The Strange Reason Female Ferrets Die If They Don't Mate

At certain points, it can feel like one of life's most motivating directives is to find a mate, and that's true for humans as much as it's true for all sorts of wild animals. After all, there's no other way for a species to survive. There are certain instances in nature, though, when the act of mating will literally kill a creature, as National Geographic points out. It's called semelparity — "suicidal reproduction." In the notorious case of one insect, the male praying mantis, it can also sometimes mean getting killed and eaten by their date, as Nat Geo elsewhere writes. According to West Davis Veterinary Clinic, there's one relatively common household pet, the ferret, for whom mating is a literal do-or-die situation, at least for the female of the species.

Since ferrets can have up to eight babies (called kits) in a litter, for fear of being overrun with new houseguests, ferret pet owners will likely want to keep their female pet ferrets, called jills, off ferret-Tinder (via Reproduction in Domestic Animals, posted at the National Library of Medicine). But neither do female ferret pet owners want their pets to suffer and die — and from the sounds of things, female ferret death from lack of mating seems like a terrible way to go, per West Davis Vet clinic. Luckily, there are simple steps a responsible pet owner can take to not only prevent their home from becoming a ferret breeding center, but to also help your pet female ferret live her best life, free and single.

When ferrets feel amorous, they emit a musky scent

According to Merck Veterinary Manual, both male and female ferrets reach sexual maturity at around four to six month in age. Like a human applying perfume or cologne before a night at the club, when the time comes, both male and female ferrets (but more so males, according to Friendly Ferret) emit a pungent smell to attract a mate. Though overall ferrets are difficult to breed, once in heat both male and female ferrets will remain in heat until they've found a mate (via West Davis Vet Clinic).

This means that female ferrets remain in estrus until they mate, according to Today I Found Out. Also notable, the simple act of mating with a male ferret, sometimes called a hob or hobbet, usually is not enough (per another post at Friendly Ferret). Once the female has mated, if she is not impregnated, she will go into heat again.

As The Countryman's Weekly goes on to explain, like other mammals, when a female ferret enters heat her body produces a hormone called estrogen, which spurs ovulation. If no mating occurs, then her body continues to pump out estrogen, causing progressive depression of bone marrow and finally a condition called pancytopenia, caused by aplastic anemia, according to West Davis Vet Clinic. If that happens, your jill ferret's blood will have decreased levels of white and red blood cells and platelets, and after too long, that will kill her. Luckily, though, there are other ways besides impregnation to save her life.

The female sex hormone in ferrets leads to pancytopenia

To not only keep the odor down, but to also help your female ferret survive life on her own, it's particularly important to get your female ferret spayed so she won't stink, nor will she go into heat. When not in heat, she won't emit the hormone that puts her in estrus. If not spayed, and if no partner is found, the same hormone contributes to her death. 

Numerous experts recommend that you get your female ferrets — and males, while you're at it — spayed or neutered early on, before they enter heat. That way, they'll never know the difference. If it's too late for that to happen, though, you can also get your ferret what's called (in the U.K., at least) a "jill jab" from your vet — an injection to stop estrogen production in the female ferret's body (via The Countryman's Weekly). Another option is to mate your jill with a vasectomized hob. As opposed to a neutered male, a vasectomized hob might still play the field. This can spur a so-called phantom pregnancy in her system and stop the estrogen production which will kill her.