In the 1990s, ferrets became a popular pet alternative to dogs and cats. The inaccurate notion was that they are easier to care for with few to no additional nutritional requirements. This idea couldn't be further from reality. Ferrets require a specific diet incorporating appropriate amounts of several nutrients including taurine -- an amino acid not stored by the ferret's body, thus requiring daily replacement.
What Is Taurine?
Taurine is a beta amino acid that is generally found in the bile and muscle tissues of mammals, including ferrets. It is found in the highest concentrations in excitable tissues, such as those found in the heart, retina, central nervous system and skeletal muscles. It is synthesized in the liver from the dietary sulfur-containing amino acids named methionine and cysteine.
What Does It Do?
Taurine works as a neurotransmitter aid to facilitate communication between the brain and muscles. It supports the proper development of neurons used by the central nervous system. It also pairs well with retinol -- the animal form of vitamin A that supports the photoreceptor cells in the retina. In the heart, it helps to strengthen the pumping muscle and prevent enlarged heart disease.
Many animals are able to substitute another amino acid -- glycine -- to handle taurine's work in the body systems when taurine is not present in sufficient numbers. However, current veterinary research indicates that ferrets -- like cats -- cannot make this biological adjustment. It's why most cat foods have additional taurine as an ingredient. It's also why ferret experts suggest feeding taurine-enriched cat food to ferrets.
Minimize Other Health Risks
Ferrets are particularly prone to three diseases -- adrenal disease, insulinoma and lymphoma. According to Pets Adviser, significant inbreeding at farms producing ferrets for retail pet stores and its accompanying genetic weakness is to blame for not only this tendency, but also an actual increase in ferret disease. Maintaining appropriate vitamin levels -- taurine included -- in a ferret's diet can help reduce your ferret's disease risk.
Amy M. Armstrong is a former community news journalist with more than 15 years of experience writing features and covering school districts. She has received more than 40 awards for excellence in journalism and photography. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in communications from Washington State University. Armstrong grew up on a dairy farm in western Washington and wrote agricultural news while in college.