Though many people believe that ferrets are a type of rodent, they are actually domesticated from wild polecats, a type of weasel. Domesticated ferrets cannot hunt their own prey if left to survive on their own, but their nutritional needs are much the same as their wild ancestors'. Ferrets are carnivores with short digestive tracts, which means that they cannot digest carbohydrates very well and should be fed a diet mainly consisting of protein. Most ferret owners prefer a mix of commercially prepared food and raw meat or prey.
Commercial Ferret Food
Purchase high-quality dry commercial ferret food from the pet store. Check the label to ensure that the food is at least 36 percent protein. It should contain around 20 percent fat, and very few carbohydrates. For a less expensive option, a high-quality kitten food can provide ferrets adequate nutritional value. You’ll also find commercially prepared dehydrated or frozen raw ferret food in pet stores. These mixes include raw meat, bones and organs. The mix should be at least 95 percent animal product and no more than 5 percent grain or vegetable filler.
Whole Prey Food
Wild polecats hunt small rodents, birds and insects. They typically eat the entire animal -- meat, organs, bones, skin and feathers or fur. Erinn Whitmore, a member of the International Association of Carnivore Nutrition Consultants, says a whole-prey diet provides ferrets complete nutrition. "Each prey meal is fully balanced in its entirety," Whitmore writes.
Live prey includes mice, baby chicks, crickets and frogs. If the thought of feeding your ferret live prey makes you queasy, you can pick up freeze-dried mice at most pet stores. The cost of a whole-prey diet can be high, so most owners mix whole prey with dry kibble. Consult your veterinarian to ensure that your ferrets are getting adequate nutrition if you choose a strictly whole-prey diet.
Ferrets have fast metabolism; they use up their energy stores quickly. Ferrets develop a taste for the food they’re given during their first year. To avoid finicky eating later in life, feed them a variety of prepared and fresh food starting the day you bring them home. Feed young ferrets five or six times per day during their first year of life. Alternately, you may leave them a bowl of dry food to access as often as they’d like.
Once a ferret is at least a year old, you can reduce feeding to three or four times per day, as long as the specimen is active. As ferrets age and become more sedentary, you'll have to reduce feedings as necessary so they doesn't become obese. Make fresh water available to your ferrets at all times to avoid dehydration. They may like to splash and play in their water dish; use a water bottle wired to the side of the cage to avoid a puddle.
For a tasty treat, feed ferrets bits of your dinner before seasoning or cooking it. Slice off a piece of raw steak, roast or pork chop. Mince organ meats such as kidneys, liver or heart. Meaty bones are another healthy snack, but give them raw, not cooked. Provide only as much as they can eat in one sitting -- they won’t overeat, and remaining food may attract insects. Some ferrets like to hide bits of food around the house; if one of your ferrets has this habit, supervise him while he eats meaty treats in order to avoid a stinky surprise later.
Foods to Avoid
Don’t feed a ferret any food that contains sugar; his digestive system can’t handle the carbohydrates. Avoid breakfast cereal, commercially prepared peanut butter, fruit, chocolate, cake, cookies and sweets. Other foods heavy in carbohydrates include bread, grains, rice, vegetables and dairy products. A ferret may become sick if he consumes carbs; he can even develop certain types of cancer or intestinal diseases.