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15 Furry Ferret Facts For National Ferret Day

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Happy National Ferret Day! In honor of the holiday, brush up on your knowledge about everyone's favorite (and longest) pet. 

1. Ferrets have been domesticated for a quite a while. 

It is unclear when ferrets were first domesticated, but the critters have a long and storied history. Greek scholars—Aristophanes in 450 BCE and Aristotle in 350 BCE—wrote about a ferret-like animal. Some lore asserts that ancient Egyptians even kept them as pets, but the absence of ferret bones in explored tombs casts doubt on that claim. Remains have been found in a medieval castle in Belgium, but there is no mention of the pets in any contemporary writings. It's also possible that the ferret was exclusively a lower class pet, which would explain the lack of documentation. 

In the late 15th century, Leonardo da Vinci painted Cecilia Gallerani holding a weasel-like creature. Although the animal has been dubbed an ermine, many scholars believe the animal is actually a ferret. 

2. They are related to polecats. 

Ferrets are the domesticated subspecies of European polecats. They can easily interbreed to produce offspring that’s very similar to domestic ferrets.   

3. When threatened, ferrets will dance. 

In the wild, ferrets and stoats perform a hypnotic dance that sends their prey into a trance. Domestic ferrets also perform this dance, but they use it for play instead of hunting. They arch their backs, puff their tails, and move from side to side. This rug-cutting is usually a sign that the ferret is happy and having fun

4. Black-footed ferrets almost exclusively eat prairie dogs.

Wild black-footed ferrets, or American polecats, live in central North America and feast on unsuspecting prairie dogs. Scientists discovered that in South Dakota, 91 percent of the black-footed ferret's diet was prairie dogs [PDF]. 

Unfortunately, their main source of food has bigger problems than being eaten: The Black Death. The plague is no longer a worry for most humans, but it has a tendency to wipe out whole colonies of black-tailed prairie dogs. This threat is a real issue for the endangered black-footed ferrets, which perish without their favorite food. Luckily researchers have found a vaccine that could help keep the tiny rodents healthy. Testing is currently underway to see if the vaccine works in the wild. 

5. A group of ferrets is called a business.

Now that’s a professional pet! 

6. Ferrets can be used to hunt rabbits.

Rabbit hunting with ferrets is a popular sport in England. The ferrets run into rabbit holes to run the prey out of hiding. When the rabbits dash from their homes, human hunters trap them in nets. The tiny hunters wear ferret finder collars so if they corner a rabbit underground, their owners can come to their rescue with a shovel. One place you'll never see any ferret hunting:  Minnesota, where it’s illegal.

7. They can team up with falcons. 

Falconers employ ferrets in a similar role; the only difference is that the ferrets are used to bring the prey to the falcons. The two animals make a great hunting team.

8. Some ferrets have jobs. 

Known for their love of burrowing, ferrets can put their skill at running through pipes to a variety of professional uses. When wires cannot be pushed through tubes or tunnels with rods, the tiny critters step in. They are known for pulling wire through underground tunnels, and even helped lay wire for the millennium concert in London. 

One famous ferret named Felicia helped clean pipes at Fermilab's Meson Laboratory in 1971. A swab connected to her collar allowed her to clear away unwanted debris. Although Felicia only cost $35, she likely saved the lab thousands of dollars. 

9. This job led to a fun competition.

Ferret racing is a popular sport in London that involves competing ferrets racing through drainpipes. A small section of the pipe is removed and replaced with chicken wire so viewers can know when the pets are half-way through. Apparently, the animals thoroughly enjoy the race and company of their fellow ferrets. 

According to zoologist James McKay, the sport originated with ferrets being used to drag cables through pipelines in the desert. After a hard day's work, the engineers would use their downtime to race the employed ferrets through tubing.

10. Keep your babies away from them.

Ferrets are great pets for adults, but they should not be left around babies. Several reports have found that pet ferrets have attacked babies while the parents slept. 

Edgar K. Marcuse explained the phenomenon in the Journal of American Academy of Pediatrics

The animals seem attracted to babies, perhaps due to odors resembling those of suckling rabbits. Typically, attacks are made when parents are absent or asleep; the ferret escapes its cage and jumps into the baby's crib.

11. Scammers have sold ferrets on steroids as fancy poodles.

If you are looking to get a tiny exotic dog, make sure you’re not actually buying a ferret. In 2013, some Argentineans were being tricked into buying fake miniature poodles. Ferrets were given steroids and new haircuts before being passed off as exotic tiny dogs. The owners often didn’t realize they had accidentally bought drugged ferrets until visiting the vet for shots.   

12. Females can die if they go too long without mating.

Unspayed females need to mate or run the risk of producing too much estrogen. The overproduction can lead to estrogen toxicity, or hyperestrogenism. This condition can lead to anemia, clotting, and death. 

13. Ferret legging is a thing.

There is a "sport" called ferret legging and it is horrifying. The popular endurance game starts with a man with loose fitting pants. The ends are tied shut, and several ferocious ferrets are placed inside. The belt closes the top of the pants, and the game begins. The angry ferrets will bite and claw to try to get out and the player must endure the pain as long as he can. The current record is over 5 hours.

14. Scientists fiddled with a ferret’s brain and made a startling discovery.

In the 1990s, neuroscientists at MIT reconfigured baby ferrets' brains so that the critters' retinas were connected to their auditory cortexes. They expected the ferrets to go blind, but miraculously, they readjusted so that the auditory cortex worked like the visual cortex; they could see using the part of the brain normally used for hearing. This discovery showed that the brain is adaptable and makes use of what’s available. ''It's just waiting for signals from the environment and will wire itself according to the input it gets,'' said Dr. Jon Kaas, a professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University. 

15. They love to jump.

But sometimes they land in some unfortunate places.

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25 Benefits of Adopting a Rescue Dog
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According to the ASPCA, 3.3 million dogs enter shelters each year in the United States. Although that number has gone down since 2011 (from 3.9 million) there are still millions of dogs waiting in shelters for a forever home. October is Adopt a Shelter Dog Month; here are 25 benefits of adopting a shelter dog.

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Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.406E
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New Smithsonian Exhibit Explains Why Felines Were the Cat's Meow in Ancient Egypt
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Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.406E

From bi-coastal cat cafes to celebrity pets like Lil Bub, felines are currently enjoying a peak moment in popular culture. That’s part of the reason why curators at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery—which will re-open to visitors on Saturday, October 14, following a 3-month closure—decided to dedicate a new exhibition to ancient Egypt’s relationship with the animals.

Divine Felines: Cats of Ancient Egypt” looks at the cultural and religious importance of cats, which the Egyptians appreciated long before YouTube was a thing and #caturday was a hashtag. It's based on a traveling exhibition that began at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City. On view until January 15, 2018, it's one of several exhibits that will kick off the grand reopening of the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler galleries, the conjoined national museums of Asian and Middle Eastern Art.

The Freer has been closed since January 2016 for major renovations, and the Sackler since July 2016 for minor ones. The upgraded institutions will make their public debut on October 14, and be feted by a free two-day festival on the National Mall.

Featuring 80 artworks and relics, ranging from figurines of leonine deities to the tiny coffins of beloved pets, "Divine Felines" even has a cat mummy on loan from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. These objects span from the Middle Kingdom (2008 to 1630 BCE) to the Byzantine period (395 to 642 CE).

An ancient Egyptian metal weight shaped like a cat, dating back to 305 to 30 BCE, on view at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
Weight in Form of a Cat, 305 to 30 BCE, Bronze, silver, lead
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 36.114

The term “cat” is used loosely, as the Egyptians celebrated domestic mousers and fearsome predators alike.

“The Egyptians were close observers of nature, so they were observing cat behaviors,” Antonietta Catanzariti, the exhibition's in-house curator, tells Mental Floss. “They noticed that cats and lions— in general, felines—have aggressive and protective aspects, so they associated those attributes to deities.”

The ancient Egyptians viewed their gods as humans, animals, or mixed forms. Several of these pantheon members were both associated with and depicted as cats, including Bastet, the goddess of motherhood, fertility, and protection; and Sakhmet, the goddess of war and—when appeased—healing. She typically has a lion head, but in some myths she appears as a pacified cat.

A limestone sculptor's model of a walking lion, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Sculptor's Model of a Walking Lion, ca. 664 to 630 BCE, limestone
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 33.190

While Bastet was a nurturer, Sakhmet—whose name means “The Powerful One”—could use her mighty force to either slay or safeguard humanity. These characterizations are typical of the ancient Egyptian worldview, which perceived the universe in dualistic terms. “There’s always a positive and a negative,” Catanzariti explains.

Contrary to popular belief, however, ancient Egyptians did not view cats themselves as gods. “The goddess Sakhmet does have the features as a lion, or in some cases as a cat, but that doesn’t mean that the Egyptians were worshipping cats or lions,” Catanzariti says. Instead, they were simply noting and admiring her feline traits. This practice, to an extent, also extended to royalty. Kings were associated with lions and other large cats, as they were the powerful protectors of ancient Egypt’s borders.

These myriad associations prompted Egyptians to adorn palaces, temples, protective amulets, ceremonial vessels, and accessories with cat images. Depending on their context, these renderings symbolized everything from protection and power to beauty and sexuality. A king’s throne might have a lion-shaped support, for example, whereas a woman’s cosmetics case might be emblazoned with a cat-headed female goddess of motherhood and fertility.

An ancient Egyptian figurine of a standing lion-headed goddess, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Figurine of a Standing Lion-Headed Goddess, 664 to 630 BCE, Faience
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.943E

While cats were linked with heavenly figures and kings, they were also popular domestic pets. Their ability to catch vermin made them an important addition to households, and owners loved and anthropomorphized their pets just like we do today.

Egyptians often named, or nicknamed, their children after animals; Miit (cat) was a popular moniker for girls. It's said that entire households shaved their eyebrows in mourning if a house cat died a natural death. Some also believe that cats received special legal protection. (Not all cats were this lucky, however, as some temples bred kittens specifically to offer their mummified forms to the gods.) If a favorite cat died, the Egyptians would bury them in special decorated coffins, containers, and boxes. King Tutankhamen, for example, had a stone sarcophagus constructed just for his pet feline.

An ancient Egyptian bronze cat head adorned with gold jewelry, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Cat's Head, 30 BCE. to third century CE, bronze, gold
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 36.114

“Divine Felines” breaks down these facts, and more, into five thematic sections, including “Cats and Kings"; “Cats and Gods”; “Cats and Death”; “Cats and Protection”; and “Dogs as Guardians and Hunters.” Yes, there’s also an exhibition section for dog lovers—“a small one,” Catanzariti laughs, that explains why canines were associated with figures like Anubis, the jackal-headed god of mummification and the afterlife.

Did the ancient Egyptians prefer cats to dogs? “I would say that both of them had different roles,” Catanzariti says, as dogs were valued as hunters, scavengers, and guards. “They were appreciated in different ways for their ability to protect or be useful for the Egyptian culture.” In this way, "Divine Felines" is targeted to ailurophiles and canophiliacs alike, even if it's packaged with pointed ears and whiskers.

An ancient Egyptian cat coffin, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Coffin for a Cat, 664 to 332 BCE, or later, Wood, gesso, paint, animal remains
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.1944Ea-b

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