Posted: October 1, 2011, 5 a.m. EDT
Ferret Haily/Courtesy Josh Brogan
Ferrets do things that owners consider strange, such as sleepig like they're dead, nipping toes, digging in the food bowl and more, but these are normal behaviors for ferrets.
Chances are, you can name at least a few behaviors your ferret does that seem a little odd or even downright crazy. Maybe you pick up your ferret one evening and discover its limp, lifeless body. Your ferret doesn’t seem to be breathing and you freak out because you think it is dead. Then your ferret suddenly “comes alive” and starts clawing at you. Or perhaps your rambunctious ferret is leaping around the house and suddenly zooms into the wall or a piece of furniture and drops to the floor. Has your ferret gone completely bonkers?
“Probably not,” said Mark Burgess, DVM, an exotics veterinarian in Beaverton, Oregon. “You may think your ferret is behaving very strangely, but that’s because you’re looking at things from a human perspective. From a ferret’s point of view, the behaviors are perfectly normal.” The only time an “odd” behavior might be something abnormal is if it’s a sudden change in behavior, which might indicate illness, Burgess says.
As a ferret owner, it’s helpful to know what some of these “crazy but normal” behaviors are. For one thing, it prevents your worrying when you observe your ferret doing these things. Secondly, it helps you better appreciate your ferret for the fascinating creature it is.
If only we could ask our ferrets exactly what they’re thinking when they do these crazy behaviors! But while we can’t do that, we can make educated guesses about why pet ferrets do certain behaviors, based on scientific knowledge of normal ferret behavior in the wild. Here are some probable explanations from ferret behavior.
1. Why does my ferret sleep so soundly that it appears dead?
This known as “ferret dead sleep.” “You can hold him, poke him, yell at him, and the ferret still won’t wake up,” said Mike Dutton, DVM, an exotics veterinarian in Weare, New Hampshire. “The ferret’s just in a very, very deep sleep. Ferrets play very hard, and sometimes they really need that deep sleep to recuperate after all that activity.” Your ferret will “come to” once it gets all the rest it needs.
2. Why does my ferret dig food out of its bowl?
“Ferrets are burrowing critters,” said Debbie Saunders, co-founder of the Star City Ferret Club in Roanoke, Virginia. “Give them a bin of pellets and watch them go to town!” She says ferrets are born to dig. In the wild, they dig through piles of dirt. In a home, their food bowl is the next best thing. Digging is a tough behavior to try to stop. Because ferrets usually eat the food they’ve scattered, most pet owners just learn to live with it.
3. Why does my ferret nip my toes?
Don’t be surprised if your ferret comes up to you and chomps your toes. Realize though, “He’s not doing it to be mean, but rather in an effort to engage you in play,” said James Falkner, director of the Woogie Wescue ferret shelter in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. “Ferrets have very thick skin, and so what is a painful bite to us would not be felt by another ferret.” To try to redirect this behavior, every time your ferret nips your toe, tell it “No” and offer it a ferret chew toy.
4. Why does my ferret hiss like a snake?
Ferrets hiss when they’re mad or scared. “The ferret is really just trying to tell others that if you start messing with me ‘I’m going to bite you and make you regret it,’” Dutton said. He advises you not pick up a hissing ferret, because you may get bitten. However, if you must, wear gloves.
5. Why does my ferret hoard small objects?
Ferrets pilfer jewelry, cellphones, silverware, key chains and other small objects and tote these off to secret hiding places. They may cart these items with their paws and in their teeth, and even push and scoot their booty with their front paws. “Their natural instinct is to hoard things. If they kill a mouse and don’t eat it all, they’ll hide it so another animal doesn’t get it,” Burgess said. “When they hoard household items, it’s an offshoot of stashing away prey animals they’ve caught.”
6. Why does my ferret wag its tail?
Like dogs, ferrets wag their tails when they are very happy or excited. “It’s not as common in ferrets as it is in dogs, but it’s always a pleasant behavior to observe when it does happen,” Burgess said.
7. Why does my ferret scoot its rear end on the floor?
Normally ferrets do this right after using the litter box. Burgess says this is the equivalent of ferret graffiti. “Your ferret is telling the world ‘I was here!’ As he drags his rear end, he leaves olfactory cues that tell other ferrets he is claiming this area as his.”
8. Why does my ferret scatter litter out of the box?
When it comes to using the litter box, there are sloppy ferrets and there are tidy ferrets. “The sloppy ones just really get into digging,” Dutton said. “They may dig into the litter and think it feels pretty good doing it, and for some ferrets, that may be self-reinforcing.”
9. Why does my ferret make clucking sounds?
When ferrets are happy, contented or excited, they often make a chortling or clucking sound known as “dooking.” “[It] can mean anything from ‘Oooh, a new smell or new ferret!’ to ‘I’m a happy, happy, happy boy!” Saunders said. Ferrets are often leaping or jumping around the room at the same time.
10. Why does my ferret poof-out its tail?
If your ferret feels threatened or frightened, “He might poof-out his tail, literally making all the fur stand on end,” Dutton said. “This is the ferret’s way of trying to appear larger and more intimidating, and try to ward off predators.” The ferret might also be hissing at the same time, Dutton adds.
11. Why does my ferret wrestle another ferret?
This behavior starts out with one ferret grabbing another by its scruff and flipping it over on its back. The two ferrets then roll around together very rapidly on the floor. “They’re playing and having fun,” Burgess said, “but they’re also figuring out which one is more dominant.” That’s usually the ferret that does most of the flipping. It might look rough, he says, but it’s usually nothing you have to try to stop. Chances are, the ferrets won’t hurt each other.
12. Why does my ferret grab another ferret and shake it?
Another way a ferret might claim dominance is to bite another ferret on its neck or abdomen to get a good grip, and shake it over and over. “This is usually done by dominant ferrets that are very territorial,” said Donna Spirito, co-founder of the Educated Ferret, a shelter and educational association in South Hadley, Massachusetts. She adds that occasionally a ferret that is new to a home may bite and shake the other ferret residents, to try to “prove himself” to them.
13. Why does my ferret dance for joy?
If you notice your ferret bouncing off the walls, leaping from one piece of furniture to another, and seemingly going a hundred miles an hour, don’t be alarmed. Your ferret is doing what is referred to as the “dance for joy.” “This is a direct result of an animal having so much joy and energy that it cannot be contained,” Faulkner said. “And they don’t know exactly what to do with themselves, and this is how it comes out.” The very hyper movement is often accompanied by vocalizations that sound a lot like a human laugh.
14. Why does my ferret do the weasel war dance?
Sometimes ferrets do what looks like the “dance of joy,” but in reality they’re doing the “weasel war dance.” This behavior looks similar in that the ferret is moving very spastically. However, the difference is that its tail is poofed-out, its coat is bristled and it’s hissing. “Ferrets do the war dance when they’re agitated or frightened,” Dutton said. “If you observe this, give your ferret some space until he settles down.”
15. Why does my ferret slam into my walls?
While your ferret dances around your home, don’t be surprised if it runs head-on into a wall or piece of furniture. “Ferrets are generally uncoordinated and clumsy, and their vision is poor,” Burgess said. “Most can only see a couple feet in front of them, and they have very bad depth perception, which explains a lot of their klutziness.”
16. Why does my ferret scoot backwards into a corner?
If your ferret backs into a corner and its tail is poofed-out, it’s probably scared. But if its tail looks normal, your ferret is probably just backing up to urinate or defecate. “In the wild, if a ferret were to go potty in the open they know they would be lunch to any flying prey bird,” Spirito said. “By backing into a corner, they have their mouths to protect them. It is part of their inherited instinct and some ability to reason.”
17. Why does my ferret ransack my hamper?
Your ferret might rummage through your hamper, pick out some lightweight dirty clothes items like shirts and socks, and relocate them to its sleeping spot. “I believe ferrets do this because our scent is on them, and they want to line their bedding area with our scent,” Saunders said, “and they want a soft bed too.”
18. Why does my ferret dunk its head in its water bowl?
Some ferrets like to put their heads in their water bowls, covering their ears. “In the wild, a ferret might search for food in ponds and rivers,” Dutton said. “Your pet ferret may be trying to do the same thing. If nothing else, he’s just playing in the water and having a good time.”
19. Why does my ferret bite itself?
Ferrets tend to have itchy skin. “If your ferret bites himself, he is probably just grooming himself to relieve the itch,” Spirito said. Usually this is nothing to worry about. However, if you notice your ferret biting itself more intensely or more often than what’s typical for it, have your ferret checked out by a veterinarian. It could have a skin lesion or fleas and need some medical care.
20. Why does my ferret chase me?
Ferrets enjoy chasing games. Sometimes they chase each other; other times they want to chase their humans. “Your ferret might try to initiate play by coming up to you and biting your toe. Then he’ll run off, wanting you to follow after him,” Dutton said. It can be a fun game, as long as you are careful to not step on your fuzzie. You may also get some exercise!
The chasing game, along with many other play behaviors like wrestling and nipping, are a reflection of the fact that ferrets are carnivores. “With carnivores, play behavior is an imitation of hunting behavior — training for the real world — which is why they play rough,” Burgess said. “They’re practicing how to use their claws and their teeth, how to chase prey, pounce on them and trap them.”
In contrast, an herbivore or prey animal pet (such as a guinea pig or rabbit) doesn’t have to practice hunting, so they don’t play as much. They just need to stay out of sight so they don’t get caught. “With a ferret, expect a lot of rowdy, playful antics,” Burgess said. “You can’t help but be entertained by all their crazy behaviors.”
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