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Building Trust In An Abused, Baby Ferret

How can an abused ferret learn to trust people again?

By Ailigh Vanderbush
Posted: April 1, 2012, 11 a.m. EDT

Q: I just rescued an 11-week-old ferret from a very neglectful and abusive family. I don't know exactly what all they did to this pretty, little ferret, but I do know they let their little kids poke at her and throw things at her through the bars of her cage and that she was not fed or watered properly. They also kept the ferret in a cage made and set up for a hamster. The ferret became so aggressive that when I finally got her she attacked anything close to the cage; it didn’t matter if it was a finger or a toy. I have some thick gloves I sprayed well with Time Out spray, which is how I have handled her so far. I have two other ferrets, one is 9 months the other 1 year 3 months. I don't know what to do to help the baby ferret. I read your advice to feed treats through the cage to let a ferret know that hands are good. Would this be OK with the baby ferret, even though she already attacks stuff too close to the cage? I was scared this may encourage her bad habit. I have only had her for a few days. She is already starting to calm down when I come close to the cage, but she still sits there shivering and still bites sometimes. I don't know how long I should wait to start taking her out of the cage, how much to try handling her and when it will be safe to introduce her to her new ferret family. Any advice you have is appreciated. I can’t let her be put down. It's not her fault.

A: Ferrets with a history of abuse or lack of socialization take time and patience to rehabilitate. Be patient and allow the other ferrets to help her understand that you and your hands are safe. Hand feeding her (not through the cage) can help her understand that hands can be fun and friendly. Don't pick her up from the cage, but allow her to come out of the cage and solicit your attention to be touched. I would certainly allow her to be with the other ferrets as soon as possible, as that will help her.

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Reader Comments
Thank you for sharing your story, Serenity. And many thanks for not giving up on your ferret when she needed someone most.
Marylou, Irvine, CA
Posted: 2/21/2014 10:03:42 AM
I'd also like to add that the older ferret was also very antisocial and disliked being held. She would often whimper in her sleep at night, and they looked to be fairly bad nightmares from the way she'd thrash about. Again, I let her set the pace. I rewarded her for being held. I let her constantly know she was okay, I was here, she was okay. When I heard her whimper at night, I'd wrap her in a towel, and pace the house with her until she quit shivering. This took about a month to solve, and although 2she still has the occasional nightmare, she's soothed a lot quicker - now, it's five minutes of orienting her that she is here, it's me, she's safe, and then she's like, "Play time!?" (2 AM? Uh, sure?). As she got to trust me, she's willing to let me to do more things. I recently had to pop her to get her off my oldest guinea pig, and she was shocked more than upset that I'd do such a thing! She went into her cage without a fuss, and, by the next day, all was forgiven. This morning, she curled up to my side and slept with me for an hour. She loves snuggling, and is now allowing my mom to snuggle her. She's learning to walk on a leash. I've socialized her by gradually introducing her to people, and now she'll even let children pet her, no biting. If I sense she's scared or tired, I'll pull her back, but, lately, it's like she's never had an issue with being antisocial.

It takes a TON of time to get an abused ferret to trust you. That first week was rough because I devoted most of my time to her (and still had to juggle an energetic younger ferret, three guinea pigs, three cats, and a dog), and getting her to know I was safe. It was exhausting, but rewarding work. In this sense, I don't mind being currently unemployed and living with my mom, because it allowed me the joy of rescuing a ferret who badly needed a family. She's rescued me from some of my own depression, and she makes every day a joy. She has this smile now when she sleeps, and you can't help but smile. She also has this Grinch smiles that means she's either planning or in the act of mischief, and you can't help but laugh and go along.
Serenity, Orlando, FL
Posted: 2/20/2014 1:44:29 PM
I noticed that this question was posed in 2012, but I figured this advice may be still helpful for others.

My family and I got a much older ferret from a rescue place in November. She was very aggressive, obviously had not been outside of a cage much (she was rotund, to put it nicely), and had trouble using her back legs.
After several attempts to get her to be nice with the other ferret, we divided the cage in half. My mom was obviously very upset because the younger ferret is her baby (we brought the older one home as a friend for her) and kept threatening to send her back. For me, that wasn't an option because I had fallen in love with the "misfit".

I decided my best approach was going to involve following my instincts and joining her in HER world during play time, which meant getting down to her level on the floor. I allowed her to set the pace, follow her lead, and to allow her to come to me. Any action I did was slow, and I rewarded her with treats. Consistency was - and still is - mandatory. If I had to reprimand her, a gentle "No" followed by removing her from the situation usually worked (yelling at her would result in her running off and hiding). We eventually wound up using my room as her playroom (it has carpet, which equaled better traction for her feet) and using slow actions so she knew what was happening (that I wasn't going to hit her, but play with her). I made play FUN! and exaggerated my happiness (it sounds corny, but she wasn't very social and it let her know I was A-okay). I gave her own space, separate from the younger ferret. I slowly extended the hours of our play, and now (it's February) she's running all over the house REALLY fast, self confident, owning the joint, and trying to do all the stuff her little sister can do (even though she can't climb - which I help with and supervise). She still likes to nip toes, but now she has other ways to initiate play - I used the toe nipping to my full advantage and built upon it by following her to my bedroom when she lays down at the doorway to see if I'm following. If she did X correctly without aggression, she got a treat. This has also worked with litter box training and (with some success) getting her to come to us when I called her name. When she bit too hard during play, I'd gently put my finger by her mouth and firmly say "Gentle". I still have to do this on occasion, so she knows her boundaries, but only because she's really into playing and momentarily forgets. The two ferrets have been initiating some form of play (mostly in the form of the older ferret playfully chasing the younger ferret) for about a month now. The younger ferret is afraid of the older ferret, so I've had to hold the younger ferret while the older ferret rolled around the floor to initiate play to show that she's no longer a threat. Yesterday, the younger ferret initiated play first!!! It's a lot of small baby steps and some back stepping before I got the desired behaviour, but it's worth it.
Serenity, Orlando, FL
Posted: 2/20/2014 12:42:42 PM
Poor baby :(
Erica, Denton, TX
Posted: 5/24/2012 1:52:09 PM
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