By Cheryl Lock
When it comes to ferrets and their, shall we say, “musky” smell, most long-time owners will admit that while it may have bothered them in the beginning, they no longer mind the olfactory affront. In fact, some even claim to like it. “I’ve been a ferret owner since 1996, and I can’t even tell you how many ferrets I’ve had in those 21 years,” said Maggie Ciarcia, ferret owner and rescuer. “But their earthy, musky smell has never bothered me.”
Ciarcia says that certain owner habits — like keeping their ferrets’ room, bedding, and cages clean, monthly baths, nail trims, and ear cleaning — can help curb potential ferret smell.
Aside from cleanliness, there are other things you can do to help lessen the smell. For everything you need to know regarding your ferret and its funky smell, we consulted Serena Fiorella, LVT, and CEO of Treat Worth Pet Creations, LLC.
What causes that distinctive ferret smell in the first place?
Ferrets, like other carnivorous (and some omnivorous) animals, have anal glands that secrete a scent particular to their species. “Their anal glands are very strong smelling scent and territory marking glands,” said Fiorella.
Animals in the mustelid family have particularly pungent anal gland secretions, though they usually only release their scent when they feel threatened.
In the U.S., ferrets sold at pet stores are “descented” by surgically removing the anal glands. “In spite of that,” said Fiorella, “ferrets have a naturally occurring musky smell due to other scent glands in their skin.”
An unneutered ferret will also have a stronger smell due to certain hormones, Fiorella added. After that, dirty ears, bathing too often, and not keeping their living space and bedding clean are big contributors to ferret smell. While some of the odor can be controlled with certain tactical maneuvers, keep in mind that there will almost always be at least a little animal scent associated with your ferret.
What are some safe grooming practices to help control the smell in ferrets?
Fiorella suggests the following to help keep ferret odor at bay:
Keep their ears clean. Ferret ears get very waxy and tend to have a strong, musky odor, said Fiorella. “Clean ears with an ear cleaner made for pets, and use a moistened Q-tip on the outer part of the ear in the nooks and crannies,” she suggests. “Do not push the Q-tip into the ear canal, as you risk puncturing the ear drum if you do.” Clean your ferret’s ears once a week for best results, she said.
Bathe your ferret, but not too much. Bathing is a good way to control odor, but too often can actually make the smell worse. Overgrooming, says Fiorella, can have the opposite effect you’re looking for. “That’s because you’re getting rid of the natural oils produced in the skin,” she explains. “It can cause dry skin and a brittle coat, which essentially makes the glands work overtime to produce more oils, which makes them smell worse.”
“I personally don’t bathe mine very often — maybe once every two months — but it can be done once a month,” said Fiorella. “Use a shampoo made for ferrets or kittens.”
Are there any products that are particularly helpful?
Unfortunately, most products just mask ferret odor with another odor, says Fiorella, so you end up with what she calls a “ferrety perfume combo smell.”
“There are odor neutralizers you can try if you really can’t take the natural ferret aroma,” she added. “However, never spray a product directly on your ferret. Rather, spray it on a paper towel or thin cloth and rub it onto the fur.”
You might also try Ferretone, a fatty acid and vitamin supplement that supports healthy skin and coat. “I recommend this, and most ferrets love it,” said Fiorella.
How does the cage play into ferret smell?
Keeping your ferret’s cage clean is essential for controlling ferret odor. “Wipe the cage floors and hard surfaces daily, and change the bedding at least every three days,” said Fiorella.
Hammocks, sleep sacks, t-shirts, and whatever else you use for bedding, should all be washed regularly. “Don’t forget the litter box, tubes, toys, and food bowl,” Fiorella added.
She recommends cleaning your ferret’s litter box once a day to help stave off bad smells from the cage.
This article was verified and edited for accuracy by Dr. Laurie Hess, DVM, Dipl ABVP
Anything having to do with an animal’s sense of smell
Tissue located inside the anal sac that aids in the marking of territory in animals, for defense, or for sexual behavior.