Ouch! Exploring the Whys & Wherefores of Ferret Biting
by L. Vanessa Gruden in Paw Printz, March – April, 2000
Ferrets naturally use their mouths, and not just for eating. Watch a pile of babies playing, and you’ll see them chew each other’s ears, bite each other’s necks, and drag each other around by grabbing any loose skin with their mouth. If you could see the mother with her kits, you’d also see her use her mouth to kiss, wash, and discipline them when needed. Watch your own ferret with a toy or a ferret buddy: Each is picked up, dragged about, and grabbed with their mouth. To a ferret, a mouth is much more than a place to stuff food. It’s a tool, a method of defense, and a way to communicate.
The way a ferret carries a toy is one of the simplest ways a ferret uses its mouth. Ferret will often stretch to reach something enticing and use the extra few inches afforded by those long necks to grab the object they wanted in their teeth. Ferrets don’t have the a cat’s sharp claws, so if they can’t dig inside something, they will often use their teeth to try to bite their way in.
Again, because they lack sharp claws, their teeth are their primary defense mechanism. A ferret will first try to run from an attacker, then will either scream or spray them (if undescented), but their final defense is to bite. Even the most gentle ferret may turn and bite if you step on their foot or tail.
Ferrets “speak” to us using their mouths, though obviously not in the way we are used to thinking about speech. Instead of using an audio language, they use body language. A ferret may bite because of pain, but they may also bite to get attention. When you are busy and the ferret wants to play, it is common for them to nip your foot or ankle to say “Hey! I’m down here and I want something.” Realistically, that’s the one part of you these short little animals can reach. Small nips or gentle play-biting is normal for ferrets. It is when the animal bites hard that something is awry.
A ferret may bite because it simply was never taught not to bite. Perhaps it was not properly handled at the breeder or pet store. A frightened ferret can certainly bite. And, of course, a ferret that has been abused may bite, too.
For a ferret, hard biting can be seen as their attempt to yell at you. Whatever is going on inside their heads, they definitely feel strongly about it if they bite you hard. It is also possible that you may have actually taught your ferret to bite by rewarding inappropriate behavior. It’s an easy error to make, especially if you’re an inexperienced owner or the ferret has a high-strung temperament.
There are as many ways to teach a ferret to not bite as there are reasons for them to bite. It seems like every experienced ferret owner has a favorite “trick” to stop biting. Most have their merits, but unless the right remedy is applied to the right situation, the biting could easily go from bad to worse. I sometimes hear from desperate owners, telling me “so-and-so told me to try this, and so-and-so told me to try that, but nothing’s working!” Perhaps that is because “so-and-so” didn’t first try to determine WHY the ferret was biting.
So What’s Causing the Biting?
Questions to ask yourself about the biting include the following: What are the exact circumstances? Does the ferret bite when you pick it up? Does it bite when you are holding it? Does it bite when you are playing together? Does it only bite one particular person, or does it bite everyone? Is there a particular part of your body the animal bites – fingers, hands, or feet?
The answers will help you start to pinpoint where the problem lies. Perhaps the ferret is unaccustomed to being picked up and frightened. He or she could be blind or deaf, so you should make sure they have the chance to know you are there before being snatched up into the air. You may have tried cuddling the ferret when it was in the mood to run, then let it go when it nipped at you. Ferrets learn “Nip = Let me down” amazingly fast. Like children, they seem to learn bad behavior an awful lot quicker than they learn good behavior! Since ferrets can play hard with their furry playmates without a problem, they need to learn that your skin is more sensitive. A common mistake made by people who are unaccustomed to playing with such a small creature is to “play rough.” It might seem cute to have a very young animal bite and nip at your hands, it will be a lot less cute when they grow older, with stronger jaws.
Ferrets can be very sensitive to particular odors. Certain perfumes or soaps can trigger biting even in a normally gentle animal. Nicotine from cigarettes is especially provocative, and as non-smokers know, lingers heavily on smokers’ fingers, mouth, and clothing. Your ferret may hate the smell and bite at people who smoke – in contrast, some ferrets love the smell of nicotine and actually seem to get “hooked” on it! Hand or face lotion is another factor you ferret may react to. Some ferrets love the taste of oily, sweet-smelling lotions and may lick or nip the wearer. Conversely, some ferrets may react badly to the alcohol in men’s aftershave.
Your ferret may not realize your feet are off-limits to nips. For a creature so small, it can take a while for them to grasp that your hands, your feet, and your face are all a part of a huge YOU. And there seems to be something about smelly feet that ferrets love. A wiggly toe in a sock can be irresistible. You can train and train your ferret, but every once in a while, they may sneak a little toe-nipping in just – well, just because they’re ferrets and those are toes and toes are just MEANT to be nibbled!
What is your ferret like? Is he or she a baby, or elderly? Is it normally a calm, quiet animal, or nervous and high-strung? Does it play for a little while and wander off to nap, or does it run and run for hours? Is it an intelligent little critter, or do you own one of the ferret world’s less bright citizens?
Babies of every species use their mouth to explore their world. Human babies also go through a phase where everything they can stuff into their mouth gets chomped. The baby many not be fully accustomed to being handled by humans, or it could be teething, too. If an older animal or one that is normally sweet-tempered starts biting, you should schedule a veterinary exam to see if there could be a medical reason. They could be going blind, or even have developed an internal tumor or had a back injury that is causing them pain. Perhaps the animal becomes too excited when it plays, and “forgets” its normal good behavior. Like people, ferrets come in various ranges of intelligence. He or she may just not know any better – or may know very well they are doing something wrong,.
There are a few ferrets out there – often it is those clever little girls – who like to test your authority. They can be very nice ferrets, they know biting is naughty, but every once in a while they’ll do it anyway. Your best bet here is to simply sigh and accept their little “quirk” for part of what makes them special and interesting.
What’s going on in your ferret’s environment? Have your recently moved, or had other major changes in your living arrangements? Was the ferret accustomed to four large rooms to run in, and is now confined to a cage most of the day? Did you get married, divorced, take a new job, or begin working longer hours? Did you introduce new pets to your home, or have a baby? Do you have children, and are they young or older? Has their been a change in their free time?
Ferrets can be susceptible to stress, and may act out because of it. Any change, even for the better, is stressful for both humans and animals. Bringing a new ferret into your home is a big adjustment for a small creature. Give your ferret two to three weeks to “settle in” before becoming seriously concerned about a behavior problem. Many times, once things have calmed down and the animal becomes more comfortable, problems will resolve themselves.
Suddenly restricting an animal’s space can be confusing to them, and may very well make them angry. They can see the “promised land” outside the cage or on the other side of the barrier, and can’t get to it. This can result in all sorts of behavior problems – digging, scratching, throwing around food and water bowls or litter boxes, as well as biting. Ferrets are generally smart enough to know it wasn’t THEM who restricted their territory, it was YOU.
Ferrets do not usually demonstrate the jealousy that a cat or dog can when a new pet or a new child enters the home, but they will certainly know if they are suddenly getting a lot less attention from their owner, for whatever reason. Try to make sure all the other creatures in your home don’t suffer because of a new arrival, whether it is human or furry.
Children who act badly to get attention are a cliché. Ferrets can act badly for the same reason. Behavioral studies show again and again that animals – and humans – would rather get negative attention than no attention at all. If the only time you interact with your ferret is when they do something bad, then you have just taught them that being bad gives them something they want and need. Reward good behavior, not bad.
Ferrets and young children should always be carefully blended into your household. Excitable, active children and an excitable, active animal can be a poor mix. There are quiet, calm children who are great with animals. And I’ve met children who appeared to be possessed by demons! Parents should be very, very sure their child is capable of handling a small, fragile pet like a ferret. The child must be taught how to play with the animal, and not to poke fingers at them or into their cage. Parents must plan to always supervise, or completely restrict, the access of the child’s friends to the animal, so no one gets hurt.
Older children and teens have other issues. They may develop a strong interest in sports or other extracurricular activity, get after-school jobs, or even leave for college. A neglected animal is an unhappy one. Can you blame them if they try to get attention and affection any way they can?
A very common reason ferrets bite is because they are caged for too many hours. These are intelligent, active animals designed by nature and bred by humans to investigate, seek, and hunt. When you deny them the opportunity to do what they were created to do, you create a frustrated – and often angry! – creature. People who’d agree that leaving a cat in a pet carrier, a dog in a crate, or a child locked in a closet 23 hrs. out of each day’s 24 is cruel, sometimes do not understand doing the same thing to a ferret is equally inhumane. Ferrets differ in the amount of time they need activity, and people differ in the amount of free time and space they can allow their pet, but I always recommend people try to leave their animal loose as much they can. A young, lively, or high-spirited animal is particularly likely to develop behavior problems when it sits bored in its cage. (And no, toys in the cage are not stimulating enough!) A ferret that figures out that your hand is what places it back into a hated cage will hate your hand, too. Biting that hand seems to the animal – and to me, too! – a pretty reasonable response.
OK, so you’ve thought things through and hopefully have a good guess what is causing your ferret to bite. Congratulations! You’ve passed the biggest hurdle to solving the problem. If you now expect to read my favorite “trick” for stopping biting, guess what? You just have. As I said before, there are many different “tricks” and methods around, and no shortage of people willing to share theirs. (Some can be a little controversial, which is why I prefer not to detail them here.) You must match the method to the reason for the biting. You can’t help stop a ferret biting in fear by hitting it – and I strongly recommend against hitting or slapping a ferret. You can’t stop a ferret biting because it is overcaged by giving it even more “time-outs” in the cage – you’ll just make the problem worse. You can’t keep a ferret that is blind from biting you by spraying Bitter Apple on your hands. And a ferret will never learn to play gently with your hand if you wear gloves.
Try to solve the reason for the biting. You will often find that, magically, the biting will disappear all by itself. Good luck!