Ferret Potty Training Issues
Keys to Litter Training Ferrets
There are many articles and handouts that will tell you that litter training a ferret is essentially a walk in the park. While it is true that some ferrets take very readily to their litterbox and rarely miss making a direct hit, there are scores or frustrated ferret owners who will argue that it’s not as easy as it’s made out to be.
Ferrets are creatures of habit who can have a very stubborn streak when it comes to their latrines. Many ferrets choose their preferred spot – which may not be the one you would have chosen for them – and they are notoriously uncooperative about switching to a new human-preferred toilet area. Often, successful litter-training lies in allowing the ferrets to use their chosen spot and arranging newspapers or a litterbox in the spot the ferret has designated.
Above all, litter training a ferret takes time – sometimes an extended period of time – and a great deal of patience, understanding, and commitment on the part of the owner. It’s important to recognize that their small size, short legs, and frequent need to urinate and defecate means that if they stray too far from their litterbox and there is no approved litter area nearby, they are likely to have an accident. Their tendency to get extremely involved in play or exploration means that the call of nature often gets suppressed until they need to go right now! It’s important to recognize an accident for what it is – an accident – and not take the ferret sharply to task each and every time it misses the mark.
Litter habits can change when a ferret’s environment changes. Like many creatures, a ferret uses her bathroom habits (and products) to express her dissatisfaction or stress. A ferret whose formerly pristine litterbox use turns to sloppy habits may be upset or dismayed by something in her surroundings, or the ferret may be feeling ill or experiencing some physical difficulty. Your ferret’s bathroom habits are one important way that your friend communicates with you.
The Untrained Kit
The first – and one of the most challenging – scenarios is the newly acquired, playful, spazzy ferret kit. Among its many charms is the likelihood that it didn’t get much litter training between the breeder where it was bred and the tank at the pet store where it spent one or more weeks until it came home with you. Kits are taught by their mothers to use a particular spot as a latrine and return to it faithfully, but kits that are removed too soon from their mothers for shipment to pet stores experience disruption of this natural process.
A kit’s litter training starts small – with a small play area and a small cage that has clearly designated areas for eating, sleeping, and pooping. A kit who is placed immediately into a large, multi-level cage will have a hard time understanding that there is only one approved place to go to the bathroom.
To a small kit, the house is extraordinarily large, and every corner is an open opportunity to relieve herself. Start by introducing the kit to just one room at a time, starting with a small room like the kitchen or a bedroom. Before letting the kit out, place a litterbox or newspaper in a corner and smear a bit of her own poop on the paper or in the box. Immediately show the kit where the box is, and during her playtime place her in the box or on the paper at regular intervals to remind her. If you see her start to back up with her tail raised, grab her quickly and move her to the right spot!
Gradually increase a kit’s living space and play space as she catches on to the idea of using her box. When there are accidents, do not yell or hit or shove a ferret’s nose in it (this will only confuse and alienate her from you). Say firmly, “Use the paper!” or “In the box” and immediately place her in the approved spot to remind her where she is supposed to go. Be very careful picking up male ferrets while they are still urinating, as they can be injured if they are grabbed and picked up in the process of relieving themselves. This command, once learned, can also be used to encourage them to go in the cage before they come out for playtime.
It is through patience, discipline, and consistency that a kit will be litter-trained. Frightening them at an early age with yelling, clapping or hitting when they have a litter box accident will only make them stressed, fearful and untrusting of their humans.
The Untrained Older Ferret
Older ferrets can pose a very different kind of challenge than kits. Acquiring a ferret from a shelter usually means that the shelter has worked with the ferret to teach it good litter habits. A move to a new home may disrupt this a bit and necessitate a little on-the-spot training, but for the most part, a shelter ferret has usually been introduced to the concept of litterbox or paper use.
Acquiring an older ferret from someone who doesn’t want him, taking in a “foundling”, or purchasing a ferret that’s been in the pet store for a long time, is a whole other story. A young adult or adult ferret with poor litter habits is tricky and requires even more patience, understanding, and possibly some adjustment on your part as to where his “spot” will be.
For an older ferret with no litter training, arrange a cage so that every corner except the litter area contains bedding, food, or water. You may have to put a hammock or clip some bedding into the corner to keep it from being shuffled aside or moved by the ferret. It’s common for ferrets to prefer that an entire end of the cage, rather than just a small corner, be appropriated for their toilet. Allow a ferret to use one end of the bottom level of the cage if he so desires. It often helps to spread newspaper underneath the litterbox in the cage, for those “misses” that sometimes fall over the side, or for ferrets who will occasionally go beside or in front of the box. The larger an area you allow for litter, the better the chance they’ll hit the box or the newspaper and not their bedding or food dish!
Older ferrets may experience difficulty outside of the cage, sometimes for reasons other than just confusion. Older ferrets may develop some incontinence as they age, and may also be less agile and less able to cross a long distance to get to their box. Give older ferrets multiple places where it’s OK to poop.
Whether you have a kit or an older ferret, there will probably be a healthy number of accidents during the training process. Be prepared to invest in some paper towels and good humor.
There are some situations that ferret owners have found very difficult, and admittedly there are those ferrets who, for whatever reasons, simply never achieve much litter-training success. Here are a few trying situations and possible solutions:
Pooping/Urinating in front of doors: Ferrets are notorious for leaving piles of dissatisfaction in front of thresholds they’re not allowed to cross. If a stern, “No!” and placing them in their box doesn’t change their ways, they may need to be denied access to the door, or you may wish to place newspaper in front of the door while they’re out.
Pooping on bedding: Few folks have been able to remedy a ferret that is so sloppy that it soils its own bed. The first thing to check in this situation is whether or not there is something physically wrong with the ferret that is causing it to be incontinent, which is usually the case. If no physical problem can be detected, the ferret may have too many areas in the cage with bedding and needs a few fewer hammocks and sleep sacks so that it doesn’t get confused. The ferret may also dislike its litter; try switching to another type of litter or using newspaper, and see if that is more amenable. If the habit can’t be changed, a hefty supply of bedding for frequent changes may be the only solution.
Pooping on the carpet: Because carpet is absorbent and allows for good…er…friction afterward, ferrets enjoy using carpet for the call of nature, then dragging across it to cleanse themselves. As this may not sit well with the owner of the carpet, particularly if the carpet is cream-colored or white, steps need to be taken. Make sure there are approved litter areas in the carpeted room so that if the ferret starts backing up, he can be quickly moved to the appropriate spot! If there is a particular spot the ferrets have used and are returning to, use a safe enzyme cleaner such as Nature’s Miracle to destroy all traces of the former accident and prevent other ferrets from making the same mistake!
Things to Remember:
“Litter-trained” is a relative term. Ferrets are not cats, and for the most part, a ferret with 80-90% accuracy is considered to be quite well-trained. As long as you have ferrets in the house, there will be accidents, and they will probably happen fairly frequently, especially as your ferret ages. Sometimes, the last resort is that ferrets have to be denied access to rooms where you don’t want them to soil the floor.
One of the nicer things about ferret poop is that if picked up right away, the mess can be minimal. Ferrets are small, as are their bowel movements, and for the most part, a normal ferret poop picks up with just the touch of a paper towel or tissue without leaving much behind. Looser stools are another matter; they should be cleaned up with an enzyme cleaner so as not to leave a trace for the ferret to use that area again.
Ferrets, like many creatures, are communicating when they change their habits. Pay attention when your ferret’s litter habits undergo a change and try to see what might be the issue. It could be physical problems, it could be emotional upset (a new ferret or person in their home that’s making them feel territorial), it could be confusion if the layout of their environment has changed or their cage has been moved. Age may bring with it some incontinence that your ferret can’t help and shouldn’t be punished for.
Above all, remember to be patient and tolerant. The potential difficulty of litter-training a ferret is yet another reason why the decision to bring one into your life is not to be made lightly. Owning and loving a ferret comes with a certain level of messiness. But love. Lots of love!
Looking for more Ferret Information? Try these:
- Basic Ferret Care
- Ferret Safety
- Easy Ferret Duck Soup
- ADV and ECE – Ferret Diseases
- Choosing a Vet That’s Right For Your Ferret
- Ferret Insulinoma