Ferrets are some of the most energetic and fun creatures. They love to move about, explore, and play with anyone or anything that lends itself to their game.
They are also very fun to observe, both at home and in the wild. But have you ever stopped to look into their eyes? Those who have sometimes notice a peculiar glow.
If you’ve not been lucky enough to witness this, perhaps you’ve at least heard that ferrets can see in the dark. Ferrets are not nocturnal, so do they really have that ability?
The answer is a bit more nuanced than you may consider at first glance.
Do ferrets do better in the dark?
Not necessarily, but they do have some things going for them.
One of the advantages of ferrets have has to do with their natural sleeping schedules. If you have observed an untrained or unaccustomed ferret, you’d have noticed that those furballs break their 16-hour sleep only around dusk and dawn.
This is also when their wild cousins, the polecats, wake up and hunt. To be most effective at those times, ferrets’ ancestors have developed the ability to see in light much lower than what’s comfortable for us humans. This trait is still present in our domesticated friends today.
However, this is far from night vision. Actually, a ferret’s sight has many issues. One of them is that they have difficulty seeing both at night and in bright light. Ferrets thrive in twilight!
They haven’t been found to be exceptionally perceptive at night. Ferrets lack most of the features nocturnal animals possess. Even when they navigate in dark holes, they rarely rely on their sight. Sound and smell are their primary guides.
Despite this, ferrets do have one interesting evolutionary trait.
It is what we have called, “tapetum lucidum.” Literally translated from Latin, it means “bright tapestry” or “shining layer/coverlet.”
What is the shining layer?
Tapetum lucidum refers to a tissue in a ferret’s eye that is right behind the retina.
This coverlet reflects visible light through the retina into the cones and rods of the eye. The image the brain perceives is brighter though slightly more blurred.
Using their shining layers, ferrets are able to amplify any present light. Shapes and movements in twilight are much more visible even if some detail has to be sacrificed.
As you may expect, if the light is too low, there is not much that the shining layer can reflect. That’s why ferrets don’t see well at night. On the other hand, there is strong light that maybe even worse than the pitch dark.
Because of their crepuscular feature, ferrets also can’t get accustomed to sudden bright light. They need a lot more time than us humans.
Here you can see how ferrets’ eyes work with light.
It doesn’t show perfectly, but you can see that as the receptor comes closer to the light, the brightness is amplified. If this is to occur without warning or gradual change, a ferret’s vision will become very poor.
In the video, we can also observe how as the light gets stronger, the image becomes blurry, whereas, when it’s in the other end of the room, almost nothing can be seen. Ferrets see best in between the two extremes.
What else aids our crepuscular friends in the dark is the shape of their pupils. They have a horizontally slit pupil, which helps them better distinguish movement and shapes.
The glow in a ferret’s eye
The tapetum lucidum is present in nocturnal and deep-sea animals as well. Animals such as horses, deer, cats, and dogs also have this feature. You may have noticed that those animals’ eyes glow in the dark, sometimes in different colors.
The case is the same with ferrets. The shining layer that reflects light is what makes their eyes glow. You can observe this when they are in low light or when they are photographed with the flash turned on.
What’s interesting is that, depending on the ferret’s eye color, the chemical made-up of the layer, or even the age of the animal, their eyes may glow in different colors. Even the two eyes on a single ferret may not match in shade.
What’s unfortunate (though entirely natural) is that even though ferrets may have colorful glowing eyes, they don’t see all colors. They see in reds and blue primarily.
This is due to the fact that colors aren’t important for low-light vision. The two that are most prominent in those circumstances are red and blue, and so the world through a ferret’s eye might seem a bit colorless.
Just because ferret can see in low light doesn’t mean they live in darkness.
Pet ferrets tend to adjust to their owner’s sleeping and play schedules. After a while, your dookers may be in bed during dawn and, instead, wake up with you for their anticipated playtime.
Just because nature has made them hunt at twilight, do NOT keep your ferrets in constant darkness. They shouldn’t always stay in the dusk, not in the wild and not in your home.
Ferrets operate following the day-night cycle. They are happiest when they get good sunlight; even their coats are affected by the light they are exposed to.
If you can, keep them in a room with lots of natural light; open the blinds at day and shut them at night. Also, if at all possible, avoid artificial lighting at night.
Some breeders use artificial lighting to prolong the days during winter and make ferrets think it’s time to breed. Know that this is not a healthy practice at all. Ferret bread this way can develop health issues, including blindness.
The dookers that suffer the most from this though, are the albinos. They are much more susceptible to seeing issues, so be careful with bright light. Lighting might be important to think about if you have an albino.
Of course, not all albinos have such issues, and any other ferret could have inherited a seeing disability as well. Just keep the possibility in mind and take care of your fuzzlets.
To wrap things up
No, ferrets can’t see in the dark clearly, but do a lot better than us in lower light. The way nature has achieved this is quite interesting. Ferrets are able neither to take more light into their pupils like owls nor to process more light through additional rods in the eyes.
They use the light that they have access to, reflecting it into their own retina, to make the world around them appear brighter.
Ferrets are not considered an exotic animal for no reason. They are some of the fascinating creatures when you dig deep into their oddities.
There is a lot more to learn about ferrets, so here is something else you might find intriguing: Why do ferrets smell?