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Ferrets require both Macro and Micro nutrients present in their diets to keep them fit and healthy. Firstly, ferrets require a large protein content (Macro nutrient), a biological value of 30% for non-breeding adults and slightly higher at 35% for pregnant/lactating jills (females). Proteins are made up of amino acids, ferrets require the ten essential amino acids that its body cannot produce plus one extra (Taurine) from its diet. The high levels of protein required is gained from the diet by mostly consuming meat (Animal protein), making ferrets carnivores. Other means of protein for ferrets are eggs and milk. The need for protein is constant for any animal, it is required for: tissue building, growth, muscle contraction (movement), flexibility in (ligaments, tendons and cartilage), enzymes and some hormones, to name a few. Also, as a last resort, protein can function as an energy source. A deficiency in protein can result in interference with any of the major systems protein controls, for example: growth and muscle contraction, others may include poor coat condition and impaired immunity. An excess of protein will result in it being turned and stored as fat, which can lead to obesity. Finally, the wrong type of protein being present in a ferret's diet, for example, plant proteins in high concentration can consequence in a diagnosis of Urolithiasis (Kidney Stones).
In addition to protein, fats play a large role in a ferret's diet, with a minimum biological value requirement of 18% for non-breeding adults and a substantial increase for lactating jills at 30%. Fats are among oils and waxes under the category of lipids, complex organic compounds which can be separated into two categories, single lipids and conjugated lipids. Single lipids are chains of fatty acids and esters of fatty acids with glycerol, and conjugated lipids are lipids combined with other products such as lipo-proteins. Ferrets require three main essential fatty acids (EFA's) in their diet, these are: Linoleic acid, Linolenic acid and Arachidonic acid. These omega-6 fatty acids are present in meat, most quality pet foods and treats or can be obtained from rich omega-6 foods such as cold-water fish oils and some seeds of plants such as: sunflower, pumpkin and soya beans. In ferrets and animals alike, the functions of lipids are an essential part of its wellbeing. They provide a major source of energy, storage (more than twice as much energy from the same mass as carbohydrates), formation of cell walls, protection of internal organs, insulation, waterproofing and absorption of fat-soluble vitamins. An excess of lipids will result in obesity, other effects can include, predisposition to pancreatitis & hyperlipidemia and even reproductive failure. Although excess fat is a more common problem, deficiencies can also cause problems such as, poor coat and skin condition and reproductive failure.
Even though proteins and lipids play a major role in a ferret's health, the need for carbohydrates is negligible due to the ferret's diet in which very little carbohydrates are consumed. However, beta-bonded polysaccharides forms of carbohydrates, also known as 'dietary fibre' in the diet ensures proper metabolic balance and feeding efficacies.
The most important nutrient and second primary requirement after oxygen for any animal is water. The mammalian body consists of around 70% water with newborns between 75-80% and mature animals around 50-60% due to a natural increase in body fat. Many animals may survive many weeks' even months without food but only a matter of 1 or 2 days without water. 90% of a ferrets daily intake of water would be obtained from the fluids and food consumed along with 10% made up of metabolic water produced in the body by oxidation of proteins, carbohydrates and fats. Water acts as the basis of many chemical reactions that take place in the body, for example, synthesis of new cell materials and the detoxification of wastes. Furthermore, water provides the carrying medium for blood, hydrates bones and muscles, growth and aids in the breaking down of other nutrients (Hydrolysis & Condensation). The daily water requirement in healthy animals in millilitres is approximately equal to its daily energy intake in kilocalories.
Along with all the macro nutrients (Proteins, Lipids, Carbohydrates and Water) ferrets and all animals require small quantities of other nutrients in the form of vitamins & minerals (micro nutrients) to maintain growth, health and survival.
Whereas plants can produce the vitamins they need, animals generally cannot (except vitamin D), therefore require them as an essential part of the diet. There are 13 major vitamins: A, B complexes and C, D, E and K which take part in many metabolic reactions. Vitamins do not provide any sort of energy but mainly act as catalysts; they are part of the enzyme system that is required to release energy. Vitamins also act as antioxidants that flush the body of toxins. Vitamins are classified by solubility with either, fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K) which are absorbed in the gut along with fat and can be stored in the body, or water-soluble vitamins (B and C complex), these are not stored in the body and are excreted in the water based urine. Although vitamins are generally consumed in very small quantities, over-supplementation of fat-soluble vitamins can result in hypervitaminosis and toxicity. On the other hand, a deficiency of water-soluble vitamins can occur at times of excessive water loss, during belts of diarrhoea for example.
In addition to vitamins, minerals are essential for correct development and functioning of the ferret's body. Minerals can be split into two groups: Macro minerals and micro minerals. Macro minerals include: Calcium, Chloride, Magnesium, Phosphorus, Potassium and Sodium. These help the ferret develop strong bones and muscles and control the absorption and release of fluids throughout its body. Some sources of these macro minerals are: Calcium (Milk and eggs), Chloride (Common salt), Magnesium (Meat), Phosphorus (Milk, eggs, meat and vegetables), Potassium (Meat, fruit and vegetables), Sodium (Salt, milk, eggs, meat and vegetables). Micro minerals include: Copper, Iodine, Iron, Manganese and Zinc. Even though these micro minerals are required in such small quantities, they are just as important in maintaining health as any other nutrient. They aid in, maintaining osmotic pressure, nerve cell transition, regulate processes, fluid balance, enzyme activator, hormones, immunity and antioxidants. The intestines will absorb more or less of these mineral depending on three factors, tissue health, food form and body requirement. Some sources of these micro minerals include: Copper (Liver, meat and fish), Iodine (Fish and shellfish), Iron (Liver, meat and green vegetables), Manganese (Liver and kidneys) and zinc (Liver, fish and shellfish).http://img4.realsimple.com/images/0901/salt-shaker_300.jpg