Looking at furry, slinky ferret, it is easy to see its resemblance to the internet-famous otter. Both popular among animal-lovers, these two carnivorous mammals have lots in common about their appearance, so much so that an otter looks like an aquatic version of a ferret.
Yes, they are related but not as closely as one might think. The ferret and otter both share the same scientific family, mustelidae, but think of them as separate branches within the same family tree.
They both belong to the same scientific family. For a brief refresher on scientific families, all animals are classified by kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, and sometimes subfamily, genus, and species.
The ferret and otter both belong to the same family, mustelidae, and otters belong to a subfamily under mustelidae called lutrinae, which is specific to the otter and its variant species.
The mustelidae family, or commonly referred to as the weasel family, has a number of members that may not seem related. Ferrets have a varied family tree that includes weasels, badgers, martens, minks, wolverines, stoats (or ermines), and European polecats. The modern domesticated ferret is believed to be descended from the European polecat. When they are placed side-by-side, it’s not hard to see the family resemblance.
One of the greatest differences between ferrets and otters is their environment. Ferrets spend their entire lives on land, whereas otters are semi-aquatic, meaning that they spend the majority of their lives in water. Since their main food source is marine-sourced, it makes sense that they are categorized as semi-aquatic mammals.
Another difference between the ferret and the otter is domestication. Ferrets are believed to have been domesticated for 2,500 years, while the otter has never had any such domestication at all.
Ferrets were domesticated by humans and used as hunting companions. Since ferrets are exclusively carnivores, they are adept at hunting. Humans used them (and still use them today, though not as common) to hunt rabbits and rodents since the ferret’s long, skinny body was perfect for getting into dens and burrows to chase out any unwanted animals.
The otter, on the other hand, has never had such domestic reshaping. In fact, it is completely illegal to own an otter in the United States, and the few places that may have exotic animal exceptions usually only allow for the Asian small-clawed otter–one of the smallest species of otter. The closest that an otter has come to domestication is in Bangladesh, where fishermen trained otters to chase and help capture fish in nets.
Ferrets are most closely related to the other members of the mustelidae family, such as weasels, stoats, wolverines, and badgers. While it may seem that they might have a long-distance relationship to rodents due to size and appearance, ferrets are actually closer in relation to dogs and cats since they are all classified under the order carnivora rather than rodentia.
- Kingdom- Animalia
- Phylum- Chordata
- Class- Mammalia
- Order- Carnivora
- Family- Mustelidae
- Subfamily- Lutrinae
Otters and Ferrets share the same classification up until family, and the family branches into an otter subfamily all its own.
Otters share the weasel family, so they all have a big family gene pool they share with badgers, wolverines, stoats, weasels, and of course, ferrets. As mentioned before, since they are carnivores, they are more closely related to cats and dogs rather than, say, bears or rats.
In terms of pets, ferrets and otters are not created equally. Thousands of years of domestication has changed the temperament of the ferret, just as it has for the dog or the cat. This domestication has made the ferret suitable to keep as a pet.
In contrast, the otter has had no domestication whatsoever. While the cute videos on the internet make any soft-hearted animal lover want one as a pet, it is not a good idea. Even domesticated animals need the time, attention, and proper care that some people may not be prepared for.
Ferrets became popular as a pet in the United States in the 1980s and 1990s. Since then they have only grown in popularity.
Unlike dogs and cats, ferrets do not come in varied breeds, but rather are classified by their coat colors and markings. They have varied beautiful and delicious names such as cinnamon, chocolate, blaze, pewter, dalmatian, champagne, sable, and albino. These colors, coupled with various markings and patterns, make every ferret unique.
Given proper nutrition and ample play, interaction, and exercise, the average lifespan of a domesticated ferret is between 7-10 years.
To summarize, ferrets and otters are branches of the same weasel family tree, along with badgers, minks, wolverines, and stoats. They are not to be confused as to being related to rodents, but are more closely related to dogs and cats. Ferrets and otters look like they could be distant cousins, and that’s because they are!