How and Why You Should Clip
by Gary Schooley
Ferrets are diggers. In the wild, their claws are kept short by wear from digging. Also, a wild ferret doesn’t come into contact with nearly as many things that they can get claws snagged in, as domesticated ferrets do. Since domesticated ferrets don’t have the same opportunity to wear their claws down as wild ferrets do, it must be done for them. If a ferret gets snagged on something, they can panic and twist around, only making matters worse. They have even been known to lose a claw / toe from it (this is why it’s important to always keep a pair of scissors handy).
Un-clipped claws can get tangled in a wide assortment of materials; the sharper the claw, the finer the material it can penetrate. Some of the things to avoid are: Fleece; Terry Cloth; Flannel; Wool; Fur. I list these five because, over the years, at one time or another, even some of my own ferrets have gotten snagged on them. Nothing is more frustrating than to come home and find one of your babies sitting there on the bottom of the cage with one paw raised because it’s tangled in fleece (or worse)!
Anatomy of a Snag
Unlike cats, who shed an upper (outside) “sheath” to reveal a new, sharp claw (like those grease pencils where you tear off the strip of paper), it has been my observation that a ferret seems to shed a similar sort of “sheath”, but from the underside. This is perhaps due to their digging nature. The problem is, that theirs comes off from root to tip, and doesn’t always happen all at once. This results in a counter-facing “barb”, not unlike what’s on a fish hook. Anything the claw can penetrate can get caught on this counter-facing barb.
I recently got a very good look at this when one of my ferrets got snagged on, of all things, a (fake) fur comforter type thingy that they love to play in. I never dreamed that a (regularly clipped) claw could possibly get caught in fur, but it CAN. A counter-barb formed, got hold of fifteen or twenty fur strands, and he was held fast; snagged. Black fur on a white claw showed it very clearly; hairs crossed this way and that, wedged under that barb, and he wasn’t going anywhere.
Note: During playtime, I’m in the room almost constantly. If they get snagged, it’s not long before I notice and bring the scissors to the rescue. It’s the things in the cage, and the many hours when I’m not there to take care of it, that concern me (and should you).
Even a clipped claw can get snagged, if the material it gets snagged in is loose enough. Not too long ago, one of my boys was pursuing his usual past time of trying to disembowel my day pack. He got the zipper partially open and got hold of my wool hat, but it wasn’t open enough for the hat to come out. In the meantime, he had gotten snagged. He wasn’t there more than five minutes, but he was so upset that he has peed and pooped there. I was sitting there the whole time, but he didn’t make any noise, and was out of sight around the end of the couch, so it took a few minutes before I noticed his absence. Poor baby…
As I cut a little hole in my wool hat to release him, I was thinking, “Maybe it’s time to clip their claws again”, but as I was about to clip the offending snagged claw, I noticed that they were all pretty blunt, as I had just clipped the week before. On finer cloth, they would not have snagged, but on a loose wool hat, it’s pretty much impossible to cut them short enough that they won’t penetrate. So, you might want to avoid wool things for your ferret, or at least be there with scissors to cut them loose if they do get snagged.
Among their countless toys are some soft, “flannel” (like?) balls with bells inside. One would not think something like that would pose a hazard to a ferret, right? Wrong! As I sat here one day, I hear this little, evenly spaced, “Ding, Ding, Ding” going across the room. During normal play, there is no such rhythm (just chaos). When I investigated, I found my littlest boy running around with a rear claw snagged on one of those balls and it was just running along side of him!
Terry cloth also poses a hazard to ferrets. It is made up of small loops, just perfect for snagging a claw. Likewise, loop carpet can do the same thing. Although I have not had a ferret snagged on loop carpet, (because there’s none here anywhere), I have seen cats get snagged on it, so I have no reason to doubt that a ferret would get snagged as well.
By now, you might be wondering just what IS safe for ferrets? I like Denim and that nylon (?) wind-breaker type material that many coats are made of. In fact, I have made several slings and sleeping bags out of coat sleeves. Since they always would curl up in a coat sleeve anyway when done playing, whenever a coat expires, I save the sleeves for them. Anything that has finely woven fabric should be safe for them (as much as is possible). But, just a few days ago, one of mine got snagged on the loose threads inside a pillow case, where the seam is sewn. With ferrets, you never know exactly what to expect, so be vigilant.
When to Clip
I find it necessary to clip about every two weeks, but I would not recommend clipping more often than once a week. If you see your ferret running around and occasionally a claw gets temporarily hooked on something, but it quickly releases, it’s time to clip. I’ve seen one of mine run across a (tight wool) comforter on the couch, and with every step, the wool is pulled up a little and then releases.
There is a thin vein that runs about half the length of the total claw. This vein tends to grow in proportion to how long the claws are kept. If they are clipped regularly, the vein will shorten, and conversely, if they are left long, the vein will be long as well. In ferrets with very dark toes, it can be difficult to see, but, with white toes, the vein is quite visible.
BE CAREFUL not to get into that vein, or they’ll squeal and “bleed like a stuck pig”, and you’ll feel just awful! (Nope, never done that, but I’ve read about it). If a ferret has long claws and hasn’t been kept clipped, it may take a while for the vein to shorten, so don’t get in a hurry. This means, don’t clip more than a quarter of the way. The main thing is to get the sharp points off.
Note: Some vets actually use a vein in the claw to take blood from, by intentionally clipping into it (I don’t really favor this method; it sounds painful and traumatic, and I’m sure there’s a less painful way to get blood).
How to Clip
Opinions and techniques may vary, but this is what works for me:
First, you will need something to pacify your ferret (no, don’t get ’em drunk). This means you will need something like “Ferretone”, a skin and coat supplement that ferrets LOVE. There are other similar products, with different names, but they are pretty much the same. Anything that’s not bad for them that they like will do. Just something to hold their attention for a few minutes. Without some sort of pacification, I know of no other way to clip a squirming ferret’s claws without requiring (at least) two people.
Now, that is providing that your ferret knows and likes Ferretone. Some don’t. Some have never seen or tasted it and may reject it. This happened when I was given a little deaf boy. His claws seemed to have never been clipped, and needed clipping badly (he’s the one who got the ball stuck to his rear claw). But, he didn’t want Ferretone. So, I had to sprinkle it on his food and get him used to the taste. After a few days, when he decided that it was the best stuff he had ever tasted, and I could give it to him straight, then I could proceed to clip his claws.
You will now need a towel (ironically, terry cloth!), an ordinary (sharp) fingernail clipper, some Ferretone and a well lit place to work. It doesn’t take any sort of custom clipper for this. Once you get the hang of it, it can easily be done within a minute or two.
Take the towel and fold it in half lengthwise. Lay it out flat and roll both ends toward the center. Turn it over and push it down between the rolled ends, forming a “V”. This makes a perfect “hammock” to lay them in. As you clip, you may find it necessary to rotate the towel a bit; this makes it easier.
Now for the fun part. Take one squirming ferret, holding it in one hand, up near the shoulders, and (try to) lay it on its back in the “V”. The quicker you get the bottle of Ferretone near its mouth, the easier it will be. Once the Ferretone has got their total attention (0.5 seconds), and their tongue starts to going, bring the tip of the bottle onto their chest and smear out some all over it. Not too high, you don’t want it on their neck where they can’t reach it; just all over their chest.
This should result on one hypnotized ferret, oblivious to anything but the mess on their chest they are licking. Sometimes, particularly the first few times, they might resist and try to turn over, but they soon figure it out. Just be patient. Once the ferret is pacified, you can move onto the actual clipping.
I always start with the front claws, as they seem to be the ones that get snagged most often. Some claws, particularly the rear, don’t grow as fast or large as front ones do, and I occasionally don’t find the need to clip them all.
Gently take one paw and lightly hold it between your fingers. It doesn’t take any real pressure, just enough to hold it steady. Occasionally, the ferret may draw the paw back, then lean over it and continue licking, with both paws on one side. If this happens, it sometimes helps to re-position them in the towel; you can even lean them from side to side by simply rolling the rolled ends underneath one way or another. Just keep trying. If the ferret finishes the Ferretone before you are finished, squirt some more there. I usually give one shot for the front, then one for the rear claws.
They can be clipped from the top, or the side, but I prefer the top; it seems to give a cleaner cut. That is, look at a side profile of your finger and how you would clip your own claws, then look at a side profile of a ferret’s claw, and turn the clippers 90 degrees to that (clipping vertically).
One by one, clip each claw, remembering not to take too much off. Gently hold each toe as you clip (remembering that ferrets have five claws per foot). From time to time, a ferret may suddenly jerk back when you have clipped one. I’ve had this happen a number of times, but there has never been any blood or squealing, so I don’t think I went too far. I think this is due to a hair getting pulled, as sometimes, their fur grows down almost as long as their claws are. Anyway, they soon get over it. Once you have finished the front ten claws, it might be time to put another shot of Ferretone on them.
A word of Warning: Safety glasses may be appropriate when clipping claws. Once, a claw I had clipped flew right up into my eye! That was a VERY frustrating and painful episode, and I couldn’t function at all till I got it out. I now point the opening of the clippers away from my eyes. You might also want to try to keep the claw points out of the ferret’s “licking zone”. It’s probably not good for them to ingest them.
Now, clipping the rear claws might be a bit more challenging. That’s because certain things make ferrets shiver. One of those things is Ferretone, and it is particularly evident in the rear legs. Some ferrets don’t shiver much at all, so it’s no problem, but some can shake violently, making it difficult to do. Imagine trying to clip the toenails of someone who has tremors; that’s what it’s like.
But, if you give them a thumb to push their back paws against, that usually dampens the shaking enough to get them clipped. Sometimes, they will even wrap their claws around and sort of try to “hold” it. This makes it real easy to clip right on down the line. Some professionals, who do it every day, can clip a ferret’s claws in under thirty seconds.
Once you have finished, brush off any clippings, lay your ferret on the floor and it’ll probably lay there licking for five minutes or so. With multiple ferrets, you can do it quick enough that you have them all lined up on the floor licking. Once they finish their own Ferretone, they’ll (gladly) go help the others get it off themselves, too. Since one ferret represents 20 claws, I currently must clip 60 claws, twice a month (120 a month). Now, if you dare have something like ten ferrets, you are looking at clipping 400 claws a month! (but then, you don’t need this article, do you?) So, it pays to get good at it.
One final note: Another benefit to keeping claws clipped is that they can’t climb as many things as well or as high. Ferrets are so curious that they border on “suicidal”, and if they can climb all the way up a screen door, or to the top of the curtains, they will. If their claws are left sharp, they can. Not being the most graceful of God’s creatures and kind of clumsy, totally lacking common (domesticated) sense, they have a tendency to fall off of things. This can result in a broken back, other serious injury or even death.
That’s all there is to it.
Good luck and I hope this helps.
The author, Gary Schooley, is always happy to hear from other ferret owners and get their feedback. His email address is schooleyATmail2world.com (of course replace the AT with @)