A common question I’ve been asked about European ferret owners is how they differ compared to owners in North America (I was also frequently asked the same question outside North America). I suspect the question stems from the perception that North American ferret owners use a different husbandry than other countries. On my recent trip around the world to do research on the ferret, I met with hundreds of ferret owners, ranging from locales in New Zealand to Norway to Hungary. Comparing those impressions to my many visits around the United States and Canada shows some surprising similarities — and differences.
I think that the perception that ferret owners from different sides of the Atlantic have a different husbandry is based in fact, but I also think those differences are mostly historical and not as profound as some people believe. Yes, there are a lot of the old-time ferret owners left in Europe, but the younger ones are remarkably similar to many of those I’ve met throughout North America. Also, I suspect that the old timers tend to shy away from public view, while the “new generation” of ferret owners are more social and networked. Therefore, if I had to make a single generalized statement regarding ferret owners from different continents, I think it would be that there are far more similarities than there are differences. They are about the same.
The majority of ferrets in North America are housed in open-wire cages of some type and given periods of freedom to explore and play. Most other places either have a similar open-wire cage or use a hutch. The traditional ferret hutch is as small or smaller than most North American cages, with a couple of significant differences: the old-fashioned hutches come equipped with an enclosed nesting area, and the hutches are typically kept outside.
Another interesting phenomenon is that more and more Europeans seem to be turning toward a more North American approach to housing ferrets (large indoor cages, hammocks, no nestboxes), while many North American ferret owners seem to be moving toward a more European-style method of using hutches and ferret runs to house ferrets. A ferret run is a large walk-in fenced area that contains nestboxes, feeding areas and large exercise areas. A run is usually roofed and weatherproofed to some degree, and I’ve seen some as large as a two-car garage.
Very few places used a free-roam approach, regardless of location. If forced, I would venture it was less than 5 percent of the total housing.
Most ferret owners, on a worldwide basis, feed their ferrets a dry, kibbled food. I suspect the worldwide percentage of ferrets being primarily fed a kibble diet is somewhere between 50 to 70 percent. A small number of ferrets, probably about than 5 to 10 percent, are fed a diet of minced meat and pet milk (pet milk is a lactose-free milk sold for pets). The remainder are fed a raw meat diet; roughly about half eat a diet composed primarily of chicken, and the other half are given a diet of raw carcasses (mostly rodents, rabbits and culled chicks). I thought I would see a greater percentage of North American ferret owners feeding kibble, but the percentage seems to be about the same worldwide.
Almost everyone uses plastic water bottles to water their ferrets, regardless of the location. It is so common that it could probably be considered universal.
There is a widely held belief that North Americans have better healthcare for their ferrets than most other ferret owners around the world, and that is true for some specific locations. I think vet care for most worldwide ferrets is not quite as good as that seen in North America, but if second place, it is only by a nose. For the most part, the average vet seems to be about the same, regardless of the country. I think the primary difference is that North American ferrets seem to show more husbandry-related illnesses than seen in most other places, so our vets get more practice, which significantly improves care.
The exception seems to be in those areas where ferrets are historically abundant and inexpensive. In those situations, some ferret owners are hesitant to take their ferrets to a vet because of the expense; they balk at taking an inexpensive ferret to the vet when they can just kill and replace it for little cost. I think the vets in these locations are just as good as those in North America, but they get considerably less practice and they see less of older ferrets with more exotic illnesses.
A common subject of discussion during my travels was ferret genetics. It was common to hear people say they thought the genetics of the ferrets in their area to be somehow impaired. Regardless of country, the No. 1 phrase I heard was, “Our ferrets have bad genetics.”
That DNA is being tested, but I took very careful and precise measurements and saw very little differences in the ferrets from one country to another. Even ferrets that have been genetically isolated for generations seemed just about like every other ferret.
The vast majority of ferrets in North America are desexed; hobs are castrated (neutered) and females are spayed. In many areas of the world, only hobs are castrated and the jills are left sexually intact. If the females are not to be bred and come into heat, they are usually either placed with a vasectomized hob, or given a “jill jab” (a hormone shot) to take them out of season. This is one of the more significant differences I noted.
Ferrets are not worked in North America; their primary use is as pets. In most other areas of the world, ferrets are still used to hunt rabbits (ferreting) and for rodent control (ratting). Nonetheless, the majority of ferrets on a worldwide basis are kept as pets, raised for fur or used in research. The use of ferrets for hunting appears to be in decline.
I actually found little difference between ferret owners from North America compared to those from anywhere else. The amount of love and devotion lavished on ferrets seemed, to me, to be universal in its generosity and depth of feeling. Regardless of country of origin, ferreters seem to adore their ferrets.
Having seen firsthand the effects of husbandry on the ferret, I would venture the differences seen between ferrets is not so much from genetics as environment. Having interacted with ferrets from New Zealand, Australia, the UK (Scotland and Britain), most of Western Europe, parts of Eastern Europe, and Scandinavia, I cannot honestly pinpoint significant differences between the animals that cannot also be explained by differences in diet and environment.
One thing is for sure. No matter where you go, ferrets are ferrets and darn cute.
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Bob Church is a former photojournalist and current zooarcheologist with degrees in biology (zoology) and anthropology (archaeology). He resides in Missouri with 19 ferrets that keep his chicken blender overheated and his heart overfull.