Welcome to my second post in my “ferret hacking” series, where I present all the ferret care tips and tricks that I wish I had known as a new ferret owner.
As I say in my last post, ferrets can be a handful. And since I love them ever so much, I want to do my part to help others prepare for some of their unique challenges, so you have every chance to love them just as much as I do.
Tip #6. Height is your friend
The joys of owning a ferret come with a certain amount of adaptation required from you, the owner.
In particular, you have to start paying attention to where you put certain things. It’s no longer just about convenience or aesthetics. Suddenly, there are always two questions ping ponging around in the back of your mind: Can the ferret get into that? and Will the ferret destroy/choke/make a total mess of things if he does?
Over a period of about two months, after getting my first ferret, slowly, everything in my apartment just moved up.
No more purses dropped on the floor when I got home. The ferret will tear through it, and probably kill himself by eating the loose tab of Ibuprofen that we all have floating around in our purses somewhere.
No more large potted plants sitting on the floor. Ferrets love digging up potted plants. They just absolutely love it. Maybe because they know you can’t make them vacuum the dirt out of your carpet.
No more shoes waiting by the door. After potted plants, ferrets love nothing more than burrowing into shoes and ripping out the insoles.
No more fancy scarves hung on hangers that reach the floor. Man, did they have fun shredding those.
No more leaving half full glasses on the arm of the couch while I just run into the kitchen to get more food. I can’t tell you how many glasses my first ferret knocked over and broke, or how much juice got spilled on my couch, before I got wise. Actually, it just happened again yesterday…
You also have to be careful of the ferret’s innate climbing ability.
Just because you place your purse safely on your table doesn’t mean the ferret can’t climb onto the seat of your chair, and then onto the table.
Just because you secured your yarn on your desk doesn’t mean the ferret can’t get up into the space behind the desk drawers, climb into one of the drawers, and then push it out far enough to get up onto the top of the desk (Yeah, true story).
Ferrets have amazing upper arm strength. If they can get their claws into something, they can usually pull themselves up onto that something – most often a seat. They’re also great at jumping from one surface to another.
If they can get onto a surface – say, your shelf of collectible tea cups – you had better believe they will knock every breakable thing off that surface. They just will.
The good news? They can’t get their claws into wood, metal, plastic, or glass.
I have one of those bookshelf headboards. My ferrets can get up onto my bed. Every morning, while making breakfast, I hear them knock something off that bookshelf.
Oh, and by the way, they have the ability to unzip zippers and open cabinets – just FYI.
The point is, if you don’t want them in something, keep it off the ground and invest in child locks for cabinets if you have to. Also, take note of what your ferrets can and cannot climb, and adjust things accordingly. Fortunately, it takes them a bit of time to figure their own climbing and cabinet opening abilities out, which gives you time, too.
It’s a lot like watching a toddler. Don’t panic, and don’t let it overwhelm you. Just keep an eye on him, and accept that he will eventually find that one breakable thing you forgot about.
To recap, things you want to keep out of your ferret’s reach include:
- Anything that can be knocked over and broken – glass figurines, computer tablets, etc.
- Anything that can be knocked over and spilled – glasses full of juice, etc.
- Maybe just anything that can be knocked over
- Potted plants
- Anything you don’t want them getting into – purses, bags, etc.
- Anything pill or medication related
- Anything they can chew open – plastic bottles, etc.
- Anything they could choke or suffocate on – plastic bags, small objects like buttons, etc.
- Anything sharp – including small objects like pins or needles
- Crafting supplies like yarn, paints, etc.
- Anything small enough for them to carry off and hide – Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that they love stealing things. Just random, crazy things they should have no interest in, but for some reason, do.
Okay, so it’s a long list that includes just about every small idem that most of us have in our houses. On the bright side, it might just be the motivation you need to keep your floors clean.
Tip #7. Know where the holes are
Ferrets were originally domesticated to help hunters by following rabbits into their dens and chasing them out. This means that ferrets love being in small, tight, dark, preferably underground spaces.
Or, in other words, the setting of many a human horror movie is a ferret’s happy place.
The first thing my brand new baby ferret did when I got him home was run straight into a hole I didn’t even know existed under my kitchen cabinets. Later, I lost him under the kitchen sink in my church. A year later, I lost my second ferret under the sink in my bathroom. Yes, they eventually came back. I almost had a stroke.
The danger here is that the ferret might get stuck or come across something dangerous in the untouched crevices of your home. They could also get lost behind an oven or a dryer or the heating and air conditioning ducts.
And it’s not just the walls or large appliances that are hazardous. I have a friend whose ferret managed to crawl into the back of a dresser, and got smashed by one of the drawers. Many others have been killed in couches, beds, and chairs. The list goes on.
Before you bring your ferret home, go through whatever areas you expect him to run loose in, and find the holes. I eventually patched the holes under my kitchen up with cardboard and duct tape. I won’t lie, it was hard work and took a few tries. But it was worth it. Check the walls. Check under appliances. Check under furniture. Make sure your dressers have a sealed bottom. And remember: They can open cabinet doors.
One final note: Ferrets have amazing bodies that can squeeze through spaces you do not logically think they can fit through. If his skull fits, he will fit. And their skulls are not very big. Do not just ignore a hole because you think it’s too small. Chances are, it’s not.
Tip #8. He’s not scared, and other mixed signals
In addition to getting your house ready, it’s important to understand some unique ferret behaviors. These are quirky little animals, similar to cats and dogs in a lot of ways – with some important differences, too.
In the pet shop, while I was choosing my first ferret, my mother was two aisles away, skimming the “Ferret Care” book they happened to have on sale. I’m very glad she did, because as soon as I got home, my ferret started displaying some behaviors that would have troubled me otherwise.
In particular, ferrets do this thing called a war dance. They jump up and down in the air, throw their bodies around in all kinds of contortionist shapes. They’re trying to get your attention and entice you to play with them, but it can look, well, weird, and even scared.
In fact, ferrets often look frightened as they dart under furniture, scamper between your feet, and run away as quickly as their little legs can move (which is pretty quick). Unlike cats, they’re not really frightened when they do this. Most of the time, they want you to chase after them.
That being said, ferrets do of course get scared sometimes.
When you get to know them, their scared running away looks a lot different from their play running away. But it might take you awhile to see the difference.
In general, a scared ferret will retreat to a safe place – usually somewhere dark and small – and have to be coxed out. A playing ferret will come out pretty easily because, again, his goal is to play with you. I also find that my ferrets will try to bury themselves in my hair if they get overwhelmed (by, say, a group of children) while I’m holding them.
These aren’t hard and fast rules, though, so, again, it might take a little time to figure out. In my experience, ferrets don’t get scared all that often. Usually, they’re playing.
They also have a tendency to tremble, which makes it seem like they’re afraid. Usually, though, the trembling is either from excitement, or cold. Ferrets will often get the shivers after waking up, as their bodies adjust to leaving the warm nest behind.
Finally, ferrets sometimes appear angry or aggressive when their intent is really fun and play.
Most of us know that when a dog stands glaring at you with his front legs set and teeth barred it means: “Don’t you dare come near me. I will bite your hand off.” When a ferret takes up this same stance, he means: “Please play with me. I love you, and we could have ever so much fun.”
I have never known a ferret to take up an actually aggressive posture that intends to inflict harm. I’m sure they could, if they were being hurt or threatened. Mine never have been, so I’ve never seen it. Make no mistake, small as they are, they’re capable of inflicting damage, even on a human. But I’ve never known them to want anything but play.
The same goes for when they play with each other. When I got my second ferret and saw two ferrets playing together for the first time – to be honest, it freaked me out. A part of me was sure the big ferret was actually trying to kill the little one. But I forced my fears aside for one main reason: As soon as the big ferret was done attacking the little ferret, the little ferret would just get right back up, happy as could be, and goad his “big brother” into another fight.
Ferrets play rough. They roll over and around each other, grab each other by the scruff of the neck, twist, chomp, drag each other across the floor, tackle, spring, scratch, and hiss. Oh, do they hiss. Somehow, it’s all fun and games.
My advice, unless one of them starts drawing blood, don’t worry about it.
In summary, normal, healthy, happy ferret behaviors include:
- Crazy war dance
- Shivering, especially after having just woken up, or when excited
- Running away and hiding during play
- Standing with front feet apart and teeth bared to initiate play
- Rough play with you or other ferrets
- Biting and hissing (other ferrets)
- Dooking (it’s a kind of barking, grunting noise that ferrets make, and usually means they’re happy or playful)
Behavior that might suggest a problem includes:
- Refusing to leave a hiding place (especially when coxed out with treats)
- Lethargy or unwillingness to wake up to play
- Drawing blood
- Screaming (I’ve only heard a ferret scream once. It’s loud, creepy, and means he’s quite upset. You’ll know it when you hear it.)
Tip #9. He really does sleep that much, and other health concerns
It’s also important to know what behaviors signal health problems, and which do not.
First, ferrets sleep a lot, around 14 hours a day, and more for babies. Some owners begin to worry that their ferrets are sleeping too much, getting sick or depressed. Unless the ferret is behaving depressed in other ways – not eating, not interested in play, generally mopey behavior – this is probably not the case.
Weight loss is another difficulty. In simplest terms, healthy adult ferrets should weigh somewhere between two and four pounds. Females are smaller, males larger. Fixed ferrets are smaller than unfixed.
That being said, I have found that ferret’s weight fluctuates a great deal during their lives. Both of mine gained a ton of weight around the six-month mark. Then they lost weight. Then around a year a half (or their first adult shedding season), they both dropped an enormous amount of weight. In general, ferrets tend to drop weight during the spring shedding season, but in my experience, that first spring is just worse.
Weight loss can be a symptom of serious illness. As with sleeping, though, it shouldn’t cause concern unless it is accompanied by other symptoms. Is the ferret still alert, still eager to play, still eating, and the opposite of eating? If everything else is normal, he’s probably fine.
And finally: Ferrets sneeze a lot. I mean, a lot a lot. They cough, and they wheeze. They sometimes sound like they’re choking on their food. They rub their ears and their noses on the floor. And they scratch themselves. Constantly. They’ll even interrupt the middle of a game for a thirty-second scratching session, and then go straight back to playing like nothing ever happened.
All of these things could indicate health problems. Ear mites or fleas, a cold… But it’s important to understand that all these things are also perfectly normal, daily – no, hourly – events in a ferret’s life. In almost all cases, it’s nothing to worry about. My advice is to take your ferret for yearly vet visits to rule out health issues, and not worry too much about these things otherwise.
Again, things that should not cause concern, especially if unaccompanied by other symptoms, are:
- Sleeping most of the day
- Weight fluctuations
- Sneezing, coughing, wheezing
- Noisey eating
- Rubbing face against the floor
- Scratching, even if it borders on obsessive
>>>Disclaimer: I am not a vet. I speak only from personal experience and a certain amount of amateur research. If you do believe your pet’s health is in danger, do not hesitate to contact your veterinarian.
On the other hand, the following are causes for concern in and of themselves:
- Loss of appite
- Sustained diarrhea or constipation
- Bloody stool
- Lethargy that lasts longer than a day or two
Don’t overreact even here. Like all of us, your ferret will sometimes experience diarrhea, some days be more tired or less hungry than others, and yes, sometimes throw up. But if any of these things last longer than a day or two, it’s not normal. Contact your vet.
Tip #10. Yes, they do bite
This is perhaps the question I get most often. So, yes, ferrets bite.
It’s an important topic, and I have an entire article dedicated to it. You can read that article here. Briefly, ferrets bite as a part of their normal play activities. They’re not being aggressive, or trying to cause harm. But their jaws are strong and their teeth are sharp. Some of them bite harder than others, too.
You can train it out of them, as I mention in the other article. I don’t mind it, and have not trained mine to stop. Again, it’s play biting, not biting meant to cause harm. But it is something that I think owners should be prepared for.
If you are going to train your ferrets not to bite, you should make that decision before you get the ferret. Training them takes persistence, and you need to commit to it – just like litter training. There are a lot of resources and videos out there to help you. I share one of those videos in the article I already mentioned.
I hope you will not allow this one thing to deter you from getting a ferret. They really are worth it, in my opinion. But yes, they do bite, and they play rough in other ways, too. So be prepared.