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End the war on ferrets

"I want to break free."
"I want to break free."
Maurico Duenas / AFP via Getty Images

It's time to end bans on pet ferrets.

It may surprise you to learn, but these cute little critters are currently illegal in several cities and states around the country: At least New York City, the District of ColumbiaCalifornia, and Hawaii ban people from owning them as pets.

The rationale behind these bans is, at the very least, outdated — if it ever made sense at all. Proponents of the bans argue that ferrets are vicious animals that can hurt children and wildlife. But the available evidence tells a different, more nuanced story.

Ferrets are no more likely to bite than other animals

A ferret in a tube.

Hector Amezcua/Sacramento Bee/MCT via Getty Images

When California expanded its ban on ferrets in 1987, state officials cited concerns that ferrets might bite and attack humans, particularly children and infants.

The California Research Bureau's own analysis, however, found that ferrets "have not been demonstrated to pose an unusual risk of bites." The bureau, in its 1997 analysis of the available data, estimated that dogs are at least 200 times more likely to bite than ferrets.

Scruffing a ferret.

Scruffing a ferret.

That's not meant to imply that ferrets are completely risk-free. As the California Research Bureau noted, ferrets "like all domestic animals are capable of inflicting injury, have done so in documented cases, and should never be left alone with infants or small children."

The good news is ferrets can be trained not to bite. This is done through a method called scruffing: A ferret is picked up and held by the back of its neck until it yawns, which is a sign of submission. Depending on the ferret and its age, this can require a lot of patience and persistence — but it pays off in the long term.

When they do attack, ferrets are much less deadly than other pets

Ferret jump fail.

Marek Riha

Could this ferret really hurt you?

Even when ferrets do attack, they're much less dangerous than, say, a dog would be in the same situation.

This is a matter of basic physiology. Ferrets are generally about 1 to 2 feet long and weigh between two and four pounds. The American pit bull terrier, as one example of a bigger dog, is about 17 to 21 inches tall and weighs between 25 and 35 pounds.

This is actually why so much attention goes to ferrets attacking toddlers — they simply can't pose a real risk to a bigger target. While it's absolutely concerning and abhorrent that a ferret managed to chew off seven of a toddler's fingers, it's even more worrying that dogs regularly attack and even kill people.

That's not to say that dogs, including mischaracterized breeds like pit bulls, should be banned. As the California Research Bureau pointed out, the issue comes down to responsible pet ownership. But at the very least, an irresponsible ferret owner is much less likely to get someone killed than an irresponsible dog owner.

Ferrets don't pose a bigger risk for rabies

A man walks his ferret.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

When California expanded its ferret ban two decades ago, state officials claimed there was no vaccine for rabies. This was true in 1987, but there's been a rabies vaccine for ferrets since 1992.

Besides, as veterinarian and ferret expert Judith Bell explained, ferrets are much less likely to catch rabies in the first place compared with dogs and especially cats. For one, ferrets' tough, thick skin shields them from rabies infections, which require infected saliva to contaminate an open wound. Ferrets are also usually kept indoors, where the risk of a rabies transmission is practically nonexistent.

Ferrets probably won't escape and form feral colonies

A ferret in the wild.

BSIP/UIG via Getty Images

Another concern perpetuated by California officials is that ferrets could potentially escape and ravage the state's ecosystems by hunting down wildlife.

The California Research Bureau, however, found this claim to be unsubstantiated. For starters, domesticated ferrets can't survive long in the wild: The experts interviewed by the bureau estimated that a domesticated ferret could survive for three days to a few weeks if left in the wild. The big difference between the US and places where ferrets are actually feral, such as New Zealand, is that the US ecosystem has various predators that would hunt and kill ferrets.

Still, the bureau did caution that ferrets could do some damage to animals if they were allowed to escape and survived for a few weeks. Then again, that goes for all animals: Dogs and cats are known to kill their fair share of wildlife, as well.

At the same time, the ban could be making this concern worse. If, along with legalization, regulations were put in place that required licensed breeders and owners to neuter and spay ferrets, the risk of ferrets becoming feral and creating colonies could be significantly reduced. Those are much better circumstances than people smuggling untreated ferrets to the state with little oversight.

Ferrets are adorable and, like other pets, could improve people's health

Pets can be great for a person's health. They can help deal with depression, assist against allergies, and even reduce the risk of heart disease and high blood pressure, according to WebMD.

In other words, ferrets are a public health issue — just not in the way the standing bans would lead you to believe. So why not let everyone adopt the pet of his or her choice, especially when the desired pet is a relatively safe animal? In the end, it could help fight heart disease.

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