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Ferrets

Ferrets are in the family of animals called mustelids. They are carnivores (meat eaters) and have been domesticated for over 2000 years. There are over 8 million ferrets in the United States, making them very popular pets. They are curious and playful and can be quite entertaining. Ferrets have an average lifespan of 6-8 years but may occasionally live as long as 12 years. Click on the headers below for more information!

Ferret Nutrition

Ferrets require a diet high in protein and fat and low in fiber. Pet ferrets should be fed high quality ferret food. Several good commercial brands are available. Dry food is generally preferable to wet food to lessen the build-up of tartar on their teeth. Sugary treats like raisins, fruit, or yogurt drops should be avoided. Treats such as small amounts of cold cuts or bits of cheese are fine for ferrets.

Common Diseases and Problems

General Concerns

  • Ferrets chew and burrow. Always supervise them when they’re free in the house.
  • Ferrets are escape artists and will kill small birds and rodents. Watch them carefully around other small pets.
  • Ferrets do not tolerate hot weather, as they have poorly developed sweat glands. They overheat easily.
  • Ferrets are generally considered middle-aged after 3 years. This is the age when many of the commonly encountered medical problems begin in ferrets. Thus, regular check-ups after age 3 are particularly important.

Insulinoma

This is the most common ferret disease in pets over 3 years of age. An insulinoma is a tumor of the pancreas that produces excessive amounts of insulin.

High insulin levels lead to low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) that manifests itself in ferrets as lethargy, hind limb weakness, salivation, and seizures. Insulinomas in ferrets are diagnosed by physical examination findings and blood test results showing low blood sugar with a high insulin level. Insulinomas can be treated with medication or removed surgically.

Adrenal Gland Disease

Almost 90% of pet ferrets in the United States ultimately develop adrenal disease, most commonly after 3 years of age. Ferrets have 2 adrenal glands—left and right—sitting in their abdomens near their kidneys. With adrenal disease, a tumor develops in one or both adrenal glands causing an overproduction of steroid hormones. Ferrets with adrenal disease will often lose hair diffusely over the body or sometimes only initially on the tail. Some ferrets are itchy, especially over the shoulders. Other ferrets are itchy without hair loss, and some have no hair loss at all. Male ferrets with adrenal disease often have enlarged prostate glands leading to difficulty urinating, while female ferrets with adrenal disease often have enlarged vulvas. Eventually both males and females with untreated adrenal gland tumors will suffer from bone marrow suppression and anemia as a result of the tumor’s overproduction of steroid hormones.

Adrenal disease in ferrets is diagnosed by physical examination findings, results of abdominal ultrasound showing the enlarged glands, and blood testing to measure steroid hormone levels. While surgical removal of the affected gland(s) is generally the only way to remove the tumor(s), many ferrets that undergo surgical removal of diseased adrenal glands need to be given additional monthly post-operative hormone shots (Lupron) or longer term hormone implants (Deslorelin) to prevent recurrence of disease in the remaining adrenal gland. These hormones and implants don’t take away the tumor but suppress the negative skin, hair, and bone marrow effects that the tumors can cause. Many ferrets treated with hormone shots and implants can live a long time with good quality lives. Hormone treatment may be a preferred option in ferrets that are older or at too great a risk for surgery.

Lymphoma

Lymphoma is a common tumor in ferrets that may cause swollen lymph nodes in the neck, shoulders, and hind legs, or enlargement of the liver, spleen, or other internal organs.

Ferrets as young as 10 months may be affected. Diagnosis is generally made through a combination of blood test results and biopsy of affected organs. In some cases, surgery and/or chemotherapy may be attempted to treat this disease.

Heart Disease

Dilated cardiomyopathy is a disease in which dilation of the heart’s chambers affects the heart’s ability to contract properly. Dilated cardiomyopathy is common in middle-aged to older ferrets.

Affected ferrets are often weak, lose weight, and breathe rapidly. Rarely will a ferret with heart disease cough. Diagnosis is by physical examination findings and results of x-rays and ultrasound examination. Medication may be helpful if the disease is treated early.

Gastrointestinal Disease

Gastrointestinal (GI) disease is common in ferrets of all ages. Ferrets (especially young ones) commonly ingest foreign objects leading to obstruction of the passage of food through the gastrointestinal system. Unlike cats and dogs, ferrets with GI obstruction usually do not vomit.

Affected pets may lose weight, have diarrhea, be weak, and grind their teeth. Diagnosis is by physical examination findings and x-rays. Ferrets seem especially attracted to sponges and pieces of rubber (especially from sneakers and ear plugs). Gastrointestinal obstruction by hairballs also can occur, generally in older ferrets. Thus, brushing ferrets hair is essential to try to prevent this.

Helicobacter is a bacteria that can cause gastrointestinal inflammation and ulcer development. Ferrets affected by helicobacter may have diarrhea, weight loss, lethargy, and bloody stools.

Coccidia are parasites that cause diarrhea in young ferrets. Coccidia are diagnosed from microscopic examination of stool and are treated with anti-parasitic medications.

Epizootic Catarrhal Enteritis (ECE), or “green slime diarrhea,” is a viral infection that is more common in older ferrets, many of whom have been recently exposed to younger ferrets that can carry this disease without any signs. These older ferrets develop slimy green diarrhea that can last for months to ultimately be replaced by semi-formed, seedy-like stool. Treatment involves supportive fluids and feeding. Because of this, it is important to keep new ferrets separate from older ferrets for a minimum of 3-4 weeks.

Enlarged Spleen

About 90% of pet ferrets have enlarged spleens. This finding is more common in older ferrets and is usually an insignificant condition involving the body’s manufacture of red blood cells.

Occasionally, spleen enlargement signifies cancer of the spleen. If there is cancer in the spleen, or if the spleen is so large that it makes the ferret uncomfortable, surgery may be necessary to remove it. Diagnosis of disease in the spleen is by physical examination and findings from needle aspiration, biopsy, or ultrasound.

Dental Disease

Tartar accumulation and inflammation of the gums are common in ferrets. Any ferret that has inflamed gums, tartar build-up, or foul odor from the mouth should be examined for dental disease and may benefit from teeth cleaning. Affected teeth can be painful, and bacteria on teeth can spread to other areas of the body, including the heart, leading to more serious medical problems.

Influenza

Ferrets can contract “the flu,” caused by influenza virus, from affected human beings. Signs of the flu in ferrets are similar to those in people: lethargy, sneezing, coughing, fever, and decreased appetite. Diagnosis is based on physical examination findings, a history of exposure to infected people, and an exclusion of other diseases as possible causes. Treatment is as in people: rest, fluids, assisted feeding if the ferret isn’t eating well, and antihistamines, if necessary.

 

Recommended Veterinary Care

Yearly physical examination:

  1. Dental examination
  2. Weight determination and nail trim
  3. Review of diet

Vaccination:

  1. Distemper virus: starting at 6-8 weeks of age, boosters at 10-12 weeks and at 14-16 weeks, then annually
  2. Rabies: at 4 months of age, then annually

Laboratory testing:

  1. Young ferrets under 1 year: fecal parasite check, ear mite check
  2. Mature ferrets at 3-4 years: complete blood count (CBC), chemistry profile, blood sugar and fecal parasite checks
  3. Middle-aged to older ferrets (over 3 years): twice-yearly weight measurements and blood sugar checks, annual CBC, chemistry profile, and fecal parasite checks

Signs of Illness

  • Decreased appetite
  • Diarrhea or straining to defecate/urinate
  • Increased sleeping
  • Weakness and/or glazed eyes
  • Salivation, pawing at the mouth
  • Hair loss
  • Weight loss
  • Itchiness
  • Personality change
  • Odor changes

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