As a shelter, I hear the comments all the time – “ferrets bite”, “I can’t get my ferret to stop nipping” or “Will I ever get him/her to stop biting”? The answer is yes, you can. Ferrets are intelligent, social animals that are easily trained, once you understand them and work with them.
A ferrets normal behavior when playing is to bite, and since their skin is so much thicker and tougher than our own, they just don’t know that their play biting is hurting you!
Young ferrets nip for much different reasons than older or adult ferrets. A kit nipping is acting very normal – if you were another kit, that is. This is usually their method of initiating play — c’mon chase me!!!! Or to try and tell you “Put me down!” It will take time for you to teach them to be held without a lot of squirming or nipping. Try picking her up and talking to her, “stay still, be good, stay still” and hold her for about 10-15 seconds to start — the ferret will think that is forever!!! Slowly increase the amount of time you hold her, and NEVER put them down while the ferret is squirming or nipping. Wait for the ferret to stop, hold another 2-3 seconds, release and praise “GOOD Ferret!!” Many young ferrets go through a nippy stage that they will outgrow with your patient and consistent training.
Remember that ferrets naturally “rough-house” when they play. It is perfectly normal for a ferret to wrestle with your hand in play. While you want to train them not to bite hard it is not realistic to want them to not “mouth” or play-bite gently. They can and will learn your limits if you clearly, consistently define them. It is also very typical play behavior for a ferret to nip at your ankles and run away to entice you to play. Again the key is that a gentle nip should be acceptable, a hard bite is not.
There are a number of methods that can help train your ferret not to bite(nip). The biggest thing to remember is that you are the boss. The key to training is not necessarily the how you discipline – it’s the consistency. If I don’t want my toes nibbled, than each time my toes are nibbled – I have to discipline, no matter what the technique. If I don’t, then the ferrets (natural born gamblers!) think: “I got away with it this time, I’ll try again and see if I can get away with it again!”
As long as you are consistent in their punishment, consistent in the praise(for example, when they could have bitten and didn’t), and are calm, gentle & firm you will soon have a good well-trained ferret.
You must also never lose your temper, even when the ferret has bitten hard. Don’t make a game of the discipline – tell them “NO” and if they bounce back, dooking – pick them up and hold them still so that they understand that this is not playtime. Put them back in their cage until they calm down.
To further encourage good behavior, keep a treat (like Ferretone) handy. Whenever you pick your ferret up, give him a few drops of Ferretone. He will quickly associate being held with good things! I also reward my ferrets when they were going to bite, and didn’t. It just reinforces that people are good, and that you shouldnt bite people.
Some of the different methods of discipline:
Time out: Other people use the “time out” method — first a verbal “NO, BAD FERRET” and then if it continues, put the ferret in his/her cage, saying “BAD FERRET, NO BITE”. Add to this a training aid, like bitter apple and/or bitter lime and this will stop a baby nipper.
Scruffing: Another method to use, when your ferret nips, grasp him firmly by the back of the neck. This is called “scruffing.” Mother ferrets scruff their babies to discourage undesirable behavior, so he’ll understand this as a punishment. Even more effective – bite him on the back of the neck! What I mean is, literally scruff the ferret using your mouth. It sounds a little crazy, but I’ve found it to be a very effective means of communicating with my guys. You must be consistent in applying the scruffing/biting punishment.
Training Aids: To help discourage your little guy from nipping, I recommend that you purchase Bitter Apple or Lime, a dog-training spray or paste. Spray Bitter Apple on your hands (toes, or where ever the ferret is nipping). The bitter taste will usually prevent ferrets from nipping. I use both for different reasons. The spray I use on my hands cause it evaporates easily and the paste I use on my feet. I also use the spray on my shoes or socks. I also keep a Q-tip dipped or soaked in bitter apple handy and when the ferret approaches, I pick up the Q-tip and tell the ferret, “NO BITE” – as they bite, I stick the Q-tip in the mouth (be careful! Bitter Apple contains alcohol! Do not get in the eyes and never spray at the ferret!). This also works for ferrets that nip your hand when they want to be put down.
Bribery: Toes/ankle nippers — well, you can try the bitter apple/lime or sometimes I fake them out — I put Ferretone on instead! Its proven to be so distracting, they will stop what they were doing, lick all the Ferretone up, and then beg for more!
Water spray bottle: What I have also used is a spray bottle filled with water. When the ferret starts nipping or biting, I squirt them with the water, and tell them, “NO BITE, BAD FERRET!”. Colder water is usually more effective, but room temperature squirts also get their attention.I repeat this until the ferret stops attempting to bite and then I praise the ferret and reward him/her with a treat.
Finger push: In this method, when the ferret bites the finger, gently push the finger back into the mouth, until you feel the ferret trying to get your finger out of their mouth. This is very uncomfortable for them and while you are pushing you are telling them “NO NO BAD FERRET”.
Most people will use a combination of all of the above — but be warned, these may not work with an abused/neglected ferret. Those cases, thank goodness, are pretty rare. With all of these techniques, tone of voice is very important – you want to impress upon the ferret that what they are doing is wrong, but yelling at them or anything less than a firm voice is lost on the ferret. The idea is not to hurt the ferret, but to make them understand that what they are doing is wrong, and will not be tolerated.
Breaking an adult ferret of biting can be very difficult, since they have been allowed to form this bad habit and must be convinced to stop that particular behavior. Consistent firm discipline is the only method of breaking an adult ferret, and even then, it may not be 100% effective, depending on the age of the ferret. Another point to consider is that each ferret is different, so its important not to depend on one technique but to “customize” your training for the individual, or use a combination of all or some of the above. The important thing is, whatever method you decide on, you MUST be consistent. Have a family meeting, (if more than just you) and decide what is and isn’t acceptable – and then, stick to it. If you can’t catch them in the act, then you can’t punish them later when you catch them — they won’t understand. They will start thinking that coming to you will equal punishment, and stop approaching you.
The worst biters that I have seen (with the exception of the abuse cases- and in abuse situations the only thing that seems to work is trust) were ferrets that were not handled and socialized as they were kits and are now adults — they simply did not understand that they had adult teeth in adult mouths and that it hurts me when I am bitten! They are allowed out time to work off their energy first, and then I start working with them. Have I been bitten? Oh yes! So hard my fingers still tingle 4 weeks after the bite! But I keep going back and working with them, using a calm but firm tone of voice. It may take longer to train in these cases, but they do stop biting. With a “normal” kit, it only takes a couple of weeks to get through to them. A website which may also help is located at www.ferretcentral.org, and has many ferret “experts” able to help.
Lastly, please remember that children should always be supervised with pets, whether or not the pet is trustworthy. Children can unintentionally be too rough with such a small animal. Injuries can occur on both sides as a result, but too often it is the pet that suffers.
-By Lisa Leidig
This article was originally published at FerretStoreInteractive.com in 2004.