Are Ferrets Herbivores?

Ferrets, like all living things, have bodies that are adapted to eat a certain diet. So are ferrets plant-eaters, meat-eaters or somewhere in between?

ferret by food bowl
Via Lindsey Turner/Flickr  
Ferrets need nutrition from meat-based protein.

Mammals can be divided into three big categories based on the food they typically eat. These categories are herbivores, omnivores and carnivores. In addition, there are usually modifications in their digestive tract and teeth to better digest their main food sources. I will describe these three groups and then cover whether ferrets are herbivores or carnivores. 

What Herbivores Eat
Herbivores are animals that eat mostly plants. A good example of an herbivore would be a cow. 

A cow normally eats grass and hay. In order to grab and chew grass, cows have a dental pad on their top jaw instead of incisor teeth. They also have a gap between the incisors on the lower jaw and their cheek teeth. This helps with grinding the grass and other fibrous plant material before they swallow it. Cows will also produce large amounts of saliva (roughly 20 to 30 gallons a day), which helps to start the breaking down of carbohydrates and fiber. The cow’s digestive tract is also specially designed to break down grass and fiber. The cow has four sections to its stomach —the rumen, the reticulum, the omasum and the abomasum. These chambers do a good job of breaking down the fiber into digestible protein, fats and carbohydrates. These nutrients are further digested and absorbed in the small and large intestine. 

Another example of an herbivore is a horse. Horses also eat mostly grass and hay, but instead of having a stomach with four sections to break down grass and fiber, they have a very large cecum. Their cecum is located at the beginning of the large intestine, and it is where horses break down the fiber from grass and hay. 

What Omnivores Eat
Omnivores are animals that eat both plants and animals. Black bears are a good example of an omnivore. They have big canine teeth and carnassial teeth to help eat animal tissue, plus flat, long molar teeth for chewing plant material. Their digestive tract is similar to humans and can digest both meat and plant materials like fruit, nuts, berries and grass. 

What Carnivores Eat
Carnivores are true “meat eaters.” Their diet is almost exclusively animal tissue. Carnivores will eat a small amount of plant material, but they have to eat animal tissue for their nutritional requirements. A good example of a carnivore would be the black-footed ferret. Roughly 90 percent of the black-footed ferret’s diet is prairie dogs. They will also eat small rodents, insects, reptiles and whatever else they can catch. They have large canine teeth and special molars designed to crush bones. Their digestive tract is also specialized to digest animal tissue. They have a simple stomach, a very short digest tract, no cecum, and a very rapid transit time through the GI tract. They have a digestive system that cannot digest fiber or plant material very well. The black-footed ferret’s digestive system is very similar to the pet ferret’s. 

The Answer To Whether Ferrets Are Herbivores 
Just like their wild cousins, pet ferrets have a simple stomach, a short intestinal tract, no cecum, and a very rapid GI transit time. Their simple digestive tract cannot do a good job digesting fiber, starches or complex carbohydrates, so a plant-based diet will not supply enough nutrition for a ferret to survive. In order to survive with their simple digestive system, pet ferrets require a diet with a high protein level, a high fat level, a low fiber content and a low carbohydrate level. This requires a meat-based diet. Thus pet ferrets are true obligate carnivores. Ferrets are not herbivores.

Ferret Nutrition And Malnutrition
Ferret Nutrition Roundtable

Requirements For Ferret Food
Protein: Ferrets require a high protein level (35 to 55 percent) in their diet. This is even higher than the protein level required for cats. Protein is made up of amino acids. There are roughly 24 amino acids in animal tissues. There are three specific amino acids that are very important for your pet ferret — and plant-based protein just does not contain these. Thus their protein must come from a high-quality, meat-based diet.

Taurine is required for normal muscles in the heart and for the eyes. A diet with a low taurine level will cause the muscles in the heart to stretch and for the heart to enlarge (dilated cardiomyopathy). This will eventually lead to congestive heart failure and death. A low taurine level in the eye will eventually cause blindness from central retinal degeneration. Fortunately taurine is present in chicken, turkey and fish. Most commercial ferret foods also add extra taurine to the diet to prevent these deficiency problems. 

The amino acids methionine and cysteine are also needed for optimal health. These two amino acids are only in meat-based protein. They both contain sulfur. When they are digested, the sulfur is converted to sulfuric acid. The sulfuric acid is removed by the kidneys and excreted into the urine. This acidifies the urine, prevents bladder infections and prevents struvite bladder stones from forming. On the other hand, plant-based protein does not contain these two sulfur-containing amino acids, so the urine pH will be increased, which can cause bladder infections and struvite bladder stones.

Fat: A high fat level is important in the ferret diet for several reasons. Fat is a highly concentrated energy source. Fat contains 2.25 times the energy of protein or carbohydrates. In addition fat contains essential fatty acids that are needed for normal skin and fur. Fat also contains the fat-soluble vitamins: A, D, E and K. These four vitamins are crucial to maintain normal health. Vitamin A is needed for proper growth, vision and muscle strength. Vitamin D is needed for normal bone development. Vitamin E is needed to prevent anemia, anorexia, immune system suppression and paralysis. Vitamin K is needed for normal blood clotting and to prevent bleeding problems. 

Most commercial ferret foods have a fat level of 20 to 30 percent, which is high enough to prevent any of these problems. In addition to the fat-soluble vitamins, commercial ferret foods include the essential water-soluble B vitamins. 

Minerals: Minerals are also necessary for proper ferret nutrition. Calcium and phosphorus are the two minerals that cause the most problems. Meat contains a lot of phosphorus and very little calcium. Ferrets actually needed more calcium than phosphorus. If calcium is not added to the diet, then a calcium deficiency will develop. This will eventually lead to weak bones that can fracture easily. In young kits, the bones will not develop correctly and will prevent the kit from standing and walking normally. These kits will try to crawl or “swim” instead of walking, and these kits are often referred to as “swimmers.” Most commercial ferret foods have the correct amount and ratio of calcium and phosphorus to avoid these problems. 

Ferret nutrition is a complex interaction between protein, fat, vitamins and minerals. There are several very good, high-protein, high-fat, commercial diets made specifically for pet ferrets. These diets have all the necessary vitamins and minerals and are an ideal way to feed your pet ferret. There are a few high-quality, high-protein kitten (not cat) foods that can be used if your ferret will not eat a ferret food. 

Consult with your veterinarian if you have any questions about your ferret’s diet, treats or supplements. 

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Critters · Ferrets