The history of the ferret’s domestication is uncertain, like that of most other domestic animals, but it is likely that ferrets have been domesticated and used in various types of pest control for at least 2,500 years.
According to phylogenetic studies, the ferret was domesticated from the European polecat (Mustela putorius), and likely descends from a North African lineage of the species. Analysis of mitochondrial DNA suggests that ferrets were domesticated around 2,500 years ago, although what appear to be ferret remains have been dated to 1500 BC. It has been claimed that the ancient Egyptians were the first to domesticate ferrets, but as no mummified remains of a ferret have yet been found, or any hieroglyph of a ferret, and no polecat now occurs wild in the area, that idea seems unlikely.
A ferret-like animal was mentioned by Greek authors Aristophanes in 450 BC and Aristotle in 350 BC, but he references are unclear because an exact description of the animal is missing.
The Romans are the first to have been recorded as using ferrets for hunting, and there is evidence that in 6 BC Caesar Augustus sent ferrets or mongooses (named “viverrae” by Plinius) to the Balearic Islands to control the rabbit population. When the Romans came to Britain, they may have brought the humble ferret, but not the rabbit, so ferrets had to wait around for a bit before coming to their own again.
These early references to ferrets have given rise to the hypothesis that the ferret originated in the Mediterranean area, but there is still insufficient evidence to call this a fact.
1066 saw the Normans arrive in Britain, and with them came manor houses which established rabbit warrens, and the ferret’s instinctive skills for rabbiting would have been quickly utilised, although the first references to ferrets in England until 1223 when a ferreter was listed as part of the Royal Court.
By the 1200’s ferrets had spread to Germany and there are stories that Genghis Khan may have used ferrets in Afghanistan in 1221.
In England in the late 1200’s to the late 1300’s someone needed an annual income of forty shillings to own a ferret and it was recorded that ferrets were owned by high-ranking church officials. King Richard II issued a decree in 1384 allowing one of his clerks to hunt rabbits with ferrets and again in 1390 prohibiting the use of ferrets on Sunday.
In 1551, Gerner in Zurich described the first albino ferret as “the colour of wool stained with urine”. From here on, there is increasing evidence in Medieval European literature of ferrets being used to hunt rabbits. Ferrets were also used for fur production, although this seemed less popular until the 20th century. In addition, probably by at least the eighteen century ferrets were being used on ships to help control the rodents that were so prevalent. It is also highly likely that a few humans historically also enjoyed the ferret’s lively personality and kept these little critters purely for their companionship.
Today, ferrets are still used for hunting rabbits in some parts of the world, and are also kept only as pets.