For one of the friendliest of domestic pets, ferrets have gotten a bad reputation among some. That reputation is almost entirely undeserved. There are a surprisingly large number of persistent myths and errors about ferrets, especially considering how relatively few people actually have any first-hand knowledge of them. But, then, perhaps that’s why.
Some sources put ferrets as far back as Ancient Egypt, but there’s little evidence to support the view. One or two hieroglyphs that resemble a ferret is not sufficient to give credence to the idea they were domesticated animals among the pharaohs.
No one knows for sure, but scientists can look to a number of items to make a good guess about their true origin. They base their views on genetic features, general body characteristics, including fat distribution, teeth as well as diet and other factors. Using those, the most likely source is evolution from European polecats. Ferrets were favorite pets of European royalty in the late Middle Ages.
Certainly ferrets, like nearly every mammal (including humans) have a distinctive odor. But ferrets do not ‘stink’. The strong odor people often smell in pet stores (and, regrettably, sometimes in the homes of private owners) is frequently due to poor care and cramped conditions.
Ferrets have a natural, musky scent owing to anal scent glands. When frightened, like skunks, they can emit a spray (though not the same as skunk spray). But that’s rare. Males can become aggressive during mating season and emit more odor than at other times. Most, especially those sold by pet stores, have their scent glands removed and are spayed or neutered.
More often, they simply have bedding and cages that are not maintained properly. Washing the ferret twice a year, and cleaning out litter boxes daily and bedding once a week can eliminate any strong, offensive odor before it begins.
Like any mammal, ferrets can get various cancers. Most of those, as with humans, dogs and others, come later in life. For a ferret, that’s anywhere from about age 4-5 on. Of course, cancers can occur at any age, but the odds are much greater for aged mammals. Statistically, they’re no more likely to get malignant tumors and other cancers than dogs, cats or humans.
They do have a tendency toward adrenal illnesses, insulinomas and lymphomas, but again typically later in life. There are, of course, some diseases (such as ADV – Aleutian Disease Virus) that occur more commonly in ferrets than in other animals. But the same could be said of any species.
Adrenal disease is a common ailment among older ferrets, and one of the symptoms is balding. Look at the base of the tail or neck area and seek the advice of a veterinarian in such cases. A blood test will provide a definitive answer.
With proper care, which tends to take more effort than for dogs (and certainly more than cats), ferrets can make delightful pets. But keep in mind that they are not a dog or cat. Their behavior is appropriate to ferrets. And that’s no myth.