Well it's that time of year again, so I thought I'd provide you with the basic facts on ferret breeding.
The breeding season usually runs from March through to September, though this can vary with weather conditions and if the ferrets are kept outside or inside.
Males and females reach sexual maturity the first spring after their birth, although again this can be earlier with warmer weather and indoor living ferrets. For example my ferrets are indoors and they were ready to be castrated in December aged 8 months. (For more information on neutering visit my 'neutering your ferrets' post here http://ferretdook.blogspot.co.uk/2012/04/neutering-your-ferrets.html)
There are several ways to physically see if your ferret is ready to breed, alongside a change in behaviour for both males and females. Males will have enlarged testicles, a very strong body odour and his coat will most likely have a greasy feel to it. He will have little thought for anything except finding a female to mate with, will become aggressive towards other males and sometimes have little time for his owners affections too. There have been cases of intact ferrets being harder to work with during the breeding season when taken out rabbiting.
The females will become ill tempered and may have a stronger body odour than usual. Her vulva will swell and there may be a discharge alongside this. Around two weeks after the initial swelling she is ready to breed.
The gestation period is usually around 6 weeks, with some breeders moving the expecting mother to a quiet 'nursery' area after about 4 weeks. She will start to prepare her nest about two weeks before the birth. The male has no role in the birth or raising of the babies. The female will have an average of 6-8 kits in a litter, though litters can be as big as 13-15. They are completely helpless when born. They are blind, deaf and covered in fine white hair. Babies can weigh at birth anything between 5 and 15 grams.
The new mother and her babies must not be disturbed in the early stages as she may eat her young if she feels that they are threatened in any way.
At around three weeks of age the young will start to eat solids alongside their mother's milk. Their eyes open at about four weeks of age and can now fully explore the world around them. They are weaned between 6-8 weeks of age, and will leave their mother sometime after this. It is preferable to have them stay with the mother as long as possible for their well-being.
Breeding is a very serious undertaking that should not be taken lightly. It can be costly, time consuming and heartbreaking, as whole litters have been known to die before and it is not unusual for the odd kit to die in the early days, often from the mother laying on them without realising.
Please do not attempt to breed your ferrets on a whim, there are far too many unwanted ferrets in rescue centres as it is. So please leave it to the professional breeders who really know what they are doing and can ensure the well-being of the babies and their mothers. Most reputable breeders will also do home checks and quiz potential buyers before they release any kits to them. If you have a mixed sex ferret group who aren't neutered, please do not see breeding as an easy option, speak to your vet for information on neutering. You could do an internet search to find breeders near you if you would like to take on a baby ferret, just remember that they do not stay small forever and there are ferrets in shelters waiting for homes.
Your ferrets are likely to be much happier if they don't have breeding to worry about, just ask my boys! They can now devote 100% of their time to mischief making!