Ferrets are carnivores and need diets high in protein and low in fat. And that means meat, fish, and poultry.
Also, just as humans should avoid sugar and non-nutritious food, ferrets must avoid them as well. Formerly, ferret experts recommended such ferret treats s raisins, cereal, and ice cream, but they have since learned that these are not ideal and should be given to pet ferret only very infrequently if at all.
Ferrets digest their food amazingly fast, with the food traveling through a ferret’s digestive tract in about four hours. That’s not enough time to break down vegetables (i.e., fiber). Ferrets are thus prone to bacterial infections since they cannot use fiber to push such bacteria out of the system.
In addition, you may be surprised to know that some foods can easily get stuck inside ferret intestines, which are narrower than a standard drinking straw.
Generally, ferrets need a diet of 35% to 40% percent meat/animal protein. (Those with kidney or liver problems need a little less. In such cases, consult a veterinarian for the proper amount.)
As you may know, protein can come from plant or meat sources. Ferrets need meat. In fact, if you are using pre-packaged ferret food, make sure at least one to two items in the top five ingredients are meat, rather than a plant protein, grain, or sugar.
Acceptable meat protein sources are chicken, turkey, fish, egg, egg product, liver, lamb, venison, and beef. Some ferret owners claim pork products cause digestive problems.
OK, so if protein makes up 40% of the ferret diet, what about the other 60%? About half of that remainder should be fat. However, this amount varies by the age of the ferret – active kits need more, and sedentary, older ferrets need less (only about 18%).
The remaining 30% or so of a ferret’s diet may include plant products, including plant protein (which is indeed different from meat protein). Plant protein and other fibers help to bind food together so it is less crumbly. This is where the occasional treat comes in. Good choices include soft fruits (such as apples and melons), soft vegetables (such as cucumbers), and cheese. However, these should be rare treats, indeed, never more that a ¼ teaspoon every third day or so.
Now that you know what a ferret should eat, you should also know what foods it shouldn’t eat. These include carbohydrates and sugars. Do not give your ferret dried, hard-fleshed, or sugary fruit or hard vegetables as they can block the digestive tract.
Also, avoid giving your ferret ice cream or milk as they can upset a ferret’s digestive system. Ferrets have lower levels of lactase – the enzyme that digests dairy products – than humans have.
You may think it’s cute to give your ferret “people food” like cereal, chocolate, or raisins. While in the past these were encouraged, recent studies have shown that these are not good for ferrets.
Which foods to use
There are several ferret-food options. You can use dried or canned food made especially for ferrets. You can follow a whole-prey diet or a raw-food diet, or you can use a combination of these. Here’s what you need to know.
There is no hard and fast rule as to whether pre-packaged, raw, or whole-prey foods are best for your ferret. However, if your ferret has been eating solely a pre-packaged diet, it may be a challenge to introduce raw or whole-prey foods at first. Many owners find that combining the raw or whole-prey with the pre-packaged food acclimates their fuzzies to their new diet fairly easily.
While it’s true that many ferret owners consider pre-processed food less expensive and easier to manage, it’s important to remember that ferret foods are not all the same. The cheaper brands may have fillers like grains and sugars that are not good for your ferret. In fact, they could cause digestive problems such as gastroenteritis, insulinomas, and digestive stones. These will not only harm your ferret; they will also lead to more veterinary visits and thus cost you more money in the long run.
Here are some widely recommended ferret-food companies:
These companies and their products are readily found online and at major pet-supply stores.
If you decide to try dry ferret food, look for a pure meat kibble – no corn, vegetables, sugars, or anything else. Sprinkle a few drops of water on the dry kibble and heat it in the microwave for a few seconds. This will make it easier for your ferret to chew and possibly prevent a choking hazard.
Wet (canned) ferret food is usually a better option because it is easier for your ferret to eat. It also comes in different flavors – so if your fuzzy doesn’t like one type, try another the next time. However, many owners find that canned food contains so much water that their ferrets eat more of it, thus costing more in the long run. And the fuzzies may become overweight into the bargain.
Don’t think you can cheat by using food designed for cats, dogs, or other critters either. Each species has its own nutritional needs. Dog food was designed for dogs, cat food for cats, and so on. A ferret needs food created for ferrets. (However, if you’re completely out of ferret food and the pet store is temporarily out of stock, you could use a very high-quality cat food for a short time. But return to ferret food as soon as possible.)
You don’t need to leave a huge amount of food in the cage. Ferrets are usually pretty good about eating only when they are hungry. Always leave some food in the cage to be ready when that hunger strikes, but check it often throughout the day.