Ferrets: Behaviour and training

Ferrets are domesticated animals which can develop strong links with their owners. They like to interact with humans, and can mope if they are kept isolated, with no contact from humans or their own kind. Because they want to share activities with you, it's quite easy to teach them to do what you ask, though you need to work with their natural instincts to channel their behaviour into directions that suit you. The suggestions here are for people with pet ferrets. The best way to learn how to train a working ferret is to go out ferreting with someone who is experienced. It also helps to get to know ferrets with someone experienced who can help you to interpret their sounds and body language.

Ferrets have happy 'clucking' sounds, frightened 'chittering' sounds, angry hissing sounds, and whimpering, which may be just from excitement or from anxiety. They may also sneeze and hiccup. An experienced ferret person can help you work out whether your ferret is happy when playing with another, or whether you should separate them. Ferrets can also shiver from excitement or cold, wag their tails when they are excited or interested in something, and puff out their tails from excitement or upset. The more you understand ferret language, the easier it is to train your pet.

Pet ferrets should learn the very basics, such as housetraining and not nipping people. They learn the basics more easily if you spend time ensuring that they are happy ferrets and can follow their instincts. You need to work harder if you have a single pet ferret, because ferrets need stimulation. They spend a lot of time sleeping, but when they are awake, they like to be very active, digging, tunnelling, chewing, and playing with you, or with other ferrets. Ferrets left shut in a cage all day will tend to develop personality quirks, like being hyperactive when they are let out, and behaving in repetitive ways in their cages. You'll find your ferret much easier to train if you give him a lot to do. Instead of seeing digging and tunnelling as behavioural problems, provide a sand box for digging, and lengths of drainpipe to explore. Invent games that allow your ferret to be a hunter, like following a titbit on a piece of string, jerked erratically like a darting mouse. Get to know people with other ferrets, or keep more than one ferret yourself, since ferrets also like to have fun with each other, and there is a limit to how far you can imitate another ferret when you play with your pet.

Socialization with other ferrets

Polecats tend to be territorial, but ferrets have easier access to food, and don't need to defend a territory as much. They are more accepting of outsiders, and can enjoy the company of other ferrets. You can't take it for granted that two ferrets will get on, however, especially if one or both have been isolated for a long time. They are much more likely to get on if they meet on neutral territory, have been neutered, and have been used to the company of other ferrets. Novice ferret owners may want to wait up to a year between taking on a new kit and buying a second ferret. This can create problems, because kits that live alone from about seven weeks' old don't develop the social skills they need to get on with other ferrets. It helps to get to know people with kits the same age as yours. You can have enjoy watching your kit play with other kits, and they tire each other out with wrestling games, while learning bite inhibition and other useful skills. Do separate the kits if the play seems too rough though, and one kit looks like it is being bullied. This is especially likely if they are of very different sizes. Normal playfighting can seem very rough if you aren't used to it, but you can tell whether they are happy playing, because happy ferrets go back for more. If one kit appears to be a bit of a bully, try pairing that kit in play with a confident and even-tempered older ferret, who should teach the youngster some manners, though go carefully with introductions, since not all older ferrets tolerate kits well.

Adult ferrets need much more time to get used to one another, and it's safer to wait until they have got used to being near each other in different cages before letting them out together. Some ferrets simply don't like the company of their own kind, so don't force the issue if all attempts at slow-paced introductions fail.

Learning not to bite people

Kits learn from play how not to nip other ferrets very hard. They need to learn from you that they are not allowed to bite people at all. We don't have fur, and it hurts us! Ferrets don't realise this unless you teach them. You can give your ferret time out in his cage if he gets too manic and nippy during playtime, so that he realises that biting means that the fun ends. You can also use gentle aversives - things ferrets don't like - to get them to release their grip on you. Mouthwash on a finger put up to the ferret's nose, or a very, very gentle squirt from a water pistol can surprise them enough to get them to let go. Holding the ferret by the scruff of his neck, or hissing in his face can also get the message across. Use gentle aversives, and just use the aversive while the kit is biting, and then be nice once he stops. You just want the kit to get the message that biting people is wrong, but not terrify the kit. Combine this with very small titbits to reward him for doing things you want him to, so he sees being with you as fun, and obeying you as a good thing. Ferrets aren't naturally obedient, but they can learn fast how to get rewards and avoid things they don't like.

The younger you teach your kit that you don't want to be bitten, the faster he will learn, so teach this from the first day you get your kit. If you never allow nipping, your kit will be much easier to handle as an adult. It's not easy for a novice to handle an older ferret that is still biting, and if you do take on such a ferret, you will need some help from an experienced ferret person. Gloves and titbits can help with adult nippers - the gloves protect your hands, and the titbits help convince the ferret that you are a good person to be with, even if you don't allow biting. It's easy to drop a ferret if you are afraid of being bitten, and a pair of supple, thin suede or leather gloves can give a lot of protection, keeping you safe from being bitten, and your ferret safe from being dropped. Be firm, but gentle, and persistence should pay off.

Ferrets may also bite if they are in pain, so get your ferret checked by a vet if he suddenly starts biting for no apparent reason. He may generally feel under the weather, or have a painful spot due to an abscess or other problem.

Teaching your ferret not to bite people is the most important message you can get across - it makes all other training much easier! You may still get the occasional nip if your ferret is very excited or scared, which is one reason why children and ferrets don't mix well.


Kits need to learn to use a litter tray, so start out with one in their cage, which is clearly marked as a litter tray for a ferret. It should be non-tippable, and cleaned every day, but you can leave just one piece of ferret poo there as a marker, and use bedding already slept in by your ferret for the rest of the cage, so the ferret knows where the toilet is. Ferrets like to wee after they have woken up, so give your ferret time to 'go' after waking and before playtime outside the cage. He should wee within about ten minutes of waking. Reward your ferret for performing, by giving him playtime, and even a little titbit at first, but make sure he actually 'goes' and isn't just pretending, to get the reward - this has been known.

You'll also need litter trays in the room where you play with your ferret, especially in areas he seems to see as good places for a toilet! Use a lot of trays for a kit, or just keep the kit in a small area, so he doesn't have to go far to find a tray. Even adults need quite a few pans in a large room. Don't expect your ferret to use the cat litter tray, after all, would you want to poo somewhere a lion has been? If you catch your ferret looking like he needs to 'go' away from a tray (which often happens after a short spell of exciting games) say 'toilet' and and if you are close enough to pick him up, put your ferret on a litter tray. Reward your ferret each time he uses a litter tray outside the cage, again using a small titbit. Give rewards whether or not you have had to show him the toilet, and put him on a litter tray after 20 minutes or so of exciting games outside his cage - activity stimulates bowel movements. After a while he should get the idea, though he may get caught short a long while from a toilet during an exciting game. It helps just to let him play in a small area at first, so it's easier for him to get to a toilet. You may even want to build a large playpen with a mesh roof for a young ferret, so you can have more control of where he goes to toilet, and what he gets up to generally.

Rewards are the quicket route to housetraining. Your ferret may not understand if you shout at him when you catch him in the act, and may simply hide from you to do it, so you end up finding little 'presents' in unexpected places. If you act irritated when you find a poo he has done half an hour earlier, he will just think you are an irritable human, he's not going to make the connection between his pooing where you don't want and your irritation. Clean up accidents with a deodorising pet product, rather than vinegar or disnfectant. It's less smelly, and vinegar just makes the spot smell more attractive to a ferret looking for a toilet. If he decides on favourite places for a toilet where you haven't put a tray, see if you can work with him, and put a tray there, or, if you really don't want to, put a food bowl there instead, to get him out of the habit of using that spot.

New adult ferrets may take a while to work out where the litter pans are, so treat them as you would a kit, to help them work out where they are meant to go. The occasional accident doesn't necessarily mean they aren't housetrained, they may just not know where the toilets are!


Ferrets are designed to dig, and kits especially love to make a mess, of your carpets and plant pots, and their food and water bowls, and litter trays. Training ferrets not to dig in a particular spot is difficult, though you can try distracting them by calling them to you with a titbit, if you see them digging the carpet. Ferrets also tend to dig more when they are bored, so lots of playtime will mean less digging in the cage. Protect your carpet with plastic at favourite digging spots, remove potted plants, don't leave uneaten food in the cage for a long time, use a water bottle, and only use a little litter in the litter tray. Digging is what ferrets like to do, so give your ferret a 'legal' digging box outside the cage, just a box with sand or earth in it, on newspapers so the dug up dirt doesn't get into the carpet. Bury treats in it, so the ferret knows this is a good place to dig.

Walking on a leash

Ferrets like to see the outside world, but you may be worried that they will run off. One solution is to use a leash with a harness or a collar. They don't take to it as well as dogs, but you can get them used to it. Take the collar or harness off when the ferret is indoors, because of the risk of it getting caught in something.

Passing dogs can be a problem when you take your ferret to public places, so watch out for dogs coming close, and make sure your ferret has a bolt-hole down your sleeve. Ferrets also like travelling on shoulders, so long as you train them first, walking round at home, where you can catch them more easily if they fall. Your ferret may wriggle when being carried, and this is sometimes a sign that he wants a wee! You can carry a ferret in your coat, for short distances, though a duffel bag is better for transporting ferrets when you are out for a long time.

Learning recall and other commands.

Ferrets aren't as obedient as dogs, but they will obey commands if they can get something out of it. You can use a whistle or other noise to get them to come to you, if you reward them with a treat, though some ferrets respond better to the sound of a squeaky toy than a human whistling.

You can also get ferrets to sit up and roll over if you reward them for doing this. Just hold the treat as a lure, and the ferret follows, whether it's upwards, or down and rolling over.

Games for ferrets

Ferrets love exploring, and if you can't take them out much, be inventive with their indoor habitat. The more you can give them fun things to do, the less likely they are to get up to things you'd rather they didn't, like rushing round the room and knocking things over from high shelves. You can get some drainpipe and change its position each time they are let out, so they have 'new' tunnels to explore. They shouldn't need much encouragement, but you can tempt them in by putting titbits in the tunnel. You can turn the drainpipes into slides by propping them against the arms of chairs. Flexible large tubing can also provide fun tunnels.

Cardboard boxes offer endless possibilities, for example joined together with pipes or hoses. You can sometimes beg boxes from supermarkets and markets. Ferrets also like climbing up curtains. You can set up cloth 'ladders' for them to climb and swing on, just make sure the cloth is of a type that won't catch on their nails.

Ferrets also like hunting and tugging games, and you can attach objects like cloth, or titbits to string, attached to a makeshift rod in your hand, moving the object as though it were prey, and let the ferret pounce and tug. Ferrets also like to amuse themselves with objects on a string, with the other end of the string tied to something high, so the object is left dangling, and swings when touched. Have a handy collection of home-made toys for your ferret, so you can direct his play. The ferret himself will help you design the toys, and refine your designs, by giving you a consumer's opinion of them. You may find your family objects to having the living room designed as a ferret playground, but at least your ferret will be happy.

See also:

Ferrets: General care

 Reviews of books on ferret care, health, training, and working ferrets 

Further reading:

 Hernádi A1, Kis A, Turcsán B, Topál J. (2012) Man's underground best friend: domestic ferrets, unlike the wild forms, show evidence of dog-like social-cognitive skills.PLoS One.7(8):e43267. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0043267. Epub Aug 15 2012.