Message Number: YG599 | New FHL Archives Search
From: RRC
Date: 2001-03-03 07:13:00 UTC
Subject: Re Another Behavior Question (Bullying)

Donna has brought up bullying; I won't copy her post because my attempt
to answer it is so very long.

The act of bullying is nothing more that dominance, and ferrets will
grant no quarter in that regard (I once attended a lecture by Desmond
Morris, who said only a limited number of apes and dolphins granted
mercy, and neither were very good at it). Ferrets grant ZERO mercy.
Domesticated ferret dominance patterns are wacky because of the
influence of individual variation, neutering, neotony (or retaining
juvenile behaviors and physical characteristics), environment,
conditioning and the impact of domestication on behavior. This makes ANY
prediction of ferret behavior quite difficult, pushing the discussion
into the realm of generalities. In other words, while in a general sense
(or in the majority of cases) this discussion is true, you will be able
to find a lot of exceptions. C'est la vie.

Using polecats as the null, or standard model, ferrets—as kits—are very
gregarious. They are very accepting of other kits, will initiate play,
and will rapidly accept strangers as familiars. This starts to change
just about the time of weaning when the kits go through a stage where
everything in the world seems to frighten them. It is at this time their
behaviors towards each other starts to change, and play begins to turn
into dominance and exclusion fighting (dominance fighting is designed to
create a ranking, while exclusion fighting is designed to drive the
other away). These fights can become very loud, and even result in minor
injury in some cases, but for the most part, they are self-limiting in
degree and consequence.

Ferrets are no different. Domestication has not made much of a
difference in the expression of these dominance behaviors, as evidenced
by the behaviors being nearly identical in comparisons of European
polecats and New Zealand feral ferrets. Domestication changes are TRAIT
SPECIFIC; that is, changes tend to impact specific traits, leaving most
or all others intact. So while ferret fear behaviors are changed (flight
or fight distance is reduced to zero), dominance behaviors are left
basically intact (this is my cage; get out).

Ferrets, via their polecat progenitors, have a long evolutionary history
of being solitary predators who practice same sex territorial exclusion.
What this means is males exclude males from their territory, but allow
females in. Females do the same thing, so you end up with a patchwork
quilt of male territories, each occupied by a single individual,
overlapped by a similar patchwork of female territories. Male
territories are larger than female territories, so in any given area the
ratio of females to males is skewed, with females outnumbering males.
The size of the territory is dependent upon individual ability to
dominate others, but, unlike in social groups where the individual that
beats the alpha dominates all, in ferrets, dominance is established on a
one-to-one basis. Thus, you can sometimes end up with some strange
dominance structures, where ferret A dominates ferret B, who dominates
ferret C, who dominates ferret A. Complicating everything is the effect
of sex. The dominance structure of one sex tends to be maintained
independently of that of the other sex, however, in neutered animals,
there is often a blending of dominance hierarchies. If you only have a
couple of ferrets, this is a fairly straight forward hierarchical
structure, but in large groups, it can be a confusing mess, complicated
by the hierarchy being in a constant state of flux as individuals age,
become ill, or new ones are introduced.

Pet ferrets are environmentally conditioned to accept other ferrets as
part of their group. It is probable that each ferret views the other as
a sibling; certainly their play behaviors suggest some sort of sibling
grouping. Additionally, sometimes a group of ferrets will take turns or
join together in bullying an individual ferret in an action similar to
what is seen when wild sibling groups exclude a strange interloper. This
unnatural gregariousness is a conditioned response, maintained by humans
housing pet ferrets in small cages, which prevents ferrets from
exercising their natural dispersal habits or creating territories. This
conditioning is a sort of imprinting, and those ferrets which are
imprinted at a young age will more readily accept new ferrets later in
life. From my observations and experiences, I think ferrets strongly
imprinted on humans tend to include them in play and dominance
behaviors. This is not implying ferrets "see" humans as other ferrets;
they know what a ferret is, and they know humans are not ferrets. But I
think there is a tendency for some ferrets to extend their behaviors
towards humans, which is probably more of an act of acceptance than one
of "mustelidomorphizing."

What I have found is MOST ferret owners break up fights long before the
ferrets are able to resolve dominance patterns. Owners hear the noise,
see the flying poop, smell the spray, see the cuts and scratches on the
ferrets' necks and rush in to save their babies. When this happens, the
ferrets never have a chance to resolve their differences. They start to
work it out, owners snatch them up, and the whole thing has to start all
over again. What I do is to give them a minute, and if the fight doesn't
stop, I call a draw and break it up. What I have found is almost all
fights end before that time allotted (maybe with poop flung on the walls
and a pungent odor in the air, but that is another story). In the short
run, it is loud and messy and stinky, and more than one ferret will have
some blood or scabs on their neck, but in the long run, the troubles
work themselves out. The worst case *I* have dealt with lasted months,
and flares up every spring with the lengthening of the day, but is
basically resolved.

Still, there may be times when you simply cannot allow the fighting to
continue. In those rare cases, I do the following.

1) Wave a towel over the ferrets, or crumple plastic bags, initiating
play with humans. 2) Offer a well-loved treat. 3) Take them outside for
a romp. 4) Give them a bath, and afterward spray them down with perfume
or rub them with vanilla. 5) Dump a box of toys beside them.

Mind you, these are temporary distractions; they will not prevent the
ferrets from returning to dominance behaviors until they work out a
hierarchy they can understand.

Sorry for the length of this post.

Bob C