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History of ferrets

Have you ever asked yourself how come ferrets are domestic animals? They are very popular today as pets, but what about the past? Where are they from? How long are they among us? For what were they bred? What is a history of ferrets?  Their history is actually extremely interesting and mysterious.

Ferret history is a mysterious history

There are at least 3 theories about ferret’s ancestors. One says that they came from Western or Eastern European polecat. Western European polecat aka Steppe polecat and Eastern European polecat aka Mustela putorious furo are most similar to ferrets. Mustela putorious furo is a Latin name for ferrets. Mustela refers to a mouse hunting animal, putorious ruffly translates as the bad smell or smelly. Furo stands for a word thief.  When you combine that you get smelly mouse hunter thief aka ferret. 😀

Another possibility is that ferrets came from Nothern Africa with Roman and Norman invasions. There aren’t much evidence of their bones in the history of ferrets so it is hard to determine where are they from with 100% certainty. The most unlikely theory is that they came from Black-footed ferret which is native to North America. This theory is the most unlikely because the physical structure of ferret is more similar to European polecat than to Black Footed Ferret, among other genetic characteristics.


Main reason to domesticate ferrets was to prevent expanding rats, mice, and rabbits because they were pests. They chewed and damaged crops so people needed something to stop them and prevent them from doing it in the future. Cats and dogs, which were already domesticated were too big to follow rats and mice in narrow spaces so they needed to find other solution –this is where ferret history among humans begins. The history of ferrets dates for about 2500 years, which is similar to domesticating goats. (?!)

One of the first documents in the history of ferrets which mentioned some ferret-like animal was in Ancient Greece in 450 BC by Aristophanes and Aristotle in 350 BC, but most of the documents were destroyed so it is unclear. Strabo also wrote about Lybian animal that was bred for hunting rabbits. (here we see Norther Africa’s theory) In that time, on the Balearic Islands was a plague of rabbits. So, they needed something to decrease rabbit population. People introduced a ferret-like animal who hunts rabbits by going inside their holes and force them out of their shelter. Outside were men and dogs who then caught rabbits. Sounds familiar? The same method is using today in some countries to hunt rabbits.

There were several more times that people mentioned ferret-like animal in ancient books the same way. Then, people realized the benefit they have from ferrets and ferret earned a place among humans in their households.

As the time passed, ferrets were more and more common in Europe. In 1200 they spread to Germany and to England. In England church officials held ferrets because of their high price. People used ferrets for… you know what. 🙂 Hunting rats and rabbits, that’s right. The first albino ferret was documented also in Europe, to be more exact, in Zürich. There is a document which says that the color of albino ferret looks like ”the color of wool stained with urine”. Since that vivid description, we can find more and more ferrets in history books.


People realized that ferrets are extremely useful so they started to carry them around everywhere. In ferret history on ships, ferrets eventually replaced cats and dogs (the same reason like earlier in the paragraph above – they can fit in narrow spaces) Dogs weren’t good because they were barking and cats decided to catch mice when they felt like it. Due to ferret’s crazy personality and fast body, people kept them as rodent protection, but also as pets. Who wouldn’t want to have crazy little furbaby in the cabin? 🙂 With spreading on ships, ferrets conquered every part of the world.

History of ferrets in America started in the 18th century. Ferrets came to North America by ships, as help to control rat problem on ships or as pets. Americans realized that ferrets are extremely useful so they imported as many ferrets as they can during next few decades. They used them to hunt rats and rabbits, but also raccoons. They loved their smell, because the moment one rodent smelled ferret, it ran away. You didn’t have to own a ferret because they even had professionals who would come to your farm with ferrets if you had the pest problem. Ferrets chased pests out of their shelter and dogs and men caught them. But, with the development of industry, chemicals against rodents were invented and there was no need for ferret terminator teams. If you had the finances for chemical replacement.

New Zealand is the place in ferret history where they directly influenced in nature among us.  In 1860 rabbits came to New Zealand and everything turned upside down. Rabbits took over the wildlife in New Zealand because they didn’t have any natural enemy. People needed to find a solution. About 20 years later they released thousands of ferrets and weasels to hunt down rabbits. New Zealand’s climate is perfect for ferrets so that is the only place there is a wild colony of ferrets. The same reason why rabbits took over New Zealand, ferrets took it over too. Ferrets didn’t have a natural enemy, except humans. Those ferrets did hunt rabbits, but they also hunted birds of New Zealand and most of them can’t fly. They contributed to many birds extinction due to overhunting.

There isn’t a place in the world with a wild colony of ferrets except New Zealand. Our domestic ferrets can’t survive on their own in the wild. The same story in the history of ferrets is in Australia at the similar time. Rabbits came to Australia and ferrets came a few years later to control their number. But, since Australia’s climate is more unfavorable for them and they have predators who would eat ferrets like fox and dingo, they didn’t develop wild colony there. New Zealand is still the only place where ferrets influenced on fauna around them.

Alongside pests control, ferrets were popular for long period of time in fur industry in Europe. For a short period of time, this practice was popular in the USA, but it died. It wasn’t so popular. Hunting rabbits, on the other side, was popular but in the 20th-century hunting with ferrets was made illegal. Their popularity didn’t drop, people actually kept ferrets as pets after that. No wonder they are 3rd the most popular pet in the USA.


There is one weird competition in Europe, to be more exact, in England. Brave and stubborn men played it in English pubs. The game is pretty simple, but I don’t think anyone would want to play it again. For that game, they needed ferrets and few strings. A competitor tied strings on the end of his pants (both legs) and then someone would release ferrets down his pants. The man who can stay the longest with ferrets down his pants is the winner. The recorder had ferrets in his pants for more than 5 hours. Ferrets probably tried to escape with claws and teeth, so I can’t imagine one man having them in pants for 5 hours!

Besides catching pests, people used ferrets for one interesting thing. Since they can go through narrow spaces and love tubes, why not use that? People used ferrets for transporting cables through pipes in many facilities through the history of ferrets.

Ferret history is extremely interesting. I must admit, when I started learning about them, I was curious about their domestication. Ferrets are exotic animals and I thought that their domestication happened few hundred years ago. When I found out they were domesticated over 2500 years ago, I was shocked.


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Comment (1)

  1. Joetta Campbell December 11, 2016 at 10:22 pm Reply

    thank you I did know and it was amazing to learn….t know anything about this… Much love to you Frida and Yoda

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