I enjoy owning an adorable ferret of my own and I've experienced first-hand how spooked they can get if you pet them incorrectly.
Ferrets are independent, energetic little creatures with a formidable set of teeth. Whenever I tried to pet a ferret, usually all I got was the teeth. This turned me off to ferrets until I got to know their body language and behavior better. Petting a ferret is not the same as petting a dog, cat, or guinea pig. You can't just pick up a ferret and start petting away (which is what I tried to do). Ferrets are affectionate, but only when they are in the mood for petting.
Let Them Be Active
Ferrets were meant to be active all day, finding food, tunneling, and socializing with other ferrets. This means they normally need to run around, climb, and play like little kids need to play. This is especially true of baby ferrets (called kits), who seem to want nothing else out of life but to play.
When a ferret wants to play, let them play. This is not the time to pet them. They need to let off steam, often by doing a bouncing war dance.
Make sure your hands are clean of any food smells unless you want to be tasted. If you are worried about biting, you can spray bitter apple on your hands (it tastes really foul). If a ferret does bite or put their teeth on you, then pick up the ferret by the scruff of the neck and stare into the eyes, frowning, then put the ferret back down and try again.
Use a Light Touch
Although ferrets look like they're made of indestructible rubber bands, they are actually quite fragile. The average ferret is only the same weight as a large guinea pig (about two or three pounds). Ferrets appreciate a light touch from humans, even though they knock other ferrets around like punching bags.
Use as light a touch as you can. The ferret will let you know if they like it. If they really like it, you get licked! So, if a ferret turns their head around to your petting fingers, don't assume that you are going to get bitten. If a ferret leans into your touch, then you can use a little more pressure. When you stroke over their hips and they like it, they will raise the hips much like a cat will.
Most ferrets hate being patted on the head like a dog or slapped playfully like you would for a horse or large dog. Those motions will frighten them. Let the ferret know you are there before you touch or pick them up. Their main predators were birds of prey, so they can be protective about any large body that is seemingly swooping down on them from above with talons extended.
Ferrets also like a light "scritching" (which I think was a word invented by Charles Shultz in a Peanuts strip and has since entered common use). This is a cross between a petting and a light scratch, where your fingers move back and forth as if closing in to pick up a pin and then letting go. This motion is instinctive for most people, and even I'm having a hard time describing it!
All Ferrets Are Individuals
Not all ferrets have the same amount of tolerance for human contact. They all are individuals. Some will cuddle for a few minutes before dancing off again, while others will cuddle in your lap all night. Generally, the older the ferret, the more responsive they are to your affection.
Try to appreciate the individuality of the ferret and let the ferret come to you for affection in his or her good time. It is good to handle your ferret every day, just so they learn good manners and can be more easily looked over at the vet. This also means that the ferret gets used to your touch.
The pleasure in living with ferrets is that they are ferrets and not any other pet. They have such vibrant characters and such senses of humor, that it is a privilege when one decides you are "ferret" enough for contact.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2007 RenaSherwood
RenaSherwood (author) on October 23, 2007:
Smell? What smell :-) Yes, they do have an odor that takes getting used to!
Whitney from Georgia on October 23, 2007:
Ferrets are neat, but I can't stand their smell.. Ha... They make pretty good pets though.