Raw Diet FAQ

HFF Raw Diet F.A.Q

Author: Jason Raynor

Check for Updates at: Google Doc Version

 

Why a RAW Diet?

Ferrets are obligate carnivores. This means that they require meat and only meat for them to be healthy. It is what their bodies have evolved to digest and if you look at the ingredients for most kibbles, a large percentage of the ingredients are foods they cannot digest or digest very poorly (corn, wheat, peas, yams, rice, etc). Also, kibble meets the MINIMUM nutritional requirements for your pets (look into exactly what meat “meal” is). Unfortunately the truth is that kibble producers are in the business of making money, not ensuring your pets health. The almighty dollar rules their choice of ingredients. They will always choose the cheapest ingredients they can find for their kibble to meet those minimum requirements (kibble producers also will often change their recipes which is hard on ferrets because they imprint on their food). A raw diet results in better health, better dental care, more energy, better coat and helps to stave off certain common ferret illnesses (such as Insulinoma). Besides it’s what nature intended them to eat. As an added benefit, raw fed ferrets smell less (better quality oils for their coats), their poops are smaller (as they can absorb more of the food going into them), they poop less and their poops don’t smell as strongly.

NOTE: There are a few select kibble producers out there that work hard to put your animal’s health above the bottom line but they are few and far between (and seem to inevitably bow in some way to financial pressure). They are usually small companies that produce a superior and therefore more expensive kibble product.  Two of the best kibbles available for ferrets are Wysong’s Ferret Epigen 90 and Orijen Cat & Kitten (there are others but I am not overly familiar with them). While these are great kibbles, you should always feed a variety of feeds so that you can avoid unforeseen shortages and we always advocate a switch to a raw diet 😉 If you must feed kibble you can checkout this great ranking of kibbles for ferrets.

For those in the U.K. who cannot get Wysong, there is also Ziwipeak. Origen should be available there as well. For those in Australia, see our other document about the top ranked kibbles available there (unfortunately Australia generally has a poor selection of kibble to feed ferrets).

NOTE REGARDING INSULINOMA: A raw diet can help to prevent a ferret from developing this disease but it cannot heal damage already done. If your ferret has Insulinoma, the better nutrition absorption and more stable blood glucose levels provided by a raw diet can help in managing this condition.

I’ve tried giving my ferrets meat but they just ignored it.

Ferrets imprint on their food at a young age. If your ferret is over 6 months of age, you are most likely going to have to TEACH your ferret to eat meat. That’s right, it is their natural diet but you are going to have to TEACH them that it is food. Think of it like this: If you raised a child to the age of 3 on nothing but McDonald’s and then handed them an apple, would they know it was food?

Where do I start?

Research, research, research. There is a ton of information out there about raw diets for ferrets. One of the best places is the Holistic Ferret Forum – Natural Diet Section. There is a ton of information, knowledge and people with many years of experience with feeding ferrets a raw diet on the forum.

 

If I want to switch to a raw diet, what meats can I feed?

Pretty much any meat protein is Ok as long has it isn’t “enhanced”. Some countries (mainly Western countries) tend to add a salt solution to certain meats (pork and chicken primarily). Always make sure to check the label. Besides meats from the grocery store, many people feed frozen whole prey obtained from whole prey companies which normally cater to reptile owners. There are also companies that make freeze dried raw and frozen raw patties but their products are not available everywhere (though they are becoming more popular) and may not be able to ship across international borders. The Holistic Ferret Forum has lists of raw and whole prey providers. Fish is also acceptable but tends to make ferrets smell “fishy” over time if it is the primary protein source in their diet as they derive the oils in their fur from the foods they eat.

 

So I can just feed them chicken, beef, mice, kangaroo, etc?

No, a ferret needs a balanced diet consisting of a certain percentage of organs, bone and muscle meats to simulate eating whole prey.  This is known as a Frankenprey diet. Many raw feeders feed a mixture of Frankenprey, whole prey (frozen mice, rats, and other feeder animals) and commercial raw products to ensure a balanced diet. Please follow this link to the Holistic Ferret Forum for more information. Also, it is best to have them on at least three different proteins in case of shortages or ferret pickiness (ferrets can be picky eaters and can suddenly decide to snub certain foods for a period of time).

 

Can I feed Pork? I’ve heard it is bad for them?

Pork gets a bad rap because of the risk of Trichinosis and Pseudorabies. Both of these are not a concern for most Western countries in inspected pork (still a concern with wild or feral hogs). You can read more about Pseudorabies / Aujeszky’s Disease here.

Can I feed wild / game meat?

Yes you can but with any non-inspected meat there are risks. Please see here for more information.

I read about people feeding Pumpkin? I thought they were only supposed to eat meat?

At one time it was used as an occasional supplement  (once a week) and more often during shedding season to help with stool consistency and cleaning out hair. The problem is that pumpkin does contain some natural sugars & carbs but people thought it was  totally benign. This lead to people adding it as a daily supplement to every meal instead of weekly as they should have. We no longer advise the regular usage of pumpkin as it increases the risk of them developing insulinoma over time. Recently, whole raw eggs or egg yolks have become the accepted way to help prevent hairballs by breaking up the fats that clump the hair together in the digestive system. Canned pumpkin is still a useful tool in the event of a blockage emergency though so you should always have some on hand. See the blockage protocol in our medical files section.

I thought eggs were bad to feed them?

The myth about eggs being bad comes from the fact that egg WHITES bind to biotin and can eventually cause a biotin deficiency. This is nothing to worry about if your feed the WHOLE egg though. Egg yolks are naturally high in biotin and more than make up for what the white will rob from their system. So in short, either always feed whole eggs or just the yolk. Never feed whites by themselves.

Why do I see everyone feeding Quail eggs?

Eggs are eggs. While some are slightly more nutritious than chicken eggs the difference isn’t really the point. Most people favour Quail eggs because it results in less waste (Quail eggs are small and a great size for ferrets). Large Chicken Eggs or Ducks eggs are pretty big for a ferret (they will rarely eat a whole one to themselves) and can result in funky poops. You can usually find Quail eggs at Asian Markets.

Where do I find this Stuff?

If looking for Frankenprey meats, organs & bone in meats, the best local sources are:

  • Grocery Stores
  • Butchers
  • Asian Markets (good for organs and unusual  / cheap cuts)
  • Raw Food Pet Stores (becoming more common but can be expensive)
  • Meat Packing Plant / Slaughterhouse (many have a small retail store attached)
  • Farms that sell directly to the public
  • Online (commercial raw, freeze dried raw, whole prey) – most do not ship across international borders
  • Local reptile enthusiasts & expos (many breed their own whole prey)

How often do I feed them?

Common ferret care says to always leave food out for ferrets so that they can “graze”. This is only for kibble feed ferrets and I’ve always thought it strange that any animal with teeth like a ferret’s is meant to “graze” (carnivores do not “graze”).  It is emphasized to always have food available in a kibble diet because the quality of nutrition that ferrets get from their kibble is so poor they have to eat often (ie: “grazing”)  to keep their energy levels up. On a raw diet, the ferret absorbs almost all of the available nutrients in their food (hence the smaller poops and less poop smell, an added benefit of feeding raw) meaning that they do not need to have food available all the time. As long as your ferret is healthy and doesn’t have Insulinoma, they can be feed in the morning and evening. Try not to leave them with leftovers if they are free roam as they WILL stash meat in their favourite spots that may not be accessible to you. I usually give them their meals in their cage, have my shower and get ready in the morning.  Before leaving for work I remove the food and let them out for the day. When I come home they go back in the cage for an hour or two with the leftovers (that I put in the fridge for the day). I pull it again and then top it up if they need more overnight (weigh the amounts you are giving each day so you get an idea how much they eat). In the morning I toss anything left from the previous day and start over with a fresh meal.

HELP! I have just started them on raw and their poops are weird!

A raw fed ferrets poop is very different than a kibble fed ferrets. With kibble a ferret’s poop is VERY consistent because they are only eating one thing and most of that ends up passing through them. With a kibble eating ferret, a ferrant is taught that ANY change in poop indicates illness. This is not true of raw feed ferrets. They have a much wider variety of poops depending on what meals they have eaten recently and they usually don’t indicate a health problem. If you suspect their poops aren’t right, check the poop chart below and really only worry if you see the same type of poop for a few days in a row.

Poop Chart

I am worried about their food / meat going bad?

Like we said earlier, ferrets are obligate carnivores, their digestive systems have evolved to handle raw meat. This means that they can handle raw meat with a bacteria load that would definitely make a human sick. This is because of a higher acid concentration in the stomach, short digestive system and fast metabolism. Food going in one end of a ferret usually comes out the other end in 3 to 4 hours. This doesn’t give bacteria like salmonella or e.coli time to set-up shop in the ferret’s system. That is not to say it cannot happen (called bacterial overload), but it is very unlikely in a healthy ferret. If they do get bacterial overload, it usually indicates another health issue compromising the ferrets digestion. A round of antibiotics usually clears it up.

What about treats?

Ferrets, much like children, do not need treats to be healthy (they do have use as training aids or distractions while clipping nails). Some things that are enjoyed as treats are

  • baby mice, rats or chicks (considered treats as baby animals are not nutritionally complete)
  • dehydrated meat or liver
  • boiled or raw egg (whole or yolk only)
  • fish oils

Always remember that treats should be given sparingly as fed too often they can throw off the balance of a raw diet. Commercial treats that contain sugar or carbs are not acceptable treats as could contribute to the development of insulinoma over time.

This sounds like an awful lot of work?

In the beginning it is. A switch takes time and effort but once you have got your ferrets switched it is not that difficult. The keys to keeping the workload down are: organization, prepping their meals ahead of time (pre-portioning / balancing requirements), good shopping habits, locating reliable meat providers and a freezer. Once you have everything portioned out and frozen, MEAL PREPARATION isn’t any more work than dumping kibble in a bowl. What IS more work is that you have to be much more involved with monitoring their nutrition (which is a good thing but takes much more effort). Is one of them being lazy about eating their bones, have they started snubbing a certain protein for some unknown reason (this DOES happen occasionally), do they only like eating their organs in a soup, etc?

What are some of the downsides of feeding a raw diet?

Weighed against all the health benefits to your ferret, there ARE few downsides to a raw diet.

  1. Stashing: Unfortunately you have to work against a ferret’s nature to stash their favourite things. This will most likely include their yummy new diet. Try to get a good handle on how much your ferrets eat at one time to prevent leftovers (a food scale really helps with this). Try as you might you will find the occasional secret stash of yummies decomposing into a state of ferret gourmet delight (remember, to a ferret, maggots are just another form of protein). See below for other strategies in combating food stashing.

  1. Possible mouth injuries: An over enthusiastic ferret can chomp down on a bone incorrectly and there is the possibility of mouth abscesses. It is rare but something to be aware of. They can also occasionally get bone shards or stringy meat caught in their teeth. While this is a rare occurrence, a mouth check is always a good daily ritual even if your ferrets are kibble fed.

  1. NEVER Feed Cooked Bones: as it causes them to harden and splinter in such a way that a ferret’s digestive system can no longer handle them. This can cause fatal intestinal damage. This also applies to complete commercial raw ground meats that include bones and organs. Some people cook the meat for their ferrets but this just lowers the nutritional content of their food and is unnecessary.

  1. Vets Disapproval: Vets often cite the dangers of bacterial contamination when feeding a raw diet but this is hogwash as far as we are concerned. If you can safely handle and prepare raw meat for your family, you can do so for your pets. Besides, the meat you are purchasing is already inspected as safe for human consumption (while what is used in most kibble is not). Also, as stated above, a ferret’s digestive system has evolved to handle raw meats. Carnivores in the wild do not have access to refrigeration, antibacterial soap, cutting boards just for meat, food inspectors, etc, etc.

  1. Temporary Increase In Smell: WHAT!! I thought raw fed ferrets were supposed to smell better? Yes, it is true that raw fed ferrets smell about 75% less “ferrety” but it takes time for their bodies to detox the nasty funky smell they developed from their kibble. Once the better oils and fats from their raw diet start replacing all the nasty kibble fats and oils they will smell pretty rank for a week or two while this process completes. Once it is done they do smell a lot less.

My ferret is hiding raw meat all over the place, HELP!!

Unfortunately, it is part of a ferrets nature to stash things they like (socks, old shoes, toys, pens, tv remotes, cell phones, small children, other pets, etc, etc, etc, etc, etc, (infinitum), and there really isn’t much you can do to prevent it. Luckily, you can work with this obsession instead of against it. Ferrets like small, dark private places to stash their favorite things. Therefore, with the strategies outlined below you can minimize nasty rotten surprises:

  1. Provide feeding dens (cardboard boxes are cheap and disposable) close by to the spot where you regularly feed them. Many ferrets will either stash a piece of meat right away and then go back to eating or eat their fill and then stash. Others won’t stash food (you are very, very lucky if you have a ferret that doesn’t stash food). If you provide a den close by, they will often stash there instead of seeking out a spot unknown to you.

  1. Feed at specific times and pull their food when they are done eating (only for ferrets without Insulinoma). This prevents them from stashing any leftovers (and lets you put them in the fridge for the next meal) but some people are not comfortable with not always giving them access to food so use your own judgment.

  1. Weigh exactly how much they are eating and only give them what they eat. This way even if they do stash they will eat those stashes before the next meal. Make sure to take seasonal appetite increases and decreases into account.

A NOTE ON TUNNELS: Many ferrants create elaborate tunnel systems for their ferrets to provide stimulation and a more natural setting for them. Be aware that the tunnels you provide them will automatically be a favourite stash spot. Make sure when you create your tunnel system you have some way of easily cleaning them out.

My Vet is against feeding raw?

Unfortunately this is very common.  There are a couple of good and not so good reasons for this:

  1. They have seen what uneducated raw feeding can do to pets. This is why it is so important to do your research, become as knowledgeable as possible and get help when you need it. If you show your vet the diet you are providing your pet and the obvious results in the animal’s health they will often grudgingly admit that the animal is better off on a raw diet. Other Vets will treat you as a plague carrier / crazy person and in these cases the best solution is to find another Vet.

  1. Most Vets get one pet nutrition course in school and rarely do more research on the matter. Also, many Vet practices or even the courses they take are often sponsored directly by kibble companies. It would be against their best interests to promote alternative diets.

  1. They often cite the dangers of raw meats (bacterial contamination). We think this is hogwash for many of the reasons mentioned above. Also, consider the number of pet food recalls in the last decade. Many brands of pet food are manufactured at massive plants that supply many different companies. A recall at one of these plants can affect many, many types of pet food. As ferrets imprint on their food, what do you do when the two or three kibbles you feed are taken off the shelves for an unknown amount of time? Buy fresh meats, portion them and freeze them in a timely manner, use common sense when handling raw meat, clean your work area thoroughly and this is something you will rarely have to worry about.

Where can I get help / more information?

The Holistic Ferret Forum maintains a mentor program. If you sign up you will be assigned a mentor who will help you with your switch. Please be aware this is a time intensive process but once the switch is done it is much easier. A switch can take anywhere from a couple of weeks to many months depending on your ferrets age and how stubborn they are. You can read about previous switches here:

Raw Switch Archive

My Switching Experience

 

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