In my last post, I explained that ferrets are obligate carnivores who have to eat meat in order to survive. They have lost the ability to produce certain necessary substances, like Vitamin A, which they can now only get from animal protein. So this is what ferrets eat, or what they have to eat: Meat. But that answer doesn’t tell you everything. The question remains: What should ferrets eat?
Or, in other words, of all the ferret foods available today, which, if any, are actually the right thing to feed your ferret? Which are good, which are bad, and how do you know?
In this post, I will show you how to evaluate whatever ferret foods you come across in order to make the right decision for your pet.
But first . . .
Should Ferrets Even Eat Packaged Foods?
Before we begin, I do have to mention that many owners question whether or not ferrets should be fed a dried or processed food at all. A quick search will show you all kinds of information and opinions about raw diets, even including the feeding of live mice, etc. There probably is a great deal of merit to these raw food/whole food diet arguments. This is, after all, what predators in the wild eat.
Most cat and dog owners, however, do not feed their pet predators a regular predator diet. Nor do most people who own rodents feed those rodents a regular, raw rodent diet. The fact of the matter is, most pet owners feed their pets some kind of processed food. The reason is of course convenience – and, of course, that’s not necessarily the greatest reason.
But then take a hard look at your own diet, too. Is it healthier for a ferret to eat live mice? Yeah, probably. Is it healthier for you to eat nothing but vegetables your grow in your own garden and organically fed animals that you raise and slaughter yourself? Also, yes.
Just because something is technically healthier does not mean the alternative is necessarily bad, especially since, for a lot of us, the technically healthier option (for our pets and for ourselves) is just not practical. These are decisions each pet owner must make for themselves. If you want to go the whole or even live food rout, again, there’s plenty of information out there on how to do it. Go for it!
My purpose here was to show you how to evaluate packaged foods so you can make an educated decision about which to buy should you choose to go that rout. On the debate itself, I can only say that my kibble fed ferrets are – so far at least – happy, healthy little animals. If that does change, I will let you know.
Now, let’s get started . . .
How to evaluate ferret foods
When picking a ferret food, there are some important factors to keep in mind.
- Protein and fat percentage. You want to pick a food that is around 40% crude protein and around 18% fat. Most ferret foods will clearly display these percentages somewhere on the package.
- What type of filler is used? If you’re buying a packaged food, the fact is there will have to be some kind of plant filler holding the fat and protein together. Unfortunately, this is unavoidable. However, better foods will not use certain fillers, and will use less of whatever filler they do use. Here are some basic guidelines to follow:
- Find the Ingredients listed on the back of the food package and read them carefully. Make sure that some kind of chicken or other meat product is the first ingredient listed – or, preferably, the first, second, and third ingredients should all be some kind of meat or fat product. You should not see the name of any kind of plant before the fourth ingredient. You certainly should not see anything you can’t pronounce before the fourth ingredient.
- Make certain there are no wheat or gluten grain products in the ingredient list. Some foods use corn, which is better than wheat, but not ideal. Wheat is likely toxic to ferrets. And both wheat and corn are foods that take a long time to digest. Ferrets have fast metabolisms that move food through quickly. So, foods high in carbohydrates and other compounds which are slow and difficult to digest can cause serious problems.
- Unfortunately, the fillers do not end there. Packaging food requires the adding of preservatives. These are typically the long, difficult to pronounce words at the end of an ingredient list. Try to find foods with the shortest preservative list possible. (By the way, this is a good rule to follow when buying food for yourself, too.)
- What is your ferret used to? Whatever pet store or breeder you buy your ferret from has been feeding him something up until that point. Ferrets can be picky eaters and have been known to starve themselves when their preferred food is unavailable. Don’t worry, you don’t have to keep feeding them the pet store’s food forever. But you should pick up enough of that food to last a week or two, so you can slowly transition your ferret to a better food.
- How old is your ferret? This isn’t about the food so much as it is about how you feed your ferret that food. Most food packages will have two sets of feeding instructions, one for ferrets younger than 12 weeks, and one for ferrets older than twelve weeks. In short, ferrets younger than 12 weeks can’t chew the dehydrated pellets, so you have to add water and turn the pellets into a paste to make it easier to swallow. Again, this doesn’t really effect the choice of which food you buy. However, it is worth mentioning that there are also foods that claim to be formulated specifically for elderly ferrets.
Now, let’s take a look at some actual ferret foods so I can show you exactly how to go about evaluating the pros and cons of each product.
Product 1: Marshall Premium Ferret Diet
This is the product that most pet stores use. It is produced by Marshall Farms, which (for better or worse) is the largest ferret breeder in the United States and supplies most pet stores in the US with their ferrets. Don’t let the word “premium” fool you. This is Marshall’s most basic (and cheapest) food product.
Take a look at the back of the package and you will find all the information you need. Notice how much room the feeding instructions and Marshall’s quality pledge take up, and how tiny the actual ingredient listing is. Get used to this. Basically all food labels (for animals and for humans) engage in this kind of customer distraction.
Now, let’s take a closer look at the important information.
First, the protein and fat percentages. Both could be a little higher, but, actually, 38% and 18% is pretty good.
Now, the ingredients.
- The first three ingredients are all some kind of meat product. (Note: just because we humans don’t like eating “chicken by-products/organs” – the first ingredient in this list – does not mean these are unhealthy. In the wild, predators eat the entire animal, including the organs.)
- There is no wheat of gluten grain product
- All added ingredients, like preservatives and added vitamins, appear at the end of the list, after the meat products. This means there is less of these products in the food, and more meat.
- The list of preservatives is not short
- What exactly is “chicken by-product meal” anyway? I think it’s just ground up chicken organs, but how can I be sure?
- The added vitamins – In animal as in human foods, companies like to throw in a list of vitamin suppliments because people think this makes food healthier. In reality, vitamins that are added to foods (the catch phrase is usually “enriched with…”) rarely give that food any actual added value. Most of these added vitamins can’t actually be digested, and so just pass straight through the body without doing anything.
Conclusion: Marshall Premium Ferret Diet is not terrible, but not great either.
Product 2: Zupreem Premium Ferret Diet
This is the only product I’ll look at here that I haven’t used myself. I chose to talk about it because it’s the only non-Marshall ferret food that I find consistently at pet stores.
The fat and protein percentages look quite good at first glance.
But now let’s take a look at the ingredients.
- The first ingredient is a meat product.
- There is no corn.
- The added ingredients, preservatives and added vitamins, are all at the bottom of the list. And, moreover, most of them are pretty easy to pronounce.
- Wheat – as the second ingredient, no less.
- The second ingredient is not a meat product.
- The actual chicken doesn’t appear until the fifth ingredient, after two plant fillers – meaning, there is more plant filler in this food, than there is chicken.
- The “chicken fat” in this food (third ingredient) is an additive which contains it’s own preservatives in addition to the preservatives in the food itself. It is not fat that comes from the natural ingredients.
- The fourth ingredient, potato protein, is probably what gives this food it’s high protein percentage. However, potato protein is of no use to ferrets, because ferrets can only digest animal protein. Potatoes are vegetables, not animals!
- What does “dried egg product” mean?
- Who cares about the “natural chicken flavor”? You wouldn’t need natural chicken flavor if you had more chicken to begin with.
Conclusion: The short preservative list makes this food appear appealing. It looks like it has few ingredient that are bad for ferrets – which should make it good, right? Until you realize that it also has very few ingredients that are good for ferrets, which makes it basically worthless.
Product 3: Marshall Carnivore Plus
This is a higher priced food also produced by Marshall farms. Let’s take a look.
The fat percentage is a little low, but it’s hard to beat 40% protein, especially when we take a look at the ingredients and see where most of that protein is coming from. Also, the fat percentage may be only 17%, but you will notice the package also states that there is “no sprayed-on rendered fat,” (which is where the fat in the Zupreem brand came from). This means that all the fat in this food comes from the natural ingredients, not for a processed ingredient that was added just to boost the fat percentage. Which means that this 17% fat is worth more to your ferret than the 20% additive fat found in other brands. These are the kinds of details you want to be on the lookout for when looking for a healthy food.
Now, the ingredient list.
- The first three ingredients are all meat products. (Again, chicken organs are not a bad ingredient)
- There is no wheat or gluten grain.
- There is no corn.
- The plant fillers (mostly peas) are all from vegitables, not grains.
- All the added ingredients like preservatives and added vitamins are at the bottom of the list.
- There is no added protein or fat, which means most of the fat and protein is coming naturally from the chicken and fish meat.
- The preservative list is not short.
- Some of the protein is probably coming from the pea fillers and therefore not actually useful to your ferret.
- Again, I’m not sure what “fish meal” (second ingredient) actually means. I assume it’s ground up fish, probably including fish meat, organs, bones, and possibly skin and scales too. But, again, I can’t be sure.
Conclusion: Marshall Carnivore Plus is one of the better processed ferret food I’ve yet been able to find. The greatest proof is that my ferrets became healthier and more active immediately after I switched to this food. Reading the ingredient list, it’s not hard to tell why. That being said, it’s certainly not a perfect diet. But I think it is pretty good for a processed, dehydrated, packaged food.
So, what should ferrets eat?
As obligate carnivores, ferrets should eat meat and should not eat much else. This is the most basic rule to keep in mind when comparing and choosing packaged ferret foods. Is the food mostly meat? That is the single most important question to ask.
You should also try to find a food that is around 40% protein and 18% fat. However, make sure you don’t just take the package’s word for it. Look at the ingredients and see where that fat and protein is coming from. Is the fat coming from chicken meat, or from an artificially preserved chicken fat additive? Is the protein mostly meat protein, or does a significant part of that protein come from a vegetable? The answers to these questions are just as important as the actual percentages themselves.
Overall, finding a good ferret food is just like finding healthy food for yourself and you (human) family. Look past what the packaging tries to distract you with (feeding directions, 40% protein! statements, quality pledges, etc.) and focus on the ingredients themselves. How many of those ingredients are actually good for your ferret? How many are not? Do the pros outweigh the cons. Take your time to answer these questions, and you are well on your way toward having a happy, healthy ferret!
Did I forget anything? Have you found a better ferret food that what I mention here? Questions or thoughts? Leave a comment below!