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Do You Speak Ferret?

Although ferrets cannot talk, they get their message across to each other and to observant owners.

Gerry Bucsis and Barbara Somerville
Posted: July 15, 2014, 11:55 p.m. EDT

Your ferret might not have figured out how to use a cellphone, a computer or a fax machine (yet), but there’s no doubt about it — these wily weasels certainly have their own special ways of communicating. If you don’t understand ferret language, however, you might not catch on to what they’re trying to "tell” you. 

For example, have you ever wondered what your furball’s getting at when he starts hopping around like mad, doing the weasel war dance? Or, are you baffled when your cute little fuzzy draws back and lets loose with a horrendous hiss? Then read on. You’ll find information about how ferrets communicate with one another. This in turn will give you clues as to how ferrets communicate with their owners. And, along the way, you might just discover that ferrets understand a lot more than you think.

Ferret To Ferret Vocalizing
When interacting with one another, ferrets use a variety of sounds to communicate a range of wants, needs, warnings and emotions. For instance, in the nest, newborn kits communicate with their mothers by vocalizing in a high-pitched squeak. This lets Mom know when the kits are hungry, or when a kit has strayed too far from the family huddle.

As kits get older, their vocabulary increases. This is when the "dook-dooking,” "cluck-clucking” or "chirp-chirping” starts — an indication that some little furball is happy or excited. When, on the other hand, the play gets too rough and that little furball’s not too happy, it will often draw back and hiss as if to warn his siblings, "Stop it! I’ve had enough already.” Occasionally a ferret will let out a scream, but that’s only when he is very frightened, or in pain. 

Ferret To Ferret Body Language 
Ferrets tend to communicate more through their body language than by vocalizations. In the litter, kits nip at each other when they want to play. They push and shove, and chase one another around. They like to jump on each other, tussling and wrestling as they establish a pecking order. The dominant ones often flip over the others or drag them around by the neck, while the more timid ones adopt a submissive posture. In other words, you’ve got the "flippers” and the "flipped” or the "draggers” and the "dragged.”

When their energy fizzles out, all the fuzzies collapse in one big pile, cuddle up together, and sleep in a heap — a sure sign of bonding and trust.

As ferrets grow up, this body communication continues much the same. They still jump, chase and wrestle. They still play rough. And, once the horseplay winds down, they still like to curl up and snooze in a cozy heap. 

What Is Your Ferret Saying To You?
By looking at how ferrets communicate with one another, you’ll be able to work out what your fuzzy is trying to say to you when he voices those weird ferret noises. Whenever you hear your furball dooking, clucking or chirping, you’ll know all’s well with his world. This is your ferret’s way of saying, "Life is good. Let’s play!” 

If your ferret is having a hissy-fit, however, the hiss means that your pet is frightened, angry or unhappy, and wants you to keep your distance. Take the warning, or you could end up with a nasty nip. In this situation, it’s best to speak softly and reassuringly, and wait until your ferret calms down before trying to pick him up.

If you ever hear a screech or a scream from your furball, don’t ignore it. This infrequent sound usually indicates fear, extreme distress or injury. It’s a signal for you to take immediate action to track down the cause of the problem. 

Have you ever had a kit that’s a talker? Being around an extremely vocal kit is a really unusual experience. Take little Gabby from Long Island, for example. Guess how she got her name? She was a little chatterbox that produced all kinds of weird and wonderful sounds as she tried her very best to communicate with her owners. 

Her most expressive sound was a heart-wrenching "maaaaa” that could mean "I’m hungry,” I’m awake now,” "Come and hold me,” or anything else that translated into "Pay attention to me.” These very vocal ferrets are not too common, but anyone who has ever had one quickly realizes how special they are. 

ferret peering out of cage
© Courtesy Jay Gossert
Look at those eyes! What do you think this ferret is saying to his owner?

Responding To Words
Some ferret owners swear that their fuzzies understand their every word, while other owners are equally certain that their ferrets don’t understand any words at all. The fact is, just like people and like other pets, ferrets are all over the spectrum when it comes to processing verbal communication. 

Anna Harrison of Tennessee has two ferrets that are complete opposites in terms of word recognition. According to Harrison, "Mel is a 5-year-old male albino who is as sweet as can be — but dumb, dumb, dumb. He doesn’t know any words. The closest he comes to knowing words is knowing that when he hears the word "Mel,” good things happen to him — a treat, cuddle, tummy rub, etc. But he doesn’t make the connection that he is Mel. My other ferret, Gracie, is a 4-year-old, sable female who is an energetic troublemaker, ornery as can be and incredibly smart. She knows five words so far, but I know that she could learn even more if I took the time to work with her.”

Is your ferret a Mel or a Gracie? Or is he somewhere in between? In Michigan, Rhonda Bateman’s ferrets know their names and they know each other’s names. Bateman said, "They all know that ‘go get on your mat’ means to go to their little play mat where they will find treats. And, Gizmo knows what ‘Get her, Gizzy!’ means.” Whenever he hears these magic words, Gizmo chases little Naga all over the room — war dancing, dooking, and poinging in his excitement.”

The word that seems to register most often with ferrets is the word "treat,” with "playtime” coming in a close second. Dawn Ege in Illinois, who is mom to furbabies Lilo, Nani and Stitch, said, "My three girls definitely know the word ‘treat.’ As soon as they hear me calling ‘Treat!’ all three of them come running. They jump up on my legs, I give them each a treat, and they all go run to their own little hidey spots to nibble away. If I walk up to their cage and tell them ‘It’s playtime!’ they immediately run to the cage door and wait for me to open it.” 

Natalie Taylor in Florida uses the phrase "Come on let’s go” instead of the word "playtime” for her five ferrets Nickels, Samantha, Topper, Thumbelina and Bear. "I suppose I could have said, ‘Come on, it’s playtime,’ but I didn’t. It’s always been ‘Come on, let’s go.’ My five boogie butts — my nickname for them — understand the sentence. They get really excited and dance in their cage and look like little monkeys doing it.”

One word that ferrets seem to have a little difficulty understanding is the word "no.” Well, maybe it’s not so much that they don’t understand the word, but that they often choose to ignore it, just like Kelly and Greg O’Neal’s ferrets, Ferrah, Jackie and Molly in Minnesota. As Kelly said, "They understand ‘no,’ but whether they choose to listen is another story.” Ditto with Kerrie Rasmussen’s ferrets, Baby and Lilly. They understand quite a few words, including the word "no,” which Rasmussen said they usually ignore. 
In fact, many ferrets seem to have a sort of selective hearing, they hear what they want to, and tune out everything else!  

Responding To Sounds
Does your furball seem a little dense when it comes to word recognition? Don’t worry about it; there are other ways to communicate. Many ferrets do a better job responding to specific sounds than to words. 

What kind of sounds are we talking about? The one that seems to register with most fuzzies is a high-pitched squeak. In fact, nearly all ferrets will come running whenever they hear the squeak-squeak-squeak of a squeaky toy. Why? No one knows for sure. It could be because ferret hearing is attuned to a higher pitch than human hearing. Or it could be because it awakens ingrained memories of the squeaking sounds made by kits in the nest. Fortunately, the reason doesn’t matter. What does matter is that a squeaky toy can be a great communication tool for ferret owners.

Another sound that perks up a ferret’s ears is the shaking of a treat box. Put your fuzzy’s favorite treat (nothing soft and squishy, please) into a covered container, give it a shake, and wait for the stampede. This is a true conditioned response — it doesn’t take long for a ferret to connect the shaking sound with the reward. A word of advice; don’t communicate this way too often, or your ferret will pack on the pounds. 

The use of a clicker for communication and training is gaining popularity for all types of pets. Why not give it a try with your furball? Clickers are cheap and there’s lots of how-to information in books and on the Internet.

ferrets by bookcase
© Courtesy Kristen Gruber
Ferrets communicate with each other via vocalizations and body language.

Ferret Body Language
Ferrets may not be world-champion vocalizers, but they certainly know how to communicate through body language. Take the weasel war dance, for instance. There’s not much doubt that all of that hopping, bouncing and leaping about means you have a happy, wound-up furball on your hands!

And, whenever you have a snuggly, cuddly ferret lounging on your lap, you can be certain it’s a trusting and contented ferret. You can be equally sure when you have a squirmy, wiggly ferret fidgeting in your arms that it wants to get down, or has to use the litter box.
Is your critter a compulsive cage reorganizer? Is he constantly shoving around the litter box or digging in his food bowl? Then he’s probably trying to tell you, "I’m bored, let me out to play!” 

And speaking of playing, a ferret that nips at your socks, or brings toys and dumps them at your feet is telling you as clearly as he can, "Come play with me!” 

Have you ever seen your fuzzy with a puffed up or "bottlebrush” tail? This can communicate more than one message. Sometimes it goes along with the weasel war dance and means that your ferret is excited. Sometimes you’ll see it when your ferret is exploring new territory or investigating a new toy. In this case it indicates curiosity. At other times, if the bottlebrush is accompanied by hissing, backing up and a bristled-up body, it means your pet is frightened or angry, and needs you to take a calm, quiet approach. 
Ferrets that still have their scent glands have their own distinctive way of signaling fear or anger. They’re liable to let off a foul-smelling "poof” from the glands if they feel threatened. There’s no mistaking this form of communication!

Another way a ferret can signal fear or anger is by biting. Again, there’s no mistaking this form of communication — a ferret has sharp teeth, and a hard bite can hurt. If your well-trained ferret unexpectedly sinks his teeth into you, there has to be a reason. Is your pet injured or in pain? Has something startled him? Has he found himself in a strange, new environment? Whatever the reason, figure it out and put things right.

Biting is one thing; playful nipping is quite another. Often a little nip just means, "Come play with me!” This is especially true when fuzzies dart back and forth, nipping at socks or feet. They don’t want to hurt you, they just want to attract your attention.

Another type of ferret body language that sends an instant message is listless behavior. When a normally wound-up weasel becomes sluggish and lethargic, something’s wrong. Nothing obvious? Then it’s time for a trip to the veterinarian. 

On The Same Wavelength
So far, we’ve just touched on some of the more common types of ferret communication. But every ferret is different, and the best way for you to understand your own particular pet is to play with him a lot and keep your eyes and ears open. It’s only by close observation that you’ll get to understand what his various sounds and actions mean. 

Like this article? Please share it.
And check out:
20 Strange But Common Ferret Behaviors, click here>>
Ferret Communication, click here>>
Ferret Glossary, click here>> 

Posted: July 15, 2014, 11:55 p.m. EDT


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Do You Speak Ferret?

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Thank You all, I would like to know more on how Ferrets talk with us
John, Smith Valley, NV
Posted: 7/24/2014 2:40:58 PM
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