A lot of people get turned off from owning ferrets as pets because they’ve been told that ferrets are “stinky.” But do ferrets actually smell bad? What do ferrets smell like? And why do ferrets smell? Most importantly, are any of these things reason enough to deprive yourself of the joys of owning a ferret?
In what follows I will explain why ferrets smell the way they do, and how bad that smell really is.
Why Do Ferrets Smell?
Ferrets come from the Mustelid family. Another famous member of this animal family is the skunk (although, interestingly, some now suggest that skunks belong to their own, albeit related, family).
Skunks are defined in popular opinion by their ability to release a foul smelling odor from glands beneath their tails. They spray this concentrated scent when scared or in danger to chase away anything that might try to hurt them. Anyone who has experienced this process first hand knows how effective it is. Even those of us unfortunate enough to have simply driven past a dead skunk on the highway know how effect it is.
Mustelids share this common feature of foul smelling glands under their tails. Many can spray would be predators just like skunks can. This defense mechanism can also be used to mark territory. And yes, ferrets, as Mustelids, share this common Mustelid trait.
These scent glands are not limited to just beneath the ferret’s tail either. There are others, most notibly behind the ferret’s ears.
So, yes, under certain circumstances at least, ferrets have the ability to smell very bad.
But do they, really?
Do Ferrets Smell Bad?
On the average day, do ferrets actually smell all that bad, and will they make your home smell bad?
As someone who has owned two ferrets for several years now, I can say with confidence: No. Usually, ferrets do not smell bad, for a few different reasons.
First, most ferrets these days are “de-scented.” That gland under their tails that sprays that foul odor is right next to the reproductive organs, and is usually removed at the same time the ferret is spayed or neutered. This does not eliminate the “skunky” smell, but it does remove the ferret’s ability to spray that smell.
Second, despite the stinky reputation, ferrets are clean animals. They do not like to live in filth. In fact, mine won’t even use the same litter box too many times in a row.
Third, I have found that what makes ferrets “smelly” is not the ferrets themselves, but rather their bedding, their food, and their litter box. These are all things that are within your power to clean. So, really, how much your ferret smells depends on how clean you keep his habitat. Try to wash his bedding once a week, and clean his litter box once a day. If you do that, I think you will find he doesn’t smell much at all.
Fourth, another thing you control is how much free time you allow your ferret outside his cage. This should be at least several hours a day. But why does it effect the ferret’s smell? Well, because a cooped up ferret means his smell is also cooped up. It gets concentrated in one place. Just think about the way your TV room smelled after you spent a week binge watching the latest Netflix series. It’s the same principle. If your ferret is free to wander about and sleep in a variety of places throughout the day, then his smell is also spread around, but it’s spread too thinly for you to actually smell it.
And Fifth, the only time I really smell my ferrets is when they’re really, really excited. When I take them to explore a new place, or something like that. When they’re excited or scared, then they do start to smell quite funky. Remember, the smell is a defense mechanism, so as the ferret gets more excited, more of it gets produced. But when he’s home and surrounded by familiar things, chances are he’s not going to get that excited. He’ll be playful, and he’ll have fun. But he won’t get to stinky level excited.
What Do Ferrets Smell Like?
Now, with all this talk of smells and stinkiness, what do ferrets actually smell like anyway?
Actually, there are a few different smells – Two I can identify offhand. The one we’ve been talking about is the skunk-like smell, and it is unpleasant. Since my ferrets are de-scented, I usually encounter this smell behind their ears. Sometimes it’s stronger than other times, but it never gets really bad. It smells like a mild version of that dead skunk your drove past on the highway that one time.
Again, I never smell this skunk smell unless I press my nose right up against the skin behind their ears, and sometimes not even then.
The other smell is a heavy musk which some people find just as unpleasant as the skunk smell. I and others, however, actually like it. The best I can do in describing it is to say that it smells a sort of like the skunk smell, but lacks the sharp quality that makes that smell unpleasant.
In general, though, ferrets smell like any other fury animal. They just have an added musky scent that makes them a little bit different and takes a minute to get used to.
Does the Smell Really Matter?
Ferrets smell different from other animals, and they have the potential to be “smelly.” If you find that a ferret’s scent is not something you can get used to, then obviously it is not the right pet for you. However, I honestly do not believe this is the road block that many people make it out to be.
In the end, I don’t think the ferret’s smell actually matters all that much, because – guess what – all animals stink. All animals have glands that produce oils and other smelly liquids that can turn very stinky under the right circumstances.
I believe it’s not really about the smell itself. It’s about what we’re used to.
For example, I grew up with dogs, and I still love dogs. But it’s been several years since I’ve lived with a dog. Now, when I walk into a home where a dog lives, it’s the first thing I smell. After I spend some time petting a dog, the oil from their skin is the only thing I can feel or smell on myself. Dogs stink. So do cats. Dogs and cats are just such popular pets that even people who have never owned them are on some level used to the way they small.
Ferrets really aren’t smellier than cats and dogs. They just smell very different, and we’re not as accustomed to that smell. So it comes across as stinkier.
Again, if you really can’t get used to the way ferrets smell, then get a different pet. But I think most people can get used to it, just like most people can adjust to the smell of a dog or a cat. The question is really whether or not having the ferret is worth getting used to the smell.
You can find out why I think ferrets are worth it here in this post.
Still the Perfect Pets
I’ve said it many times on this site, and probably will again – I think ferrets are the perfect pets. The way they smell does not change that.
Sure they can smell a bit funky at times, but I’ve never known mine to actually stink. For years, this was the reason my parents gave for never letting me have ferrets growing up: Yes, they’re cute, and make good pets, but they’re too smelly! I’ll admit, even though I was absolutely certain I wanted ferrets, I was nervous about the smell at first.
Now, my mother comes to visit me, and is amazed by the fact that she can’t smell my ferrets, despite years of telling me I couldn’t have them only because they stink.
My takeaway from all this: Like all Mustelids, Ferrets have the potential to be smelly, but they absolutely do not have to be. They are like any other pet, stinky if neglected, perfectly pleasant with proper care and handling.
Let me know what you think about the stink – Or any other thoughts about life with ferrets – in the comments below!