Ferret Friendly Facts and Advice by Erika Matulich, Ph.D.

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No Nipping!

©Isabelle Francais
“Scruffing” your ferret is one way to correct nipping.
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No Nippy Ferrets!

© Erika Matulich, Ph.D.

When my ferret Little Bear wants a treat of Kix cereal, she sits under my feet and looks straight up. If I don't see her, she puts a paw on my ankle. If I'm still unresponsive, she digs at my foot. At this point, I am well enough trained to give her a treat, because if I don't, the next step is a good ankle chomp—and I don't want to reward her for that!

When Stevie wants to play, he'll stand up and put his paws on my knees, and then bounce around. If I don't play after a few requests, he'll use his mouth to grab a fold of skin behind my knee and tug. Ouch!

Ferrets bite for many reasons. Nipping is normal behavior but something that ferrets need to unlearn. Ferrets use their mouth for more than just eating; they use it as both a communication and a defense tool, and for investigating their environment. (Baby ferrets, or kits, explore with their mouths, and will grab and chew almost anything.) Your ferret must be taught, preferably at an early age, what the acceptable limits of nipping behavior are.

Unacceptable behavior
Like Little Bear and Stevie, most ferrets nip for attention or as an invitation to play. Kits, especially, nip to play. But ferrets have very tough skin, and what is a play bite to another ferret may be an “ouch” nip to a human. Baby ferrets must be gently taught that nipping you is not socially acceptable behavior. Kits who nip and are not corrected may grow into adults who bite.

Some ferrets react to strong smells by biting, either because the smell is irritating and must be “killed,” or because the smell is yummy and must be “grabbed and hidden.” For this reason, you may be in danger of being bitten for wearing aftershave, scented makeup, perfume, hand lotion, and so on. And there's something about smelly people feet (and wiggling toes) that ferrets apparently find irresistible for nipping.

How do you correct biting? If your ferret is nipping just to play or for attention, teach him that the behavior is unwelcome. Pick up the ferret, loudly say “No!” and set the ferret down. If he still continues the bad behavior, try adding a five-minute time-out in a travel carrier (ferrets won't understand more than five minutes, so more punishment is not better).

Another alternative is to “scruff” your ferret by gently grasping the skin on the back of the neck and picking him up. Hold him like this until he calms down. A final solution is to press (not pinch) the ferret's ear between the pads (not nails!) of your thumb and forefinger.

You should never, ever physically punish your ferret with any sort of tap, slap, hit, thump, or nose flick. Doing so will teach the ferret to get physical during human encounters; he will only bite harder the next time, and this could turn into an escalating competition. And if your ferret bites while you are holding him, don't reward him for biting by putting him down without a reprimand—that may be just what he wanted. You need to show your ferret who is boss!

When my new kit, Zodiac, would run and bite me on the foot, I would quietly pick her up, say “No!” and set her down somewhere else. She soon learned that nipping my feet wasn't worth the effort. However, when she nipped my husband's feet, he would jump around, yell, and chase her. This reaction was great fun for Zodiac; my husband was unintentionally rewarding her for her bad behavior. As a result, Zodiac continues to single out her dad for a nice round of footbite-yell-chase.

The problem could be you
Some bites, though, cannot be blamed on the ferret. A common “mistake” bite is on the nose. Because ferrets don't see well, they don't realize that your nose (or hands or feet) are part of you. Don't bring a ferret directly up to your face; when you do so, all the ferret sees is a giant human nose about to loom into her blind spot (right in front of her nose). An immediate reaction is to latch on to the intruding human nose and keep it out of the way.

Ferrets who are not neutered or spayed are more likely to bite, because their hormones are governing their actions—yet another reason to get your ferret fixed. Ferrets who are very hungry may bite to grab whatever might be food. And ferrets may bite when they resent being caged up for long hours; a bored ferret is usually a biting ferret. The solution is to play more often with your ferret—more handling leads to fewer tooth marks, not more.

Environmental changes can also stress a ferret and lead to biting behavior. Moving, divorce, odd hours, and travel can all cause ferret crankiness. And, finally, if your ferret starts biting suddenly when she never has before, take her to the vet; she may be in pain, so a medical examination is necessary.

Ferrets who bite out of pain or fear should not be reprimanded for their behavior. These biters need lots of time to either heal or learn to trust people. Punishment just leads to more fear and pain.

Sick or hurt ferrets, and especially ferrets who have been abused, will bite hard to defend themselves. In such cases, the ferret usually clamps down and doesn't let go. Don't panic, yell, or overreact, because you'll scare the ferret into locking down harder. Talk gently to the ferret and allow her to relax. Don't try to pull away or pry her jaws open—just grit your teeth until she lets go. You can also dip the ferret's nostrils into some water so she will let go to breathe.

My ferret Flower was such a bad biter after being horribly abused as a kit, we actually thought about putting her to sleep. But 15 months of patient training have brought out an incredibly sweet girl who loves to kiss her mom! Hopefully, your patience and gentle training will give you a well-mannered ferret, too.