Written by Nicklas Iversen | Last edited 27. August 2021

Most of us, perhaps, think of the polecat as a pet in its domesticated form, the ferret, but we actually have wild, native polecats here in Norway too. On this page, you can get to know this cute mustelid better!


Polecat physiology

The polecat has a long, slim body with short legs. It’s head is small, but has quite large ears sticking up from it. If you measure a polecat without including the tail, a female will typically be around 45 centimetres long, while the males grow to around 52 centimetres long. To this can be added 12 – 14 centimetres of tail, making a total length of just over 60 centimetres.  

The polecat’s fur is very short and looks slightly unkempt. This is because the underfur is so thick that it forces the guard hairs to stand out from the body. This underfur is also slightly paler than the rest of the body, which makes it a good way of telling the polecat apart from its close relative the mink. If you take a closer look at the pictures on this page, you will see quite clearly that the outermost hairs are much darker than the underfur.  

Polecats have summer and winter coats. In summer, the underfur is yellowish over most of the body and slightly greyer on the front of the shoulders and the front feet, while the back feet and tail are greyish. The guard hairs are dark brown. In winter, on the other hand, the underfur is almost completely white closest to the body, while the outer half is pigmented in dark colours. This makes the winter coat paler than the summer coat even though it is still a definite brown.  

The polecat has grey and white face markings, with a dark eye mask and a white area around the snout. This white area is also a good way of distinguishing polecats from similar mustelids.  

Polecats weigh anything from around 400 grams in the case of females to 800 – 900 grams in the case of males. So they do not weigh very much considering they are well over half a metre long.  

Poto: Peter Trimming med CC BY 2.0-lisens

How does the polecat live?

Polecats are solitary animals, meaning they live alone. The males will have a large territory of up to 100 hectares, which they will defend against intruders, especially other males. Despite defending its territory, the polecat is not as territorial as other mustelids. It marks its territory by secreting scent from its glands, as well as by urinating on the perimeter in the same way as wolves and dogs.  

This scent is extremely foul-smelling, which is why the scientific name of the polecat is Mustela putorius. ‘Putorius’ comes from the Latin word ‘putor’, which can be translated as ‘rotten smell’. If you suddenly smell a really nasty odour in the woods, it may be that you are entering a polecat’s territory!  

Polecats mainly live in wooded areas and prefer dense scrub where it is difficult for other animals or humans to move about. They like to have their territory in the vicinity of a watercourse, but will not actively enter the water to hunt like their mink and otter relatives.  

Some polecats build intricate dens with lots of different rooms, while others prefer simpler accommodation under roots or in rock heaps. They like to stockpile food in their den in summer and autumn to live off when fresh food is harder to come by in the winter.  

One special feature of the polecat’s larder is that it contains live frogs. When hunting in the summer, the polecat bites the frogs at the base of the skull. This is not fatal, but paralyses them, and the polecat takes them back to it’s den to add to its larder. They may stay there for a time before the polecat decides to eat them.  


Photo: hehaden med CC BY-NC 2.0-lisens.  

What does the polecat eat?

The polecat mainly eats what it gets hold of in the way of small animals, including small rodents such as mice, as well as birds, bird eggs, frogs, toads and fish. It may also eat some berries and fruit if it is hungry, although this does not form an important part of it’s diet.  

It mainly hunts at night, as it has excellent night vision, a major asset when it comes to catching prey. It hunts both at ground level and a little way up in the trees.  

It is also worth mentioning that not all that much research has been done into what the polecat actually eats here in Norway. Therefore, although we know something about what it can eat, researchers do not have a very good indication of the things it actually prefers to eat. So there remains a lot to find out when it comes to polecats!  

Photo: Peter Trimming med CC BY 2.0-lisens

Where are polecats found?

In Norway, we only have polecats in a small area in the far southeast of the country. They have been observed regularly in wooded areas in the vicinity of Fredrikstad, Moss, Askim, Sarpsborg and Halden, but have also popped up around Oslo and Lillestrøm. In the last ten years a single polecat have been observed as far west as Bergen, and another as far south as Arendal

It should also be mentioned that polecats are kept as pets in Norway, and there are both polecats that have escaped from captivity and their descendants in the wild. Until recently, some fur farms also kept polecats, but these have now been closed down. So, if you encounter a polecat in Central or North Norway, there is a good chance that it is an escaped pet and not part of an established population.  

Polecats are also found in most of Europe and in Russia west of the Urals.  

The preferred habitat of the polecat is probably mixed and deciduous woodland. We know too little about the Norwegian polecat population to say with any certainty that this applies to Norway, but it is what it prefers in other parts of Europe at any rate.  

Photo: hehaden med CC BY-NC 2.0-lisens

Polecat reproduction

Polecats mate from March to May and are pregnant for around 42 days from fertilisation. During the breeding season, the males patrol their territory and the surrounding area in order to fertilise as many females as possible, and will also be extra aggressive towards other males in the immediate area during this period. There can be fights between males living near each other, but serious injuries are rare.  

When the female polecat gives birth to between four and six young, known as kits, in the late spring or early summer, they weigh barely 10 grams and are no more than 5 – 6 centimetres long. Nor do they have fully developed eyes or ears at birth, so they are completely dependent on their mother to look after them for the first few weeks. They see nothing of their father, as he disappears as soon as he has mated with the female.  

After three weeks, the kits are large enough to open their eyes and start to eat more than just their mother’s milk. They develop quickly after this, and barely five weeks later they have reached full body size and are ready to leave their mother. Some kits leave their mother a total of two months after birth, but some also stay for another couple of months until they feel ready to leave the den.  

When they leave their mother, they will try to find their own territoy have to go out into the world to find their own territory, which can be a difficult challenge. Polecats do not travel very far from where they grew up, which is partly why they are still only found in quite small areas of Norway.

Foto: Peter Trimming med CC BY 2.0-lisens


Challenges facing polecats

The polecat is protected and has ‘vulnerable’ status on the Norwegian Red List. They are in this category because there is probably a small total population of polecats in Norway, with fewer than 1,000 breeding animals in the country.  

None of the large predators is really very interested in the polecat, but red foxes may manage to catch some polecats in certain cases. Some polecats also die as a result of being run over, and some end up in mink or pine marten traps.  

Photo: Steffen Finder med CC BY-SA 3.0-lisens

Learn more about the polecat 

There is a lot of good information on the polecat available and we can recommend the following sources for further reading:  

We have also used them as sources for our information page on the polecat.  

This article has been written by Nicklas Iversen, a former nature guide, and updated by Fredrik Lehn-Pedersen, a nature guide for Visitor Centre Carnivore Flå.   

Photo: Malene Thyssen med CC BY-SA 3.0-lisens