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Part 3: Training and Behavior

7. Basic ferret care and training

8. Things ferrets say and do

This page has been accessed more than [lots of] times since May 29, 1996.

How do I train my pet not to nip?

Like kittens and puppies, ferret kits must be taught not to nip. A ferret which has been bred to be a pet shouldn't be vicious or bite, but ferret play does include mock combat, and young ones won't know how hard they can put their teeth on you without hurting you. A playing ferret may run at you with his mouth open or even put his teeth on your hand, but if he presses down hard enough to hurt, you need to discipline him. Just remember, ferrets aren't malicious, they just need to learn what behavior is acceptable.

A very few otherwise calm, gentle ferrets will react in an extreme way to a high-pitched noise such as a squeaky toy (perhaps only one particular toy) or the sound of rubbing fingers on a window or a balloon. Nobody's quite sure why that sets them off, though it seems to be a protective instinct of some sort. If your ferret is one of those few who bites wildly at the source of such a sound, my best advice is, don't make that sound around them.

Sometimes a ferret which has been mistreated will bite out of fear, or an older ferret might bite because of pain, either in the mouth or elsewhere. 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. Regina Harrison has created a Web page about caring for and rehabilitating such "problem" ferrets.

In all cases, positive reinforcement (giving treats and lots of praise when the ferret does well) works much better than punishment, but if you need one, use a "time out" for a few minutes in a cage or carrier. Similarly, don't set the ferret down when he struggles and nips -- you'll be teaching him that that's the way to get what he wants. Finally, whichever method you use, consistency and immediacy are very important.

Alternatives to nose-flicking

Flicking the ferret's nose while his teeth are on you is a pretty common form of discipline, but it might not be the best. Your ferret might end up associating you with bad things rather than good ones. Also, it's a very bad idea to use nose-tapping or other physical discipline on a ferret who has been mistreated or who acts unusually aggressive or frightened. There are several alternatives, which you might want to try in combination:

I'm having problems litter-training. What do I do?

Ferrets can be trained to use a litter pan, but unlike cats, they don't take to it automatically. To litter-train your ferret, start him out in a small area, perhaps his cage, and expand his space gradually as he becomes better trained. If it's a big cage, you might need to block off part of it at first.

Fasten the litter pan down so it can't be tipped over. Keep a little dirty litter in it at first, to mark it as a bathroom and to deter him from digging in it. Don't let it get too dirty, though; some ferrets can be pretty finicky about their pans. Likewise, ferrets and cats often don't like to share pans with each other. Most ferrets won't mess up their beds or food, so put towels or food bowls in all the non-litter corners until your ferret is used to making the effort to find a pan. Bedding that has been slept in a few times and smells like sleeping ferret will be even better than clean bedding for convincing a ferret that a corner is a bedroom instead of a bathroom.

Ferrets generally use their pans within fifteen minutes of waking up, so make sure yours uses the pan before you let him out, or put him back in the cage five or ten minutes after you wake him up to come play. When he's out running around for playtime, keep a close eye on him, and put him in his litter pan every half hour or so, or whenever you see him "pick up a magazine and start to back into a corner" (as one FML subscriber put it).

Whenever your ferret uses a litterpan, whether you had to carry him to it or not, give him lots of praise and a little treat right away. Ferrets will do almost anything for treats, and they're fast learners. Within a few days, your ferret will probably be faking using the pan, just to get out of the cage or get a treat. That's okay; at least it reinforces the right idea.

Positive reinforcement (treats and praise) are usually much more effective than any punishment, but if you need one, use a firm "No!" and cage time. Rubbing the ferret's nose in his mess won't do any good. He can't connect it to it being in the wrong place, and ferrets sniff their litter pans anyway. As with all training, consistency and immediacy are crucial. Scolding a ferret for a mistake that's hours or even a few minutes old probably won't help a bit.

If he picks the wrong corner

If your ferret's favorite corner isn't yours, you have a few choices. could put a pan (or newspaper, if it's a tight spot) in it; ferrets have short legs and attention spans, so you'll probably need several pans around your home anyway. Otherwise, try putting a crumpled towel or a food bowl in the well-cleaned corner, making it look more like a bedroom or kitchen than a latrine.

"Accident" corners should be cleaned very well with vinegar, diluted bleach, or another bad-smelling disinfectant (don't let your ferret onto it 'till it dries!), specifically so they don't continue to smell like ferret bathrooms but also as a general deterrent. For the same reason, you probably shouldn't clean litter pans with bleach, certainly not the same one you're using as a deterrent elsewhere. Urine which has soaked into wood will still smell like a bathroom to a ferret even when you can't tell, so be sure to clean it very well, perhaps with Simple Green or a pet odor remover, and consider covering wooden cage floors with linoleum or polyurethane.

Nobody's perfect

Although almost every ferret can be trained to use a litter pan, there is individual variation. Ferrets just aren't as diligent about their pans as most cats, so there will be an occasional accident. Even well-trained ferrets tend to lose track of their litter pans when they're particularly frightened or excited, or if they're in a new house or room. In general you can expect at least a 90% "hit" rate, though some ferrets just don't catch on as well and some do considerably better. At least ferrets are small, so their accidents are pretty easy to clean up.

Finally, if your ferret seems to have completely forgotten all about litter pans, you might need to retrain him by confining him to a smaller area or even a cage for a week or so and gradually expanding his space as he catches on again.

How can I get my ferret to stop digging?

Many ferrets love to dig. They'll dig in their litter pans, under the cushions of the couch, and at the carpet near closed doors. To get your ferret to stop tossing litter all over, start out by putting less in the pan, and keep it just clean enough that there's a dry layer on top. Litter digging tends to be a kit behavior, perhaps because kits have so much energy and are often cooped up in cages, so with time and luck your ferret will grow out of it. It's nearly impossible to train a ferret not to dig at all, so you're better off protecting your property and removing the temptation. Some digging, especially in the litter pan, can be out of boredom, so playing with the ferret more can help, too. You can also help control your ferret's digging by giving her somewhere approved to dig. A box filled with dirt, sand and gravel, then set into a larger box to contain the mess, can be great fun to a ferret. Your ferret may also enjoy digging outside, closely supervised of course.

How can I stop my ferret from digging in his food or water?

A lot of ferrets like to dig in their food or water bowls. If the bowls are in contained areas and the ferrets are willing to eat off the floor, the easiest solution is to provide a back-up water bottle and ignore the digging. You can also put the bowls in larger pans to contain the mess; use separate pans for the food and water, so the spilled food doesn't get soggy and spoil.

Heavy bowls that angle inward can help, or for more diligent water-bowl diggers, you can switch to a bottle. Likewise, some people find that a J-type rabbit feeder works well for food, though others find that just gives their ferrets a lot more food to joyfully spread around the room. At least one person used a PVC p-trap with a smaller opening instead. Another nearly dig-proof design is to put the food in a covered plastic Tupperware-type container and cut a hole in the top just big enough for the ferret's head.

Any advice on baths, ears, and nail-clipping?

First of all, unless your ferret goes snorkeling in butterscotch pudding or has a bad case of fleas, you really don't need to bathe her very often at all. It doesn't affect the odor much; in fact, many ferrets smell worse for a few days following a bath. The best thing you can do to control your ferret's scent is to change her bedding every few days and keep the litter pans clean.

The problem with frequent bathing is that it can cause dry skin, especially in winter. There's nothing wrong with bathing your ferret only once a year. Once a month should be okay, but switch to less often if you have problems with dry skin. Most ferrets don't seem to mind baths much. Some ferrets enjoy a bath quite a bit, swimming around in the tub and diving for the drain plug.

Nail trimming

The first step in bathing a ferret (well, after catching her) is to check her nails and trim them if necessary. Jim Lapeyre describes the recommended procedure like this:
Thus saith the Wise:
"When Haz-Abuminal saw that clipping the claws of the domestic ferret was grievous, he pondered day and night for a year and a day. After the year and the day had passed, he rose, and, taking the ferret in his lap, dropped three drops of Linatone upon the belly [of the ferret], which, perceiving that its navel had Linatone, turned to lick. Thus distracted, the ferret heeded not that the claws were being trimmed, and there was much rejoicing. And when the claws were all neatly trimmed, the people were amazed and astonished, saying, Who is this who, alone among mankind, has tricked a ferret?"
If you have trouble even with this method, and you have a helper, have the helper hold the ferret by the scruff of the neck and put Ferretone on one of his fingers. Scruffing a ferret will generally make her calm down and possibly even go limp, and if not, the Ferretone should keep her distracted.

Cut the nail just longer than the pink line inside it. Place the cut parallel to where the floor will be when the ferret stands, to prevent the tip from breaking later. (A drawing is available.) Be careful not to nick the line or the toe, since in either case it'll bleed a lot and your ferret will decide nail clipping is not a good thing. Kwik-Stop or some other styptic powder is good to have around in case this happens, to stop the bleeding quickly, or you can hold a piece of tissue or paper towel over the nail and elevate the foot for a few minutes until it stops.

Cleaning ears

Next you should check your pet's ears. They shouldn't need cleaning more than once a month at most, but if they seem unduly dirty, dampen a cotton swab with sweet oil (made for cleaning babies' ears) or an alcohol-based ear cleaner (only if dry skin is not a problem) and gently clean them. Peroxide, water, and ointments are not recommended, because wet ears are much more prone to infections. Hold the swab along the animal's head rather than poking it into the ear, to avoid injuring the ear. Yellowish or brownish-red ear wax is normal, but if you see any black substance your pet probably has ear mites, which should be taken care of.

There are also several excellent products made for cleaning cats' ears, which you just squirt in and they shake out. They're just fine for ferrets, and your vet should be able to tell you about them.

The bath

[Photo of two ferrets swimming in a tub]
Now fill a tub or kitchen sink partway with warm water. Many people have found that ferrets prefer their baths warmer than you'd expect, probably because their body temperatures are pretty high. You don't want to scald your ferret, but if you can put your hand or foot into the water and feel comfortable right away, it should be okay. If you want to let your pet play in the water, fill a tub just deeper than the ferret is tall, and provide some sort of support (a box in the tub) in case she gets tired of swimming. You can also take her into the shower with you; many ferrets who don't like baths are perfectly happy being held in a shower.

Finally, bathe the ferret. Ferret shampoos are available, or no-tears baby shampoo works fine too. Some people like Pert for Kids if the ferret has dry skin. Wet the ferret completely, either in one half of a double sink or in a tub. Lather her from head to tail. Our ferrets both start to struggle at this point, so we let them put their hind legs on the side of the tub while they're being washed. Rinse the ferret thoroughly in clear, warm running water. For dry skin, some people then dip the ferret in a dilute solution of moisturizer in water, being careful to keep her head out.

Older, sick, or weak ferrets can be gently cleaned using baby oil, which can also help get gooey things out of fur.

Drying off

Drying a wiggly, dripping ferret can be a lot of fun. Some people put a couple of towels and the ferrets together in a cardboard box or small, clean garbage can and let them dry themselves. I find it's easiest to keep the ferret in a towel at chest-level, holding her head and torso in one hand while drying her with the other. Wearing a terry bathrobe is helpful here too. You could also put your ferret on the floor in a towel and rub her dry, but she'll probably think you're playing a rowdy game of tousle and try to run away. Once you've got her mostly dry, put her somewhere warm with a dry towel to roll in and she'll finish the job, although it's been mentioned that a damp ferret seems to lose all sense of judgment, suddenly thinking that walls, cage floors, milk cartons, and everything except the towel must be remarkably water-absorbent. You can also try using a hair dryer on its coolest setting, but many ferrets won't stand for that.

[Photo of a ferret dancing]
Immediately after a bath, many ferrets pretty much go nuts, thrashing and bouncing from side to side and rolling against everything in sight. Mainly they're trying to dry themselves, with a good bit of general excitement from the bath and drying process too.

What games do ferrets like to play?

Most ferrets enjoy mock combat, chase, tug-o'-war, hide-and-seek, and so forth, with each other or with you. Ours love to bounce around on our fluffy comforter, swat at us from behind the bookcases, and attack each other through the throw rugs. They like to explore new things and places, sniff new smells, dig and roll in the dirt. Most of them love human interaction and will gladly include you in their play if you make the time for them. It may take you a little while to learn what each ferret's favorite games are, but soon you'll be one of their best playmates.
[Photo of a ferret carrying off a pen]
Ferrets also love to swipe things and drag them into the most inaccessible location possible. Protect your keys and wallet.

[Photo of a ferret dancing]
If your ferret jumps back and forth in front of you or tugs on your pants leg, he wants to play. An appropriate response would be to get down on your hands and knees and chase him around, or to dangle a washcloth in front of him and start a tugging game, for instance. If he dances around, chuckling and dooking and bouncing off the walls, he's having fun.

Here are a few more specific game suggestions, from the fertile imagination of "Mo' Bob" Church. Note that many of these games need you to supervise (or join in!), to make sure the ferrets don't get hurt or stuck or swallow anything they shouldn't.

Melissa Litwicki adds these suggestions: Other ideas, from various sources:

Can I teach my ferret tricks? How?

[Photo of a ferret rolling over] [Photo of a ferret sitting up]
Yes, ferrets are plenty smart enough to learn to sit up, turn around, roll over, stay on your shoulders or in a hood, and perhaps even walk on a leash. To train your ferret to stay on your shoulders, for instance, stand over a pile or basket of crumpled newspaper, and when she falls into it, shout, "No!" The combination of the fall, the noise, and your shout should persuade her to pay more attention to staying on. Give her a treat when she does, and she should learn quickly.

The trick to all of these is getting your pet's attention while you teach her. Don't try teaching tricks, or even trying to get a ferret to perform, in an unexplored area -- it's nearly futile.

Unlike dogs, ferrets generally won't do a trick for the sheer joy of it, or simply to please you. Usually there must be some kind of reward expected, though that could be anything from a lick of Ferretone to a bite of apple to a good head-scratching.

One very good trick to teach your ferret is to come when you make a particular noise (for instance, whistle loudly) or squeak a particular toy. Just make the noise each time you give the ferret a treat for a while, then make it when your ferret isn't nearby and give the treat as a reward when he comes to you. Ferrets often won't respond to their names, and it's enormously helpful to have a way to call your pet when he has escaped or is lost somewhere.

My ferret trembles a lot. Is that normal?

Generally, yes. Ferrets normally tremble for two reasons. First, they often shiver right after waking up, in order to raise their body temperatures. Second, they shake or quiver when excited or frightened. For a young kit, this could well be all the time, since everything is new and interesting. For older ferrets, a bath or even a good scolding could prompt trembling.

If your ferret's trembling persists with no apparent cause, first make sure there's no cold draft around. (Ferrets can live fine outdoors, with blankets and shade, but indoor lighting can cause their winter coats not to come in until long after it's gotten cold enough outside to need one.) If that's not the problem, check with a vet.

My ferret is losing hair!

Ferrets shed their coats twice a year, in the fall and spring. The times for these changes vary somewhat for ferrets kept in indoor lighting conditions. Fur will come out by the handful, all over the ferret, and his coat may look a bit sparse before the new one grows in. If it's obviously not just normal shedding, see the information about bald tails and other kinds of hair loss, some of which can be very serious.

Is he really just asleep?

[Photo of a sleeping ferret]
In general, ferrets sleep quite a bit, even adults. A two- to four- hour playtime followed by a several-hour nap is typical. Ferrets sometimes appear to be sleeping with their eyes partly open, and they sleep very heavily, often not waking even when picked up. You can take advantage of this and try to cut their nails while they're asleep. It means you have to be especially careful where you walk and sit, though.

What does such-and-such a noise mean?

Most ferrets don't make much noise. This doesn't mean they're unhappy, it just means, well, they're quiet.
Clucking, "dooking," or chuckling
Indicates happiness or excitement. Often uttered while playing or exploring a new area.
Kits, especially, do this as a general excitement noise. It can also be uttered by the loser in a wrestling match.
Frustration or anger. Ferrets often hiss while they're fighting [150 kB sound], even if it's just in play.
Screeching/loud chittering
Extreme fright or pain. This is your cue that it's time to go rescue your pet from whatever it's gotten itself into. It can also be a sign of anger.

What else should I probably not worry about?

[Photo of a ferret dancing]
A happy ferret will "dance," flinging himself about on all fours with an arched back. Clucking is common too. Dancing or just careening into walls or bookcases is not at all uncommon, but ferrets seem to just bounce off of such obstacles. Unless they actually injure themselves, don't worry about them; they're having fun.

Occasional sneezes
If you crawled under bookcases and couches, you'd sneeze too. Also, ferrets have a pair of scent glands near their chins, and sneezing can be a way of forcing some of the scent out so it can be rubbed on something.

"Reverse sneezes"
These sound almost like asthma, about the same duration as a sneeze, and often occur several in a row, maybe after the poked her nose somewhere dusty. They don't look or sound like a cough. You might see the ferret's rib cage or body move once or twice a second with the force of the inhalation.

Sniffing/wiping/licking the rear
This is a normal thing to do, especially after a bath. It helps spread the ferret's scent around.

Licking urine
It's not uncommon for a ferret to take a few laps of urine, its own or another ferret's. Nobody's really sure why they do it, but it won't hurt them.

Hiccups are not uncommon, especially in young kits, who sometimes seem alarmed by them. A comforting scritch, a drink of water, or a small treat can help.

For some reason, many ferrets wag their tails quickly when they have their front ends in a tube or under a rug and they see something interesting (a toy, a sock, another ferret) at the other end. It's a normal sign of excitement.

Tail puffing
A ferret's tail will bottle-brush when he's excited or upset. He's not necessarily frightened. He'd have to be really worked up for the hair on the rest of his body to stand up, though.

Ear suckling
Often ferrets will suck on each others' ears, and sometimes even cats' or dogs' ears, especially when they're sleeping. It's probably a lot like thumb-sucking in humans, and nothing to worry about as long as the one doing the sucking is eating well and the other one's ears aren't getting sore.

Licking soap
For some reason, many ferrets love to eat soap, stealing it from the bathroom or even licking the tub. A little bit of soap won't hurt your ferret, though it may give her diarrhea. Don't give it to her as a treat, of course, and try to keep it out of her reach, but it's nothing to panic about unless she manages to eat a lot.

Summer weight loss, in males
Normally, weight loss is something to be concerned about, but many males lose a fair bit of weight, even as much as 40% of their bulk, in the summer and gain it back in the fall. It's mainly preparation for breeding, but it's common in neutered males, too. If your ferret seems otherwise healthy and happy, don't worry.

Do ferrets travel well?

In general, yes.
[Photo of a duffel bag modified for carrying ferrets]
Around town
Ferrets love going places. You can fix up a shoulder bag with a litter pan and space for a water bottle and food dish and carry them with you wherever they're welcome. Be careful not to let them get too hot or cold, though.
[Photo of a collapsible ferret cage]
Automobile travel
Car trips don't seem to bother ferrets, although being closed up in a travel cage may irritate them -- and you, if they scratch to get out. Keeping them loose in the car is not recommended, since they could get under the driver's feet or through some undetected hole into the engine compartment or onto the road. You can use a water bottle in a car, but fasten a deep dish or cup underneath it, since it will drip, and put down a towel to soak up the inevitable spills.
Airplane travel
Only a few airlines allow ferrets on board their planes, in under-seat carriers, for an additional charge. (America West, Air Canada, and Delta do, and I once got a special exception from Continental after talking with their customer service folks for a while. Any others?) Sending your ferret in the cargo area is not generally recommended, largely due to problems people have had with temperature, pressure and general handling of pets who travel this way. If you make any travel arrangements for your ferrets, whether it's in the cabin, as baggage, or as freight, get them in writing. Several people have reported experiences in which one person at an airline said ferrets would be fine only to have another person prohibit them, sometimes on very short notice.

Tranquilizing the ferret isn't recommended -- it'll disorient him and may affect his ability to keep his body temperature regulated. Medications can also be affected by altitude, leading to a risk of overdosing.

Several people have been able to sneak their ferrets aboard aircraft by carrying them through security, then transferring them to a duffel bag in a restroom, but I have no experience with that.

If you have to fly your ferrets somewhere and no airline will take them, a courier service such as Airborne Express or FedEx might be able to help. This might be the only way to fly your ferrets to some international destinations.

Many hotels allow pets in cages, although it's a good idea to call ahead and make sure. Also leave a note to reassure the maids.

Canada/U.S. border crossings
As of January 22, 1997, an import permit is no longer needed to bring a ferret into Canada, whether it's a Canadian or U.S. ferret. Ferrets are now treated like dogs and cats, and only require proof of rabies and distemper vaccinations. However, if you do not have a residential address in Canada, a quarantine period may be imposed, apparently at the discretion of the agent at the border.

Bringing ferrets from Canada into the U.S. is much the same. All I've ever needed was a rabies certificate. Proof that the ferrets came from the U.S. in the first place might also be helpful (a NY state license, in my case; if you don't have one, register your pets with U.S. Customs before you enter Canada). I don't know much about Canadian residents bringing ferrets into the U.S., but I wouldn't expect it to be any different.

Legal issues
You should also check with the Wildlife Departments of any areas you'll be passing through or staying in to make sure that ferrets are allowed, and carry documentation of the vaccines your pets have had, just in case.

Help! My ferret is lost!

[This section was written by Bev Fox, with additions by Carla Smith, and has been edited slightly.]


The most important things to do only work if you do them before one of your ferrets makes a break for the big outdoors.

Teach your ferrets to come to a sound (a word, squeaky toy, whistle, etc.) and reward them with their favorite treat when they do. Deaf ferrets can be trained to come by using a flashlight and blinking it off and on rapidly for a strobing effect. (Hearing ones too, for that matter.) Introduce your ferret to your neighbors so they will be familiar with what a ferret is and what it looks like. Put a collar or harness with a bell and name tag on your ferret whenever it is out of the cage. This way if somebody sees it they will know that it is a pet and not a wild animal.

Missing ferret

Check through your house carefully, including places where your ferret "couldn't possibly go." Look inside drawers, under dressers, in hampers, under and inside refrigerators, etc. Check your backyard, bushes and garage. Most ferrets when exploring a new area will cling to the side of a building or structure before venturing out into an open area. Put food and water out, preferably in a familiar cage or carrier with a blanket or shirt that has your scent on it. Place food on the front and back porch. You may also want to sprinkle the area with flour to make it easier to identify tracks left by any animal coming up to eat and drink.

Use your word processor or graphics program and design a missing ferret poster now before you need it and have it on file so specific information can be added and copies can be printed up in a short period of time. The poster should include your phone number, the ferret's name and picture, a description of any collar or harness he was wearing, date missing, last known location, and mention of a reward. (Never place how much money offered on the poster as some people may not think the amount offered is worth their effort.) Some people suggest that you say that the ferret is ill and needs medication (even if it's healthy). (This little white lie might make someone who finds your ferret and is thinking of keeping it for themselves have second thoughts and call you to come get it.)

Call your local police, animal control authorities, ferret club, ferret shelter, pet stores, veterinarians and radio stations. Get the word out. Canvass your neighborhood door to door and let your neighbors know to watch for a missing ferret in the area, perhaps in their garages or dryer vents. If you have another ferret, take it along to show them what one looks like. Ask your neighbors, especially children, if they will help you look around. Hand volunteers a noise maker that you use to call your ferret or tell them your call sign. Also hand out treats so if the ferret is spotted by someone they can keep it in sight until it can be retrieved. Alert your mailman, newspaper boy, and anyone else who passes through your area often. Post signs everywhere and place ads in your local newspapers. Don't limit it to your immediate neighborhood. Ferrets have been found many miles from home after crossing major highways and busy streets.

If you own more than one ferret, take one with you. It can show you small openings that you may otherwise overlook and may also draw the missing ferret out into the open to see its friend.

Remember, look low. Ferrets love dark places so check under porches, shrubs, dumpsters and cars. Ferrets also like small places so check behind trashcans and any little nook and cranny you find. Look for the telltale " a ferret has been here" signs. (Leaves, dirt and grass that have been dug at and little piles of poop that we all know so well.)

Don't give up hope. Missing ferrets have been found days, weeks and occasionally even months after their great escape.

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Copyright © 1994-1998 by Pamela Greene <pamg@rice.edu>
I am not a ferret expert and cannot guarantee the accuracy of this information.
Last modified: 02 Mar 1998.