In general use, a ferret is a domestic ferret (Mustela putorius furo), a creature first bred from the wild European polecat or steppe polecat at least 2,500 years ago. more...
Several other small, elongated carnivorous mammals belonging to the family Mustelidae also have the word "ferret" in their common names, including the endangered black-footed ferret.
No one knows exactly when ferrets were first domesticated, but ferret remains have been dated to 1500 BCE. Some say the ancient Egyptians had ferrets, but it is more likely that Europeans visiting Egypt saw cats and thought using a small carnivore to protect grain stores was a great idea.
The ferret was probably bred from the European Polecat (Mustela putorius), though it is also possible that ferrets come from the steppe polecat (Mustela eversmanni) or some hybridization thereof. All three species have unique similarities and differences.
For hundreds of years, the main use of ferrets was for hunting, or ferreting. With their long, lean build and curious nature, ferrets are very well equipped for getting down holes and chasing rodents and rabbits out of their burrows. They are still used for hunting in some countries, including the United Kingdom and Australia, where rabbits are considered a plague species and the combination of a few small nets and a ferret or two remains very effective despite technological advances. However, the practice is illegal in several countries, where it is feared that ferreting could unbalance the ecology.
Caesar Augustus sent ferrets (named 'viverrae' by Plinius) to the Balearic Islands to control the rabbit plagues in 6 B.C.
Ferrets were first brought to the New World in the 17th century and were used extensively from 1860 until the start of World War II to protect grain stores in the American West. They first became popular as pets in the mid-1970s, chiefly thanks to Dr. Wendy Winstead, a veterinarian and former folk singer who sold ferrets to a number of celebrities and made many TV appearances with her personal ferrets.
Ferrets as pets
In many ways, ferrets act like kittens that never grow up. They have energy, curiosity, and potential for chaos all their lives, and are always keenly aware of their surroundings. However, they are far more people-oriented than cats, and most actively elicit play with their owners.
As a pet, ferrets rank third in the U.S., behind dogs and cats. Ferrets are sometimes accused of being dangerous to small children, but this claim is false -- proportionally, ferrets do much less harm to children than dogs or cats. Their lifespan can vary widely, but most often falls between six and eight years.
Dangers to ferrets
It has been suggested that ferrets were bred for curiosity; whether this is true or not, their curiosity often exceeds their common sense. Ferrets are very good at getting into holes in walls, cupboards, or behind household appliances, where they can be injured or killed by electrical wiring, fans, and other dangerous items. Many enjoy chewing items made of soft rubber, foam, or sponge, which present the risk of intestinal blockage and death if ingested. Screen doors are no match for a ferret's claws, and dryer vents often become escape routes. Fold-out sofas and recliners are particularly dangerous, since ferrets will often climb inside the springs and then be squashed to death once the chair is put into a reclined position.
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