Why Some Cat/Kitten Foods are Ferret SuitableThe following is an opinion. It is written as an argument, and is not unbiased. I also acknowledge that dry pet food is not ideal for ferrets when compared to natural diets. For the sake of this argument, "suitable" means "suitable in terms of dry kibble". And "cat food" means "cat/kitten food".
"Cat/kitten food is not suitable for ferrets"
I've heard this argument repeated time and time again. While I strongly disagree and want to help people understand why I think some cat food is better than most ferret food, I would prefer to not argue with anyone directly.
Instead I've decided to write out my thoughts here to provide a resource for the counterargument. Hopefully I'll at least be able to help some people think a bit deeper about the topic, and give them more information to use make their own decision. I'll be arguing:
"Some kinds of high quality cat/kitten food are highly suitable for ferrets"
Myth: ferret foods are made differently than cat foods, taking the ferret's shorter digestive tract into accountAlmost all dry ferret foods, cat foods, and dog foods are all made through a process called extrusion. If you have $50,000 to spare, you can buy your own machinery here.
The TL;DR-ish version of the process is:
Things that are likely to improve a food's digestibility for ferrets:
A "cat food" that follows this criteria is going to be better digested than a "ferret food" that doesn't. Or the same as a "ferret food" that does. Poop size is good evidence for this.
Myth: ferret foods use different ingredients than cat foodsYou can obviously tell just by reading a couple of labels that this isn't true; most cat and ferret foods use the same staple ingredients like chicken/turkey/eggs/fish and potato/rice/peas for the bulk of their food.
The really low-end ones use things like poultry/poultry by-products/animal fat and corn/corn gluten meal/wheat/brewers rice instead.
I wanted to show a couple of high-profile ferret foods as examples of just how similar cat and ferret foods can be. My first choice is Zupreem Grain-Free Ferret Diet which is quite possibly based off of Taste of the Wild Rocky Mountain Feline Formula.
As another example, Innova EVO (which some consider to be one of the best brands) puts the EXACT same food into their ferret food bags as their cat food bags. The formulas aren't similar; they're 100% identical. I have e-mailed the company and asked just to be sure. They're honest about it.
Myth: ferret foods are precisely balanced for ferrets. Cat foods are made for cats so they don't have the right vitamin/mineral balance.This is the biggest can of worms I have to open. Sorry, this answer is going to be long.
The TL;DR is that we don't know a lot of technical detail about ferrets' nutritional needs. Sure we know from their relatives/teeth/digestive tract that they ought to be eating meat, but we don't know precise little details like how much vitamin D, manganese, or sodium they need. We don't even have proof that they need taurine. No one publishes research on ferret nutrition, so we have no way of knowing exactly how a ferret's ideal dietary balance differs from a cat's.
Just in case that was too long or too technical to follow, I drew out the processes that are used to decide how to make properly balanced foods for cats and ferrets.
*very rarely, companies will use a "feeding trial" instead to prove that their food is balanced.
Here's a link to AAFCO's Nutrient Profile for Cats
I'm not saying that companies don't spend time or research developing their ferret foods. I'm just saying that the science behind balancing ferret foods is a bit shaky, so I find claims that ferret foods are better balanced than cat foods pretty outrageous.
Truth: SOME cat foods are NOT suitable for ferretsThere are a lot of low end cat foods out there. Grocery or department store brands are not appropriate for ferrets. In fact, I would go as far as saying that at least 90% of cat foods are not appropriate for ferrets. But that's no reason to dismiss the 10% that are.
Myth: People aren't smart enough to learn the difference between good cat food and bad cat food. We should just tell them that cat food is unsafe for ferrets.I've noticed a trend with many of those who say that cat foods shouldn't be fed to ferrets. They seem to think that if people are told that cat food is okay for ferrets, they're going to run out to the nearest grocery store and buy some sort of super-low-end cat chow for their ferrets.
While it's true that there are plenty of cat foods out there that aren't suitable for ferrets, I think we should give people more respect than that. If you're going to try to educate people, please take the time to do it properly. That way you can save them from both bad cat foods and bad ferret foods. Which brings me to my next point...
Truth: Some FERRET foods are NOT suitable for ferretsThis is the main reason why I advocate feeding cat foods. There are so many terrible ferret foods out there. Some have 3 of the first 4 ingredients listed as vegetables. Some have no animal protein sources aside from by-products. Some have chunks of fruits or veggies mixed in that could cause a blockage in a ferret's digestive tract.
You shouldn't assume that a food's going to be properly formulated for ferrets just because there's a ferret picture on the bag. You need to read the label and find out what it's made of before you can decide that.
Truth: Good ferret foods are usually harder to find than good cat foods.The facts are simple. There are more cat owners out there than ferret owners, and the market reflects this. At the time I'm writing this, Petsmart's website lists 11 ferret foods and 173 cat foods.
Most stores have a very limited variety of ferret foods, and that makes finding good ones very hard. With the ridiculously large variety of cat foods out there on the other hand, there are plenty of options that are great for ferrets.
For some people, the only options available in their location are:
a)feed a cat food
b)feed a very, very low-end ferret food
In that situation I definitely don't want them to go with a terrible food just because they heard somewhere that cat foods are bad for ferrets.