed any treats/supplements, these should not make up more than 10% of your ferrets’ required daily calories.
Treats chosen should be similar in composition to the rest of a ferret’s diet – high in protein and fat, low in fibre, be made of mostly animal-derived ingredients, and plant-based ingredients should be avoided including starchy vegetables and fruits.
Examples of suitable treats that can be fed to ferrets, in small amounts, include:
- Cooked egg
- Bits of chicken, turkey, or lamb
- Raw beef or lamb
- Raw meaty bones
- Homemade treats made using suitable ingredients like those above
- Whole prey items (e.g., thawed humanely killed frozen rats, mice, or day-old chicks which are available from quality pet shops with ferret supplies).
Please note that handling raw meat and bones does pose a health risk to both you and your ferrets through microbiological contamination of food. The types of bacteria and parasites found in meat can cause disease in humans, as well as animals. Only feed very fresh meat and bones, or just thawed. Uneaten food must be removed at the end of the day and disposed of, and their dishes cleaned thoroughly. If feeding any raw meat including bones, to protect yourself it is important to thoroughly clean hands and any surfaces the meat has touched; bag and bin animal waste that follows a raw meat meal and wash your hands with soap after its disposal.
Where possible it is recommended that you choose only human-grade raw meat and avoid raw meat products marketed as pet food (pet meat/pet mince/pet rolls and bone products).
DO NOT feed grains, vegetables, starchy foods, fruit, sugary foods, ice cream or other sweet foods or chocolate to your ferrets. Even though your ferrets may like the taste, fruit and other sugary foods are not appropriate for ferrets as they can cause digestive upset and unhealthy shifts in blood sugar. In addition, ferrets may prefer fruit to other healthier foods and not eat what they need which is detrimental to their health and wellbeing.
Monitor your ferrets to ensure that each ferret in a group is individually getting enough food (some may eat more than their share and others less).
Provide several food bowls so that each ferret can eat without competition. Monitor your ferrets’ body condition to make sure you know if any are becoming underweight (not getting their fair share of the food), or overweight (getting more than their fair share of the food!).
Handy hint: Watch to see what your ferret eats first when given a selection of healthy foods. The one that is eaten first is your ferret’s favourite food and can be used a treat or reward when training them, or as an incentive to forage for their food!
Bullen LE (2021) Nutrition for Pocket Pets (Ferrets, Rabbits, and Rodents). Veterinary Clinics of North America – Small Animal Practice 51:583–604
Vinke C, Schoemaker NJ, van Zeeland YRA (2019) Ferrets (Mustela putorius furo). Companion Animal Care and Welfare: The UFAW Companion Animal Handbook
Iske C (2024) An Update on Key Nutritional Factors in Ferret Nutrition. Veterinary Clinics of North America: Exotic Animal Practice 27:31–45