Although not as common as cats or dogs, ferrets are a popular pet in North America.
Domestic ferrets, or Mustela putorius furo, are members of the Mustelidae family. Ferrets typify the most common traits of this family with their long, tube-like bodies and short legs.
A ferret’s fur comes in an array of colors from white to black to shades of brown. Their fur changes color during breeding season in summer.
Female ferrets are responsible for rearing their young, or “kits.” Kits are blind from birth and take about eight weeks to wean off from their mother.
As adults, ferrets can weigh around 3 kg (6. lbs.) and are often kept as pets, living between 6-10 years. They are carnivores with large canine teeth, and as pets, they eat manufactured ferret food.
Wild ferrets would eat all the parts of an animal, including the liver. Like cats, ferrets sleep up to 20 hours a day and are most playful at dawn and dusk.
They have sharp claws which they use to dig burrows, but they’d rather use those that other animals leave behind.
Ferrets share many of the above attributes with several other animals. Some of them are directly related, while others may only share behaviors rather than genetics. The following list discusses some of these animals which share similarities with ferrets.
1. European Polecats
Scientific name: Mustela putorius
Quick summary: Ferrets are a subspecies of polecats and have extremely similar shapes and coloring.
Ferrets are actually a subspecies of the European polecat. This means that they are different animals, but they’re genetically close enough to interbreed. They look so similar in appearance that it can be very hard to tell them apart.
Polecats and ferrets can grow up to 18 inches long (46 cm) and can have the same dark brown fur. Sometimes it takes genetic testing or skull examination to tell the difference.
They also both like to live in underground burrows and have the same carnivorous diet. Both animals molt, or shed their fur, in the spring and autumn.
2. Long-tailed Weasels
Scientific name: Mustela frenata
Quick summary: Long-tailed weasels are close cousins to ferrets and share several physical attributes.
There are 12 species of weasels in the world and all of them are close cousins to ferrets. They’re all part of the Mustela genus, which is notable for the long bodies and short legs of its members.
The long-tailed weasel is one of the most common in North America and is very similar to a ferret.
These weasels and ferrets share keen anal scent glands they use for defense and communication. For example, females will emit a specific scent when they’re ready to mate.
Both animals mate in the summer months, and the coat of male weasels and ferrets turn yellow during this time. This is due to a hormonal increase of oil production in their skin that seeps into the fur.
3. American Minks
Scientific name: Neovison vison
Quick summary: A long-bodied Mustelidae species with short legs that make them as agile as ferrets.
Minks and ferrets, like most of the Mustelidae family, like to burrow. They have five non-retractable claws at the end of the paws to help them dig. Some ferrets may also have the webbed feet that are common in minks.
Ferrets and minks also like to climb trees and run around. Their slim bodies and short legs make them very agile.
In fact, their legs are about half the length of their body unlike in other carnivorous species. This keeps minks and ferrets from tripping over themselves in small spaces like burrows.
Scientific name: Mustela erminea
Quick summary: Ferrets and ermines have similar reproduction cycles and parenting methods.
Female ferrets and ermines (which also go by the name stoats or short-tailed weasels) are both polyestrous. This means that the females can go into heat several times during the breeding seasons.
It’s typical for male ferrets and ermines to have more than one female mate at a time.
Their young are also very similar in that they’re born blind and unable to care for themselves. Baby ferrets and ermines both go by the name of “kits.”
The kits need their mothers until they’re about eight weeks old. Male ferrets and ermines don’t help raise the young.
5. Chinese Ferret-badgers
Scientific name: Melogale moschata
Quick summary: Ferret-badgers get along with humans like domesticated ferrets do.
Although they’re not as close in appearance to ferrets as other mustelids, ferret-badgers are still similar in size. They have long bodies up to 17 inches and short legs, just like domestic ferrets.
Chinese ferret-badgers also get along well with humans, just like their ferret cousins. They eat meat like ferrets and eat common pests such as cockroaches in particular.
When residing near humans, Chinese ferret-badgers will nest in small burrows or crevices. They also enjoy climbing, using their short legs and claws the same way ferrets do.
6. American Martens
Scientific name: Martes americana
Quick summary: An animal with as many fur colors as ferrets and female-centric kit rearing.
Martens are another animal similar to ferrets, with long bodies, short legs, and sharp claws. Their fur comes in a range of colors just like ferrets, including white, yellow, brown, and black.
Martens are part of the genus Martes, which also includes sables and falls under the ferret’s family of Mustelidae. Females in all species of martens, unlike the sable, have a similar reproductive role to female ferrets.
Female martens take all of the responsibility of rearing their kits, just like ferrets. They build a den by themselves for their young, then care for them until they’re about a month old.
Scientific name: Martes zibellina
Quick summary: Sables have the same body type as ferrets and are active at the same times of day.
Unlike male ferrets, male sables sometimes help rear their young. Otherwise, their offspring are very similar. The young are born blind like ferret kits and aren’t independent until about eight weeks.
A sable can grow between 15 and 22 inches (38-56 cm) and weigh between two and 4 lbs. (880-1,800 grams). Sables are also crepuscular, meaning they are active at dawn and dusk, just like ferrets.
8. Northern River Otters
Scientific name: Lontra canadensis
Quick summary: An aquatic mustelid that’s as fast and active as their land-dwelling ferret cousins.
Otters are a member of the Mustelidae family that spend most of their time in the water. Despite their different choice of habitat, though, they look and behave similarly to ferrets.
Both animals are long with short feet which have strong, non-retractable claws at the end. Otters are just as agile in the water as ferrets are on land due to their similar body structures.
They are also pure carnivores, unlike some other members of the Mustelidae family who also eat plants. They rely on their sharp teeth for eating insects and small fish.
9. Striped Skunk
Scientific name: Mephitis
Quick summary: Formerly grouped with ferrets, skunks are now mephitids with larger scent glands.
Skunks were once thought to be part of the Mustelidae family, the same as ferrets. Though DNA testing led to them being classified as Mephitidae instead, there are still similarities between skunks and ferrets.
Though their distinctive black and white stripes differ from a wide range of ferret coloring, they have similar body types. Skunks have long bodies that are kept low to the ground by their short legs.
Their paws have claws on the end with which they dig burrows, but they also take over abandoned dens.
Another strong similarity between skunk and ferrets are their anal scent glands. This is a key attribute of mustelids and even more so of Mephitidae.
Skunks have even larger scent glands than ferrets. They use these for defense by discharging a strong, unpleasant yellow musk up to 20 feet away (6 meters).
Scientific name: Eira Barbara
Quick summary: A long-legged mustelid that is sometimes kept as pets just like ferrets.
Tayras have the long bodies and tails of ferrets and others in the Mustelidae family. However, their legs are much longer, so they stand further from the ground than their cousins.
They also spend equal time in trees and on the ground, bouncing along with arched backs. They use their long tails to help balance in the treetops.
Of all the species similar to ferrets, Tayras are most likely to be domestic pets like ferrets. The indigenous people of Central and South America once used Tayras as rodent catchers.
11. American Badgers
Scientific name: Taxidea taxus
Quick summary: They don’t look like ferrets, but badgers have the same teeth, claws, and eating habits.
American badgers are one of the least similar mustelids to ferrets in terms of appearance.
Whereas ferrets are long and thin, badgers are very stocky animals. They can weigh up to an incredible 27 pounds (12 kg).
However, badgers are part of the same taxonomic family as ferrets, which means they do share some traits. For one, their both carnivores with sharp teeth.
They also have claws that are good for burrowing and tearing into smaller animals.
Scientific name: Gulo gulo
Quick summary: More like badgers than ferrets but have some of the same Mustelidae features.
Wolverines share a similar body type with badgers, which means they don’t look much like ferrets. Wolverines are some of the largest mustelids and can reach up to three and a half feet long.
They do have the same short legs as ferrets, as well as very sharp claws. They can use these to burrow, climb, and hunt other animals.
Wolverines also have kits and breed in the summer, just like ferrets. Female wolverines and ferrets are both responsible for building a den for their young.
Scientific name: Martes pennanti
Quick summary: A larger version of a ferret that can take down a porcupine.
Fishers are a species of the Martes genus and look very much like overgrown ferrets. They can weigh up to 20 pounds and grow to 40 inches in length. Their tails make up a total of one-third of their body length.
They’re one of the largest mustelids next to wolverines.
Like ferrets, fishers are low to the ground because of their short legs. They have similar claws they use to burrow and climb.
Fishers also use their claws to attack other animals, as they’re mostly carnivorous. They don’t actually eat fish, but they are one of the few predators of the spiky porcupine.
Ferrets are related to many animals in the taxonomic hierarchy. In fact, ferrets are so close to polecats that scientists consider ferrets a subspecies. Some look so similar that the only way to tell them apart is to examine their skulls or even DNA.
Even outside of the Mustelidae family where ferrets belong, there are several animals that share similar features. Skunks are so similar to ferrets that they once belonged to Mustelidae before becoming their own family.
The next time you think you see a ferret, look again – it could be one of several similar cousins.