Ferrets have replaced Fidos in many Salt Lake County homes, prompting health officials to issue this warning: A pet ferret definitely isn't man's best friend.

The weasel-like animals are wild and could be dangerous to family members - especially babies."They have been known to attack infants. They are attracted by the movement and noise made by babies whose little hands, feet, ears and genitals remind them of newborn rabbits and mice," said Diane Keay, supervisor in the Bureau of Environmental Sanitation and Safety, Salt Lake City/County Health Department. "They don't playfully lick; they bite. It doesn't happen all the time, but frequently enough that it's a concern to us."

Many residents don't share that concern.

In Salt Lake County it's illegal to have pet ferrets. In fact, it has been against the law for 20 years. Ditto for skunks, wolves, raccoons, coyotes and many other wild animals.

In May 1989, the Utah Department of Wildlife Resources issued a proclamation prohibiting the importation of various species of wild animals into the state. Ferrets were included as a species whose importation was prohibited.

However, the department allowed a "grace period" for people who had the animal before the ruling was issued. "They had until July 1, 1990, to obtain a certificate of registration to continue possession of the animal," said Angie Fleck, wildlife registration coordinator.

But that certificate doesn't mean much to the Salt Lake City/County Health Department.

"The problem is that residents also have to be in compliance with local regulations, and Salt Lake County doesn't permit ferrets - and hasn't for a very long time," Keay said. "Yet they seem to be very common pets in the county." That's a threat to public health.

"Until very recently there was no rabies vaccine approved for wild animals. A rabies ferret vaccine has been approved nationally, but not in Utah," she said.

And ferrets, while small, furry and seemingly lovable, are not affectionate like dogs and cats.

"Ferrets have been domesticated for centuries," Keay said. "The problem is that they are domesticated to hunt and kill rodents. But they are not domesticated as a pet to co-habitate with man."

Keay said when a wild pet bites someone, there is no option of quarantine. In order to test for rabies, the animal's brain must be taken to the state lab.

If the results are positive, the person bitten undergoes a series of six shots - usually given in the arm over a period of about a month.

"If the animal escapes or people scare it away, we have to treat the person as if the animal were rabid," Keay said, giving the expensive and painful series of shots.

The health department's message: If there's a pet ferret in your neighborhood, contact animal control.

And if you want a pet, pick a cat or dog. "And keep its vaccinations current," Keay said.