How important is your ferret’s nutrition to you? Wouldn’t you agree that it’s easier to just buy a bag of kibble and pour it, then with full confidence be under the assumption that you are doing exactly what you should for your ferret’s nutritional needs? Importantly and according to 30 year veterinarian, Dr. Susan Brown, DVM, “Ferrets have been domesticated since 350 BC, but it is only in the last 40 years that we have changed their diet from raw foods to commercially processed foods (kibble). We have made the change primarily because we, the public, have demanded a uniformly easy to feed and hopefully nutritious food that allows us to successfully keep ferrets in our homes. I think everyone would agree that it is easier to pour little bits of food out of a bag than to go out and find or purchase and prepare meat items to feed. But the question is are we really providing a healthy ferret diet using processed foods? Is it really possible to take raw food, grind it up, heat it to high temperatures, add ingredients that are not part of the normal diet, add back nutrients altered or destroyed during processing, press it into amusing shapes, adding vegetables and plant proteins, which mustelids are physiologically incapable of digesting, and have this be the equivalent of the natural diet”? Dr. Brown goes on to answer that very question. “I have yet to see one that I believe is completely appropriate for ferrets. Let’s take a look at the composition of these diets and compare that to what we know of ferret nutrition. We have discussed that ferrets are carnivores and need a high protein, high fat diet with minimal carbohydrates. To use numbers, a dry ferret diet should contain at least 40 % crude protein and 15 –20% fat. The protein should be of animal origin and highly digestible. Unfortunately, pet food labels do not indicate digestibility of the components and the protein percent you read may contain both animal and plant sources of protein. In addition, grains, such as corn wheat or rice, are used not only to increase protein but as a “filler” and as a means of binding the final product together. Ingredients on a pet food label are given in order of their amount in the diet, starting with the largest. For ferrets, the first three ingredients should be meat-based. In a survey I did of 12 processed dry ferret foods currently on the market, only one had the first three ingredients as meat-based but it was quickly followed by corn, more corn and sweeteners. Some of the foods had a grain as the second ingredient, and they all had grain as a significant part of the composition. The majority of the foods had a sweetener of some kind such as molasses, dextrose, raisin juice or corn syrup. Processed dry foods are heated during production and in the process nutrients can be destroyed or altered and then have to be replaced artificially. In addition, other additives may be used to keep the food from spoiling. To add insult to injury, several of the diets had dried fruits and vegetables in them. Ferrets do not need these items and in addition the dried form can make them nearly impossible to process…Clearly, these diets are packaged to appeal to human consumers and may have little to do with appropriate ferret nutrition”.
A nutritious and balanced diet is the foundation of good health for all creatures including ferrets.
Let’s look at kibble and canned food for a minute. Both are manufactured using meat meals. Meat Meal: The rendered product from mammal tissues, exclusive of major ingredients required by a predator (carnivorous) species.
Most of the ingredients that are used to manufacture commercial pet food are products that are gathered from the refuse of the human food industry. Sadly, the unregulated AFFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) [http://www.aafco.org] regulations allow for their use in pet food. Experienced ferret veterinarian Dr. William Polock, DVM adds:
“Many skin and coat problems are a direct result of a lack of raw animal fat in the diet — fat which humans often believe is bad for their pet. Animals need at least 15-20% raw fat, and their systems are not designed to handle cooked meat or cooked fat. Let’s also consider the carbohydrate bearing vegetable matter in all kibble. Correct! All of it.
Carbohydrates are a direct cause of insulinoma (pancreatic cancer). There is a genetic aspect to insulinoma, but for the most part, simple carbohydrates are the culprit. Pet food companies use carbohydrates to ensure the cohesion of the kibble and vegetable protein to artificially raise protein levels. Vegetable protein is not bio-available to ferrets and they lack the internal anatomy for it’s digestion. Just over a decade ago, researchers discovered that a cancer-causing and potentially neurotoxic chemical called acrylamide is created when carbohydrate-rich foods are cooked at high temperatures, whether baked, fried, roasted, grilled or toasted. The chemical is formed from a reaction between sugars and an amino acid, asparagine. This is created during the same high-temperature cooking as is used in the extrusion process of kibble, or the canning and manufacturing process of canned pet food.
So in all this, how is the pancreas involved, and what is insulinoma? The main function of the pancreas is to produce and regulate blood glucose (insulin) and it releases beta cells to respond to increases in glucose in the blood stream by producing insulin to control it. If normal beta cells are bombarded with higher than normal levels of glucose (which comes from carbohydrates) they can become hypertrophied (overactive) trying to keep up with insulin demand. If the high carbohydrate diet continues, the result may be a complete burnout of the cells, which is what happens when a pet or a person develops diet-induced diabetes. However, another possibility is that instead of the cells burning out, they go from hypertrophy to neoplasia (cancer).
Keep in mind, “I do not want to spend time in this article examining or outright criticizing the pet food industry. I don’t believe it is inherently “evil” as some would like to have us believe. There are of course companies whose sole purpose is monetary gain at the expense of our pet’s health, but there are equally involved and dedicated individuals and companies who sincerely want to produce a healthy and easy to use product. And who can fault them for this noble goal? My concern is whether we can, in reality, achieve this goal going the completely cooked, processed food route. I believe we should be rethinking our idea of what is appropriate pet food. There are even now a small number of pet food companies who are already going down the more natural pet food path. The bottom line is that the pet food companies are going to respond to what the consumers demand and it will ultimately be up to us to force the appropriate changes”.
Keep in mind that as a member of the Mustelidae genre, ferrets are “obligate carnivores”. What is an “obligate carnivore”, you ask? Obligate carnivores or “true” carnivores depend on the nutrients only found in animal flesh for their survival, therefore vegetables, fruit, and the plethora of plant materials have no place in a ferret’s diet at all.
Soups (also known as ferret ‘soupies’) are well tolerated and can be used as supplements to other diets, and also are used for those who initially attempt to transition their ferrets from commercial dry kibble diets to a more meat-based and eventually, raw, species-appropriate diet.
Again, by no means is this article meant to condemn anyone or any company. Rather to help unknowing ferret owners learn through research, nutritional science, and veterinarian testimony. Ultimately, the feeding of any foods to ferrets is at the discretion of it’s particular owner or caretaker.
With Kind Regards,
Brian K. Carr