By Laurie Hess, DVM, Diplomate ABVP (Avian Practice)
I was recently at a large pet expo in Florida where hundreds of pet owners attended with their dogs on leashes. Big dogs, little dogs, old dogs, young dogs — hundreds of dogs. Looking down at the floor, among the dogs, I saw three ferrets on leashes. Two were happily prancing along at the end of their leashes, several feet in front of their owner, while the third was splayed out flat, being dragged along like a sack of potatoes several feet behind the owner.
Why did these leashed ferrets behave so differently? They did so because not all ferrets like to walk on leashes.
How can you tell if your ferret will walk on a leash?
Some ferrets enjoy leash walking, while others simply hate it. Some don’t like it initially but can be trained to tolerate it over time. A handful of ferrets just don’t get leash walking and will never take to it, extending their arms and legs and refusing to walk when they are attached to a leash, or twisting and spinning on the leash as the owner tries to move forward. These ferrets should not be forced.
If you have tried on several occasions to get your ferret to accept wearing a harness and leash and he/she just won’t cooperate, it’s probably best to abort the leash-training plan.
What kind of leash should you use with your ferret?
To learn to walk on a leash, ferrets should wear a snug-fitting harness, rather than a collar, that clips to a leash. Collars are not safe for ferrets, as they slip out of them easily. Ensure that the harness fits fairly tightly so they can’t wriggle out of it.
Rather than ordering a harness online, you should take your ferret to the pet store to try on a few to find the one that fits best. Several adjustable harnesses specifically made for ferrets are available in pet stores. If the store won’t let you try harnesses on your ferret, buy a few to demo at home and return the ones that don’t fit. A properly fitting harness is essential to the comfort and safety of your ferret as you train him to leash walk.
How do you train your ferret to use a leash?
Before you venture out, be sure that your ferret walks well on a harness and leash successfully at home. Start by simply getting the ferret to accept wearing the harness in your house. Some ferrets don’t mind harnesses, while others struggle and wriggle to get out of them.
If your ferret resists wearing the harness, pair the wearing of the harness with giving the ferret a small amount of her favorite tasty treat. The trick is to give the treat only when you put the harness on the ferret and at no other time. After you give your ferret the treat a few times while putting her in the harness, she will begin to anticipate the treat as soon as the harness appears.
Once your ferret masters wearing the harness, give another treat immediately after you clip on the leash. Many ferrets will accept wearing the harness but then struggle and twist once they are hooked up to the leash. Pairing the sight and sound of the leash clipping to the harness with the feeding of another small, delicious treat will help the ferret learn to accept the attachment of the leash to the harness.
Finally, once the leash is clipped on, you can give another small treat if the ferret walks or runs forward properly. As before, the ferret will learn to anticipate moving forward on the leash with the receiving of treats. Be sure not to give the treat if the ferret struggles once the leash is clipped on. The key to each step of ferret leash-training is to only give the favored treat at the time of training so that the ferret is motivated to work for it, and to keep each administration of treats to a small bite so that the ferret doesn’t get full too fast and is no longer motivated to work for the treats.
What precautions should you take when walking your ferret?
Before taking your ferret outside to walk, be certain that he is proficient at walking inside. Also, be sure that your ferret gets used to the sights and sounds of things (such as other people, barking dogs, traffic noise) he might see or hear outside. Simply carrying the ferret around outside a few times before asking him to leash walk can acclimate the pet to the outside world. Some ferrets get startled more easily than others and may require a few more practice runs outside in an owner’s arms before they are comfortable enough to leash walk.
While it would be wonderful to be able to teach your ferret to respond to commands, such as “stop” and “sit,” as a dog on a leash might, most ferrets outside are so distracted by unfamiliar sights and sounds that they aren’t likely to pay attention to commands, even if they do so reliably inside. Thus, it’s critical that ferret owners keep a fairly tight rein on their animal’s leashes, as ferrets left on a long leash may eat inappropriate objects off the ground or may run into traffic or toward dogs or small children that may be spooked by the ferret.
In addition, since there are many unvaccinated dogs outside, as well as wild animals such as foxes, skunks, and raccoons, all of which may be carrying rabies or distemper virus, which are fatal to ferrets, all ferrets taken outside should be vaccinated against both rabies and distemper. If you are walking your ferret outside and you see a wild animal or dog nearby, pick up your ferret and move away to avoid risk of both disease transmission and injury, particularly if the other animal is aggressive.
Finally, just as dogs and cats are susceptible to internal and external parasites, such as gastrointestinal worms, fleas, and ticks, so are ferrets. If you are going to take your ferret outside, speak to your veterinarian beforehand to ensure your pet is protected against these pathogens. Some parasite preventatives are safe for use in ferrets, while others are not. Your ferret’s veterinarian should be able to prescribe safe and effective medications to prevent parasitic infection in your ferret.
Where and when should you walk your ferret?
The safest place to walk ferrets is in an open area, away from bushes or other objects under which they can hide, and away from other animals and traffic. An open, grassy field, not heavily trafficked by dogs, is a good place to start. Be aware of hot pavement that can burn a ferret’s sparsely-furred foot pads, or of ice or snow that can lead to frostbitten toes if ferrets are exposed to them for more than a few minutes at a time. Be conscious, too, of trash on the ground or of open puddles that may be tempting for a curious ferret to taste. Try not to walk outside at midday, when it’s very warm and when a thick-coated ferret could overheat. Conversely, try to avoid walking outside when it’s extremely cold so that the ferret doesn’t get chilled. Temperatures at which we are comfortable walking — typically in the high 50s-mid70s°F — are generally best.
Finally, avoid walking in the early morning or late at night when it’s dark, when the ferret might not see as well.
What should you bring with you when you walk your ferret?
Just like dogs, ferrets are indiscrete about where they relieve themselves; in fact, ferrets will often mark new territories with feces and urine. Thus, if you walk your ferret outside, be prepared with a “pooper scooper” and poop bags. You will also want to bring a small bowl and water, particularly if it is warm outside when your ferret is walking, as well as some treats, especially in the event your ferret slips out of the harness, hides somewhere, and you need to coax her out. Finally, in case your ferret gets tired of walking or gets spooked, you should have a bag or carrier in which you can put her safely to travel home.
The key to successfully walking your ferret
Some ferrets love walking on a leash, and others hate it. When trained properly, many ferrets will enjoy short walks outside. The key to successfully leash walking a ferret is to keep walks brief (no more than 5-10 minutes at a time, especially if the ferret is older and may be arthritic), be patient, and to not push if a ferret resists.
The good news is that, unlike most dogs, ferrets don’t need to go outside on a leash to get adequate exercise or to go to the bathroom. If your ferret won’t walk, no worries. Just ferret-proof a room or a smaller area in your house, provide a litterbox, and let your pet run free!