Polecats are not actually their own group or subfamily scientifically speaking, but these species were given their own page because they resemble each other in several ways. The polecats classified in the Mustela-genus should technically be included with their fellow members on the weasels page, but at the same time belong together because they are genetically closer than the others, with the majority of them being able to interbreed.
Despite the name, polecats have no relation to cats. “Pole” probably derives from the old French word “poule”, meaning “hen” or “chicken”, likely in reference to the species’ fondness for poultry, while “cat” was most likely the closest animal people could superficially compare them to, due to limited knowledge of these mustelids at the time.
Due to their heavier, bulkier build, polecats are typically less adept at climbing than the smaller weasels, and are more equipped for digging and terrestrial activities, sporting long claws for digging burrows. Most polecats have shaggy fur that grows thicker in the winter but does not change colour. Their noses range in colour from pink to black, and their upper canine teeth often protrude from their closed mouths as “fangs”.
Efficiency underground Like other members of the genus Mustela, the flexible anatomy of some polecats allow them to lose little speed when their normal gait transitions to a crouching position. This gives them the ability to be efficient at chasing prey that live in underground tunnels.(1) Facial masks Some say the purpose of a polecat’s dark facial mask is to reduce sun glare, or is a warning to mid-sized mammals that threaten them.(2)(3) Others believe it helps make their shiny, dark eyes less obvious to other animals; making them inconspicuous. Should purebred ferrets be called “weasels”? A ferret (Mustela putorius furo) is the domesticated subspecies of the European polecat (Mustela putorius), and have been domesticated for over two thousand years.(4) There is some dispute over if a purebred ferret (a domestic animal) should be loosely termed a weasel (a wild animal). The argument is that calling a ferret a “weasel” because they are the domesticated form of the European polecat, would be similar to calling a domestic dog (Canis lupus familiaris) a “wolf” because they are the domesticated form of the grey wolf (Canis lupus). One analogy used is that when most people hear the word “dog” they think of friendly, household companions, whereas “wolf” tends to give a more wild, less approachable impression. Similarly, when a ferret is called a “weasel” the term may give negative or misleading connotations to people who are unfamiliar with them; given the conventional stigmatisation associated with the word. Sometimes ferrets are even termed “pet weasels”, which could give some individuals the dangerous impression that wild weasels and their look-alikes make good pets. Whatever one’s thoughts on the argument, purebred ferrets are not the same as wild weasels. They are far more sociable and require human care to survive.(5)(6) References
Like other members of the genus Mustela, the flexible anatomy of some polecats allow them to lose little speed when their normal gait transitions to a crouching position. This gives them the ability to be efficient at chasing prey that live in underground tunnels.(1)
Facial masks Some say the purpose of a polecat’s dark facial mask is to reduce sun glare, or is a warning to mid-sized mammals that threaten them.(2)(3) Others believe it helps make their shiny, dark eyes less obvious to other animals; making them inconspicuous. Should purebred ferrets be called “weasels”? A ferret (Mustela putorius furo) is the domesticated subspecies of the European polecat (Mustela putorius), and have been domesticated for over two thousand years.(4) There is some dispute over if a purebred ferret (a domestic animal) should be loosely termed a weasel (a wild animal). The argument is that calling a ferret a “weasel” because they are the domesticated form of the European polecat, would be similar to calling a domestic dog (Canis lupus familiaris) a “wolf” because they are the domesticated form of the grey wolf (Canis lupus). One analogy used is that when most people hear the word “dog” they think of friendly, household companions, whereas “wolf” tends to give a more wild, less approachable impression. Similarly, when a ferret is called a “weasel” the term may give negative or misleading connotations to people who are unfamiliar with them; given the conventional stigmatisation associated with the word. Sometimes ferrets are even termed “pet weasels”, which could give some individuals the dangerous impression that wild weasels and their look-alikes make good pets. Whatever one’s thoughts on the argument, purebred ferrets are not the same as wild weasels. They are far more sociable and require human care to survive.(5)(6) References
Some say the purpose of a polecat’s dark facial mask is to reduce sun glare, or is a warning to mid-sized mammals that threaten them.(2)(3) Others believe it helps make their shiny, dark eyes less obvious to other animals; making them inconspicuous.
Should purebred ferrets be called “weasels”? A ferret (Mustela putorius furo) is the domesticated subspecies of the European polecat (Mustela putorius), and have been domesticated for over two thousand years.(4) There is some dispute over if a purebred ferret (a domestic animal) should be loosely termed a weasel (a wild animal). The argument is that calling a ferret a “weasel” because they are the domesticated form of the European polecat, would be similar to calling a domestic dog (Canis lupus familiaris) a “wolf” because they are the domesticated form of the grey wolf (Canis lupus). One analogy used is that when most people hear the word “dog” they think of friendly, household companions, whereas “wolf” tends to give a more wild, less approachable impression. Similarly, when a ferret is called a “weasel” the term may give negative or misleading connotations to people who are unfamiliar with them; given the conventional stigmatisation associated with the word. Sometimes ferrets are even termed “pet weasels”, which could give some individuals the dangerous impression that wild weasels and their look-alikes make good pets. Whatever one’s thoughts on the argument, purebred ferrets are not the same as wild weasels. They are far more sociable and require human care to survive.(5)(6) References
Table of Contents
- • Black-Footed Ferret (M. nigripes)
- • European Mink (M. lutreola)
- • European Polecat (M. putorius)
- • Ferret (M. putorius furo)
- • Japanese Weasel (M. itatsi)
- • Siberian Weasel (M. sibirica)
- • Steppe Polecat (M. eversmanii)
- The species below are not directly related to those above.
- – Marbled Polecat (V. peregusna)
- – Saharan Striped Polecat (I. libycus)
- – Striped Polecat (I. striatus)
#1 Black-Footed Ferret (Mustela nigripes)
The black-footed ferret, also known as the American polecat, is an endangered mustelid once found throughout the western prairies of central North America. Captive breeding programmes have contributed to the black-footed ferret’s return to the western prairie, after previously being declared extinct in 1979.(1) They are often considered to be North America’s rarest mammal.(2) Despite their misleading common name, the black-footed ferret is not a ferret.
The black-footed ferret is not directly related to the domestic ferret, but have a similar appearance due to their dark legs and mask. Their fur is primarily tan and cream except for the black legs, tail tip, and mask, and is much shorter than the European and marbled polecat‘s. They have a thinner, slinkier, more weasel-like appearance with their long neck and larger ears. Black-footed ferrets have distinctive white “eye spots” in the dark mask over their eyes.
Black-footed ferrets are nocturnal, solitary animals, that only socialise when breeding or raising litters.(3)(4) They are most active above ground from dusk to midnight and 4 a.m. to mid-morning.(6) Black-footed ferrets have been described as alert, agile, and curious animals.
The black-footed ferret’s diet varies depending on geographic location, but up to 90% of their diet is composed of prairie dogs.(4)(5) Other animal remains found in scats include birds. Potential prey also included thirteen-lined ground squirrels, pocket gophers, deer mice, cottontail rabbits, upland plovers, horned larks, and western meadowlarks.(5)
Black-footed ferrets can fall prey to a number of predators such as golden eagles, prairie rattlesnakes, the American badger, great horned owls, bobcats, coyotes, prairie falcons, and ferruginous hawks.(5)(6)(7)
The primary causes for the black-footed ferret’s decline include habitat loss, human-introduced diseases, the sylvatic plague,(8) and indirect poisoning from prairie dog control measures.(6)(9) Traps set for other animals also may contribute to their mortality.(9)
Reintroduction and conservation efforts
Black-footed ferrets were declared extinct in 1979 , until John and Lucille Hogg’s dog Shep brought a dead one to their home in Meeteetse, Wyoming, in 1981.(1) Since 1987, black-footed ferrets have benefited greatly from captive-breeding programmes.(10) The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, state and tribal agencies, private landowners, conservation groups, and North American zoos have actively reintroduced black-footed ferrets back into the wild since 1991.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a black-footed ferret named Elizabeth Ann (born 10th December 2020) is first successful clone of any endangered species native to the United States. She is the clone of “Willa”, a wild-caught black-footed ferret whose cell line was cryopreserved in 1988. Willa’s genes and tissue samples were preserved in the San Diego Zoo Global’s Frozen Zoo. This ongoing research hopes to increase the genetic diversity and disease resistance of black-footed ferrets.(12)
Body length: 50.0–53.3 cm / 19.7–21.0 in
Tail length: 11.4–12.7 cm / 4.5–5.0 in
Weight: 650–1,400 g / 1.43–3.09 lb
Lifespan: Up to 5 years (wild), up to 12 years (captivity)
Range: Five self-sustaining populations in South Dakota (two), Arizona, and Wyoming.
Conservation status: Endangered
- Black-footed Ferret Recovery Implementation Team. Blackfootedferret.org. Accessed on May 19, 2020.
- Cohn, Jeffrey P. “Ferrets return from near-extinction.“ Bioscience 41.3 (1991): 132-135. p. 132.
- Briercheck, K. and R. Csomos 2001. “Mustela nigripes“. (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed February 12, 2021.
- Houston, B. R.; Clark, Tim W.; Minta, S. C. (1986). “Habitat suitability index model for the black-footed ferret: a method to locate transplant sites”. Great Basin Naturalist Memoirs. 8: 99–114.
- Clark, Tim W. (1987). “Restoring balance between the endangered black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes) and human use of the Great Plains and Intermountain West” (PDF). Journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences. 77 (4): 168–173. Archived from the original (PDF) on June 6, 2013. Accessed September 13, 2020.
- Hillman, Conrad N. 1968. “Life history and ecology of the black-footed ferret in the wild“. Brookings, SD: South Dakota State University. Thesis.
- Forrest, Steven C., et al. “Population attributes for the black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes) at Meeteetse, Wyoming, 1981–1985“. Journal of Mammalogy 69.2 (1988): 261-273. p 269.
- Williams, E.S.; D.R. Kwiatkowski; E.T. Thorne & A. Boerger-Fields (1994). “Plague in a black-footed ferret” (PDF). Journal of Wildlife Diseases. 30 (4): 581–5. doi:10.7589/0090-3558-30.4.581. PMID 7760495. S2CID 19203496.
- Clark, Tim W. (1986) “Some guidelines for management of the black-footed ferret”, Great Basin Naturalist Memoirs: Vol. 8 , Article 14.
- Wildt, David E.; Wemmer, Christen (July 1999). “Sex and wildlife: the role of reproductive science in conservation“. Biodiversity and Conservation. 8 (7): 965–976.
- COHEN, LI. CBS NEWS. 18 February 2021. “Black-footed ferret becomes the first endangered animal native to the U.S. to be cloned, marking a “bold step forward” for conservation efforts“. Accessed 18 February 2021.
- Revive & Restore. “THE BLACK-FOOTED FERRET PROJECT“. Accessed 20 February 2021.
#2 European Mink (Mustela lutreola)
The European mink, also known as the Russian mink, or Eurasian mink, is a species native to Europe. We have placed the European mink in this section because they are genetically polecats, and actually have little in common with the American mink; which they are often superficially compared with. The European mink is closely related to the European polecat and steppe polecat.(1)(2) Breeding experiments back in the late 1970s have resulted in a number of hybrids. The most famous is the khonorik—the offspring of a European polecat and European mink.(3)
Both the European and American mink are similar in colour, but the European mink is slightly smaller, has coarser fur and is not as adapted to the wet element as their namesake. If spotted in the field where these traits are difficult to see, the white markings on the upper lip can be counted on as a safe characteristic for identification.(4)(5)
The European mink is not known to form large territories. The size of each territory depends on the availability of food. Their home range is 60–100 hectares (150–250 acres) in areas with little food. Along shorelines, the length of a home range varies from 250–2,000 m (270–2,190 yd), with a width of 50–60 m (55–66 yd).(4)
The European mink has both a permanent burrow and temporary shelters. Permanent burrows are used all year except during floods, and is located no more than 6–10 m (6.6–10.9 yd) from the water’s edge. These burrows often consist of one or two passages 8–10 cm (3.1–3.9 in) in diameter, and 1.40–1.50 m (1.53–1.64 yd) in length. The nest chamber measures 48 cm × 55 cm (19 in × 22 in), and can be lined with straw, moss, mouse wool or bird feathers. Unlike the American mink, the European mink will confine itself for long periods in its burrow in very cold weather.(5)
European mink eat a wide variety of foods, primarily preying on aquatic animals. Mammals such as voles, muskrats, moles and shrews have been revealed in their stomach contents, including birds, frogs, fish, insects and vegetation.(5)
Predators and threats of the European mink include the European polecat, American mink, golden eagle, large owls.(5)
A species near extinction
According to the IUCN Red List, the European mink is critically endangered.(6) There are numerous possible factors for their decline from habitat loss, to over-hunting, predation, a decline in food sources, competition with the American mink, Aleutian disease, secondary poisoning, as well as hybridisation and competition with the European polecat.(6)(7)(8)
Governmental organizations as well as scientific communities of most European countries have made efforts to breed captivate European mink and reintroduce to them to their former range.(9) Such areas are Tajikistan and the Baltic Sea.(10) The Lutreola Foundation runs one long-term programme to help recover the European mink on the Estonian island of Hiiumaa.
Body length: 38–43 cm / 15–17 in (males), 36–41 cm / 14–16 in (females)
Tail length: 15.3–19 cm / 6.0–7.5 in (males), 15–18 cm / 5.9–7.1 in (females)
Weight: 544–816 g / 1.2–1.8 lb (males), 742 g / 1.6 lb (females)
Lifespan: Reported as up to 10 years, but dubious (wild), up to 8 years (captivity)
Range: Isolated areas of northern Spain and western France. Main range in small pockets of eastern Europe.
Conservation status: Critically endangered
- M. l. biedermanni
- M. l. binominata
- M. l. cylipena
- M. l. lutreola
- M. l. novikovi
- M. l. transsylvanica
- M. l. turovi
- Davidson, A., Griffith, H. I., Brookes, R. C., Maran, T., MacDonald, D. W., Sidorovich, V. E., Kitchener, A. C., Irizar, I., Villate, I., Gonzales-Esteban, J., Cena, A., Moya, I. and Palazon Minano, S. 2000. Mitochondrial DNA and paleontological evidence for the origin of endangered European mink, Mustela lutreola Archived 9 March 2020 at the Wayback Machine. Animal Conservation 3: 345–357.
- Marmi, Josep, Juan Francisco López‐Giráldez, and Xavier Domingo‐Roura. “Phylogeny, evolutionary history and taxonomy of the Mustelidae based on sequences of the cytochrome b gene and a complex repetitive flanking region.” Zoologica Scripta 33.6 (2004): 481-499.
- “Khonorik. Hybrids between Mustelidae”. Ferret Centre. Archived from the original on 30 May 2019. Accessed 9 May 2020.
- Heptner, V. G., and A. A. Sludskii. “Mammals of the Soviet Union. Vol. II, part 1b, Carnivores (Mustelidae and Procyonidae).” Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Libraries and National Science Foundation (2002). pp. 1102–1103.
- Youngman, Phillip M. (1990). “Mustela lutreola“, Archived 18 March 2012 at the Wayback Machine. Mammalian Species, American Society of Mammalogists, No. 362, pp. 1-3, 2 figs.
- Maran, T., Skumatov, D., Gomez, A., Põdra, M., Abramov, A.V. & Dinets, V. 2016. “Mustela lutreola“. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T14018A45199861. Downloaded on 13 February 2021.
- Maran, Tiit, and Heikki Henttonen. “Why is the European mink (Mustela lutreola) disappearing?—A review of the process and hypotheses.” Annales Zoologici Fennici. Finnish Zoological and Botanical Publishing Board, 1995.
- Sidorovich, V. E. “Findings on the ecology of hybrids between the European mink Mustela lutreola and polecat M. putorius at the Lovat upper reaches, NE Belarus.“ Small Carnivore Conservation 24 (2001): 1-5.
- Amstislavsky, S., et al. “Conservation of the European mink (Mustela lutreola): focus on reproduction and reproductive technologies.” Reproduction in domestic animals 43.4 (2008): 502-513.
- Shalu, T. 2001. “Mustela lutreola” (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed May 20, 2020
- Wilson, Don E. & Reeder, DeeAnn M. (Editors) 2005. Mustela lutreola in Mammal Species of the World. – A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference.
#3 European Polecat (Mustela putorius)
The European polecat, also known as the western polecat, black or forest polecat, foumart, fitch, as well as many other common names, is a species native to western Eurasia and north Morocco.
European polecats typically have brown fur, with darker, sometimes black legs, tail, and underside, which a dark mask across the eyes, and white around the nose and mouth. Their fur is shaggy and coarse, with dark guard hairs over a lighter undercoat, giving them a grizzled appearance. Their tails taper to a point and are about one third the length of their body.
The domesticated form of the European polecat is the ferret. A good, easy way to tell the difference between the two is European polecat noses are often solid black, while ferret noses tend to be pink, speckled or dark brown. Ferret noses can also be black, but this is less common.
European polecats tend to be found along bodies of fresh water, in wetlands, on the edge of forests, or in grasslands with islands of scrub trees.(1) They are known to have definite home ranges,(2) and each polecat will use several den sites distributed throughout their territory.(3) They will occasionally live in the abandoned burrows of red foxes and European badgers.(2) European polecats can commonly be found active about rabbit warrens.
The European polecat is not as territorial as other polecats, and have been known to share territories with members of the same sex. They tend to have definite home ranges,(2) with males usually having larger territories than females.
The European polecat’s diet mainly consists of small rodents, rabbits, eggs, amphibians and birds.(1) They may even prey on smaller mustelids such as the least weasel.(2) Should food become scarce, European polecats are also known to consume insects, fruit, and even honey from beehives.(4)
Although their fur is not considered as valuable as the American mink’s or stoat’s, European polecat pelt (known as “fitch”) is used in some articles of clothing. The tail is sometimes used for the making of paintbrushes.(5) European polecat fur became popular in Great Britain during the 1920s, and more so decades later in Finland and the USSR, but it never became popular in Canada or the United States due to import prohibition for fear of the establishment of non-native species.(6)
In some parts of the British Isles, wild European polecats have hybridised with feral ferrets. Offspring of these two animals have a distinct white throat patch, white feet, and white hairs interspersed among the fur.(3) Ferret-polecat hybrids tend to have better eyesight, greater physical capabilities, and are more independent in nature than purebred domestic ferrets. However, they are less willing to be handled, require much attention in order to prevent boredom, may refuse to enter unfamiliar burrows, and do not cope well with being caged.(7)
The European polecat can hybridise with the European mink, producing offspring termed khor’-tumak by furriers,(2) and khonorik by connoisseurs.(8) The European polecat can also hybridise with the steppe polecat.(9)
Introduction to New Zealand
Ferret-polecat hybrids are so adept at hunting in burrows and tunnels that they have been “domesticated” to hunt rodents and rabbits. Due to this skill, in the late 1800s both European polecats and ferret-polecat hybrids (as well as a number of stoats and least weasels) were introduced to New Zealand to control a rabbit population that was breeding out of control.(10) The release of these mustelids proved effective for the time, but later contributed to the decline of vulnerable native birds such as the kiwi, weka and blue duck, and the extinction of kakapo on the mainland.(11) Recently, the New Zealand government has taken action in eradicating or controlling these introduced mustelids in their Predator Free 2050 programme.(12)
These ferret-polecat hybrids today are often simply called “ferrets”, but they are not the same as purebred domestic ferrets. Unlike ferret-polecat hybrids, purebred domestic ferrets are solely bred as house pets and have lost much of their natural instincts, requiring human care to survive.(13)(14) More effort should be made to provide clarity between these two breeds.
Surplus killing and blood-sucking myth
Similar to weasels and the American mink, European polecats have been described as “bloodthirsty killers”, that allegedly kill chickens as if in a trance before sucking out their blood. According to the Hankensbüttel Otter Centre, polecats have natural hunting instincts which are triggered by fleeing animals.(15) Under the artificial and confined conditions of a chicken coop, an intruding European polecat will sometimes attempt to kill more chickens than they can eat, so they may cache their food for later consumption. This is presumed to be an evolutionary response to unpredictable food resources.(16)
Since polecats cannot asphyxiate chickens, they simply bite and seize them by the neck. Chickens are susceptible to heart attacks when stressed, so all the polecat has to do is wait till the chicken dies. Usually there will be a few killed chickens left behind, and seeing teeth marks left in the necks of uneaten fowl is what likely gave rise to the myth that a polecat simply sucked out their blood; which is something they are not physically capable of doing.
Range, history and conservation
Body length: 35.5–47.7 cm / 14–18 in (males), 27.9–40.6 cm / 11–16 in (females)
Tail length: 11.5–16.7 cm / 4.5–6.5 in (males), 8.4–15 cm / 3.3–6 in (females)
Weight: 997–1,497 g / 2.2–3.3 lb (males, middle Europe), 635–816 g / 1.4–1.8 lb (females, middle Europe)
Lifespan: Up to 10 years (wild), up to 14 years (captivity)
Range: Widespread throughout most of Europe to western Russia; introduced to New Zealand.
Conservation status: Least concern
- M. p. anglia – Welsh polecat
- M. p. aureola – Mediterranean polecat
- M. p. caledoniae – †Scottish polecat
- M. p. furo – Commonly known as the domestic ferret
- M. p. mosquensis – Middle Russian polecat
- M. p. putorius – Common polecat
- M. p. rothschildi – Carpathian polecat
- Lundrigan, B. and M. Conley 2001. “Mustela putorius“ (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed February 10, 2020.
- Heptner, V. G., and A. A. Sludskii. “Mammals of the Soviet Union. Vol. II, part 1b, Carnivores (Mustelidae and Procyonidae).” Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Libraries and National Science Foundation (2002). pp. 1109–1111
- Harris, Stephen; Yalden, Derek (2008). “Mammals of the British Isles” (4th Revised ed.). Mammal Society.
- Maxwell, William Hamilton. “The Field Book: Or, Sports and Pastimes of the United Kingdom; Comp. from the Best Authorities, Ancient and Modern”. E. Wilson, 1833.
- Bachrach, Max (1953).“Fur: A Practical Treatise” (3rd ed.). New York: Prentice-Hall. pp. 348–352.
- Roth, Harald H. ; Merz, Günter (1997) Wildlife resources: a global account of economic use, Springer.
- Schilling, Kim; Brown, Susan (2007). “Ferrets for Dummies”. (2nd ed.). Wiley. ISBN 978-0-470-13943-1.
- “Khonorik. Hybrids between Mustelidae”. Ferret Centre. Archived from the original on 30 May 2019. Accessed 9 May 2020.
- Davison, A., et al. (1999) “Hybridization and the phylogenetic relationship between polecats and domestic ferrets in Britain“. Archived 2011-07-27 at the Wayback Machine, Biological Conservation 87 :155-161
- “Rabbit control”. A Hundred Years of Rabbit Impacts, and Future Control Options. New Zealand Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF) Rabbit Biocontrol Advisory Group. Archived from the original on June 17, 2001. Accessed 17 May 2020.
- “Ferrets: New Zealand animal pests – DoC“ Department of Conservation (NZ)” Accessed 11-02-2020.
- Linklater, Wayne, and Jamie Steer. “Predator Free 2050: A flawed conservation policy displaces higher priorities and better, evidence‐based alternatives.” Conservation Letters 11.6 (2018): e12593.
- Schilling, Kim. “Ferrets for dummies”. John Wiley & Sons, 2011.
- American Ferret Association, Inc. Frequently Asked Questions. “Is the ferret a wild animal?”
- “Nahrung & Gefährdung” The Hankensbüttel Otter Centre. Accessed 18 April 2020.
- “Does surplus killing represent a waste of energy for foxes?“ Wildlife Online. Accessed 22 July 2020.
- Wilson, Don E. & Reeder, DeeAnn M. (Editors) 2005. Mustela putorius in Mammal Species of the World. – A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference.
#4 Ferret (Mustela putorius furo)
A ferret is the domesticated form of the European polecat. Most ferrets are found around the world in homes as dependent pets, but in certain parts of Eurasia some are still bred as hunting companions. Having a loving ferret as a pet is neither strange nor misguided, as some would like to believe. Like many under-acknowledged animals, ferrets have come a long way in recent years proving that dogs and cats are not the only treasured four-legged household companions.
Ferrets look similar to European polecats, except ferrets’ noses can be pink, speckled, dark brown, or black, while wild European polecats usually have black noses. Ferrets are sexually dimorphic, with males being substantially larger than females.(1) There is only one “breed” of domestic ferret, but they have been bred for a large variety of fur colours and patterns. The eight basic colours are albino, black, black sable, champagne, chocolate, cinnamon, dark-eyed white and sable. By far the most common of these colours is sable. There are also nine basic ferret patterns: Blaze, mitt, mutt, panda, point, roan, solid, standard and striped/patterned.(2)
Purebred domestic ferrets are, by nature, very playful and social. While their wild counterparts are mostly solitary, domestic ferrets exhibit neoteny, including playfulness and the desire to interact with their owners and (in most cases) other ferrets. They are extremely inquisitive and show very little of the cautiousness that you would see in a wild polecat, so it is important to “ferretproof” any areas that they are allowed to play in—they can, and will, get into any space that they can squeeze into, which is why most ferret owners choose to house their ferrets in a cage (preferably one with multiple levels and plenty of room). Ferrets kept in cages should have a bare minimum of two hours (more is recommended) outside of the cage each day, since they are very active and energetic when awake.
Ferrets play much like kittens, and love to chase and pounce on dangling toys, rolling balls, etc.—cat toys work very well as ferret toys. Ferrets can be taught to respond to their names and can learn tricks just like dogs, but this requires a tremendous amount of patience because they have short attention spans and are very easily distracted. An excited, happy ferret will bounce around with its back arched and its mouth wide open, waving its head around, bumping into things, and “dooking”; a sound somewhat similar to a hen clucking. Ferret enthusiasts have named this behaviour “the weasel war dance”. Some people unfamiliar with ferrets have misinterpreted this display as aggressiveness or an attack, but it is actually an expression of pure excitement and playfulness.
Because of their playful and social nature, most ferret owners opt for more than one ferret, so that they can play and wrestle together. Some adult ferrets can be perfectly happy as a single pet, so long as their owner(s) is home often to provide them with adequate attention. This is not recommended for ferrets that are used to having other ferrets as playmates, since they can become understimulated even with human companionship. An understimulated ferret can become destructive, tearing up objects in their cage, and biting on the bars.
In some cases, owners have added another ferret to their family in hopes of giving their single ferret a playmate, only to find out that they do not get along and end up with two sperate pets (we have been there). In this situation it is recommended to wash and replace all bedding and give them a bath together to neutralise scents. The results are not immediate (or guaranteed) and may take several weeks for them to “work it out”. During this time it is best to keep them in separate cages and have only short, supervised playtime until relations improve. Swapping their hammocks may also help. Although rare, some ferrets are just “loners” and prefer not to be around other ferrets. Please do not force these ferrets to socialise if it is not necessary.
Ferrets have an undeserved reputation for being nippy and aggressive, but a properly socialised ferret will not bite out of fear or aggression. They love to wrestle and play rough with each other, including dragging each other around with their jaws, so they simply need to be taught not to play quite so rough with their human owners. Most ferrets are able to learn this pretty quickly with proper training (scolding or hissing at a ferret when it gets too rough), and while they will most likely continue to use their mouths when they play, they will not actually bite. In conclusion, ferrets can be wonderful pets for the person who has the proper amount of time to dedicate to interacting with them. Some can even be trained to use a litterbox, though even the most experienced ferret will occasionally have accidents.
Purebred domestic ferrets are banned as pets in some parts of the world. In the United States, this is mostly due to outdated technicalities, and the presumption that escaped or abandoned ferrets are a threat to agriculture and wildlife, despite that other permitted domestic animals such as dogs and cats can pose a far greater ecological threat when they become feral.(3)(4) There is also a faulty generalisation that purebred ferrets behave the same as wild native weasels, or the European polecat and ferret-polecat hybrid of Eurasia. Ferrets have been domesticated for over two-thousand years,(5) and unlike their wilder cousins, purebred ferrets have lost much of their natural instincts and are unlikely to reproduce or survive in the wild.(1) The fact that many of these ferrets have been spayed or neutered, are often more curious than cautious when it comes to danger, are prone to heat exhaustion (they cannot sweat), and also highly susceptible to diseases and disorders even whilst in captivity makes survival and colonisation even less likely. Ferrets have been legal as pets in most US states for decades, and by now we would have seen more evidence of impending ecological disruption if this were likely.
According to the American Ferret Association, stray ferrets would not be capable of surviving in the wild for more than a few days before succumbing to the elements or starvation.(6) This again applies mainly to purebred ferrets in the United States, Canada, and other countries where they are primarily kept as house pets, and have no other wild, closely related species to hybridise with. Though related by subfamily, the American mink, least weasel, long-tailed weasel, and stoat in North America are not known to be genetically compatible to ferrets for natural hybridisation to occur. It is unclear if ferrets can hybridise with the black-footed ferret, but they would have little chance of ever coming into contact with one, let alone survive in their harsh environment. In parts of Europe, some ferrets are bred for hunting (known as ferreting).(7) These ferrets may have a higher chance of surviving in the wild if they escape or are abandoned, and could hybridise with the native European polecat.(8)
Ferrets are obligate carnivores, which means they must eat meat. They have a short intestinal tract and absorb nutrients inefficiently, which is one of the reasons their diet needs to be high in meat based protein and fat, and have little to no sugars or carbohydrates.(9)
Health and welfare
The domestic ferret is known to be affected by several distinct health problems. They are susceptible to cancers affecting the adrenal glands, pancreas, and lymphatic system. Viral diseases include canine distemper and influenza. Similar to domestic cats, ferrets may also be affected by hairballs or dental problems. It is believed the reason for many of their health problems is due to a lack of genetic diversity, which stem from inbreeding to achieve human-desired traits such as coat colour and temperament.(10) Other factors include being weaned before they’re of proper age, or neutered before sexual maturity was reached.(11) Most of these harmful practices are performed by ferret mills rather than experienced breeders.
Due to many of these health issues being inevitable, as they age, ferrets can become very expensive pets. Given that ferrets are often thought of as simple “pocket pets”, the cost of health care can come as a surprise for many first-time ferret owners. People of modest means should take this into consideration before purchasing multiple ferrets. It is important to care for these animals by annually taking them to the veterinarian for checkups and vaccinations, as well as pay for prescribed medication (if needed), and occasionally life-saving surgeries. It is recommended to save at least $30 a month per ferret for emergency veterinary visits. Lastly, while there are many experienced veterinarians in the world, not all are qualified or experienced in treating “exotic” animals like ferrets. So it is also a good idea to check for the appropriate credentials of local veterinarians, as well as references. Like any dog or cat, ferrets require years of commitment and should not be an impulse buy.
Since ferrets and humans share a similar upper and lower respiratory tract,(12) they are also suitable to SARS-CoV-2, and can develop a fever
Sensationalism in media
There is lot of sensationalism and scaremongering surrounding the temperament of ferrets, most of which are exacerbated by politics and disputants who have no actual long-term experience caring for these animals. The truth is purebred ferrets are mostly gentle mustelids, that are no more aggressive or dangerous than your average dog or cat. Reports have circulated claiming that infants have been bitten by a pet ferret,(15) but similar incidents have also been reported about dogs;(16) making these unfortunate events likely isolated cases of parental or owner irresponsibility, rather than general behaviour. As with any dog or cat, how the animal was bred, trained, or cared for should always be taken into consideration. There should not be a double-standard to this rule when it comes to ferrets.
In other cases, due to misleading information, they can be falsely accused of attacks or damage to property that was performed by a different relative. For example, there is a popular video on YouTube that attempts to explain how the beech marten damages automobiles in Europe. However, clearly in this video the mustelid being shown is a ferret and not a beech marten. Unfortunately, it is this type of staged, misleading content that gets taken at face value by people unfamiliar with ferrets, and needlessly makes it more difficult to educate the public about these animals.
Body length: 46–61 cm / 18–24 in (males), 46 cm / 18 in (females)
Tail length: 13 cm / 5.1 in
Weight: 1,500–2,500 g / 3–5 lb (males), 750–1,500 g / 1.5–3 lb (females)
Lifespan: Up to 10 years. (When properly bred. Often less when bred by ferret mills.)
Range: Worldwide in association with humans.
Conservation status: Domesticated
- Schilling, Kim. Ferrets for dummies. John Wiley & Sons, 2011.
- American Ferret Association, Inc. “Ferret Colors and Patterns“
- Bergman, David, Stewart W. Breck, and Scott Bender. “Dogs gone wild: feral dog damage in the United States.” (2009).
- Loss, Scott R., Tom Will, and Peter P. Marra. “The impact of free-ranging domestic cats on wildlife of the United States.” Nature communications 4.1 (2013): 1-8.
- Bulloch, M. J., and V. V. Tynes. “Ferrets.” Behaviour of Exotic Pets. Wiley-Blackwell Publishing Ltd., USA (2010).
- American Ferret Association, Inc. Frequently Asked Questions. “Is the ferret a wild animal?”
- Cowan, D. P. “The use of ferrets (Mustela furo) in the study and management of the European wild rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus).” Journal of Zoology 204.4 (1984): 570-574.
- Davison, A.; et al. (1999). “Hybridization and the phylogenetic relationship between polecats and domestic ferrets in Britain” (PDF). Biological Conservation. 87: 155–161. doi:10.1016/s0006-3207(98)00067-6. Archived from the original (PDF) on 22 November 2020.
- American Ferret Association, Inc. Frequently Asked Questions. “What should a ferret eat?”
- University of Wyoming. “Low genetic diversity in domestic ferrets.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 1 November 2017.
- Paterson, Colin (2006). Find Out about Ferrets: The Complete Guide to Turning Your Ferret Into the Happiest, Best-behaved and Healthiest Pet in the World!.
- Johnson-Delaney, Cathy A., and Susan E. Orosz. “Ferret respiratory system: clinical anatomy, physiology, and disease.“ Veterinary Clinics of North America: Exotic Animal Practice 14.2 (2011): 357-367.
- Shi, Jianzhong, et al. “Susceptibility of ferrets, cats, dogs, and other domesticated animals to SARS–coronavirus 2.“ Science 368.6494 (2020): 1016-1020.
- Kim, Young-Il, et al. “Infection and rapid transmission of SARS-CoV-2 in ferrets.“ Cell host & microbe (2020).
- Ferrant, Ophélie, et al. “Injuries inflicted by a pet ferret on a child: morphological aspects and comparison with other mammalian pet bite marks.” Journal of forensic and legal medicine 15.3 (2008): 193-197.
- Kaye, Alison E., Jessica M. Belz, and Richard E. Kirschner. “Pediatric dog bite injuries: a 5-year review of the experience at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.” Plastic and reconstructive surgery 124.2 (2009): 551-558.
#5 Japanese Weasel (Mustela itatsi)
This species has the common name “weasel”, but shares a genetic similarity to polecats.
The Japanese weasel is native to Japan where it occurs on the islands of Honshū, Kyūshū and Shikoku. They have been introduced to Hokkaidō and the Ryukyu Islands to control rodents and have also been introduced to Sakhalin island in Russia.
They can understandably be confused with the Siberian weasel, due to their similar colour, markings, anatomy, and size. However, the Japanese weasel has a darker shade of reddish brown, a more pronounced, lighter underside, with a white throat patch and a shorter tail. Both species also share a similar range on Japan’s southern islands, so even if a photo of a polecat/weasel was taken in Japan, that does not necessarily mean it is of M. itatsi.
Winter coat: Longer, denser and lighter, yellow-buff in colour.
Body length: 35 cm / 14 in
Tail length: 17 cm / 6.7 in
Weight: 400 g / 14 oz
Lifespan: Unknown (wild), unknown (captivity)
Range: The islands of Honshū, Kyūshū and Shikoku in Japan. Introduced to Hokkaidō and the Ryukyu Islands, including Sakhalin island in Russia.
Conservation status: Near threatened
#6 Siberian Weasel (Mustela sibirica)
This species has the common name “weasel”, but shares a genetic similarity to polecats.
The Siberian weasel, also known as the kolonok, kolinsky, or fire weasel, is native to Asia, where they are widely distributed and inhabit various forest habitats and open areas. They have also been introduced to several southern islands of Japan.
With their overall orange-buff fur they give off an impression of being made of gold and fire. The face has a contrasting brown mask with a matching nose and a white chin and upper lip patches. The body shape is a harmonic combination of sleeky elegance and bulk, which is further strengthened by an unusually narrow skull and strong chin. While the Siberien weasel is mostly an even, warm colour all over, the subspecies M. s. moupinensis can have a dark tail tip.
Winter coat: Longer, denser and lighter in colour than in summer.
The long guard hairs from the tail is valued for their soft quality, and for this reason they have been used to make some of the most exclusive paint brushes on the market. These brushes are under the name “kolinsky sable-hair” or simply “sable”, but as the case often is with fur trade terminology, it messes up the names of species that have no genetic relation whatsoever. Apart from the dark colour that goes under the same name, a sable is a species of marten, implying the brushes are made from marten hair, when in reality the material comes from an entirely different species of mustelid!
Body length: 28–39 cm / 11–15 in (males), 25–30.5 cm / 9.8–12.0 in (females)
Tail length: 15.5–21 cm / 6.1–8.3 in (males), 13.3–16.4 cm / 5.2–6.5 in (females)
Weight: 650–820 g / 23–29 oz (males), 360–430 g / 13–15 oz (females)
Lifespan: Up to 6 years (wild), up to 9 years (captivity)
Range: Throughout eastern Asia, north to the Sea of Okhotsk, and south to Kwangtung in China. Introduced to several southern islands of Japan.
Conservation status: Least concern
- M. s. canigula
- M. s. charbinensis
- M. s. coreanus
- M. s. davidiana
- M. s. fontanierii
- M. s. hodgsoni
- M. s. manchurica
- M. s. moupinensis
- M. s. quelpartis
- M. s. sibirica
- M. s. subhemachalana
#7 Steppe Polecat (Mustela eversmanii)
The steppe polecat, also known as the white polecat, masked polecat, or Siberian polecat, is a species native to Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
They are usually cream to maize-yellow in colour, along with dark brown limbs and a similar coloured tail tip. The face is mostly off-white in colour with a brown mask. At times the mask can be very light, making the head appear completely white. The steppe polecat may look similar to the black-footed ferret, but they can easily be distinguished by their dark brown neck.
The steppe polecat feeds on birds, reptiles, insects, and fruit, but they are renowned for their skill in hunting rodents. Steppe polecats play a major role in controlling rodent populations; which can be hazardous to both agriculture and human health. They will also occasionally cache prey carcasses in their burrow for later consumption.(1)
Humans are the primary predators of steppe polecats. In certain regions they are trapped by locals for their meat and fur.(1)
Body length: 32–56 cm / 13–22 in (males), 29–52 cm / 11–20 in (females)
Weight: 2,050 g / 4.5 lb (males), 1,350 g / 3 lb (females)
Lifespan: Unknown (wild), unknown (captivity)
Range: Throughout central and eastern Eurasia.
Conservation status: Least concern
- M. e. admirata
- M. e. amurensis
- M. e. eversmanii
- M. e. hungarica
- M. e. larvatus
- M. e. michnoi
- M. e. talassicus
#8 Marbled Polecat (Vormela peregusna)
This species shares the common name “polecat”, but is not directly related to other species on this page except for I. striatus and I. libycus.
The marbled polecat is found throughout southeastern Europe and parts of western Asia.
The marbled polecat has an unusual and very striking appearance for a mustelid – with brightly-coloured fur, a long bushy tail, and shaggy white fur on the ears. They have dark brown to black fur on their underside, legs and facial mask, with white markings on the muzzle, forehead, and tail. The back is covered in yellow-orange fur with irregular brown or black spots and markings.
Marbled polecats are found in open desert, semidesert, and semiarid rocky areas in upland valleys and low hill ranges, steppe country and arid subtropical scrub forest. They tend to dwell in the burrows of large ground squirrels or similar rodents, but may also dig their own dens or live underground.(1)(2)
They are solitary animals, and tend to become aggressive when meeting another.(3) When threatened, a marbled polecat will arch back its head and bare its teeth, while releasing shrills and short hisses.(2)(4)
Marbled polecats are generalists and opportunistic predators. Their natural diet consists of rodents such as great gerbils, house mice, and ground squirrels, as well as lizards, birds, and insects.(3)
Body length: 29–35 cm / 11.4–13.7 in
Weight: 320–715 g / 11–25 oz (males), 295–600 g / 10–21 oz (females)
Lifespan: Unknown (wild), up to 9 years (captivity)
Range: Southeast Europe to Russia and China.
Conservation status: Vulnerable
- V. p. koshewnikowi
- V. p. negans
- V. p. pallidior
- V. p. peregusna
- V. p. syriaca
- Novikov, G. A. “Carnivorous mammals of the fauna of USSR Israel Program Sci.” Translations, Jerusalem (1962).
- Roberts, Tom J., and Bernhard (principe d’Olanda.). “The mammals of Pakistan.” (1977).
- Petroelje, T. 2011. “Vormela peregusna“ (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed February 06, 2021.
- Stroganov, S. U. “Carnivorous Mammals of Siberia. Israel Program for Scientific Translations.” (1969): 432-439.
- Wilson, Don E. & Reeder, DeeAnn M. (Editors) 2005. Vormela peregusna in Mammal Species of the World. – A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference.
#9 Saharan Striped Polecat (Ictonyx libycus)
This species shares the common name “polecat”, but is not directly related to other species on this page except for I. striatus and V. peregusna.
The Saharan striped polecat, also known as the Saharan striped weasel, Libyan striped weasel, and the North African striped weasel, is a mustelid of northern Africa. The taxonomy of the genus is controversial: Poecilictis, a sister genus, is often considered under Ictonyx. The number of species included in Ictonyx is also controversial. In the past, as few as 1 (Ellerman et al. 1953) and as many as 3 (Shortridge 1934) or 4 (Roberts 1951) species were recognized.(1)
The Saharan striped polecat is sometimes confused with the striped polecat, though they are usually smaller and have a circular white mask, compared to the striped polecat’s three white facial spots. They have glossy, coarse black fur on their legs, paws and underside, with ears that are black with white tips. Four broad white stripes extend down the body from the top of the head to the tip of the tail.
The Saharan striped polecats are found on the margins of deserts especially in mountains, in arid stony terrain and sandy semideserts. They prefer steppe-like habitats, and are rarely seen in woodlands.(2)
The Saharan striped polecat is thought to be a nocturnal and solitary animal. During the day they will hide in the burrows of other animals or dig their own.(3)
Their diet consists of eggs, small birds, small mammals, and lizards.(3) The Saharan striped polecat uses its keen sense of smell to track their prey living in burrows, digging them out and then quickly pouncing when pursuing their prey.(2)
Body length: 55–70 cm / 21.5–27.5 in
Weight: 500–750 g / 17.5–26 oz
Lifespan: Unknown (wild), up to 6 years (captivity)
Range: Northern Africa from Morocco and Senegal to Egypt and Eritrea.
Conservation status: Least concern
- I. l. libycus
- I. l. multivittatus
- I. l. oralis
- I. l. rothschildi
- Larivière, Serge. “Ictonyx striatus“. Mammalian species 2002.698 (5 July 2002): 1-5.
- Kingdon, J. (1997). The Kingdon Field Guide to African Mammals. Academic Press. p. 229.
- Hoath, Richard (2009). A Field Guide to the Mammals of Egypt. Egypt: The American University in Cairo Press. pp. 82–84.
- “Saharan Striped Polecat”. theanimalfiles.com. Accessed 19-03-2020.
#10 Striped Polecat (Ictonyx striatus)
This species shares the common name “polecat”, but is not directly related to other species on this page except for I. libycus and V. peregusna.
The striped polecat, also known as the African polecat, zoril, zorille, zorilla, Cape polecat, and African skunk (despite not being a skunk), can found throughout much of central and southern Africa. Despite their appearance and anal spray defense mechanism, they are not skunks. In fact, skunks tend to be incorrectly called polecats because of their similar appearance to the striped polecat.
Generally striped polecats have a black underside, with legs and paws of the same colour. Unlike skunks, striped polecats have three white spots on their head, and four distinct stripes along the length of their bodies to the tips of their tail.
The stripe polecat lives in diverse dry and arid climates.
Striped polecats are solitary, aggressive and territorial animals – mainly associating with other members of their species for the purpose of mating. They are nocturnal and spend most of their time on the ground and live in the burrows that they dig, but often sleep in hollow trees or rock crevices. Like most mustelids, when threatened they spray a foul odour from their anal glands.(1)
One of the main differences between a striped polecat and a skunk, is skunks are omnivores, while the striped polecat is carnivorous. They consume insects, lizards, snakes, birds, bird eggs, beetles, and centipedes, but their main diet consists of rodents.(1)
Body length: 60–70 cm / 24–28 in (including tail)
Weight: 681–1,460 g / 1.5–3 lb (males), 596–880 g / 1.3–2 lb (females)
Lifespan: Unknown (wild), up to 13 years (captivity)
Range: South Africa, to as far north as Central Africa.
Conservation status: Least concern
- I. s. albescens
- I. s. arenarius
- I. s. elgonis
- I. s. erythreae
- I. s. ghansiensis
- I. s. giganteus
- I. s. intermedius
- I. s. kalaharicus
- I. s. lancasteri
- I. s. limpopoensis
- I. s. maximus
- I. s. obscuratus
- I. s. orangiae
- I. s. ovamboensis
- I. s. pretoriae
- I. s. senegalensis
- I. s. shoae
- I. s. shortridgei
- I. s. striatus