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