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New, Young Ferret Dominates Older Ferret

Why would an older ferret allow a younger ferret to dominate its home?

By Mary Van Dahm
Posted: August 13, 2011, 5 a.m. EDT

Q: I’m the proud owner of one ferret and have been for about a year now. In recent times, I’ve noticed Anya (a nearly 2 year-old ferret) has been getting pretty bored. Between school and work, I can only offer her two or three hours a day of my time. In the past months, I debated whether or not to get another ferret, and I finally succumbed to the pressure of having another adorable animal in my house. I bought a two-story Ferret Nation cage, got everything set up, and brought Margot (a roughly 8-month-old ferret) back to my place. I put them together in the cage. For the first few days, I put them in the same cage, because they got along great.

After a couple of days, though, ferret Margot started exhibiting some strange dominance behavior. I found this odd because it should have been Anya who was protecting her territory, but instead Margot is going at her, constantly trying to bite and/or play with her. Anya is a pretty lax ferret; she’s not aggressive and will only play if prompted by me with a bag or towel. She doesn’t, however, seem to understand how to play with Margot and that puts me in a bad spot. While Margot is biting her scruff-spot, Anya is simply lying on her back, mouth open, ready to defend.

Since I’ve seen this erratic behavior, I’ve blocked off the two floors of the cage so they can have separate apartments, but I would really like to know why the baby ferret is trying to dominate the senior ferret. I also want to know why Anya refuses to fight back. Another point about the fighting is that Margot really has at it. There has not been any blood drawn yet, but Anya vocalizes a lot by squeaking/dooking. The baby ferret also hisses constantly. Is there anything I can do to mend this? And a way to help Margot realize that Anya and myself (she bites me, sometimes) are not some kind of chew toys?

A: Ferrets, like many other animals, establish a pecking order. Even though Anya was the first ferret there, Margot is trying to dominate her. Was Margot by herself at her previous home or at the pet shop? Even if she wasn’t, she may have been the dominant ferret there. She was cautious when you first brought her home, because she knew she was on new turf. When she found out how laid-back Anya is, however, she decided to go for the position of head ferret. As long as there is no bloodshed, the ferrets will probably work it out soon on their own.

Concerning Anya’s lack of defense, ferrets generally go limp when grabbed by the scruff. This helps intact males successfully mate with intact females. Because Margot grabs Anya by the scruff, Anya is fairly defenseless to retaliate. To help things along, and to keep Margot from biting you, get some bitter spray from the pet store that’s made to deter pets from biting. Spray the back of Anya’s neck (keep away from her eyes!) and your arms. Handle Margot a lot to get her used to being held. If she does try to bite you, hold her by the scruff and look her in the eye and tell her “No bite!” She will learn that you are the head ferret and are not to be messed with.

When you pick up Margot, you can also give her a treat — something gooey, like a ferret nutritional supplement. This treat keeps her mouth busy while you hold her. If you opt to give her a kibble-type treat, make sure you don’t have any bitter spray on your hands or the treat you offer her will taste bitter, too. With a lot of handling, your baby ferret should outgrow this phase.

One last thing to check: Is Margot eating well? If she doesn’t like the food you are giving her, maybe she is a little grumpy. Buy some of the brand that she was used to at her previous home and mix it in with your brand and see if that helps. Every few days put a little less of her brand and more of your brand in the bowl until she is weaned over to your brand.

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