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Towards a More Natural Ferret Diet - Whole Prey and Raw Foods

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Commercial ferret diets and feeding recommendations have come a long way in the past few years, but we still need to ask what is the best diet for pet ferrets. The situation has only been exacerbated by massive concerns over the safety of ingredients used in pet food manufacturing as a result of recalls in 2007.

Ferrets are "obligate" carnivores, which means they are meant to eat meat -- just meat. Ferrets are not designed to digest grains, or sugars, or fillers such as corn. These are unfortunately used in the processing of many ferret diets, especially some of the earlier ones. Years ago, high quality kitten foods were often better suited to meet the needs of ferrets for protein and fat requirements than teh scarcely available ferret foods. The science of feeding ferrets has come a long way and precessed ferret foods are much better (and more available) than they one were, but are processed foods good enough? More and more ferret owners are wondering if more natural diets such as whole prey or raw foods are a better way to meet the dietary needs of their pets.

Current Status

Opinions are definitely mixed and often quite heated on the topic of pet diets, ferret foods included. What I hope to do here is look at current recommendations for feeding ferrets and the pros and cons of more natural diets such as whole prey and raw diets.

I won't make recommendations of one method of feeding over another as I believe in the end it is up to each owner to make a decision based on information that is available. I also know that in the end, the choice will often come down to the comfort levels of the owners, convenience, and comfort with food handling and safety issues. It is not my intent to get into a debate over the best way to feed or condemn anyone's choices.

Before we start I want to make some disclaimers and disclosures: I am not a nutritionist, nor a ferret owner. I do feed my other pets processed foods.

Background

Basic Requirements for a Ferret Diet
  • High protein - 30-40 percent on the nutrient analysis
  • Protein must be high quality, highly digestible, and be animal-based
  • High fat (at least 20 percent)
  • Very low in carbohydrates and fiber (less than 3 percent fiber)

About Processed Dry Foods
The science behind dry ferret foods has come a long way along with understanding the needs of ferrets, but not all ferret foods are created equally. Ferret owners need to do lots of label reading to choose a good food. Unfortunately, the nutritional analysis doesn't tell the whole story. You must also analyze the ingredient list as the quality and availability of the proteins and fats can vary widely (though even ingredient lists can be misleading). However, there are some good quality dry ferret foods that would are considered by many experts to be well balanced diets. For more about dry ferret foods, see "Feeding Ferrets - Dry Foods."

What Do I Mean by "Natural Diets"?
There are many different alternatives to commercial diets, including cooked homemade formulations. But for the purposes of this article, I will be referring to whole prey diets and raw diets, which are are touted as more naturally replicating the diets of the domestic ferret's wild ancestors. Such diets seem to be gaining in popularity -- not only with ferret owners but also with cat and dog owners

  • Whole prey diets are usually made up primarily of mice and chicks, which can be fresh or frozen/thawed. Live prey feeding is not necessary or recommended. Look for suppliers that raise prey in healthy conditions and pre-kill the prey humanely (and without toxic residues).
  • Raw meat and bones diets (often unappetizingly called BARF diets, short for "Biologically Appropriate Raw Foods" or "Bones And Raw Foods"). These can be homemade or commercially prepared - bit it isn't easy to find raw diets appropriate for ferrets either -- many raw dog food contain grains and vegetables, and even many cat foods have vegetables. Frozen or freeze dried raw foods are available commercially, though there is concern that freeze-drying processes may negatively affect the nutritional quality.
As you can see, the array of choices makes it all more confusing. But as a group, what are the pros and cons of natural diets compared to processed dry foods? Next page: Pros and Cons
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