Feeding Ferrets in the 19th Century


I recently bought two books about ferrets which were published in the late 19th Century and found their ideas about keeping ferrets and especially feeding ferrets quite amazing.

I found it particularly interesting to read the advice about feeding written in the book published in 1880 is way more intelligent than the information written 17 years later.

All I can say is that I feel very, very sorry for the poor little animals in those days. They must have suffered terribly from awful diarrhea having all that cow’s milk. Gee, can you imagine how foul their hutches must have been?

No water was mentioned in the 1897 book, so I can only assume they weren’t given water as a matter of course. How tragic.

And to read that it was suggested that part of a cat’s carcass should be fed to them …. kak! The mind boggles!

Excerpt from the book: “Ferrets & Ferreting – A Practical Manual on Breeding, Managing, Training and Working Ferrets” by Wiliam Carnegie, originally published in 1880.

Chapter III – Feeding & General Management

The feeding of ferrets is a matter of considerable importance, because it has a great deal of influence upon the health and quality of the stock. There is no doubt that, as a rule, ferrets are both badly and unwisely fed; moreover, difference of opinion largely exists as to the proper time to feed ferrets when in work and when doing none.

We do not at all hold with those who feed their ferrets solely on flesh diet. Bread and milk ought to be the staple food, and the other be the auxiliary. Stale bread must be used, broken into small pieces; boiling water is poured over, most of the water squeezed off, then cold or warm – but not boiled – milk is poured over it, and it is given fresh and clean to the ferrets. Twice or three times a week some small birds, the healthy livers of ground game, or portions of a rabbit, without the fur on them, may be given. The heads or necks of fowls are also suitable; but never give any food in the shape of young or old fowls or game that have died from natural causes. Much of the disease among ferrets is caused by this kind of food. Also, under no circumstances give them the paunch of bird or animal.

Occasionally the bread and milk may be varied by giving oatmeal and milk, in similar fashion; but as this food has a somewhat laxative effect it must not be given regularly, but merely as a slight change.

Mr. Lascelles Carr says:- “I entirely disagree with all the authorities. I have read as to the ordinary methods of feeding. I give my ferrets nothing but animal-food, in the shape of fresh-killed birds, rats, or rabbits, or scraps of butcher’s meat. This and a constant supply of fresh water is their only diet, and they appear to enjoy perfect health. They come to hand with the greatest freedom, are free from all ferocity, are always ready for work, and can work as long and as cleanly as any ferrets I have seen.

“I think one proof of the excellence of this method of diet is to be found in the fact that the evacuations of the animals have ceased to be foul and slimy, and know how easy it is, and what a temptation exists, to dogmatise on matters of this sort.”

The Editor of a sporting paper shares Mr. Lascelles Carr’s preference for a meat diet for ferrets. He states:

“We undoubtedly think that it is a great mistake to feed ferrets upon an entirely bread-and-milk dietary. The ferret is a carnivorous animal, and in our opinion is never so healthy or so active as when subsisting chiefly upon a flesh diet. We have tried both over a series of years, and we are convinced in our own mind which is the better food. Try both for a time with working ferrets, and note which gives the better results. When we fed our ferrets upon bread-and-milk we noticed that the faecal discharges were always more or less watery and evil-smelling, and both adults and young (the latter more particularly) were subject to ‘scours’. They were also far from active even though kept in roomy, well-ventilated, and scrupulously clean hutches. They, moreover, worked but in a very half-hearted manner. No sooner, however, were they given a few freshly-killed birds or a few fowls’ heads from the poulterer’s, &c., than they underwent a change, and seldom were sick or sorry.

“We should not give liver. Some advocate a freshly-killed rabbit; but others object to this on the score that the dietary is one calculated to make the ferrets, when used unmuzzled, kill instead of drive the rabbit out of a hole, and thus induce a wearisome ‘lay-up’. When feeding, keep the ferrets so that the food is not taken into the sleeping-place to be devoured. That is where the court system comes in, as the ferrets soon learn to respond to the call, and the food may be given as a rule outside, or so fixed that it cannot be bodily taken therein. At any rate hutches should be so constructed that the sleeping-place is shut off from the other portions.”

As confirmatory of what has been said by Mr. Lascelles Carr and the Editor just mentioned, upon the subject of feeding, we give the following interesting letter sent by a correspondent to that journal.

(Mr. H. M. Wallace, St. Leonards)

DEAR SIR. – You will remember that a few weeks ago there was a discussion in the columns of your valuable paper (The Bazaar) as to the best method for feeding ferrets. I am now writing to inform you and usch of your readers as are interested in the subject that I have tried feeding my ferrets on a fleshdiet alone with good results.

My ferrets are quite as tame as when fed on bread-and-milk; the chief difference I note are: (1.) Their coats have grown rather longer and thicker, and white ferrets have grown rather darker (possibly winter coats). (2.) Their activity and muscular strength have been greatly increased. (3.) They are cleaner and drier in their habits, and have lost all suspicion of “droop” and weakness about the hind legs, which I have often noticed in ferrets fed with bread and milk, being probably due to its action on the bowels.

On the whole, therefore, I have come to the conclusion that a meat diet, with water (and occasionally milk) to drink, is the best for ferrets.

I am obliged for your advice in the matter.

Whatever the food given, it should always be scrupulously clean and sweet; the feeding-tins should be washed daily and be removed as soon as the ferrets have eaten sufficiently. The quantity day by day per head should never vary; the hours of feeding must be regular; and the little creatures should always have their fill and eat all that is given them, but not be allowed to gorge to repletion.

The chief point where opinions amongst ferret-keepers diverge is in connection with the feeding of ferrets which are being more or less regularly worked. Whether not to feed, to half feed, or to wholly feed them before working, is a very vexed question. It seems most rational to treat them quite in the ordinary way; and we fancy that, as a rule, those who do so will find their ferrets work very well. Both the other plans have great disadvantages; if you do not feed your ferrets they will be too quick and sure to lie up if they catch a rabbit; whilst if you only half feed them they will tire out in half the time. It must be admitted that ferrets fed immediately before being worked will not prove at first as keen on their game as they might; but they soon warm to their work. The most practical plan to pursue is to feed your ferrets as usual, but an hour at least before they are wanted; they will come up to the scratch — in more senses than one – quite readily, and, given a little food and an hour’s rest during the day, will work eight hours without losing much of their dash and keenness.

Ferrets are thirsty little animals, and if you are going out for a long day’s ferreting some milk should be carried so that they may have a drink now and again. When very thirsty they often go a long way to water; and many a ferret has been lost in underground drains with which the rabbit burrows have connected, when seeking for water to slack its thirst.

Ferrets like warmth, although indifferent to cold when in pursuit; and dryness is a necessity to them.

Many people keep their ferrets in a dark place; this is not wise. They cannot stand bright sunshine, but they like a moderately light dwelling. Light and air are essentials. Wild polecats kept in captivity are very liable to go blind.



Excerpt from the book “Ferrets, their Management in Health & Disease with remarks on their Legal Status” by Nicholas Everitt. published in 1897.

Chapter IV – Food & Feeding

When in young the jills require blood, and unless this is given to them, they will most probably eat their offspring.

Part of a cat’s carcase is often given to them, and is good food as a change from rats, birds, fowls, ducks’ necks and such like. When not at work, bread and milk form their staple diet. It is not advisable to give them new bread, and the best way to prepare the food is to first soak the bread in water, take it out and squeeze with the hand all the water from the bread, then crumble it into a feeding pan, and pour the milk over it, giving it at once to the ferrets. Feed always at the same time, and twice daily will be found sufficient, although many people believe in three times. Oatmeal porridge is sometimes substituted for bread, but the latter answers best, and flesh should not be given oftener than every three days. When referring to flesh diet, a word of warning may not be altogether out of place. Do not let your ferrets store their food in their beds, as they are very fond of doing. See that they have sufficient and that they eat well, but do not let them overgorge themselves. The bird or animal intended for them should be freshly killed, clean, and given with the blood in it. Rabbits and fowls’ livers are also suitable food and greatly used, but avoid giving them entrails.

Young ferrets are fed on similar lines to the older ones, excepting perhaps they require feeding three times a day instead of twice, and it is advisable to give them less flesh diet than the others; also warm the milk slightly before pouring it over the bread. This latter remark applies equally to a jill which is in young. Some ferret keepers make it a practice to take all the food away immediately after each meal. This may be a good rule to follow, but a little milk should be always left in the pans for the ferrets to drink when they are thirsty during the daytime.

When they are going to be worked the bread is omitted from their feeding pans, only milk being given to them, and this not in such a large proportion as they are accustomed to have it. Do not give them their milk immediately before starting, but two hours or an hour and a half before they are required. A small quantity of milk may also be given at mid-day, otherwise they may, when hot, tired, and thirsty from working, leave their quarry to search for water.

Always wash out the feeding pans before inserting the food, and make use of a peculiar whistle or cry* when giving it, one of the reasons for which will be dealt with hereafter.

Although it is usual to feed a small number of ferrets upon new milk fresh from the cow, it is by no means necessary to give this when a large number of animals have to be satisfied. In this case skim milk is generally used, to it being more often than otherwise added one third as much again of boiling water before it is missed with the meal or bread.

Greaves** also will be found excellent food for ferrets. The greaves are put into the feeding pans, and boiling water poured over them. The mixture is then worked up into the consistency of paste and given warm to the ferrets, which they soon become very fond of. Good greaves can be obtained from Messrs. Chamberlin and Smith, of Exchange Street, Norwich.

* There was nothing written to explain why it was suggested to give “peculiar whistle or cry when giving (the food)”.

** (From Wiktionary) Greaves is the umeltable residue left after animal fat has been rendered.




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