We often get asked about whether it is possible to have a pet ferret if you also have a pet bunny, parrot, or other small mammal in the home. There are many stories about pet ferrets causing injury or even death to other pets, but these accidents are preventable. In this series, we are going to discuss different elements that you should be aware of before you mix a pet ferret with other prey type pets.
This is the fourth part of this series. You can find links to the parts down below. In the first part we already discussed the biology and domestication process of ferrets. In the second part we discussed how to make your other animal friend safe and comfortable. In the third part, we started our focus on ferrets. In this section, we will cover more advanced training techniques that can be used to desensitize the ferret and delay the predatory response.
This is not a training process that we recommend for the average pet owner. For most pet owners, it should be sufficient to desentize the animals as we discussed in previous posts and to prevent direct interaction between them. We are sharing our training techniques for other professionals who work in animal ambassador programs or provide educational services using live animals. In this type of work, these animals are often transported in travel carriers to unfamiliar places and there are more variables that can be difficult to control. This training is an unnecessary risk for casual pet owners who have more control over their home environment and reducing risks of accidental interaction. The goal of this training is to create more time for intervention in case of an accidental interaction or exposure. In the case of educational programs, this could be as simple as a well-intentioned program participant moving an animal carrier closer to another carrier without realizing that the space between the ferret carrier and rabbit carrier were intentional. Or it could be an unsupervised child opening the parrot travel carrier while the animal handler is presenting the ferret. Mistakes happen and accidents happen. Hopefully this training can help prevent them from becoming an emergency.
This training process assumes that both animals are already highly socialized and desensitized to new environments. Target training is recommended and flight recall should already be trained for birds. The prey type animal should already have enough exposure to ferrets that there is no fear response or agitation caused by the ferret’s presence.
The first step in this process is to gauge the ferret’s predatory drive. How does the ferret respond when you wave a feather in their face? Will the ferret chase a toy mouse on a string? How is the ferret’s impulse control while playing? Does the ferret easily get carried away or does the ferret show inhibition with biting by being gentle or avoiding nipping? Some ferrets are going to require a longer training process than others. This helps determine where to start.
If you’ve already target trained the ferret, that is good, but I also recommend training this auditory cue. If you remember from the first part, ferrets are very near-sighted, but they have an excellent ability to locate a sound. For our ferrets, we provide a consistent tapping sound on the floor. We want to train the ferret to locate the source of the sound instead of using a target because the ferret will be capable of doing this over a greater distance and they will notice a sound more quickly than a nonmoving visual object. We want the sound to capture their attention in a way that would be more difficult to do with a target stick. The reason we train this behavior is for a common behavioral training trick. If you want to stop an animal from doing an unwanted behavior, you can give the animal a task to perform that competes with the unwanted behavior. In this case, the unwanted behavior is the ferret investigating a new animal. The ferret cannot investigate a new animal if it is locating the source of a sound that is in a different direction than the new animal. Those two behaviors are in competition. We want the ferret to decide between locating the source of this sound which has a reward or investigating this new animal which is rewarding by satisfying their curiosity. But we are going to manipulate the situation so that coming to where we are tapping will be more rewarding than following their instinct to investigate the new animal. From there, we can work on training them to ignore the new animal.
In the video clip below, you can see part of this training process with Jack that was done in 2017.
Depending on the level of predatory instinct, you may have to start training using substitutes. This can be a stuffed animal that has the other animal’s scent. For parrots, it is easiest to use their molted feathers. What you will do is to make these objects move in ways that are stimulating for the ferret and then you want to reward for “calm”. This may involve some shaping. You may place the feather on the floor and then call the ferret away before you progress to instigating the unwanted behavior. If a ferret reaches for the object with an open mouth, you may want to work on training for calmly sniffing the object before asking the ferret to move away. This training is tricky because you are instigating the unwanted behavior. It is important not to scold or scruff your ferret for failing as this will cause the ferret to become frustrated. Simply ignore any failures, and reward behaviors that bring the ferret closer to being calm and disinterested.
After this, you can start introducing the other animal in training sessions. You should have more than one trainer working together especially if the prey type animal has not been exposed to this situation and it is uncertain exactly how they will respond. You can use a harness on the ferret for additional control, but this may also cause distraction or confusion for the ferret.
First you present the animal out of the ferret’s immediate range, but close enough that the ferret recognizes the new stimulus. If the ferret comes towards the other animal, you can lift the animal further out of reach. Also be aware that if the ferret is coming towards the animal, this can cause the other animal to react in fear or cause them to flee which is the opposite of what you want to happen. By lifting the other animal further out of reach, you want to maintain that animal’s comfort and trust in this process. At the same time that the new animal is presented, the tapping sound should also start. This can be done by you or the other trainer. This behavior should also have been generalized to the other trainer before starting any sessions with the new animal.
At first, the ferret may choose to investigate the new animal instead of performing the desired behavior. As before, failure is ignored. If the ferret is not staying calm and is persistent in its efforts to access the new animal, then you should return to earlier steps in the training process. If the ferret loses interest once the new animal is out of reach and is staying calm, then continue with the process. The ferret should start choosing to locate the sound and receive its reward.
From here, you continue to present the new animal so that it is more within the ferret’s reach. If the ferret reverts to trying to investigate the new animal, then increase the distance again. Once the ferret can constantly perform this behavior as desired, then you can start desensitizing triggering behaviors.
In July of 2020, we filmed Jack modeling his trained behaviors for the purposes of this series. Jack was so uninterested in the presence of the parrots that he decided to go take a nap instead. We had to encourage him to even acknowledge the birds so that we could show what the training would look like.
For this training, we have mostly worked with parrots. Parrots are at higher risk of flying and landing on a person who might be holding a ferret, becoming startled and flying off, or potentially having a crash landing. The flight behavior is also very stimulating to predatory animals. For this training, we have the parrots do flight recall out of reach of the ferret. The ferret should be exposed to the movements, sounds, and breeze that is caused by the bird flying overhead. Then we want to reward for calm or give the ferret another task to complete while this is occurring. We do not want the bird to be in reach of the ferret or to land near the ferret during this training. This is additional desensitization.
Again, the goal of this training is to increase the length of time that you have to make an intervention in case of an accident in which the ferret and the other animal have access to each other. If the ferret suddenly realizes that a bunny, chinchilla, or parrot happens to be within reach, you want the ferret’s first response to look for a behavioral cue that means an opportunity for a reward rather than the excitement of seeing a new animal. You are trying to encourage the inhibition of a predatory response and creating a new meaning for this stimulus other than what is being provided by the ferret’s instincts. This training does not eliminate the predatory response or mean that the ferret is now safe to have around prey type animals. Again, we do not recommend this training for regular pet owners.
Hopefully you now have a better understanding of the dynamics between ferrets and other household pets.
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Ferrets and Friends, LLC has four writers bringing you information on a variety of topics from pets to wildlife, education to conservation, and from new developments in our business to information about our industry. Learn something new each week!