Bare feet can attract a playful ferret like roses attract bees. And more than one ferret owner has stepped out of the shower and right into an ambush – a musky little friend lying in wait to attack the toes!
It's not a spiteful attack; it's what passes for ferret fun, especially when his owner starts hopping around on one foot yelling "Ow!" But it is also annoying – not to mention painful. And when the ferret is angry or frightened and really does mean for his bite to hurt, it's even worse.
Ferrets are armed with needle-sharp teeth and while the incidence of serious ferret bites is infinitesimally low compared to dog bites – the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association has estimated there are an average of 12 ferret bites per year that require medical treatment – biting is certainly a habit any ferret-owner wants to discourage.
Flick on the Nose Won't Work
Yet the most common form of ferret discipline – a quick flick on the nose when your pet is misbehaving – may do more harm than good, warn ferret experts.
"What's the first thing you do when something hurts you?" asks Randy Horton, director of the Especially Ferrets ferret shelter in suburban Denver, Colo., and a longtime rehabilitator of biting ferrets. "When a mosquito bites, what the first thing you do? Smack it. A lot of people have a tendency to smack ferrets, to flick them on the nose and tell them they're a bad ferret. But these are bad things to do, especially to a young ferret who nips you in play," he says. "Playful biting can turn into anger biting."
Why Ferrets Bite
Horton suggests that ferret owners whose pets are becoming problem nippers first determine the reason for the biting. If the target is your hand, there's a good chance your ferret is frightened of human hands. Perhaps human hands have caused your ferret considerable pain in the past. If so, your ferret needs a lot of reassurance and positive reinforcement.
In addition to fear biting, ferrets may bite out of anger or to protect their space. "If you stick your hand in their hidey-hole, nine times out of 10 you'll get bitten, because it's THEIR hidey-hole," Horton warns.
The key to changing a nippy ferret's behavior is to take away his motivation to bite. He bites because biting gets results – that scary, annoying hand goes away. But if biting brings no results at all, the ferret will soon stop biting, Horton says.
At Especially Ferrets, Horton has rehabilitated even vicious biters using what he calls the "two-glove technique."
"We start handling them with gloves they can bite into, but it doesn't hurt our hands," he says. "When they bite, we let them bite. We don't tell them 'Bad ferret!' 'No bite!' We don't even look at them when they bite. We just keep petting them, saying, 'Good ferret.' They realize they're not getting the reaction they used to get when they bit. Pretty soon they'll quit. What's the point?"
Instead of a nose flick or a smack, the ferret just gets a lot of touchy-feely correcting – belly rubs, head scratches. "We get them used to having hands on them all the time – hands that don't hurt but that feel good," Horton says.
It can take a long time for the biting to stop – especially with an older ferret. But when it does, Horton switches to wearing just one glove, while continuing to caress the ferret with his ungloved hand.
"You have to be careful," he says. "If they see the bare hand again, they may have a flashback. But give them treats with the bare hand, rub their feet, their tail, work your way up to their head and face so they trust a bare hand again. When we can get that bare hand around their face without them hissing and fighting, then we go to two bare hands. If can do two bare hands for two weeks, we're successful. That ferret probably won't ever bite again unless picked on."
Remember, too, to reward your ferret for proper behavior. When he's playing nicely, speak gently to him and give him treats. Encourage non-biting behavior.
In the meantime, what do you do when your nippy little friend hasn't yet learned that biting is bad and has sunk his teeth into your flesh and won't let go? "Ferretone," says Horton, referring to a tasty ferret diet supplement that most ferrets adore. "Pour it on their nose. They'll quit biting just to lick it off."
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