Training your ferrets
Smart, sociable, playful and curious – having ferrets in your life is lots of fun. What’s more, these clever little mustelids thrive on new challenges and experiences, which is why a little training can go a long way.
From teaching your ferret not to nip, how to use a litter tray, how to walk with a harness and lead (some ferrets, not all, may take to this) to some simple tricks they’ll soon be keen to show off (for a tasty treat), we’ve lots of top tips. And, the more training you do with your ferrets, the stronger the bond between you will be. It will also enrich your ferret’s life.
Nip it in the bud – how to train your ferrets not to nip
Ferret skin is much harder than human skin and they often do not mean harm when they nip. If you adopted a ferret from a rescue shelter, it could simply be the case that he or she is nipping or biting out of fear. If the nipping or biting is coupled with hissing and backing away, give your ferret some space and wait until they feel more secure again.
“Ferrets naturally can give playful nips, and if they feel frightened, they can bite hard,” says Burgess in-house vet, Dr Suzanne Moyes. “Luckily, it’s quite easy to train ferrets, so you can help them to reduce the amount they nip.”
Here are some tips on how to nip train your ferret:
- If your ferret nips, don’t hit your ferret or ‘pop’ them on the nose. This will only encourage biting and more fear. Clap your hands and say ‘No’. Put your ferret back into their housing immediately. They will soon figure out that nipping or biting equals no more play time.
- Buy some Bitter Apple chew deterrent, which is non-toxic but tastes horrible. Spray a small amount on your fingers, toes or anything else your ferret likes to nip to discourage them.
- If your ferret has suddenly become a ‘nipper’ think about anything you may have changed. Have you started wearing a new perfume? Have you started putting lotion on your hands and feet? Did you just wash your hands with soap? Are you wearing lipstick or lip gloss? Ferrets can react to certain scents, especially those that contain musk.
Way to go – how to litter train your ferrets
Animal welfare charity Blue Cross advises: “Ferrets can be litter trained, although they may still have occasional accidents. Litter training will make it far easier to keep their accommodation clean. A high-sided, corner litter tray is best, but you can also use a cat litter tray. Fill with wood shavings or unscented cat litter. It’s generally best to place the litter tray where your ferret likes to go to the toilet rather than put it where you want it to be, as they'll be more likely to use it.”
Ferrets will naturally back up in a corner to go to the bathroom. This behaviour is usually taught to kits by their mothers. However, some kits may have been removed from their mothers too soon. Other ferrets that have been adopted from previous homes and not trained may need a refresher course. If your ferret is missing the mark, these tips can help:
- When you take your ferret out of their housing to play, try waiting until they have used the bathroom (or check the litter box to see if there is fresh deposit). Ferrets will always use the bathroom within the first 15 minutes or so after waking up. But beware! Many ferrets will figure out your system and pretend to go to the bathroom just to get let out to play.
- Put litter boxes in just about every corner of their house to begin with. Use a ferret friendly litter box with a high back and low ledge in the front. Your ferret will usually pick out a few favourites. Place a heavy waterproof mat under each litter box to protect against accidents. If your ferret likes to chew on the mat, spray it with some Bitter Apple. If your ferret is going to the bathroom right in front of the litter box, a lower front ledge may be needed. Male ferrets need larger litter boxes than female ferrets.
- Eventually, start to put bedding, toys and food in the corners you don’t want your ferrets to use as a toilet area. If you have recently purchased a new enclosure, you can expect a few accidents. Ferrets take a while to adjust to changes in their environment – but persevere by putting any stray deposits in the litter box and putting food and toys in the other corners until they get the hang of it.
On the leash – how to train your ferret to wear a harness and walk on a lead
Ferrets should have daily exercise either in the house or in a large run. They can also be trained to walk with a harness and lead. Blue Cross says: “Ferrets are very active and curious, and some will enjoy going for walks with you. You'll need to spend time introducing them to their harness and lead and getting them used to the experience.”
It’s also vital to get your ferrets vaccinated each year against canine distemper.
The charity advises that in order to take your ferrets for walks you'll need to make sure they’re used to and happy with being picked up and handled. You’ll also need a specialist ferret harness and lead. Their harness needs to be secure so that they don't wriggle out of it.
- Start by simply getting the ferret to accept wearing the harness in your house. Some ferrets don’t mind harnesses, while others struggle and wriggle to get out of them.
- If your ferret resists wearing the harness, pair the wearing of the harness with giving the ferret a small amount of their favourite tasty treat. The trick is to give the treat only when you put the harness on the ferret and at no other time. After you give your ferret the treat a few times while putting them in the harness, they will begin to anticipate the treat as soon as the harness appears.
- Once your ferret masters wearing the harness, give another treat immediately after you clip on the leash. Many ferrets will accept wearing the harness but then struggle and twist once they are hooked up to the leash. Pairing the sight and sound of the leash clipping to the harness with the feeding of another small, delicious treat will help the ferret learn to accept the attachment of the leash to the harness.
- Finally, once the leash is clipped on, you can give another small treat if the ferret walks or runs forward properly. As before, the ferret will learn to anticipate moving forward on the leash with the receiving of treats. The key to each step of ferret leash-training is to only give the favoured treat at the time of training so that the ferret is motivated to work for it.
When out and about with your ferrets, remember to:
- Keep an eye on them at all times and avoid public places if they aren’t used to being picked up or meeting new people.
- Watch out for curious canines – if you spot a dog in the distance, pick your ferret up – it’s always better to be safe.
- In case your ferrets get tired of walking or become spooked by something, always take a suitable ferret carry bag in which you can put them in to take them home safely in comfort.
- And, just as when you take a dog out for a walk, don’t forget some poop bags too!
OLGA’S STORY – A REMINDER TO ALWAYS GET YOUR FERRETS MICROCHIPPED!
Olga the ferret was found in a garden in Colliers Wood, London, and taken into pet charity Blue Cross’s animal hospital in Merton. Because she was microchipped, she was safely reunited with her owner, Juliano, who said: “I was really frightened when I realised she was missing. We all love her, and my youngest son especially would have been really distressed if anything had happened to her. I can’t thank Blue Cross enough for their help to get her back home so quickly. Luckily, she’s fine after her little adventure and has settled back in with her partner Fred without any problem.”
Elise Smith, Deputy Nurse Manager at Blue Cross in Merton, said: “Olga was a lovely friendly girl so it was clear she was well loved, and we knew someone must be looking for her. We’re so happy we could reunite her with her owner and so quickly. It’s so important to make sure your pets are microchipped and to keep your contact details up to date to make it easier for you to be reunited with your pet should
More than a one trick ferret – tricks you can teach your ferrets (and tricks they may teach themselves)
As reported by journalist Rebecca Jones on pet health and wellbeing information website Pet Place, Randy Horton, Director of Especially Ferrets, Denver, the largest ferret shelter in North America, is convinced that if a dog can learn to do something via reward-based training, so can a ferret, with ‘sit’, ‘come’, ‘roll over’ and ‘beg’ all within the average ferret’s training repertoire.
However, Horton is quick to point out that the key difference between training a dog and training a ferret is that ferrets are much less motivated to do anything just to please their human companion. With ferrets, this trick business is just that: a business. They expect to receive a payoff.
As with any sort of training the key is to make it fun. That means lots of praise, lots of treats and short lessons. “If you make it a chore, they resist learning,” says Horton, who shares some of his top training tips.
- The best place to start is by getting your ferret to recognise their name. To do this, say the ferret's name over and over again. When your ferret finally looks up at you when you say their name, reward them with a tasty treat. Keep saying their name – and rewarding them every time they look at you in response. Eventually, the ferret will come running whenever they hear you calling.
- Next, try teaching your ferret to sit. Hold a treat above their head high enough so your ferret has to sit up to reach it. While she's reaching for the treat, say “sit.”' Each time you repeat this, move the treat a bit higher. Eventually, your ferret will sit up even when they can't see the treat.
Once your ferrets cotton on to the joys of reward-based training, who knows what tricks they may come up with themselves?
While this may be a shaggy ferret story, Horton says he's sometimes been surprised at the tricks that ferrets have learned on their own, recalling the night that Linus, a female ferret at the shelter, got into a pile of toys that had been donated earlier in the day and hadn't yet been distributed. “We had about 50 toys on the floor,” he reveals. “She got into them and sorted them all by colour. She had them all in a bunch of little piles. There was a little pile of pink rats over here, a pile of yellow birds over there, all stacked nice and neat. That was the most extraordinary thing I ever saw.”
CARE MORE Find lots of useful advice on caring for your pets from Burgess, the pet experts. Housing, health, feeding and more. It's all here >>
FEEDING YOUR FERRETS
Ferrets are carnivores so their staple diet needs to contain meat protein, alongside a constant supply of clean, fresh water. Ferrets also need calcium in their diet to help support healthy teeth and bones. A great solution is to feed them a nugget diet with all of the protein and supplements your ferrets need such as Burgess Excel Ferret Nuggets.
This is a complete ferret food, made from top quality ingredients with all the supplements for optimum health and high levels of quality chicken, which makes them high in protein – exactly what your ferrets need. Plus, nuggets are a much easier, and cleaner, way to feed your ferrets compared with fresh meat. Find out more about what ferrets eat, why they stow away food – and why they're messy eaters >>
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