Ferrets were likely first domesticated as an aid to hunting rabbits, a common source of food. They were also used for hunting vermin — Europeans domesticated the ferret from as long as 2,500 years ago. They later spread to North America in the 1700s. It was the custom for sailors to keep ferrets on ships as a means of controlling rats, and no doubt, some found their way ashore.
The Domestication of the Ferret, a History
The ferret has a long history of domestication by man. Aristophanes made the first known mention of an animal believed to be a ferret. C 450 BC. Further mention was made by Aristotle, who stated that this animal could become “mild and tame.” So we have a clear link back to the Ancient Greeks.
When it comes to domestication, we rely on Strabo (C 63 BC to 24 AD) who talked about ferrets in Libya that were bred for the purpose, placed in a muzzle, and sent down rabbit holes to hunt rabbits. The ferret would either use his sharp claws to drag the rabbit from the warren or chase it out where dogs would capture it.
This method of hunting is still in use today by the descendants of these hunters in Libya. So to answer the question “what are ferrets bred for” we certainly now know why they were first bred, and that was for hunting rabbits.
The ferret was indigenous to Spain, and perhaps North Africa. It later spread throughout Europe. Strabo’s comments had been prompted by the widespread growth of the Rabbit population when it was introduced to the Balearic Islands, where they became a significant pest and were countered by using ferrets for hunting them.
Several illustrations of ferrets being used for rabbiting In the 16th Century tell us that the practice was still going strong in Europe. There is a book entitled Livre de Chasse of Gaston, Comte de Foix, which indicated that in England at the time, rabbiting may not have been so popular as it was on the continent and that the only people who hunted this way were furriers.
Ferrets are now mainly bred as Pets
For the past three decades, pet ferrets have grown in popularity around the globe. They are one of the most popular pets in the USA, with an estimated 500,000 ferrets kept as pets today.
These critters are mischievous and very inquisitive. If ferrets see a hole or find a confined space in the house, they have to go and explore it. They will learn tricks and they will happily learn how to use a litter box.
If you discipline them, they will react and learn from the experience. If you handle them regularly, they will not bite and enjoy playing.
They are harder work than either cats or dogs and will require the owner to spend time on them and supervise them outside their cage. They will get along with cats and dogs quite happily if introduced to them at an early age. Do not let them near rabbits, Guinea pigs, birds, and hamsters as their predatory nature might kick in.
Feeding a ferret is relatively simple, they usually will be happy with quality cat food if you cannot find specially designed ferret food. It is recommended that unless you want to breed, that you desex your pet ferret (both males and females) to avoid them smelling too bad.
It is worth noting that ferrets bond with their human owners for life in the same way that dogs do.
What else are ferrets still bred for today?
In many parts of the world, ferrets are used for hunting. Man has been breeding ferrets since our early history. First, they were bred for hunting rabbits and later for killing vermin.
They earned their place in our society for practical reasons. In doing this, man has made the ferret so dependent that if they escape, they rarely survive long.
Ferrets have descended from the European Polecat, which was native to Europe and the top of North Africa. Ferrets have spread around the globe because of man’s intervention.
Sailors were attracted to them and kept them as pets and to keep down the rats on their ships. This led to them both escaping the ships in various places around the world and also being taken ashore.
In other situations, like New Zealand, farmers demanded they be imported and released so that they will reduce the rabbit population, which had become a problem.
2. Running cables
The ferret’s flexible body, inquisitive nature, and ability to find its way through tiny holes have earned him complex jobs in several electrical and telecommunication companies.
For example, ferrets were used in the UK by broadband service companies to run optical cables in inaccessible places. The furry animal was dressed in microchipped jackets and helped through tiny holes with cables attached to them. This also helped survey the cabling network of these companies at a low cost.
Ferrets were also used in London to run television and sound cables for the wedding of the Prince of Wales and Lady Diana at Buckingham Palace. At the Millenium New Year Eve Party in Greenwich, London, ferrets were also used to run cables for televised coverage.
2. Fur Production
Ferrets have been raised for fur production for centuries in Europe and in the early 1900s, an effort was made to establish this practice in the U.S. The wild coloring of the ferret is preferred and there was likely a considerable amount of breeding back to the wild European polecat to maintain the uniformity and quality of the fur. A coat made out of ferret fur is called a fitch coat.
Fortunately, the practice of breeding ferrets for their fur has become much less common and eventually may be abandoned altogether.
3. Ferret races
Also popular in Great Britain are ferret races, many of them being organized by the Central Ferret Welfare of Great Britain. During these cheerful events, ferrets run through pipes that are usually 10-meter long with a wired section in the middle for the public to see the critter’s progress.
The show is as hilarious as it is unpredictable, with the ferrets generally eager to make their way all the way through the tunnel and back, while others decide to have a nap halfway through, forcing his owner to pull him out manually.
The organizer of these events, Chris Tyler, stated that “the idea of holding races is to promote the ferret and raise money for rescue work”. Funds are raised through modest bets and no prizes are given to avoid a competitive spirit around an animal overly misunderstood.
This short and entertaining video features a ferret race in Henley, UK.
4. Ferret Legging
A Fun Ferret Fact: In England, there was a pub sport called Ferret Legging. In the sport, the trouser legs were tied by string stopping any exit by a ferret which was then placed down into the trousers. The waist was then tied tight so there was no escape there either.
If the ferret were to bite, it was only allowed to try and release the bite from outside the trousers, and the winner of the game was the man who kept the ferret down his pants the longest.
The record was held by a 72-year-old Yorkshire man, who managed to keep the ferret down his trousers for five hours and 26 minutes. This record was broken in 2010 when it was broken by a 67-year-old. This sport, which had been popular for centuries, has nearly died out now.
The final use of ferrets that have created individual ferret breeding facilities is biomedical research. In the USA, ferrets are commonly used for research. This research led to a high-quality breeding facility being opened that produced large numbers of healthy ferrets.