9 Things You Didn't Know About Ferrets

Tame ferret
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Ferrets, the long-bodied weasel lookalikes that reside in some 300,000 U.S. households, are a less common pet than cats and dogs yet they've managed to rack up an equally loyal fan club nonetheless. Descendants of the European polecat, these famously curious and sociable critters are thought to have been domesticated more than 2,000 years ago, after being discovered as skilled hunters. Now they're mostly known for being adorably mischievous — if a little stinky — but there's so much more to the species than many realize. Here are some little-known facts about ferrets.

1. Newborn Ferrets Can Fit Inside a Teaspoon

Ferret baby in the nest of hay
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The average ferret will grow to about 20 inches long and weigh up to 4 pounds, but when they're born, the mammals are hardly bigger than the size of a teaspoon. The newborns, called kits, start at around 2 inches and weigh only about an ounce when they enter the world — blind and nearly naked, with only a layer of baby fuzz as fur.

2. They Were Once the Third Most Common Pet in the U.S.

Caring for the Farm Animals Together
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According to a 2018 study by the American Veterinary Medical Association, 326,000 U.S. households have at least one ferret. The American Ferret Association says the sprightly, zucchini-shaped critters were much more popular during the '90s, when ferret "clubs" began cropping up throughout the states, skyrocketing them to third place in "interactive household pet" commonality, just behind cats and dogs. Today, they are far outnumbered by rabbits (1.5 million households) and reptiles (3.7 million households).

3. They're Notoriously Clumsy

Shy but cute ferret
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Ferrets have acute hearing and a sense of smell that far surpasses human (and even dog) capabilities. They also have extra-sensitive footpads, altogether making up for their poor eyesight. Ferrets are extremely nearsighted (able to see only a few feet in front of them) and have bad depth perception, the perfect cocktail for clumsiness — it isn't uncommon for pet owners to notice them running into walls or furniture.

4. They're Hard Workers

Close-Up Of Ferret
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Ferrets have a long history of being put to work. They were initially domesticated for the purpose of hunting rabbits and other vermin, but perhaps their most interesting gig has involved running wire. The animals' ability to navigate through confined spaces has been beneficial to several businesses and big events.

They were used to lay cables beneath Greenwich Park for London's Millennium Concert, for instance, and to run wire at Buckingham Palace for the wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana. Boeing even once employed the critters to string wire through its planes. In the 1970s, Fermilab's Meson Laboratory used a ferret named Felicia to clean 300 feet of inaccessible vacuum piping. Eventually, Felicia was replaced by a robot.

5. They Like to Dance

Close-Up Of Ferret Looking Up
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When ferrets get excited, they'll often arch their backs, puff out their tails, and hop about, a display commonly referred to as the "weasel war dance." In the wild, weasels use this jig to confuse or disorient prey, but when domestic ferrets engage in the behavior, it's typically to express enjoyment or playfulness. During such a display, ferrets will often make clucking sounds known as "dooking," and it’s not uncommon for them to lose their balance or to run into objects while doing so.

6. They Sleep Like Logs

Close-Up Of Ferrets
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Many a new ferret owner has broken into a sweat upon finding their pet lying limp and motionless, unresponsive to touch or sound, refusing to wake even when they're being rolled around. This common phenomenon is known as "ferret dead sleep." Veterinarian Mike Dutton told Pet Central that ferrets need this kind of comatose-like rest to recuperate from strenuous play.

7. They Can Be Trained

High Angle View Of Ferret Rearing Up At Home
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Ferrets are highly intelligent animals with incredible learning capacities. They can be trained to use the litter box, to sit on command, shake hands, and walk on a leash. Likewise, they can be trained out of their inherent bad habits, such as digging in houseplants and opening doors. Their wits are demonstrated by their perpetual curiosity, their ability to problem solve, and their premeditated antics (i.e., ploys to attract human attention).

8. There Are Still Ferrets in the Wild Today

A Federally Endangered Black-footed Ferret on the Plains
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Although ferrets are mostly domesticated animals today, there is still a species of wild ferret roaming about in the grasslands of the Northern Great Plains. Because the black-footed ferret hunts prairie dogs, you'll see them anywhere their prey live — Wyoming, South Dakota, Colorado, Montana, parts of southern Canada, and beyond. Also called American polecats, they differ slightly in appearance from your average house ferret. They're generally shorter in length with courser fur, a black-tipped tail, and, of course, black feet.

9. But Those Ferrets Are Endangered

Polecat
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The black-footed ferret has been listed as an endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. According to the World Wildlife Fund, they were actually thought to be extinct twice, but efforts throughout the 21st century to recover their habitat and restore the population have inspired a slow comeback. Today, there are only about 300 living in the wild.

Save the Black-Footed Ferret

  • Feral ferrets rely entirely on prairie dogs for survival. You can help protect prairie dogs by donating to a local conservation group like Prairie Protection Colorado.
  • Take the Humane Society's pledge to make your backyard a safe place for prairie dogs. Never kill a prairie dog or tamper with its burrow.
  • Support the World Wildlife Fund's global conservation efforts by adopting a black-footed ferret for $25 to $100.