By Mike Steele
Much like kittens and puppies, ferret kits must be taught not to nip. Ferrets have been bred to be a pet and shouldn’t be vicious or bite, but ferret play does include mock combat, and younger ferrets and kits won’t know how hard they can put their teeth on you without it hurting. A ferret at play may run towards you with his mouth open or even put his teeth on your hand, however if he presses down hard enough to hurt, you’ll need to discipline him. Remember, ferrets aren’t malicious; they just need to learn what behavior is acceptable.
Sometimes otherwise calm, gentle ferrets will react unfavorably to a high-pitched noise such as a squeaky toy or the sound of rubbing fingers on a window or balloon. This behavior is not quite understood, though it seems to be a protective instinct. If your ferret would bite wildly at the source of such a sound, our advice is, not to make that sound around them.
Unfortunately a ferret which has been mistreated may bite out of fear, or an older ferret might bite because of pain. In either of these cases, strict discipline isn’t going to do any good. For an animal in pain, of course, take it to the vet. For an abused ferret, try one of the alternatives mentioned below, and have a lot of patience: the ferret has to learn to trust someone when all it has known before is abuse. Further information about such instances has been created by Regina Harrison about caring for and rehabilitating such “problem” ferrets.
In most cases, positive reinforcement such as giving treats or praise when your ferret does well works far better than punishment. However if you feel you need one, use a “time out” for a few minutes in a cage or carrier. Similarly, don’t set the ferret down when they struggle and nip because this will enforce to them that this behavior will get them what they want. Finally, whichever method you use, consistency and immediacy are very important.
Alternatives vs. nose-flicking
Flicking a ferrets nose while their teeth are on you is a common form of discipline, but much like spanking a child it might not be the best. Your ferret may end up associating you with bad things rather than good ones. Also, it’s not a good idea to use nose-tapping or other physical discipline on a ferret who has been mistreated or who is acting unusually aggressive or frightened. Below are several alternatives, which you may want to try alone or in combination:
• If your ferret is biting too hard in play, try using a signal they already understand: a high-pitched “Yip!” or “Hey!”, much like the noise one kit makes when another is playing too roughly. Your ferret however could interpret this as a sign of weakness. In this case switch to a deep, commanding voice and act as stern as you can.
• Stop the game by gently pinning your ferret down until they get bored
• Confine the misbehaving ferret to a cage and ignore them for a few minutes. This can be very effective, especially if there’s another ferret wandering around out of the cage having fun.
• You can cover your hands with Bitter Apple so that nipping tastes bad.
• Some have had luck by either pushing a finger into the ferret’s mouth (sideways, behind the back teeth) or holding the mouth open from behind (being careful not to choke the ferret) immediately after a bite. Many ferrets find either of these uncomfortable, associating the unpleasant feeling with the taste of finger.
• If you need your ferret to let go, cover both nostrils with your fingers. Be sure if they still hang on, not to keep them there long, risking further frustration, suffocation, or anger.
• If your ferret doesn’t mind being scruffed, this can help. You could also shake the ferret gently by the scruff, or drag them along the floor while you hiss. Both these mimic the way mother ferrets reprimand their kits. Obviously, don’t be so rough that you hurt him. You can also cover his face with your hand, which he probably won’t like.
“Information re-written with permission Ferret FAQ, By Pamela Greene”
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