European Polecat

European Polecat

Black polecat, Forest polecat, Fitch, Western polecat, Common polecat

Mustela putorius
Population size
Life Span
6-14 years
kg lbs 
cm inch 

The European polecat (Mustela putorius) is a species of mustelid native to western Eurasia and North Africa. It originated in Western Europe during the Middle Pleistocene, with its closest living relatives being the Steppe polecat, the Black-footed ferret and the European mink. The European polecat is the sole ancestor of the ferret, which was domesticated more than 2,000 years ago for the purpose of hunting vermin.


The winter fur of the European polecat is brownish black or blackish brown, the intensity of which is determined by the colour of the long guard hairs. On the back and flanks, the dark tone is brightened by bright whitish-yellowish, sometimes yellowish-greyish underfur which shows through. The lightly coloured underfur is not equally visible on different parts of the body. On the back and hindquarters, the underfur is almost completely covered by dark guard hairs. On the flanks, though, the lightening is well-defined, and contrasts sharply with the general tone of the back. The throat, lower neck, chest and abdomen are black or blackish brown. The limbs are pure black or black with brown tints, while the tail is black or blackish brown, completely lacking light underfur. The area around and between the eyes is black-brown, with a longitudinal stripe of similar colour along the top of the nose. The ears are dark brown and edged with white. The summer fur is short, sparse and coarse. It is greyer, duller and lacking in the lustre of the winter fur. The underfur is more weakly developed in the summer fur and has a brownish-grey or rusty-grey colour.

Climate zones

European Polecat habitat map

Habits and Lifestyle

Like most mustelids, polecats are solitary creatures. They will defend their territory fiercely, unless a female has young, or is in season. They are primarily nocturnal, though females and their young will forage during the day. In winter polecats are less active, emerging during the day more often than in summer. European polecats have a settled way of life and have definite home ranges, which vary according to habitat, season, gender, and social status. A male will typically have a larger territory than a female. Each individual uses a few den sites throughout its territory. Sometimes abandoned Red fox or European badger burrows are also used. Like other mustelids, European polecats are usually silent animals, though they growl fiercely when angry, and squeak when distressed. They also make a low, mewling cry to their mate or offspring.

Group name
Seasonal behavior

Diet and Nutrition

European polecats are carnivorous and generally prey on small rodents, birds, amphibians, and reptiles.

Mating Habits

in winter
42 days
3-7 kits
3 months

European polecats are polygynous, with each male mating with several females. Breeding takes place in winter. One litter per year is usually produced, though, if a litter is lost, a female may give birth a second time that season. 3-7 young are born following 42 days of gestation, and weaning takes place after one month. Mothers care for their offspring until they are about 3 months old and adult-size. European polecats reach reproductive maturity after 1 year of age.


Population threats

European polecats were pronounced vermin during the time of Elizabeth I and were seen as bloodthirsty animals. Threats today are from accidental trapping, as well as secondary poisoning from rodenticides. Other threats include changes in land use (like hedge removal), road deaths, and crossbreeding with feral species, which threatens their genetic integrity.

Population number

No estimate of population size is available for European polecats, but it's believed to be large due to its wide distribution. Currently, this species is classified as Least Concern (LC), but its numbers today are decreasing.

Ecological niche

Polecats are important in the ecosystems where they live as predators of small mammals.

Fun Facts for Kids

  • The name "polecat" comes from the French "poule chat" meaning "the chicken cat," referring to polecat hunting and eating chickens.
  • The polecat is a good swimmer, but its fur is not as well insulated against cold water as the American mink's; while a mink will take 118 minutes to cool in a water temperature of 8 °C (46 °F), the polecat cools down much faster at 26-28 minutes.
  • European polecats are able to interbreed with ferrets. These hybrid animals have the appearance of large European polecats and are sterile.
  • Polecats were almost brought to extinction in Britain at the close of the nineteenth century by gamekeepers, but this nocturnal hunter is currently making a comeback.
  • If you dream about a polecat this is supposed to be a positive sign. These animals are considered a symbol of an upcoming productive and fruitful period in life.


1. European Polecat Wikipedia article -
2. European Polecat on The IUCN Red List site -

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