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.
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.