Hand-Rearing Ferrets (Mustela putorius furo)

Summary Information

Type of technique Health & Management / Disease Investigation & Management / Techniques:
Synonyms and Keywords N.B. This information should be read in association with Rearing of Mammals (Mammal Husbandry and Management).

For hand-rearing of wild small mustelids see: 

Initial Care
  • If kits are cold and still (hypothermic) warm them gently in your hand or e.g. on a well-padded hot water bottle. (B652.7.w7)
General Care including warmth and hygiene
  • Initially keep in a small nestbox such as a high-sided cardboard box, basket, or even a plastic washing up bowl. (B652.7.w7)
  • Line with plenty of newspaper for insulation topped by bedding such as clean straw, hay or towel. (B652.7.w7)
  • Keep the nest box in a quiet, warm and dry place away from draughts. (B652.7.w7)
  • Initially keep at about 80 F and 50-60% humidity. (B652.7.w7)
  • Clean the box frequently, because it will get soiled. (B652.7.w7)
    • Preferably, move each kit into a ready-prepared clean box as it is fed - this is a simple way to clean the box, and makes sure all kits are fed without errors regarding which have and have not been fed. (B652.7.w7)
  • Make sure each kit is clean (any milk wiped from the face, and urine or faeces produced during toileting removed) and dry before replacing it in the nest box. (B652.7.w7)
  • From about four weeks, provide a larger box in which they can exercise more. (B652.7.w7)
Milk Replacer
  • Milk replacer for kittens or puppies can be used. (B652.7.w7)
  • Kitten or puppy milk replaced with added whipping cream to give 20% fat, e.g. Esbilac puppy milk replacer mixed 3:1 with whipping cream. (B338.26.w26)
  • Add egg yolk to a kitten feeding formula, since ferret milk contains more fat than cat's milk. (B631.17.w17)
  • A 1:2 mixture of evaporated milk and water, mixed with an egg yolk has been used to rear ferrets from two weeks of age. (B651.6.w6)
  • Always feed the milk replacer warm and at a consistent temperature. Place the mixed milk replacer into a container in a warm water bath to keep it warm. (B652.7.w7)
  • Mix fresh milk replacer for each feed. (B652.7.w7)
  • Ensure the formula is made up the same every time. (B652.7.w7)
  • Use a 1-3 mL syringe, with or without a cannula attached initially. (B338.26.w26)
  • In older kits, a small feeding bottle and nipple can be used. (B338.26.w26)
    • A kitten feeding bottle can be used. (B631.17.w17)
    • Catac feeding bottles with cat feeding nipples [long and thin] can be used. (B652.7.w7)
Feeding Frequency
  • Initially feed every two hours, day and night. (B338.26.w26, B631.17.w17, B652.7.w7)
  • Gradually reduce the number of night feeds over a period of two weeks. (B338.26.w26)
  • By three weeks, feed every 3-4 hours. (B338.26.w26, B652.7.w7)
Feeding Technique
  • Have the kit in a quiet place with low lighting. Handle the kit gently and talk softly. (B338.26.w26, B652.7.w7)
  • Wrap the kit in a towel, head protruding. Place it on its front, tilted head upward (similar position to nursing from the jill), not on its back. (B338.26.w26, B652.7.w7)
  • Gently place the tip of the feeding teat/cannula into the mouth, slightly to one side, with a drop of milk on the end of the nipple. (B338.26.w26, B652.7.w7)
  • If a kit will not take the teat and suckle initially, use a 1 mL syringe, placing the tip of the syringe just into the mouth and dribbling milk in very slowly so the kit can swallow. (B338.26.w26, B652.7.w7)
    • Practice beforehand with a syringe, pressing the plunger really slowly. (V.w5)
    • Do not re-use the same syringe once the plunger starts to stick, as it then tends to "give" suddenly, with can flood the kit's mouth and lead to choking. (V.w5)
  • After feeding, wipe the kit's face gently to remove any traces of milk. (B652.7.w7)
  • Feed until the kit starts rejecting the milk, but avoid overfeeding. (B338.26.w26, B652.7.w7)
  • Feed about 10% of body weight. (B652.7.w7)
  • Feed about 0.5 mL at a feed initially, increasing to about 1 mL per feed by the end of the first week. (B338.26.w26)
  • If the kit develops diarrhoe, reduce the quantity fed or the strength of the milk substitute. (B338.26.w26)
  • Just after every feed, the kits should be stimulated to urinate/defecate. (B627.8.w8, B338.26.w26, B652.7.w7)
  • Stroke the belly and back legs, and gently wiping the anogenital area using a ball of cotton wool or a cloth, moistened in warm water. (B338.26.w26, B652.7.w7)
  • The kit should urinate after each feed, but may not always defecate. Urination and defecation happen at about the same time. (B338.26.w26)
  • Make sure all traces of faeces are wiped off the kit. (B652.7.w7)
  • From about three weeks of age (about the same time they start eating soft foods, and moving around), kits will start urinating/defecating without stimulation. (B627.8.w8, B338.26.w26)
  • Small mammals being hand-reared should be weighed daily. (V.w5) This is to:
    • Assess growth, and detect any check in weight gain which may indicate a problem. (V.w5)
    • Calculate quantity of milk replacer to feed, when this is calculated as a percentage of body weight. (V.w5)
  • Expect weight loss in ferret kits for about the first two days of hand-rearing. (B652.7.w7)
  • Kits should increase weight from about 8-10 g at birth to 30 g at a week old, 60-70 g by two weeks, more than 100g by three weeks. (B338.26.w26)
  • By three weeks old, start offering small amounts of solid food - e.g. raw meat scraped to form a puree. (B652.7.w7)
  • By four weeks, provide food for chewing, reduce the quantity of bottle feeding and provide milk supplement in a shallow dish for the kits to drink. (B652.7.w7)
  • By five weeks hand-feeding should no longer be needed; the kits should be eating sufficient milk formula and food by themselves. (B652.7.w7)
  • From six weeks, reduce the milk provided, so that it can be stopped entirely at eight weeks (when they would normally be weaned). (B652.7.w7)
Appropriate Use (?) When the jill rejects her kits or is unable to rear her kits due to lack of milk, and there is no other lactating jill to foster the kits. (B338.26.w26)
Notes --
Complications/ Limitations / Risk
  • Hand-rearing ferret kits from birth is very difficult. (B338.26.w26, B602.1.w1)
  • Hand-rearing kits is very time consuming, and may not be successful. (B652.7.w7)
  • Manual dexterity is important for caring for these small individuals.
  • Requires empathy, observation skills and the ability to "read" the animals' body language.
  • Experience with hand-rearing is useful and is likely to greatly increase the success rate.
Equipment / Chemicals required and Suppliers
  • Esbilac (Pet Ag, Kruus UK Ltd., Unit 17, Moor Lane Industrial Estate, Sherburn in Elmet, North Yorkshire, LS25 6ES) (PetAg Inc, Illinois, USA).

  • Catac feeding bottles and teats: Catac Products Limited

Expertise level / Ease of Use
  • Hand-rearing kits is difficult and very time consuming. It required patience and consistency. (B652.7.w7) Hand-rearing should only be attempted by someone who has the time and patience this requires.
Cost/ Availability
  • Products and equipment all widely available, not particularly expensive.
Legal and Ethical Considerations
  • Hand-rearing should not be started unless the carer is prepared to give the time and effort required for rearing to release, or to ensure that appropriate care will be continued through to release.
  • If an appropriate level of care cannot be given, the kits should be euthanased. (B651.6.w6)
Author Dr Debra Bourne MA VetMB PhD MRCVS (V.w5)
References B338.26.w26, B602.1.w1, B627.8.w8, B631.17.w17, B652.7.w7

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