Why Are Ferrets Illegal In California? (+ Case For Legalization)

Ferrets make great pets — most ferret owners will tell you that. They’re adorable, energetic, curious, and have such large personalities that make you fall in love with them.

However, not everybody can enjoy a ferret in their life. There are several places where ferrets are downright illegal, including the entire state of California.

Ferrets have been illegal in California for almost 100 years… but why is that? Are they horrible, dangerous pets, or are they simply the victims of outdated legislation and misconceptions?

Why Are Ferrets Illegal In California?

Ferrets are illegal in California because of a 1933 law imposed by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Specifically, they were outlawed because of the fact that they were an “exotic animal” and could pose a threat to native species, agriculture, or public health and safety.

Ferrets weren’t singled-out in this legislation. Instead, they were grouped in with many different animals including crows, aardvarks, bats, platypuses, crayfish, and hundreds of other species.

Essentially, they’re illegal because there’s a fear that if they’re released or escape, they could damage California’s ecosystem. This is a legitimate threat with some species, but not ferrets.

Back in 1933 when ferrets were more obscure pets, nobody batted an eye at this legislation. However, today, when people know that ferrets pose no threat, they’re constantly challenging this decision.

Since that initial ruling, CDFW has also stated that ferrets can carry rabies, remain a threat to agri-business, and are prone to biting owners and children.

California’s “Modern” Response

California hasn’t been silent on their decision over the years, and neither have ferret lovers.

You can read all about the changes and rebuttals that have been made over the years here. Essentially, there’s been a back-and-forth of California wanting proof and activist groups providing that proof.

Or, rather, trying to provide that proof.

On April 6 of 2000, the California Fish and Game Commission stated that an environmental document would need to be prepared that assess the environmental impact of the passing of this legislation.

However, the Commission ordered the Californians for Ferret Legalization, the project proponents, to fund the preparation of this document. Basically saying “If you don’t pay for this massive study, we won’t consider this.”

Further steps have been taken towards legalizing ferrets, but nothing substantial has happened so far.

What Other States Are Ferrets Illegal In?

California isn’t the only place where ferrets are illegal. However, they’re one of only two states that ban them, along with two cities.

In addition to California, ferrets are illegal in:

  • Hawaii – Due to the fact that they’re potential carriers of rabies.
  • Washington DC – But ownership waivers are granted on a case-by-case basis.
  • New York City – All five boroughs ban ferrets because they’re “known for their unpredictable behavior, and they are prone to vicious, unprovoked attacks on humans”. Surprisingly, this ban was put in place in 1999.

States With Restrictions In Place

While ferrets are entirely banned in some places, many other states have varying levels of restrictions on the animal put in place.

If you live in any of the following states, it’s recommended that you research ferret legislation before looking to purchase or adopt one.

  • Delaware
  • Illinois
  • Indiana
  • Minnesota
  • Missouri
  • Nevada
  • New Jersey
  • Ohio
  • Rhode Island
  • South Carolina
  • Texas
  • Utah
  • Virginia
  • Wisconsin

As stated, restrictions in these states all vary. Some are reasonable, and some are along the lines of a full-on ban. These restrictions include:

  • State-wide permit
  • Permit needed to bring a ferret into the state
  • Illegal in certain towns
  • Illegal in households with small children
  • Illegal selling
  • Required rabies vaccinations

Consequences Of Ferret Ownership

While ferrets are illegal in California, and we can’t suggest owning one within the state, there’s quite a lack of repercussions when it comes to illegal ownership.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife has stated themselves that they don’t have the resources to properly address these issues. They’re not actively putting work into prevention of ferret ownership or passing of legislation.

However, if you’re directly reported to authorities, you may face several consequences, including:

  • Civil penalty of not less than five hundred dollars ($500) nor more than ten thousand dollars ($10,000) for each violation
  • Criminal charge including a fine up to $1,000
  • Misdemeanor punishable by imprisonment in the county jail for up to six months
  • Fees for repossessions/rehabilitation of the seized ferrets

While the chances that you would actually be criminally prosecuted are incredibly low, repossession of illegal ferrets will almost always happen, and these fees can get pricey.

Unfortunately, there’s no way to avoid owning a ferret illegally. Ownership permits are only granted to research facilities and zoos — never for domestic pet ownership.

Why Should Ferrets Be Legalized?

This is a bit of a soapbox opinion piece mixed with a grouping of hard factual evidence.

First, a rebuttal of points that the state of California made against ferrets:

  1. Ferrets can carry rabies – So can cats, dogs, and other domestic animals. A universally-accepted rabies vaccine exists and can simply be mandated.
  2. Ferrets threaten agri-business – When questioned individually, none of the 50 departments of agriculture in California at the time would assert that the domestic ferret is a threat.
  3. Ferrets are prone to biting – Using CDC statistics, the Journal of American Veterinary Medical Association showed that domestic dogs are far more likely to bite and cause injury than domestic ferrets.
  4. Ferrets can thrive in nature and overwhelm native species – Domesticated ferrets have lost most of their survival abilities that would allow them to live outdoors. Most released ferrets wouldn’t live more than a few days.

Now, other points for ferret legalization that owners have made:

  1. In all other states where ferrets are legal, there have been no damaging events involving domestic ferrets, whether it be killing wildlife or significantly harming humans.
  2. Compared to other very common animals, like cats and dogs, ferrets are virtually never seen in the wild, and no agencies report that ferrets cause environmental harm.
  3. Virtually all ferrets come from large breeders (Marshall Farms) or licensed private breeders that have strict regulations in place for vaccinations, spaying/neutering, and proper care.