Machan Q/A: “How did you train your ferrets not to bite?”

How I Stopped Ferret Biting

I received a question quite recently but couldn’t reply until now, so apologies in advance for my late answer. “Hi, I want to know how you got your male to stop biting?”

Please note this is an article originally from my old blog Hakibe Ferret. I am the author and blog owner for that blog and also write for The Natural Ferret.

Updated: June 27, 2017. It has been quite a while since I wrote this article, I have decided to go through and update it. I have added some new things as well. Please enjoy.

When I first got Haru & Yuuki, both had landed a couple of nasty bites on me at some stage in the first week and for a beginner to ferrent-hood it ended up being a HUGE shock to me. I already knew that nips and such were to be expected especially since I brought home some kits. Kits are known to be more rumbustious. There was one thing that really played a role in Haru & Yuuki with the biting and that was the fact these ferrets lacked socialisation skills. Haru & Yuuki both came from a Back Yard Breeder in Melbourne, Australia. I would never advise or recommend anyone, let alone a newbie ferret owner to purchase ferrets from such a source. Socialisation is an important thing, you can learn more about it in THIS article.

It has been quite a while since this occurred, and since then I’ve lost some of my photos of the outcome of the bites, so I cannot exactly show you how nasty the bruising was on them.

Bite1
A hard nip.

The first bite was a probably around the first day I brought them home. Yuuki, who we had thought was a cuddly lazy boy at the time we picked him up, turned out to be a very energetic young boy who was filled with excitement. First Lesson Learned: Never Judge a Book By It’s Cover.

Unfortunately at the time we were still waiting on our large cage to be delivered so Haru & Yuu had to put up with a small temporary cage for the time being. I let them relax for most of the day and it was great fun watching them sleep and letting their musky scent drift into my nose.

Come play time that night, Yuu got little too excited being only 6 months old and landed a nice big CHOMP to my left index finger. He latched on and it was very painful. I think the main problem was the fact that it was the mix of my shock at the time and Yuuki being overwhelmed by the new environment.  At the backyard breeder, he was in this outside cages which were neglectfully overcrowded- Surely the new, warm, inside atmosphere was very different for him.  At the time of the latch bite, I felt my heart begin to race and my heart was crazily pounding against my chest. It was a frightful moment, I was very scared because Ferrets were new to me and it never really registered that I would be bitten the way I was at that moment. The shock of it, made my mind race and it was a very emotional situation for me, as ignorantly as it sounds. I never actually thought I would be going through such a situation, but now I must say, I am very glad it occurred. I have since grown quite attached to this little albino brat. Yuuki at that moment, obviously felt my fear and latched on even harder and began to rapidly move his head in a side to side ripping motion. If he bit down any harder he probably would have gone through my finger bones. I was thinking that too! “He’s biting so hard, I’m going to lose my finger!!”

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Haru play nipping. She still plays rough, but only when I allow it. She’s generally pretty good. ^_^

I told myself that I was prepared and unfortunately I did rush into it because I wanted a ferret so bad. If I had the advice for any potential newbies now, I would say don’t rush it. Take your time and soak in the information first. Be prepared in advance because when you get a new animal, it can be one hell of a learning shock to the system.

I tried doing multiple things that I picked up on my ferret research many nights in advance but nothing really seemed to work for me. There is so much information online, many of which are not reputable by any means and I realise this now after much time adjusting to owning ferrets. Eventually, Yuuki released and he was put to bed immediately. Which was a big no no, but, being the complete newbie and being in shock, My mind was so all over the place. I didn’t know what else to do at the time, My head went blank and was too focused on the fact I was bitten, and I was bleeding- bleeding quite a lot. After that happened, I fixed up my finger and stopped the bleeding. The pain was unimaginable. I felt the burning sensation during and after being bitten. Unfortunately, the burning after the bite was the most painful. The pain of the swelling a few days later was crazy. I never thought, such a cute little animal, could do this. I now have a great respect for these ferrets and their powerful jaws. If at that time, I knew that if Yuuki wanted to cause me more hurt, he could have easily broken my fingers then and there with little issues at all…. maybe I would have felt more at ease?

For a week, I was unable to face Yuuki and rehoming even came into conversation due to stress of the moment. I know, What kind of idiot would even consider this? How irresponsible of me to consider it. Unfortunately, this happens due to shock and inexperience. I’m sure there are many more who have gone through similar situations.

I cooled off and even sulked for a bit before settling down. I did more research during that week and came to the decision that my thoughts were uncalled for. I started beginning to resent myself for even thinking I could rehome him when it was me who promised to love him and look after him for the rest of his life.  No one should ever have to feel as bad as I felt during that time. It was a total accident, and it’s all one big learning process. If you’re bitten, don’t blame yourself, use that precious time and energy to learn from it. It was at that moment, when I realised that I was partially the issue at the time for being inexperienced, where I became 100% committed to my ferrets. I was committed 100% before, or so I thought, but the bite was a big eye opener to me and drove me to do more and more research so I could learn to understand the reason WHY he did it in the first place. We may say we are committed, but are we really? Only time will tell.

The reason why I was bitten is now understood. It could and was likely due to multiple reasons. One reason was that he was in a new environment and was quite excited to the point where he would test me and everyone else in the household to see what his boundaries were. Two would be the fact that he wasn’t very pleased with the small temporary home, which I can completely understand. Boredom and lack of enrichment was another reason but of everything mentioned, Yuuki lacked socialisation. Something of which is quite common for BYB ferrets or Mill Ferrets unfortunately.

bite 2
Yuuki bite after a few days. Still swollen here at least 5x. My first official latch bite. Looked worse the day it happened.

If you want to make a ferret, a happy ferret, you need to get down to their view and understand a ferret’s needs. From then on, I began to train…. or rather, work alongside Yuuki and it was frustrating. Not just for me, but for him as well. Our communication was no where on the same wave length… Very. Very frustrating. He wouldn’t listen and wouldn’t do anything he was told. Ferrets, By the way if you weren’t already aware, Do not speak human language. We need to communicate to them using body language and energy.  Do something with bad energy, bad intention and the ferret will retaliate in return. Yuuki anyway, was a typical child and I decided that I would need to become just as stubborn as him.

I forgot to mention that I did try ‘certain ways’ to stop his nipping and biting. Leather gloves, bitter apple, you name it and it never worked. I scruffed a few times to begin with since I needed to practice to scruff correctly. After a while I became more stronger and more confident in myself when it came to handling him. As soon as he began to pick up on my confidence, he then began to dull down with the nipping. Always, and I repeat, ALWAYS treat your ferret(s) with love, compassion and kindness. Never resort to physical means, such as hitting, flicking, pulling, pinching. Scruff only as a last resort as all these means of ‘training’ will cause stress on the ferret and they will not understand why you’re doing it. Can you imagine if someone came up to you, and flicked you in the face? Straight away you’d think “Why the heck are you doing that” and after a while they continue to do this to you and you get so sick that the only way to make it end would be to flick them right back? Unless they verbally told you “hey I’m upset, you did this or that” then how can you know? Ferrets don’t understand human languages as I have already mentioned, but they can pick up on body language, energy and even tone of voice. If they are doing something wrong, you can tell them so by even simply removing yourself from the picture! There’s no excuse or need to resort to a physical means of training.

Another thing that is super important is being confident in handling an animal. The problem with not being confident in your ability to handle an animal, especially ferrets is the fact that they will sense this and will take that opportunity to take advantage of you. If you aren’t confident, then DON’T handle them until you know you can be or can become confident. It will help you to avoid unnecessary stress as well as potential injuries to the both of you. I know some will say, this is completely ridiculous but it’s true and this can apply for all kinds of animals. If you’re not confident, simply don’t handle the animal until you can find someone experienced to help assist you.

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Yuuki in time out as a kit.

To start out with, Haru & Yuu had 1 hour play sessions (1 hr every few hrs for a total of 6 hrs minimum) and every time I received a nip, I would tell him to be gentle. Second warning would result in an ignore and no play and third warning was a 5 minute time out. After a couple of days I started changing the time to 2 minutes. I also started putting him in time out more often and he HATED it. I hated it also. The point of time out is to simply remove the ability for it to play and have fun. It’s sad to actually think about, but it’s also a good way to get them to de-stress after an overwhelming amount of play. You don’t have to place them in a boring old carrier, you can also put them in an empty room for a short amount of time as a last resort.

Oh boy, He was very upset with me. I received a few retaliation bites from him, but those too ended with time out. There were days when he would be in the carrier every 2 minutes. After a few weeks, the time became less as he was adjusting to the routine and I started to hand play with him. Hand play is very important as this is where a majority of the learning occurs. We need to let ferrets know through play what is and isn’t acceptable forms of play.  I would rub his belly and when he play bites little too hard I would say “Be gentle” (in a gentle but firm voice, never ever did I raise my voice on him) and he would listen to me otherwise I would take my hand away and simply ignore his existence during play time. I do not recommend raising the voice when telling a ferret not to do something, the tone of voice is essential. The louder the voice, the more alarming it sounds. I don’t believe squealing or yelling to be a good way to let the ferret know something hurts. The ferret may bite due to feeling threatened, and yelling or squealing is not the way to reassure them that we are no threat. We are NOT ferrets. Ferrets know this well enough.

I noticed that the more I played with him using my hands and the more he nipped, the more he began to figure out what was acceptable during play. I encouraged nipping, only gummy nipping. If I played rough and vigorously guess how I got nipped? Rough and vigorously. Ferrets will go with the flow, if we show them we’re being rough and vigorous during play, they will follow.  So when you feel they are getting too rough, slow down and play softer. Any nip that became too hard would get a warning… a calm, gentle warning “be gentle.” Any nip that was so hard it left marks on my skin would get 2 warnings again, calm, gentle warnings. If that never worked, I would get up and remove myself from the room. In the end, if that never helped and he continued to seek me out to land the chomps, I would then pick him up and hold him for a minute. Time out for 2 minutes only ever when there was drawn blood, or excessive vigorous play to the point were he could not calm down.

After time outs finish, I always resumed play time like normal. We would continue to play for a bit, especially hand play and if he would bite again, another time out. The key to training is persistence. Its not just training to the ferret, but its training even to the owner. We need to be accepting of this behaviour and let them know what is okay. You cannot stop nipping. That’s clear since they do it during play. But you can work out an agreement, where both you and your ferret can learn form each other what is an acceptable nip. Soft nips are no issue, in fact I like those a lot and consider them to be like little kisses hehe.

Bite 2.jpg
Bite mark from Haru. She got stuck under the skin and freaked out. Swelled up for a few days and bruised alot. I did not put her in time out for this as this was an accident, she was spooked.

It took me around 3 weeks give or take before Yuu stopped biting. He no longer breaks my skin or causes blood to be spilled. After the 3-4 weeks after I started to work with him, He did have a habit of getting just little too rough sometimes, but every time I tell him to be soft or to be gentle he listens and softens his grip like a good boy he is. It has been about 2 years since I wrote this and now I can confirm, Yuuki has never once bitten me since he was a kit. He rarely even nips now! He has become this cuddly little boy and often gives kisses. I trust him around my face, believe it or not. I brought Yuuki with me to class during my Certificate II Animal Studies, and I mentioned he latch bit me at one stage, no one believed a word of it. He’s now the most cuddly little ferret and looking at him now, I cannot believe he even bit to begin with.

That is basically it. I did not have luck with gloves or bitter apple. They were hopeless. Just lots of handling and lots of hand play. It’s our body language, energy and tone of voice. Those are the three keys to understanding your ferret when dealing with biters.

Treat them with respect, compassion and kindness, give them time and commitment and you can get passed biting.

Thanks for reading!

Machan.

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