Polecat vs Ferret – Similarities and Differences

Most people nowadays are intent on getting exotic pets. For them, the cats and dogs that have been domesticated for ages do not seem like good prospects. Polecats and ferrets are among the most common pets nowadays.

These animals are quite alike, and most people cannot tell them apart. Both animals belong to the weasel family and will share some characteristics as expected. In fact, the ferret is sometimes called a domesticated polecat.

There are, however, several differences between the polecat and ferret that will determine which of the animals will make the best pet for you.

The following is a guide on the elements that differentiate a polecat and ferret along with those that make them alike to help you make an informed choice for your pet.

Origin and Habitat

Ferrets are believed to have been domesticated by the Egyptian pharaohs around 2500 years ago. They have been used for hunting for ages in which instance they are often paired with hawks.

As such, the domestication of ferrets is thought to be linked to their benefits in hunting. Black-footed ferrets have roamed around the grassy areas of North America for ages. Though considered extinct in the 1970s, a small population was found in the mid-1980s in Wyoming.

In the wild, ferrets live in tunnels dug by other animals since they cannot dig very well.

According to studies, ferrets were domesticated from European polecats. European polecats live in the wild regions of northern Morocco and western Eurasia.

They set up their homes along the marshes, riverbanks, dry stone walls, and lowland wooded areas. They are also found in rabbit burrows because rabbits are their main prey.


Ferrets have long and slender bodies with average lengths of 50 cm and tails measuring about 13 cm. Traditionally, their pelages have different colors, including white, black, brown and mixed.

Domesticated ferrets nonetheless have dark-eyed white, black sable, albino, cinnamon, chocolate and sable fur because of selective breeding. The animals are sexually dimorphic with males being significantly heavier than females. They weigh 0.7-2 kg.

Polecats have two-tone coats comprising buff-colored underfur and brown guard hairs. Their bodies are 32-45 cm long with the tails measuring 12-19 cm. The animals weigh 0.5-1.9 kg.

There are white stripes across the dark faces of polecats while ferrets do not have this stripe. Polecats have larger heads compared to ferrets, and their paws are dark-colored while those of ferrets are white. Furthermore, while ferrets have a light fur patch under their throats, polecats do not have it.


Ferrets will spend 14-18 hours sleeping and are crepuscular, meaning they will be most active at dawn and dusk. On the other hand, polecats are considered nocturnal, but some are crepuscular.

When keeping a pet ferret or polecat, you should take it out of its cage for at least an hour daily for play and exercise to keep it healthy. For the ferret, the best time for play is at dusk or dawn while for the nocturnal polecat, it is at night.

Though both the polecat and ferret have a hierarchical dominance structure, ferrets are social while polecats are solitary. While pet ferrets will often share living spaces, they become territorial when a newcomer is introduced to their cages.

Polecats, on the other hand, are quite territorial and will not often share cages. Moreover, polecats usually outgrow their playful behavior with time after domestication, but ferrets remain playful throughout their lives.

To a large extent, the behaviors of ferrets and polecats are similar with the difference being in the degree of their display in the two animals. For instance, though ferrets and polecats are sensitive to smell, polecats have a better sense of smell because they use it to move owing to their poor eyesight.

Food & Diet

Ferrets have quick metabolism rates and short digestive systems that lack the caecum meant to digest plant matter. They are obligate carnivores that thrive on whole small prey in which they eat the skin, fur, feathers, organs, meat and bones.

They mainly hunt hedgehogs, rabbits, possums or rodents in the wild. In captivity, ferrets can be fed on prepared dry foods almost entirely comprising of meat. Pet ferrets eat about 50-70 g of meat daily. Most pet owners opt for high-grade cat food though there is specialized ferret feed available.

Polecats are also carnivores that thrive on snakes, rodents, frogs and birds in the wild. They slowly stalk the prey before seizing and killing it with one swift bite to its neck. Polecats can be fed on the same pet feeds as ferrets. Both animals should be fed 2-4 times daily to keep up with their high metabolic rates.


Polecats and ferrets live in underground burrows in the wild and only come above ground to explore for food. As such, all housing for the two animals in captivity should ideally have two floors. The bottom compartment is best kept dark and filled with hay for sleeping.

The top compartment should be large and airy with lots of play items. The best play options include makeshift hammocks, and tree branches for climbing. Ferrets often dedicate one section of their cages for toilets. It is best to have a litter tray that is easy to clean to keep their cages clean and the animals happy.

Which Makes the Best Pet?

Both the ferret and polecat make excellent pets. Even so, most people prefer ferrets because they are social and will happily live with other ferrets.

Even so, if you are looking for one pet, then a polecat is your best choice because it can happily thrive on its own. Moreover, it might not need as much human interaction. This makes it ideal for pet owners leading busy lifestyles.

Wrap Up

With the guidelines above, you know what to expect from a ferret and polecat. When choosing one of them for your pet, be conversant with any restrictions in your jurisdiction.

For instance, ferret imports to Australia are banned while the animals are considered illegal as pets in Hawaii, the District of Columbia and California. Other states restrict the selling, neutering and vaccinating of ferrets.

avatar Noah
I’m Noah, chief editor at VIVO Pets and the proud owner of a playful, energetic husky (Max). I’ve been a volunteer at Rex Animal Rescue for over 2 years. I love learning and writing about different animals that can be kept as pets. read more...

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