Authors: Jason Raynor & Sherry Stone
So you have a biter on your hands…When a ferret lays into you or someone else with their teeth they are trying to communicate something. This is a natural communication method for ferret. Their skin is much tougher than ours and something that may be a simple warning or the equivalent of a scowl to another ferret can very easily draw blood on a human. Ferrets bite for many reasons. In fear, in defense, in annoyance, protecting territory and trying to establish dominance are some of the more common reasons. Ferrets don’t bite because “they hate you”. There is always a reason. Some ferrets are just hands off types and not into being handled or cuddled as much as others. They will come around in time though and usually warm up to their owners enough that biting isn’t something to worry about.
If you ended up with a biter then it is your responsibility to teach them what is appropriate behavior. It may be cliche but it is true “there are no bad pets, only bad owners”. No one else is responsible for your ferrets behavior towards yourself or anyone else who comes into contact with it. Ferrets (as intelligent as they are) are animals. NEVER use physical punishments on any animal as they WILL NOT understand WHY they are being hurt and only become resentful and fearful. In the end you will make the situation worse rather than better. You need to earn your pets trust, not make them afraid of you. Training any animal is about behavior modification through both positive and non-physical negative conditioning.
Below I will try to define some of the types of “bites” and some of the possible reasons behind a ferret biting someone. I don’t pretend to be a “ferret whisper” but a lot of this reasoning is based on observation, logic and knowledge from other ferret owners with years of experience.
Mouthing: is when a ferret “mouths” your hand or fingers when play wrestling. It causes no pain and there is barely any pressure at all. This usually has to be learned by young ferrets as they naturally use to much pressure in play with humans.
Play Bite: this is similar to “mouthing” but usually has more pressure and may include holding you in their mouths and some dooking or hissing. Play is still the intent behind this. Intending on the person and the ferret this could be a little painful.
Nip: A laying on of teeth that can leave marks or sometimes draw blood, is usually brief (no holding) but there is intent behind it. YOUR FERRET IS TRYING TO TELL YOU SOMETHING!!
Bite: This is unmistakable, the ferret bites with intent and will draw blood. Remember, ferrets are carnivores. They can easily kill small animals and consume the thigh bones of a chicken. As hard as they bite you, always remember they COULD bite harder. They are trying to communicate something to you, NOT kill you (if they were, they could easily break finger bones). Normally it is a quick bite and release intended to communicate fear or some other message (such as to leave them alone). It could also indicate pain (an injury) or illness as well (if your ferret normally doesn’t bite). A bite can be a very rare occurrence and may not necessarily need correction if you deserved it (scared them, trod on a tail, kicked them by accident, etc). If biting is a regular occurrence, then you need to correct it as soon as possible..
The Bite & Latch: A bite and latch will pretty much always draw blood, they will latch on and usually hiss. The intent behind a bite and latch can be varied and not always negative (surprised, aren’t you?). You may just have a confused, unaltered hob on your hands (literally) that wants to express his love (lol) in some dark romantic spot.
In most cases a Bite & Latch is a “revenge” or “anger” bite for something you did or are doing that they don’t like. They are telling you that something between you needs to change. In most cases you have to earn their trust and teach them that biting is not acceptable behavior.
Releasing a Bite & Latch:
There are a couple of methods you can use to get a latched on ferret to release you.
- The easiest is to push back into the ferrets mouth. I know this goes against every instinct you have be it works. A ferret (or any carnivore) will only latch on harder if you struggle and try to pull loose. By pushing back you surprise the ferret as it goes against how its instinct tell it a bit animal will behave.
- The second method is to place your thumb and index finger on either side of their mouth in the corners. Apply moderate pressure and pull back. This is uncomfortable for them and they will usually release (this is the method most vets use to check teeth).
- Run the BACK of the ferrets head under a running tap of cold water. The surprise of the cold water will often make them let go. Do not run into their nose or they may bite harder in panic.
The Con Bite: This bite is a ferret specialty, usually when you are holding them or on a convenient foot. You get a few innocent “kisses” or licks and then CHOMP (a bite or a bite & latch). This is usually a territorial bite or dominance bite and can be seen being used on new ferrets or on ferrets that may be challenging an alphas rule. It is also often used on someone when a ferret has more than one owner. They tend to bond more strongly to one person than the other, and see other person as a rival for “their” person’s affection. They could also be “protecting” their person as well.
How do I know if I need to correct my ferrets behavior?
Generally, if you are not regularly being bitten hard enough to draw blood, you will need to decide if you want to condition your ferret not to bite at all. Personally, I am ok with mouthing, play bites, nips and full bites because the last two hardly ever happen and only if I deserve it. I’ve owned ferrets for 4 years now and have only been bit hard enough to draw blood twice and I fully deserved it both times. However, if your ferrets are regularly exposed to children or the elderly (with their thin skin) you may want to train them not to bite at all.
Problem biters (you or someone else is getting bitten regularly) need to be trained and you will need to access your relationship with your ferret to determine what they are trying to tell you.
The equipment needed for bite training is limited and not expensive at all.
- Small EMPTY cage or pet carrier. (called the “sin bin”).
- A treat that your ferret enjoys (oil, freeze dried liver or heart treats, small cooked or raw meat pieces, etc).
- Commitment from ALL your pets handlers to stick to these methods.
As soon as you are bit (and get free if they latch on), place your ferret in the “sin bin” for 3 minutes
When the time is up, open the door and let your ferret out. Do not cuddle or “apologize” in any way for them being in there. Ignore them totally until they initiate friendly contact. They have to learn to associate the sin bin with biting, not cuddling.
- Every time your ferret initiates contact with you without biting, reward them with a treat.
That is it! That is the entire procedure for correcting biters. It seems to simple to work but it does as long as you abide by the keys to success (below).
The Keys To Success:
- The timing is critical!! If you wait before putting them in the “sin bin” (doing first aid for example) then they won’t associate being in the bin with biting you. If you leave them in the bin for longer than 3 minutes they will most likely forget why they are in there in the first place. They need to associate biting with being in the sin bin for the training to be effective.
- Reward your ferret for behavior you want to encourage. If you are dealing with a problem biter you will probably have to start slow and earn their trust. Generally you need to be as hands off as possible with problem biters as they will want their space. Each time YOUR FERRET initiates contact with you and does not bite, immediately give them a treat. Once they have adjusted to that, you can move on to rewarding them for being held for a period of time, etc.
- EVERYONE who has regular contact with your ferret must punish and reward your ferret equally for biting and good behavior. Sit down and talk with them so that everyone is clear on what is considered a punishable bite and what is not. What deserves a reward (the ferret initiating contact without biting, being held without biting, etc) and what does not. Consistency is absolutely critical or you will just end up confusing your ferret.
- Do not react in fear around a problem biter. Like most animals your ferret can tell if you are afraid and it can make them nervous or more inclined to bite if they are trying to dominate you. If you get bit, hold your tongue, do not flinch and react calmly as outlined above.
This Method Doesn’t Seem To Be Working:
First of all, for the worst bites it can take up to 6 months before you start seeing progress. If, and ONLY IF you are not seeing any progress (and are following the method about to a t) at this point there is one other method that works for some ferrets. It is important to note that this method should NOT be used with fear biters as it can cause further issues.
What NOT To Do:
Physical punishment is NOT ACCEPTABLE as a means of training for any animal. This means no nose flicking, pinching, biting, whisker pulling or other means of inflicting pain.
Scruffing and dragging is commonly advised as it is what a mother ferret would do, but mother ferrets only use scruffing as a means to transport kits, not as a punishment. Since siblings or foreign ferrets use scruffing as a form of dominance, it can backfire and if used repeatedly, can actually cause behavioural issues such as a lack of trust, fear of humans and biting out of fear.
Scruffing used for restraining, medicating, grooming, vetting, etc is fine. They DO know the difference.
Your hands should only ever be associated with good things. Never negative. Training through fear isn’t nearly effective as training through love and trust. Negative, pain inflicting methods defeat the purpose of having a pet. Having an animal to extend your love, trust and compassion to.
Lastly, spraying with water as is commonly done with cats is beyond useless with ferrets. They may be startled the first few times but eventually they just think it is a game and enjoy it