Ferrets come in many shapes and sizes. Some are bulky, some slender. They come in many different colours, and with a variety of different markings. But despite this, there is only one species of domestic ferret.
Domestic ferrets make up the vast majority of the population of these furry animals, and when people talk about the different ‘types’, what they are usually referring to is the different colour or pattern. That being said, there are distinct wild variants too and we will explore all of these below.
Types Of Ferret
It is thought that ferrets are most likely a domesticated form of the wild European variant or polecat (Mustela putorius). However, there is still a type of wild ferret native to North America, that was considered extinct for a time.
Black Footed Ferret
The black-footed ferret is a type of ferret that is considered to be an endangered species. They are the only ferrets in North America that are considered to be endangered. They were once thought to be extinct, but in 1981, a small population was discovered in Wyoming, and a captive breeding program was introduced. There are estimated to be about 1,000 black-footed ferrets in the wild today.
Black-footed ferrets weigh around 2 pounds and are about 18 inches long. These ferrets have a distinct appearance with sooty black outlines on their feet, ears, parts of the face and its tail. Their base color is pale yellowish or buffy above and below and the top of the head and sometimes the neck is clouded by dark-tipped hairs. A black mask can be seen around the eyes, which is well defined in young black-footed ferrets.
They have short and stout legs and a long neck, with the forehead being arched and broad, and the muzzle short. Their feet, including the soles, are covered in hair, and this conceals the claws, which are very sharp and slightly arched.
Black-footed ferrets live in prairies and grasslands where they can find prey such as prairie dogs and ground squirrels. They are rarely above ground, only surfacing for a few minutes in the hours following sunrise to hunt. They spend most of the day underground in burrows.
Black-footed ferrets have a life expectancy of about 6 years in the wild.
Despite the variation in size, marking and patterns, and even the different names – standard, angora, european – domestic ferrets are all the same species. They all originate from the polecat though the origin of their domestication is still unclear. Here are the most common domestic species of ferret.
The Standard Ferret
The Standard Ferret is the most common type of ferret, and it is the one that is most typically keep as a pet. The population of domestic ferrets have never been endangered, and this stands them apart from their black footed relatives.
They vary widely in body size and weight, from a slender ‘whippet‘ type body shape, to the more blocky ‘bulldog‘ type shape. Standard ferrets have a buffy coat and the undercoat is much shorter than the overcoat. The markings and colors can vary widely.
Standard ferrets are the most social of all the types of ferrets and they typically live in groups. They are active animals and love to play, so they require plenty of toys and space to run around. They are also very curious and will get into everything, so you need to be sure to keep your home safe for them.
Standard ferrets have a life expectancy of about 8-12 years.
Angora ferrets are known for their long, soft coats, and people who own them often say that they are very cuddly. Angora ferrets usually live for six to eight years. A ‘Full’ angora has a long coat with the overcoat the same length as the undercoat. This gives the appearance of a ‘lack’ of undercoat. They also have an extra fold in their nose.
Angora ferrets were first bred around 25-30 years ago. They are the result a genetic mutation discovered by a Swedish ferret breeder. They have a similar coat type to the angora rabbit which has long, soft fur.
If you are thinking of getting an Angora ferret, you will need to be prepared to groom them regularly. Their long coats can become tangled and matted if they are not brushed properly. You will also need to give them a bath every few weeks.
Many breeders have introduced hybrids to the ferret species in an attempt to what they believe will strengthen the gene pool. The breeding is between European polecats and domestic ferrets. To be fair, this type of hybrid breeding occurs in the wild between these two species. The polecat is an ancestor to the ferret but it is still unclear when ferrets were originally domesticated.
While domestic ferrets are bred selectively for positive traits, polecats are wild. A hybrid therefore might not like to be handled and have a different temperament to those bred specifically from domestic ferret parents.
Miniature ferrets are exactly the same animal as the larger angora or standard ferret. Similarly to the angora, they have been selectively bred from ferrets with a smaller size. Some miniatures may be the result of neglect, or a form of dwarfism, so it really is important to know a little about the breeders background before purchasing a miniature ferret.
They share all the same behavioural characteristics to larger ferrets, as they are exactly the same animal. The only difference being that they are bred from selective small stock.
Ferret colors come in a wide variety, with each type of ferret exhibiting its own unique markings and colorations. Below are some of the most common types of ferret colors.
Sable ferrets are one of the most common types of ferrets, and they are characterized by their dark brown fur outer coat, with black tips. They often have a band of lighter fur running down their backs and along their sides. Their undercoat is usually a light golden, white or cream colour and they often have dark eyes. Sable ferrets are very handsome animals and they are one of the most popular types of ferrets for people to keep as pets.
Black sable ferrets are very similar in appearance to the standard ‘sable’ ferret mentioned above. The defining difference, is that they have a darker, bolder outer coat.
Chocolate ferrets are a relatively rare type of ferret, and they are characterized by their ‘milk chocolate’ brown fur. Chocolate ferrets can range in colour from a light brown to a very dark brown. Their eyes are usually dark, and noses beige or pink. They are very beautiful animals, and they make great pets for people who are looking for something unique.
Albino ferrets are one of the most easily recognized types of ferrets, due to their white fur and pink or red eyes. They also have a pink or red nose that may or may not match their eyes. Albino ferrets lack any pigment in their fur or skin, which makes them very susceptible to sunburn.
A black ferret will have black guard hair (outer coat) and a white undercoat. Their nose may be black, speckled, or ‘almost’ black, but their eyes will always be black.
Cinnamon ferrets are defined by their light reddish-brown guard hair (outer coat) that sits on top of a white or light golden under coat. Their nose can vary in colour between a pink, beige or brick colour with a T-shaped outline.
Champagne ferrets have lovely burgundy coloured eyes, varying between light and dark shades. The coat underneath is white or cream coloured, while the guard hair is like a diluted chocolate (which is sometimes what they are called) or a tan colour. Their nose is usually either beige or pink. Occasionally it is pink with a T-shaped beige outline.
Dark Eyed White
The dark eyed white ferret will have a white or cream under coat and outer coat (guard hair), and pink noses. You can tell them apart from albino ferrets because, as the name suggests dark-eyed whites have dark eyes. The eyes are usually a rich burgundy or black colour.
Did you know?
- The Albino ferret and white ferret are the only types to have the same colour of under and outer coat. Every other ferret will have a difference in colour between the two coats
- Some people consider a ‘silver ferret’ to be another standard colour of ferret. A silver ferret is actually a black ferret with ‘roan’ characteristics, known by the American Ferret Association as a ‘black roan’ ferret.
- Ferrets are part of the same family as weasels and badgers, they are not rodents despite what some believe.
It’s rare that a ferret will match the colour variants above classically, without a set of markings or pattern to the coat. In fact, a ferret’s coat can change depending on the season, and on its age. To understand the sheer volume of variations in the coat and markings, you need to know some of the terminology around markings. So let’s break it down.
- Bib – An area on the neck, characterised by white patches.
- Mask – The area around the eyes, which can be of three types: – Standard, T-bar or V. The standard mask is the classical full band around and between the eyes (think Zorro), T-bar is solid around and between the eyes and up to the head, and the V mask is a thin line around the eyes and down to the nose.
- Mitt – A mitt, looks like a sock. It is a white area around the feet, where the white stops at the ankles.
- Points – These refer to the tail, legs, shoulders and mask. A pointed ferret will have a variation in colour concentration is some or all of these areas.
- Stocking – Similar to a Mitt, but where the white extends half way up the leg.
- Roaning – This is where guard hair will have a mixture of white hair throughout the coat (usually brown or black). In a black ferret this gives the appearance of a silver coat.
Domestic Ferret Patterns
There are nine basic ferret patterns, that include a variety of the colours and markings described above. Many of pattern names hear will look familiar.
Panda ferrets are a relatively new type of ferret, and they are characterized by their unique white head that reaches down to the shoulders. Panda ferrets have darker fur on their heads and backs, and they can have white or speckled fur on their bellies. They will have white fur on their mitts and tip of the tail, and some roaning. They are very cute animals with pink noses, and they make great pets.
Siamese ferrets are named for their characteristic markings, which resemble those of Siamese cats. They have light body fur with darker points on their ears, nose, feet, and tail. Siamese ferrets are also very social animals and they love to play and interact with their owners. They are often just called point ferrets because they are characterised by point markings.
A Mitt ferret, will have mitt markings – white feet up to the ankles, and the rest of coat can be any other colour other than white. They also often have a white bib.
Mutts are distinct in that they have no defining pattern or colour. They will be multi-coloured (so not just white), with varying levels of roaning, spots or patterns. There is no uniformity in a mutt ferret.
The blaze ferret gets it’s name from the white ‘blaze’ that reaches from just above the eyes, over the head and down the back of the neck. Like the ferret equivalent of a mohawk in appearance. As the blaze is white, the rest of the ferret must be another colour. Other defining features include a pink nose with ruby red or dark brown eyes. Fur will be tipped white on the tail, with white mitts. They may or may not have a combination of roaning, a white or speckled belly, white knee patches or a bib.
The roan can be any of the usual ferret colours, with a mix of white mixed through the guard hairs. It should have a ‘salt and pepper’ look to the fur, with 40% – 60% of the outer coat white hair, evenly spread across the body. You get variations of roan with other distinct markings, but to be considered a true roan, the colour dispersity should be even.
The striped or patterned ferret should be mostly white, with a coloured stripe down the back. Around 90% of their coat should be white, with the majority of the remainder represented by the back stripe. They may have a little coloured guard hair around the body but 90% should be white. This applies to patterned ferrets too, though rather than a stripe, they may have coloured spots making up 10% of their fur.
Standard ferrets will be similar to solid ferrets, except lighter in colour concentration and with defined points. The guard hair should be nearly 100% coloured in contrast to the lighter under coat.
In a solid ferret, the guard hair should be 100% coloured with little to no white in the outer coat. The concentration of colour should be high, giving the look of a solid colour across the body, including the points. They may have a white bib and the undercoat is usually fully covered by the guard fur.
Ferrets can vary greatly in appearance given the above range of colours, markings and patterns. You may have a solid cinnamon or a champagne mitt for example. Their coat can change across seasons too, so in spring you may have what appears to be a black ferrent, but in winter it appears as a black roan.
Are ferrets a type of mongoose?
While they might look similar, a ferret and a mongoose are completely different. In fact a mongoose is closer related to a cat and a ferret to a dog, than they are to each other. The mongoose is part of the Herpestes genus, and ferrets belong to the Mustela genus.
Difference between a ferret and a polecat
Ferrets and polecats are both members of the Mustelidae family, which includes badgers, weasels and mink. There are a few key differences between them however. The most obvious difference is that ferrets are domesticated while polecats are wild.
Ferrets are believed to be a domesticated form of European polecat, so they share many of the same characteristics. However, ferrets are tamer than polecats and they make better pets. They are happy to be in company, whereas polecats are solitary animals. Polecats can be dangerous animals, and they should not be kept as pets. While there is only one species of domestic ferret, there are several species of polecat.
In many cases, you can only accurately tell the difference between a polecat and a ferret visually by closely examining the fur and skull. For example, a polecat will have no scattered guard hairs in it’s coat around the body, whereas a ferret commonly does. Also, a polecat will have a throat patch less than 50mm long if it has one at all, whereas a ferret will have one longer than 50mm. Analysis of mitochondrial DNA can be the only other way in some cases, to tell the difference.
Ferrets typically live for 6-10 years, but there are some that have been known to live for up to 10-12 years. They do not generally live as long in the wild.
Ferret Suitability As A Pet
Ferrets are very suitable as pets for a number of reasons. They are playful and active, and they enjoy spending time with their owners. They are also relatively easy to care for, and they don’t require a lot of space.
Ferrets can be kept as indoor or outdoor pets, but they should always be supervised when they are outside. They can be prey to many different types of predators, so it is important to keep them safe.
Ferrets make great pets for people who have the time to devote to them. They are a long-lived animal and they require a lot of exercise. If you can provide these things, then a ferret would make a great pet for you.