How to Discipline a Ferret

Like all pets, ferrets must be trained to live with humans. Most ferrets begin their journey in pet stores and receive very little training or socialization aside from the relationships they build with the rest of their business (group of ferrets). Here I’ll discuss how to best discipline your ferret to develop new positive behaviors instead of biting.

When is it Appropriate to Discipline a Ferret?

One of the bad habits ferrets develop early is biting. It’s important to note that biting isn’t always a sign of hostility, anger, or aggression in a ferret. Unlike humans, ferrets use their mouths to communicate in ways other than verbal speech. They often nip to send a message of boredom, loneliness, hunger, fear, or alarm. It’s important to train this habit out of a ferret early and help them find new ways to communicate with you.

If you are disciplining a ferret using negative reinforcement, it is delivered following a bad behavior to curb that behavior. Positive reinforcement can be delivered prior to a bad behavior occurring in the hopes of avoiding the reaction altogether, or after your ferret displays good behavior to encourage it to continue being good.

When Shouldn’t You Discipline a Ferret?

Ferrets are extremely intelligent creatures. Even so, discipline should happen in the moment. You shouldn’t discipline a ferret long after an event as this could confuse them about what they’re being disciplined for. For example, if a ferret chews a piece of furniture while you’re at work, it doesn’t help to discipline when you arrive home. Why? Because your ferret has not chewed any furniture in hours and may assume the discipline is related to something else.

What Popular Methods Are Used to Discipline a Ferret?

Positive Reinforcement:

Positive reinforcement is a consequence given to your pet to encourage future behavior. It’s a type of behavioral psychology thought to improve positive performance. Using positive reinforcement is meant to increase the duration, magnitude and frequency of good behavior. For a ferret, this style of discipline might include:

Pre-emptive Play

This tactic invites you to watch for signs your ferret is going to bite and pre-emptively discourage the behavior with a toy. Using a toy to deter your ferret from nipping teaches him or her to refocus their attention on toys, rather than biting your skin, when they want something or are upset about something.

Pre-emptive play requires you to watch for signs that your ferret is going to nip. I can usually tell when my ferret is getting ready to bite by its breathing. Ferrets give off short, sharp breaths when they’re building up to a bite. Your ferret may show other signs, like hissing, to show you he or she is about to nip.Praise and Treats for Good Behavior – Rather than watching for negative behavior and acting on it, praise and treats for displaying good behavior encourages your ferret to continue displaying these positive habits.

While playing with your ferret, he or she may get worked up. This is common in ferrets but can be the buildup to a nip. If your ferret doesn’t bite, reward him or her with praise, a scratch on the head, or a reward.

Negative Reinforcement

The second most common form of discipline is negative reinforcement. Negative reinforcement is another behavioral psychology technique which delivers a negative consequence to an action to halt the action in the future. Sadly, some negative reinforcements used on ferrets are harmful. I disagree with this style of discipline but will list it here so you understand what some pet owners do to modify ferret biting.

  1. Time out – Time out is the same age-old practice delivered to us as kids. It requires your ferret to be separated from you and any ferret companions it has and put inside a cage or carrier following a bad behavior. An example of time out might be if your ferret nips your finger during play. Right away, you would take your ferret, sometimes while scolding them, and put them into a small space without toys or socialization for a time out.
  2. Physical Punishment – Face flicking is a common discipline tactic suggested by ferret owners, and one I strongly disagree with. Just as the name suggests, face flicking is when you use your finger to flick your pet between the eyes or on the forehead following a biting incident. Ferrets are extremely sensitive creatures, and this rough flick will not only hurt them emotionally, but physically.
  3. ScruffingScruffing a ferret is another form of physical discipline, again usually accompanied by oral discipline. This is when you grab your ferret by the scruff of its neck, and verbally chastise them for being bad and biting.
  4. Extinction training – Don’t panic, this isn’t what you think. Extinction training is a negative discipline tactic used to show your ferret that they won’t get a reaction for negative behavior. It basically requires you to ignore their biting by walking away and ending whatever interaction is occurring. The theory behind this method is that eventually your ferret will realize they aren’t getting what they want by nipping and will stop.
  5. Re-homing – Finally, a sad but common solution to ferret biting is re-homing. This happens frequently when adults buy pets for their young children without knowing much about the pet to begin with. This leaves them in charge of feeding, cleaning, disciplining, and interacting with the pet.

Young ferrets don’t understand that biting is bad, and without proper training they will continue to do so. For new owners unaware of the delicacies of ferret development, they decide it’s far easier to give the pet away than try to train it themselves.

Methods I DON’T Agree with to Discipline a Ferret

I touched on this briefly in my list above, but it’s important to me that I reiterate how strongly I disagree with negative reinforcement; especially any negative reinforcement which encourages physical harm to your pet. Let me tell you why.

Physical punishment suggests that you ferret deserves to be hurt for its actions. Most ferrets grow out of their bad behaviors the same way you did as a child growing into an adult. When they are young and new to your home, they don’t understand that biting is bad. Remember, your ferret nips for many reasons, not just to hurt you. In the natural world, ferrets use their mouths to carry their young, play with their siblings, and express how they feel.

I also disagree with rehoming as a discipline. Hoping a ferret will stop biting simply because you give it away is a ridiculous notion. Before buying a ferret, I strongly encourage you to research how they play, what they eat, how long they live, things they need to flourish, and other important factors to ferret ownership.

What Method I Prefer to Discipline a Ferret?

Positive reinforcement training is the best form of discipline in my opinion. While training a ferret not to bite, I find things they love like toys, pieces of raw meat, praise, and use these to proactively dissociate biting from any form of positivity. When they bite they don’t receive these positive things and eventually understand that nipping is not good behavior.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I feel that discipline is necessary for training a ferret not to bite, but it must be used in the right way. To create a meaningful and positive bond with your pet, you should always use positive reinforcement to send a message that biting isn’t a good behavior.

Hopefully, this has helped you decide on your own method of discipline so that your furry companion quickly learns not to nip.

Categories Ferrets

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