Monday, January 25, 2010

Nipping the problem in the bud - how to deal with nipping

"Don't ferrets bite?" Man, I have heard that question a million times. The short answer is no, at least not without a reason. While some ferrets bite out of fear, pain or as a result of a trigger, the vast majority of biting ferrets simply have never been taught how to play nicely with people.

Ferrets, like dogs, need to be taught that people are not toys. Many owners find it cute and funny when their new puppy nibbles on their fingers. They giggle and, in doing so, reinforce the habit. As the puppy gets bigger and his teeth and jaws get stronger, the biting stops being cute and starts being painful. The same is true for ferrets. Kits, like puppies, play with their mouths. They put everything around them in their mouth, including their owners, and, if encouraged in a baby ferret, this behaviour becomes a problem when the ferret gets bigger. So how do you stop this bad behaviour?

1) Establish the reason for the behaviour. If the ferret nips when he is playing or when he wants your attention he simply have never been taught manners. If he is a young kit and is attempting to chew on you, chances are that he is teething. Other reasons for biting (dominance, pain, fear) will be covered in the following blog posts.

2) Do not reinforce the behaviour. That means no giggling, jumping or running away (yes, flinching, running away and jumping can reinforce the behaviour - ferrets jump and run when they play. To see ferrets playing, click here.). If your ferret is biting you for attention, ignore him or her and walk away. If they are nipping during play, stop playing. I know that this can be tough, but by responding you are giving the ferret what it wants and encouraging his bad behaviour.

3) Make sure that there are plenty of fun, ferret safe toys for your pet to play with. This is especially important if you have a teething kit. For one on one interaction, toys such as mice on a string (or other similar dangling toys for cats - be sure that these toys have no small pieces which can easily be removed by the ferret during play) can be a lot of fun. Puppets also work well if you enjoy wrestling with your ferret - they allow you to interact without teaching your ferret that it is acceptable to bite you (though it can be tempting, using socks instead of puppets is not recommended as your ferret may learn that socks, and therefore feet covered in socks, are fun toys).
4) Scruff, Ouch! and No! are all useful techniques. Some ferrets will learn that nipping their owners is not acceptable with a few simple "OW! NO!" statements. If using this approach, the owner should sound either pitiful or firm, but should not yell and startle the ferret. If using simply the "OW! NO!" does NOT send the desired message, then scruffing the animal (that is picking it up or pinning it briefly by the scruff of the neck - to learn how to scruff a ferret, click here) along with the "OW! NO!" can help drive the point home. Flicking the ferret on the nose, spanking the animal or putting down (if you are holding the animal) are not recommended. Flicking and spanking can teach the animal that aggressive behaviour is acceptable while putting them down immediately after the nip will teach them that biting is the correct way to ask to be let down. ** if your ferret is deaf, "OW!NO!" will not work, but scruffing will still convey the message.

5) Ferretone can encourage the ferret to lick rather than bite you. Ferretone is an oily skin and coat supplement that most ferrets for nuts for. Applying a small amount to your hands can help teach most ferrets that you are not for biting, but for licking. Ferretone can also be used to teach a timid or hyper ferret that handling is a good thing - simply allow the ferret to lick it from the bottle while you are holding them, but be careful not to give them too much!

6) Bitter Apple spray can also be applied to your hands to discourage nipping. Bitter Apple is a non toxic, bitter tasting spray that will not harm the ferret, but will leave a nasty taste in his or her mouth. This technique can teach some ferrets that people taste TERRIBLE!

7) Be consistent!!! This is the most important part of nip training. Ensure that all family members are actively discouraging nipping in a non-violent way. Having one family member allow the ferret to nip and another discipline the animal for the same behaviour will confuse the animal and not resolve the situation.

Remember - there are a variety of techniques because ferrets, like people, are individuals; what works for one ferret may not work for another. If you find that the technique that you have been trying is not working, try a new one or try combining the techniques. If you are still not having any success and have ruled out all other reasons for the nipping, then it is time to evaluate your responses. Are you flinching or jumping? Are you afraid of the nip and inadvertently reacting? Are you allowing the ferret to nip sometimes and not others? Are other people - friends or other family members - encouraging the bad behaviour?

Good Luck!