Treats for Ferrets

We all love giving treats to our ferrets – there is so much joy in watching them enjoy a tasty morsel. However, something very important to keep in mind – treats are given primarily for the human’s pleasure. Ferrets do not NEED treats, but as humans we derive great pleasure from giving them treats. A healthy treat given in moderation is perfectly fine, but giving your ferret unhealthy treats or excessive treats can lead to significant health problems including throwing off the balance of their diet leading to nutrition deficiencies, and obesity from eating too much “junk” food or extra calories.

Treats can be a great way to provide positive reinforcement for training purposes, giving medications, and for a light snack. Any treat you give should be something that is HEALTHY for the ferret and that aligns with their natural carnivorous diet. Treats containing sugars, chemical additives, or plant products are NOT appropriate for ferrets.

Below are some Do’s and Don’ts for giving treats to your ferrets.

Salmon Oil

Salmon oil is one of the best treats you can give your ferrets. Not only do they love it, but it is a fantastic supplement and is easy to give with meds or from a dropper bottle. It can be tricky to get your ferrets to accept the flavor of Salmon Oil at first, and can be helpful to initially dilute it with a treat that they already like. For example you could mix it with EVO (Extra Virgin Olive Oil) or FerreTone, and then wean them off of the EVO/Tone gradually until they will accept Salmon Oil straight. [Note: While we do not typically recommend the use of Tone, if your ferrets accept it it can be a helpful tool to introduce your ferrets to Salmon Oil in an effort to ditch the less healthy treats.]

Salmon Oil is rich in Omega-3 and Omega-6 Fatty Acids, which are great for skin and coat health, as well as heart and brain health. It can be added over food, drizzled on a plate, or given via syringe to help in giving medications. It can be mixed into Vaseline to make ferrets more willing to eat it when doing a Blockage Protocol or when in need of a laxative. It can also be used to help entice them to try new foods by drizzling it on top.

One of the most popular and convenient ways to use Salmon Oil is to give it from a dropper bottle. This allows you to give them treats daily, without giving them too much because they only get a drop or two at a time.

Recommended Dose for Salmon Oil is up to 1tsp per ferret per week (preferably spread over the course of the week). If your ferret has soft stools, you are giving too much oil and need to cut back

Salmon Oil Dropper Bottle Photo Credit: Aftershock

When purchasing Salmon Oil, look for a reputable brand without any extra additives. Many Salmon Oils use Rosemary Extract as a preservative. Contrary to popular belief, while Rosemary OIL can cause problems, the EXTRACT does not pose a significant health concern. HOWEVER, we highly encourage you to read our article on Rosemary Extract and make that decision for yourself.

Two very popular and reputable brands of Salmon Oil (click on names for link) are:

Yummy Chummy Salmon OilMade with fresh, wild-caught Alaskan Salmon and processed in Anchorage Alaska. This is an extremely high quality and affordable product. Note that it does use Rosemary Extract as a preservative.

Grizzly Salmon Oil: One of the most popular brands. Grizzly does not have any additional additives and does NOT use Rosemary Extract

Fish Oil

If you are unable to find a good source of Salmon Oil, Fish Oil is also a good, healthy treat for your ferret. Fish Oil can be made from many different varieties of fish and quality varies significantly from product to product. Be sure to read the ingredients and look for products without additional additive ingredients.

Note: Fish Oil Gelcaps for humans can be used as a Fish Oil source for ferrets, but you MUST puncture the gelcap and squeeze the oil out. NEVER give your ferret the outer gel capsule or allow them access to the capsule as this can cause a Blockage!

Whole Whisked Raw Egg

Another great treat for your ferrets. We recommend giving up to one (chicken) egg per ferret per week as part of a regular diet, or up to 2-3 eggs per week as tolerated during shedding season. A whole, raw egg is one of natures most perfectly balanced protein sources and is packed with important nutrients.

 

Raw egg should be fed whole, with both the yolk and whites fed together.

Note: When feeding raw egg, it is important to feed the WHOLE egg, or the Yolks only. Never feed Egg-Whites alone as over time this can lead to a significant biotin deficiency, causing major health problems. Yolks alone are acceptable; however, the perfect balance of the Yolks PLUS the Whites in a whole egg is what helps to make egg such a nutritious and well balanced food. To read more, read our page on Raw Eggs, and note the bottom article about safety concerns.

Other eggs:

For reference when determining how much of another egg to give, one whole chicken egg is roughly 3-4 Tablespoons, or 50g. 

Quail eggs are rich in nutrients and a very popular treat. Their small size allows them to be used more frequently without overdoing the egg content of the diet. Given whole they are fun for ferrets to roll around and crack open.

Duck eggs: Many ferrets have difficulties with how incredibly rich duck eggs are. Also, the large size means that the entire egg should not be fed in one sitting. If you decide to try duck eggs, we recommend starting with a very small amount of the yolk first to test how your ferret tolerates it. If they handle a small amount of yolk well, then the next meal you can whisk some yolks and whites together and try offering a slightly larger amount. If they experience GI upset, vomiting, or diarrhea, then they should not be offered any further duck eggs.

Smelt Fish and Raw Prawns:

Small smelt fish or mackerel, and raw prawns can be offered as an occasional treat. These are rich in omega fatty acids that are great for skin and coat health. However, they should not be offered more than a few times a month due to concerns about mercury accumulation.

Raw Meat Slivers:

One of the best treats you can offer is just small slivers of their regular food. Small slivers of raw meat are a great treat for training and rewards.

Freeze Dried Meat:

There are many freeze dried (FD) meat options that can be offered as treats. FD treats offered dry make great stuffers for Foraging Toys. The best FD treats are those in which the ONLY ingredient is meat. If feeding freeze dried meat products that contain vegetable/plant matter, ensure that the vegetable/plant content is <5% of the ingredients. 

Important Note: Freeze dried food is a dry food product and is very dehydrating when fed dry, Freeze dried food should ONLY be offered dry as a treat. When using freeze dried for a meal, it MUST be rehydrated (regardless of what the packaging may say). 

*Note that freeze dried TREATS are NOT a balanced meal, but great treats. Be sure to always READ THE INGREDIENT LIST of any product you purchase prior to feeding it to your ferrets, so that you can determine if it should be fed, and in what capacity.

Dried Rabbit Ears

Dried Rabbit Ears can be a great treat/toy. However, they do require supervision to ensure they are not eaten in one sitting. Of note, most ferrets treat these more as  toys and less as edible treats. The smell is stimulating though. 

Raw Squid (Calamari) or Octopus Slivers

Raw squid or octopus can be offered as an occasional treat, but should not be a regular food item. The chewy texture is great for ferrets who like chewing or have rubber fixations. These are also great sources of omega-3 fatty acids which help skin, coat, and heart health. 

Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVO):

While we generally do not advocate using plant products for ferrets, EVO is one exception. EVO has been shown in some small studies (conducted in vitro, and on rats and humans) to have gastroprotective benefits, including potentially reducing the risk of H. pylori, and protect the stomach against gastric ulcers and inflammation with NSAID use. While these studies are small and were not conducted in ferrets, H pylori and ulcers are problems ferrets are relatively common issues in ferrets; therefore, it is proposed that it may be beneficial to offer the occasional EVO as a treat or supplement. EVO is rich in antioxidants, and a good source of Vitamins E and K. However, because Vitamins E and K are fat soluble vitamins which when consumed in excess, can accumulate to toxic levels. This means that it is very important to use EVO ONLY IN MODERATION.

NOTE: EVO is very mildly flavored and may be more readily accepted by your ferrets than salmon or fish oil if they have never had these oils before. If they will accept EVO, you can slowly add an increasing amount of salmon/fish oil into their dropper bottle to introduce them to the taste and transition them over to salmon/fish oil.

References:

Alarcon de la Lastra, C., Barranco, M.D., Martin, M.J., Herrerias, J., Motilva, V. (2002). Extra-virgin olive oil =-enriched diets reduce indomethacin-induced gastric oxidative damage in rats. Digestive Diseases and Sciences. 47: 283-2790.

Castro, M., Romero, C., de Castro, A., Vargas, J., Medina, E., Millan, R., Brenes, M. (2012). Assessment of Helicobacter pylori eradication by virgin olive oil. Blackwell Publishing Ltd, Helicobacter. 17:305-311.

Motilva, V., Sanches-Fidalgo, S., Barranco, M.D., Herrerias, J.M., Alarcon de la Lastra, C. (2008). Mechanisms of increased gastric protection after NSAID-administration in rats consuming virgin olive oil diets. European e-Journal of Clinical Nutrition and Metabolism. 1: e9-e16.

Romero, C., Medina, E., Vargas, J., Brenes, M., DeCastro, A. (2007). In vitro activity of olive oil polyphenols against Helicobater pylori. Journal of Agricultural and Food Cemistry. 55 (3): 680-686.

The “DO-NOTS”:

The following items are things that we advise AGAINST offering as a treat or supplement.

Coconut Oil

For the last few years, the popularity of Coconut Oil as a cure-all has exploded, and the list of maladies that coconut oil cures is longer than the ingredient list on a bag of kibble. We still have very little consistent and reputable data about the benefits and effects of coconut oil use in humans’ health, which is being studied intensively, much less knowing enough about its use in our carnivorous pets. While there are several studies touting the various benefits of coconut oil, these studies are limited and frequently conflicting. As one review aptly states regarding coconut oil: “In general, the studies present conflicting results and there is a lack of long-term human-based clinical trials (de Silva, Block, 2019).”

The studies that do show some potential benefits have been primarily conducted in omnivores (humans and rats) and even in herbivores (goats, lambs, cows – of interesting note in these ruminants coconut reduced fiber digestibility) but not in carnivores. While you may note this was not a barrier in our discussion of EVO (extra virgin olive oil) above, there is an important difference – we DO have a few studies that seem to indicate coconut oil use may be harmful in cats who (obligate carnivores) and dogs (facultative carnivores). While these studies are old and of very limited quality, it nonetheless raises doubt when combined with the lack of adequate studies on benefits and safety of the use of coconut oil supplementation in a carnivore’s diet. Furthermore, there are several studies noting that coconut oil may lower blood glucose and increase insulin sensitivity – while this might be beneficial in humans, lowering the blood glucose of ferrets, who are prone to insulinoma, could prove quite dangerous.

As a brief clarification/reminder – carnivores absolutely CAN process/digest plant oils. Carnivores are particularly well equipped to handle fats. Oils, regardless of their origin, are simply fats. However, there are many different types of fats (i.e. saturated vs unsaturated as a very simplified example). Carnivores are designed to get the specific proportions of different fat types found in animals. We simply do not know if the fats in plant based oil might have too much of specific fats that they don’t need/could possibly be unhealthy in excess. Most importantly, ferret just aren’t made to eat plants so why would they need plant-oils added to their diet?

In Summary: There are no studies on coconut oil supplementation in ferrets, and studies on carnivores are severely limited, with some studies raising questions about a potential risk of harm. We also do not know whether the specific types of fats found in coconut oil are in a healthy balance for a carnivore’s diet. As such, we simply cannot recommend the use of coconut oil in ferrets without more data. 

References:

Altom, E., Davenport, G., Myers, L., Cummins, K. (2003). Effect of dietary fat source and exercise on odorant-detecting ability of canine athletes. Research in Veterinary Science. 75: 149-155.

da Silva Lima, R., Block, J. (2019). Coconut oil: What do we really know about it so far? Food Quality and Safety. 3 (2): 61-72.

Durasevic, S., Nikolic, G., Zalatel, I., Grigorov, I., Memon, L., Mitic-Culafic, D., Vujovic, P., Dordevic, J., Todorovic, Z. (2020). Distinct effects of virgin coconut oil supplementation on the glucose and lipid homeostasis in non-diabetic and alloxan-induced diabetic rats. Journal of functional foods. 65 (103601): 1-11.

Ekeleme-Egedigew, C., Nwali, S., Agbo, N., Obi, J., Ezechukwu, G. (2017). Dietary supplementation with virgin coconut oil improves lipid profeil and hepatic antioxidant status and has potential benefits on cardiovascular risk indices in normal rats. Journal of Dietary Supplements. 15 (3): 330-342.

Iranloye, B., Oludare, G., Olubiyi, M. (2013). Anti-diabetic and antioxidant effects of virgin coconut oil in alloxan induced diabetic male Sprague Dawley rats. Journal of Diabetes Mellitus. 3 (4): 221-226.

Lee, C., Hristov, A.N., Heyler, K.S., Cassidy, T.W., Long, M., Corl, B.A., Karnati, S.K.R. ( ) Effects of dietary protein concentration and coconut oil supplementation on nitrogen utilization and production in dairy cows. Journal of Dairy Science. 94 (11): 5543-5557.

MacDonald, M.L., Rogers, Q.R. (1984). Nutrition of the Domestic Cat, A Mammalian Carnivore. Annual Review of Nutrition. 4: 521-562.

Mahley, R., Innerarity, T., Weisgraber, K., Fry, D. (1977). Canine hyperlipoproteinemia and atherosclerosis: Accumulation of lipid by aortic medial cells in vivo and in vitro. American Journal of Pathology. 87 (1): 205-226.

Malaeb, S., Spoke, C. (2020). The glucose-lowering effects of coconut oil: A case report and review of the literature. Case Reports in Endocrinology. 2020 (8841781): 1-6.

Shi, L., Zhang, Y., Wu, L., Xun, W., Liu, Q., Cao, Ting, Hou, G., Zhou, H. (2020). Moderate coconut oil supplement ameliorates growth performance and ruminal fermentation in Hainan Black Goat kids. Frontiers in Veterinary Science. 7 (622259): 1-10.

Sperry, W., Bloor, W.R. (1924). Fat Excretion: The quantitative relations of the fecal lipoids. Journal of Biological Chemisty. 60: 261-287.

Vitamin Paste:

Vitamin pastes for ferrets are very popular in several countries. These products are very high in sugar content however, containing ingredients such as malt syrup, malt paste, maltodextrin (this has a higher glycemic index than table sugar!), and molasses – all different variations of SUGAR which adds unnecessary strain to the pancreas and may contribute to the development of insulinoma. These pastes also frequently contain Cod Liver Oil, which is very rich in Vitamin A and may cause Vitamin A toxicity if ingested in excess. Furthermore, if a ferret’s diet is properly balanced and varied, additional vitamin/nutritional supplementation is not needed.

FerreTone:

The use of FerreTone and similar products is not recommended, due to the use of the preservative BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene), which is a known carcinogen. Ferrets are very prone to developing many different cancers at baseline, including lymphoma, sarcomas, insulinoma, malignant adrenal tumors, and more. They are often referred to by ferret lovers and vets alike as “little cancer machines.” Anything that could increase their risk of developing cancers should be avoided whenever possible. In addition to its cancer promoting properties, dietary BHT has been shown to cause liver and kidney damage in rats. As such, we strongly recommend against the use of any product containing BHT.

But this is the only treat my ferret likes… If your ferret will not accept salmon/fish oil as an alternative to ferretone or vitamin paste, you can put some into a dropper bottle and slowly add an increasing amount of salmon/fish oil into their dropper bottle to introduce them to the taste and transition them over to salmon/fish oil. EVO (olive oil) can also help with this transition as it is more mildly flavored; see above.

References:

Chen, C., Pearson, A.M., Gray, J.I. (1992). Effects of synthetic antioxidants (BHA, BHT, and PG) on the mutagenicity of IQ-like compounds. Food Chemistry. 43 (3): 177-183.

Lanigan, R., Yamarik, T. (2002). Final report on the safety assessment of BHT(1). International Journal of Toxicology. 21 (2): 19-94.

Lindenschmidt, R.C., Tryka, A.F., Goad, M.E., Witschi, H.P. (1986). The effects of dietary butylated hydroxytoluene on liver and colon tumor development in mice. Toxicology. 38 (2): 151-160.

Witschi, H.P. (1986). Enhanved tumor development by butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) in the liver, lung, and gastro-intestinal tract. Food and Chemical Toxicology. 24 (10-11): 1127-1130.

Ferret Lax:

We do not recommend the use of laxatives marketed towards ferrets or cats. These products consist of petrolatum jelly (aka “Vaseline”), either Cod Liver Oil or mineral oil, and SUGAR (malt extract, malt syrup, molasses), and additives. As mentioned above, sugar increases the risk of developing insulinoma. Cod Liver oil ingested in excess can cause Vitamin A toxicity (unlikely when giving only a small amount of laxative, but important to be aware of). Mineral oil is not recommended for ingestion; this is an old constipation remedy that has since been found to be unsafe due to a risk of lipoid pneumonia with inhalation of small particles of the oil when ingesting it. 

So breaking it down…these laxatives have vaseline, oil, and sugar. This is something that you can make at home as needed by mixing a small amount of 100% petroleum jelly and salmon/fish oil (sugar not needed!) into a paste. Many vets now recommend the use of plain petroleum jelly (“Vaseline”) as a laxative over “ferret/cat lax” products for the health reasons mentioned above. Check our our page on Vaseline. If your ferret needs some flavor to entice them to eat it, add the salmon/fish oil.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Ferrets should not need a laxative on a routine basis. If you are worried that your ferret is mildly constipated, or could develop constipation, due to “hairballs” (bezoars), we recommend the use of whole raw egg in their regular diet as a preventive measure during shedding season. If you are concerned about severe constipation (from any cause) or a blockage, please see our page on the Blockage Protocol and call your vet immediately. 

Non-Raw Processed Treats:

There are many other processed treats that are marketed towards ferrets or cats that you may be tempted to offer. These products generally contain vegetable/plant based ingredients (which means that they have carbs – aka sugar!), and preservatives (potentially including BHT – see the note on Ferret Tone above to learn about the dangers of BHT). Unless a treat consists of meat-based ingredients only, with minimal preservatives, we do not recommend their use in ferrets. 

Rawhide:

Rawhide treats/products should NEVER be offered to your ferret or frankly, any pet. The process of creating rawhide renders it indigestible and it is a very serious blockage hazard. Countless dogs die every year from choking or blockage due to rawhide. If your ferret ingests a piece of rawhide, it could be devastating. Additionally, rawhides are highly processed using glues, dyes, and preservatives. Check out this helpful article on Rawhides to learn more: Why Rawhide is Dangerous for Your Dogs!

A Note on Chewing:

It is important to note that ferrets DO NOT need “chew toys.” They are not habitual chewers like dogs. A well balanced diet with whole prey and/or raw meaty bones should more than satiate their need to chew. If your ferret has a chewing problem, this can be an indication of an underlying medical issue; chewing is frequently a sign of dental or stomach pain. It can also be an indicator that your ferret is bored and lacks adequate stimulation (check out our Enrichment pages for some ideas to fix this). Young ferrets who are removed from their mothers are more likely to chew inappropriately due to being weaned too early; in some this can develop into a persistent behavioral issue (Pica), but most will outgrow the behavior. 

If you have a chewer on your hands, we recommend that you take your ferret to your veterinarian to be assessed for a medical cause of the chewing. It is critical that their play space be well Ferret Proofed, and that any items your ferret has a penchant for chewing be REMOVED until the behavior stops – even the bedding if necessary. Ensure that your ferret has enough mental stimulation and physical activity to tire them out each day and prevent boredom, and that they have a proper diet. Feel free to post any questions you have on our Facebook Group to get some more feedback and ideas in dealing with your chewer.