What do ferrets eat anyway? I get asked this question a lot. There seems to be some confusion out there about what to feed ferrets – even among ferret owners. But the answer isn’t all that complicated.
Basically, ferrets eat meat.
Of course, there’s a little more to it than that. It is important to understand what you pet needs and why certain foods are better than others before buying.
So here is the breakdown, what ferrets eat, and why they eat it.
Obligate Carnivore – What it means
At first glance, many people think ferrets are rodents. They’re not. Ferrets are in fact carnivores, and their nutritional needs are similar to those of a cat.
Like cats, ferrets are not just carnivores. They are obligate carnivores. This means they get no nutritional value from plant matter, but only from animal protein and animal fat (in other words, they are obligated to eat meat). They can still eat other things, they just get no nutritional value from those things.
Obligate carnivores have to eat meat because they have lost the ability to generate certain vitamins. The human digestive system, for instance, can take a plant substance called carotene from fruits and vegetables and turn it into vital Vitamin A. Obligate carnivores, however, can’t convert carotene into anything. Which means they have to ingest the Vitamin A they need from the flesh of other animals who have already done the carotene conversion for them.
If obligate carnivores do not get enough meat, they will starve. Starvation is the process where the body begins to eat itself because the nutrients it needs are not coming from the outside. Strange as it might sound, organisms can starve even if they are technically eating. A ferret fed on any diet that does not contain the right amount of protein will die.
The Ferret’s “Natural” food
Since there is no such thing as a wild ferret, there’s really no way to talk about the ferret’s “natural” diet. In the wild, animals similar to the ferret eat a wide variety of meats, from fish to rodents to birds. And it seems that the only thing ferrets really need is meat. What animal it comes from doesn’t seem to matter all that much.
That beings said, ferrets were originally domesticated to hunt rabbits. The ferret’s narrow body could slip into the rabbit’s den and chase it out for hunters to catch and kill. After the hunt, ferrets would be rewarded with all the leftover pieces of the rabbit that we humans do not like to eat.
From time to time, for various reasons, ferrets would be set loose to fend for themselves. In these cases, they followed the example of their wild polecat cousins, hunting whatever small game they could find, including small farm animals like chickens. The one thing they seem to have no taste for is fish.
The Pet ferret diet
In the past, before there were many options for ferret specific foods, people would often feed them cat food. The problem was that the ferret’s dietary needs are even more specific than a cat’s. Ferrets need food that consists of around 40% crude protein and about 18% fat. Because fat content is more important to ferrets than it is to cats, ferret owners would have to be very careful in their selection of an appropriate cat food.
Fortunately, today, we can just skip the cat food aisle, and go straight to foods made specifically for ferrets.
Ferrets tend to be picky eaters. If they’re not exposed to something early on, they probably won’t try it as an adult. Some ferrets will even stop eating altogether rather than make the switch to a different type of food.
Of course, this depends a lot on the individual ferret. One of my ferrets is very picky. He likes popcorn and peanut butter, and will only sniff disapointedly at other treats. My other ferret is more open to new things.
Most ferret foods use chicken and chicken by-products (intestines, etc.) as the main ingredient. At first glance, the use of chicken guts might make it seem like the food company is taking the cheap rout instead of giving your pet good quality meat. But remember that back when ferrets had to work for a living, the majority of their diet probably consisted of leftover rabbit guts. Also, carnivores in the wild eat the entire prey animal, not just the meat we humans happen to like.
So, What do ferrets eat?
Ferrets, like cats, are obligate carnivores who need to eat meat in order to survive. They tend to like the food they’re exposed to at a young age, and might turn their noses up at new offerings. It is possible to switch their food, if done slowly and with care.
A few decades ago, it was hard to find food appropriate for ferrets. Fortunately, however, today there are many options and many different foods created specifically for ferrets. Still, even these foods are not all created equal. It is important to understand what you pet needs and why certain foods are better than others before buying.
As always, let me know your thoughts and questions in the comment section below!