The most difficult part of the process is figuring out why a ferret bites.
Is it due to abuse (fear biting)?
Is it due to neglect?
Is it because the ferret isn't getting enough to eat because it is too young to eat hard kibble and the food isn't moistened with warm mothers replacement milk or/and the food is not what the ferret recognizes as food? Unfotunately this is a too frequent situation at pet stores.
Is it due to rough handling/playing?
Is it due to not being taught?
Is it due to being protective of person, companion, or things?
Is it physical (pain, blind, deaf)?
Is it mental/brain damage (this usually stems from abuse such as being thrown against a wall or kicked in the head, or falling from a height landing on their head, etc)?
Is it that when biting the previous people let the ferret down each time (which teaches them to bite to let us know they want down)?
Do you know previous history? Most times we don't and people aren't going to say "yeah, she bit me so hard I threw her against the wall and knocked her unconscious for awhile.....".
When the ferret bites what is your reaction? If you squeal and hop around that may be viewed as an invitation to play because that is how ferrets play - they hop around and often times make soft squeaking noises. If a ferret is physically abused when it bites, this can cause a fear biting reaction - a reaction that the ferret is trying to bite because it is afraid it will be hurt. Each time your little one bites too hard observe to see if this is a frightened response (the eyes will be the key here - a frightened ferret will have a scared look), play response (gets too excited), or pain response (have you touched some place that is tender).
Our Drac was mentally challenged. He was very gentle with people, but preferred ferrets no matter how much love and cuddles we gave to him. Before Drac came to us, he was kept in a small pet taxi for the first 3 years of his life. This is pure torture for a playful, highly energetic, curious ferret. When Drac played with other ferrets he was very rough at times, and when they walked away he looked confused. He was obviously mentally challenged - diagnosis was from either abuse and/or mental anguish of being stuck in a small pet taxi for the first three years of his life, NOT a birth defect.
Check eyesight. Some blind ferrets may act as if they can see - using their whiskers
as feelers and raising their head when walking. Check ears for hearing, infection and
earmites. A case of earmites would make anyone cranky! Deafness can be difficult to
detect because some ferrets can hear certain tones and if housed with multiple ferrets
they may be clued in to what is going on by the actions of the other ferrets. Try
standing well behind the ferret, without the other ferrets around, shake a ring of keys
and see if there is a reaction. Stamping feet and clapping hands causes vibrations and
the ferret might pick up on the vibrations if you are too close. If your ferret sleeps
through the noise when you vacuum, that's a possible sign that the little one is hard of
hearing or deaf.
Have the vet check for lumps, bumps, teeth/gum problems, etc. Make sure your vet knows the ferret is a biter and that they are comfortable examining the ferret. Ask before the visit what their policy is if they get bitten. Being a vet doesn?t mean they will be comfortable with all animals nor that they will know how to handle a difficult animal. Explain to your vet that the bite response is not typical and that the ferret may have been severely abused (use descriptive terms to evoke compassion and realization) and even though she bites she needs special care and gentleness to gain her trust.
Ferrets that lunge at faces might have a sight problem or may have been poked and prodded through a cage - anything sticking out may invoke a fearbiter response. If one eye is damaged make sure you always approach on the side with the good eye so the ferret isn't startled.
In my experience, ferrets that strike out quickly like a snake, have been abused and are trying to warn off others so that they are not hurt. They can be very fast and the strike is startling. Move slowly and cautiously to not alarm them. If you are afraid to handle them, gently pick them up using a thick soft towel. Many times these little ones will only strike if they see flesh. If a little one bites aggressively at feet or shoes, this may be a sign that they have been kicked.
Our Rusty was bought from an exotic animal auction. He was a neutered male being sold as a breeder ferret. Rusty was deathly afraid of gloves (immediate bite response and panic stricken look). At our first vet visit our vet initially used a glove at my request because I didn't want him to get bitten but when he saw Rusty's response he switched to a towel which Rusty was fine with. Rusty had a damaged eye (large, no sight, not birth defect) so I always approached Rusty from the side with his good eye so I wouldn?t startle him. I repeatedly reached down and scritched his back to help him get use to being touched and to learn that I would not harm him no matter what his response. In 3 weeks time Rusty quit turning and lunging and rarely looked to see what or who was touching him. I worked less than normal with Rusty because I was also working with neglected angora kits at the same time.
Our next task after discovering why the bite reaction is to gain their trust, slowly and cautiously. Sometimes it is very difficult not to hold and cuddle them. When they are biters we need to restrain them from reaching areas where they can cause damage such as faces. Each time we picked Rusty up to hold in our arms he got a drop of linatone/canola mixture, then we put him down, then did it over and over again. The idea is for the ferret to associate something good with being handled. At this stage you should still be cautious because we?ve not done anything about the biting, only earning his trust.
For hard play biters or kits, I use the technique of GENTLY holding the bottom jaw
and when done properly and consistently it works well. Be prepared to get chewed on
the first few times as some panic when they feel the gentle restraint on their jaws.
GENTLY hold the bottom jaw by placing your thumb under the jaw and index finger in
just behind the canines pointing towards and out of the other side of the mouth
(crosswise). Gently hold and say "no bite hard" or whatever command you will use.
Be consistent with terms. As you progress you can add more but stick to one term for
the beginning training. If the ferret is deaf, hold them so they can see your mouthing
of the words. These little ones are extremely intelligent and will catch on quickly.
Another technique is to scruff and drag. Gently scruff the little one and slowly drag them on the floor, such as another ferret would do, telling them 'no bite' at the same time. This technique can be used alone or in combination with the one above.
If the ferret bites and doesn?t easily let go, you can use a q-tip dipped in vinegar, gently touched to the inside of the mouth to make them let go, and a verbal reprimand such as "No Bite" to get your point across. You can also use vinegar on your hands right before working with the ferret. This sometimes deters biting. If you use a bitter product, such as bitter apple, use it only on you, NEVER SPRAY IT DIRECTLY INTO THE FERRET'S MOUTH. If you wonder why I say this so loudly, taste it yourself.
When one latches on and bites hard and won't let go, you can dribble linatone/ferretone over the muzzle or turn the cold water faucet on and gently and quickly dip the ferret under the running water. Never use hot water, only cold. Then quickly remove your hand so it can't be bitten again. Scruffing sometimes helps but our Nibbles could bite while scruffed.
Remember not to be aggressive with the ferret at any time, no matter how much pain you are in. Gently place the ferret in their area (cage, room) and go wash and medicate your wounds. When my finger became infected and inflammed, soaking it in warm salt water (YOUCH!) several times a day cleared it up nicely. If your wound does become infected, check with your doctor for recommendations on treatment.
If you are trying to deter your ferret from nibbling on your toes, fingers, ankles or other body parts, Sunbreeze may be helpful. You can apply a little Sunbreeze to deter your ferret from nibbling on you and on other ferrets. Sunbreeze is a human product and contains camphor, menthol and other oils. It works well for healing cuts and scratches and safe enough that if you have a sore throat you can put it in the back of your throat to reduce pain and promote healing. Sunbreeze has a strong scent so a little goes a long way! You can also spritz vinegar or lemon on yourself to deter biting.
In extreme cases there is a hormone shot your vet can give to settle the ferret down - Depoprovera. This will not only calm the ferret but may also increase appetite. The effects of the drug normally last several weeks to months.
Some ferrets will always nip. When you've tried to gently bite-train your ferret and it continues to nip, be prepared to take precautions to avoid others from getting bit. This may involve putting your ferret in another room or not allowing visitors to play with this particular ferret. As your ferret's caretaker, it is your responsibility to keep your ferret safe from harm.
Nibbles and her companion Jewel were shipped from one pet store to another because they would bite customers. Fortunately they landed in a pet store near us. The first time I evaluated Nibbles at the pet store, I was holding her and she seemed calm. I turned my attention away from her for a moment and she grabbed my index finger. She wouldn't open her mouth wide enough for me to pull my finger out only wide enough to continue biting. Trying to use my other fingers to open her mouth didn't work nor did scruffing her. We finally turned on the cold water in the sink and I gently and quickly dipped her under the water. Nibbles let go briefly and as I moved my hand away she tried to grab again. This time I was watching! Nibbles had done a bit of damage to my fingers, making the index finger look like I wrapped barbed wire around and pulled.... (good thing I heal quickly). I very gently and gingerly placed Nibbles back in her cage and gave my recommendation that she be gently worked with to stop the biting. Nibbles and Jewel went home with an assistant manager to be worked with. After a month with no success they came to live with us. Both girls learned to trust and not to bite with our gentle training techniques.
Work slowly with biters and earn their trust before bite training. Don't reach
under things to pull them out as they may feel threatened and latch on to your hand.
Misty and Nibbles both grabbed my hand when I reached to get them under a cabinet.
In both cases, I was stuck, it was either pull and take the chance that I caused more
damage by tearing my own flesh or stay and let them gnaw on my hands..... in one case
I pulled and the other I was able to get my other hand under and scruffed Nibbles so
I could pull her and my attached hand out. If linatone was nearby that would have
deterred her but it wasn?t.
When a ferret bites, they grab with their teeth. Jerking away is our natural response and many times if we pull away WE will rip our skin and cause more damage than the actual bite.
And finally, always remember "BE GENTLE AND DO NO HARM".