Ferret behavior and enrichment (Proceedings)


Healthy ferrets: Inquisitive, alert and curious, bright eyes, will often eat if offered favored treats

Healthy Ferrets

      Inquisitive, Alert and curious, Bright eyes, Will often eat if offered favored treats

           -Ferrets will chew, dig, and investigate

           -Ferrets are either in constant motion or sleeping

Unhealthy Ferrets

      -lifeless, glazed and unfocused eyes, immobile, stop grooming, lack curiosity about their surroundings, isolation from bonded mates

Sensory Behaviors - Ferrets


      -Binocular vision, turn head to see

      -Good vision in low light, not in the dark, difficulty adjusting to bright light


      -Ear canals open after 32 days

      -Respond to high frequency sounds (squeaky toys)

Olfactory –

      -60 – 90 days imprinting; will not eat any other prey

      -Offer variety of food in 1st 6 months

      -Keen sense of smell

Reproductive Behaviors – Ferrets

      -Sexual maturity at 8-12 months of age

      -Increased sexual activity longer light

Males (Hobs)

      -Increased neck biting and pelvic thrusting behavior in play

      -Increased scent gland marking

      -Intromission 30 minutes to 3 hours

Females (Jills)

      -Little estrus assoc. behavioral changes - more excitable & nervous, sleep less, and eat less

      -Swollen vulva, flaccid/submissive when ready to breed

      -Remains in estrus until bred, OVH or medical intervention – severe anemia d/t hyperestrinism

Communication Behaviors - Ferrets

      -Anal drag, wiping, body rubbing

Provides Info on Sex and Hormonal Activity

      -Back up and defecate in a corner

      -Bark – loud chirp of fear or excitement

      -Hiss – fear, anger, frustration, warning

      -Greet new ferret by sniffing anal, neck and shoulder area

      -Scream – high pitched screech depicting fear or pain, during seizures

      -Dook, chuckling, buck – series of chortles depicting excitement, happiness

      -Piloerection of tail – anger, fear excitement = "brush tail", often with arched back and a hiss or screech

Social Behaviors

      -Ferrets are also very social but can live well alone if given play time and human interaction

      -Some fighting with new ferrets

      -Can put Ferretone™ on neck of ferrets that are being introduced

Grooming Behaviors – Ferrets

      -Self grooming by licking and nibbling

      -Mutual grooming especially around head and ears

      -Trichobezoars are common

Lack of grooming


      Arthritis or Other Pain


      Orofacial pathology

      Intense pruritis/parasites

      Lethargy (insulinoma in ferrets)

      Diarrhea/Fecal matting

Eating Behaviors – Ferrets

      -Obligate carnivore

      -GI transit time = 3 hours

      -Needs conc. diet high in protein/fat and low in fiber

      -Snack throughout the day, eat more and gain weight in winter

      -Do not feed simple carbs. or sugars

      -Lack of food – polydipsia, Lack of water - anorexia

      -Counsel owners about how food and water is provided and maintained

Elimination Behaviors - Ferrets

      -Defecation - look for a spot, back up (in a corner), arch back slightly with tail raised, do not bury feces, anal drag

      -Urination – similar posture, rear feet spread farther apart, females squat lower, urine licking common

      -Litter box for digging and playing

Locomotor Behaviors/Activity – Ferrets

      -Alternate all four legs

      -Hop or gallop in play

      -Weasel war dance, Alligator roll, Slumping

      -Usually sleep in a curled position

      -Weakness in rear limbs is most common "lameness"

      -Weasel War Dance

Play Behaviors


      Exaggerated approach or ambush

      -Veering off and reciprocal chase

      -Mounting, rolling, wrestling

      -Inhibited neck biting

      -Accompanied by dooking (excitement) and hissing (anger)

      -Digging – from burrowing behavior

      -"Ferreting away" – objects of interest put away in small dark places

How Does Behavior Relate to Hospitalization


      -Litter box (no clay litter)

      -Provide towels to burrow under

      -Separate from predators

      -Escape proof


      -Too much food

      -Too little exercise

      -Associated medical problems:

           Difficulty grooming

           Difficulty ambulating

           Pressure on GIT, diaphragm



      -Know clinical signs of pain

      -Address pain BEFORE diagnostics and other treatments

      -Secondary physiological changes include gastric ulcers, decreased peripheral circulation, decreased temperature, GI stasis and even death

Behavioral Enrichment

      -Simulate natural environment

      -Allow for play

      -Bonded pairs/trios

      -Provide UVB lighting?

      -Counsel clients on how to best provide for their pets emotional and psychosocial needs

      -Cardboard boxes

      -PVC tubes

      -Dryer hose

      -Empty paper bags

      -Straw mats and baskets

      -Food treat in a plastic bottle or egg carton

      -Telephone books


      -Toilet paper/paper towel tubes

      -Ping Pong Balls in water

      -Hiding toys in sandbox

      -Suspend ping pong or plastic ball on string

      -Paper bag filled with crumpled paper, ping pong balls or food treats

      -Cardboard box filled with potting soil, rice, ping pong balls, hay or crumpled pieces of paper for digging

      -Ball hanging from string so it is 2" from ground

Aggression or Biting Behaviors

      -Play aggression – mostly young ferrets

      -Possessive aggression – favored toy

      -Fear-related aggression – trauma/poor socialization

      -Redirected aggression – as when separating ferrets that are playing

      -Maternal aggression – to protect kits

      -Pain-induced aggression

      -Predatory aggression – stalking/chasing/grasping/biting

      -Sexual aggression – intense neck biting

      -Ferrets bite down, hold on & shake their heads

Managing Aggressive Play Biting Behavior

      -Avoid aggressive play and tug-of-war

      -Keep fingers curled

      -Redirect behavior

      -High pitched yip when bitten

      -Scruff, wriggle and hiss

      -Gentle cuddling inside a towel

      -Time out

      Food treat when calm

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