I no longer use this blog, but I'm leaving it up for archival purposes. Feel free to ask me ferret questions, though, through email instead. (See most recent post.)
A few weeks back I visited a local ferret shelter with the hopes of being a sometimes volunteer (in addition to getting the awesome opportunity to interact with dozens of ferrets!). While I was speaking with one of the higher ups at the facility, boyfriend took the time to speak with some of the volunteers there.
After we left, he mentioned something that sounded a little strange to me. He was describing our ferrets and their care to some of the longtime volunteers there, including their diets. As I’ve mentioned recently, Buzz and Das both are fed a primarily kibble-based diet along with meat, eggs, and dietary supplements. When boyfriend explained this, one of the volunteers reacted with dismay and told him that giving ferrets meat would cause them to have enlarged hearts.
To be fair, I wasn’t present when this discussion occurred so it may be that my boyfriend misheard. It did, however, surprise me to hear that someone who cares for ferrets may be advocating the entire removal of meat from the diet of a ferret.
I’ve been mulling over this since then and I wonder if she was referring to cardiomyopathy, which is the form of heart disease most commonly found in ferrets. The heart can become enlarged or thicker, which results when the muscle weakens and stretches. This reduces its ability to pump blood efficiently. This, in turn, can cause the blood to pool in the lungs or stomach cavity. It’s something that is difficult to detect in the early stages and there is no cure, though there are treatments.
This is where I get slightly confused. Cardiomyopathy in cats has been linked to taurine deficiency. While there have been a few attempted studies to examine is a similar parallel exists for ferrets, there have been no definitive conclusions. There has been a decline in the number of cases of cardiomyopathy, however, since many food manufacturers made a conscious effort to include taurine in their food (especially cat food, which unfortunately was the defacto food for ferrets until recent years), so there could be a link. Many people seem to believe so.
Taurine is an amino acid that is extremely important for most mammals, including ferrets. In addition to helping out with heart function, it also aids in brain development and in the eyes. Taurine deficiency could cause heart failure or blindness. A number of foods contain taurine, particularly meat. It is found in high concentrations in dark meat in poultry (including the liver, heart, and other organs), beef, and fish.
Which is the cause of my confusion. Accepting that taurine deficiency could be a cause of cardiomyopathy, of which one form is the enlarging of the heart, it seems that it would be beneficial to include assorted meat in the diet of a ferret. Besides, since ferrets are obligate carnivores, it seems logical that meat would generally be good for them. I’ve been taking some time to do research to see if I can find any information about a meat diet and enlarged hearts in ferrets, and I’ve yet to find anything. At all.
Has anyone else heard of this or is this another example of the misinformation that sometimes permeates the ferret owners’ community?
I have a theory. (INCOMING RANT!)
For the whole time that ferrets have been popular pets in America, there’s been a horrible misconception that they need to eat kibble, because that’s what they were raised on/used to. People think that kibble is the only option because it is the normal option. There are good kibbles and bad kibbles but no one stops to think— why not feed an animal what they’re meant to eat?
I’m a firm believer that animals should be fed a diet that their bodies have evolved to eat. That just seems like common sense to me. When we domesticated cats about 2-3 thousand years ago I highly doubt that they were fed Friskies. They were fed meat. Bones. Table scraps. Whole mice and rabbits. Because that’s what their bodies, as wild animals, spent millions of years adapting to eat. Same for ferrets. Do you think Queen Victoria fed her ferret Marshalls Premium Ferret Diet? Zupreem? Totally Ferret?
If you fed a panda bear “High-Quality Premium Loaded-With-Fillers Bamboo Extract Kibble” they’d probably stress out and die of internal stomach hemorrhaging. Because they’ve spend their entire species perfecting ways to digest the strange physical makeup of bamboo. Actual bamboo. Not bamboo meal. Not bamboo extract. Not bamboo by-products. And especially not fillers, like fruits, corn, wheat, or potatoes. The same goes for ferrets. Why would you strip their natural food, meat bones and organs, into their poorly-nutritioned counterparts of meals, powders, and preserved by-products? BECAUSE IT’S EASIER TO FEED THEM BROWN PEBBLES FULL OF SHIT THEY CAN’T DIGEST THAN IT IS TO PREPARE RAW, BIOLOGICALLY-APPROPRIATE FOOD FOR THEM. People are lazy, as a whole, and that’s led to people thinking kibble is fine. (That is not to say that everyone who feeds kibble is a lazy-good-for-nothing, but for the sake of my rant, bear with me.)
But, what people think is correct (feeding ferrets kibble), is actually why so many of them die of common diseases like heart problems, insulinoma, etc. People think it’s normal for ferrets to develop ulcers and tumors at age 4 or 5. They think it’s normal to have to cut, scale, and remove teeth that are decaying from eating kibble their whole life. It’s normal, so it’s okay.
When I talked to a ferret owner who’s been keeping ferrets for 30+ years about finally switching my ferrets to a raw diet, she sort of stiffened up and said, “Well okay…” She’s too polite to speak her mind freely, but I knew she thought I wasn’t doing the right thing. She’s been feeding ferrets kibble for 30 years. What she thinks works… doesn’t. She loses ferrets all the time to diseases and sicknesses, easily preventable, I think, by switching to a raw diet. Or at least a 95%-100% meat diet, not even necessarily raw. But she insists on feeding kibble that has corn, fruits, sugars, carbohydrates, and other crap in it that slowly deteriorates ferret health. But she’s been doing it so long, it can’t be wrong. Surely it’s because ferrets are just like that. They just drop dead of heart attacks at age 3 because that’s just how they are. They’re just unhealthy animals, naturally.
Granted, part of their poor health comes from shitty breeding but a whole lot of other problems comes from the lifetime of exposure to kibble fillers. Even if the first 5 ingredients of kibble are meat or protein, think of all the other crap they’re eating. Those ingredients at the end of the list count, too. Over time, it deteriorates their health. Their stomachs are trying to digest crap that it simply cannot, and over time that stresses their systems so they’re more apt to develop cancers, ulcers, and whatnot. It just makes. Common. Sense.
People don’t stop to think, “Even if this kibble is 40% protein and fat, what about the rest of the stuff in it? Why am I feeding my ferret raisin juice, blueberries, and tomato pomace, too?”
[On a side note, I just bought my ferrets some taurine powder from Vitacost.com, and I’m adding it to their daily meal of raw, 95% muscle, organ, and bone food.
To fight against taurine deficiencies, you can also feed your ferrets whole chicken, turkey, mice, etc. hearts. Hearts have a huge amount of taurine in them and are actually considered a muscle meat, not an organ. The more you know~]
TL;DR: People have adapted to a lower standard of feeding ferrets and consider it the safest, normal method of care. People refuse to think that there’s something better because kibble is all they know.
(That being said, not everyone is able to feed raw. Like shelters and rescues— it’s just not a viable option unless you have a money tree in the back yard. My sincere wish is that all private owners of ferrets switch their ferrets to an all-meat diet, like a lot of freeze-dried, air-dried, and raw foods like ZiwiPeak and Nature’s Instinct Frozen Raw. I know it won’t happen, but hey, I can dream.)