Making The Switch
Switching a ferret’s diet can be a time consuming and frustrating process, but it is well worth the end results!
Ferrets imprint on their food at a young age. Between 4-6 months of age, ferret kits will eat almost anything you put in their food bowl (and some things you don’t)! As they reach 6-9 months of age however, they become more solidly imprinted on their foods. For this reason it is important to offer young kits a variety of foods that you may want to feed them in the future so that they become exposed and open to the variety. Older ferrets who are firmly imprinted on a specific food can be more difficult to switch – but don’t despair! Even the most stubborn ferrets can be switched onto a new diet.
This article highlights a basic but effective method for switching your ferrets to a raw foods diet in a gradual manner. Keep in mind that this process is different for every ferret and some may need to take the switch slower than others, while some may take to it right away. Additionally, there are many different methods, tricks, and approaches to making the switch – no single method is necessarily the “best;” different approaches work differently for different people and ferrets. This article outlines just one of many approaches.
HFF has a wonderful Mentoring Program that will pair you up with an individual mentor.
Your mentor will guide you through the entire switching process and help you create a fully balanced and varied diet for your business. This program is a unique and effective resource, the likes of which cannot be found anywhere else.
And it is 100% free! All mentors are volunteers who are dedicated to improving the quality of life and nutrition for domestic ferrets.
While you wait for a mentor, or if you cannot meet the requirements for the mentoring program, we encourage you to make a tread on our Diet Transitions Board to get your switch started. On the Transitions board you will get input from all of our mentors and members in starting your switch. (It will also help you reach the required post count to qualify for a mentor).
Dealing with Frustration: We commonly hear frustrated ferret owners complaining that “I tried raw but they wouldn’t eat it.” Keep in mind that your ferret has NO IDEA that raw meat is food. Imagine if I put a bowl of crickets in front of you and said “eat up!” Almost anyone raised in Western culture would think I must be nuts – crickets aren’t food! Yet crickets are a great source of protein and are a staple diet in many countries – we simply haven’t been raised to view crickets as food. Similarly, a ferret imprinted on kibble has to LEARN that raw is not only edible, but delicious. This takes time, patience, and above all – persistence. As long as YOU are determined to switch your ferret, they WILL be switched.
Step One – Gathering the Ingredients and Making “Raw Soup“
You will need the following items:
- a good blender
- raw boneless chicken (thigh preferred over breast)
- raw chicken liver (or other raw liver)
- raw chicken heart
- bone meal (preferred) or powdered egg shell
Note: We typically recommend starting with chicken as it is one of the easiest meats to find, and more bland in flavor than other raw meats, thus more easily accepted. However, it is perfectly acceptable to start with other proteins, but be aware that stronger flavored meats such as beef may be harder to introduce your ferret to as a first protein.
You may also need:
- Fish or Salmon Oil
- kibble (avoid using if possible)
Blend all of the Soup ingredients above using a blender or food processor. Blenders tend to get the best results for consistency. You can adjust the thickness by adding more or less water. For particularly stubborn ferrets you can add a little salmon or fish oil to improve the flavor in the beginning of the switching process.
For particularly stubborn ferrets start with kibble soup, and slowly replace it with raw chicken. To make kibble soup, soak some kibble in warm water first (or it will burn out your blender), then add more water and blend to the desired consistency. Start by finger feeding the kibble soup to your ferret to adjust them to the new texture. Once they accept the kibble soup, you can work on gradually adding raw soup while decreasing the kibble soup.
WARNING: Combining kibble and raw can cause upset stomach in ferrets. I have found that most ferrets tolerate them mixed in SOUP form for a short period without any problems and it can be a useful approach for particularly resistant ferrets. The bigger problems seem to arise when giving dry kibble and raw meals to close together. That said, many individuals feel that it is best to not mix them even in soup. It is up to you to determine whether or not to try this approach, but it is a technique to keep in mind if your ferret is being particularly stubborn.
Step 2: Introducing Your Ferret to Raw Soup
Remove the Kibble:
First it is important to remove your ferret’s kibble a few hours before offering the raw soup (See Warning above). It is best to remove the kibble about 3-4 hours (the average length of the ferret digestive tract) ahead of time. This allows the kibble to exit their digestive tract to avoid upset stomachs, and also ensures that they are feeling hungry when you offer them the new soup.
NOTE: If your ferret has insulinoma, please watch them carefully for signs of hypoglycemia and remove kibble at about 2-3 hours (instead of 3-4). [If your ferret or has shown ANY signs of illness or odd behavior, they should be seen by a vet. If your ferret has been on kibble for 2 or more years, or has an unknown history (e.g. rescued/adopted ferrets) is a good idea to test your ferret’s Blood Glucose before starting a switch as many ferrets can have early insulinoma that has not yet begun to show symptoms.]
If after an hour trial of soup feeding your insulinomic ferret has not eaten a substantial meal of raw, give them their kibble back (and make sure they eat some!) to avoid sending them into a life-threatening crash. We highly advise using a Mentor to switch ferrets with insulinoma if you are new to switching ferrets, as their transition can be much trickier since keeping Blood Glucose up is so vital.
Taste the Soup (them not you):
Each ferret may take to the soup differently, but be persistent and they will eventually eat it. Put a little soup on your finger and let your ferrets sniff it. If they lick it and like it, then offer them a small dish of the soup. If they take to the soup quickly, remove all kibble and begin feeding them a diet of just the soup – you just made a big step on the way to a raw diet!
If they do not take to it right away don’t worry! MOST ferrets will NOT take to raw right away. This is a new strange food, and for some time they may be convinced that you are trying to poison them. Dab a little soup onto your ferret’s nose for them to lick it off. Sit on the floor where they play, and every time your ferret runs by pick them up and dab another drop of soup on their nose. (The “Grab N’ Dab” method). Do this for as much time as you can each day, preferably repeating the process at each meal time. If that does not work, try using the “Scruff N’ Sample” (“scruff N stuff”) approach. Continue this until they will willingly lick the soup off of your finger.
Finger to Bowl:
If the ferret will eat the soup off of your finger, but not from the bowl there are a few tricks that you can try. First, finger feed them the food. When they are willingly eating it off of your fingers, move you finger closer and closer to a spoon full of the soup, and slowly take your finger away. Keep trying this until they will eat from the spoon. Once they will eat from the spoon, repeat this process with a bowl, lowering the spoon towards a bowl and eventually removing it. This may take several days of hand feeding for stubborn ferrets.
Other tricks to try:
- Drizzle some salmon oil (or your ferret’s favorite oil) on top of the soup
- Add an egg to the soup (if they have sloppy poops you may need to cut back on the amount of egg you use)
- You can also sprinkle some crushed kibble over the soup to help entice them to taste it. (Not a preferred method.)
The process of switching often requires taking two steps forward one step back, but slow and steady wins the race. Remember, PATIENCE AND PERSISTENCE are key! As long as YOU are determined to switch your ferret to a raw diet, you will succeed.
Step 3: Ditch the Kibble
Once the ferret begins to eat the soup consistently, remove the kibble from their diet completely. Congratulations, they are now on a RAW soup diet!
Do NOT let your ferret run the show!
Keep in mind that ferrets are like very stubborn, intelligent human toddlers – they can and will try to manipulate you into giving them their way. If you tell a toddler to eat vegetables, and when they refuse cave and give them ice cream they will never learn to eat their veggies because they know that if they wait long enough, they will get ice cream. In the same way, many ferrets will “refuse” to eat their raw despite being adjusted to the taste because they know that if they refuse long enough, you will cave and give them back their precious kibbles. THEY have trained YOU! This is often even worse with Freeze Dried food! Both kibble and freeze dried are very “addictive.” For this reason, we recommend holding freeze dried food and treats until AFTER your ferret is fully switched to raw. Once your switch is complete, you can add the occasional freeze dried meal or treat back into their diet, but not before.
If you are worried that your ferret is not eating enough, weigh them regularly and track their weight over time to watch for significant losses (keeping in mind that some fluctuation is normal, and that there is a significant drop in weight when your ferret enters spring/summer mode.) You can also dangle your ferret and look at their sides – their sides should be roughly parallel. Bulging sides means they are overweight (OR can be a sign of organ enlargement requiring a vet visit). Hourglass sides indicate that your ferret is underweight. If you think your ferret is too skinny, we suggest that you attempt hand feeding the raw soup to ensure your ferret is eating enough. (Do not give back the kibble unless you absolutely have to). This will also help to accustom them even more to the raw food. Once they gain the weight back, begin weaning them off of hand feeding to eating on their own.
Stay strong! Would you let a human toddler dictate what they eat every day? (Even if they chose to eat nothing but ice cream for breakfast, lunch and dinner)? Remember that YOU are the adult, YOU are the parent, and YOU decide what your ferret eats, NOT your ferret!
Health Note: At this point in the switch your ferret is on a soft foods diet. In addition, it takes some time for their GI tracts to adjust to the new foods. It is normal to see strange poops at this point in the switch, and you should expect stools to be significantly softer than usual. This will improve as their GI tracts adjust, as well as when chunks and bones are added into the diet. If their stools are too soft you can increase the amount of bone meal or eggshell powder.
Additionally, any ferret not yet eating chunks of meat and raw bones will need their teeth brushed 1-2x per week.
Step 4: Adding Chunks
Now that your ferret is eating raw soup, it is time to start incorporating chunks into their diet. Before and during the the process of adding slivers and chunks, start mixing less water into the soup when blending it so that it becomes a thick puree. When the soup is nice and thick, start adding slivers of meat. It may be helpful to review the thread Standardized Sizing for Meats. Begin with small pieces of chicken (or other protein), cut to a sliver size and mix the slivers into the soup. You may need to to Scruff N Sample a few slivers, and/or hand feed a few meals before your ferret gets the idea.
– Adding a little fish or salmon oil can help to entice picky, stubborn ferrets.
Once they eat the small chunks, congratulate yourself! Now it is time to slowly decrease the soup, and increase the chunks both in size and number. Eventually they should be eating medium to large sized chunks of raw meat with little to no soup. Again, you can use any of the tricks previously discussed to help move them through this step.
IMPORTANT – Don’t Forget the Calcium! As you decrease the soup you will need to sprinkle the powdered eggshell/bonemeal over their chunks until they are eating whole bones. Try to maintain 1/2-3/4 tsp per 10oz of meat. You can judge whether you are giving enough by their poops. Hard, dry poops means that they are getting too much calcium; soft poops means they are not getting enough.
Feeding Grinds? See Transitioning from Commercial Ground Raw to Frankenprey
Step 5: Heart, Organs, and New Meats
Now that your ferret will eat chunks of meat it is time to incorporate organs, heart, and other meats into their diet. This can be tricky and there are a few ways to approach it.
This is the more popular, and in some ways easier, approach. When you start adding slivers of muscle meat into your ferret’s soup, include slivers of heart and organ at the same time. This way, they learn to accept chunks of heart, chunks or organ, and chunks of muscle meat at the same time. As your progress and your chunks get bigger, you will need to start separating out the heart, organs, and muscle meals to create a balanced diet (see below on balancing your menu).
Start with the raw soup that they ate before adding chunks, and slowly increase the heart and organ, while decreasing the muscle meat. Start with feeding the soup about 7 meals a week (on a 2 meal per day schedule), and continue to work on chunks the other 7 meals. When the soup is 1/2 heart and organs (1/2 muscle), feed it for 5-6 meals a week. When the soup is all heart and organs (1/2 heart, 1/2 organ), feed it 3 meals a week. Next, decrease the soup and add in chunks of liver and heart. The process is essentially the same as switching from kibble to chunks.
Both of the above approaches apply to adding in new meats. You can also try these tricks:
- Try mixing in a couple of very small chunks of the new meat into the chopped chicken (or other meat they are already familiar with) and coat in a light layer of soup or oil. Increase the size and number of the new-meat chunks and decrease the chicken/familiar meat chunks.
- Make a dish of the new meat, and use Soup made of chicken (or other familiar meat) to coat the new meat – think of the soup as being a “gravy” to coat the new meat in to hide the flavor. Gradually decrease the soup “gravy.”
- Combine the two!
At various points continue to try hand feed or Scruff N Sample bigger chunks and/or new proteins – if you can jump ahead a step without the gradual switching process it is always good to do. If they don’t take to hand fed chunks right away though, keep trying with the gradual switch.
You can continue working on adding in more variety while you move onto Step 7.
Step 6: Bones
Now it is time to cross the final big step in converting your ferret to an all-raw diet – bones! You will need:
- Strong scissors or poultry shears
- Sharp, Sturdy Knife
- An Ulu Knife can replace all of the above in one tool
- Small, edible bones (we will use chicken wings for the purposes of this article. Other great options include bones like cornish game hen, rabbit, quail, pheasant, any small poultry, and poultry wing tips, etc).
Start by smashing the chicken wings with a hammer or mallet until the bones are fully pulverized and relatively well smashed into the meat. Then, using the scissors/shears and knife, cut the pulpy mass into small chunks, about the size of the meat chunks your ferret will eat or smaller. Mix these chunks into their regular meat.
You may want to Scruff N Sample a small piece of meaty marrow so that your ferret can taste it. Marrow is loaded with nutrients and (once they realize it is edible) most animals will go crazy for it. Again, you can use tricks like covering the bony pulp in soup or oil (gradually decreasing these once they begin to eat the bones), Scruff N Sample and hand feeding, etc until your ferret begins to recognize the bones as food.
When they will eat the small pieces begin to gradually increase the size of the bones by smashing them less and less.(Try to minimize mid-sized chunks that can be swallowed whole but are big enough to be difficult to pass). Eventually they will have built up the jaw strength and taste for whole bones.
Keep in mind that larger bones such as leg-bones should be cracked open enough to give them a starting point (usually 1-2 hits with a hammer is sufficient). Some ferrets can eat bones as large as pork ribs, and some can eat entire turkey necks while others will only eat the smaller bony projections and the inner marrow of the vertebrae. Get to know your ferrets and their bone-eating capacity as you will need to adjust your diet menu (see Step 8) to accommodate their eating habits and ensure that they receive enough edible bone. Large bones such as beef and large pork bones should not be fed. Feeding sliced large bones in which the marrow is easily accessible is okay, but monitor your ferrets closely as chewing on large bones can crack teeth.
Be sure to remove all uneaten bone pieces after 48 hours. Otherwise, the bones will become dry and brittle making them a choking and poking hazard. Dry bones are similar to cooked bones in that they will splinter rather than breaking into clean edges.
Step 7: Making a Balanced Menu
Congratulations! Your ferret is now on a whole raw foods diet! Now it is time to ensure that your ferret is receiving a properly balanced and varied diet. Please note: an improperly balanced raw diet can be dangerous to your ferrets’ health by causing nutritional deficiencies or overload. It is very important to make sure your ferret has a diet that is balanced, and high in variety!
FOR BALANCING DIET PLEASE SEE BASIC FRANKENPREY MENU
For more in-depth info keep reading. If you prefer plain and simple, skip ahead to Variety.
For balance, a raw diet for a ferret should consist of the following ratios:
- Non-Heart Muscle Meat 65-75% (Ideally, gizzards should also be included in the muscle meat)
- Heart 10% (yes, heart is a muscle but the taurine content in heart is so vital that it is given its own category)
- Organs: 10% (half of this should be liver, and half should consist of other organs such as kidney, spleen, brain, stomach, reproductive organs, etc. Read more about Organ Meat)
- Edible Bone: 10-15% (please note the use of the word edible. Any bones left uneaten – such as large bones – cannot be included as part of the bone-content in the diet) – Note that dry, hard stools indicate they are getting too much bone and soft stools indicates they are not getting enough bone.
Many people find calculating percentages is overwhelming or confusing – especially when trying to figure out bones. For this reason, we have simplified the menu into a MEAL plan. Food should be switched out about every 12 hours. This means 2 meals a day: the am meal given at “breakfast” and kept available in their cage all day, and the pm meal is given at “dinner” and available all night. (Thus one “meal” is the amount of food they eat in 12 hours).
2 Meals per day = 14 meals a week. [10% is roughly 1.5 (one-and-a-half) meals].
Using this every week your ferret needs:
- 2-4 meals Muscle Meat (non-heart, boneless meat)
- 1.5 meals Heart
- 1.5 meals Organs (half of this should be liver, and half should consist of other organs. Read more about Organ Meat)
- 7-9 meals of Edible Bone-In Meat
Your ferret should regularly receive a bare minimum of 3-4 proteins. However, the more variety you can offer the better! Even mixing in new meats on occasion is better than never. Some meats are seasonal so we understand that you may not be able to feed everything in the menu year-round. A minimum of 3-4 proteins should be fed year-round (for example, pork, chicken, and beef); one of these should ideally be a red meat (beef, goat, lamb, venison). Most meats sold as fit for human consumption are okay to feed ferrets as long as they are NOT processed, seasoned, or injected with saline (read labels carefully). Also, some meats not “fit” for human consumption can bed fed as well, these include meats such as commercial raw made just for pets, whole prey, butcher scraps etc. Ferrets should NEVER be fed processed meats, seasoned/flavored meats, meats with additives, meats injected with saline to preserve freshness.
Start trying to add in as many new meats as you can find. The more variety the better! Also, seeing as how it is unrealistic to keep an entire farm in your freezer, start just trying to locate new meats so that you have an idea of what you have access to, and where you can find what. When you find them feel free to try them out!
Any human-grade meat that is non-processed, non-seasoned, and non-preserved (read labels – many meats contain saline preservative) is safe for your ferrets to eat. Additionally, many non-human grade meats are also safe (raw pet foods, commercially ground raw, whole prey, etc).
Below is a list of food suggestions:
- beef (also veal)
- bison (buffalo)
- fish (mackerel, salmon, halibut, goldfish, etc also, fish oil is very good for them)
- venison and game meats
- rodents (mice, rats, african soft furred rats, guinea pigs, etc)
- cornish game hen
Some parts that are good to have of all of the above animals:
- heart (is a muscle meat but vital for the taurine)
- liver and other organs
- tongue (a muscle meat, but extremely high in taurine)
- brain (VERY nutritious organ meat – high in healthy Omega Fatty Acids)
- lung (great source of iron and Vitamin B, feed as a minimal part of “other organs” Read More)
- gizzards (is a muscle meat – great for cleaning teeth)
- chicken feet (good bone source – i.e. for a bone-in meat you could feet pork chops and chicken feet)
- necks (also a good bone source, may need to be smashed up)
- ribs (pork ribs are NOT edible for most ferrets. If your ferret does not eat the bone, it does not count towards their bone content)
Fattier meats: Ferrets derive much of their energy from fat. Many human-grade meats are very lean (because we humans often prefer to avoid fatty cuts), as such it is recommended to include some fattier meats in your ferret’s diet. Look around for some pork side, pork belly (not stomach, but the meat), or uncured bacon. It is all essentially the same thing – very fatty pieces of pork. Duck is also high in fat. In some places Duck is seasonal, but many Asian markets carry it year round.
Health Note: Feeding sufficient quantities of a balanced raw diet is all that it takes to “fatten up” an underweight ferret. It is NOT healthy to make ferrets gain too much weight, or gain weight too fast. If your ferret is already on a balanced raw diet and still underweight, please have them assessed by a veterinarian as there are likely health problems causing the weight-loss, such as Adrenal Disease, Insulinoma, or Lymphoma.
Shopping for Meat:
Read more in Shopping for Raw
- Check Asian markets, Halal meat markets (African markets), other ethnic markets, and butchers. You can always ask if anyone can save scraps or special order for you.
- Look around too for a pet store that carries commercially ground raw meats. These are a GREAT way to add variety as they often have proteins that you won’t find in the store, and they usually have organ, heart, and bones ground into them (but not always so be sure to check). I can get commercial ground: pheasant, rabbit, chicken (Koda can’t eat this), turkey, beef (also a no-no for Koda), bison, quail, tripe.
- Also if you have trouble finding anything, there are other routes you can take. There are online providers where you can order commercially ground organ meat patties and other products. As a last resort, there are supplements that can help fill in the gaps temporarily. We recommend visiting the forum to ask for help if you are having trouble sourcing organs.