Given that ferrets have become somewhat popular as pets, the amount of food and treats in stores that have ferrets on the front of the bag (or box) has grown as well. However, not all of these consumables are actually appropriate for ferrets. Unfortunately, a lot of stuff gets sold as “ferret food” or “ferret treats” that are totally inappropriate for our tubular cat-snakes, and can even cause major health problems! In this post, I will cover what to look for when buying kibble, treats, and other prepackaged foods for ferrets, and how to make your own healthy treats at home.
First and foremost, it’s important to remember that ferrets are obligate carnivores. This is defined as “An animal that necessarily subsists on a diet consisting mainly of meat, because it does not possess the physiology to digest vegetable matter.” Ferrets lack a cecum (a pouch at the beginning of the large intestine that, in herbivores, food is stored while bacteria breaks down the cellulose), and so ferrets are largely unable to digest plant matter.
Some people choose to feed their ferrets a “BARF” diet, or “Biologically Appropriate Raw Foods”. This includes what the domestic ferrets’ ancestors ate in the wild, whole prey items rodents, reptiles, amphibians, bird chicks, and occasionally eggs. Feeding whole prey ensures a good balance of protein and other nutrients, because prey items also include bones, hair, etc. However a BARF diet isn’t ideal for all ferret owners. There’s a higher cost associated with these whole prey items, and they’re not as convenient as kibble. There’s also the possibility of bacterial contamination, rot, and other hygiene concerns. There’s also a higher chance of intestinal blockages and punctures due to bones and other parts of the prey item. Finally, many ferrets are raised on kibble for the first several months of their lives. Ferrets quickly imprint on their food, and may be reluctant or refuse to try new foods, especially after six months of age.
My husband and I chose to go with a kibble-based diet, supplemented with plenty of high-quality “wet foods” (detailed below) and treats on a daily basis.
All dry kibble will have to contain some plant matter (as a filler and/or binding agent). Unfortunately this is unavoidable. However, not all kibble is created equal. Here are some things to look out for when selecting dry food for your ferrets:
- Five of the first six ingredients should be meat-based protein. This can include animal meat, bone and bone meal, fish, and eggs.
- NONE of the ingredients should contain wheat, corn, rice, or other grains.
- Acceptable plant materials include flax, beets, tapioca, and fruits and vegetables. Keep in mind that these should be as far-down on the ingredients list as possible. There is some debate as to whether or not pea fiber is acceptable, but I haven’t found to be a problem for my girls.
- Meat protein content should be 35% or higher.
- Fat content should be 18% or higher.
- Taurine is required for normal heart muscle and eye function. It’s present in poultry and fish, but many high quality ferret and cat foods add extra taurine as well.
- It’s okay to give your ferrets cat food! Ferrets and cats have very similar nutrition requirements, so a high-quality cat food will work for your ferrets as well. However, avoid dog food and dog treats, as dogs’ nutritional requirements are somewhat different than ferrets’, and dog food is more likely to contain higher portions of plant protein.
Unfortunately when we purchased our ferrets, we were advised by the pet store to maintain them on Marshall Ferret Kibble (because they are Marshall ferrets). In fact, the one-year warranty that comes with Marshall ferrets is only honored if you keep feeding them Marshall kibble. Unfortunately Marshall kibble is TERRIBLE for ferrets, and is likely to cause major health problems after only a few years!
Ferret Edu has an outstanding spreadsheet that is kept up-to-date with a list of almost 100 types of kibble, with details on protein, fat, fiber, and main ingredients. This was a great resource when I was deciding what kibble to get for my girls. I bought three different types (detailed below), and mixed them in large air-tight containers.
The higher quality was immediately evident. When swapping any pet to a new kibble, you should introduce it slowly, mixing a small amount with their existing kibble, and increasing the percentage over a couple of weeks. Well, that didn’t work, because the girls immediately started ignoring the Marshall kibble and eating only the higher-grade food. It’s darker, and smells more rich and meaty. We just stopped giving them the inferior kibble after a week or so, because they kept tossing it around the cage to get at the better quality food.
Kibble #1: Wysong Epigen 90 Digestive Support
This is hands-down the highest quality ferret food money can buy, PERIOD. And when you buy four-5lb bags at $99, it amounts to nearly the same price per pound as much lower quality kibble! ($5 per pound versus $4.85!)
Ingredients: Chicken Meal, Organic Chicken, Chicken Giblets, Chicken Fat, Dried Plain Beet Pulp, Meat Protein Isolate, Gelatin, Natural Flavor, Apple Pectin, Flaxseeds, Taurine, Calcium Propionate, Choline Chloride, Coconut Oil, Fish Oil, Yeast Extract, Citric Acid, Chicory Root, Hemicellulose Extract, Mixed Tocopherols, Rosemary Extract, Yeast Culture, Minerals (Potassium Chloride, Zinc Proteinate, Zinc Sulfate, Ferrous Sulfate, Iron Proteinate, Copper Sulfate, Copper Proteinate, Manganese Sulfate, Manganese Proteinate, Sodium Selenite, Calcium Iodate), Calcium Carbonate, Vitamins (Ascorbic Acid [source of Vitamin C], Vitamin E Supplement, Niacin Supplement, Calcium Pantothenate, Vitamin A Supplement, Thiamine Mononitrate, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride, Riboflavin Supplement, Vitamin D3 Supplement, Biotin, Vitamin B12 Supplement, Folic Acid), Dried Bacillus licheniformis Fermentation Product, Dried Aspergillus oryzae Fermentation Product, Dried Aspergillus niger Fermentation Product, Dried Enterococcus faecium Fermentation Product, Dried Lactobacillus casei Fermentation Product, Dried Lactobacillus acidophilus Fermentation Product, Dried Bacillus subtilis Fermentation Product, Dried Lactobacillus plantarum Fermentation Product, Dried Lactobacillus lactis Fermentation Product.
Kibble #2: EVO Turkey & Chicken Cat Food
Ingredients: Turkey, Chicken, Chicken Meal, Tapioca Starch, Chicken Fat, Herring, Pea Fiber, Salmon Meal, Natural Flavors, Potassium Chloride, Apples, Eggs, Carrots, Menhaden Oil, Peas, Cranberries, Alfalfa Sprouts, Pumpkin, Tomatoes, Cottage Cheese, Dried Chicory Root Extract, Minerals (Zinc Proteinate, Iron Proteinate, Copper Proteinate, Manganese Proteinate, Calcium Iodate), DL-Methionine, Vitamins (Betaine Hydrochloride, Niacin Supplement, Vitamin A Supplement, Thiamine Mononitrate, Calcium Pantothenate, Riboflavin Supplement, Beta Carotene, Vitamin B12 Supplement, Vitamin D3 Supplement, Biotin, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride, Folic Acid), Taurine, Ascorbic Acid, Vitamin E Supplement, Direct Fed Microbials (Dried Enterococcus faecium, Dried Lactobacillus acidophilus, Dried Lactobacillus casei), Rosemary Extract
Ingredients: Chicken Meal, De-boned Chicken, De-boned Turkey, Duck Meal, Turkey Meal, Salmon Meal, De-boned Trout, Chicken Fat (preserved with mixed tocopherols), Natural Fish Flavour, Peas, Potatoes, Whole Dried Egg, Potato Flour, Tapioca, De-boned Salmon, De-boned Duck, Salmon Oil, Pumpkin, Apples, Carrots, Bananas, Blueberries, Cranberries, Lentil Beans, Broccoli, Spinach, Cottage Cheese, Alfalfa, Sweet Potatoes, Blackberries, Papayas, Pineapple, Phosphoric Acid, Sodium Chloride, Potassium Chloride, DL-Methionine, Taurine, Choline Chloride, Dried Chicory Root, Dried Lactobacillus acidophilus Fermentation Product, Dried Enterococcus faecium Fermentation Product, Dried Aspergillus niger Fermentation Product, Dried Aspergillus oryzae Fermentation Product, Vitamins (Vitamin A Supplement, Vitamin D3 Supplement, Vitamin E Supplement, Niacin, Inositol, L-ascorbyl-2-polyphosphate (a source of vitamin C), Thiamine Mononitrate, D-Calcium Pantothenate, Riboflavin, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride, Beta-Carotene, Folic Acid, Biotin, Vitamin B12 Supplement), Minerals (Zinc Proteinate, Iron Proteinate, Copper Proteinate, Zinc Oxide, Manganese Proteinate, Copper Sulphate, Calcium Iodate, Ferrous Sulphate, Manganous Oxide, Sodium Selenite), Yucca Schidigera Extract, Yeast Extract, Dried Rosemary.
The three kibble selections above are readily available via Amazon, and are reasonably priced for their high quality.
AVOID Marshall “Premium” ferret diet! Compare the above to Marshall kibble, where only the first three items are meat, followed immediately by corn meal! And note that the first ingredient (and therefore the highest quantity) is chicken by-products, rather than actual meat. (Chicken meal is basically the same ingredient as chicken, but it’s carefully dried to a lower moisture content. So Chicken Meal is fine as a first ingredient.) So it’s worth noting below that Marshall kibble contains only ONE fully meat ingredient!
Chicken By-Products (organs only), Chicken, Chicken By-Product Meal, Corn Meal, Dried Beet Pulp, Brewers Dried Yeast, DL-Methionine, L-Lysine, Choline Chloride, Sodium Propionate (a preservative), Monocalcium Phosphate, Calcium Carbonate, Vitamin E Supplement, L-Ascorbyl-2-Polyphosphate (source of Vitamin C), Zinc Proteinate, Zinc Oxide, Taurine, Copper Proteinate, Vitamin A Acetate, Copper Sulfate, Niacin Supplement, Biotin, Sodium Selenite, D-Calcium Pantothenate, Inositol, Manganese Proteinate, Riboflavin Supplement, Thiamine Mononitrate, Vitamin B12 Supplement, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B6), Mixed Tocopherols and BHA (preservatives), Manganous Oxide, Cobalt Proteinate, Cobalt Carbonate, Vitamin D3 Supplement, Potassium Iodide, Folic Acid, Rosemary Extract.
While Marshall does meet the minimum protein and fat content for a ferret’s diet, the protein is very low quality. Corn can cause intestinal blockages, which are dangerous and can be fatal to ferrets. Also, the high carb-content of Marshall kibble can cause insulinoma (tumors in the pancreas)! Treating insulinoma in ferrets may require risky surgery, after which only about half of ferrets will do well for another 2-4 years.
Once we transitioned to a higher quality kibble, drastic results were quickly apparent. Onyx was missing a tuft of fur when we bought her, possibly pulled out during rough play. (It had clearly been pulled out, and hadn’t fallen out.) A couple of weeks on Marshall kibble saw no improvement. Her whiskers were also short and broken due to a coccidia infection, but still weren’t growing back after a round of antibiotics. However, once we switched the girls to higher quality kibble (and the other foods, treats, and supplements listed below), her hair quickly grew back in, and her whiskers grew in length. Both girls coats became glossy and soft, and their nails started growing very quickly. (We now have to trim their nails every 3-4 days!)
You can’t anticipate every problem, and it’s possible for ferrets that are fed even the healthiest diet to develop some health issues later in life. However, it’s important to give them the best possible chance at a long and healthy life, and this includes feeding them a high-quality diet of meat-based protein, and avoiding plant matter as much as possible.
Again, DO NOT FEED MARSHALL KIBBLE TO YOUR FERRETS!
Wet or Canned Food
We don’t want our girls to subsist on kibble alone, so every day they each get a spoonful or so of one of the below, or a mix of them. We put this food in a ramekin and then stir in some water, so the girls lap up the food. Pretty much everything in this section is available for much lower prices at Walmart than on Amazon, so I am linking to the Walmart product pages.
Note: AVOID FOODS that have the word “Gravy” in the title. Gravy often means wheat or another grain was added as a thickening agent. Do not feed any Gravy varieties to your ferrets!
Canned Sardines: Pretty much any brand will do, but be sure to buy sardines in spring water, no salt added. (Sardines come in a variety of liquids, including olive oil, soybean oil, mustard, hot sauce, and more. None of those are appropriate for your furkids!) Walmart carries Brunswick, Beach Cliff, and Ocean Prince brand sardines that meet this criteria. One of the great things about canned sardines is that they contain bones as well, which is great for your ferrets. The different texture is mentally stimulating, and bones are very healthy. There’s also the added benefit that these bones are softer than what you’d find in whole prey, meaning they’re less likely to cause blockages or punctures.
Baby Food: We prefer BeechNut variety baby food, because they offer a few meat-only varieties. (The only meat baby food I can find from Gerber all contains gravy, which as I mentioned, is not good for ferrets.) BeechNut is about 87 cents per can if you buy in packs of 10, or 98 cents per can if you buy them individually.
Note that BeechNut also sells a ham variety, but it’s Ham & Gravy, so avoid that flavor.
Fancy Feast: This is the highest quality cat food I found available at my local Walmart, with no grain ingredients (as long as you avoid the flavors with “Gravy”). Acceptable flavors include the Seafood Classic Pate Collection (Cod, Sole, & Shrimp Feast; Savory Salmon Feast; Ocean Whitefish & Tuna Feast), and the Poultry & Beef Classic Pate Collection (Tender Beef Feast, Chicken Feast, Turkey & Giblets Feast).
Do NOT get anything from the “Grilled” or “Sliced” collections as they will all contain wheat gluten in their “Gravy”. To reiterate, never buy anything with the word “Gravy” in the flavor!
There are so many freeze-dried meat treats available that there’s little reason to give your ferrets treats that include plant protein at all. We do, however, give this one type of cat food as a treat, because it’s very expensive. It’s not exactly a kibble, but it does come little pillow-poof shaped nuggets. At a cost of $24 for 3/4 of a pound (!!!) it’s not something we want to have to buy regularly. So it’s included here as a “treat” instead of in the “food” section. Rather than mixing this food with warm water (as suggested on the bag), we simply give one nugget as a treat.
Ingredients: Duck (Ground With Bone), Turkey, Turkey Liver, Goose, Turkey Gizzard, Pumpkin Seed, Potassium Chloride, Sodium Phosphate Monobasic, Choline Chloride, Dried Pediococcus Acidilactici Fermentation Product, Dried Lactobacillus Acidophilus Fermentation Product, Dried Bifidobacterium Longum Fermentation Product, Taurine, Tocopherols (Preservative), Zinc Proteinate, Zinc Sulfate, Iron Sulfate, Iron Proteinate, Vitamin E Supplement, Niacin, Copper Sulfate, Copper Proteinate, Riboflavin, Manganese Sulfate, Sodium Selenite, Manganese Proteinate, Thiamine Mononitrate, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride, Vitamin D3 Supplement, Folic Acid, Calcium Iodate, Vitamin B12 Supplement
These treats are exactly what the labels say. The giblets include Chicken Liver and Chicken Heart, and the minnows are just Minnows. That’s it.
Note that this brand also makes Rabbit Bites (Rabbit, Rabbit Heart, Rabbit Kidney, Rabbit Liver), Duck Liver (one ingredient), and several other one-ingredient freeze dried products. These are all excellent choices as ferret treats, assuming your ferret likes the flavor.
Again, these treats have one ingredient in the bag: chicken breast, or shrimp. Exactly what it says on the label. PureBites also offers White Fish and Turkey. These are also great choices for ferret treats!
Unsurprisingly, Marshall also sells ferret treats that are TERRIBLE for your furkids. Their “Bandits” label treats are full of sugar, grains, and fillers. Read the ingredients on anything you intend to feed your ferrets, and always avoid grain ingredients. With so many freeze-dried fully meat products available, there’s no reason to give your ferrets junk food as a treat!
Homemade treats are easily made from foods you probably already have around the house. The only downside is that they will spoil quickly.
Raw Egg Yolk: Separate an egg yolk and put it on a plate or in a small bowl, and let your furkids lap it up. Avoid feeding your ferrets raw egg whites, though. Ferrets need Biotin, which is found in high quantities in the yolk. However, there’s a protein in raw egg whites that causes ferrets to absorb less Biotin. This protein is destroyed in the cooking process, though.
Cooked Eggs: Hard boil or scramble some eggs, and see if your fuzzbutts like the flavor!
Boiled Chicken: Boil a whole chicken in water, and then tear all of the meat and organs to shreds. Feed in small doses. This is what I use when Clicker-Training Opal, and that’s the only time she gets it, so it’s a special treat for her. Note: you can give raw, un-heated bones from chicken to ferrets, as long as they’re not super small. However, NEVER give cooked chicken bones to any animal! Cooked chicken bones will splinter and can cause severe internal damage!
Ferretone is a skin and coat supplement that provides fats and nutrients, and improves the flavor of EVERYTHING (according to ferrets, anyway). We give about one mL of this to the girls each day, and also mix it with medicine or anything else we need them to consume that they otherwise don’t want to. They love the flavor!
Tomlyn Hairball Remedy is a dark brown substance with the consistency of honey that ferrets also really enjoy. There are other brands of hairball remedy that my girls like just as much, but Tomlyn has a few advantages. First, it’s just barely thin enough that it can be sucked into a syringe for easy feeding. (The other brand I’ve tried is just too thick to get into a syringe.) Second, the tube has a flat cap that lets me store the tube upright. (Other tubes are more like toothpaste tubes, and so have to be stored on their side). At first we gave the girls about one mL per day, but now we give about a half mL 3 times per week.