The Ferret Owners Manual

Joan and Valentine demonstrate the “scruff”

One of the most common behavioral problem I see at our shelter is the result of the former owner putting the ferret on the floor as soon as he nips. The ferret very quickly gets the idea “Oh, so this is how I’m supposed to ask to be set down?” So if he doesn’t get set down after the first nip, he “shouts” a little louder. I use the scruff, shake and hold technique until he learns that a nip is not the way to ask to be set down. In fact, I usually hold the ferret until he goes docile and gives a big sigh of resignation.

Some people claim to have had good results in training ferrets not to nip by “flicking” them lightly on the nose with their finger. I don’t agree with this procedure. It does work for some ferrets in some situations. I have, however, seen this cause significant problems with many ferrets. It may actually result in a real hate-hate relationship forming between the two of you, and that is exactly what you don’t want.

A few ferrets are genetically deaf. This is common in ferrets with a mostly white head or a pronounced stripe between the ears. Sometimes, but not always, these are more difficult to train simply because they can’t hear you tell them “no.” Often the owner will have no clue that their ferret is deaf until they eventually notice that he doesn’t seem to react at all to sudden, loud noises. Nip training in this case might involve using your forefinger and thumb to lightly hold the ferret under his jaw and on top of his snout, while scruffing with the other hand.

If the scruffing approach fails, one good anti-nipping training aid is Bitter Apple (or Orange, or Lemon) – available in most pet stores, usually used to keep animals from licking their fur. Spray your hands and fingers, then offer it to the ferret to “taste.” Most think that this is the worst tasting stuff, ever!  Spray your hands before you pick him up, or in the type of situation where the nipping usually occurs. It doesn’t take long for the ferret to learn that you don’t taste good. Never spray it in the ferret’s face, and never put it directly in their mouth.

Whatever training approach you use, remember to hold him and love him after the punishment. Rewarding good behavior is always preferable to punishing bad behavior, and teaching him that you love him is, after all, the most important lesson.

Ferrets love socks, especially white ones, with or without feet in them. Wearing white socks without shoes is an invitation for a ferret to try to steal your socks, feet and all. Some people discourage this behavior using the nip training techniques described above. Our ferrets trained us to always wear shoes over our socks when the ferrets are up and about.  My sister-in-law learned the “white sock fetish” on her first visit when she attempted to come down the stairs in the morning, wearing white socks, in spite of our warning.  Eight of our ferrets cornered her on the stairs and kept trying to steal her socks right off her feet.  She fled up the stairs and changed to red socks. The ferrets ignored her.

There is “ferret play” and there is “human play.” The idea is to teach the ferret when each is appropriate. One of the most important lessons to teach your ferret is “pickup is not play-time.” When you pick up your ferret to hold, never roughhouse or invite play. This must be a signal of “quiet-time”; a time for hugs and petting. Once you pick your ferret up, keep holding him on your terms. No matter how much he may want down, no matter how much he squirms and wriggles, keep holding him until you are ready to put him down. Once he settles down (usually with a big sigh), give him a reward of diluted Linatone/Ferretone. He will get the idea. Soon you will have a ferret that loves to be held and cuddled.

If you decide to Ferret-play, choose your terms. If it’s going to be a very rough and tumble play, I’d suggest you use a thick “puppet” (stuffed animal or something similar) that your ferret can readily chomp without fear of hurting you. If it’s going to be a more subdued play (humanplay) don’t get too rough and confuse the ferret. Stick to tummy tickles and a little fur roughing, or tug-of-war. They are smart and will quickly learn the difference.


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