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 5 - 7 years, but may occasionally live as long as 12 years.
In the wild, ferrets are predators requiring a diet high in protein and fat and low in fiber. Pet ferrets may be fed dry kitten or ferret food. Dry food is generally preferable to wet food to lessen build-up of tartar on their teeth. Sugary treats like raisins, fruit, or yogurt drops should be avoided.
Common Diseases and Problems:
Ferrets chew and burrow. Always supervise them when they are 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 easily overheat.
Ferrets are generally considered middle aged after 3 years of age. This is the age when many of the commonly encountered medical problems begin in ferrets. Thus, regular check-ups by your veterinarian are especially important beginning at age 3 years.
This is a common ferret disease in pets over the age of 3 years. 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 two adrenal glands - a left and a 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 may develop enlarged prostate glands leading to difficulty urinating. Female ferrets with adrenal disease often have enlarged vulvas.
Adrenal disease in ferrets is diagnosed by physical examination findings and results of abdominal ultrasound. Surgical removal of the adrenal gland(s) affected by the tumor(s) is generally the only way to remove the tumor; however, in some ferrets who are at too great a risk for surgery, hormonal therapy may be tried to control the itchiness, hair loss, and urinary tract effects.
Lymphoma is a common tumor in ferrets that may cause swollen lymph nodes in the neck, shoulder, 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.
Dilated cardiomyopathy is a disease in which the dilation of the heart affects the heart's ability to contract properly. Dilated cardiomyopathy is common in middle-aged and 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 (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 don't vomit.
Affected pets may lose weight, have diarrhea, be weak, and grind their teeth. Diagnosis is by physical examination and x-rays. Ferrets seem especially attracted to sponges and pieces of rubber (especially sneakers). Gastrointestinal obstruction by hairballs also can occur, generally in older ferrets.
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 is a parasite that causes diarrhea in young ferrets. 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 who 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. Because of this, it is important to keep new ferrets separate from older pets for a minimum of 3 to 4 weeks.
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 of needle aspiration, biopsy, or ultrasound.
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 a professional teeth cleaning.
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 affected people, and 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.
Signs of Illness
~ Decreased of loss of appetite
~ Diarrhea or straining to defecate or urinate
~ Increased sleeping
~ Weakness +/- glazed eyes
~ Salivation, pawing at mouth
~ Hair loss
~ Personality change
~ Odor changes
American Ferret Association (1-888-ferret) www.ferret.org
Ferret Central www.ferretcentral.org
Oxbow Hay www.oxbowhay.com
For more information regarding our Exotic Medicine services, Ferret Medicine and Boarding, please click on these links.
This article is not a replacement for a veterinary consultation.
If you have any questions or concerns regarding your pet's health, please contact us for an appointment.