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Basic Information

Ferrets (Mustela putorius furo) are small, domesticated mammals belonging to the family Mustelidae (weasel). They are related to otters, skunks, minks and badgers and are most closely related to polecats, from which they were probably domesticated. They have elongated bodies and sharp teeth. They have a distinctive musky odor and can "express" their smell in a manner similar to their relative the skunk, except much less powerful. Their fur color ranges from dark brown to white and they frequently have "mask" patterns on their faces, which no doubt adds to their reputation as thieves. They are playful and curious and are popular as pets.

Although there are some small pockets of feral ferrets in some remote places in the world, such as New Zealand and the Shetland Islands, the only truly wild species of ferret is the Black-Footed Ferret of the Southwestern United States, an endangered species that until recently was on the brink of extinction.

It is believed that the ferret was domesticated about 2500 years ago. According to some authorities, the Egyptians were the first to domesticate ferrets, although no physical or documentary evidence has yet confirmed this. The ancient Romans probably used ferrets for hunting.

For much of history, they have been working animals used in hunting rabbits and small animals. In ferreting, the hunter first locates as many rabbit holes as possible, and puts nets over all the holes but one. Then he sends the ferret down the remaining hole. Ferrets are natural explorers and love tunnels. They will chase the rabbits out into the nets where they can be easily collected by the hunter. Collecting the ferret is sometimes harder, as they will sometimes decide to nap in the rabbits' burrow. Ferrets have also been used to hunt rats. They were brought to the New World aboard the Mayflower for that purpose. Around the turn of the century, rat catchers in New York City used ferrets as part of their trade.

During World War II, ferrets were also used in airplane plants to thread wires through tight places in aircraft wings. The ferret was sent through a conduit with a string attached to it; then the wiring was tied to the string and pulled through. The same technique was used to run television cables through St. Paul's Cathedral for the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana in 1981.

Ferrets have been kept as pets since at least the Renaissance. A portrait of Queen Elizabeth I shows her holding a pet ferret, as does a Leonardo da Vinci painting entitled "Lady with Ermine".

Ferrets will sleep 14 to 18 hours a day, but when they are awake, they are playful and active. They are naturally curious and love investigating any nook or cranny they can get their nose into. The general rule of thumb is that if a ferret can get his nose somewhere, he'll try to get his head in it; and if he can get his head into it, the rest of his body will follow. They enjoy stealing objects, (The word "ferret" comes from the Latin furittus, meaning "little thief"); and secreting them away in their own favorite spot. They will wrestle and chase each other. Often, when excited, they will perform the "Weasel War Dance", in which they jump up and down, sideways and backwards, while making their characteristic "dooking" noise. Although it looks as if they are angry, this is actually play behavior. Some ferrets, especially kits, have a tendency to nip. This is usually just play activity and will rarely break the skin unless they really are angry.

Pet ferrets sold in pet stores generally have their scent glands surgically removed at the same time they are neutered to prevent them expressing their musk. It is important that female ferrets be spayed unless the owner really wants to breed ferrets, because they will remain in heat until mated.

Ferrets have a poor reputation among some people, due to their superficial similarity to rats, and their tendency to bite, which gives them an appearance of viciousness. They are illegal in some parts of the United States, most notably the states of Hawaii and California and in New York City. But they have also appeared in popular culture, most notably in the TV series Beastmaster and in the Arnold Schwartzenegger movie Kindergarten Cop. (Despite having worked with ferrets in the movies, when governor of California Schwartzenegger declined to lift the state's ban.)

Male intact ferrets are called "hobs"; females are called "jills". Young ferrets are called "kits", and a group of ferrets are collectively called a "business"; (not because of any mercantile activity, but because of their "busy-ness".

This Arcanist currently owns five ferrets. Could you guess?

See Also

Ferret Legging
Snow Wasset
Weasel Mascot


2. books: The Ferret Chronicles series by Richard Bach — five whimsical novellas about adventurous ferrets

Game and Story Use

  • Ferrets make good animal companions, particularly for a hunter or a thief.
  • They could also be used as a familiar for a wizard.
  • In a setting with anthropomorphic animal characters, ferrets could be used to portray thieves.
    • Or, they could just as easily portray detectives, because they like to investigate things and are good at "ferreting" things out.
  • If the PCs encounter a poacher in a rural European setting, or a rat-catcher in a low-tech urban setting, make mention of the fellow's ferret.
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