Wild Thing was just that — a crazy, wild, playful ferret who I had the joy of sharing my life with. He came to me as an adult with a number of health problems, but his wonderful personality won me over instantly, and I was in love. One of his favorite mischievous things to do, however, was to sneak into the area where the dog food bowl was, and steal as much of her kibble as he was able to manage — sometimes making multiple trips to stash his prize for a later snack.
Unfortunately, however, some of his medical conditions were a result of an improper diet in his former home, and so an immediate nutrition change was in his future when he moved in with me. As adorable as the stealing behavior was, it was not helping my efforts to make him healthy again.
Concerns About Switching A Ferret’s Food
Although those of us who have shared our homes with dogs and cats are likely familiar with making diet changes, this can be a much more difficult process with the ferret. Ferrets appear to “imprint” on their foods early in life, meaning that they quickly learn to identify some things as food and avoid others — and this pattern stays with them for the rest of their life. A ferret who is exposed to a particular food at an early age may never learn to recognize that other items are also food and refuse to eat them. Therefore, a ferret cannot be “starved” into a diet — they will NOT eat something they do not recognize as food, even when dying of starvation. Food changes are equally challenging under these circumstances, because ferrets can be so patterned on a particular food that they flatly refuse anything new. This means that for any ferret who must change diets, it has to be done slowly and carefully. It also means that it is critically important to feed your ferret the best possible food from a young age so as to avoid problems later.
Differences Between Ferret Digestion And Dog Digestion
So, circling back to Wild Thing and his love of my dog’s kibble, what was wrong with this diet? Isn’t kibbled food all food? Can’t ferrets eat what dogs eat?
1. Getting Nutrients
Well, first and foremost, ferrets are obligate carnivores. This means that they are only able to properly process meat as a source of nutrition, and in fact even lack many of the enzymes other animals have that enable the consumption of carbohydrates and other food sources. Dogs, on the other hand, are like people — they are omnivores, meaning they are able to eat a wide variety of foods and stay healthy. So, although ferrets may be carb-junkies and enjoy stealing and eating the forbidden snacks, they simply are not designed by nature to be able to digest it and extract nutrition from it. Imagine if you went outside and decided to eat the bark raw from a tree outside your window. Although you could do it, your body wouldn’t extract much nutrition from it (unlike the deer that thrives on the same bark during the winter). Different digestive tracts have been designed for different foods, and ferrets simply can’t process the carbohydrates present in dog food.
2. Tract Size
Next comes the issue of the digestive tract itself. Compared to their body size, ferrets actually have a very small and short digestive tract. Ever wonder why your ferret fills the litter box so quickly? There isn’t much space in there — and what goes in must come out, typically in as little as four hours! Because this digestive tract is made to process meat only, it is not particularly thorough – extracting only exactly what it needs, quickly, and ridding the body of the excess waste. When we fill the tract with a lot of food it cannot use – such as fibers, starches, sugars, carbohydrates and fillers/extenders in dog foods, the ferret wastes energy trying to process something he isn’t able to use; and the food is physically taking up space in a small area and preventing the ferret from being able to digest something he needs. In other words, eating something he doesn’t need just wastes digestive energy and space.
To compare it again to humans — if you are in the hospital and the doctor needs to get some nutrition into your body, no one is going to bring you a ream of paper to eat. Although you can eat it, you probably aren’t going to get much nutrition from it, but your body is going to be working pretty hard and wasting space trying to use the paper as food. Ferrets need a steady stream of good nutrition in order to feed their high metabolism and stay healthy. Some veterinarians even believe that diets high in sugars and carbohydrates may lead to certain types of cancer in ferrets.
3. Nutritional Needs Are Different
Next we come to their nutrient needs. Ferrets require a much higher level of protein (35 to 55 percent) than dogs and cats, as well as appropriate levels of amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. One important building block is taurine, which is needed for normal heart and eye function. Diets that lack enough taurine (such as most dog foods) can lead to congestive heart failure, blindness and death. Other amino acids, such as methionine and cysteine, are often deficient in diets containing proteins coming from plants (very common in dog foods) — and lack of these amino acids can cause urinary tract stones.
Because of their very high metabolism, ferrets have a need for a lot of fat in their diet — much higher than dogs do. These fats help store some of the critical fat-soluble vitamins needed by ferrets, including vitamins A, E, K and D. Deficiency in these vitamins can cause stunted growth, night blindness, incoordination, anemia, a weakened immune system and clotting disorders, among other things.
4. Food Size
Another factor to consider is the simple mechanics of eating dog food — the mouth, jaws and throat of a ferret are designed very differently than those of a dog. Think about one factor alone — how much smaller and more brittle ferret teeth are than dog teeth. When eating a kibble not made for ferrets, it is possible for a ferret to break teeth, get some stuck in the roof of the mouth or even choke on it. Imagine trying to chew a jawbreaker, and you will have a pretty good idea what it is like for a ferret to chew on an average piece of dog food.
Ferrets Should Not Eat Dog Food
Ferret nutrition is actually a very complicated topic, with delicate balancing between proteins, minerals, fats and vitamins. Too much, or not enough, of certain ingredients will lead to disease. In order to avoid health problems, the diet has to be carefully constructed to meet the specific needs of the animal in question — and ferrets are not small dogs, and dog food simply doesn’t work for them.
Ferrets Who Steal Dog Food
So, what to do if you see your little bandit sneaking a snack of dog food? A kibble or two isn’t going to do any harm, unless it gets to be a regular occurrence and unbalances the healthy diet you are trying to establish. Remember, though, the potential for injury to the teeth and mouth from even a single kibble — so it really is better to collect any dog food before allowing a ferret access to the dog feeding area.
How did I work around Wild Thing’s favorite game of stealing dog food? Well, when he was out and about, I simply took the dog food out of the bowl and replaced it with some ferret-healthy food. Little did he know it, but he was stealing something I actually wanted him to have! For him, the fun was not in the food itself, but in the stealing — and we managed to “kill two birds with one stone” with a simple swap. We spent many happy days together before I lost my little dog food thief, and I still think of him with a smile when I pour the dog food into the bowl.