Inherited Behavior Traits of the Domesticated Ferret
By Susan A. Brown, D.V.M.
Our domesticated ferret (Mustela putorius furo), retains close physiological and behavioral ties with its direct ancestor, the European polecat (Mustela putorius). There were a few changes that took place during domestication which selectively bred the wild ferret into animals that were more easily handled by humans. Domesticated ferrets are not afraid of humans and are able to handle new environments without fear. Pet ferrets are not as alert to dangers that their wild ancestors would have encountered. Another change that took place during domestication is that pet ferrets can live in communal groups peacefully (anyone who has more than one ferret has observed a sleeping “pile” of ferrets on many occasions) whereas the European polecat is a solitary animal. This ability of the pet ferret to live in a group may also be related to the fact that the great majority of our pets are neutered, and certainly in the case of the males at least, this decreases the amount of aggression that is seen between animals. Domesticated ferrets, however still maintain instinctive behaviors for play, territory marking and hunting. There were a number of interesting studies done in Europe in the 1960’s and 70 ‘s on comparison of the behavior of the European polecats and ferrets that I think show useful information on how to understand why our little friends do what they do. Please see the list at the end of this discussion for these scientific papers. Let’s take a look at some of these behaviors.
AGGRESSIVE PLAY BEHAVIOR
Of course we must remember that ferrets, even our dear pets, are carnivores, meaning that they are predators of other species of animals. So in their former wild life, it was essential to learn effective hunting techniques as well as means of protecting their territory from strangers. Therefore, it appears that aggressive play behavior can serve as a tool to teach aggression and protection skills as well as hunting skills. This behavior starts at around 6 weeks of age and eventually merges into more serious adult aggressive behavior as the ferret matures. Ferrets both young and old, like to rough house. Ferrets will still exhibit bouts of play behavior as adults, particularly during courtship or within a familiar group. The most serious aggression occurs when a stranger is introduced into a group or during times when a ferret feels fearful about a situation.
Neck biting by both sexes is the most common aggressive and play behavior seen. This behavior is used by the males to control females during mating. In addition, the neck bite is used to quickly kill prey when it is used during hunting, therefore, play neck biting in youngsters may serve as practice for hunting later. Ferrets have very thick skin over the back of their necks and they can sustain very aggressive biting without serious injury. In all my years of practice I never saw a ferret that had a serious injury after neck biting behavior with another ferret. This situation is opposed to that of domestic cats, that get into a fights involving both teeth and nails with serious injuries and often abscesses as the result.
Other ferret offensive aggressive behaviors that can be observed include lunging, sideways attack, dancing and a staccato clucking sound. This is often called, the “weasel war dance” and is in actuality a display of bravado and scare tactics directed towards another creature, which in the case of a pet ferret, is usually their human caretaker. Defensive behavior, which is displayed when the ferret is fearful, includes hissing, screaming and snapping of the jaws. A ferret scream can be quite loud, high-pitched and alarming, but is associated with fear, not pain. This high-pitched scream can be quite unnerving to us humans and we tend to want to rush in and stop the altercation. However, I have found that if you have a sufficiently large space and at least one more hiding space then ferrets in the area into which they can escape, they will generally work it out on their own. I have often observed that the screaming ferret is not even being touched by another ferret, but is just being “stared down”. Amazingly enough, injuries from ferret “fights” are incredibly rare. I would not make this statement about fights between dogs, cats or even rabbits. (*NOTE: Allowing fights, does not apply to ferrets that are debilitated with illness. These animals should be allowed plenty of private space in which to heal.) If you really need to minimize the fighting amongst ferrets, you can use a bitter-tasting product to the neck area of all the ferrets. If a bite occurs, there is usually a very quick release as soon as the bitter substance is tasted. We recommend a product such as BITTER APPLE made by Grannick.
The polecat ancestors of the ferret lived in underground burrows. They usually took over other animals ‘burrows and then modified them by digging additional entryways and rooms. In the home, the domestic ferret thoroughly enjoys digging in soft materials, including carpeting, furniture stuffing, and litter box material. Ferrets also appreciate being able to explore tunnel-like areas and having an enclosed sleeping area.
Another habit retained from the polecat ancestor is the storage of items in these burrow areas. After a wild polecat makes a kill, if it was larger than what he could eat immediately, he would bring it back to the den area to eat later in several meals. Females that are raising kits will always bring food back to the den. Some pet ferrets like to carry out this behavior with not only bits of food, but other “toys” in their environment such as car keys. If you are missing some small items, you might look in your pet’s “den” or adjacent areas.
The wild polecats are very fastidious about their dens and never defecate or urinate in or near the burrow. They use urine and stool to mark their territory as well as their anal gland secretions. Ferrets, like polecats, prefer to back up to a vertical surface to defecate or urinate and then proceed to leave their scent with anal gland secretions by dragging their anus over the surrounding area. This behavior is still intact in our pets even though the majority-of-ferrets sold into the pet trade today have had their anal glands removed. The removal of the glands does not remove the behavior pattern. In addition, an intact male ferret may mark his territory by rubbing his abdomen or side around the perimeter leaving the scent of skin oils in the area. We do not observe this behavior in ferrets that are neutered prior to sexual maturity.
SENSE OF SMELL AND SIGHT
Ferrets (and polecats) appear to use olfactory (scent) clues rather than visual clues when searching for prey. However, once the prey is located, they are stimulated by a range of visual movement somewhere between 25 and 45 cm/ sec, which is the escape speed of a small rodent. In addition, ferrets learn to attack the neck area of the prey as they experience success with an efficient kill. Ferrets in the home like to run after and sometimes grab moving targets, such as feet, objects rolling across the floor and other pets. You can elicit this play behavior by pulling a small toy across the floor on a string at a fairly rapid pace and allowing your ferret to chase and “kill” it. However, if the “attack” becomes a problem behavior, you can use the bitter tasting substance as mentioned before, on shoes, socks and hands as an aid to deter your pet.
Ferrets have an elaborate anatomical system for sensing odors like other carnivores and appear to develop their smell preferences for food during the first three months of life and by the fourth month, (when in the wild they would be leaving the nest) these preferences are set. This may explain why it is difficult to change a ferret’s diet as an adult. This also points out that it is beneficial to expose a ferret to a variety of foods prior to this 16 week cut off to provide a more varied and nutritious diet.
Being close to the ground, ferrets spend a great deal of time with their noses to the floor investigating their environment. This behavior results in the inhalation of dust and debris and a subsequent sneeze to remove the foreign material. A ferret’s sneeze, which is very loud and sounds like a combination of a cough and a sneeze, may be alarming to the humans in the house. Unless sneezing is frequent or associated with other clinical signs, you need not be concerned with this behavior.
I hope this gives you a little peek into why your pet does what he does. Ferrets, having the physiology of an efficient, energy conserving little predator, will display their various behaviors with great intensity. After they are done playing and had a meal they will sleep deeply for hours, conserving their energy for the next “hunting expedition”. It is important to allow them plenty of space and toys in their environment for mental stimulation during those “hunting/ play” periods and then of course a cozy, dark spot for their well deserved rest afterwards.
Enjoy your little “hunters” and give them all a hug and a kiss from me.
- Apfelbach R, Olfactory sign stimulus for prey selection in polecats (Putorius putorius L.). Z. Tierpsychologie, 33, 1973; 270-273.
- Apfelbach R, Wester U, The quantitative effect of visual and tactile stimuli on the prey-catching behaviour of ferrets (putorius furo L.). Behavioural Processes, 2, 1977; 187-200.
- PooleTB, Aggressive play in polecats. Symposia of the Zoological Society of London, No 16,1966; 23-44. Poole TB, Aspects of aggressive behaviour in polecats. ZeitschriftfurTierpsychologie, 24(3): 1967:351-364.
- Poole TB, Some behavioural differences between the European polecat, Mustela putorius, the ferret, M. furo, and their hybrids. JournalZool., Londl66,1972;25-35.