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About Ferret Biting

Knowing why ferrets bite and how to react are key factors to prevent biting.

By Bob Church
Posted: November 1, 2010, 4:30 p.m. EDT

Ferret Moose/© Courtesy Irena Zacharko
Well-socialized ferrets learned about bite inhibition and rarely become "biters."

A number of “quirks” about ferrets are discussed among ferret owners, but few are described with as much passion — or perhaps pride — as bites received. OK, maybe ferret poop edges out bites, but bites are a close second.

The Truth Behind The Tooth
The truth is, all pets with teeth bite owners — regardless of species — and ferrets are no exception. When ferret bites and injuries are percentaged to pet populations, I believe that ferrets are one of the safest pets people can possess. Bite incidents spawn controversy, however, so it is in the best interest of ferrets and the ferret community to prevent as many biting episodes as possible if for no other reason than to prevent perpetuating the false stereotypes they generate.

The best way to prevent biting is to understand why the ferret is acting like Count Dracula during a Red Cross blood drive. Even if you can’t stop a ferret from biting, a rare occurrence, understanding possible reasons for bites can help you avoid them. You can prevent bites or you can avoid bites; both are positive outcomes.

A Ferret Biting Overview
Ferrets are kept as pets and working animals all over the world, and everyone has their own idea of appropriate measures to prevent biting. Literally hundreds of suggestions exist on how to train ferrets to keep them from biting. Few of these suggestions would be made if they hadn’t been used with some success.

Punishments range from blatant cruelty (clipping canines, body blows and kicks), to noxious tastes (Bitter Apple or soap), to physical punishment (water dunking or nose flicks and skull thumping), to classical and operant conditioning (time-outs or piercing noise), to behavioral mimicry (loud “No!” or scruff and shake). These attitudes are seemingly one part tradition, one part culture, one part hope and three parts, “I’ll do anything to get that ferret off my finger!”

If all these methods have some success in preventing biting, which ones should be used? That is the million-dollar question.

In my experience, the best anti-biting techniques are those that use behavioral mimicry to relate to the ferret’s natural history. Generally speaking, ferret moms are extremely tolerant of their kit’s shenanigans — to a point. While I’ve seen variation in how jills respond to naughty little kits, the most common responses seem to be leaving the area, grooming, hissing, pushing the kit away, scruffing and shaking, and pinning the kit to the floor with a paw.

Ferret kits don’t only learn biting restrictions from their mother, but from each other as well. Male ferrets can be twice the size of a female, yet the two safely roughhouse. That is because of “bite inhibition;” if one kit gets too physical, the victim will generally squeal and either retreat from play, or turn aggressive and chase off the bully. I find it hilarious to watch an 1,100-gram, male ferret running at full speed desperately trying to find a hidey-hole while nipping close at his rear is a tiny 400-gram, female ferret upset over a play-fight breach of etiquette. Bite inhibition, like socialization, is learned; lack of either of the two probably accounts for the vast majority of ferret biting problems.

A Biting Ferret No-No List
Never do the following to a ferret that bites.
• Abandon
• Clip teeth
• Forcefully squeeze
• Forsake in cage
• Hit with objects
• Ignore warnings
• Jerk or pull away from bite
• Kick
• Lose temper
• Pry jaws apart when bit
• Purposefully hurt
• Slap
• Throw

What To Expect
As with all carnivores, biting is a natural and instinctive ferret behavior; it is used for a wide variety of endeavors. Biting is such an integral part of ferret behavior that preventing ferrets from using their mouth to explore or play borders on the realm of cruelty.

Perhaps the most effective anti-biting techniques are those that use behavioral mimicry to teach bite inhibition, coupled with activities that increase ferret-human bonding. Consistency is vital — all members of the household need to agree on how much and hard a ferret is allowed to bite.

No pet is 100-percent safe; even a pet rock can bring harm if used as a projectile or dropped on a foot. Pet ferrets are safe pets, but they must be socialized to people and taught bite inhibition. Ferrets are very intelligent and learn quickly, but they need consistency in training for best results.

[For information about ferret aggression and a flowchart to help identify reasons for it, check out Bob Church's article "Go With The Flow" in Ferrets USA 2011. — Eds.]

Bob Church is a former photojournalist and current zooarcheologist with degrees in biology (zoology) and anthropology (archaeology). He resides in Missouri with 19 ferrets that keep his chicken blender overheated and his heart overfull.

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Reader Comments
I have 4 ferrets, all have been rescued and are different ages, 2 hobs and 2 jills. With 1 and 3 (our second came nip trained), we found the best way to train them was to;
1) When they bite, squeal in pain like it really really hurt
2) Encourage them to play with the others
or 3) We put them in a spare carry case we had (naughty Box) with nothing in there for 2-3 minutes. Their cage won't work as they just see this as being put away, and then learn that as a punishment, which it shouldn't be. With the naughty box they soon learn what gets them in there and stop mis behaving.

Girls are definitely harder to train than boys.

That said, ferret number 4 (Dinky) came to us as a full kit Jill 6 months ago (yet to be fixed) we have no idea what happened to her, but know she had been living in a paint tin.

She gets on very well with the other ferrets. Whilst being generally pretty naughty (climbing up curtains if she gets the chance) she doesn't really bite me. My flatmate however, she seems to have a thing about biting and clawing at his shins. We have tried every trick we know. We have taught her to roll over, which she does whenever she's hungry, so we know it's not that. If any one has any ideas, please let me know.
Lu, International
Posted: 9/2/2014 1:23:46 PM
I have rescued 4 adult ferrets until last year when I received an 8-week old albino male as a wonderful gift. None of our other ferrets had any biting problems but Bear was not that easy. So I thought that perhaps, like human babies, he had some issues with swollen gums and teething. So I got several really flexible, rubber teething rings (which I did not freeze or make cold) and a bunch of pacifiers. Bear absolutely loved them all. From then on anytime he wanted to bite one of us we quickly gave him one of these items. We also made sure they were available for him to play with anytime he was playing alone or with our other ferret, Pepper. She decided she also liked these new toys, especially the pacifiers. They now have pacifiers hidden in all the rooms they are allowed to roam in. A favorite game between them is to see who can keep the pacifier away from the other one the longest. I think one reason these items are so well loved too is because they are so easy for the ferrets to carry and run with. Believe me you will quickly forget any troubles you have when you see a ferret running at you with a hot pink pacifier in it's mouth! They are also great for one on one time between you and your little fuzzy. Both Bear and Pepper love to lie on their back and play tug-of-war with the pacifier. Don't forget though, just like with human babies, if the pacifier gets deflated or sticky throw it out and get a new one.
I got my pacifiers and teething rings from a friend who at that time was weaning her son off of his. We made a game of it for him to give the ferrets his pacifiers whenever they came over. This way we all benefitted and even now he tells everyone he gave his "passies" to Bear and Pepper.
Occasionally Bear, who recently turned 1, still wants to bite me but he never tries to bite anyone else. Only me. Any insights from anyone as to why? Other than this it has been a real treat to raise a ferret from a baby kit.
Sharon, Wilmington, NC
Posted: 8/28/2013 11:44:29 PM
Good article. I use this site to learn about ferrets.
William, San Francisco, CA
Posted: 7/8/2013 8:23:18 PM
I have a male ferret named whiskers. He is about thirteen months old. He is a Marshall ferret from a pet store chain. He was returned for biting and I took him knowing this. He is with four other ferrets. His biting habit is when you hold him he will lick your hand or arm then latch on for all he can. I have scrufed him but he will still do it on a fairly common occasion if given the chance. He is otherwise a playful energetic ferret. Always looking for the next adventure.
BJ, Lawrenceville, GA
Posted: 3/1/2013 2:30:09 PM
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