Northern Arizona Ferret Alliance and Rescue, Inc

Responsibility, Protect, Respect

Ferret Behavior

Alligator roll- Ferrets generally exhibit this behavior when they are playing with other ferrets. One ferret usually grabs the other ferret by the scruff and "flips" the other ferret over. Sometimes a single ferret will roll around by his or her self while excited during play. Young ferrets and ferrets who have not been nip trained will sometimes try to "scruff" and roll a human by grabbing lose skin on the back of a hand, socks, or feet. This is all done in good fun, however if it is painful the behavior should be discouraged. Ferrets have much tougher skin than humans, so what may feel like a "pinch" to another ferret can feel like a bite to a human.

Backing into a corner- Ferrets do this for different reasons. If your ferret backs up into a corner or wall while hissing and getting all "puffed" up, your ferret is telling you that he or she is frightened. It is important to not try to grab or pick up a frightened ferret. If your ferret is frightened, just speak soft kind words and leave him or her alone. Your ferret will soon recover once he or she feels that the threat or danger is gone. Another reason ferrets back into corners is a more common one. Ferrets will often back up into a corner to use the bathroom! If you see your ferret backing into a corner, and he or she is not frightened, look out. It is helpful to quickly place your ferret into the nearest litter box as soon as possible (before the deed is done).

Bottle brush tail– A “bottle brush tail” can mean a variety of things, since this is an involuntary response of piloerector muscles...the same muscles that give us humans the “goosebumps”.  Ferrets will often get a "poofy" tail when they are frightened or excited. If a ferret has a bottle brush tail and is backing away from you and hissing, he or she is frightened and needs to be left alone until calm. However, if your ferret gets a "poofy" tail while exploring a new environment (like going outside for the first time), or during vigorous play, he or she is just very stimulated and excited. A word of caution if your ferret is ill: a ferret that is going/has gone into shock may also display a bottle brush tail and should be transported to a veterinarian immediately!

Chasing- Ferrets LOVE to play chasing games. They will chase one another and they will chase you (and want you to chase them). Many new ferret owners  get frightened when their ferret jumps around and "lunges" at them and then starts to run around like a crazed animal. Don't worry. Your ferret is just trying to entice you into a game of chase. If you decide to turn the tables and chase your ferret back, just make sure you have several feet between you and your ferret. Ferrets can stop suddenly and get stepped on!

Dance of Joy- This is one of the best aspects of ferret behavior. The "dance of joy" consists of a ferret jumping around from side to side, flipping on the floor, bouncing off of furniture and generally losing all control! Your ferret may slightly open his or her mouth during the display and make “chirping” or “dooking” sounds. Basically, your ferret is telling you that he or she is full of energy, incredibly happy and ready for some serious playtime! Many first time ferret owners can be frightened by this display. Don't worry. Your ferret is simply bursting with joy and energy.

Dooking- This term refers to the sound a ferret makes when excited and happy. The next time you play with your ferret, listen closely. Sometimes it is hard to hear the soft vocalizations ferrets make when excited. Some ferrets “dook” quite loudly when playing with one another.

Food digging- This is often an "unwanted" ferret behavior, however many ferrets do it. Ferrets are born to dig, and to them a bowl of chow is as good as a pile of dirt when it comes to digging.  Most ferrets will just eat the food that they dig out of the bowl. It is nearly impossible to stop ferrets from exhibiting behaviors that are a part of their nature.

Food and water bowl tipping- This is another unwanted ferret behavior, however many ferrets do it often. Ferrets are playful animals and will play with their food and water if given the chance. Sometimes ferrets will tip over their food and water if they are bored, upset and lonely from being caged too long. Other times, a ferret will knock over the food or water bowl to play in the spilt food or water. Many ferrets love to play in shallow water and to dig in food. A bowl of water is just plain irresistible to a ferret and it can eventually get knocked over during play. Purchasing heavy ceramic food bowls or food bowls that attach to the side of the cage can help in solving this problem. Ferrets do also tend to like to mix a little water in with their food. Be aware that moist food spoils quickly, so you should remove any uneaten portions and replace it with fresh food.

Hissing- A hissing ferret can be an unhappy or angry ferret. Always use caution in trying to pick up a ferret who is backing away and hissing. You could get bitten. Ferrets usually hiss to show fear or anger. However, ferrets can sometimes hiss when engaging in play with one another. If your ferret hisses while displaying an arched back and "bristled" fur, just speak softly to your ferret and leave your ferret alone. He or she is not a happy ferret and could bite. Only pick up your ferret after he or she has calmed down.

Litter box digging- Ferrets LOVE to dig, and litter is no exception. To avoid litter box digging, try keeping a small piece of stool in the litter box at all times. A squeaky clean litter box can be a wonderful digging toy to a playful ferret. If your ferret can smell excrement in the box, he or she may see it as a place to do business and not a place to play. You can also purchase some "play sand" or potting soil and make a "sand box" for your ferret to play in. Many people use long grain rice (never use instant rice in a dig box). If you give your ferret appropriate places to dig, he or she may leave the litter boxes alone.

Obsession with a particular object- Ferrets can and do become obsessed with particular objects or toys. Your ferret will probably pick his or her favorite toy and hide it in a secret hiding place. If you find the toy and remove it, your ferret could become very anxious, angry or stressed. Ferrets can also fight with one another if one tries to take the other's favorite object. Your job is to make sure your ferret becomes attached to a safe item. Ferrets are notorious for stashing things that they like all over the house (even car keys and wallets!).

Object "scooting"- This is another favorite ferret behavior. Ferrets will sometimes try to move large or awkward objects by grabbing them with their paws, holding them close to their chest and "scooting" backwards. The funny aspect of this behavior (besides the fact that they look funny) is that they often just move around in a circle, not really getting anywhere at all!

Running into things - Believe it or not, ferrets actually have very poor eyesight. They can only see about two feet in front of them. Their peripheral vision (side to side) is better than their frontal vision. This is why a playing ferret may run head on into a wall or piece of furniture while running. Ferrets also have very poor depth perception and may suffer from "high rise syndrome." For this reason, it is not advisable to let your ferret run around on a balcony or high patio. Ferrets have also been known to scratch through window screens and fall to their deaths. Be sure to watch your ferret closely if you have a two story home with an open balcony on the second floor. Many people put Plexiglas barriers around open banisters on the second floor.

Screaming- If your ferret lets out a scream, you can be sure your ferret is not a happy camper. Ferrets can let out a scream when very frightened, injured or unhappy. It is not a sound you want to hear. If your ferret screams due to an injury, you want to get him/her checked out by a vet as soon as possible. Sometimes, ferrets may scream during rough play or wrestling. This is especially true when a new ferret is being introduced into the family. Ferrets do have a pecking order and the submissive ferret may be getting bullied by the bossier ferrets of the group. If you hear your ferret scream while playing with another ferret, always check out the situation. You want to make sure there are no bites or serious scratches that need medical attention. If no injuries are taking place, continue to let the ferrets "duke it out" for short supervised periods of time. Ferrets will usually sort out their differences on their own. However, if one ferret is injuring another ferret, they should be separated. It is not uncommon for deaf ferrets to scream during play, even though they are not being hurt.

Scratching- Ferrets tend to be itchy animals. If your ferret suddenly stops during play and scratches like crazy, don't worry too much about it. Ferrets tend to scratch often. However, always check your ferret over for fleas, ear mites, skin redness or skin lesions. If fleas or mites are present, talk to your vet about topical flea/mite products (Selamectin is an excellent choice for ferrets). Be sure to treat your house for fleas as well. If you find any lumps or bumps on your ferret's skin, or your ferret seems to be scratching excessively, go see a veterinarian. Excessive itching, especially in conjunction with thinning fur may be a symptom of adrenal disease. If your ferret's skin looks fine, your ferret may just be displaying typical itchy behavior. 

Sneezing- Ferrets do tend to sneeze a lot. This is usually due to their close proximity to the ground and their habit of smelling everything in sight. If they sniff something that is dusty, they will sneeze. However, if the sneezing is accompanied by a runny nose or lethargy, you may have a sick ferret on your hands. Ferrets can catch some human viruses. If your ferret does not improve in a few days, or if he or she starts coughing or has a thick mucus discharge, take your ferret to a veterinarian for a check up.

Tail wagging- This is another adorable ferret behavior. If you are lucky, you may see your ferret wag his or her tail very rapidly when excited. This behavior usually takes place when two ferrets are playing in a tunnel or tube. It just means that your ferret is very excited and is anticipating something fun.

Toe Nipping- Ferrets will often nip toes and feet when they are young. They are basically treating your foot like another ferret. Ferrets will often nip one another to entice play. They also scruff one another using their mouths during play. Because ferret skin is tougher than human skin, a playful nip can feel like a bite. You should discourage this behavior in young and old ferrets. Wearing socks is usually the best deterrent for foot and toe nipping. Ferrets seem to LOVE stinky feet. So, if your feet stink (or even if they don't), try wearing socks around your ferrets at all times. If this does not stop the behavior, purchase some Bitter Apple and apply it to your feet. It tastes terrible and should deter your ferret from nipping.

War dance- This ferret behavior looks a lot like the "dance of joy," however it has a very different meaning. If your ferret is arching his or her back with bristled fur, jumping from side to side, backing away and hissing- look out. Your ferret may be pretty upset. While the general movements of the war dance are similar to the dance of joy, the body language is different. Ferrets can do the war dance when frightened, injured or angry. If your ferret has not been descented, he or she may release a very stinky smell, commonly referred to as a “poof”, during this display. Your ferret is trying to look big and scary as a deterrent. He or she is telling you to stay away- and you should listen to your ferret until he or she feels comfortable again.

Wrestling- Ferrets often play with one another in the form of wrestling. One ferret will usually use his or her mouth to “scruff” the other ferret behind the neck. He or she will then try to “alligator roll” the opponent and pin him or her to the floor. This can be done with much dooking and hissing (and sometimes screaming). Ferrets wrestle to “mock fight” during play. Ferrets are very elaborate and talented wrestlers. Their antics may look dangerous, however more often than not they are just playing rough. However, if you hear a lot of screaming coming from one ferret, be sure to look the ferret over for injuries. Not all ferrets like one another and they really could be fighting!