One long slim carnivore isn’t always much like another. Although related, minks and ferrets have plenty of significant differences, starting with the fact that ferrets are domesticated and mink, even captive ones, aren’t really.
Both mink and ferrets belong to the family Mustlidae, a group that also includes weasels, badgers, wolverines, stoats and otters. This is pretty much where the relationship ends. Ferrets are most probably a domesticated form of the European polecat (Mustela putorius), in the way that dogs are a domesticated form of the gray wolf. The American mink (Neovison vison) is not at all closely related to ferrets, although the critically endangered European mink (Mustela luteola), a completely different animal, is related closely enough to the polecat to hybridize on occasion.
Both European and American mink live semi-aquatic lives in and beside rivers and lakes. The ancestors of ferrets, polecats can swim but generally prefer not to, leading terrestrial lives. The respective diets reflect the habitat, with polecats mainly going for small terrestrial mammals, such as mice, voles and hamsters. Mink also eat these creatures on occasion, but their diet primarily consists of fish, amphibians, small water mammals and crustaceans.
Ferrets were first domesticated more than 2,500 years ago in Europe. Their primary role was as a working animal, to help people catch rabbits and other small mammals. Now, they have become a widespread pet; in fact, they are the third most popular pet in North America, according to the Ferret Information Shelter & Trust Society.
The American mink’s story is sadder. The species was, and still is, bred in captivity to satisfy the fur trade. Although minks found in captivity do show some minor genetic differences from their wild predecessors, they cannot be described as a domestic animal and certainly not as a pet. They were never bred for temperament -- just for fur color and quality -- and large-scale mink farming only started in the 1920s. For all intents and purposes, the mink is still a wild animal. When they get a chance to escape, they quickly revert to wild habits, with the lucky ones establishing thriving populations in new habitats, something that isn’t such good news for local ecosystems.
Ferrets make time-consuming but enormously entertaining pets, something like a cross between dogs, cats and rats. They need pretty much everything these other pets do put together, including training, litter trays, a meat-based diet, a large cage and a lot of attention. If you can make the commitment, ferrets could be a lovely addition to a household.
Minks do not make good pets. Even if you managed to adopt a pair of fur-farm rescues, they would require the sort of care and housing you'd give a zoo animal, including a very large outdoor enclosure with a pool. A zoo or wildlife park would have the facilities for mink, but it's unlikely an individual could cater adequately to their needs.
- Animal Diversity Web: Mustelidae
- Animal Diversity Web: Mustela putorius furo -- Domestic Ferret
- International Union for the Conservation of Nature: Neovison vison
- International Union for the Conservation of Nature: Mustela lutreola
- International Union for the Conservation of Nature: Mustela putorius
- Humane Society of the United States: Ferrets
- Ferret Information Shelter & Trust Society: Ferrets as Pets
Judith Willson has been writing since 2009, specializing in environmental and scientific topics. She has written content for school websites and worked for a Glasgow newspaper. Willson has a Master of Arts in English from the University of Aberdeen, Scotland.