22 Jan Feeding Ancient Pets in Modern Times
Ancient Pets for Modern Times – What to Feed Them?
Thomas R. Willard, Ph.D.
Ferrets have been growing in popularity over the past ten years in the U.S. as well as in parts of Europe, Asia, Canada and Australia. However, their nutritional needs have neither been well defined nor researched to keep pace with their rapid growth in popularity.
The domestic ferret (Mustelo putorius furo) was first domesticated from the European polecat some 2500 years ago. It is one of the oldest domesticated animals and probably the first domesticated pet. Ferrets came to this country during the colonial days as workers on many of the passenger and cargo ships filling the early American harbors. They were excellent mousers and could “ferret” out the mice and rats from areas in the bowels of the ships that cats could not reach or would not go. Ferrets had no fear of man nor the large bilge rats they often hunted aboard ships. They were highly prized and well cared for in these early days. Inside their small bodies – 1 1/2 pounds for jills (females) and 3 to 4 pounds for hobs (males) – beats the heart of a lion. The other characteristic that has endeared the domesticated ferret to millions of people is their unquenchable curiosity. Everything needs investigating from a Bull Mastiff to the smallest kitten, hedgehog, puppy or cricket. If at all possible, they must be played with.
So how do these unique characteristics affect ferrets’ nutritional needs? In addition to being very active, they are obligate carnivores which means they must have high quality animal proteins, vitamin A, niacin, essential fatty acids of arachidonic acid, linoleic acid and possibly taurine, an essential amino acid required in cats. Though these specific requirements have not been determined in the ferret, they are essential for the family of true carnivores and therefore have only been estimated based on practical breeding and research diets in most currently available foods. Though the ferret is in the same genus as the mink and has similar body structure, most nutritionists and veterinarians have considered their nutrient requirements and tastes to be similar. Conversely, there are those that consider the ferret more closely related to the cat in nutritional needs because they metabolize protein very similarly. It is for this reason that many breeders and veterinarians feed and recommend a blend of high quality premium cat food and a pelleted mink or ferret food. This is more from lack of choice rather than a specific recommendation.
Knowing these shortcomings in both the nutritional knowledge of ferrets and lack of research information, Performance Foods, Inc. began researching the nutritional needs of the ferret four years ago. Our objective was to develop a food that would meet their unique nutritional needs as well as their particular taste requirements. All of our feeding tests were conducted with individual professional breeders of pet ferrets with many years of experience. We felt this was more representative of the true pet population and better for the ferrets in general. In these controlled studies we determined that the protein requirements for pregnant, nursing, growing and active ferrets was at least 36%. We also found that the protein must be from high quality chicken, poultry and meat proteins. Whole eggs and herring meal were found to be essential complementary proteins since they are of high quality and help balance the specific amino acid requirements of ferrets. A fat level with a minimum of 22%, using a high quality chicken fat stabilized with natural tocopherols and citric acid, was found to be the best source of energy. Other fats like lecithin, vegetable oil and fish oil were also determined to be necessary for optimum coat and skin condition. The level of vitamins and minerals required to fortify a ferret diet sets it apart from the normal pelleted mink, ferret and cat foods. Being smaller in metabolic body size than cats, ferrets have a higher metabolic rate. Therefore, they require a greater concentration of total nutrients in their food than cats. Conversely, lower nutrient concentrations are required for older ferrets as our current research is showing.
Physiologically, the ferret has a very short and uniquely different digestive track relative to the cat and mink. Its absence of a cecum, as well as a large intestine that lacks the absorptive characteristics of other carnivores, make nutrient concentration and quality very critical in a balanced and complete food for ferrets. Most cat foods and many mink foods have 3 to 4% fiber which makes them unacceptable. This level is too high for ferrets given their physiological difference. Dog food should not be fed to ferrets due to lower nutrient levels, higher fiber and lack of proper balance of vitamins and minerals.
Pelleting is an inexpensive food manufacturing process that does not cook the starches and carbohydrates completely. Pelleted foods are almost always found in pet stores in inexpensive plastic bags as opposed to higher quality extruded foods which are always found in multiple layer paper bags. The extruded foods are usually higher in fat and have higher quality ingredients than the pelleted foods, which are really modified mink formulas. Mink formulas can be easily identified because most have fish meal as the first or second ingredient on the ingredient panel plus a very strong fishy odor. Most ferrets will not eat these foods unless it is their only choice because they do not naturally like fish.
Carnivores, like ferrets, can not digest raw or poorly cooked starch. All pelleted foods have a relatively short, low cooking temperature. In our research, we found that only fully cooked, extruded foods were satisfactory for ferrets. In addition, the size of the food kibble and its shape, smell, taste and texture were all very critical parameters in the ferret’s acceptability of a food.
Though many ferrets have existed on other foods, most of which are very poor quality, they do best on a high protein (36%) high fat (22%) diet, especially when they are under physiological or emotional stress. In addition, disease is a major factor in determining the total nutrient requirements of ferrets. In fact, disease may increase the overall nutrient requirements 2 to 3 fold depending on the severity and length of time the animal is sick.
In conclusion, in selecting a food for your pet ferrets make sure it is designed and tested on ferrets. It must have an animal source of protein as the first ingredient and a high quality animal fat as the major energy source, preferably stabilized with natural vitamin E or tocopherols. The carbohydrates should be from rice and wheat with corn as a minor source and the crude fiber should not exceed 2%. It must be extruded (expanded like most modern cat foods) and it must be a size and shape (not cylindrical) they can eat. Above all, the most important indication of a food’s quality is how the ferret’s hair coat and skin looks and feels while maintaining its alert and active lifestyle.