NEW YORK (Reuters) - Ferret ownership will remain an illicit pleasure in New York City after health officials on Tuesday failed to overturn a decades-long ban on the furry mammals.

The city Board of Health voted 3-2, with five abstentions, in favor of lifting the ban but six votes were required for passage, said Veronica Lewin, spokeswoman for the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

"We appreciate the board’s concern for the health and safety of New Yorkers in their decision to keep in place the prohibition on ferret ownership in New York City," the city health department said in a statement.

The board was considering repealing the prohibition on keeping ferrets in New York homes as long as they are vaccinated for rabies, the health department said.

New Yorkers in a recent poll were torn over allowing ferrets to join the ranks of pets, with 39 percent agreeing they should be permitted and another 42 percent opposing the weasel-like creatures.

Domesticated ferrets live an average of six to eight years, sleeping much of the day and spending their waking hours building a reputation for being mischievous and playful.

Other than New York City, having a ferret is banned only in California or Hawaii, according to animal advocacy groups.

The move to legalize ferret ownership came under the administration of Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio, a liberal who made the banning of carriage horses in Central Park an issue in his election campaign last year.

The Health Department says ferrets have informally been banned as pets since 1959, according to the New York Times, and the city's ban has been upheld in state and federal court.

In 1999, under Republican Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, the Department of Health pronounced ferrets unpredictable and prone to "vicious, unprovoked attacks." Giuliani weighed in, calling a ferret rights activist "deranged" and saying on his radio call-in show that "excessive concern with little weasels is a sickness."

(Reporting by Barbara Goldberg; Editing by Bill Trott)