Ferret training




Ferret Behaviour and Basic Training

Training these little imps requires an understanding of their behaviour. As we know, achieving the fastest, most successful training is accomplished with positive reinforcement. Punishing an animal is not only mean and damaging to our relationship with them, but really unfair when we consider their natural behaviour.  This applies to all animals and is a favourite topic of mine. For this article, I am focusing on ferrets though, and how to litter train them correctly and stop them from hurting you and drawing blood every time they nip you.

Firstly, let us get some background on their behaviour:

Ferrets have distinctly powerful and engaging personalities and are playful and mischievous which indicates intelligence. They are very rambunctious and are happiest in pairs or groups.

They are half-light creatures, meaning they are most active when it is getting light or dark, i.e.: before sunrise and after sunset.  They sleep around eighteen hours of the day and wake up for around two hours during these periods.  In between, they usually wake every four hours or so to check their domain, have a bite to eat and drink, eliminate waste and have a quick play. When they wake up, they spend around twenty minutes noticeably shivering. This is not because they are sick or have done something naughty and are afraid of the consequences. It is perfectly normal. As their metabolism increases, so does their body temperature; causing a bout of shivering.

Ferrets look for dark, quiet places to sleep. They will seek out drawers, clothes cupboards or boxes with soft, warm objects inside. This is not because they are intent on destroying your clothes or misbehaving, it is simply because they are burrowing animals; and this is what they do.

Being such curious animals, they will investigate everything. If you so much as look at something, then consider the case solved. Unfortunately, this curiosity is the leading cause of deaths among ferrets because people are unaware of this instinct they have. Investigators lead dangerous lives. Besides making them accident prone; it tends to get them locked in refrigerators, washers, dryers, rarely used cupboards and freezers.  It is your job to ensure that no ferrets are exploring or nesting inside any of these dangerous places. And it is also your job to supervise play at all times.

In the wild, ferrets use their mouths (with tiny sharp teeth included) to do everything they need to do. They use them for foraging, for eating, for exploring, for gathering, for learning, for grooming, for playing and everything else in between.  This means that they will use them in your home too, and when interacting with you. This is really important to remember when dealing with your ferret.

Now that we understand their basic behaviour, let us successfully teach them the basic house rules:

Litter Training

Being small predators, ferrets are in the middle of the food chain in the wild; therefore they instinctively look for a safe, sheltered place to do their business. In your home, this means a quiet corner somewhere.  Usually a ferret needs the loo a few minutes after waking up, and being latrine animals, they prefer to use specific areas. Fortunately, this makes litter training them very easy.

Place a litter box or wad of newspaper in a corner of their cage or near their nest. Keep them confined until after they have relieved themselves. Then let them roam the house. They are unlikely to need the toilet until after their next sleep. As the ferret learns to use the litter box, you can expand the size of the training area in much the same way as you would when paper training a puppy. Once your ferret gets good at this, you can place its litter box in a secluded corner that is out of sight. Cover one side of the box with a piece of furniture so that it is sheltered by a wall on two sides and something on the third side.  Do this in every room and their natural preferences will guide them to it.

Use a fine, dust-free, clumping litter or newspapers inside the box and remember to clean them daily. If it gets too unhygienic, then the ferret is likely to go somewhere else – like under your bed and on your new Persian rug.

Teaching Bite Inhibition

Ferrets are extremely playful, and many people unfamiliar with ferret body language get frightened and confused as much of their behaviour is related to play and play “hunting”.

The most common of these is the “war dance”. Your ferret will arch its back, bare its fangs, throw its head back, bush up its tail and then maniacally bounce backwards and forwards; and every which way while happily chattering away. As crazy as this looks, it is only an invitation to come down to their level and play. If you do, and imitate their actions, then they will get even more insane (as impossible as this is to believe) and chase you. Then they will suddenly stop, turn and run. It is expected of you to chase them in return.

Another one is pawing the ground while not moving. This is a call to play fight. If you paw the ground too, then they will jump at you, then retreat again. After pawing and jumping a few times, they will suddenly attack your hand; attempting to wrestle it down and playfully “kill” it.

Ferrets love people and want to include you in play. This can be painful for you and is a major learning step for your ferret. They must learn what is too hard and what is too soft. They have thick skin and fur that protects them from each other, so it takes a while for them to understand that we don’t and it hurts us. Be patient. Don’t stop playing with your pet. When the ferret bites too hard, then do not hit it. Simply do what is natural and yelp in pain – using a high-pitched voice. You will see the ears twitch and the expression will show you that they did not mean to hurt you. When they learn that they are hurting us, they will learn bite inhibition and play gentler. Rough play is a critical part of life for a ferret, especially when young.

Nipping is another invitation to play. It is how ferrets communicate and completely normal. Play with them. Don’t despair; they do mellow as they age.

Now that you understand why ferrets do what they do, you can appreciate them for what they are. Go ahead… play nicely now.


Article by Cassandra