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Considerations in Emergency Ferret Medicine

By Mary Van Dahm

Considerations in Emergency Ferret Medicine -- By Mary Van Dahm

I recently attended a GCFA club meeting at which Dr. Chris Vitale of Dundee Animal Hospital gave a talk on what to do if your ferret has a medical emergency. Here are some highlights from his very interesting speech.

There has been a dramatic rise in the popularity of ferrets in the United States over the last 10 years. This rise in popularity has driven an increase in the knowledge base for the veterinary community. This is fortunate, because along with this increase in popularity has come an increase in the number of ferret emergencies that are presented to veterinary hospitals.

In the early stages of ferret medicine, the rule of thumb was that they were little cats’; many of the diseases that ferrets are subject to are similar to many feline diseases. Advancing knowledge has updated many of these notions, and we now can view medicine and surgery of the ferret independently from other domestic species.

Handling emergencies is a multi-step process that begins long before your pet is ever sick. Use the following as a guide to prepare for emergencies both before and after they occur in your ferret.

Have an Emergency Plan

The most overlooked part of emergency care of any animal (human, canine, feline, or mustelid) is planning for an emergency. We are all familiar with fire drills; it is not unreasonable to at least think about a ‘ferret drill’. Knowing what to do in the face of an emergency is critical in gaining a successful outcome; it will allow you to remain calm, which is one of the most important things you must do.

The first thing to consider is where you can take your ferret for emergency care. Despite the fact that ferret medicine has advanced considerably, not all animal hospitals see ferrets. Because there are only a limited number of emergency clinics, the difficulty in finding a veterinarian to help you on an emergency basis can be considerable. Locating a suitable facility when your ferret is healthy is a good idea; ask your veterinarian if they recommend any hospital in the area, or call around. The time you take now could save your pet’s life.

Once you know where you are going to go, be sure you know how to get there. [Write directions down, including the phone number of the emergency hospital.] Trying to remember directions during a crisis will get you only two things: lost and frustrated.

After determining where to go and how to get there, have a plan in place on how to transport your pet. Wrapping your pet in a towel and dashing off to the vet is not the best choice. A well-padded carrier is a must. Don’t worry about not being able to see or hear your pet – you need to drive. You don’t need a portable condo, either. Just something to get the pet safely to the hospital.

Be sure to bring along any ongoing medications that your pet is on as well. Longstanding medications from your regular veterinarian can interact with any additional medication needed; the emergency staff will need to know the drug and dosage.

Prepare for any other special needs you have as well. If you don’t have a car, have the phone number of family or friends that can help you handy.

Prevention of the Problem

Many clients ask me, “What is the best way to handle a given emergency?” The answer is to NEVER LET IT HAPPEN. Naturally, some problems are out of your control. There are many things that you can do, however. It is very important to know your pet. Is he a chewer? Does she cliff dive off the stairs? Escape artist? Bully? All the things that make a ferret endearing can put them in harm’s way. Your job is to make sure that they can’t hurt themselves.

We all have routines we use to make sure we can control our pet’s environment – refine them. Don’t give any ferret full house liberty if you have small swallowable objects on the floor, exposed electrical cords, open railings on the stairs, frayed carpeting, D.Con, etc. Be especially cautious about recliners and rocking chairs – many ferrets (as well as dogs and cats) have lost tails, limbs, and lives to these.

All ferrets like to explore; some also chew, bite, fight, climb (and fall), etc. Don’t let your pet be a victim of it’s own behavior and poor environment control.

Assessing an Emergency

So you have a plan in place for emergencies and you have thought of every possible thing your ferret could injure herself on (quite a list, you will find). But tonight, Trixie just doesn’t look right. How do you know if this is a true emergency?

Good question. Many problems can present in the same fashion. The difference between a plain stomach ache and a gastrointestinal obstruction may be subtle on the outside, but very different inside.

Assessment of an emergency is an art that many people (hopefully) don’t have to master. Some things are always considered an emergency.

If you see any of the following, call your veterinarian immediately:

  • Non-responsivness
  • Difficulty Breathing
  • Severe Acute Pain
  • Open Wounds or Active Bleeding
  • Unproductive Urination
  • Seizures or Convulsions

If you are lucky enough to not see these things, then the hard part begins.

Accurate evaluation starts with your understanding of your pet. Changes in your pet’s routine or activity can be important. If you know Rambo like the back of your hand, and you know that he doesn’t refuse his 9 PM treat, and he just did, you have used your knowledge of your pet to begin assessment.

The next step is to collect information. What information? ALL OF IT. If it pertains to the animal in question, it is relevant. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Did he/she eat today/tonight?
  • When was the last urination?
  • When was the last defecation?
  • Has there been any vomiting?
  • Has there been any diarrhea?
  • What has his/her activity level been like?
  • Has there been any evidence of pain?
  • Has there been anything else out of the ordinary lately?

Your ability to answer these questions will help both you and your doctor determine to cause of the problems your ferret is having.

The rule of thumb we use at our facility is if you think it is an emergency, then we think it is an emergency. Don’t get caught up in the details; if you are concerned and you want to have your pet evaluated, bring it in. This is important to consider. If you call an animal hospital, there’s no way for them to accurately tell you if your pet is critically ill; only an exam can do that. It is always best to error on the side of caution; if you are in doubt, have the pet examined.

Home Care

After looking over your ferret and deciding that you do not have to have him evaluated immediately, you then may ask what can you do at home for him. Deciding what (if anything) you can do at home can be difficult, mainly because you probably don’t know what is wrong. Because of this, we do not routinely recommend any therapy at home unless we are familiar with the patient. This is done because sometimes doing the wrong thing is worse than doing nothing. Many medications that humans take freely can be damaging or even toxic to ferrets; bandaging wounds only allows the ferret to enjoy a gastrointestinal foreign body as well as a laceration.

Be sure to have all of the necessary equipment in one place on hand. The list of materials you should have in the home include the following:

  • Gauze Squares
  • Q-Tips
  • Corn or Pancake Syrup
  • Eyedropper
  • Laxatone or Other Hairball Remover
  • Nutri-Cal Feeding Supplement
  • Small, separate, transportable cage [or carrier], complete with water, food, towels etc. (This is used to either quarantine a sick ferret from others in the house or for transporting the ferret to the hospital.)
  • Bottle of Saline or Eyewash

There are some things that can be done that have minimal negative side effects. Be sure to attempt these only after consulting with a local veterinary hospital.

In the instance of a very weak ferret, try offering a small amount of pancake syrup orally. Give only drops at a time; a diminished swallow response may cause your ferret to drown in syrup. The theory here is that a weak ferret may have a very low blood glucose level; the syrup helps to correct that.

If you have active bleeding, apply direct pressure. This is the safest way to minimize blood loss. Active bleeding can cause significant problems in a short amount of time, especially if you only weigh 2 pounds. After holding the area for 5 minutes (NO PEEKING), release pressure and evaluate. If the bleeding resumes, apply pressure again and call the hospital back.

If your ferret will be at home for the night but going into your regular veterinarian in the morning, keep that ferret secluded from others in a warm environment with their own litter box. Do not supply food or water if vomiting is present unless ordered by your hospital. Blood glucose may be maintained temporarily with small amounts of pancake syrup if necessary in the vomiting ferret.

Seeking Emergency Care

(What to expect at an emergency facility).

OK, you found a problem, decided to take your little one in, followed your plan well, packed appropriately, brought any pertinent drugs and information, and you are at the emergency room. NOW what happens?

Emergency rooms will see patients in order of medical need, not in order of appearance. This is normal. If you need to wait, it is only because another pet is having worse problems than yours. Be patient, and wait.

The hospital will gather your personal information (name, address, telephone number) as well as information on your ferret. Sometimes a technician will do a preliminary exam before the doctor comes in. This is normal.

After the doctor has a chance to evaluate your pet, he or she will either give you a diagnosis right there (rarely) or recommend necessary diagnostic tests. In the emergency setting, it is not uncommon to perform complete biochemistry panels, radiographs (x-rays), cell counts, or urinanalysis prior to initiating a treatment regimen. This is normal. You always have the right to refuse these tests, but it could diminish the doctor’s ability to diagnose and ultimately treat your ferret’s problem.

Severe emergencies often require inpatient care. Be prepared to leave your ferret at the hospital if it is in his or her best interest.

Finally… A Word About Cost

Emergency care is expensive. Many emergency facilities will require payment in full when services are delivered or a significant deposit if the pet is hospitalized. If you are treated as an outpatient, costs can be from $100 to beyond $400. If your ferret is hospitalized, be prepared for a total cost from $250 to beyond $1000, depending on the nature of the illness. Many procedures cost more on ferrets due to their size, need for specialized equipment, and need for sedation to work on them.

Feel free to question what is being done and what the costs are, but know that quality medicine is not inexpensive. Specific emergencies and health issues of the ferret.

Common Ferret Illneses and Emergencies

  • Heart Disease (DCM) – Most common in middle age to older ferrets. Signs of disease at home include lethargy, reluctance to eat, weight loss, difficulty breathing. Treatment is directed to simultaneously improve pulmonary function and cardiac function. Prognosis is poor long term.
  • Gastrointestinal Foreign Body – Foreign objects are most common in the young ferret, hair balls in the older ferret. Vomiting is often seen, but not always. Signs can be mild (intermittent nausea) to life-threatening (coma, shock, death). Very rarely do ferrets pass foreign objects unassisted. Usual treatment includes surgical removal of the obstruction.
  • E.C.E. – Epizootic Catarrhal Enteritis (Green Slime Disease) A highly infectious disease of the gastrointestinal tract often leading to a large amount of green mucus-type diarrhea. Usually seen in ferrets that are new in the house or have recently been housed with other unknown ferrets. Treatment is to use aggressive supportive care (IV fluids, nutritional support, etc.) as the ferret must beat the virus in its own.
  • Urethral Obstruction – Most common in male ferrets. Often seen in conjunction with prostatic enlargement due to adrenal gland disease; also can be due to urinary stones, infections, etc. Initial treatment is to relieve the obstruction with a urinary catheter. Further treatment includes fluid replacement, correction of electrolyte imbalances, and treatment of infection. If adrenal disease is the cause, this must be addressed for a successful outcome.
  • lnsulinoma / Hypoglycemia – Signs at home include a profound weakness and lethargy, possibly seizures. The cause is usually a tumor of the pancreas that secretes the hormone insulin. High insulin levels will tend to depress blood sugar levels to the point of collapse and coma. Immediate treatment is directed toward stabilizing blood sugar levels and providing blood pressure support if necessary. Long-term care requires treatment of the underlying cause. Routinely, patients with insulinoma are treated with corticosteroids (prednisone) as a chemotherapy protocol.
  • Heat Stroke and Heat Exhaustion – Ferrets are susceptible to extremes in temperature. High environmental temperature is very dangerous to ferrets. Usually it is the old and sick that are worse off, but any can be affected. Ferrets do not have an efficient method to remove excess body heat. If you see your ferret panting heavily in the absence of excessive activity, be concerned about high body temperature, and move the pet to a cool location. If necessary, cool the ferret’s body temperature with cool water, not cold water (cold water could easily plunge the temperature too low too quickly) and call the hospital.
  • Human Influenza Virus – Ferrets have been shown to be able to contract human flu. While not a specific emergency, if you or another member of the house is sick with the flu, you should handle your ferrets (especially the very young, old, or sick) minimally, if at all. Have another member of the house care for the critter while you recuperate. If you must, be sure to follow strict sanitation procedures (wash hands and equipment well, no rubbinq eyes, noses, etc.).
[intlink id=”fair”]This article originally appeared in the November/December 1999 issue of "The F.A.I.R. Report"[/intlink]