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An Owners Guide to Ferret Health Care

By Mary Van Dahm

An Owners Guide to Ferret Health Care -- By Mary Van Dahm

STARTING OUT RIGHT

A good diet is the best foundation to any pet’s health care. Ferrets are no exception. As carnivores, ferrets require a high meat protein diet and many veterinarians believe that they benefit from taurine in their diet, just like cats. Therefore a high quality dry ferret or kitten food is an excellent choice. Totally Ferret by PFI, IAMS kitten food, and Hill’s Science diet growth formula, are some of the brands we recommend. Most grocery store cat foods and some ferret foods are made primarily from corn and soybean meals. Since a ferret has a very short digestive transit time (approximately 3-4 hrs.) the ferret’s stomach and intestines do not have adequate time to break down and absorb the vegetable matter in these lower quality foods and most of the food will pass through undigested. The ferret will have to eat more to satisfy its nutritional needs and in turn will produce more stools; so in the long run, buying a cheaper brand of food will probably not save you any money. A poor diet may also set your ferret up for future health problems which will cost you money to correct later.

THE MOST COMMON HEALTH PROBLEMS OF THE DOMESTIC FERRET:

The following health problems are ones that many veterinarians have dealt with on a regular basis. We hope that, with good care and caution, your ferret will never experience any of these situations, but if your ferret does, your knowing what to look for and what to do may help prolong – or even save – your ferret’s life.

NON-INFECTIOUS HEALTH PROBLEMS

ANAL GLAND IMPACTION

This is a condition that occurs in undescented ferrets when the opening of the anal gland is blocked or if a bacterial infection has caused the glands to produce thick, turgid material that is difficult to pass.

Symptoms: You may notice one or two round lumps (depending if one or both of the glands are affected) on either side of the anal opening. A ferret may “scoot” his butt on the floor, if the impaction is irritating him, but usually most ferrets don’t seem to be bothered by this condition. Sometimes the gland will rupture. This may occur near the anal gland opening or even through the anal wall. This can be serious as it leaves a wide entrance for bacteria and infection may result.

Treatment: In early stages warm compresses held against the glands are sometimes effective or your veterinarian may be able to express the glands at his/ her office. If neither of these procedures works, or if your ferret is prone to chronic anal gland impaction, then surgical removal of the gland is recommended. For a ruptured gland, surgery is necessary and you may want to have both glands removed at the same time for convenience.

Prevention: There is no real prevention to this problem other than removal of the anal glands. Since this is not a frequent problem, we do not recommend the routine removal of anal glands in ferrets. Checking your pet’s glands regularly and detecting impaction early can help prevent ruptures or infection.

APLASTIC ANEMIA This is a common cause of death of unspayed, non-breeding females. This condition occurs when high levels of estrogen are produced during the “heat” cycle and suppress the production of red and white blood cells in the bone marrow. Advanced cases are irreversible and death occurs from the severe anemia and secondary bacterial infections that set in.

Symptoms: May be seen in jills that have been in heat for 1 month or longer. Outward signs may include an extremely swollen vulva, lethargy, hind limb weakness, loss of appetite, spotty or complete hair loss (do not confuse this with patterned hair loss caused by adrenal disease), and in some advanced cases a sour smell and turgid discharge from the vulva. Close examination may show the gums to be pale and sometimes even the nose, ears and pads on the feet will lose color.

Treatment: The ferret should be taken to a veterinarian immediately. A complete blood count (CBC) should be taken to determine the severity of the anemia. If the condition is caught early, the ferret may be spayed to prevent reoccurrence of the problem. Moderate anemia may require multiple blood transfusions and other supportive care prior to surgery. If the condition is advanced, there is no treatment since at that point it is irreversible. In such cases euthanasia is recommended.

Prevention: Any jill that is not going to be used for breeding should be spayed before her first estrus (usually around 6 or 7 months of age). Jills that are going to be used for breeding at a later date may be taken out of heat with the hormone HCG, but this should be used only as a temporary measure as many jills quickly go back into heat a few weeks after receiving the injection. Some breeders use vasectomized hobs to bring jills out of heat, but this method is sometimes unreliable.

CARDIOMYOPATHY

This is a condition that is usually seen in ferrets over 3 years of age. It consists of either the thinning or the thickening of the walls of the heart. This affects the blood flow through the heart.

Symptoms: Some signs are: a sudden decrease in activity; collapsing in the middle of play (in advanced cases a ferret may not even be able to walk across a room without stopping to rest): and the ferret may have great difficulty waking up. Other symptoms are chronic coughing, shortness of breath, fluid build up in the abdomen and lethargy. Diagnosis of the disease is done through X-rays and an EKG.

Treatment: There is no cure for this disease, but the condition can usually be helped with the use of diuretics and other medications. A high quality diet has shown to be helpful, too.

Prevention: Since some veterinarians believe this may be a hereditary condition, we do not recommend breeding ferrets that have it. Feeding your ferret a high quality diet may also help prevent or control this condition.

CATARACTS

This is a condition where the lens of the ferret’s eye becomes opaque. Depending on the maturity of the cataract, the ferret may see little to no light. Cataracts may affect one or both eyes, but the latter is most common. Ferrets may develop juvenile or geriatric cataracts. Juvenile cataracts generally show up before the ferret is one year old. This is thought to be a hereditary condition. Geriatric cataracts are usually caused by the aging of the eye, injuries to the eye, or possibly from taurine deficiencies.

Symptoms: Looking into your ferret’s eyes, you will notice whitish circles within the pupils. Since ferrets generally have poor eyesight and since cataracts usually develop slowly, you may not even notice that your ferret has them. Sometimes the affected lens dissolves and the eye becomes clear again. This does not indicate the return of your ferret’s vision, although he may be able to detect some light again.

Treatment: Treatment is rarely done on this condition in ferrets. Prevention: Do not breed ferrets with cataracts to avoid passing the condition to other generations. Feeding a diet containing taurine may help, but no concrete evidence has been collected to support this theory.

G.I. FOREIGN BODIES

These may consist of hairballs, soft rubber or plastic pieces that have been chewed off of toys, rubber bands, insoles from shoes, foam rubber or numerous other items that ferrets may pick up off of the floor and eat.

Symptoms: Ferrets usually cannot cough up hairballs or foreign bodies like cats do; so most objects will remain in the stomach if they are too large to pass. This may present itself as a slow wasting condition as the object replaces the space needed for proper food digestion (hairballs often present themselves in this manner). Loss of appetite, nausea (evident by the ferret pawing at its mouth), and vomiting may occur, but are not evident in all cases. Sometimes the ferret may also have black, tarry stools. If the foreign body passes out of the stomach and lodges in the small intestine, the ferret will usually become acutely ill (severely depressed, dehydrated and experiencing acute abdominal pain). If surgery is not performed, the ferret can go into a coma and die in less than 24 hours.

Treatment: The ferret should be seen by a veterinarian immediately to determine if the ferret needs surgery or not. If the ferret is not acutely ill, a barium X-ray series may be done to determine what is causing the blockage. If it is organic in nature (such as a hairball), the veterinarian may try oral treatments with digestive enzymes or heavy doses of cat laxative before attempting surgery.

Prevention: The use of a cat hairball laxative 2 – 3 times a week (every day during shedding seasons) will help control the formation of hairballs and will help small pieces of chewed up materials to pass out of the intestines. “Ferret proofing” your house on hands and knees to look for potential objects that your ferret may try to eat or chew should be done on a regular basis.

HEAT STROKE Ferrets cannot sweat and therefore they do not tolerate high temperatures (over 80 degrees) very well.

Symptoms: The ferret will start panting heavily and may become limp and listless. Eventually the animal will pass out and die.

Treatment: You must bring the ferret’s body temperature down, but not too low. Do not chill the ferret or it may go into shock. Soak towels in cool water and lay them over the ferret or partially submerge the ferret in a basin of tepid (not cold!) water. If the animal is conscious, encourage it to drink water, Gatorade or Pedialyte, if available. If there is no improvement within 5-10 minutes, get the animal to the veterinarian immediately.

Prevention: Do not expose your ferret to strong sunlight or take him outside on hot days. Do not set his cage near a window where it will be hit with direct sunlight. Do not leave him alone in a car, even on cool days, since the temperature inside the car can rise higher than the outside air temperature very fast! If you must travel with your ferret, take him inside with you when you leave the car. To keep the ferret cool while driving, be sure to give him plenty of cold water. You may also take a 2 liter pop bottle and fill it 2/3 full of water and freeze it the night before your trip. Set the frozen bottle in the carrier with the ferret (tie it down so it doesn’t roll around and hurt him!) This will afford him something cool to lean against for short trips on warm days.

INFECTIOUS HEALTH PROBLEMS

COLDS AND FLU

Ferrets are susceptible to cold and flu viruses. They can catch it from humans or other ferrets and can pass it back again as well.

Symptoms:Basically the same as in humans – runny nose, watery eyes, sneezing, coughing, lethargy, some loss of appetite.

Treatment: Usually a lot of rest and TLC is all that’s required. Make sure the ferret is drinking plenty of fluids. If the sneezing and runny nose is excessive, an antihistamine called chlorpheniramine maleate (sold as Chlortrimeton or under generic names) may be used at 1/4 tablet 2 – 3 times a day. DO NOT GIVE FERRETS ASPIRIN, except under the direction of a veterinarian. If a cold persists more than 3 days without any improvement; if the nasal discharge is discolored (not clear); if the ferret is wheezing or having breathing problems; if the ferret is extremely lethargic; if the ferret has lost its appetite completely; or if the ferret appears to have a fever, see your veterinarian right away.

Prevention: Don’t let people with colds or flu come near your ferret. If you have a cold, let someone else take care of the ferret for you until you are better. If you have to handle the ferret yourself, wear a facemask and wash your hands before handling the ferret.

DISTEMPER

Canine distemper is very contagious to ferrets and almost
100% fatal if they contract it.
It is a resilient virus that can stay active for a long time off of the host and can be carried to your ferret on your shoes, clothes, and in the air. Feline distemper is rare in ferrets and usually only affects very young kits.

Symptoms: Some ferrets experience sudden death, but for most the disease progresses over a period of about two weeks. Early signs include crustiness around the eyes and a rash on the chin. The rash may also be found on the abdomen. As the disease progresses, the pads on the feet may harden and thicken. Diarrhea, vomiting, seizures or severe lethargy are some other signs that may be noted. The ferret may finally lapse into a coma before it dies.

Treatment: None. Euthanasia is strongly recommended as distemper is a horrible, painful disease.

Prevention: Thankfully there are vaccines for distemper that will prevent your ferret from contracting the virus. Fervac-D by United Vaccine is the only current vaccine licensed for use against distemper in ferrets, although many shelters and veterinarians have used Galaxy – D with equal success. They are both modified live virus vaccines derived from non-ferret tissue cultures. It is important NOT to use a vaccine that is of ferret tissue origin or you may actually give your ferret distemper! Vaccination against feline distemper is not needed because of the extremely low incidence of this disease in ferrets.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Canine distemper vaccines MUST be given annually to remain effective. Kits (baby ferrets) should receive an initial series of shots at 6-8 wks., 11 wks., and 14 wks. of age; then annually. NOTE: Most ferrets from pet shops only have the initial 6-week shot. BE SURE TO GET YOUR KIT IN TO A VETERINARIAN FOR THE ENTIRE
SERIES TO AVOID HEARTACHE LATER!

E.C.E.(Epizootic Catarrhal Enteritis) VIRUS

AKA: The “Green Slime” Virus A highly contagious diarrheal virus that attacks the intestinal lining causing poor fluid and nutrient absorption which may result in extreme dehydration, anorexia, and sometimes death. Some ferrets are severely affected while others have little or no discomfort. Age, body fat distribution, general health, and possibly genetics may be factors.

Symptoms: Initially the ferret may exhibit vomiting which is then followed by a bright to dark green diarrhea. Most ferrets recover from this stage of the virus in about 2-7 days. This sometimes leads to a false sense of security that the animal is ‘better’. Unfortunately the virus continues to attack the intestinal lining causing inflammation and ulcers. The ferret may stop eating and anorexia and dehydration set in.

Treatment: Sub-Q (under the skin) hydration and a high calorie, soft diet are a must for severe cases. We recommend feeding affected ferrets with a mixture of Science Diet a/d canned food (available from your veterinarian) and Isocal, Sustacal or Ensure (human food supplements found at most drug stores) in a ratio of 6:1 (6 parts a/d to 1 part Isocal). Water or Pedialyte may be added to improve consistency for syringe feeding. We also add 1 teaspoon of butter (not margarine) per can of a/d to add calories for severe cases. The mixture may be heated a little to improve palatability. Some ferrets may need to be hand fed to make sure that they are eating. Ferrets that aren’t eating well on their own will need to eat 2-4 oz. of this mixture daily. Imodium (liquid) may be given to help stop the diarrhea. This can be administered at a dose of 1 cc 2 times during the first 24 hours, then it should be reduced to .30 cc 1-3 times a day for up to 4 more days. We also recommend giving Pepcid AC to reduce the chances of mouth and stomach ulcers from forming. This should be administered by crushing a 10 mg tablet of Pepcid and mixing it with 10 cc of water. SHAKE WELL and measure out .20 cc per dose. The suspension settles quickly and must be shaken well before each dose is administered.

Prevention: There is no vaccine currently available. Avoid contact with ferrets that have had the disease (they can be carriers for up to 10 months after recovery) Change your clothes and shoes if you have been to an infected household to avoid bringing the disease into your home.

NEOPLASIA (CANCER)

Cancer is currently the most common cause of illness and death of the ferret. Approximately 70 – 90% of all ferrets will develop some kind of cancer in their lifetime. Older ferrets, especially, seem prone to cancers; and multiple cancers are common in ferrets over 5 years of age. Fortunately, with regular veterinary check ups, blood work and X – rays, early detection and treatment can be achieved. Many cases of cancer in ferrets that are not curable are at least controllable if caught early.

ADRENAL ADENOMA OR ADENOCARCINOMA

This is a cancer of the adrenal gland, which is a small organ about the size of a small pea. The ferret has two adrenal glands – one near each kidney. The adrenal glands produce hormones which control a number of metabolic functions in the ferret’s body. Most affected ferrets develop adrenal adenoma, which is a benign form of the disease (i.e. it does not spread to other parts of the body) Adenocarcinoma is the malignant (spreading) form of the disease. Ferrets may have one or both glands affected by cancer. This is a common cancer usually found in ferrets over 2 years of age. About 40% of ferrets develop it. Symptoms: Signs may include: alopecia (hair loss) over all or part of the body (often starting on the lower back or along the back bone); poor coat quality (dry, brittle, thinning); loss of muscle and skin tone; itchy, flaky skin – sometimes with red patches or scaling; large deposits of abdominal fat; and a strong musk odor may be apparent. Spayed females may develop vulvular swelling as if they were in heat. Males may become more aggressive as if they were in rut.

Treatment: Surgery is the recommended treatment for most ferrets under 5 years of age. Since this usually is a fairly slow progressing disease, many older ferrets can live out normal life spans without surgery, but males may develop prostate problems and females with swollen vulvas are susceptible to infection.

Prevention: No preventative measures are currently known.

INSULINOMA

Insulinoma is a cancer of the beta cells of the pancreas. It is fairly common in ferrets over 3 years of age and approximately 40 – 50% of all ferrets get it. This cancer causes the beta cells to produce abnormally high levels of insulin, which drives the sugar out of the blood stream and into the body too quickly. This causes a serious drop in the blood sugar level and affects the brain, which needs a constant supply of sugar.

Symptoms: These may vary with the severity of the case. Early signs are easily overlooked and may include mild trances (staring into space for a few seconds) or the ferret sleeping more or harder to wake up. Staggering while walking; drooling; pawing at the mouth; and mild seizures usually come next. This may be followed by vocalizations,(The ferret can make sounds varying from a noise like a hiccup to screeches and screams. These are generally involuntary and do not mean that the ferret is in any pain), severe seizures, coma and death. Diagnosis is usually based on a fasting blood sugar level.

Treatment: Depending on the severity of the case and the age of the animal, different treatments may be suggested by your veterinarian. Some veterinarians prefer to approach the disease aggressively by surgically removing most of the tumors. One problem with this is that there are no guarantees that more tumors won’t grow and you may face a repeat performance. Another problem is that sometimes the tumors are too small to even be seen (the average insulinoma tumor is smaller than a pin head) or there are too many of them to remove without damaging the pancreas. Another choice is medical therapy. The ferret would need to receive oral medication for the rest of its life. We have seen animals survive over three years on medical therapy. Giving the ferret high protein treats such as baby food (meat varieties) and making sure that the ferret eats regularly throughout the day is beneficial. The disadvantage of medical therapy is that it does not necessarily stop the growth of the cancer and increased doses of medication may be needed as the disease progresses. Insulinomas have also been known to spread to other tissues and organs, such as the spleen, liver and even the lungs.

If you should notice your ferret having an insulinoma seizure, you can help stabilize him by first administering something sweet to him, such as honey or Karo syrup. (NOTE: As a general rule- ferrets with insulinoma should NOT be given sugary treats. This has been found to create a yo-yo effect with the blood sugars elevating rapidly and then dropping quickly again.) As soon as your ferret is steadier, give him some meat baby food or some of his regular food to balance out the sugar intake. Call your veterinarian and get your ferret into his/ her office ASAP.

IMPORTANT: Never put food or liquid into the mouth of an unconscious animal. If the animal is seizuring or is unconscious, rub some honey or syrup on his inner lips and gums. (Use a Q-tip, if possible, to administer the honey or syrup to avoid the ferret biting you if it starts to seizure again.) When the ferret starts to come around, then you can proceed as described above.

Prevention: Veterinarians do not currently know what causes insulinomas to appear. Diet and heredity are suspects and some veterinarians believe that it may be caused by a virus. Until more is known about the cause of this disease, no preventative measures can be established.

LYMPHOSARCOMA

This is a cancer of the lymphatic system, which is a part of the body’s immune system. It is usually found in older ferrets, but is being seen in younger ferrets now, too. Due to the younger ferret’s body being geared for growth, juvenile lymphosarcoma is often fatal because the disease spreads quickly in the freshly growing cells. In older ferrets it usually develops more slowly and may tend to go unnoticed until it presents itself as swollen glands, an enlarged spleen, rapid or steady weight loss, difficulty breathing, poor appetite or chronic diarrhea. A ferret with lymphosarcoma may have one or more of these symptoms, but these symptoms by themselves are not totally indicative of the disease. Other diseases, such as the flu, may present themselves in the same manner. A complete blood count (CBC) and a lymph node or bone marrow biopsy are usually recommended to confirm the diagnosis., An X-ray or EKG may be helpful in finding cancer in the chest. Research is being done to determine the cause of this cancer. Many veterinarians and researchers suspect that it may be viral in origin, but if it is, it is not thought to be highly contagious as many ferrets have been raised together without the disease spreading. A hereditary susceptibility is also being investigated.

Symptoms: Most ferret owners notice the swelling of the lymph glands along the ferret’s neck, under the arms or behind the back legs. These areas may become so swollen that the ferret looks like it has marbles under the skin.

Treatment: Chemotherapy has been successful in treating many cases of lymphosarcoma. Age, advancement of the disease, and other health problems factor into the criteria of whether a ferret would be a good candidate for chemotherapy. Homeopathic vitamin therapy is also being tried by some veterinarians. If the disease is advanced and the animal is suffering, euthanasia is generally recommended. Prevention: Currently none. If a hereditary susceptibility is found, then ferrets with this predisposition should be kept away from ferrets known to have the disease already. If a virus is isolated, then work can begin on making a vaccine to protect ferrets from catching this disease.

SKIN TUMORS

Some ferrets seem to be more prone to skin tumors than others. The most common are sebaceous gland adenomas and mast cell tumors.

Symptoms: Sebaceous gland adenomas and mast cell tumors generally present themselves as raised lumps under or on the surface of the skin. Some may look like warts or raised scabs on the skin.

Treatment: While most skin tumors are benign, removal is recommended, especially if the tumors are irritated, bleeding, or rough in texture.

Prevention: None.

If you have any questions about this information, please contact your veterinarian.