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How is a Ferret Like a Potato Chip?

By Mary Van Dahm

How is a Ferret Like a Potato Chip -- By Mary Van Dahm

Just toss two ferrets into the same bag and have them nestle together like two chips off the same spud. I wish it were that easy! Unfortunately, many ferrets don’t agree with this theory and go out of their way to prove it. But why do we expect it of them in the first place? We credit ferrets with having many human attributes such as joy, intelligence and curiosity and yet we get upset when they display our darker side and show jealousy, sullenness or even hatred.

Most ferrets do welcome company. It gives them a chance to have someone to frolic with (and cause twice the trouble with!). They might display a little tail sniffing or neck checking, but will eventually say “Welcome Aboard!” Others take a little more time. They may try a little pushing and shoving to test the other ferret or to let him know that this is their house and to tell the newcomer that they are Top Dog here. Eventually, they settle down and everyone establishes his own routine and order in the system.

What about the ferret that doesn’t seem to get along? Will he ever fit in? Most of the time, he will. It may take a while (sometimes months) but the established ferrets generally get tired of harassing the newcomer and finally realize that he’s just not going to go away. In a minute, I will tell you how to speed up this process, but first I want to talk about the ferret that will never get along.

Most ferrets that fit into this category are ferrets that have been alone (away from other ferrets) for most of their life. They have forgotten that they are ferrets and do not associate with others of their species when confronted with them. They often become territorial and even an animal of another species may be unwelcome if brought into the house. Some ferrets in this category have been with another ferret or ferrets for many years. They have bonded with a group or individual and feel resentment toward being separated from their peers. Let’s face it; if you were taken away from your family and told that you would have to live with the Smiths for the rest of your life and you didn’t even know them, you might be upset, too! The Smiths, on the other hand, may decide that you are an ungrateful wretch aren’t fit to be in their family — and so the hostilities begin. Before you give up hope, though, stop and realize the stress the animals are going through. What can you do to avoid this stress to begin with?

First of all, don’t rush the animals. When you bring the newcomer home, help him to feel that this is his home, too. If he was eating a certain food before, get him some – even if it’s not your usual brand. You can slowly add some of your brand in each day until he gets used to it. What kind of bedding did he have? Ideally if you got the ferret from another owner, you can ask him to send along the ferret’s favorite blanket or towel.

Add to that your own ferret’s bedding so he can get the chance to study your ferret’s smell before actually meeting him. Switch bedding. Put some of the new ferret’s bedding in with your original ferret. I’m hoping that you’ve caught the fact that the two ferrets are not being kept together yet. If you don’t have a spare cage, sometimes a spare room is an alternative (the bathroom is usually a good idea-just make sure it is ferret proof and that the toilet seat is down!)

Let the newcomer out by himself for a little while so he can explore the allowed area without being bounded. This gives him the chance to check out escape routes and hiding areas should the face-to-face encounter with your first ferret prove to be a bit rough. When you let your ferret out to meet his new friend, STAY THERE WITH THEM!! Do not leave the room. If the phone rings, ignore it. If it’s important they’ll call back. As I said before, don’t be surprised or worried if there is a little pushing or shoving. Ferrets form pecking orders. Some do it so fast that you never realize that it’s there. Other times it’s a test of wills and may take several encounters to establish. If the shoving gets too rough, separate the ferrets for a while then try again. If they are actually biting each other, try spraying them with some Bitter Apple or similar product (this can be found in most pet shops in the dog grooming section). Another thing is to try to distract them with a treat. I have seen many ferrets take time out from a fight to share Linatone out of the same bottle.Sometimes, they even lick each other’s faces! If you can do this several times a day for the first week or so, you should eventually see the hostilities die down. Be sure to vary the treats so they don’t OD on too much of a good thing.

Sometimes, you can judge the seriousness of the encounter by the body language that the ferrets display. If they are just testing each other, their fur will remain flat and their stance fairly normal. If they are upset, they will sometime hunch down a bit and sway with their walk, like a bulldog. Sometimes, they will flair their tails a bit, too. If they are VERY upset or angry, they will definitely flair their tails and sometimes even the hair on their backs. If they still have their anal glands, they will generally express themselves at this time. (If they’re going to be miserable, they want everyone to be miserable!) This stage is generally followed by a swift attack by one of the ferrets. Screaming, screeching and neck biting generally ensues. If this continues after several encounters over a period of time, you can generally assume that these two ferrets are not compatible and will have to be kept and let out to play separately. Ferrets do have mock battles. They are generally not as aggressive as the real thing. One way to find out if you are witnessing a mock battle or not is to pick up one of the ferrets. If the remaining ferret relaxes his pose and comes toward you in an eager manner as if to say “Hey, where’s my buddy?” then you know they were just roughhousing. On the other hand, if the ferret runs off in fear or comes lunging after the other ferret, then you know the battle was for real. The important thing to remember is to not give up on the first try or the first ferret, for that matter. Just because your ferret didn’t get along on the first encounter doesn’t mean that he will never get along. If you don’t have the time and patience to persevere, don’t be afraid to try a different ferret than your first selection. Your ferret may just be waiting for Mr. or Ms. Right to come along. Some ferrets form silly prejudices (They’re a lot more like humans than we think!). I have one little female who will only tolerate males. She is in a cage with three big males and is as happy as a lark. I also have a male who will only tolerate females. He’s in with a harem of four! Oddly enough, I also have a ferret who is color prejudiced. He is a Sterling Silver, yet he only tolerates sables!

Find out what is right for you and your ferret. If you want two or more ferrets but they don’t get along, try letting them out in shifts. This isn’t as hard as it sounds (unless you have about 40 ferrets, like some people we know!) and it gives you the opportunity to see different personalities in action. Pass the dip, please!

[intlink id=”gcfa”]This article originally appeared in the May/June 1992 issue of “Off the Paw”.[/intlink]