The polecat is often mistaken for other species like the ferret or weasel. These creatures come from the same family. So what’s the difference between them? Let’s have a look at polecat facts to know more about them.
1. They look like stoats and minks
The polecat is a member of the weasel family, which encompasses stoats, weasels, minks, and otters. These creatures and ferrets share a close relationship, often leading domestic polecats to be referred to as ferrets. However, these two species exhibit distinct dissimilarities, which we will explore further.
The adults of this species usually have a size of approximately 66 to 75 centimeters, which includes their tail. They weigh between 0.7 and 1.7 kilograms, with males being larger than females.
There are 5 distinct types of polecats: the European polecat (black, common, or forest polecat) (M. putorius), marbled polecat (Vormela peregusna), steppe polecat (M. eversmannii), striped polecat (Ictonyx striatus), and American polecat (also known as the black-footed ferret) ( M. nigripes). They all share a similar physical appearance characterized by long tails, rounded ears, and short legs.
They have a distinctive coat consisting of dark brown guard hairs with a shimmering purple hue, which conceals a buff-colored underfur. Some species have pale yellow fur across their bodies. Due to their special fur, the animals are occasionally called “Fitches”. Their faces and ears are dark, adorned with noticeable white markings.
Among the 5 species, striped and marbled polecats come in distinctive colors. The marbled species look like a tiger with yellow fur and black spots, whereas the striped species bear white stripes along their bodies, similar to skunks. The European species could be the special one with the ability to change their coat color to a gray shade in winter. This helps them blend into their surroundings easily.
2. Polecats vs ferrets vs weasels
Belong to the same family, polecats, ferrets, and weasels are often mistaken for each other due to their similar look. However, you can still differentiate them.
|Size||Longer and heavier (3 pounds)||Shorter and lighter (1 pound)||Similar in size as the polecat|
|Color||– A mix of white, grey, black, and brown|
– Dark fur on the face with white marks
|– Cream-colored underside and dark brown color on the back|
– No white marks on the face
|– White, cream, tan, and red|
– No white marks on the face
|Location||North America, Africa, and Europe||Asia, Europe, and North America||Europe, Africa, Asia, and households all over the world|
|Behavior||Solitary animal||Solitary animal||Sociable, can engage with social systems involving both humans and other ferrets|
|Keep as good pets||No||No||Yes|
Striped polecat vs skunk: People often mistake these two animals because of their similar look with a slender body and the black-and-white striped coat. Moreover, they both emit a potent scent from their anal glands. That’s why sometimes a skunk is called a polecat. So, what are the differences between them?
|Lifespan||5 years||7 years|
Polecats can be found in different regions around the world, with each species occupying specific locations. The forest polecat is primarily found in Western Eurasia and Northern Africa. On the other hand, the striped species inhabits Africa, excluding the Congo basin. The American species live in central North America, while the steppe species resides in Central Asia and Eastern Europe.
These creatures can live in different habitats, from lowland wooded regions, farm structures, and marshlands to dry stone walls and riverbanks. They frequently choose stream banks or the shelter of tree roots to establish their dens.
Polecats are predominantly carnivorous creatures that primarily consume snakes, rabbits, frogs, water voles, insects, chickens, trout, ground-nesting birds, and eels. Despite having a diverse array of prey, they show a preference for rabbits, especially during the summer months. They are known to skillfully hunt rabbits even within their burrows.
In winter, they mainly eat common rats, typically inhabiting areas abundant in rat populations. As spring arrives, their diet shifts to include a significant portion of birds and frogs, as these creatures congregate for mating purposes.
To hunt prey, they use their highly developed sense of smell to track down prey, irrespective of the time of day. Males primarily focus on capturing larger animals, while smaller prey is reserved for females.
While adults face a limited number of natural predators, they are still hunted by humans for their fur. On the other hand, their newborns and juveniles are often attacked by wild dogs and foxes.
Polecats are solitary creatures, they only come together in the breeding season. These nocturnal animals are most active during the night when they engage in hunting. They can swim and climb pretty well and can run at a speed of about 15mph (~24 kph).
To communicate, particularly in the face of danger, they rely on various sounds and noises, such as high-pitched screams, hisses, and screeches.
Besides using sounds, they also release a strong stinky smell as a defensive mechanism when they feel threatened or when they mark their territory. This odor is produced by the scent glands located at the base of the animals’ tails. The spray of the striped polecat can cause a momentary loss of vision and a strong, painful burning sensation.
Polecats are not dangerous to humans. However, when it comes to protecting their young, they can become aggressive. Any predator that tries to harm the offspring is likely to face a highly defensive mother, putting themselves in danger of getting injured.
Polecats are predominantly polygynous, engaging in multiple mating partnerships. Their mating season usually extends from February to August. During this time, male polecats, known as hobs, experience a noticeable transformation as their testicular size gradually enlarges to its peak, indicating the onset of the mating phase.
Throughout this period, the males compete for the attention of the females, referred to as jills. Upon successfully attracting a female, the male captures her by the neck and brings her into his territory.
After mating, the females go through a gestation period of about 40 – 42 days. They give birth to litters of 5 to 10 kits during the early summer months of May or early June. These newborns enter the world blind and without hair, but they swiftly grow white, silky fur.
They totally depend on their mother for nourishment, care, and protection. Once they reach the age of 4 weeks, they start to wean off and eat meat. Within a span of two to three months, the young undergo significant growth and mature into fully developed polecats. At this point, they attain their adult size and gain the ability to survive on their own in their natural habitat. In the wild, the lifespan of polecats is approximately 5 years.
7. Conservation Status
According to the IUCN Red List, the European, striped, and steppe polecats are listed as Least Concerned species. However, they still face some threats. The striped species are often killed by farmers or by vehicles. When one individual is struck by a car, the others tend to remain at the scene instead of fleeing. As a result, many of them fall victim to vehicular accidents.
The dangers that the European species face include unintentional entrapment and the risk of being secondarily poisoned by rodenticides. The threats to steppe species are habitat change, decline in their primary food sources, and relentless pursuit of their valuable fur.
On the other hand, the American species are categorized as Endangered. Their population is decreasing, mainly because of habitat loss. The marbled polecats are Threatened species due to habitat loss, decrease in main food, rodenticide poison, and hunting for fur.