Towards a More Natural Ferret Diet - Whole Prey and Raw Foods

Tame ferret
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Commercial ferret diets and feeding recommendations have come a long way in the past few years, but we still need to ask what is the best diet for pet ferrets. The situation has only been exacerbated by massive concerns over the safety of ingredients used in pet food manufacturing as a result of recalls in 2007.

Ferrets are "obligate" carnivores, which means they are meant to eat meat -- just meat.

Ferrets are not designed to digest grains, or sugars, or fillers such as corn. These are unfortunately used in the processing of many ferret diets, especially some of the earlier ones. Years ago, high-quality kitten foods were often better suited to meet the needs of ferrets for protein and fat requirements than the scarcely available ferret foods. The science of feeding ferrets has come a long way and processed ferret foods are much better (and more available) than they once were, but are processed foods good enough? More and more ferret owners are wondering if more natural diets such as whole prey or raw foods are a better way to meet the dietary needs of their pets.

Current Status

Opinions are definitely mixed and often quite heated on the topic of pet diets, ferret foods included. What I hope to do here is look at current recommendations for feeding ferrets and the pros and cons of more natural diets such as whole prey and raw diets.

I won't make recommendations of one method of feeding over another, as I believe in the end it is up to each owner to make a decision based on information that is available. I also know that in the end, the choice will often come down to the comfort levels of the owners, convenience, and comfort with food handling and safety issues.

It is not my intent to get into a debate over the best way to feed or condemn anyone's choices.

Before we start, I want to make some disclaimers and disclosures: I am not a nutritionist, nor a ferret owner. I do feed my other pets processed foods.

Background

Basic Requirements for a Ferret Diet

  • High protein - 30-40 percent on the nutrient analysis
  • Protein must be high quality, highly digestible, and be animal-based
  • High fat (at least 20 percent)
  • Very low in carbohydrates and fiber (less than 3 percent fiber)

About Processed Dry Foods

The science behind dry ferret foods has come a long way along with understanding the needs of ferrets, but not all ferret foods are created equally. Ferret owners need to do lots of label reading to choose a good food. Unfortunately, the nutritional analysis doesn't tell the whole story. You must also analyze the ingredient list as the quality and availability of the proteins and fats can vary widely (though even ingredient lists can be misleading). However, there are some good quality dry ferret foods that would are considered by many experts to be well-balanced diets. For more about dry ferret foods, see "Feeding Ferrets - Dry Foods."

What Do I Mean by "Natural Diets"?

There are many different alternatives to commercial diets, including cooked homemade formulations.

But for the purposes of this article, I will be referring to whole prey diets and raw diets, which are touted as more naturally replicating the diets of the domestic ferret's wild ancestors. Such diets seem to be gaining in popularity -- not only with ferret owners but also with cat and dog owners

  • Whole prey diets are usually made up primarily of mice and chicks, which can be fresh or frozen/thawed. Live prey feeding is not necessary or recommended. Look for suppliers that raise prey in healthy conditions and pre-kill the prey humanely (and without toxic residues).
  • Raw meat and bones diets (often unappetizingly called BARF diets, short for "Biologically Appropriate Raw Foods" or "Bones And Raw Foods"). These can be homemade or commercially prepared - but it isn't easy to find raw diets appropriate for ferrets either -- many raw dog food contain grains and vegetables, and even many cat foods have vegetables. Frozen or freeze dried raw foods are available commercially, though there is concern that freeze-drying processes may negatively affect the nutritional quality.

    As you can see, the array of choices makes it all more confusing. But as a group, what are the pros and cons of natural diets compared to processed dry foods?

    Pros

    • Better control over the quality of foods and ingredients -- can choose very high-quality proteins and fat.
    • Whole prey diets automatically provide well-balanced high protein, low carbohydrate diet. Carefully formulated raw diets can provide the same.
    • Natural diets are high in moisture content, which is considered beneficial too.
    • Whole prey (and well balanced raw diets) more closely replicates the diet of the domestic ferret's wild ancestors
    • Whole prey and raw foods/bones promote better dental health
    • Owners who have switched whole prey or balanced raw diets report their ferrets have more energy and seem stronger, with healthier teeth, healthier fur (and less fecal output and smell) on the whole prey or raw diets.

    As supporters of a whole prey diet point out, the incidence of insulinoma is higher in countries where a processed dry diets are popular, and less common where whole prey diets are popular. No cause-and-effect relationship has ever been shown, but the incidence of insulinoma in North American ferrets is disturbing. Insulinomas are tumors of the pancreas involving cells that produce insulin for sugar metabolism.

    Cons

    • Extreme care is necessary to make homemade diets balanced (e.g. meat alone is terribly imbalanced and an unhealthy diet -- whole prey diets are considered balanced because along with meat, the ferret eats everything including bones and organs). Commercial raw or freeze dried foods could be a better option, as they will likely already be well-balanced, but you need to search out ones that are primarily meat-based (ones formulated for dogs usually have veggies, surprisingly many intended for cats do too).
    • It is possible that wild animals improve the balance of their diet by feeding on various ages of prey. Varying the ages of prey or types of prey or food may alleviate this concern.
    • The possibility of choking, obstructions, and injuries from bones including those from whole prey. The risks are minimal (and not as high as many people believe) but there.
    • Risks of bacteria or parasites that may be present in raw diets (though the digestive system of carnivores is better equipped to deal with bacteria than ours, the bacteria may be shed in the feces). Stick to high-quality sources.
    • Concerns over hygiene and food handling issues (e.g. the possibility that Salmonella or E. coli may be present in raw meats/ Preparation areas and food bowls must be sanitized right after feeding.
    • Need to prevent ferrets from hiding bits of raw food around its cage or the house due to  the risk of spoilage or hygiene issues.
    • Whole prey sources may be expensive and somewhat inconvenient.
    • Preparing homemade raw bones and food diets can be expensive and time-consuming.

    Advocates say that whole prey or raw diets are better for ferrets because they replicate the diet of their wild ancestors. In Ferrets magazine, Dr. Karen Rosenthal points out that we don't really know that the digestive system of ferrets is equal to that of their wild ancestors, nor do we have proof that wild animals do not have problems as a result of eating their natural diets.

    Where It Stands

    As a ferret owner, you need to really do your research and be comfortable with whatever you choose to feed. But whether you choose a processed diet or whole prey/raw diets, you need to be sure it's good quality and well balanced. I heartily encourage you to do lots of your own reading and research on the topic and to make sure you thoroughly explore all the issues surrounding ferret diets. Here's some places to start:

    More About Ferret Diets 
    *New Ideas in Feeding Ferrets - By Dr. Louise Bauck (good look at requirements, not a proponent of natural diets)
    *Rethinking the Ferret Diet - By Susan Brown, DVM

    Raw Diet Information, Not Ferret Specific
    *Veterinary Q & A - B.A.R.F. Diet - by Janet Tobiassen Crosby, DVM
    *Raw Food Diet for Cats: A Natural Solution - by Franny Syufy