Ferrets make wonderful pets! They are inquisitive, playful and intelligent creatures that are a joy to watch and care for. Here is a list of 10 important diseases and conditions that can affect pet ferrets:
As ferrets are so inquisitive, they will commonly chew and explore novel items which sometimes results in them ingesting unusual objects! These foreign bodies can become lodged in the stomach and the intestine, which often requires a general anaesthesia and surgery to remove them. Common clinical signs include vomiting, retching, reduced appetite, lethargy and abdominal pain. Be careful what items you put in your ferret’s enclosure and ensure any playtime outside their housing is well supervised to reduce the risk of them eating something they shouldn’t.
Lymphoma is a common type of cancer in ferrets that effects the lymph nodes. Clinical signs include weight loss, loss of appetite, swollen lymph nodes, coughing and breathing difficulties. There are a few different treatment options that can be attempted, depending on how far the cancer has spread by the time of diagnosis. Treatments include surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
Ferrets are similar to humans, in that they have one set of deciduous or baby teeth and then one set of permanent adult teeth. Dental disease is common in older ferrets and, if left untreated, can lead to pain, discomfort and dental infections. It is important to keep an eye on your ferrets’ teeth and providing them with biscuits and whole prey can help to keep their teeth clean.
Insulinoma is a common cancer in ferrets. The cancer develops in the pancreas, and leads to over-production of insulin, resulting in falls in blood sugar. A ferret with an insulinoma will often paw at their mouth and salivate excessively. They can also become weak, wobbly, lose weight and suffer with seizures. The condition can be diagnosed using bloods tests and sometimes an ultrasound scan of the abdomen is performed. Treatment for insulinoma includes surgery and oral medications including steroid tablets. If your ferret is diagnosed with insulinoma, careful management of their diet can also help to control the clinical signs.
Aleutian disease is caused by a type of parvovirus and it affects mink and ferrets. It is caused by a different parvovirus to the one that affects cats and dogs. It is spread between ferrets in air droplets and by direct contact with contaminated faeces, blood, urine and saliva. Common clinical signs include hindlimb weakness, weight loss, black faeces and seizures. The severity of the disease differs between individual ferrets, so some ferrets will have no clinical signs at all whereas others will develop severe disease which can be fatal. There is no cure for Aleutian disease, treatment is purely supportive; however ferrets with mild signs can make a full recovery.
Chordomas are tumours of the bones of the spine and are locally aggressive, destroying the normal vertebral tissue. They are often benign and so will very rarely spread to other parts of the body. In 91% of cases in ferrets, they are found at the tip of the tail, meaning they are easy to remove surgically. They can, however, grow anywhere along the length of the spine and if they grow further in up the spine over the chest and abdomen, there is sadly no possible treatment.
Persistent oestrus / Hyperoestrogenism
Female ferrets will remain in season or ‘on heat’ until they are mated by a male ferret or they are given medications from the vet to stop the reproductive cycle. Females that remain in season for extended lengths of time can become extremely unwell, due to the high levels of oestrogen in their system. The hormone oestrogen suppresses the ferret’s bone marrow, which causes an anaemia and a reduction in platelets and white blood cell numbers. The common clinical signs seen include hair loss, bruising, red marks on the skin, pale gums, an enlarged abdomen and a swollen vulva. If you think your ferret is suffering from a persistent oestrus, it is important to see a vet as soon as possible, as it can be a life-threatening emergency. There are several medications your vet can give your ferret to control your ferret’s reproductive cycles – neutering of ferrets is generally no longer recommended due to the high occurrence of adrenal gland disease following neutering. The most commonly recommended treatment to prevent persistent oestrus is a deslorelin implant.
Distemper is a viral disease that occurs more commonly in working ferrets than pet ferrets. Clinical signs include reduced appetite, discharge from the eyes and nose, breathing difficulties, a red, itchy rash on the chin and thickening of the foot pads. In the final stages of the disease, the ferrets may start to suffer from tremors, excessive salivation, and seizures. The disease is nearly always fatal but can be prevented by vaccinating your ferret.
Ringworm and ectoparasites
Ringworm is a fungal disease that affects the skin of the ferret and, in some cases, can be passed onto humans. Ringworm usually causes hair loss, scaling and broken hairs. It can be treated using antifungal medications, shampoos and washes, although in some cases it may resolve without medication.
Ferrets can also pick up a range of different skin parasites including mites, fleas and ticks. Many of the parasites that are found on ferrets are the same species that can be found on cats and dogs. There are several different treatments that can be given to ferrets to treat parasite infestations and our experienced vets at Vet on the Net can help to advise you on which treatment may be best for your pet.
Adrenal gland disease / hyperadrenocorticism
Adrenal gland disease is a very common problem in ferrets and occurs most commonly in ferrets that have been neutered. The disease causes overproduction of many reproductive hormones, which cause clinical signs including hair loss, weight loss, return of sexual behaviour, a swollen vulva in females and difficulty urinating in male ferrets, due to swelling of the prostate. This is different from hyperadrenocorticism (Cushing’s disease) in dogs, where the stress hormones are affected instead of the reproductive hormones. Your vet may perform a blood test to help diagnose adrenal gland disease. Treatment usually involves placing a deslorelin implant under your ferret’s skin, but surgery may also be an option. It is now generally recommended that ferrets are not routinely neutered because if they are, they are highly likely to develop adrenal gland disease when they get older. Instead of neutering, ferrets are often given a deslorelin implant or males can be vasectomised rather than castrated.
Dr Louise Abuzet BVM&S CertAVP(ECC) CertAVP (ZooMed) BSc(HONS) MRCVS
RCVS Advanced Practitioner in Emergency and Critical Care
10th of December 2020