Ferrets -- distant cousins of weasels -- belong to the same scientific family, Mustelidae, but their appearance, habits and appetites are different. While both animals are swift, have long, tubular bodies, their coloring, size at maturity and hunting habits are not the same. Ferrets have been domesticated for over 2,500 years while weasels remain untamed.
The basic differences between weasels and ferrets:
- Weasels belong to one of 10 species in the Mustelidae family, while ferrets are part of a subspecies within the polecat branch of the Mustelid family.
- Ferrets have longer bodies and a shorter tail compared to weasels.
- Ferrets have been domesticated for 2,500 years, but weasels are wild pests.
- Weasels have brown or red-brown upper coats and white underbellies, but ferrets have black-brown coats mixed with white.
- Ferrets are nocturnal and crepuscular creatures, while weasels are not.
Ferrets and weasels don't have the same color coats. Ferrets and weasels have short legs, thick fur, and anal scent glands they use to signal potential mates and mark territory, but that's where their similarities end. Weasels typically have a brown or red-brown overcoat and white underbelly, while the ferret has a black-brown coat mixed with cream or white, or may have a mixed-colored coat.
Tail and Body Length
Ferrets are bigger than weasels. Ferret tails have a short, 5-inch tail, but the weasel can have a tail that is almost as long as its body. Weasels range in size from 5 to 18 inches, with a tail up to 13-inches long. The ferret, nose-to-tail can grow as large as 24 inches long. Both creatures can squeeze their bodies through small openings, and both are fast.
Food and Appetite
Weasels and ferrets only eat meat. They have keen sight and smell to help them hunt. Bloodthirsty weasels pursue smaller creatures such as rats, mice, rabbits, birds and snakes. They also seem at times to kill merely for sport, as the animal remains from their kills are frequently untouched. Wild ferrets also hunt small prey and often drink the blood of their kill. Domesticated ferrets eat suitable pet food, insects and small mice or chicks sold as pet food.
Nature and Habits
Only the ferret has been domesticated as a Mustelid capable of exterminating small pests like snakes and mice. As social creatures, Ferrets offer companionship and can be trained to use a litter box and do tricks. A weasel's temperament is dangerous to other living creatures, including humans. They are unsocial, only interacting during mating season. It is illegal to own a weasel as a household pet in most states.
Endangered and Depleted Species
The United States Fish and Wildlife Service lists certain ferret and weasel species as endangered, threatened or species of concern. The black-footed ferret population fell dangerously low in the 1980s. A small community was captured in Montana and put into a captive breeding facility. Although still considered endangered, offspring from the community have been introduced into the wild since 1991, and the population continues to grow. The Florida long-tailed weasel is listed as a species of concern, which means the population is becoming noticeably depleted.