Hello, who are you?

by John Whittles

My wife and I have been keeping ferrets for about 16 years. We have between 2 and 6 at any one time and have always kept them in a family group.

Our only failure in introducing new ones was when our original two, Freya and Ran (Norse goddesses) were old and we thought that it would be a good idea to get two more so that the surviving one would not be lonely when her sister died.

We acquired a hob and jill from the RSPCA. They had been found in different locations and had never met, but from the moment they were introduced, they started to play and remained close throughout the remainder of their long lives. We called the albino jill, Opal and the hob, Tetley (after the beverage). However, the plan failed and the originals would not have anything to do with them. Given their age, we did not persevere and kept them separate.

We then re-homed two large albino hobs, again from the RSPCA. We called them Rebus and Cluff after fictional detectives. Cluff settled in without any problems but Rebus was initially pulled about. We concluded that he had been kept on his own without the company of other ferets and that he did not understand the correct signals. As a result he would launch himself on the others, intending to play, and end up pinned to the floor. There was no particular aggression shown towards him but we had to bathe his neck with disinfectant when it was inflamed. It never seemed to bother him and he was always the first into the rough and tumble. After a few weeks everything quietened down.

These four were all adults when they came to us. The next two were only 12 weeks old. We called them Hall and Regan (Shakespearean phase). And we kept them separate for a few weeks to let them get used to their new surroundings. When we did introduce them everything went well with nothing more than intensive sniffing.

Later we heard terrible cries that could only come from a ferret being dismembered. When we reached the source we found Opal walking alongside Regan and leaning on her. There was no other physical contact but the older ferret was just letting the youngster know where it came in the business heirachy! Regan didn't like this and was protesting.

In the January newsletter, I told of how we came by Spike. When I wanted a companion for him, Rose Morris of Mercia Ferret Welfare suggested that I take him up so that we could introduce him to some likely jills. She had two about the same age as him and Spike seemed to get on slightly better with one than the other so I brought her back, called her Willow and they lived together without any problems, from the outset.

I have had the latest addition for one month. A neighbour of my mother is a falconer and last year he bred ferrets. He kept one of the hobs, an albino, as it was the smallest hob he had ever seen. He knew that I kept ferrets and before Christmas, he told me that if he did not him this winter, I could have him; he gave him to me in January. He is tiny, but on the first day bit my thumb to the bone! This was down to the stress of the journey and the strange surroundings but he soon settled down to be gentle and playful. Despite the differences in size (see photograph), he has settled in without any problems and on the third night I let him sleep in the ferret court with the others. As he comes from Yorkshire I called him Heathcliff.

Spike, Willow and Heathcliffe - 37kb
Spike, Willow and Heathcliffe

I am sure that others with more experience than me will have their own ideas on how to introduce ferrets to one another but here are my suggestions:

Obvious, but it you intend keeping them together as a group, it is easier if thay are all neutered.

If the newcomer is showing any signs of stress, let it settle down before introducing it to others.

Show the ferrets to each other through the wire so that they can get used to each other's scent. It also raises their curiosity.

Let the newcomer explore the accommodation when it is empty. It familiarises itself iwth the layout, gets used to the scent and leaves its own scent on the bedding etc. Don't introduce them in that accommodation as the residents may feel the need to defend it.

Introduce them one at a time, starting with the most docile. I do this in the kitchen as it is a clear area where they cannot get behind anything. I start by putting them both down with a bowl of Whiskas cat milk. The act of sharing treats from the same bowl seems to help and with luck they will move from that to sniffing and playing. Once they interact, their scent will rub off on each other and help to break down the barriers.

I always have a stout pair of gloves available, just in case I need to separate them, although I have never needed them.

If the first introduction goes well try with another one and if that is successful bring back the first one to make a group of three, and so on. Use the cat milk or other treats such as Ferretone (if you can get it). The aim is to create the idea that the newcomer is associated with something good. Any ferret that smells and tastes of Ferretone can't be that bad!

Some rough stuff is enevitable, as they need to sort out the pecking order, although they will have to be monitored closely to see it doesn't get out of hand. I have found that once they start sleeping together, any problems are largely over.

While this is going on keep things as close to normal as possibly. Keep the same routine and if possible handle the originals more frequently. They will smell the newcomer on you and they will hopefully associate him or her with you.

Good luck

First Published in NFWS News #78 May 2007

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