European Polecat

Mustela putorius

Last updated: March 4, 2022
Verified by: AZ Animals Staff
Image Credit iStock.com/marcinplaza

Its fur changes color in the winter!

European Polecat Scientific Classification

Kingdom
Animalia
Phylum
Chordata
Class
Mammalia
Order
Carnivora
Family
Mustelidae
Genus
Mustela
Scientific Name
Mustela putorius

Read our Complete Guide to Classification of Animals.

European Polecat Conservation Status

European Polecat Locations

European Polecat Locations

European Polecat Facts

Prey
Rodents, rabbits, lizards
Name Of Young
kit
Group Behavior
  • Solitary
Fun Fact
Its fur changes color in the winter!
Biggest Threat
predators
Most Distinctive Feature
Mask-like face markings
Other Name(s)
Black polecat, western polecat, fitch
Gestation Period
42 days
Litter Size
three to seven
Habitat
Wetlands, marshes, coastal cliffs
Diet
Carnivore
Type
Mustelid
Common Name
European polecat
Number Of Species
1
Location
Europe, North Africa, Asia
Group
solitary

European Polecat Physical Characteristics

Color
  • Red
  • Black
  • Silver
Skin Type
Fur
Top Speed
23 mph
Lifespan
five to 14 years
Weight
two to three pounds
Height
five to six inches
Length
one to 1 ½ feet
Age of Sexual Maturity
one year
Age of Weaning
three months

This post may contain affiliate links to our partners like Chewy, Amazon, and others. Purchasing through these helps us further the A-Z Animals mission to educate about the world's species..

View all of the European Polecat images!



“The European polecat can interbreed with ferrets.”

The European polecat is a small, slender mammal that is related to weasels, ferrets, and minks. Despite its diminutive size, it is a swift, fierce predator. The European polecat is native to Europe, North Africa, and parts of Asia. Once considered vermin and hunted to near extinction, the European polecat now enjoys a healthy population in most of its former range.

4 Incredible European Polecat Facts!

  • The polecat is the ancestor of the domestic ferret.
  • Its fur changes to a silver-gray color in winter.
  • Like a raccoon, it has a “bandit mask” on its face.
  • The polecat uses its strong smell as a defense.

Scientific Name

The European polecat’s scientific name is Mustela putorius. The name polecat comes from the French term “poule chat,” which means “chicken cat.” The term refers to the fact that polecats would sometimes raid chicken coops for eggs and chicks.

Appearance

The polecat has a slender body, short legs, and a wide head. Small ears, a round nose, and bright eyes give this little guy an adorable look, but don’t be fooled. The polecat is a fierce fighter who will defend itself aggressively.

The polecat has thick, glossy fur. Its colors are mostly deep brown to black with red patches and a yellow underbelly. It usually has a white patch around its nose and a raccoon-like mask around its eyes. One chief way to make the identification of a polecat is the way its fur changes. In summer, the fur gets lighter and thinner. In winter, the polecat’s coat gets thicker and shades to a silvery gray color.

Compared to other members of the mustelid family, the polecat has exceptionally large, sharp teeth.



The European polecat is an aggressive fighter with short legs and a slender body.

iStock.com/CreativeNature_nl

Behavior

The European polecat is a solitary, nocturnal hunter. Some female polecats and young polecats may look for food in the daytime, but adults and males prefer to hunt at night. The polecat sets up a range of territory that it uses as a hunting ground. The size of this personal habitat can range from a small plot of land to a large spread that includes several dens. Some polecats use the abandoned dens of foxes and badgers instead of building their own.

Despite this, the polecat is not strongly territorial. A polecat will often share its territory with other polecats, and it usually doesn’t mark its habitat with scent.

A polecat is a quiet animal with few vocalizations. It may growl or squeak when frightened.

Habitat

The European polecat prefers to live near water sources. It can often be found near marshes, riverbanks, dunes, and coastal cliffs. Being close to water increases its food supply.

Polecats are adaptable animals that can be found in wetlands, grasslands, agricultural land, prairies, and forests. European polecats use hedgerows for shelter and navigation. They also prefer to use existing nests rather than build their own.

Diet

The polecat is a carnivore that eats voles, mice, and other rodents. It also eats lizards, frogs, and birds. If it can’t find its preferred prey, a polecat may supplement its diet with fruit and insects.

A polecat’s diet can vary greatly. It changes according to what is available and the time of year. Scientists have seen European polecats eating the following:

Predators and Threats

Despite its small size, the polecat can defend itself from larger predators. It uses its anal glands to produce a strong, unpleasant smell that wards off many predators. Large carnivores usually leave polecats alone for that reason.

Most polecats are killed by cars. Other threats are habitat loss, especially hedge removal when forests are cleared. Polecats are sometimes trapped accidentally or poisoned by preying on rodents who have eaten poisons.

Reproduction and Life Cycle

The polecat’s breeding season is in winter. Polecats are polygamous, and both males and females reproduce with several mates. They reach sexual maturity when they’re a year old. There is no courtship or mating ritual. A male grabs a female by the neck and copulates with her.

Male polecats are known as hobs, and females are known as jills. A pregnant female incubates the babies for 42 days and then gives birth to a litter of three to seven kits. The mothers feed and care for the kits until they are about 3 months old. Mother polecats are extremely protective of their young and will defend them aggressively against intruders.

European polecats have a lifespan of six to 14 years in the wild. Their lifespan in captivity may be longer.

Population

Because of its extensive range of distribution, exact population numbers are unknown, but conservationists are concerned that the polecat’s population is decreasing.

Conservation Status

The European polecat is listed as “least concern” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). It enjoys protected status in the United Kingdom.

In the past century, polecats were considered vermin and were routinely killed by gamekeepers and farmers. That led to the near extinction of this species. Today, polecats have recovered their population numbers. Many people now appreciate their help in controlling rat populations. In the United Kingdom, they are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act and are a priority species under the U.K. Biodiversity Framework.

Masked Mustelid

The European polecat was once hunted as vermin. Today, farmers and gamekeepers appreciate the polecat’s help in controlling rodent populations. This masked bandit has recovered from the brink of extinction and now has a stable population.

View all 67 animals that start with E

About the Author

AZ Animals is a growing team of animals experts, researchers, farmers, conservationists, writers, editors, and -- of course -- pet owners who have come together to help you better understand the animal kingdom and how we interact.

European Polecat FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

Where do European polecats live?

They live in Europe, North Africa, and parts of Asia. They prefer lowland, wooded areas near water sources.

Do European polecats make good pets

A European polecat is a wild animal and is not a good pet. It is illegal to own any wild animal as a pet. If you want a pet that looks and acts like a polecat, choose a ferret. The ferret is a member of the mustelid family that was domesticated more than 2,000 years ago.

What is a European polecat called?

Other names for the polecat include black polecat, forest polecat, western polecat, and fitch.

What are the European polecat's predators?

It has few natural predators. Humans accidentally kill most polecats.

Are polecats related to ferrets, and are they different?

European polecats are related to ferrets, but they do have some differences. Occasionally, abandoned domestic ferrets will mate with wild polecats. This can make the identification of a true polecat confusing. The main way to tell is from the fur colors. If a polecat mates with a ferret, the kits will have light-colored coats and larger white patches on their faces.

Are European polecats dangerous?

They are not dangerous to humans. Like all wild animals, European polecats can bite if they are frightened or trying to protect their babies. As these facts show, polecats are beneficial to humans. They control rodent populations and are important parts of their ecosystems.

How can you tell a European polecat from a mink or a weasel?

Polecats, minks, and weasels are all related. How do you tell them apart? The main identification markers of a polecat are:
• Darker colors
• Bandit mask
• Larger teeth
• Ability to give off a scent

Is a European polecat the same as a pine marten?

A European polecat is not a pine marten. The pine marten is also a small mustelid that is native to Europe, but it is much larger. A pine marten is almost double the size of a polecat and has a large, white patch on its chest.

How big is a European polecat?

On average, it is 1 to 1 ½ feet long.

Sources
  1. BBC Wildlife, Available here: https://www.discoverwildlife.com/animal-facts/mammals/facts-about-polecats/
  2. The Wildlife Trusts, Available here: https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/wildlife-explorer/mammals/polecat
  3. The Vincent Wildlife Trusts, Available here: https://www.vwt.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/polecat-leaflet.pdf

Newly Added Animals

A Phorusrhacos
Phorusrhacos

It's a genus of terror birds

A Cabbage Moth
Cabbage Moth

Cabbage moths are named after the vegetable they find the tastiest.

Most Recently Updated Animals

A Black Rat Snake
Black Rat Snake

They're also called black pilot snakes due to a myth that they "pilot" venomous snakes to a den where they can go into brumation for the winter.

A Sockeye Salmon
Sockeye Salmon

Called "red salmon" because their skin turns bright red to dirty red during spawning season

A Rhombic Egg-Eater Snake
Rhombic Egg-Eater Snake

When birds aren't nesting, these snakes fast