What To Do When Ferrets Fight

How do you know when to intervene and when to let ferrets “fight out” dominance issues?

Q: We have a problem with helping our ferrets get along and need some help and advice.

We have had Lola for about a year and a half, and she is 2 ½ years old. When we got her, we had a pair of ferrets named Teela and Datsun. Teela was 5 years old (vet’s best estimate) and was extremely and abnormally vicious with Lola. During the six months they lived together, Teela attacked Lola every chance she got and actually ripped pieces of flesh out of Lola, leaving open wounds and broken skin or open punctures all over her. This happened numerous times throughout the six months, and never lessened in severity at any attempt at an introduction. Needless to say, we know that is not normal ferret behavior, and we kept them separated.

Lola got along famously with Datsun, and they played well together, so we know Lola is able to play and get along with other ferrets, though she doesn’t have an aggressive bone in her little body. We are not averse to having two different play groups, but we would like to avoid it if possible. Sadly, Teela and Datsun passed away just over a year ago, and Lola has been alone since then.

Lately, Lola had been getting bored and putting herself to bed earlier and earlier, so we thought she might enjoy some ferret company instead of just people and our cat C.C. (who is not a ferret fan and avoids her). We got a message from the ferret shelter about a woman giving up her two ferret boys due to lack of time and money, but she needed someone who could provide the extra care the one boy needed.

Tonka was a rescue from the shelter; he had previously had adrenal surgery and needs to be on daily medication for a heart condition. He is about 5 years old. Turbo is only about 2 and is in great health. We brought Lola for an introduction and meeting, and everything went well at first. We picked up the boys a few days later (just over a month ago now) and brought them home.

After an initial stressful adjustment period of about four days in which Tonka declined, he bounced back and everyone is at normal health and energy levels again. Turbo and Lola had no health issues with the change. Turbo and Lola get along great, though Lola is hesitant and not aggressive in her play at all. She is very aggressive with toys, but never with Turbo. He sometimes gets too rough with her, and she gets scared and starts to scream. We separate them and give them both a few minutes to calm down, and Lola bounces right back into playing with a toy or eating, but she is usually hesitant of Turbo for the next 30 minutes or so.

The issue we are having is with the older boy, Tonka. He is the dominant ferret, and we know it is normal for him to have to prove his dominance and force Lola’s submission. The issue is more with us. We have never really had a normal ferret dominance/submission scenario, and we don’t know how to proceed. Sadly, both we and Lola are a little scarred from the Teela/Lola situation, and we are scared of Lola getting hurt again.

After Tonka’s health returned to normal, we tried introducing him to Lola. He sniffed her a few times, then immediately went into attack mode. She started screaming, and we separated them. Lola had red marks from the biting, but no broken skin. She was very scared, and when we put her back with Turbo (who she normally gets along with) she started screaming before he even came within 6 inches of her. She didn’t want to play by herself either afterward, so she just put herself to bed. We tried this introduction a few more times and had similar responses each time, so we have been keeping them separated since then. We allow them contact through cage bars or with our hand gently between them when they are sniffing each other, but as soon as Tonka lunges to attack, we either scoop up Lola or Tonka and let them play in separate areas for a while.

We are not punishing Tonka, as we know this is normal behavior. In the last week we have decided that Tonka is not as vicious as Teela, and that he should be able to get along with Lola if we let them work out this dominance thing. We are nervous, and we know it shows to Lola and that we are probably adding to her fear, so we need to stop this process now. Tonka’s previous owner advised that is took Tonka a month to accept Turbo, so we just have to be patient and it will work out. What we need help with is how to go about this.

In the last week we have purposely let Tonka attack Lola on three occasions. The attacks look and sound terrible with Lola screaming the entire time. The first attack lasted about 30 seconds, and then Lola pooped so we stopped it and separated them. The second attack was the next day, and Lola did not poop, but screamed and screamed the whole time. My partner and I could only take it for about 40 seconds and separated them again. The last attack was a few days after that, and we let it go for about a minute before we stopped them. Still no pooping, and never any broken skin or serious wounds. Throughout all of this, everyone’s eating and pooping habits are consistent and normal, so no one seems to be physically affected.

Unfortunately, Lola is emotionally affected. After these attacks she is instantly tired and will just fall asleep in our arms if we let her, or put herself to bed if we try to get her to play again instead of cuddling and babying her. She is at normal energy levels for her next play session though, so this just seems to be a mental thing.

What we need help with is how to proceed. Do we keep on allowing the attacks? Do we stop this and try a different approach? If we keep allowing the attacks, how far do we let it go? Obviously we would stop it if we see any blood or fur fly, or if there is any broken skin or pooping/spraying. But outside of that, do we stop them or let them fight for minutes on end? Do they stop on their own? Should we set a time limit? How does this work? What do we do?

We’ve owned 10 ferrets between us over the last dozen years or so, but we’ve never really had to deal with this. Other than Teela, all our ferrets worked out their differences in a matter of minutes or never had any differences to work out and got along from the start. Any help you can offer would be greatly appreciated!

A: There are several things that you can try to get Lola and Tonka to get along. All animals give off pheromones that can attract or repel other animals. If both Lola and Tonka are giving off negative (stress) pheromones, try bathing both ferrets before their next encounter or spritz them with a ferret deodorizing spray. You can also try spraying both of them with an animal-safe, bitter-tasting repellent so if they do bite at each other, they will learn that they don’t taste good.

Start the introductions by giving each ferret a favorite treat. I have sometimes smeared a little Nutrical or Ferretvite on the snouts of “opposing” ferrets and watched them lick the goo off of each other. Sometimes you can just offer the treat out of the tube and both will lick at it together. If they learn that they get a treat when the other ferret is near, they may learn to accept each other.

If the ferrets are being kept in separate cages, try switching their cages, or switch the bedding back and forth between the two cages so they get used to the other ferret’s smell from the bedding. You can also try keeping Lola and Turbo together in a cage so she picks up some of his scent; because Tonka accepts Turbo with no problem, making Lola smell like Turbo may help.

One thing you didn’t state was how long ago Tonka had his adrenal surgery. Adrenal glands produce hormones, so he could still have a surplus in his system that is making him act like an intact male. These excess hormones should subside within a month or two, unless his other adrenal gland is also affected, which is possible.

Try the things I’ve mentioned. If there is no immediate resolution to the problem, then let them play separately for a few weeks and then try again. A month or two gap between contacts may allow them to forget the past encounters and start fresh. Continue to let Turbo play with each of the other ferrets on a rotating basis. This may also help Lola realize that not all ferrets are trying to attack her, and she may be more relaxed when she and Tonka meet again. If none of these solutions work for your ferrets, then you may just have to keep them apart.

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