While most people are familiar with domestic pet ferrets, fewer realize that these popular pocket pets have wild cousins!
Wild ferrets are endangered and rarely seen in their native territory of North America today. Other relatives of ferrets also exist in various places around the world.
In this article, learn what wild ferrets eat and find out how this translates to feeding a pet ferret.
What Do Ferrets Eat In the Wild
If you are at all familiar with the feline diet, you already know what wild ferrets eat. Wild ferrets, like all felines, are what are known as obligate carnivores.
An obligate carnivore is an animal whose digestive and gastrointestinal system has evolved to require a diet of pure animal protein. Typically the wild diet is raw whole prey.
In the rest of this article, you will learn more about exactly what types of prey wild ferrets like to eat and also how to ensure your pet ferret is getting the most nutritionally appropriate diet.
Learn How to Adopt a Wild Ferret Diet for Pet Ferrets
This very helpful and detailed short YouTube video explains how to adapt the typical wild ferret diet for feeding young (kit) ferrets and adult ferrets.
The video goes into great detail about feeding frequency, food types, portion sizes based on age and consumption, and percentages of each food type to offer in a week.
Meet the Wild Black-Footed Ferret
According to Live Science, the North American black-footed ferret, or Mustela nigripes, is critically endangered in its wild habitat.
This species is the rarest mammal in the whole of North America, based on information from the University of Michigan’s Animal Diversity Website.
A number of factors conspired to wipe out the wild population, including two key events: efforts by ranchers to exterminate prairie dogs and a canine distemper outbreak.
Both events rendered the black-footed ferret functionally extinct in its native wild territories in 1987.
Conservation and captive breeding efforts are slowly reintroducing this species to what remains of its natural wild habitat with some success.
Does the Wild Ferret Have Any Relatives
The wild ferret belongs to a larger genus, Mustela, and family, Mustelidae.
As the Elmwood Park Zoo describes, the Mustela genus includes the black-footed North American ferret and also badgers, mink, otters, weasels, and skunks.
Many people think that ferrets belong to the rodent family but as the Williamsburg Veterinary Clinic explains, they are actually more closely related to the dog!
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) points out that ferrets come from the weasel family and additional relatives include ermines, polecats, and stoats.
It is thought that wild ferrets were first domesticated around 2,500 years ago and share a common ancestor in a European polecat.
What Does the Wild Black-Footed Ferret Eat
According to Animal Info & Endangered Animals, the number one source of prey for the wild black-footed ferret is wild prairie dogs.
In a wild setting, black-footed ferrets take 90 percent of their nutrition from eating prairie dogs.
This information makes it much easier to see how efforts to wipe out prairie dogs could also effectively wipe out wild ferrets as well.
The prairie dogs were exterminated because their tunneling and foraging behaviors were destroying ranch lands and farmlands.
But by declaring war on the prairie dogs, the ranchers and farmers unknowingly declared war on the ferrets as well.
Between the toxins and plowing used to destroy the prairie dogs and the removal of the ferret population’s primary food source, the ferrets stood little chance of survival.
What Does the Wild Ferret’s Name Mean
The scientific name of the wild ferret is Mustelidae putorius furo.
Believe it or not, this name translates to mean “stinky mouse thief.”
Biologists believe the species name “ferret” comes from a Latin word, “furittus,” which means “little thief.”
They are said to be stinky because ferrets have a special scent gland that produces their signature fragrance – musk. Wild ferrets use this gland to mark their territory and advertise for mates.
How Do Wild Ferrets Hunt for Food
While domestic ferrets rely on their human carers for their daily meals, in the wild a ferret has to hunt if they want to eat dinner.
But how do ferrets, with their long skinny bodies and short legs, hunt their prey?
If you have ever heard the saying “to ferret out” you already have a good idea of what a hungry ferret does to grab a meal. These long skinny mammals easily fit into burrows where rabbits, prairie dogs, mice, rats, and other small rodents hide.
They head into the burrows or tunnels and chase their prey right out of their homes!
Ferrets also make skillful defenders and have been used to guard grain from hungry rodents. Ferrets don’t eat the grain, of course. But they are happy to make a meal for any hungry rodents who try to steal some.
Do Wild Ferrets Eat Any Fruits or Vegetables
As The Veterinary Nurse explains, ferrets truly do require a pure protein diet.
An animal like the wild ferret that is an obligate carnivore, or pure meat (animal protein) eater, is going to have a short and simple digestive tract that pushes food through very quickly.
Feeding any type of produce, such as fruits or vegetables, can cause severe gastrointestinal upset.
However, since a wild ferret’s main prey, the prairie dog, is a herbivore (plant-eater), wild ferrets do take in a small amount of predigested plant matter with each meal.
Some of the prey animals that wild ferrets hunt, such as rats or mice, are omnivores and will consume animal protein when available. Opportunistic omnivorous scavengers like rats may even consume cooked or processed meat if they find it.
But wild ferrets are not going to seek out grasses, vegetables, fruits, or herbs on their own to feed on. Their gastrointestinal system is not set up to effectively digest these types of foods.
Wild Ferrets Get Their Dietary Needs Met From Eating Whole Prey
More pet owners today are choosing to feed their dogs and cats raw animal protein diets.
The same holds true for many domestic ferret owners.
While domestic ferrets and wild ferrets are not one and the same breed – in fact, they are close relatives – both species are obligate carnivores. Both tend to do better on a whole prey diet wherever possible.
The reason a whole prey diet is preferable is that feeding whole prey delivers everything a wild ferret needs through the prey animal: protein, fats, carbohydrates, water, vitamins, trace minerals, and other vital nutrients.
A whole prey diet includes organ meats, muscle meats, fatty acids, amino acids and also helps to keep the teeth clean and healthy.
Will Wild Ferrets Overeat to Guard Against Lean Times
While many pet dogs and cats today struggle with issues of overweight and obesity, ferrets do not typically have this issue.
Animals that will overeat (gorge) to guard against times when food is scarce or they enter hibernation are called opportunistic feeders.
Wild ferrets will do something a little different to prepare for times of scarcity. The cache (store) their food.
As the Journal of Exotic Pet Behavior explains, ferrets (both wild and domestic) have a high metabolism and need to eat small meals more frequently to sustain their energy levels.
A wild ferret will eat to meet its immediate caloric needs and stash the rest of the prey inside its tunnel to eat later.
Wild Ferrets Eat a Varied Diet
While wild ferrets prefer to eat prairie dogs whenever possible, a hungry ferret will not go hungry if the opportunity to kill a mouse, rat, rabbit, or other less desirable prey animal presents itself.
This ensures that wild ferrets take in a varied animal protein-based diet with a full complement of vitamins, trace minerals, and other essential nutrients.
Wild ferrets that are bred in a captive setting for re-release into the wild later are typically fed a whole prey diet that includes frozen mice of an appropriate size or young chicks and a variety of raw meats including muscle meats and organ meats.
Can Wild Ferrets Eat Cooked Meat
As The American Ferret Association points out, ferrets should not be fed any cooked or processed, cured, salted, or treated meat foods.
Ferrets should only be fed frozen and thawed or raw animal protein. This goes for both wild ferrets and domestic ferrets.
Gnawing on the bones of prey animals also offers an important source of calcium and helps keep a wild ferret’s teeth healthy and clean, as the RSPCA points out.
Wild and Domestic Ferrets Eat Alike
Even though the domestic ferret is not the same animal as the endangered wild ferret, they are close relatives.
Both the wild and domestic ferrets need a pure animal protein diet.