I have worked with ferrets here in Kansas since 1985 and founded Ferret Family Services, a domestic ferret information and education public service organization in 1987. Throughout the years, one of my specialties has been working with abused and neglected ferrets.
Pet ferrets are domestic companion animals just as dogs and cats are. Ferrets do require special care because of their complete reliability on humans for their existence. This total reliability is what, unfortunately, can lead to abuse and neglect in the wrong hands.
Pet ferrets are sold in pet stores already altered, or by backyard breeders unaltered. Ferrets have no reliable survival skills. Most pet ferrets are kept in cages or ferret safe rooms when not supervised. Ferrets should be kept in a temperature controlled environment, comfortable house temperatures with access to fresh food and water at all times. Ferrets are unable to tolerate extremes of heat and cold.
Ferrets can be vaccinated against rabies and canine distemper with licensed vaccines.
Comparatively, to dogs and cats, fewer ferrets are found in city shelters, and even fewer are found as strays.
Ferrets are docile, curious, playful, and affectionate. They are extremely social and bond closely with their owners and other companion animals. Ferrets are the same as puppies and kittens, they need to be gently taught what is acceptable social behavior. Ferrets crave human attention and interaction and are high energy animals that need several hours daily to exercise. Normal ferret behavior is to jump and dance around as if playing with an imaginary friend, and chase, grab and pounce on their playmate. In play, ferrets will mouth their companions playfully, whether it be human or another animal. No harm is intended. Occasionally a bite will occur, but it is typically accidental or defensive when frightened or abused. Ferret skin is very tough, ours is not, therefore nips to humans may be misinterpreted. Mistreated, surprised, untrained or frightened ferrets may bite as this is their only defense. Again, no harm is intended, they are trying to relay a message that they are unsure of the situation or trying to protect themselves.
I can personally attest to this as years ago a field mouse took up residence in our home and the ferrets were quite willing to allow it to eat out of their kibble bowl and drink from their bottles. But a ferret might kill a rodent or bird, as they are natural predator and prey just as a cat is to birds and rodents, but they do not have the instinct to kill to survive.
Veterinarians, zoologists, and other experts across the continent verify the domesticity of the ferret. Many credible sources such as "Walkers Mammals of the World", "The Encyclopedia of Mammals", "Domestication, the Decline of Environmental Appreciation", "The Mammals of Britain and Europe", and others validate the domesticity of the ferret. The taxonomy of the ferret is domestic. "The Compendium of Animal Rabies Control", produced by the National Association of State Public Health Veterinarians (NASPHV) and endorsed by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), and Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists (CSTE) lists ferrets in the same category as domestic dogs and cats. Scientific evidence exists identifying the ferret as a domestic animal.
Domestic ferrets cannot survive in the wild or without human assistance. This is evidenced by the nonexistence of feral or wild populations of the domestic ferret anywhere in the United States. Black-footed ferrets (endangered) are a different species, same family, and it has taken many years to try to reintroduce that species with poor results. Ferrets are so domesticated they have no survival hunting skills. If a ferret escapes it will typically perish within days. Unlike some cats, ferrets do not know to hunt prey to survive, nor are ferrets aware of outside dangers. Ferrets are one of the most dependent and environmentally sensitive of all domestic animals. Ferrets cannot tolerate extremes of heat and cold. In Minnesota two ferrets were placed in an outside unheated drop off box at a shelter - both ferrets were found dead, frozen, the next morning.
The US Dept of Agriculture licensed the Imrab vaccine for domestic ferrets on Feb 7, 1990. This vaccine has been rigorously tested and proven effective in preventing rabies in domestic ferrets, exceeds World Health Organization standards for potency, and is supported byWistar Institute research. This same vaccine is licensed for use in dogs, cats, horses, sheep and cattle. The safety and efficacy criteria used for vaccine approval in domestic ferrets were identical to those met by other species as required under Title 9 of the Code of Federal Regulations. The USDA is the US governing body in domestic animal rabies vaccine approval. Therefore there should be no question about efficacy.
Current law in Kansas places ferrets in the same category as dogs and cats in rabies regulations, which requires a 10 day quarantine.
There has never been a confirmed, documented ferret to human or ferret to any animal transmission of rabies and less than 35 cases (up to 2008, 1 in Kansas-1982 in an unvaccinated ferret that was exposed to a rabid skunk) of rabies in the domestic ferret in the history of rabies surveillance.
Research to establish a shedding period in ferrets was conducted in the mid-90's under the supervision of CDC (Centers for Disease Control) headquarters in Atlanta in cooperation with Kansas Sate University, University of Georgia, and Thomas Jefferson University.
During 1995, Phase 1 of the study tested the skunk variant. None of 50 ferrets shed the skunk variant in their saliva.
During 1996 Phase 2 tested the raccoon variant. Nine of 51 ferrets did shed the raccoon variant in their saliva. Virus excretion ranged from 2 days before clinical signs to 8 days after onset. In comparison, cats have shed the rabies virus 1 day before and dogs up to 14 days before showing symptoms. A 10 day quarantine is recommended for these 3 species.
During 1997 Phase 3 & 4 tested the coyote and 4 bat variants (big brown, Mexican free tailed, silvered haired and red bat). One of 42 ferrets shed the virus (brown bat) in its saliva, concomitant with clinical signs. Three of 12 ferrets shed the coyote virus in their saliva.
Two more strains of rabies viruses have been used to infect ferrets and study incubation and viral shedding periods - the Texas gray fox and California skunk strains. Ten of 10 ferrets receiving the Texas gray fox rabies virus, were euthanized with severe clinical signs of rabies, however, the virus was not detected in the saliva . Six of 10 ferrets receiving a California skunk rabies virus were euthanized with clinical signs of rabies. One ferret shed the virus in saliva, concomitant withclinical signs.
In all shedding studies, the longest a ferret may have shed virus prior to death was 6 days. A confinement and observation period of 10 days after a ferret bites a person, the same as for dogs and cats, is recommended by the National Association of State and Public Health Veterinarians Committee Compendium of Animals Rabies Prevention and Control.
As recommended by experts nationwide, and in the Compendium of Animal Rabies Control, protocol for post-bite exposure for the ferret, whether vaccinated or unvaccinated, should adhere to the same guidelines as for dogs and cats: possibility of exposure, circumstances of bite (play, fear, etc.), clinical signs, and epidemiology of rabies in the area.
Having worked ferret issues throughout the US, I would like to see more ferret information distributed to governmental agencies and the public. For many years these delightful creatures have been surrounded by myths and inaccurate information which has contributed to the plight of the domestic ferret.