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- Ferrets are usually described as
social creatures who like lots of other ferret companionship.
Although this is generally true, ferrets are just as choosy about
their friends as you are. Some ferrets simply donít get along and
may fight. Even ferret best-buddies can bicker over a choice treat
or sleeping spot. Letís talk about different levels of fighting,
why these ferret fights arise, and what you can do about them.
- Types of Ferret
- There are several different kinds of
ferret fights, ranging from simple play to out-and-out war. Remember
that ferret skin is very tough and has evolved to handle other
ferret teeth. Much of the "fighting" that looks too rough
to us humans is normal behavior for a ferret. The key is being able
to distinguish among different types of fighting.
versus Intraspecies Fighting.
- Interspecies fighting is a fight
between a ferret and another kind of animal (a human, dog, or cat,
for example). In most cases, interspecies fighting is viewed by the
ferret as being a life-or-death situation, because there are only
two types of animals: predators and prey. In a fight with a cat,
dog, or human, the ferret is the prey animal and feels very
threatened. In this situation, the ferret would prefer to turn tail
and run, but if it cannot, a short and nasty fight will ensue. The
ferret will only continue attacking until he can get away. So donít
corner your ferret and swoop down upon him, or let other household
pets do the same. A ferret should always have an escape route.
- This article will focus mainly on
intraspecies fighting: ferret to ferret. Intraspecies fighting is
not quick Ė it takes time for ferrets to decide how to relate to
each other. This type of fighting may seem almost obsessive Ė your
ferret may repeatedly hunt down another ferret and pick a fight.
This obsessive behavior is often exacerbated by humans who interfere
and stop the fighting before the ferrets can come to a satisfactory
conclusion. Eventually, most ferrets get along with each other.
- Play Fighting: Fun
- This is the least problematic form of
fighting. Ferrets "play" fight much of the time Ė for
fun! They may weasel-war dance around each other, snapping and
biting, rolling each other over, hissing and dooking the entire
time. Whenever a ferret initiates play (usually with an open mouth
and a pounce with a nip), the ferret is inviting the other ferret
(or even a human) to "get physical." This tag-team
scuffling is lots of fun for the ferrets, and nobody really gets
hurt. Ferrets who are normally friendly with each other engage in
this type of play often.
- Dominance Fighting:
Iím Better Than You!
- It is common for play fighting to
escalate into dominance fighting, where one ferret wants to be THE
top (or alpha) ferret. Dominance fighting is common among
same-gender ferrets. The alpha "wannabe" will engage in
several behaviors meant to be intimidating to the other ferret,
including fur fluffing, hissing, bumping, shoving, and screaming.
This frightening behavior is meant to lessen the chances of injury
while still showing the other they are not to be messed with! The
aggressor may knock the other ferret over, pin them to the floor by
grabbing the back of the other ferretís neck, and possibly drag
the losing ferret around the floor. The losing ferret may shriek
piteously, but this is much more out of indignation than pain. So
although this behavior may look rough to you, itís often it is all
in earnest fun to show who is better. In dominance fighting, the
choice area of attack is the back of the neck or between the
shoulders where the skin is (fortunately) very thick.
- Defensive Fighting:
Let Me Outta Here!
- If the losing ferret feels as though
he has become the prey and the winning ferret the predator, defense
mechanisms may set in. The greatest instinct in this case is to run,
but if the loser canít get away, he may bite the other ferret
first ("Let Go!") and then tear off to safety.
Unfortunately, the winning ferret may give chase to continue the
dominance fight -- these fights can be lengthy! After enough
attempted defensive escapes by the loser, the winning ferret can
bounce around feeling proud of the accomplishment. When a ferret is
truly in fear or pain and reacting to a real predator (human or
other pet), the response is often stronger, because the ferret
perceives this situation to be life-or-death. Flight is preferable,
but if the ferret feels cornered, a brief, nasty fight can take
place (right before the ferret beats a hasty retreat).
Fighting: Get Lost!
- This level of fighting is much more
intense than dominance fighting and may seem to get out of hand. The
goal of the exclusionary fight is to try and ensure that the other
ferret never comes back. A fight to get rid of a ferret can result
in somewhat more serious injuries such as bites and scratches that
draw blood. Again, these attacks are most often focused on the neck
or face (although there may be a few misses in the tussle!). These
areas of skin are best evolved to handle wounds. Although the fights
look very terrible, they are not thought to be life-threatening to
the ferret. Cuts and scabs on the back of the neck can be treated
with antibiotic ointment.
Fighting: The Bloody Battle.
- This type of fighting takes place when
a male ferret wants first rights to a lady ferret. Ferrets are
equipped to fight to the death if necessary. Although dominance and
exclusionary fighting look and sound awful, if one ferret was really
trying to kill the other, it would be over very quickly. This
worst-case killing scenario can happen when two whole males who donít
know each other are in rut in the presence of a female in heat. The
resulting sexual fighting can lead to death (to the smaller or
weaker male) or very serious injury (if the males are about the same
size and strength). This situation is dangerous to both you and the
ferrets. Keep in mind that even an altered ferret can have hormonal
problems (such as with adrenal disease) and behave in a sexually
Fighting: Changes Happen
- It is common for one type of fighting
to evolve into another. For example, play fighting can turn into
dominance fighting and vice versa. Exclusionary fighting will
eventually devolve into dominance fighting. Serious exclusionary and
dominance fights should be supervised (and sexual fighting
situations should be avoided). Unfortunately, the fighting will
continue until the conclusion is played out, so you should intervene
as little as possible. If you stop a fight, the ferrets will only
continue it again tomorrow (and the next day and the next) until a
settlement is reached.
- Fighting Factors
- What situational factors cause ferrets
to fight? There are a number of scenarios, many of which are
unavoidable, but at least you can prepare yourself for them!
- New Kid on the Block.
- One of the most common complaints
about ferrets fighting is when a new ferret is introduced to the
household. As ferrets get older, they seem to become less and less
tolerant of newcomers. Any new ferret is considered an interloper
who is trespassing on private territory! The typical reaction is an
exclusionary fight. Unfortunately, newcomers are at a disadvantage
because they arenít familiar enough with the territory to know
where to run, or they are outnumbered, or they are smaller (as in
the case of kits being introduced to adult ferrets).
- Get Outta My Space!
- Ferrets can become quite possessive
over their territory. My ferrets know exactly who belongs in each
cage, and trespassers are forbidden! This situation can occur with
co-existing ferrets (dominance fighting) as well as with new
introductions (exclusionary fighting). One of my ferrets, Flower,
has one particular spot behind a couch cushion where she always
sleeps when she is outside of her cage. This location is definitely
Flowerís space, and no other ferrets are welcome. Any intruder is
greeted with a shrieking charge (and a bite, if they donít leave
quickly enough!). Humans who are rude enough to lean back on her
couch cushion are first repeatedly nose-bumped, and then nipped if
they are not bright enough to get the hint.
- Itís MY Stuff!
- Ferrets can also be selfish about
their possessions, whether this is food or a toy. Toys may not be
shared at the same time, but often ferret play with the same toys
independently with no problems. Treats, in particular, may be
jealously guarded. I have several ferrets who will shriek, fur-puff
and hiss when another ferret walks too close to their grape. Even
though the other ferret may have no interest in the grape, the
possessive ferret wants to let anyone else know that the grape is
spoken for and not available (or some fur may fly). Most of the
arguments over treats and toys are dominance squabbles.
- Iím Not in the Mood!
- Sometimes ferrets are in no mood for
play and may rebuff a play invitation with a dominance move. This
situation happens often with older and younger ferrets. The younger
ferrets, with their boundless energy, invite play from a ferret who
is older, more tired, or not feeling well. The response is a rebuff.
Unfortunately, the playful ferret may try repeatedly to get a
response, and the response may turn into an unwanted dominance
- Tis the Season.
- Some researchers have observed that
ferrets seem to fight more in the spring and fall. Even fixed
ferrets undergo hormonal changes that allow them to have seasonal
shedding. Behavioral differences can show up during these times as
- Boys and Girls.
- Wild polecats tend to rebuff members
of the same gender when choosing to live the solitary life. Ferrets
may be more quick to fight with another of the same sex than a
member of the opposite sex. However, same-sex littermates who grew
up together as kits get along just fine.
- Stopping the
- When you are getting to introduce a
new ferret to your existing business, there are some methods to try
and "short-circuit" the exclusionary fighting and get it
down to less severe dominance fighting more quickly. First, you can
try bathing all the ferrets (old and new) with the same kind of
shampoo and rinse; do the same for all the ferret bedding and
laundry. Having everyone and everything smelling the same could make
it harder for ferrets to detect differences. Make sure all the
ferrets are eating the same kind of food, because different
nutrition leads to different body and litterbox smells.
- Second, new ferrets should have their
own territory (their own cage, litterbox, sleep sacks, hammocks,
etc.). This way the new ferrets wonít be forced to invade the
othersí territory just to find a place to sleep! Put the new cage
where your existing ferrets can check it out, smell the new ferrets,
and get used to them through the cage bars. Keep the ferretsí
playtime separate for several days (or even weeks). Give plenty of
attention to your ferrets so they donít get jealous or worried.
- Donít force togetherness. Keep
initial encounters to a few minutes. Extend social time slowly. Some
ferrets get along fine within minutes; others will take months.
Above all, donít reprimand or punish the fighting ferret; this
will only cause him to hate the new ferret even more!
- Avoid squabbles due to competition
over territory, toys, or food. Make sure every ferret has their own
place to sleep (although they often end up snuggling together). I
have twice as many sleep sacks and hammocks as I do ferrets, and
this has greatly reduced the "get outta my bed" syndrome.
Give every ferret their own toy, and have extras to hand out. Feed
treats at the same time and make sure there is enough for everyone.
Allow plenty of playtime for everyone, so boredom or frustration is
not vented on another ferret.
- Reducing the Severity of Fights.
- Some people spray bitter apple on the
necks of the attacked ferrets. This may make the hostile ferret bite
less because it tastes so terrible. However, donít spray bitter
apple on a ferretís neck that already has wounds because it will
sting very painfully. Other people put Linatone or Ferretone on the
neck, so the biter is more likely to change to licking the tasty
treat. Still others use a squirt gun to break up fights. Sometimes
these methods work, sometimes they donít. The best way to reduce
the severity of fights is to be patient and allow time for the
ferrets to work it out themselves. The more you interfere, the less
the ferrets are able to conclude their fighting, so theyíll just
go at it again. This waiting period is difficult, because the fights
are loud, look horrible, and may result in bloody bites and
scratches. Again, most of the damage happens on the neck and between
the shoulders, which is not dangerous to the ferret. Treat the
scabby areas, which will heal quickly, and let the ferrets resolve
their differences. The fighting can then de-escalate from severe
exclusionary fighting to dominance fighting and eventually to mere
- The Solitary Ferret
- In general, ferrets are very social
creatures who appreciate buddies to interact with. However, there
are a rare few who simply do not want to be integrated into a gang.
These ferrets never accept other ferrets; they have reverted to the
polecat behavior of excluding others (especially other ferrets of
the same gender). These ferrets have either grown up solitary and
donít know how to handle other ferrets, or they may have been
abused and now mistrust everybody. This is the ferret who, despite
your best efforts, does not tolerate others after six months. Your
success with this ferret type will be limited and it is very
unlikely they will change. Leaving a ferret of this nature to fight
it out with the rest of the gang is cruel because of the stress and
risk of injury for all the ferrets involved. The painfully simple
solution is that these ferrets are "only" ferrets who need
separate housing and playtime.
- The Playgroup
- If you have lots of ferrets, they may
gravitate into groups of ferrets who get along well with each other,
but not necessarily with ferrets in other groups. Try and find those
ferrets who would best be separated and those who like each other
and split up their cages and playtime. I have friends with 22
ferrets separated into the day shift, swing shift, and night shift.
In general, ferrets who arrived at the household at the same time
are best grouped together. Ferrets of similar ages often work best
together because their energy levels are alike. But ferrets all have
individual personalities, just like people, and careful observation
is needed to see which ferrets will work best together.
- A Final Fighting
- Ferrets are social critters and do
love having buddies. Although initial introductions are sometimes
rocky, many ferrets who started their relationship with biting
fighting are later best buddies. We humans like companionship but
are selective about our friends, and we can understand how ferrets
can be too.