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An Owners Guide to Ferret Behavior

By Mary Van Dahm

An Owners Guide to Ferret Behavior -- By Mary Van Dahm

Everyone who owns a ferret or two has his or her own special reasons for doing so. The mischievous twinkle in their eyes, the special way they frolic across the room, the endearing way they hide ‘treasures’ (usually our socks, keys or other important things!) in their favorite spots throughout the house, all add up to the makings of a truly unique pet. We know we love these animals because of (or in spite of!) these traits, but why do they do what they do? What goes on in their fuzzy little heads? Here’s a short Owner’s Guide to Ferret Behavior that I hope will clear up some of the questions and confusion that many ferret owners experience.

The “Ferret Frolic” AKA the “Weasel Wardance”

Ferrets have the original “happy feet”. Long before Snoopy tap-danced across the comic pages, ferrets were frolicking. They may not have the grace of Fred Astaire, but their enthusiasm more than makes up for it. They bounce off walls, furniture, you, or anything else that doesn’t move out of the way! This is an expression of pure joy and excitement and is no cause for alarm (unless the ferret is on top of something and runs the risk of falling off!) This can also be an invitation for you to come join in the fun. Many ferrets love it if you pretend to chase them or let them chase you as part of the dance – just watch your step!

The “Dead Ferret” Syndrome

Ferrets are sound sleepers and when there is nothing else to do they indulge in this form of “suspended animation”. They trust us implicitly to watch over them and feel no need to be on guard while they snooze. Sometimes they fall into such a deep, relaxed sleep that an inexperienced owner may think their beloved pet has died. I know of ferret owners who have rushed an unconscious pet to the veterinarian only to have the animal wake up halfway there and look sleepily around with a, “Hey, where am I?” look on its face. One of my own ferrets was such a sound sleeper that I could pass him around a room full of people like a hot potato and he would never wake up! This is not to say that a ferret that suddenly starts sleeping heavily may not be experiencing a medical problem. If you have any doubts whatsoever, please be sure to take your ferret to see a qualified ferret veterinarian. If you do not already have a good ferret veterinarian lined up, call your local ferret shelter or club for a referral.

Stop Thief!

Ferrets have a propensity for stealing and stashing everything they can get their little paws and teeth on. Anything that isn’t up out of their reach or too heavy to drag is fair game. Some ferrets like rubber, plastic and leather items. Others like shiny or round items or even soft, fuzzy items. Their mode of transporting the loot varies with the weight, shape and size of the item they desire. One of the funniest sights I have ever seen is a ferret pulling a tennis ball across the floor. A ferret will wrap its front paws around the ball and scoot backwards with its hind legs, hanging onto the ball with all of its might. (Maybe they think they are stealing an egg?)

Collecting and storing items is a nesting instinct. The ferret is either collecting items to line its den with, or is actually treating the collected items as surrogate kits. My ferret, Ursa, used to make a nest under my dresser. She would take tissues, socks, or any other soft items and line her nest with them. Then she would take every stuffed animal she could find and put them into the nest. If you dared to remove any of them when she wasn’t looking, she would frantically search the house until she found them and place them back in the nest again. Sometimes she would grab another ferret and try to drag it to the nest, too. Usually the other ferret was not too thrilled about this and would slip out of her grasp and try to run away with Ursa in hot pursuit! Giving your ferret its own treasures to ‘steal’ and keeping your important belongings, such as car keys and jewelry, up out of the way will keep everybody happy.

Quite often ferrets will steal mouthfuls of food – their own or that of another pet – and store little caches around the house. This is a ferret’s way of saving for a rainy day. This trait is more often seen in multi-pet households where a ferret is trying to make sure that he gets his share of the kibbles.

Sometimes ferrets will store treats that they don’t like. They will politely take a treat that you offer to them and run off with it and quickly return for another. If the turn around time is faster than you know they could have eaten the treat in, you can be assured that it was stashed somewhere. They come back and beg for more in hopes that the next offering will be more to their liking. If it’s not, it will probably be stashed with the first treat. If nothing better is offered, they may eventually go back to eat the treats, or you just may find them the next time you clean house. If you have more than one ferret, quite often the other ferret or ferrets will find the stash of food and eat it, eliminating some of your clean up work (or they may make more stashes of their own!).

The Escape Artist

Ferrets are naturally inquisitive and love to explore. They are also very determined opportunists once they make up their minds about something. If they see you going through a door on a regular basis, they will want to follow and will try to sneak through that door every chance they get. It’s not that they don’t like their home or that they are unhappy with you. They just have a strong spirit of adventure and don’t realize the dangers that can await them outside. You can try to set them in another room and then rush to the door before they realize you are heading out, but usually they will be on your heels racing for the door, too. You may even be surprised to find them waiting by the door ahead of you! I generally recommend putting your ferrets in a cage or a designated ‘ferret room’ if you, your family or friend? are going in and out a lot. A lost ferret very rarely finds its way back home. Neutered and descented ferrets have very little musk with which to lay a return trail. Once they get beyond familiar territory, they stay lost until someone finds them. If they are lucky, they will be found by you or another caring person. If they are not lucky, they may fall victim to a dog, a wild animal or a person mistaking them for a rat or other pest.

The Nipping Ferret

Nipping is not to be confused with biting, which is usually the sign of a fearful animal or poor breeding practices. Nipping is a way of communication between ferrets, and sometimes you, until you teach your ferret that this is not acceptable behavior. Baby ferrets, called kits, nip at each other and may chop down quite firmly in play. They have tough skin and aren’t bothered by their siblings’ teeth. Humans, on the other hand, have more tender skin and can be more sensitive to such an encounter. It is important not to shy away from a nipping kit. Many people make the mistake of thinking that a kit will grow out of nipping on its own, with no training or work on the their part. On the contrary, a nipping kit needs more handling, not less! The best time to start breaking a kit of a nipping habit is when it is 5 to 8 weeks old. Unfortunately this is when most kits are still with the breeder or at a pet store and may not get the individual attention that they need. Reputable breeders, large or small, will handle their kits from the time the kits open their eyes until the time they are sold. A reputable pet shop will only order in as many ferrets as it can reasonably handle so that the kits can get the one-on-one attention that they need.

If your ferret is over 8 weeks and is still nipping a lot, don’t despair! Ferrets can be trained at any age. It just takes longer. First of all, analyze why your ferret is nipping. Does it want to play? Was it eating or sleeping and upset from being disturbed? If it’s wide-awake and hopping around, it probably wants to play. Letting your ferret out to play and letting it run around for a while before trying to handle it can help burn off some of its pent up energy. If it goes to nip at you, tell it “No!” in a loud, firm voice. Spraying your hands (and ankles and legs, too, if needed) with Bitter Apple, or something similar is usually helpful. Let the alcohol smell dissipate before reaching for your ferret or it may not want to be picked up. Be consistent. You will only confuse your pet if you let it nip sometimes and not other times. Make sure everyone in your household follows that rule, too. If your ferret is eating, try to be courteous and let it finish. If for some reason you can’t wait and you have to disturb your ferret, try offering your and is still nipping a lot, don’t despair! Ferrets can be trained at any age. It just takes longer.

First of all, analyze why your ferret is nipping. Does it want to play? Was it eating or sleeping and upset from being disturbed? If it’s wide-awake and hopping around, it probably wants to play. Letting your ferret out to play and letting it run around for a while before trying to handle it can help burn off some of its pent up energy. If it goes to nip at you, tell it “No!” in a loud, firm voice. Spraying your hands (and ankles and legs, too, if needed) with Bitter Apple, or something similar is usually helpful. Let the alcohol smell dissipate before reaching for your ferret or it may not want to be picked up. Be consistent. You will only confuse your pet if you let it nip sometimes and not other times. Make sure everyone in your household follows that rule, too. If your ferret is eating, try to be courteous and let it finish. If for some reason you can’t wait and you have to disturb your ferret, try offering your pet a treat as you pick it up. Hold the treat in one hand and as the ferret takes the treat you can pick him up with your other hand. You can also use this method when trying to lure your ferret out from under something, such as a dresser. If you are offering your ferret a treat out of your hand, be sure to wash any Bitter Apple off of your hand first or the treat will taste like Bitter Apple and your ferret will not want it.

A sleeping ferret should be picked up gently to avoid startling it. If it is laying in such a way that you can’t get to it easily, try calling its name or shaking a jingle toy. Do not use a squeaky toy to wake up a ferret unless your ferret has been trained to respond to a squeaky toy while it is awake. The high-pitched squeak of the toy may alarm the ferret and may provoke the ferret into biting. (How would you like it if someone screamed into your ear while you were sleeping? You might want to bite that person, too!)

You can also try holding a fragrant treat near its nose. This may not always wake up your ferret right away, but its sure fun to watch its little tongue start licking the air in its sleep! Resist the temptation to actually let your ferret lick the treat while it is still asleep as it may choke, but be prepared to let your pet have the treat once it is fully awake.

With the help of the above insights, understanding your ferret should now be a little easier, but don’t over analyze! Enjoy your pet for what it is – unique!

[intlink id="fair"]This article originally appeared in the July/August 1999 issue of "The F.A.I.R. Report".[/intlink]