Can ferrets swim? Can you teach them to swim? Do they like swimming? Let’s find out!
When you think of some of the places where you like to go to rest and relax, do images of the beach or the pool spring to mind?
In fact, swimming is ranked in the top four of the most popular sports in North America, whether the reasons are for fitness, fun or simply cooling down on hot summer days.
As it turns out, we are not the only species who often takes to the water for some refreshing rest and relaxation.
Dogs do it, birds do it, sometimes even cats do it… but in a surprising twist, many pet ferrets like to swim too!
Evidence of ferrets swimming has existed since the 1800’s. When biological researchers documented wild relatives of the domesticated ferret taking to the water to hunt, escape predation and change their location.
These wild ferret relatives seemed at ease with water and often learned how to swim at an early age by watching their mother swim.
However, as with any new activity, exposure must always pre-date enjoyment.
In other words, if you are like many pet ferret owners today, perhaps you are simply not aware that your fur baby might enjoy taking a dip now and again. And so you don’t know to offer your pet ferret the opportunity to swim!
In this article, we will take a good, close look at the swimming ferret.
We will also answer questions like “can ferrets swim?,” “do ferrets like to swim?” and, if yes, we will discuss how to make swimming both a fun AND a safe activity for your pet ferret!
Can ferrets swim?
The short answer to this question is “yes.”
Ferrets can indeed swim, in the sense that they have the physical and biological ability to do so.
In a wild environment, a relative of today’s domesticated ferrets may not necessarily swim for pure enjoyment, but may readily take to the water out of necessity. Say, to escape a predator or to catch a tasty bit of prey.
In this situation, as mentioned here earlier, young ferrets would learn about swimming primarily from watching their mothers swim.
They would want to imitate her and would feel safe to follow her example of entering the water, paddling and experiencing the results.
But your pet ferret likely won’t have a ferret swim instructor to teach her to swim through a proper ferret swimming lesson!
Here, the earlier you introduce your ferret to water, the better. Young ferrets, like young of any species, tend to be more open to these types of new experiences.
Do ferrets swim?
So we know ferrets can swim technically speaking, but do they do so voluntarily?
To date, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to the question “do ferrets swim?”
If you have the desire to offer your pet ferret the opportunity to swim at any age, the good news is that there is ample scientific evidence to indicate that your ferret may be open to the activity.
But this is likely going to be due less to an innate preference for swimming and more to the two thousand prior years’ worth of domestication your pet ferret has gone through to get to where she is today.
This extended process of domestication has given the modern domestic ferret a basic set of social and cognitive skills. Something researchers call the “syndrome hypothesis of domestication”. This appears to be very similar to that of domestic dog’s.
In research studies, domestic ferrets scored comparatively well with domesticated dogs in traits like holding eye contact with their owners, taking food treats offered by their owners and being able to follow pointing-based commands from their owners.
What this means when it comes to introducing new activities like swimming is that your pet ferret is likely to be able to learn from your example just as he would from his own biological mom!
So if you decide you would like to teach your ferret how to swim, you can probably tap into your ferret’s learned domesticated skillset of responding socially and cognitively to humans to achieve this goal.
How to teach your ferret to swim
So does the answer to can ferrets swim might depend upon your ability to help them?
What might it look like if you set out to teach your pet ferret how to swim?
First of all, you will want to offer your ferret the chance to swim, but also not make your ferret feel like swimming is her only option (i.e. don’t start out by placing your ferret in a filled bathtub, since it will be hard for her to avoid the water or get back to dry land if she is initially fearful).
So find a shallow but roomy bathing bowl or basin that your ferret can easily climb into and out of.
A clean cat litter box can be a great first swim container.
Make eye contact and smile and verbally encourage your ferret in an excited voice to take part in the new activity. Using your fingers, point to the bathing bowl. Then hold on to the bathing bowl with your pointing finger for a bit.
Then encourage your ferret to give it a try. If she still seems shy or hesitant, you might need to offer a favorite food treat.
Or place a favorite toy nearer the bathing bowl to encourage your ferret to come closer.
In terms of instruction, you can move your hands in the water to give her an idea of what you would like her to do. You can also try placing an object that floats inside the bathing bowl as a demonstration and a way to pique your ferret’s natural curiosity.
Take it slowly
By trying these things a few times, even a shy ferret is more likely to finally get curious enough to give this new “swimming activity” a try! For most ferrets, their natural drive to explore will probably make the new activity nearly irresistible.
You can also try lifting your pet ferret gently into the water and letting her float while being supported by you in your hands. This will give your ferret an experience of water that feels much safer than just getting deposited into the pool and having to figure out on the spot what to do next!
For baby ferrets in particular, this is a good way to introduce your little one to the water even if she is not coordinated or energetic enough yet to swim well on her own.
This YouTube video offers a great example of one possible set-up for teaching your pet ferret to swim.
In this video, you can see that the pool is a shallow plastic kiddie pool. The swim session is supervised, and the ferret is able to easily climb up and out of the pool at any point.
This is a really good way to offer the experience of swimming to your pet ferret without inadvertently creating a memory of fear instead of fun.
Ferret swimming safety
Here are some vital swimming tips to help your pet ferret swim happily and safely every time.
ALWAYS supervise your ferret during swim time
Can ferrets swim alone? No! At first it can even be best to keep your ferret on a harness and leash until you see how he reacts.
Some ferrets may get so excited about having new turf to explore they won’t even see the pool and will tumble right in!
Let your ferret explore the area where the pool is located before swimming
You can walk your ferret on the leash and let him sniff the area and check out the lay of the land first before entering the water. If your ferret has a particularly impetuous temperament, you may even want to hold onto the leash during the first swim for safety reasons.
Don’t try to take your ferret to a public swimming spot
Can ferrets swim in public?
Ferrets, like most pets, are typically not permitted at public swimming and bathing sites for sanitation reasons. As well, the extra attention may be too much for your ferret to cope with.
If at all possible, find a non-chlorinated swimming spot
Can ferrets swim in chlorinated water? No!
Chlorine can be very irritating for ferrets’ sensitive eyes, skin and tissues. Also, always offer your ferret water to drink before and after the swim session so he isn’t tempted to drink out of the pool.
Choose your swim times with care
Avoid any times of direct sunlight. Not only will the temperature likely be too warm for comfort, but the sunbeams may burn your ferret’s eyes as the sun reflects back from the water! Dawn and dusk are the best times to take your ferret swimming.
Check the temperature first
If the outside temperature or water temperature is approaching 80°F (27°C), this is TOO HOT for your ferret’s safety, so wait until it cools down before swimming. Similarly, if the outside temperature or water temperature is approaching 50°F (10°C), this is TOO COLD and you should wait until it warms up again before swimming.
Ferrets Get Tired Easily When Swimming
Can ferrets swim for a long time? No! Ferrets have to work very hard to swim.
While your ferret may appear to be a “natural” at swimming, in truth ferrets have to paddle quite hard not to sink under the water. This issue is compounded in a domestic ferret since often they will only use either their front paws or their rear paws to paddle. So your ferret can get tired very quickly while swimming and may even drown out of exhaustion if left unsupervised in the water.
Keep the water source shallow with an easy exit point
Shallow water will allow your ferret to rest his feet on the bottom of the pool and just enjoy the water without having to paddle furiously.
Watch your ferret to make sure he can exit the pool on his own
Even if there is an obvious (to you) exit point to the pool, your ferret may not notice it. Or he may not be able to figure out how to use it. Or he may not be strong enough to pull himself up and out of the water. If your ferret has been swimming for more than a minute or two, go ahead and lift him out and set him down.
You may want to towel dry him too. Then watch to see what he does next – if he heads back towards the water, he may want another dip. Otherwise, swim time is probably over.
Some ferrets just don’t like swimming
If your ferret seems to panic and sink or thrash about in the water, he probably isn’t having a good time. If this happens more than once, chances are good your ferret just doesn’t really like swimming and it is probably best to find other activities he will enjoy instead of trying to force him to like swimming.
Ferret swim for safety reasons
There is another reason beyond simple enjoyment to teach your ferret how to swim.
Helping your ferret to feel calm and confident in and around water can also be a very good idea for her own safety. There may come a day when she inadvertently falls into a body of water and you don’t ever want that to be her first water experience.
By giving your pet ferret the experience of swimming within the safety net of your supervision and care, she will know what to do if she is ever suddenly confronted with the need to swim for safety or survival reasons.
Caring for your ferret after a swim
If you are a new ferret owner, you may still be learning the ropes of caring for your new fur baby. One thing to know about pet ferrets is this – they typically don’t do anything by half measures.
What this means is, when it is time to rest, they rest. When the food arrives they eat. And when they are ready to play, they really PLAY.
Your ferret will expend a lot of energy during a swim session, even if it only lasts for a few minutes. Since ferrets are not “opportunistic feeders” (i.e. a ferret will only eat as much as she thinks she will need calorie-wise for the next hour or two), your ferret doesn’t have any extra energy reserves to draw from.
So when she is done swimming, she will definitely be more tired than the average cat or dog – or homo sapiens, for that matter. Here, it is a good idea to take the initiative and towel-dry her right away so she can dry out quickly. Otherwise, she may really deplete her energy drying herself after she swims.
You will also want to offer her some fresh water, nourishing food and rest time right after she swims. Chances are good she will welcome all three offerings!
Do ferrets like to swim
Some ferrets seem to love to swim. Whether this is because swimming is truly fun for your ferret, or it is because your ferret wants to be with you and you are in the pool, or it is because you are encouraging your ferret to swim and she wants to please you, you may never know for sure.
But then other ferrets, as we mentioned here earlier, just don’t seem keen on water sports. If your ferret is an adult and a rescue, it may be due to some event in her past that you don’t even know about. Or it may just be that swimming isn’t her thing.
The important thing is to watch your ferret closely during the first swim session to see how she responds. If she responds positively initially, however, do not assume that means she likes swimming. ALWAYS supervise her and watch her closely during every swim session.
Be sure you can stay with her at all times during the swim session – if you leave even for a moment, her life could be in danger if she panics or just gets suddenly tired and needs your help to get out of the pool.
If your ferret does seem to enjoy swimming and this continues on multiple occasions, you will need to keep in mind that she has now achieved some level of comfort in and around water.
Ferrets’ Happiness Around Water
A ferret being comfortable around water can be both a good thing and a not-so-good thing.
For example, if you have any water features in or around your home that tend to remain filled with water. Fountains, bird baths, kiddie pools, aquarium fish tanks, even toilet bowls, et al. You will now need to take appropriate safety precautions when your ferret is awake and out of her enclosure.
While it is not common, there is always the chance your ferret could happen upon an open toilet bowl, aquarium tank or fountain. Or even a filled bathtub and jump right in. Not realizing the water is too hot, too cold or too deep with no point of exit. As in, it is often quite a bit easier to get into the water than to get out of the water!
As well, if you are not aware your ferret is swimming, she could easily get tired and drown while waiting for you to rescue her. So once your pet ferret knows how to swim and clearly enjoys it, make sure all relevant water bodies are emptied after use. Or have locked-down tops/lids, mesh netting or some other childproof-type safety feature that prevents your ferret from gaining access while you are not watching.
Teaching your pet ferret how to swim can be an important gift on several levels – safety, enrichment, exercise and fun.
By doing what you need to do to make sure swimming is both fun and safe for your ferret. You will be offering a great new activity that can enrich your ferret’s life and also create wonderful memories for you to treasure.
Further Reading and Resources
- Hallett Taylor, L., “25 Great Reasons to Swim,” The Spruce, 2017.
- Lydekker, R., “The Royal Natural History: Mammals,” Harvard University, 1894.
- Goldman, J.G., “Ferrets: Man’s Other Best Friend,” Scientific American, 2012.
- French, K, “Going swimming? Cheeky ferret gives leisure centre staff a shock when he turns up unannounced in hilarious video,” Daily Mail U.K., 2017.
- Fish. Frank E., et al, “Energetics of swimming by the ferret: Consequences of forelimb paddling,” Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology Part A: Molecular & Integrative Physiology, 2008.
- Matulich, Erica, Ph. D. Are Ferrets Cool At The Pool?