I’m sure you know already how proper nutrition is essential for the health and happiness of your ferret, but how can you tell if a ferret food is actually healthy for them? They’re not all as good as they sound.
Many ferret owners feed cat foods, which is great in theory as cats, like ferrets, are obligate carnivores – meat eaters through and through.
However, the reality is most cats in Australia aren’t fed appropriate diets. The reason for this, like most things, is money. Pet food companies exploit the ignorance of you and I as consumers, and instead sell us processed foods packed with grains which should never be fed to your pet carnivore.
In this guide we’ll take a good look at ferret food and feeding options, with recommendations for both commercial ferret foods and cat foods. Keep in mind there are many options for feeding your ferret, including homemade and raw.
What I find works really well is a varied diet. This may be part (good quality) commercial food combined with fresh or raw foods.
- The Fundamentals of Ferret Nutrition
- Commercial Ferret Foods in Australia
- What about raw food for ferrets?
- Tips for feeding, and feeding strategies
- Essential Nutrients for Ferrets
- Dealing with food allergies (food sensitivities)
- TIPS: Treats and Snacks for Ferrets
- Choose the right Veterinarian
- Final Thoughts on Ferret Food and Diet
- Frequently Asked Questions about Feeding Ferrets
The Fundamentals of Ferret Nutrition
Your ferret is a carnivore
The most important thing to consider with your ferret is they’re an obligate carnivore. A cunning, wild, prey-devouring predator.
Your ferret needs high-quality animal protein & fat
The digestive system of your ferret is geared to digest and absorb the nutrients from animal ingredients, and anything else will take a toll on their health over the long term.
A ferret’s diet should be primarily animal-based protein and fat.
Not only that, but high-quality animal protein is a must.
Whatever food your chose, whether it’s commercial or otherwise, make sure meat is not just the first ingredient, but also the main ingredient. I’ll discuss this more later, but if a food has meat first and then a range of non-meat ingredients, then meat is not the main part of the food.
I urge you to keep this in mind at all times when choosing a product, particularly a cat food product, as manufacturers do whatever they can to trick you – less meat equals more profit.
High-quality animal protein may be chicken, turkey, fish, or other sources. A variety is good to stop your ferret developing intolerances or sensitivities (discussed later).
Your ferret needs minimal to no carbohydrates
Ferrets (and cats) don’t need carbohydrates, yet you’ll find them in most commercial foods for various reasons – (1) they’re cheaper ingredients than animal ingredients, and (2) act to bind a food into pellets or kibble.
It’s crucial to choose a low-carbohydrate ferret food to prevent digestive issues. The short digestive system of your ferret means they are unable to digest these ingredients, and they can really take a toll on digestive and organ health as they pass through their system.
It is recommended to feed a ferret food with as little carbohydrate content as possible. The lower the better.
Commercial Ferret Foods in Australia
Pay attention to ingredient labels & analysis
I can’t stress enough the importance of reading labels. It’s not as easy as you may think, but if you read some of the cat food reviews on this website you’ll begin to understand the tricks which are used.
Protein should be from animal sources. Be wary of ingredients such as plant proteins, corn, or corn gluten meal (CGM), as these are often used to bulk up protein cheaply. This isn’t about the health of your ferret.
Meat should be the first AND main ingredient. If meat is only the first ingredient and there are a lot of non-meat ingredients coming next, then this can mean there is very little meat. Another way to tell is the carbohydrate percentage, but be wary of any corn as well.
Consider a mixture of commercial and fresh foods
We’re often told we must feed a commercial pet food all the time, and if we don’t then our pet will suffer. Pet food companies love to lock us in to their products, especially when they can make so much money from you over the lifespan of your pet.
Although a balanced diet is important, and must be considered, you should consider offering your ferret a variety.
In my experience most commercial pet foods have their downsides, and in the case of ferret foods it’s the use of carbohydrates.
Combining a commercial ferret food with species-appropriate fresh foods helps you reduce carbohydrates overall, and increase nutrition.
Common ferret food brands in Australia
I’ll cover some of the most popular brands of ferret food in Australia, but will keep this section brief. If you feed a particular brand of ferret food then say so in the comments and I can give you an opinion.
Premium Ferret Diet
The main ingredients of this ferret food are simple – chicken meal, brown rice, chicken fat, and poultry digest.
With 36% protein and 20% fat, which would suggest around 26% carbohydrates from the brown rice. As far as grains go brown rice isn’t too bad, but consider this still unnecessary for your ferret.
Dried egg and flaxseed oil should benefit the overall health of your ferret.
Vetafarm Origins Ferret Food
I find this the better option to Premium Ferret Diet based on the mix of ingredients.
This brand doesn’t have grains, instead having some pea flour and soy protein. The first ingredients are lamb, beef liver, and chicken bioflavour, which means this food has more of an emphasis on animal ingredients.
38% protein means it has slightly more protein than Premium Ferret Diet, but fat is quite a bit lower at 9%. It’s nice to see the inclusion of liver which is a nutrient dense organ. Personally I wouldn’t feed liver daily, which is another reason to add variety.
Note: The ingredients of Vetafarm Origins may have changed, so check the ingredients.
Popular cat food brands used as ferret food
Usually I wouldn’t advise feeding a food formulated for one species to a different species, but there are notable reasons why many people feed the following cat foods to their ferrets.
Ziwi Peak works well for a carnivore as it’s a whole-prey diet. Being air-dried means it is easier for your pet carnivore to digest, with vital moisture compared to kibble, and it’s almost entirely animal proteins and fat.
As a brand sold worldwide it has an excellent reputation, and it’s not surprising given the standard and quality of ingredients.
What puts most people off Ziwi Peak is the price per kilo, but you get what you pay for, and thankfully ferrets won’t devour an entire bag in days like a dog would.
The smallest bags are 400g, so ideal for feeding a ferret.
Feline Natural is another leading brand of “dried” pet food. Both Feline Natural and Ziwi Peak are made in New Zealand, which has for many years exported excellent pet foods.
Feline Natural is freeze dried rather than air dried, which actually retains more nutrition. Another benefit for your ferret is you need to rehydrate the food with clean water before feeding. This is great for your modified pole cat who doesn’t have the same thirst drive as other pets like dogs.
Like Ziwi Peak, Feline Natural is almost entirely animal ingredients. The fat content is much higher in Feline Natural, so keep that in mind, and you’ll need to get in the habit of soaking it in water for a while before feeding.
Being freeze dried means Feline Natural has an excellent shelf life (freeze drying is a technique used for preserving food naturally which dates back to WW2).
What about raw food for ferrets?
Raw is a great way to feed pet carnivores, but it must be balanced. Usually this is 80% flesh (including fat, skin, muscle meat, and tendon), 10% raw bone, and 10% organ meats (pancreas, liver, kidney, etc).
Many BARF patties including ground bone, but this doesn’t do much for the dental health of your ferret. Carnivores, including domestic cats and ferrets, can benefit from gnawing on raw meaty bones. This also gives them mental stimulus and satisfaction.
I find most ferret-specific raw foods are the same as raw cat foods, and given they’re carnivore appropriate should be fine to feed.
Be wary of pet grade meats as the standards in Australia are very poor. It’s far better to feed human grade raw which is much safer for your ferret.
If you buy raw food for your ferret from a local pet meat supplier, make sure they use human grade meat.
A Guide to Raw Feeding Ferrets
A must-have book is Raw Feeding For Ferrets (Amazon link), which covers all the basics of raw feeding ferrets along with some suggestions for meal plans:
If you’re feeling uneasy about raw feeding, then that book will alleviate most of your concerns. After all, raw meats, offal and bone, is a natural diet for your ferret.
Where to buy raw ferret food in Australia?
Two suppliers of raw food for ferrets in Australia are PetShopBoyz and Howler, but these don’t seem to state whether the meat used is human grade.
Prime100 are a popular brand, but you will find most of their rolls aren’t as much meat as you think. Usually they’re formulated significantly with starch, peas, sweet potato, and other ingredients which shouldn’t be fed to a ferret.
If you have suggestions, say so in the comments.
Ferrets have a low thirst drive, making them prone to dehydration.
Clean water is essential for ferrets. You should make sure the bowl is cleaned daily, and water is always available.
Get into the habit of checking the water bowl twice a day. On warm days check more regularly, especially if your ferret has been active.
If you feed your ferret a dry food you must keep in mind your ferret will need to drink more to compensate from the lack of moisture in the food. Ideally you will want to limit dry food, especially dry food with carbohydrates (which is most ferret foods).
Tips for feeding, and feeding strategies
Ferrets have a very high metabolism so must be fed little but often, ideally between 3 and 4 hours intervals. You should provide food at all times.
Allowing your ferret to forage for food is a good idea. This works well for their eating needs, and will also provide mental stimulus and activity. You can do this by hiding or scattering their food, or using toys such as the small Kong wobbler which is ideal for ferrets.
The nutritional needs and amount of food your ferret will eat will change over their lifetime. This depends on age, activity levels, health, or if they become pregnant. Always monitor the weight of your ferret and adjust the diet accordingly.
Weight gain in ferrets, just like cats, is usually more to do with too much carbohydrate/starch in the diet rather than too much meat/meat fat.
Essential Nutrients for Ferrets
As well as high-quality animal proteins, pay attention to the following nutritional needs of your ferret:
Ferrets require a diet rich in essential fatty acids. This allows them to maintain healthy skin, coat, heart health, and all-round wellbeing.
A good ferret diet will provide a balanced ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids, from sources such as poultry, fish, or eggs.
Taurine (or taurine supplementation)
Taurine is an essential amino acid for ferrets, and must be provided by diet. This is the same for cats, and for both species taurine deficiency is very bad news.
Rich sources of taurine are found in meat and poultry, organ meats such as liver and kidney, and also seafood.
One of the risks of commercial pet foods is a lack of animal ingredients, and taurine deficiency became more prevalent as pet foods substituted real meat for plant or grain alternatives. These days taurine is often added as a supplement to account for the lack of animal ingredients.
Only recently it has been discovered taurine deficiency can occur in dogs too, which you may have heard of along different lines – “grain free foods causing heart failure”. Taurine is now added to dog foods to meet this nutritional requirement.
Most ferret foods should contain sufficient taurine levels, as will cat foods, but for this reason you must never feed dog food to your ferret.
Dealing with food allergies (food sensitivities)
Often referred to as allergies, when a ferret reacts to a food and displays signs of itchy skin, dull coat, gastrointestinal distress, or loose bowels, this is more correctly referred to as food sensitivities.
There are multiple ingredients in a ferret (or cat) food which cause these symptoms, namely cereal grains or other ingredients not appropriate for your ferret’s carnivorous nature. This is why they’re called sensitivities, as your ferret is simply not capable of digesting these ingredients.
Other ingredients in dry extruded kibble can cause sensitivities, such as preservatives, antioxidants, and other additives.
Some ferrets can reach to specific meat proteins such as chicken, which is usually the result of a disrupted microbiome from poor quality pet food or antibiotics.
If your ferret displays any of these symptoms, first consider the ingredients in the food you’re feeding, and consider changing diet.
TIPS: Treats and Snacks for Ferrets
We want to treat our beloved pets, but the best treat or snack for your ferret is animal products. Zoologists use this method, and you should to. You should also make your ferret work for snacks, by making them forage and find them.
Be careful not to overdo it with a particular treat. Moderation is always a good rule of thumb. This is especially the case with store-bought treats which may contain grain, sugar, or unhealthy fats.
Consider small pieces of cooked, unseasoned meat as healthier alternatives. Or better yet, raw meat.
Choose the right Veterinarian
Most veterinarians deal primarily with dogs and cats. It’s worth finding a vet in your area who specialises in “exotic” pets. A specialist vet may have better expertise, and will also more correctly offer nutritional advice.
Regular check-ups are recommended, especially if you’ve changed diet significantly (such as from a commercial ferret food to a raw diet). Your vet may pick up on symptoms you may miss.
Final Thoughts on Ferret Food and Diet
Feeding your ferret in Australia requires attention to their carnivorous nature, high-quality animal protein, limited carbohydrates, and appropriate essential nutrients.
By selecting reputable commercial ferret foods, providing adequate moisture, offering treats in moderation, and consulting with an exotic pet veterinarian, you can ensure your ferret’s nutritional needs are met for a healthy and happy life.
Frequently Asked Questions about Feeding Ferrets
Can ferrets eat dog food?
Your ferret may eat dog food, and may get nutritional benefit from doing so, but it’s important to note pet food manufacturers favour the concept of a dog being an omnivore, not a carnivore.
Dog food is often high carbohydrate, formulated from grain or “grain free” alternatives, and not as much meat or animal products as you think.
For your ferret as a carnivore, a commercial dog food is not ideal.
There are some exceptions, with air and freeze dried raw brands such as Ziwi Peak, K9 Natural, Eureka, and Frontier Pets, but be wary of feeding these long term to your ferret. You will be far better off feeding the cat food formulas for these brands, which will meat the taurine needs of your ferret.
Can dogs eat ferret food?
To cover the opposite of the above question, a dog can eat ferret food. In many ways ferret food is richer in animal ingredients, digestible protein, and fat than most dog foods.
That said, feeding a dog any food formulated for a different species is not advisable as their main diet, and may cause issues from digestive upset to pancreatitis if fed long term.
Not that you would, as generally feeding a ferret food at more $ per kilo is not an efficient way of feeding your dog. However, if your dog eats your ferret’s food, there is little to worry about.
Can cats eat ferret food?
Cats and ferrets are very similar in their biology and dietary needs. They’re both obligate carnivores and require a diet inline with prey animals.
However, there are slight differences in the nutritional needs of cats and ferrets, such as different fat ratios and requirements for amino acids such as taurine.
If your cat eats the food of your ferret it is very unlikely it will cause issues, but it is not advisable to feed a cat a sole diet of ferret food. It would also cost you more, unnecessarily.
How long can a ferret go without food?
Ferrets have a short digestive tract and high metabolism which means they must eat regularly, and often. Not doing so can have serious consequences to their health, including organ health.
As such, a ferret should eat every 3 to 4 hours, and have food available 24/7.
It is also essential for a ferret to have clean water available at all times.
How do you force feed a ferret?
This may be necessary if your ferret is recovering from illness, nutrient deficiency, stress and anxiety, or dental problems. If your ferret isn’t eating it’s important to consult your vet as they may be in pain you’re not aware of.
Force feeding a ferret can be done using an appropriate syringe. First, it is essential to make your ferret as comfortable as possible, such as on your lap, wrapped and supported in a blanket.
Administer the food from the syringe gently and slowly to prevent choking. Place the syringe near the side of the mouth, behind the canine teeth, as this will cause your ferret to consume the food rather than let it spill from their mouth.
If your ferret shows signs of distress then give them time to settle down before you try again. Be cautious if they display signs of pain, and seek the advice of your veterinarian.
Maintain hydration is also essential, either from the syringe or from a bowl.