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Ferrets are incredibly lively, intelligent and entertaining animals, and make excellent pets for committed owners who fully understand the amount of work that keeping ferrets entails and how to keep them entertained. Despite being kept as caged animals, the range of ferret behaviour and communication actually has more in common with that of dogs and cats than other small furries, as the range and remit of their interrelationships, actions and body language are multiple and complex. If you keep ferrets, are considering keeping ferrets or have been lucky enough to spend some time playing with these fascinating and entertaining creatures, you have probably already observed that they possess a wide repertoire of behaviours, communication methods and signals. While some of these are clear to the casual observer in terms of their meaning and the reasons behind it, others can be slightly harder to work out! Read on for a list of the most commonly exhibited ferret behaviours and body language signals, and an explanation of what they all mean!
Ferrets are incredibly expressive little animals, and watching your ferret perform the ferret ‘dance of joy’ is both entertaining and rewarding! This behaviour is almost unmistakable- your ferret will be bouncing around on all four paws, flipping about, wriggling and generally letting loose in a way that no other animal can!
‘Dooking’ is the name for the noise that a happy and possibly excited ferret makes. This sound can be either quite soft or rather loud, and sounds a little bit like a ‘chirping’ noise.
Ferrets play out dominant and submissive roles as part of their everyday interaction, and this will often involve one ferret scruffing the other one and flipping it over onto its back while the other ferret wriggles! Generally, the same ferrets will always play the same roll in this game, and the positions are not interchangeable. If you handle and play with your ferrets a lot, you may wish to train them out of this ‘scruffing’ behaviour, as your ferret may also inadvertently nip your skin or clothing as part of play- and you don’t have thick ferret fur and skin to protect you from those sharp little teeth!
Ferrets, much like cats, bush up their tails to try and make themselves appear more intimidating if frightened or on the defensive. A bushy tail can also show excitement or interest though, and learning to tell the difference is important. If the ferret is hissing or backing up, then they are likely frightened or annoyed, and must be handled with care.
As you have probably observed, ferrets love running around and engaging in vigorous chasing games! Ferrets will often try to entice other ferrets or people into this game by bouncing and lunging at them before running off; they are trying to encourage you to join in, so do not mistake this for aggressive or intimidating behaviour!
If your ferret is hissing at your or anything else, this is a clear indication that they are either angry or scared. Be very wary of a hissing ferret and do not handle them while they are upset, as they will quite possibly try to bite you.
Ferrets in the wild live in burrows, and have been valued throughout history for their ability to burrow and pursue rodents and vermin under the ground. So it is fair to say that ferrets love to explore catacombs and tunnels, and might well start trying to dig their own playground, whether outside, in the home, or in their cage. Providing plenty of tunnels and other activities in the cage can go some way to helping to minimise this, as can providing a sand box or other suitable surface for your ferret to dig about in. If their digging needs are not met, they may well begin digging in their litter tray, something that you will of course be keen to avoid!
The sound of a ferret shrieking or screaming can be very unnerving, and is, as you might expect, a sign of extreme distress. Firstly check that your ferret is not injured or hurt, and make sure that one ferret is not continually bullying another one, leading to the shrieking you hear. If you hear one of your ferrets shriek or scream, you must check it out immediately; while ferrets may shriek as part of dominance play games, often it is indicative of something being amiss.
Ferrets, like dogs, wag their tails to show extreme excitement and that they are having a great time. Tail wagging is commonly seen as part of play, and when a good game is in the offing!
At a glance, a ferret displaying their battle dance may appear to be instead performing the ‘dance of joy,’ however the meaning behind it is significantly different. If the ‘dance’ is accompanied by a bushed up tail or fur, hissing or backing away, then there is a problem. Un-neutered male ferrets may also empty their anal scent glands at this time, marking the area with the distinctive ferret smell that male ferrets are well known for.
While nobody has yet established why, it is fair to say that ferrets are often obsessed with feet, and the dirtier the better! Many ferrets will pounce on or nip an unprotected toe, which can be alarming and even painful for their unwitting owner! While this behaviour is generally done in play and very rarely aggressive, this does not make things any better for the chosen victim! Wearing thick socks or slippers around the house when your ferret is on the loose, and training your ferret out of this behaviour while young is highly recommended.
Ferrets are very much the magpies of the mammal world- they see something they like and make off with it! Toys, slippers, and anything else small that is portable and left lying around may soon become fair game for your ferrets, and they will almost always take their spoils back to a safe place to hoard them for later. Keep things out of reach of your ferret if it is important to you that your ferret does not play with them! Ferrets often become very attached to ‘their’ possessions, and will become upset or even angry if you attempt to remove something that they have bonded with, so if your ferret is making off with something that they shouldn’t be, retrieve it sooner rather than later!