What is a Ferret?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A ferret is a domesticated mammal in the weasel family. Ferrets are kept as pets and working animals in many regions of the world, although in some areas, the keeping of ferrets is banned, due to concerns about threats to native species. In areas where ferrets are legal, the animals are often available from breeders and pet stores, while in areas where the animals are outlawed, prospective ferret owners may have to do a bit of searching to track down ferrets of their own.

Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

Ferrets have been domesticated for several thousand years, and evidence suggests that they were domesticated from the European polecat, Mustela putorius. This is reflected in the scientific name for the ferret: M. putorius ssp. furo. Like their cousins the weasels, ferrets have long, sinuous bodies, small set ears, sharp teeth, and very sensitive noses. They are famously curious, enterprising animals, and this can be a problem for pet ferrets, which sometimes chafe at confinement.

Evidence suggests that the ferret was domesticated for hunting and pest control. The slender body of a ferret is ideally suited to going into rabbit warrens and rat holes, allowing people to release ferrets in these areas to control pests and catch rabbits for dinner. Ferrets are known for being very tenacious and stubborn, which explains why “ferreting” has become a slang term for rooting about to uncover the truth behind a situation.

People who like to keep ferrets as pets say that the animals are playful, friendly, and entertaining. People opposed to pet ferrets point out that the animals can interbreed with polecats, potentially destabilizing the wild polecat population. While this is certainly true, proponents of the pet ferret point out that there are few wild colonies of polecat/ferret hybrids, suggesting that the risk of interbreeding may be exaggerated. In all probability, domestic ferrets would also have a tough time surviving in the wild.

Another animal in the Mustela genus is also known as a ferret: the North American Black-Footed Ferret. The Black-Footed Ferret may look like a domestic ferret, but it is an entirely different species, and it is also unfortunately endangered due to habitat pressures which make it difficult for the animals to feed and make homes.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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