Help! My Ferret Won't Use His Litter Pan

By: Lisa Leidig

As a shelter, this is one of the most frequently asked questions I get! The good news is yes, ferrets can be trained to use the litter box; the bad news - it may not be 100% accuracy when running loose in the house. Before we start on the tips or tricks of litter training, lets take a moment to talk about litter - you know, the stuff we pour in the pan and then expect them to use it?

Appropriate litter: There are many products on the market and the choice is up to you and your ferret - if the ferret does not like your choice of litter, they may not use it! Types of litter to use are: Clay, Rabbit feed (alfalfa pellets), wood stove pellets, recycled newspaper, corncob and pine pellets. Each has its own drawbacks. Clay litter shouldn't be used if the ferret is allergic. Wood stove pellets, pine pellets, newspaper and rabbit food should not be used if the ferret starts to eat it. Corncob can be susceptible to bacteria and fungal growth. Some are more costly than others - and some may also be seasonal.

Inappropriate litter: Cedar, pine or any kind of wood chips should not be used in a ferret's cage or litter box. Tests on wood chips have proven that they cause respiratory problems and infections in ferrets with long-term use. These can harm your ferret and should never be used.

Okay so we have our litter picked out - time to start training them on where to go to the bathroom! To start, there are two different kinds of litter training in a cage: those tips and tricks for a kit, and those for an adult. Then comes the even more difficult training - when out and about in the house.

Kits and litter boxes - well, in most cases, it seems pretty hopeless - the young ferret thinks that everywhere in the cage is a good spot to go potty, and the litter box as a place to play! Kits are often seen diving their heads under the litter (referred to as snorkeling), rolling in, digging in, and generally attempting to scatter the litter to the four winds. But there is hope - Ferrets are naturally a latrine animal, and with a little persistence and patience on your part, will be trained to use a box in a cage. When training your young ferret, never completely clean the box - once the fresh litter is in place, put a little "used" wet litter and one or two dried feces on the top to give them the hint of where to go to the bathroom.

For the more persistent digging types - put your smaller litter box inside of a larger pan - fill only the small pan with litter. Attach the small box to the large and then attach both to the cage. This will help reduce the amount of litter wasted when the ferret digs by creating a catch pan. Placing a kit in a cage with an older ferret (especially one with excellent latrine habits) will also help - the older ferret usually will not tolerate the kits' nonsense and help set him or her on the right path to potty training.

Fastening the litter box to your cage will also help. Drilling holes and attaching the litter box to the wire is one way of keeping the box in place. Cage clips and other attaching devices are also available. This keeps the kit from moving or tipping the box, and to label an area of the cage as the "potty place."

Adult ferrets which do not use a litter pan in a cage usually do not play in the box like a kit - they just don't know what a litter box is about, or have a problem with using one. They are usually easier to train, once you know how.

If your ferret is using a corner other than where the litter box is located, then its time to fool your ferret. They will usually not go to the bathroom where they eat, sleep or drink - so placing a food bowl, water bottle or bedding in the "bad" spot will often stop that. (This technique does not always work at first with a kit - I have seen them poop in their food bowls. Thankfully, they grow out of that nasty habit fairly quickly.) Clean your cage thoroughly to remove any odors that may tell your ferret that an inappropriate spot is their poop area. There are many commercial products on the market that are very good at removing odor and can help, such as Simple Solution, Nature's Miracle, etc. In order to help reduce the amount of "accidents" you may have to clean up, try leaving the ferret in its cage until they use the box before coming out to play.. Another trick is to reward the ferret with a treat (such as Ferretone) every time they use the box - although sometimes this trick backfires on you - you find your ferret "faking" like he or she is using the box, just to get a treat from you!

Changing the litter box often can help train your ferret to use the box - some ferrets are extremely fastidious and will not use the box should it get to dirty, in their opinion. Scooping the box daily and dumping weekly is a good rule of thumb, but remember - Multiple ferrets in a cage may result in more frequent dumping. Cutting down one side of the box may also help the ferret enter the box to use it. Male ferrets seem to especially dislike the "Corner" litter pans - their whole body will not fit and that tends to make them ignore that type of pan.

Now that the ferret is trained to use the box in the cage, its time to release them and start on house training. Ferrets are not cats, and may only use a box outside of a cage 70-85% of the time, but ferret accidents are small, do not permeate the carpet or floor, and if left to dry, their stools are odorless and dry in 24 hours. It's unusual, but possible to have a ferret be 100% in or out of the cage. It's quite funny to watch one coming running across the house, back to her cage, just to use "her" litter pan. Multiple cages of ferrets loose usually involve another interesting habit - that of the first ferret using the second ferrets' litter pan in the other cage! Gender doesn't seem to play a part in who is better trained than others - both sexes can be equally bad or good. A ferret's philosophy is this, "Oh - I see a litter box, do I have to go potty? Yes, then I will use the box." OR "Oh - I need to go potty - I don't see a box. I guess this corner will do just fine." Fortunately, very few ferrets leave "presents" in the middle of the floor.

If the ferret is running loose in the house, placing litter boxes around the area where the ferret is loose is a good way. If you see them backing up into a corner, pick them up and put them in a box. Praise them when they do go to the bathroom! Another good method is to not let the ferret out of the cage until they have gone potty. Most ferrets will have to go to the bathroom about five minutes after waking up. Watch them and when they go, praise them and give them a treat.

As a kit, the ferret needs to get used to a small area, and get good at using the box, before expanding their play and roam areas, so it's important while litter box training them outside of their cage to start with a small room or enclosure and graduate to larger areas as they improve their "hit rate."

Allow free run time to be in two hour stages. Put them back in their cage to rest and use the facilities, then let them out again if you wish. A ferret's digestive system works in about three hours - so this will help reinforce them to use the litter box before leaving the cage to play. Use newspaper, puppy training pads where litter boxes won't work (under furniture, beds, behind doors, etc.) Paper training your ferret is a little easier than box training outside the cage, and it is easy to pick up and dispose of. Discontinue the use of the training pads if you see that the ferret is chewing on the plastic or cotton.

Finally - use patience and persistence. Reward when they use the box and punish when they do not. By punishment, I don't mean to roll up a newspaper and smack them on the behind - that doesn't work with ferrets. I mean to place them back in their cage and tell them "NO NO BAD FERRET." Partial positive reinforcement (a really fancy term for rewarding for good behavior some of the time) works best for a ferret. Here's to better future potty habits from your ferret!

Last modified 8 Oct 2001