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Ferrets and Lyme Disease

By Mary Van Dahm

Ferrets and Lyme Disease -- By Mary Van Dahm

We received a request to reprint an article about a ferret that we treated about 6 years ago for a tick-related disease symptomatic of Lyme disease. Unfortunately, since we didn’t save the information on a disc, and since our hard drive crashed on our old computer, the original article is lost.

Here is a brief history of the ferret, what symptoms it had and the treatment given: The ferret, a little stray female about one year old, was loaded with ticks. We pulled off all visible ticks and gave her a flea and tick bath in case there were any small ones that we had missed.

The next day when we took her to the vet, he found a few more ticks and he removed them. The check up was otherwise uneventful and the ferret was declared healthy.

Being a stray, we held the ferret for 7 days, just in case the original owner might be looking for her. No one claimed her so we finally put her up for adoption. A woman came to look at her and decided to adopt her, but asked us to hold her for one more day because she wanted to do some ferret proofing before she took the ferret home. Ironically, this delay probably saved the ferret’s life, as the next day she was very unsteady on her feet, so we postponed her adoption until we could find out what was wrong. Within a few of days she could not stand up at all. We took her in for blood work, but nothing out of the ordinary showed up.

The paralysis continued to spread and we had to force her to urinate and relieve herself. We also had to hand feed her because she could not hold herself up to eat her food. She had a fever of almost 105 degrees. I finally noticed some discoloration around some of the tick bites and remembered my sister-in-law had similar markings when she had developed Lyme disease. I called our vet right away and asked him if ferrets were susceptible to this disease and he said he had never heard of a ferret having it. I persuaded him to find out the protocol for Lyme disease in other animals and calculate it for ferrets. Treatment included doses of tetracycline, amoxycillin, and prednisone.

After a few days of treatment she seemed to be doing better. She was even holding her head up a little bit on her own. By the fifth day, she was trying to stand up, but was still very wobbly. After ten days she was almost her normal self. I don’t remember if we stopped treatment after 14 days or if we continued for 21 days to be on the safe side. Shortly after 28 days we put her back up for adoption (The lady who had originally wanted her decided to take a different ferret in the meantime). She was finally adopted by one of our members and lived out a normal ferret life.

We never did send blood to a lab to confirm if it actually was Lyme disease. The reason for this was that the test was quite a bit more expensive than the treatment and by the time the results came back she would either have been dead or have started responding to the treatment. Luckily our gamble paid off in this case.

We have since heard of three other cases of ferrets having tick related diseases. Two of these cases also started with the paralysis in the hind legs and continued toward the front of the body. These two ferrets also survived the ordeal using the protocol for Lyme disease.

The third ferret’s paralysis started with its front and back legs at the same time. This ferret developed respiratory failure and died. I don’t know if this ferret’s death had to do with the way the disease progressed, if treatment was not started soon enough, or if this ferret had a different disease than the other ferrets did. In each case, no blood work or pathology was done to verify what disease was involved.

An interesting fact that we learned at a later point is that Lyme disease rarely manifests itself if the ticks are removed within 24 hours. It was explained to me by a human physician that the disease is spread, not when the tick initially bites its host, but when it regurgitates fluids to keep the wound open for future meals. Therefore it is important to check your ferrets any time you take them out to a moist grassy area and remove any ticks you find immediately. If you happen to run a shelter or rescue, the same thing applies to stray ferrets that are found with ticks on them. You may also want to hold these animals for 10-14 days prior to releasing them for adoption, since that appears to be the incubation time for this disease in ferrets.

Note: There are several new flea and tick products on the market for use on ferrets, but one of the best products to use if you have a heavy infestation is Frontline Top Spot for cats. This is considered ‘extra label’ use (i.e. the product was not manufactured for ferrets), but it has worked safely and effectively on many ferrets that we know of. We use the smallest dose recommended for kittens and small cats. You can literally watch the ticks fall off of the ferret when this product is used!

[intlink id=”fair”]This article originally appeared in the July/August 1999 issue of "The F.A.I.R. Report".[/intlink]