Ferret Starter Guide
First off, Ferrets are obligate carnivores, this means they require strictly animal proteins and fats to meet nutritional requirements. They, just like cats, must have taurine added to their diet as well. Ferrets imprint on their food at a young age-between 4-6 months of old. Kits will eat almost anything you put in front of them. As they reach 6-9 months old they become more solidly imprinted on their food. For this reason it is important to offer young kits a variety of foods that you may want to feed them in the future so that they become exposed and open to the variety. Older ferrets who are firmly imprinted on a specific food can be more difficult to switch – but don’t worry! Even the most stubborn ferrets can be switched onto a raw diet.
Keep in mind that this process is different for every ferret and some may need to take the switch slower than others, while some may take to it right away. Additionally, there are many different methods, tricks, and approaches to making the switch – no single method is necessarily the “best.” If there is something you found that worked best for you and your ferret by all means stick with it. This article is just one of many ways of switching your ferret over to their proper diet.
Something to remember: Your ferret has NO IDEA that raw meat is food. A ferret imprinted on kibble has to LEARN that raw is not only edible, but delicious as well. This takes time, patience, and above all -persistence!
**PLEASE NOTE: Ferrets should not be transitioned while pregnant or nursing without guidance by an experienced mentor and supplementation. Pregnant jills and young kits require consistently high levels of calcium for proper development.**
A balanced raw diet for a ferret should have the following ratios:
Adult ferrets, target at 10% body weight at 2 meals a day. Kits, target at 20% at 4 meals a day.
Muscle Meat 65-75% (Ideally, gizzards should also be included in the muscle meat)
Heart 10% (yes, heart is a muscle but the taurine content in heart is so vital that it is given its own category)
Edible Bone: 10-15% (please note the use of the word edible. Any bones left uneaten – such as large bones – cannot be included as part of the bone-content in the diet) – Note that dry, hard stools indicate they are getting too much bone and soft stools indicates they are not getting enough bone.
Now on to the transition:
Step One: Gathering the Ingredients and Making “Raw Soup“
You will need the following items:
a good blender
raw boneless chicken (thigh preferred over breast).We typically recommend starting with chicken as it is one of the easiest meats to find, and more bland in flavor than other raw meats, thus more easily accepted.
raw chicken liver (or other raw liver)
raw chicken heart
chicken necks or pre-ground chicken necks if your blender isn't strong enough to grind bone.
water or bone broth
Blend all of the ingredients above using a blender or food processor. Blenders tend to get the best results for consistency. You can adjust the thickness by adding more or less water/broth. For particularly stubborn ferrets you can add a little salmon or fish oil to improve the flavor in the beginning of the transition process.
For the EXTREMELY stubborn ferret start with kibble soup, and slowly replace it with raw chicken:
To make kibble soup, soak some kibble in warm water first (or it will burn out your blender), then add more water and blend to the desired consistency. Start by finger feeding the kibble soup to your ferret to adjust them to the new texture. Once they accept the kibble soup, you can work on gradually adding raw soup while decreasing the kibble soup.
Step 2: Introducing Your Ferret to Raw Soup
Remove the Kibble:
First it is important to remove your ferret’s kibble a few hours before offering the raw soup. It is best to remove the kibble about 3-4 hours ahead of time. This allows the kibble to exit their digestive tract to avoid upset stomachs, and also ensures that they are feeling hungry when you offer them the new soup.
NOTE: If your ferret has insulinoma, please watch them carefully for signs of hypoglycemia and remove kibble at about 2-3 hours (instead of 3-4). If your ferret has shown ANY signs of illness or odd behavior, they should be seen by a vet. If your ferret has been on kibble for 2 or more years, or has an unknown history (e.g. rescued/adopted ferrets) is a good idea to test your ferret’s Blood Glucose before starting a switch as many ferrets can have early insulinoma that has not yet begun to show symptoms.
If after an hour trial of soup feeding your insulinomic ferret has not eaten a substantial meal of raw, give them their kibble back (and make sure they eat some!) to avoid sending them into a life-threatening crash. We highly advise using a Mentor to switch ferrets with insulinoma if you are new to switching ferrets, as their transition can be much trickier since keeping Blood Glucose up is so vital.
Taste the Soup (them not you!):
Each ferret may take to the soup differently, but be persistent and they will eventually eat it. Put a little soup on your finger and let your ferrets sniff it. If they lick it and like it, then offer them a small dish of the soup. If they take to the soup quickly, remove all kibble and begin feeding them a diet of just the soup – you just made a big step on the way to a raw diet!
If they do not take to it right away don’t worry! MOST ferrets will NOT take to raw right away. Dab a little soup onto your ferret’s nose for them to lick it off. Sit on the floor where they play, and every time your ferret runs by pick them up and dab another drop of soup on their nose. Do this for as much time as you can each day, preferably repeating the process at each meal time.
Finger to Bowl:
If the ferret will eat the soup off of your finger, but not from the bowl there are a few tricks that you can try. First, finger feed them the food. When they are willingly eating it off of your fingers, move your finger closer and closer to a spoon full of the soup, and slowly take your finger away. Keep trying this until they will eat from the spoon. Once they will eat from the spoon, repeat this process with a bowl, lowering the spoon towards a bowl and eventually removing it. This may take several days of hand feeding for stubborn ferrets.
Other tricks to try:
Drizzle some salmon oil (or your ferret’s favorite oil) on top of the soup
Add an egg to the soup (if they have sloppy poops you may need to cut back on the amount of egg you use)
You can also sprinkle some crushed kibble over the soup to help entice them to taste it. (Not a preferred method.)
REMEMBER: The process of switching often requires taking two steps forward one step back, but slow and steady wins the race. PATIENCE AND PERSISTENCE are key! As long as YOU are determined to switch your ferret to a raw diet, you will succeed.
Step 3: Ditch the Kibble!
Once the ferret begins to eat the soup consistently, remove the kibble from their diet completely. Congratulations, they are now on a RAW soup diet!
Do NOT let your ferret run the show!
Keep in mind that ferrets are very stubborn and intelligent they can and will try to manipulate you into giving them their way. Many ferrets will “refuse” to eat their raw despite being adjusted to the taste because they know that if they refuse long enough, you will cave and give them back their precious kibble. THEY have trained YOU! This is often even worse with Freeze Dried food! Both kibble and freeze dried are very “addictive.” For this reason, we recommend holding freeze dried food and treats until AFTER your ferret is fully switched to raw. Once your switch is complete, you can add the occasional freeze dried meal or treat back into their diet, but not before.
If you are worried that your ferret is not eating enough, weigh them regularly and track their weight over time to watch for significant losses (keeping in mind that some fluctuation is normal, and that there is a significant drop in weight when your ferret enters spring/summer mode.) You can also dangle your ferret and look at their sides – their sides should be roughly parallel. Bulging sides means they are overweight (OR can be a sign of organ enlargement requiring a vet visit). Hourglass sides indicate that your ferret is underweight. If you think your ferret is too skinny, we suggest that you attempt hand feeding the raw soup to ensure your ferret is eating enough. (Do not give back the kibble unless you absolutely have to). This will also help to accustom them even more to the raw food. Once they gain the weight back, begin weaning them off of hand feeding to eating on their own.
Stay strong! Would you let a human toddler dictate what they eat every day? (Even if they chose to eat nothing but ice cream for breakfast, lunch and dinner)? Remember that YOU are the adult, YOU are the parent, and YOU decide what your ferret eats, NOT your ferret!
Health Note: At this point in the switch your ferret is on a soft foods diet. In addition, it takes some time for their GI tracts to adjust to the new foods. It is normal to see strange poops at this point in the switch, and you should expect stools to be significantly softer than usual.
Step 4: Adding Chunks
*Any ferret not yet eating chunks of meat and raw bones will need their teeth brushed 1-2x per week.*
Now that your ferret is eating raw soup, it is time to start incorporating chunks into their diet. Before and during the process of adding slivers and chunks, start mixing less water/broth into the soup when blending it so that it becomes a thick puree. When the soup is nice and thick, start adding slivers of meat, the size of your fingernail cresent. A bit larger than ground, but still very small.
Begin with small pieces of chicken, cut to a sliver size and mix the slivers into the soup. You may need to hand feed a few meals before your ferret gets the idea. Once again, adding a little fish or salmon oil can help to entice picky, stubborn ferrets.
Once they eat the small chunks, congratulate yourself! Now it is time to slowly decrease the soup, and increase the chunks both in size and number like so:
Slivers to bite sized--tiny diced bits of meat approx. 1/8" cubes
Bite sized to small chunks- a bit larger, approx 1/4" cubes
Small chunks to Med. chunks- 1/2" cubes
Finally from Med. chunks to Large chunks- 1" cubes
Eventually they should be eating medium to large sized chunks of raw meat with little to no soup. Again, you can use any of the tricks previously discussed to help move them through this step.
DON'T FORGET THE CALCIUM! As you start to decrease the soup you will also need to start adding in calcium (bone). Start off with ground form (chicken necks recommended) and as they become used to chewing the chunks you may begin to introduce whole (edible) bones afterwards. Introducing bones will be continued in Step 6.
Step 5: Heart, Organs, and New Meats
Now that your ferret will eat chunks of meat it is time to incorporate organs, heart, and other meats into their diet. This can be tricky and there are a few ways to approach it.
This is the more popular, and in some ways easier, approach. When you start adding slivers of muscle meat into your ferret’s soup, include slivers of heart and organ at the same time. This way, they learn to accept chunks of heart, chunks of organ, and chunks of muscle meat at the same time. As you progress and your chunks get bigger, you will need to start separating out the heart, organs, and muscle meals to create a balanced diet.
Start with the raw soup that they ate before adding chunks, and slowly increase the heart and organ, while decreasing the muscle meat. Start with feeding the soup about 7 meals a week (on a 2 meal per day schedule), and continue to work on chunks the other 7 meals. When the soup is 1/2 heart and organs (1/2 muscle), feed it for 5-6 meals a week. When the soup is all heart and organs (1/2 heart, 1/2 organ), feed it 3 meals a week. Next, decrease the soup and add in chunks of liver and heart.
Both of the above approaches apply to adding in new meats. You can also try these tricks:
Try mixing in a couple of very small chunks of the new meat into the chopped chicken (or other meat they are already familiar with) and coat in a light layer of soup or oil. Increase the size and number of the new-meat chunks and decrease the chicken/familiar meat chunks.
Make a dish of the new meat, and use Soup made of chicken (or other familiar meat) to coat the new meat – think of the soup as being a “gravy” to coat the new meat in to hide the flavor. Gradually decrease the soup “gravy.”
Combine the two!
At various points continue to try hand feed chunks and/or new proteins – if you can jump ahead a step without the gradual switching process it is always good to do so. If they don’t take to hand fed chunks right away though, keep trying with the gradual switch.
You can continue working on adding in more variety while you move onto the next steps.
Step 6: Bones
Now it is time to cross the final big step in converting your ferret to an all-raw diet – bones!
You will need:
Strong scissors or poultry shears
Sharp, Sturdy Knife
Small, edible bones (we will use chicken necks for the purposes of this article. Other great options include bones like cornish game hen, rabbit, quail, pheasant, any small poultry, and poultry wing tips, etc).
Using the scissors/shears or knife, cut the necks into small chunks, about the size of the meat chunks your ferret will eat or smaller and give them a smash with the mallet, turning the bones into a pulp. Mix this pulp into their regular meat.
You may want to hand feed a small piece of the bony pulp so that your ferret can taste it. Again, you can use tricks like covering the bony pulp in soup or oil (gradually decreasing these once they begin to eat the bones) so they recognize the bone is food.
When they will eat the small pieces, begin to gradually increase the size of the bones by smashing them less and less.(Try to minimize mid-sized chunks that can be swallowed whole but are big enough to be difficult to pass). Eventually they will have built up the jaw strength and taste for whole bones.
Keep in mind that larger bones such as leg-bones should be cracked open enough to give them a starting point (usually 1-2 hits with a hammer is sufficient). Some ferrets can eat bones as large as pork ribs, and some can eat entire turkey necks while others will only eat the smaller bony projections and the inner marrow of the vertebrae. Get to know your ferrets and their bone-eating capacity as you will need to adjust your menu to accommodate their eating habits and ensure that they receive enough edible bone. Large bones such as beef and large pork bones should not be fed. Feeding sliced large bones in which the marrow is easily accessible is okay, but monitor your ferrets closely as chewing on large bones can crack teeth.
Step 7: Making a Balanced Menu
Congratulations! Your ferret is now on a raw diet! Now it is time to ensure that your ferret is receiving a properly balanced and varied diet. Please note: an improperly balanced raw diet can be dangerous to your ferrets’ health by causing nutritional deficiencies or overload. It is very important to make sure your ferret has a diet that is balanced, and high in variety!
For balance, a raw diet for a ferret should consist of the following ratios:
Non-Heart Muscle Meat 65-75% (Ideally, gizzards should also be included in the muscle meat)
Heart 10% (yes, heart is a muscle but the taurine content in heart is so vital that it is given its own category)
Organs: 10% (half of this should be liver, and half should consist of other organs such as kidney, spleen, brain, reproductive organs, etc.
Edible Bone: 10-15%
Food should be switched out about every 12 hours. This means 2 meals a day: the am meal given at “breakfast” and kept available in their cage all day, and the pm meal is given at “dinner” and available all night. (Thus one “meal” is the amount of food they eat in 12 hours).
A simple meal plan for a week:
2 Meals per day = 14 meals a week.
Using this every week your ferret needs:
2-4 meals Muscle Meat (non-heart, boneless meat)
1.5 meals Heart
1.5 meals Organs (half of this should be liver, and half should consist of other organs.
7-9 meals of Edible Bone-In Meal
How Long Meals Can Be Left Out:
Soups: 6-8 hours
Grinds: 8-12 hours
Chunks: 10-24 hours (depending on size eg. the bigger the chunks are, the longer they’ll last)
Bone-in Meats: 12-24 hours (again, depending on size)
Whole Prey: up to 48 hours
Your ferret should regularly receive a bare minimum of 3-4 proteins. However, the more variety you can offer the better! Even mixing in new meats on occasion is better than never. A minimum of 3-4 proteins should be fed year-round (for example, pork, chicken, and beef); one of these should ideally be a red meat (beef, goat, lamb, venison). Most meats sold as fit for human consumption are okay to feed ferrets as long as they are NOT processed, seasoned, or injected (read labels carefully).
Below is a list of food suggestions:
beef (also veal)
fish (mackerel, salmon, halibut, goldfish, etc also, fish oil is very good for them)
venison and game meats
rodents (mice, rats, African soft furred rats, guinea pigs, etc)
Cornish game hen
Some parts that are good to have of all of the above animals:
heart (is a muscle meat but vital for the taurine)
liver and other organs
tongue (a muscle meat, but extremely high in taurine)
brain (VERY nutritious organ meat – high in healthy Omega Fatty Acids)
lung (great source of iron and Vitamin B)
gizzards (is a muscle meat – great for cleaning teeth)
chicken feet (good bone source)
necks (also a good bone source, may need to be smashed up)
ribs (pork ribs are NOT edible for most ferrets. If your ferret does not eat the bone, it does not count towards their bone content)
Fattier meats: Ferrets derive much of their energy from fat. Many human-grade meats are very lean (because we humans often prefer to avoid fatty cuts), as such it is recommended to include some fattier meats in your ferret’s diet.
Health Note: Feeding sufficient quantities of a balanced raw diet is all that it takes to “fatten up” an underweight ferret. It is NOT healthy to make ferrets gain too much weight, or gain weight too fast. If your ferret is already on a balanced raw diet and still underweight, please have them assessed by a veterinarian as there are likely health problems causing the weight-loss, such as Adrenal Disease, Insulinoma, or Lymphoma.
All in all following these steps, practice patience, persistence and you will have your ferret on the right track to a proper species appropriate diet!
For more information please visit The Holistic Ferret Forum