Ferrets are family of the weasel and have a natural predatory instinct. These adorable pets use their mouths to communicate and learn about their environment. As is the case with a predatory species, ferrets have sharp teeth and you or your children might be afraid of a ferret bite.
Do ferrets bite and does it hurt? Ferrets are animals that bite for a lot of different reasons. A ferret might bite and cause a wound or give a gentle nip that doesn’t break the skin. Ferrets will need to be trained not to bite hard when they’re around you or your children. There are several methods you can use to stop the biting.
Ferrets aren’t aggressive in nature but they will bite when you don’t train them that biting you is bad behavior. Your ferret will need to be socialized early on and learn that humans don’t have the same thick skin as ferrets do. Once your ferret knows that biting you hurts you it will usually stop.
Sometimes the reasons for biting are a bit more complex and need more time. This is especially the case when dealing with an abused ferret. When you know the reason why your ferret bites, you can also find the appropriate method to stop the biting.
In this article, you’ll learn the reasons for a ferret to bite, what the signs are that you have to back off, how to stop the biting, and more importantly what you’ll need to do when you get bitten.
The Ferret Bite
Different types of biting
Before I get into the reasons for a ferret to bite, let’s first make it clear that a ferret doesn’t use its mouth just for eating. Just like a lot of animals the mouth of a ferret is its way to communicate with other ferrets and to explore its environment. So, your ferret will at some point bite you but usually isn’t meant to hurt you.
Ferrets are predatory animals but this doesn’t mean that they don’t need to defend themselves from time to time. Ferrets are also prey for some larger animals and need to be able to defend themselves. Biting isn’t the primary defense mechanism and is actually the last form of defense. At first a ferret will try to run away and when this isn’t possible it will make sounds and spray. When this doesn’t help a ferret will bite their aggressor.
There are a lot of different psychological reasons why your ferret bites you, but the most common reasons are really straightforward:
- scared: if your ferret isn’t used to being picked up or if it was abused it will instinctively try to bite you. In a closed environment, a ferret doesn’t have a lot of options besides running in its cage, squirming and trying to get loose, or by biting.
- stress: a ferret can get stressed by not having enough toys to play with or by not getting enough time outside the cage. This stress might cause your ferret to react in the only way it knows, by biting you to let you know there’s something wrong.
- unfamiliar environment: ferrets are animals that don’t do well with change. A change in the environment can lead to stress. Your ferret might bite you when it is moved to an unfamiliar environment or when you first get it. Let your ferret adjust to the changes before handling it.
The chance that you get bitten by a newly bought ferret is higher than the change that you get bitten by a ferret that’s being in the family for years (when trained not to bite). This is entirely normal because a ferret will need to adjust to the new environment, which may cause stress. Your ferret will also need to adjust to you as a new person and might be scared.
Accidental bites when breaking up a ferret fight
When you keep a group of ferrets there will be a fight for dominance. During these fights, it can get really serious. When you try to break up this fight, it’s possible that you get (accidentally) bitten by your ferret(s). In such cases, the bites can be deep and bleed.Use other more suitable ways to break up the fight like spraying water on the fighting ferrets and separating them by picking up the ferrets by the scruff of the neck.
Playful and curiosity bites
There are also other kinds of bites that aren’t caused by stress or fright. This doesn’t mean that these kinds of bites won’t hurt you. Unless you’ve trained your ferret to be gentle, the playful bites can also cause a wound and pain.
Ferrets are very active and playful animals that love bite each other as part of their play. These playful bites and nips are used to invite you to play or to show affection. Because ferrets have very thick skin they can easily bite other ferrets when playing. However, you can really get hurt by such a playful bite.
Besides that, ferrets will also bite when they want to explore something new. They might smell food or something on your fingers and take a bite.
Why does a ferret bite?
There are different reasons for a ferret to bite. While some are caused by a behavioral problem, others find their origin in natural behavior. It’s best to train your ferret not to bite you no matter what the reason is. A gentle nip won’t pose a problem but a real bite can hurt a lot. There’s not one training method to stop the biting. You’ll need to first know the reason why your ferret is biting.
Ferret babies, also called kits, use their teeth naturally to defend against possible predators and to explore their environment. Just like human babies a kit an experience teething pains. When they experience these pains, they will gnaw on anything they have in their vicinity including toys and you.
The teething pains aren’t a real cause for concern. The pains will eventually stop and the ferret baby will stop the biting that’s caused by this pain. However, you need to be careful not to let your ferret know that biting you is acceptable or it can become a problem later on.
No training or socializing
Ferrets that don’t know that biting is a problem won’t learn that they can’t bite their owners. This problem can occur because a ferret wasn’t trained by you or its previous owner. Often this problem is also caused by a lack of handling and training in pet shops.
The perfect time to start training and socializing is when your ferret still is a baby. Ferret kits play a lot and also bite while playing. A kit will learn what they can and can’t do in this stage. So, start training your ferret at an early stage not to bite you.
Ferrets can have stress when they’re kept in their cage all day long. A ferret is playful and smart and needs to spend time outside the cage with you. Staying too long in the cage can be a cause of stress for a ferret.
If you’ve got a male ferret that isn’t neutered the biting is often caused by the hormones. Unneutered male ferrets will show their dominance against other males and in some cases against females. This dominance is shown by biting. In some cases, the ferret will also bite you to show its dominance. When this problem seems to be caused solely by the hormones its best to neuter your ferret.
Problems with change
A lot of animals, including ferrets, experience stress when there’s chance in their environment. This change can be a change in smell or sound. It might be caused by a change in environment or a change in owner. Change often causes stress and confusion in your ferret. Ferrets have only limited ways to react to this stress and biting can be a way they express this.
When you change something in the environment of your ferret, be sure to give your ferret time to adjust to the change. This can take some time and can even last several weeks before the stress is resolved.
Sometimes people abuse their pets and ferrets are no exception. When a ferret is being abused it will quickly learn to associate humans with pain and will learn that the only thing they can do is bite in defense. This behavior is relatively easy to detect early on but is difficult to change. It will require a lot of time and bonding to let your ferret gain its trust in humans back.
Sensitivity to smells
Ferrets are sensitive to smells and can hate or love a certain smell. Soaps, lotions, perfumes and other smells (like smoke) can be the cause for a ferret to bite you. It’s also possible that a ferret really loves a certain smell and wants to stay near you.
Lastly biting is often caused by ferrets with health problems. These problems can cause a ferret to be in pain (for example stomach or ear pain). It’s also possible that your ferret is (becoming) blind or deaf and that it doesn’t see or hear you when you pick it up. This might cause an instinctive biting reacting.
When you notice sudden biting that doesn’t seem to fit the character of your ferret, be sure to take your ferret to the vet and explain the problem your ferret is having.
Does a ferret bite hurt?
You’ve taken all precautions and made sure that there are no warning signs that your ferret is frightened or stressed. But suddenly your ferret takes a bite anyway. If you’re already bitten you will know the degree of pain it causes. But if you’re lucky enough of not getting bitten, you might want to know what kind of pain you need to be expecting.
Pain is a subjective feeling and some people have a low pain threshold while others have a high threshold. It’s difficult to say if the bite will hurt in your individual case. A lot will also depend on the kind of bite.
You have to make a distinction between a real bite and a little playful nip. A frightened stressed or untrained ferret can bite hard and break the skin. Ferrets have very thick skin and when they play they will bite in each other. Because a ferret has a thick skin these bites usually won’t hurt the ferret. Contrary to ferrets, humans have much thinner skin and a ferret that bites with the same force as it would do with another ferret, will usually break the skin, hurt and might even bleed.
When your ferret knows that a normal bite hurts you, it will start biting you more gently. These grooming bites or nips are a way to play with you and to show affection. A nip will usually not hurt at all and will not create a wound.
Training Methods for Your Ferret to Stop Biting
There are several methods that are used to train a ferret to stop biting. Below you’ll find the most commonly used methods that usually lead to satisfying results. It’s important to stick with one method for a longer period (several weeks). If the method doesn’t seem to work and there isn’t any progress you can start using another method.
It’s also extremely important to determine the reason why your ferret bites and choose an appropriate method. For example, when your ferret is biting because it has stress from being in its cage most of the time it’s not a good idea to use the timeout method.
Bonding with your ferret
When you first get your ferret it will not be used to you and you’ll need to earn its trust. Let your ferret explore its cage and its new home and give it enough food and water. Provide enough toys in the cage and let your ferret outside its cage to explore in a safe environment.
To start handling your ferret, try to pick it up under its armpits and give it a few strokes. Then put your ferret back down. If your ferret struggles you should wait until it has calmed down.
Pinching down and hissing
When your ferret is biting you, you can gently pinch it down to the ground and make a hissing sound. This behavior is also seen in ferret mothers with their babies. Hold your ferret down until it relaxes and then release it.
Holding by the scruff of the neck
Another well practiced method for sanctioning the biting behavior of your ferret is by picking it up by the scruff of the neck and gently shaking it while making a hissing sound. Don’t shake your ferret too hard but do hold it by the scruff until it has relaxed. Then gently put it back down.
Sometimes picking your ferret up by the scruff won’t work and a more appropriate way to sanction your ferret is by giving it a timeout just like children. Again make a hissing sound and put your ferret in a special “timeout” cage. Make sure that this cage isn’t its normal cage or transporter or else it will just associate the biting with being normal behavior. Place your ferret in the timeout cage for five minutes every time it bites.
Playing with toys
If you play with your ferrets it’s easy to use your hands instead of toys. But ferrets love to bite when playing. Let your ferrets play with toys like a stuffed animal or a ball with bells on it. You can still hold the toys but don’t use your hands solely to play with your ferret.
Using bad taste on your hands
Ferrets will often bite in the hands but they will not find it that interesting when hands have a horrible taste. A method to stop biting behavior is to find something with a bad taste like vinegar or lemon and to cover your hands with it. Your ferret will release your hand and will connect the bad taste with your hands. However, this method can be only temporary and its possible that your ferret will get accustomed to it.
Tips and Tricks to Prevent Biting
Besides the methods above, you can prevent a ferret from biting you by making sure that it’s happy and stress free. The following tips and tricks can help you to prevent a ferret bite:
- wash your hands before handling: ferrets are sensitive to smells and might get stressed when you still got the smell of another pet on your hands. They can also take a nip in your hands when they smell like something good, for example, their favorite food. So, always wash your hands before you handle your ferret to wash away these kinds of foreign smells.
- provide enough toys for your ferret to play: although it might seem funny to play with your ferret with your hands, this is not a good idea. Use toys to play with your ferrets. Your ferret can bite and drag the toy with its mouth and will not associate your hand with toys.
- make sure that your ferret is aware of your presence: make sure that the ferret notices your presence and knows you’re going to come and pick him up. Avoid any sudden movements as this can frighten your ferret.
- find out what are the circumstances when your ferret bites: the circumstances can lead to the real cause of the biting. For example, does it bite only while playing or does it bite certain people? Maybe your ferret is sensitive to certain smells?
What to Do When You Get Bitten by Your Ferret?
When you get bitten you’ll need to make sure that your ferrets knows that this behavior is not ok. Don’t become angry towards your ferret because this won’t help. The best thing to do is to stay calm and use simulate a “bite back” (giving a pinch) and make a hissing sound to let your ferret know that it hurts. The ferret will usually let loose. You can also spray water on your ferret if it really doesn’t seem to loosen its grip.
A ferret bite can transfer bacteria into the wound. You should treat a ferret bite the same way you would treat a bite from another animal. This means that you should:
- clean the wound: wash your wound with running warm water to remove bacteria, dirt, hair or other foreign materials.
- use antibacterial wash: apply an antibacterial ointment or wash with antibacterial soap
- getting a bandage: apply a bandage to the wound to keep it clean
- get a tetanus shot: you can get a tetanus infection from a bite of an animal. So if you didn’t get a tetanus immunization you need to get medical advice and possibly a tetanus shot. However, pet ferrets that are kept inside are usually not a cause of tetanus.
If the wound is deep and very painful, it might not heal properly and you’ll need to seek advice from a medical professional. Severe wounds may need stitches and further antibiotic treatment.