AND IN THIS CORNER ..... (Ferrets Fighting)

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Help is on the way if you have fighting ferrets and the fur is flying! For battling fuzzies, here are some hints about what may be causing the skirmishes.
by Erika Matulich, Ph.D.
Volume 3, Number 6
November/December 2000
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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 don’t get along and may fight. Even ferret best-buddies can bicker over a choice treat or sleeping spot. Let’s talk about different levels of fighting, why these ferret fights arise, and what you can do about them.
Types of Ferret Fighting
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.
Inter-species 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 don’t 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 – it takes time for ferrets to decide how to relate to each other. This type of fighting may seem almost obsessive – 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 Fun Fun!
This is the least problematic form of fighting. Ferrets "play" fight much of the time – 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: I’m 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 ferret’s 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, it’s 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 can’t 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).
Exclusionary 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.
Sexual 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 don’t 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 aggressive manner.
Evolutionary 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 aren’t 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 Flower’s space, and no other ferrets are welcome. Any intruder is greeted with a shrieking charge (and a bite, if they don’t 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.
It’s 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.
I’m 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 fight.
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 well.
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 Squabbles
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 won’t be forced to invade the others’ 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 ferrets’ playtime separate for several days (or even weeks). Give plenty of attention to your ferrets so they don’t get jealous or worried.
Don’t 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, don’t 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, don’t spray bitter apple on a ferret’s 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 don’t. 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 they’ll 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 play.
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 don’t 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 Note
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.