I think everyone here understands that biting is not nipping,
even when a hard nip draws blood; nipping is play behavior. A
ferret that bites can do so for a lot of reasons -- but the bite
is NOT play behavior. Usually it's an action that the ferret has
learned provokes a certain response, or it's a defensive fear
reaction. Many ferrets that bite expect to be hurt or scared,
which is why it's important not to hurt or scare them. The hard
part is getting into their little heads and figuring out what's
scaring them. Most of the time, there's a history of something
that leads to the ferret becoming fear-aggressive. The absolute
most important thing to do with a biting animal is to build
trust -- which takes time, effort, consistency, and above all
kindness. Trust is two-way -- you have to learn to trust each
Working with humans or other large animals who are aggressive is hard, because it's absolutely necessary to come up with a consistent way to deal with the aggression that will help the individual learn to act more appropriately. Every plan is different. Working with a ferret is much easier; we as humans control the situation, whatever our ferrets want us to think, simply by dint of outweighing them 100 to 1. Most of the time, setting up a behavior modification program that focuses on positive and negative reinforcements does not work with aggressive behaviors, as it doesn't address the causes of the aggression. In other words, disciplining the ferret that bites you is generally ineffective, because it is simply more negative attention. The ferret often already expects negative attention for this behavior, so you've just fulfilled your half of the bargain and inadvertently taught the animal that you are to be feared.
Yelling, shaking, scruffing too tightly, hitting, nose flicks, pulling whiskers -- these are ALL negative attention. Speaking quietly and time outs are less likely to be interpreted as acts of aggression by the ferret.
Overall, however, the best way to deal with a biting ferret (in my opinion, of course!) is to *set up situations in which the ferret cannot bite you.*
If you know that the ferret bites ankles, wear pants around him for a while!
If he's afraid of hands, move your hands SLOWLY and gently, and let him initiate contact. If he looks aggressive, simply remove your hands.
At the same time as you're redirecting him, start giving him lots and lots of positive attention. Invent games that you can play together which give him no opportunity to bite you -- maybe playing with a towel, a stuffed animal, a paper bag. When you've been playing a while, give him treats--hold him gently, hold the treat at the right distance so that he can't take your finger too. If you can, let him lick lots of ferretone off your hands --again, hold him gently the correct distance away. Instead of punishing negative behavior, reward positive behavior and AVOID the negative. Lots of attention is good -- but make sure you control the situation. In this way, you and the ferret will be having fun together, and beginning to form a bond of trust; each time you walk over with his favorite towel, he'll get excited, and you'll know you're about to play a game together that doesn't lead to him biting you--just as an example.
Of course, no matter how careful you are, there will be mistakes
--the ferret will manage to bite you sometimes. If it's possible
to ignore the behavior, do so -- and also ignore the ferret. If
necessary, gently and quietly remove yourself or the ferret from
Don't reward him either!
Time outs work well for some people -- it depends on the ferret.
Over time, as he begins to appreciate your attention and
affection, not only will the number of incidents decrease, but
he loss of your attention will bother him as much as anything
else ever could. He'll learn that Daddy won't play with him if
These concepts have served us well here. Most of it is adapted from my training with the Crisis Prevention Institute -- I'm certified in non-violent crisis prevention and intervention. The training and certification apply to humans -- I work with people who have aggressive behaviors-- but the concepts apply to pretty much every animal I can think of. Not sure about reptiles, fish, or insects. Mammals and birds, definitely.
People tend to think in terms of "training" instead of "teaching". *I don't want to train a ferret that bites out of fear that he shouldn't bite or he'll be punished; I want to remove the fear.* Our present concepts of "training" are based on behavioral psychology -- any really good animal trainer (or teacher, as in school!) knows that you can drill a behavior by rote and your student won't necessarily develop an understanding of the subject -- but by learning to communicate, and really communicating with each other, you can teach an animal or a person things they wouldn't learn otherwise. Teaching is a two-way process. Training is not. Teaching works, long-term; it also takes longer and requires much more effort. Training works sometimes, if you want your dog to do tricks; it doesn't work if you want your dog to have manners. Same for kids. Would you bribe your kid with candy to be polite to strangers -- or teach why that's important, and reward behavior that showed that the child understood?
One little ferret we've been doing this kind of work with is finally mostly trustworthy, but will sometimes bite of bare ankles -- not hard enough to break the skin anymore, thankfully. Many ferrets nip ankles in play; she, however, will do so and then wait to see if we're going to hit her. She used to draw blood all the time (ergh). Definitely a success story. Thought she'd never come around.
So, to anyone with a biting ferret, cat, dog, bird, or child: it's worth the work, worth the blood and frustration and tears. The bond you'll form and the remarkable results you'll see will reward you more than anything else. Teaching is two-way, and one of the things you'll learn is how to truly understand another creature -- which means that when your ferret (or whatever) takes the huge step of beginning to trust you, you'll feel that too. It's the best high I've ever felt, forming that bond, teaching a creature to trust.
Listen to me lecture! Replies are welcome -- this is a topic I love to discuss, and for all my wordiness I'm often unclear. I hope I haven't implied that I disapprove of others' ideas; for the most part, I've found that most of the people on this list believe most of the above. (That's a lot of "most"s!) If you disagree with me or think I'm way off-base, I'd love to discuss these ideas with you, too.