Ferrets were domesticated from European polecats (Mustela putorius) approximately 2,500 years ago. However, we still do not know where they were first domesticated. Ferrets originally had the same markings as their wild ancestor, with a cream belly and face, dark back and legs, and a distinctive dark mask over the eyes. Like their polecat ancestor they have elongated bodies, short legs and sharp teeth.
Unlike their solitary wild ancestor, ferrets enjoy living in social groups. They need plenty of space and toys as they are curious animals. They can be kept in an outdoor hutch, but the sleeping quarters must be kept warm in winter and cool in summer. Ferrets are known for their smell, marking their territory with a distinctive scent. However, they are very clean animals and will select a single area as a toilet. As long as this is cleaned regularly they will only use that spot.
Ferrets, like their wild ancestor, eat small animals like mice, frogs and insects. It is likely that the ferret was introduced to the UK to hunt rabbits as they are used this way throughout Europe and North Africa. In captivity ferrets are often fed a dry ferret mix, or cat food, rather than meat.
European polecats are classified as Least Concern by the IUCN. Historically they were widely hunted for sport and fur, though this has reduced in recent years. A reduction in the availability of prey species across their range has reduced population. There are several possible additional threats, such as competition with invasive American mink and hybridisation with ferrets.