Enrichment and Play in Domestic Ferrets

Enrichment, play, and time out of the cage are important for the welfare of pet ferrets.

A ferret walks across the keyboard of a piano
Photo: grynold/Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd PhD

Ferrets are popular pets because they are curious, playful and engaging. A new study by Sarah Talbot et al (Charles Stuart University, Australia) looks at play, behaviour problems and enrichment in domestic ferrets.

Despite a reputation for aggression, it seems that ferrets rarely bite – and they love toys.

According to the American Ferret Association, ferrets “are independent, yet enjoy being with people. Their mischievous and playful nature, retained well into old age, makes them entertaining companions.”  

It is estimated that there are 334 ferrets per 1000 households in the US, and many owners have multiple ferrets. According to the UK's National Ferret Census, most ferrets are kept as companion animals, but about 20% are both working and companion ferrets.  

The study involved a questionnaire that was distributed via Australian vets that treat ferrets, the websites of ferret societies, and social media. About half of the 466 respondents live in Australia, and rest in other countries.  

The vast majority (86%) had more than one ferret, with the maximum being six ferrets. Did you know the collective noun for ferrets is a business?

The good news is that play behaviours were much more common than problematic behaviours.

Ferrets engage in a kind of play called the weasel war dance, and this was reported as happening frequently. Also, ferrets make a lovely chattering noise called dooking, and this was reported as occurring occasionally. Listen carefully to hear this ferret dooking in response to the sound of a squeaky ball.

And here is an example of the weasel war dance:

The most common frequency for repetitive behaviours and biting that hurts (or appears to hurt) was never. Most people said that biting something and dragging it and compulsive scratching only occurred rarely.

Owners seemed to know there could be different explanations for the same behaviour. For example, biting and dragging was thought by most respondents to be linked to play or social interaction, but some also said it could be aggression or fear.

However, only 41% of owners thought that compulsive scratching is abnormal behaviour, and only 55% knew that repetitive behaviours such as pacing are abnormal. This suggests a need for more owner education on how to recognize abnormal behaviours in ferrets, and how to respond to them.

Most of the ferrets were de-sexed, and ferrets that were de-sexed engaged less in repetitive behaviour, although there was no effect on other behaviours. Weasel war dance was reported a little more frequently in male ferrets compared to female ferrets.

Play behaviours are a good sign from an animal welfare perspective. Dooking and weasel war dance were reported as happening more often when ferrets had more enrichment items.

The authors say,

    “The increase in the incidence of play behaviours with a greater number of enrichment was expected as the enrichment items that we enquired about were all expected to elicit play. This increase most probably reflects the interaction of the ferrets with the objects (including biting and dragging the items around) rather than with people or other ferrets.”

The results also showed that a combination of more enrichment items and less time spent caged was linked to lower owner reports of biting that hurt (or looked like it hurt, e.g. if another ferret or other family pet was bitten).

Ferret behaviour was not affected by the size of cage or pen in which they lived, a finding that surprised the researchers. Normando and Gallo's (2011) study of rabbits, rodents and mustelids (including ferrets) found that stereotypies (such as pacing and gnawing) were less common in animals that had more time to roam.

It may be that the ferrets in Talbot et al's study all had adequate housing. Given the method of recruitment and length of the questionnaire, it seems likely that only enthusiastic ferret owners would have participated. Most of the ferrets in this study had more than two hours a day of roaming time, and 11% of them were never confined.

The enrichment items in the study included squeaky balls, cardboard tubes, scratching posts, soft toys and bells. 

What are your ferret’s favourite toys?

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, writes The Pawsitive Post premium newsletter, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

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