Ferrets are naturally curious and will often give a little exploratory nip or bite to initiate play. Some start this behaviour as kits and continue into adulthood. We give some helpful hints on how to identify why your ferret is biting and what to do to curb this unpleasant behaviour.
Ferrets are naturally a little nippy as they explore the world and often the behaviour has been unintentionally reinforced. It takes a little time and patience to train them out of this behaviour, but no ferret is beyond redemption. A young animal can be quickly trained within a few weeks, but an older ferret will often take months to rehabilitate.
Working out what causes your ferret to bite will go some way towards curbing the behaviour. A fear biter will need a gentle and slow approach, avoiding any form of punishment. A playful bite in an otherwise unafraid ferret will need redirection and gentle correction. A ferret that bites for attention has often been trained to do so, so we need to pick up on more subtle cues. A ferret that never used to bite, but has become a biter may have health concerns.
So always consider a trip to your local Veterinarian. Once you work out the type of biting behaviour, you can implement some solutions.
WHY DO FERRETS BITE?
Ferrets explore the environment with their mouths and have fairly poor eyesight. They bite for many reasons, so it is overly simplistic to say they bite for just one reason. A ferret might be communicating many things with a bite. This means just one method of control is not going to work for each situation.
Ferrets often play-bite, bite to get attention, to get put down, out of fear or to initiate play. They do not realise those sharp little carnivore teeth of theirs are no fun for human hands.
Ferrets that have not been handled when young and are poorly socialised may bite out of fear. The same can occur with ferrets that have had rough handling. Some ferrets lack confidence and are generally more inclined to nip. The behaviour is often reinforced when they are put down when they bite. If they are punished with a tap on the nose or a scruff, this will worsen the behaviour and make them even more fearful and inclined to bite even harder.
Start off by getting your ferret used to your hands by using treats. You can use any food your ferret loves. For fussy ferrets fish oil or whipped egg on your finger can work wonderfully. Reward calm behaviour and gradually gain your ferret’s trust. Rather than attempting to pick you ferret up, just place your hand nearby and give a treat.
Always quit while you are ahead and keep training sessions short. Eventually you should be able to progress to touching your ferret, then gently picking him up.
Ferret must understand that hands are not toys and if he bites, all play from you will be removed. If your ferret nips to initiate play, remove your hands and turn or walk away. If he chases you, stay absolutely still. Reward calm play behaviour with attention and treats. As soon as the biting starts again, stop play. Continue this until your ferret understands that biting means no fun for him.
BITING TO COMMUNICATE
A ferret that bites to get attention or to be picked up, may first be giving more subtle signals that it wants attention. Ferrets that do this have often tried other things first, such as bounding over to you and waiting, or nuzzling you. If you ignore the first request, the ferret will often try a bite and will get your attention that way. He then learns to bite quicker for attention.
You need first to pay close attention and pick up on early warning signs that your ferret wants attention. Respond quickly to the more subtle signals for attention. Avoid reacting to a bite and simply turn or look away. Do not give any form of attention for the bite, but reward calm and gentle interactions.
Ferrets often bite to tell their owners to put them down, so try to pick up on signals your ferret has had enough before they resort to the bite. Keep play sessions short and if your ferret is not a fan of being held, avoid this and play with your ferret in other ways.
You can train your ferret with treats to allow gentle handling, but never put him down when he bites, hold him for another 5 seconds or so, before putting him down. If your ferret really latches on, scruff him and gently put your finger in his mouth to get him to let go.
Some ferrets hate to be cornered and have you swoop down on them and pick them up. Carefully read your ferret’s signals, are there certain situations that seem to cause a bite? If so, avoid those situations and allow your ferret to come to you and initiate play and attention. You can certainly make this more likely with some treats and training.
DEAF AND BLIND FERRETS
If a previously well-handled ferret suddenly starts biting, take him to your Veterinarian for a check up. It may be a sign of illness or your ferret may be deaf or blind. A resting ferret who is surprised, can accidentally bite because he feels vulnerable, so you need to work out a signal to let him know you are coming.
Blowing on your ferrets fur before you touch him will let him know you are there if he can’t otherwise hear your approach.
Hormonal changes with the onset of oestrus, in breeding males and in ferrets with adrenal disease can all cause an increase in biting behaviour. If your ferret was fine as a kit, then started biting as an adult, a trip to your Veterinarian is in order.
Female ferrets should always be desexed and males will often fight if there are females on heat around. A ferret that is in pain is also likely to start biting, it may be the only way they have of communicating their discomfort.
SMELLS OR NOISES
If your ferret bites when you are wearing a certain scent or after you have been preparing food, it could be that the smell is objectionable and he is displaying redirected aggression. It could also be that you smell yummy and your ferret is having trouble differentiating your hand from food.
If certain noises make your ferret bite, try to avoid them, or give him a toy to bite or somewhere to hide and escape.
If your ferret loves to wrestle, whenever he bites, redirect his attention to a toy and remove your hands. Your ferret needs to learn the difference between hands and toys. Toys are a great outlet for the behaviour and all vigourous wrestling can occur safely (for your hand, but not poor fluffy duck).
Just be careful to make sure toys are safe, as pieces of toy when ingested can lead to a very expensive trip to the Veterinarian for surgical removal.
BITING OR CHEWING FURNITURE
Whenever your pet is biting furniture, distract him with a toy. You can use substances such as Bitter Apple spray on the banned furniture or toy, but the reality is that you won’t be able to leave your ferret unattended to roam freely in your house.
Power cords are very dangerous and there are many reported cases of ferrets chewing a hole in the back of a couch and disappearing in there with prized possessions or food. Block off any exits and make sure the play-zone for your ferret is escape proof, preferably not carpeted and not full of expensive antique furniture.
SCRUFFING AND TIME OUT
If your ferret does bite and is becoming dangerous to himself or your family, the easiest way to remove him to time-out without hurting anyone is to pick him up by the scruff on the back of the neck. This loose area of skin is where the mother ferret picks up her babies and there are few nerve endings here. Your hands are also safely out of the way. This is not recommended as a form of punishment, so be gentle.
Time out can be anywhere fairly boring such as a transport cage, but ideally you should not put him in his normal cage, as this will teach him to bite if he wants to go to bed. Many ferret owners get a “time-out” cage which contains a bowl of water and a litter tray. Ferrets have short attention spans so keep time outs to 3 to 5 minutes so they remember why they were put in there. When you let them out they may bite as revenge, put them straight back in, soon the frustration of being in time out repeatedly will teach them.
Punishing with a tap on the nose, water spray, hitting or throwing him will not teach your ferret an appropriate alternative behaviour and will exacerbate fear biting. Time out is a gentle form of punishment, but avoid any other more physical retribution. Punishment tends to escalate behaviour in the long-term and teaches your ferret that aggression is appropriate.
There are very few ferrets who genuinely cannot be rehabilitated and taught not to bite. It does take patience and time, and a consistent technique. Avoid punishment and use rewards for calm behaviour. A ferret will realistically take 3 weeks to learn to stop biting, perhaps even longer if the behaviour is very entrenched or you have a fearful animal.
If you cannot manage to retrain your ferret and feel you cannot provide a happy enriched home, please contact a specialist ferret welfare organisation for advice and re-homing information.