Although ferrets and weasels belong to the same scientific family, Mustelidae, their appearance, habits and appetites are different. While both are swift, thinly built creatures, their coloring, adult size and hunting habits vary. Ferrets have been domesticated, while weasels remain untamed.
The long-tailed weasel has a white underbelly, brown coat and black-tipped tail. The female is about 13 inches long, and the male is about 16 inches long. The short-tailed weasel is smaller and has a lighter brown coat and yellowed underbelly. The ferret, which is more slender, is yellowish-white, pink-eyed and about 14 inches long. The black-footed ferret, native to the Western United States, is pale brown with black feet, a black tipped tail and a black bar or mask across the face.
Weasels are bloodthirsty hunters with keen sight and smell. They 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 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 that are sold as pet food.
Habits and Disposition
Both weasels and ferrets hunt small prey, but only the ferret has been domesticated as a pet capable of companionship and exterminating small pests like snakes and mice. Ferrets can be found at most pet stores and can be trained to use a litter box and do tricks. Ferrets are social animals and sleep up to 18 hours a day. 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.
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.