Ferrets Vs Squirrels: All Differences Explained

squirrel vs ferret differences

Ferrets and squirrels live in many the same places and aren’t too different in size if you see them out the corner of your eye. However, you can learn a few tricks to take a closer look at them – and hopefully figure out who is based on when and where you see them. And what they are doing.

The 5 Main Differences Between Squirrels And Ferrets

1: Squirrels have soft, fluffy tails they hold upright – ferrets hold them out behind

2: Squirrels are mainly herbivores – but ferrets are avid carnivores

3: Ferrets live along and under the ground – squirrels love being up a tree

4: Squirrels are mainly out during the day – ferrets come out at night

5: Ferrets sleep in underground lairs – squirrels prefer the treetops

As you can see, if you watch closely for a short while and see a bit more about what they are doing – it shouldn’t be too hard to find out who’s who. Here are a few more details on each of the above to help you out:

1. Squirrels And Ferrets Have Different Tails

Tree squirrels have the most adorable tails – light and fluffy and held aloft. Their tails are just a central spine with all the long hairs sticking out (like a bottle brush). They use their dainty tails to balance the trees, scare off enemies, attract mates, and protect them from the sun. Very versatile indeed. However, if they get them wet in the rain, they go flat, which is why squirrels only come out in dry weather.

Ferrets tend to have a more solid tail that they keep straight behind them when they move. Their tail can be very bendy and is used for communication and balance underground – but isn’t quite the sunshade! Their tails are very muscular too and coated in short hairs.

2. Squirrels Eat Different Foods To Ferrets

Squirrels are mostly herbivores – focussing on nuts when in the season but eating all sorts of other vegetation, including shoots, roots, fruits, and fungi. Like all rodents, they have ever-growing front teeth that rub against each other, forming a razor-sharp, very strong bite. These teeth can gnaw through nutshells very easily – and your roof gables.

On the other hand, Ferrets are obligate carnivores (like cats), which means that they have to eat meat as the majority of their diet; otherwise, they can’t survive. They will feed on all sorts of small animals, including rodents, amphibians, and birds (including their eggs), eating all parts of the animal – including the bones and feathers. Black-Footed Ferrets feed almost exclusively on prairie dogs (a type of squirrel) they hunt at night.

3. Habitats: Arboreal Versus Fossorial

Ferrets – like most of their family (the mustelids: including badgers, weasels, and mink) live on or under the ground – known biologically as fossorial. They can easily fit their long slender bodies into all sorts of gaps and crevices. Favoring tunnels, dens, and under roots of trees, these critters snuffle around, finding all the food they need – as well as a safe, cozy den to sleep in.

Squirrels, as we know, love the trees – which is also known as arboreal. Although they are often found on the ground looking for fallen food – including acorns – they are most suited to the treetops – and will always scoot up a tree trunk when scared or avoid too much human interest. They also have the amazing skill of hiding around the back of a tree while climbing up it – so they aren’t seen while escaping. They can also turn their back feet around to face the other way – making climbing down a tree much easier.

4. They Are Active At Different Times

These two rarely meet in the wild as the squirrel is mainly diurnal and out during the day – and the ferret is mainly nocturnal and out hunting at night (creeping up on sleeping prairie dogs). There will be a small amount of overlap due to disturbance or bad weather – but these instances are few and far between. 

Domesticated ferrets can be awake all through the day as they have been raised in a non-natural environment – so if they escape out into the wild – you may see them at any time of day. Pet ferrets are the domesticated version of the European Polecat, so they are the same species and can hybridize. The black-footed ferret is a different species but close enough to hybridize (something nobody wants to happen). 

5. Best Nest: Underground, Overground?

As mentioned above – squirrels and ferrets live completely different lifestyles. Squirrels feel safest high up in the branches and have evolved to be very agile so they can take advantage of even the thinnest branches. Using their dextrous feet for grasping and their long tail for balance, they can leap from branch to branch and tree to tree without any issues.

On the other hand, Ferrets have evolved for killing and digging and are best on all fours. They have also evolved long, thin, strong bodies so they can travel down the tunnels and underground pathways of their favorite prey. They have to fit down all the small holes that rodents and birds might use to stay safe underground – otherwise, they will go hungry. Most mustelids have adopted this slender body shape for underground hunting – and humans have taken advantage of this to trap farmland pests.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can Squirrels Mate with Ferrets?

No, they can’t. Squirrels are rodents (sciuromorphs) – related to chipmunks and marmots; ferrets are carnivores (mustelids) – related to otters, weasels, and wolverines. They couldn’t be more different biologically. Even if they ever met each other one starry night – you really wouldn’t want to be the squirrel!

Who Would Win A Fight?

Almost certainly, the ferret would win – being a very powerful carnivore and around twice the weight of a standard tree squirrel. However, it would be a very unusual fight – as the tree squirrels are usually ever-alert and wouldn’t be easily caught out before scurrying up a nearby tree. They do have a very damaging bite after all – and can hang on with their back feet simultaneously! Ferrets can’t climb trees, and so if the fight took place up in the branches, the squirrel could well be the winner.

Do Squirrels And Ferrets Carry Rabies?

Yes. All mammals can carry rabies as it is a mammal-specific virus. Rabies is passed from one animal to another through infected saliva – and can pass easily between species. An infected bat or raccoon, for example, could pass it on to an unsuspecting squirrel or ferret. It would be doubtful for a squirrel to pass rabies on to a human as they don’t have a high viral load from it, but a ferret could easily pass on rabies to a human through a bite or scratch.

Can Ferrets Be Trained?

Ferrets have been trained for centuries – mainly to hunt rabbits and other pests on farmland. They are the domesticated form of the polecat, which has been selected for centuries to make it the most amenable hunting machine. Ferrets can also be trained for other work – or just for fun things! People work with ferrets and dogs to clear underground chambers swiftly and efficiently.

Can A Squirrel Drop Its Tail?

Answer: Yes, sadly. Like quite a few animals, squirrels in real danger can shed their tail to allow them to escape. It can hurt them, and it can get infected if they are unlucky, but usually, the squirrel gets to live another day with this strategy.

Could A Ferret Kill A Dog?

Answer: Unlikely – but yes. Ferrets can be as heavy as a tiny dog – like a young or small Chihuahua. Although they wouldn’t normally kill and eat another carnivore – if they were cornered, scared, or diseased (see rabies question above), they could well inflict a fatal wound on a dog or cat. They would certainly be happy to kill rabbits and chickens if they had the chance, though.

Are Squirrels Bigger Than Ferrets?

Answer: No – squirrels are much smaller than ferrets. The largest squirrel in North America is the Fox Squirrel (Sciurus niger) that can reach a maximum of 800g (1.7lb) top weight – most average squirrels are around the 500g (1lb) mark. Conversely, the Black-footed Ferret averages at around 1kg (2.2lb) as an adult, and the domesticated ferret can reach double that at up to 2kg (4.4lb).

Can You Have A Squirrel As A Pet?

Answer: Not if it is a native squirrels species as they are all usually protected by law – but there are several species of a squirrel such as flying squirrels, chipmunks, prairie dogs, and Prevost squirrels that you can keep if you want – although Fox, Grey, and Reds are all off the list.