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What To Expect About Ferret Biting

The second in a "what to expect” series about ferret behavior.

Mary Van Dahm
Posted: April 14, 2014, 6:50 p.m. EDT

Problem 1: Your ferret bites ankles.
This is usually a way for your ferret to get your attention. It might be inviting you to play or it might just see you as a big toy. Most likely your ferret doesn’t realize that it is hurting you. 

If your ferret is not biting hard, try to ignore it. It will grow tired of the game and leave you alone. If it is biting hard enough to hurt, try to wear shoes that cover your ankles or try applying a bitter-tasting spray safe for pets (sold at most pet shops) so you don’t taste good. This is often the only deterrent that you need. 

As a proactive measure, when you see your ferret starting to get near your feet, distract it with something else. Throw a toy for it to chase, pick it up and cuddle it or give it a treat. Anything that will make your ferret forget what it was about to do! If this doesn’t work for you, then try time-outs in a cage.

Problem 2: Your ferret bites everyone all the time.
Kits can be mouthy, but with a lot of handling should become gentle adults. The exceptions to this are ferrets that are fearful from being abused or stressed, or if the animal is from poor breeding stock. These animals may need an extreme amount of attention and are often best suited to an experienced ferret owner. 

If you are new to ferret ownership, solicit the help of an experienced friend or a local ferret club to help you tame an aggressive ferret. Fortunately most ferrets from reputable breeders are gentle, playful animals. Interact with the ferrets at the store, breeder or shelter before bringing one home. If they are gentle there, most likely they will be gentle in your home, too. If they are mouthy with a vengeance, then leave them for someone with experience to adopt, even if they are cute!

Problem 3: Your ferret bites when being picked up.
Your ferret may be fearful or startled when you pick it up. Make sure your pet sees you as you reach down for it or it may mistake you for a predator swooping down for the kill! Talking to your pet as you reach for it should help, too.

If you are already holding your ferret and it starts to bite you, that is usually a sign that it wants to be put down. Don’t give in to this intimidation or you will reinforce your ferret’s bad habit. Spray yourself with a bitter-tasting, pet-safe spray before picking your ferret up so if it bites you it will learn that you don’t taste good. Even if your ferret does get a nip in, hang onto it for a few minutes longer before setting it down so it doesn’t think it got its way. 

On the other hand, if you are holding your ferret and it suddenly becomes very squirmy, set it down in a litter box; that’s often its way of saying, "I have to go now!”

two ferrets playing
Ferrets Chugar and Pudge/© Courtesy Sam and Crystal Thompson
Play biting or play fighting between ferrets can look intense, but as long as no ferret starts bleeding it's normal.

Problem 4: Your ferret bites and won’t let go.
This is usually a sign of bad breeding or a fearful ferret. If you got the ferret secondhand from another owner, that person may not have socialized the ferret or may have actually abused it. 

To relieve the immediate situation, go to a sink and run water on your ferret’s head. This will startle the ferret into letting go. This may sound cruel, but it is better than hitting the animal. And don’t pull. Pulling on it will only make it bite down harder. 

This ferret is going to need a lot of time and attention to bring it around. The more a ferret bites, the more attention it needs, not less. Offer it treats every time you pick it up or find a toy or something else it can chomp down on instead of you. Enlist the help of an experienced ferret owner to help you through this. A ferret like this may take months to change its ways. Some ferrets like this will eventually trust one or two people, but may not accept other people, so be responsible. Keep a ferret like this away from children and strangers.
Problem 5: Ferret-To-Ferret Aggression.
This usually involves four types of aggression.

Type 1. Play biting. This is usually more of an open mouth, mock attack with little or no physical contact. The ferrets bounce around and chase each other and no one gets hurt. If one party gets a little too rough, you might hear some hissing or a little chattering, but when the day is done, both ferrets curl up together and all is well with the world.

Type 2. Fear aggression. Some ferrets that have never been with other ferrets before become terrified if they come into contact with another ferret. Some will run and hide, but others will launch an attack against the other ferret. They basically believe that if they get the other ferret first, then that ferret can’t attack them. 

Initially keep a ferret like this separate from other ferrets and let it get to know the other ferret through scent exchange — trade blankets back and forth and let them play in the same area, but at different times. When you go to introduce them again, have someone else hold one ferret while you hold the other. Let them smell each other’s backs, but hang on in case one decides to lunge at the other. Offer them treats when they are together. Most ferrets like this will calm down eventually.

Type 3. Territorial aggression. Most members of the mustelidae family are loners and come together only for mating purposes. A lot of that has been bred out of the domestic ferret, but not totally. Just like fear aggression, this may take some time to overcome. Follow the same suggestions as above.

Type 4. Hormonal aggression. This applies basically to intact males, although some ferrets with adrenal gland disease can act this way too. Males in rut will fight severely with other intact males, even with siblings. Keep them separate until mating season is over. If you are not going to use them for breeding, then have them neutered.

Like this article? Check out:
Why Do Ferrets Bite?, click here>>
What To Expect About Litter Training Your Ferret, click here>>
What To Expect About Ferret Digging, click here>>

See ferret behavior questions and answers, click here>>
See ferret veterinary questions and answers, click here>>

Posted: April 14, 2014, 6:50 p.m. EDT

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