Ferrets

Ferret Care

Ferrets are in the family of animals called mustelids, which means they have a musky aroma. They are carnivores (meat eaters) and have been domesticated for over 2000 years. They are very curious, playful and can be quite entertaining. Ferrets have an average lifespan of 5-7 years, but may occasionally live as long as 12 years.

Ferret in fish!

Wellness Info

Post-Purchase Exam: Physical Exam, Fecal Analysis, Rabies Vaccine, Distemper Vaccine, Microchipping

6 Month Exam: Physical Exam

Annual Exam: Physical Exam, Fecal Analysis, CBC/Chemistries, Rabies Vaccine, Distemper Vaccine

Geriatric Exam: Physical Exam, Fecal Analysis, CBC/Chemistries, Radiographs, Ultrasound

Emergencies

If your ferret is exhibiting any of the symptoms described below, contact us immediately at 843-216-8387.

Diarrhea, vomiting, pawing at the mouth (may indicate nausea due to dangerously low blood sugar), frequent trips to litter box with little or no urine production, tense abdomen, depression, lack of appetite.

If your ferret is not eating, you can try hand- or syringe-feeding warm chicken or beef baby food to support your pet. If your ferret seems weak or disoriented, you can rub some Karo syrup or honey on his gums prior to attempting to feed until you are able to get to our clinic. It is important that we examine your ferret as soon as possible to correct the underlying condition.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cychCkTAkB0 – How to Syringe Feed Your Ferret

Services

Wellness Exams, Vaccination, Grooming, Boarding, Microchipping, Diagnostics, Behavioral Consultation, Hormonal Suppression

Vaccination

There are 2 vaccines available for ferrets (distemper vaccine and rabies vaccine) and we recommend only using specific vaccine types. South Carolina state law requires a yearly rabies vaccine (Rabies Control Act, Section 47-5-50). If your ferret is not up to date and bites someone he or she will be quarantined for at least ten days to monitor for signs of rabies. Vaccine reactions are very common in ferrets and can be life threatening, so it is important that your veterinarian have experience with and knowledge of ferrets.

Boarding

In order for your ferret to board with us, we require an exam within the last year with a clean bill of health. A fecal test with no parasites seen is also required. Your ferret must also have had rabies and distemper vaccinations within the last year. Your ferret can have no changes in health since the last examination. If your pet’s examination was done by a different veterinarian, it needs to have been within the last six months and your pet’s complete record needs to be sent to our facility several days before boarding so we can evaluate the record to ensure all testing was done to our standards.

Common Diseases/Conditions

“Adreno-Cortical Disease” (Adrenal Tumors)

alopecia, severe pruritis-eut
This ferret is suffering with signs of “Adrenal Disease”; if diagnosed and treated early in the disease process it may be fully reversed, if caught later it can be managed with medicine and/or surgery.

Adreno-cortical disease is very common disease in ferrets over 2 years of age. It is either hyperplasia (overactivity) or neoplasia (cancer) of the adrenal glands, which are located by the kidneys. These glands are part of the endocrine or hormone producing system of the body. For unknown reasons in ferrets the adrenal glands become diseased and not only can enlarge and cause pressure on surrounding tissues, such as the kidney and vena cava, but also produce excessive amounts of androgens or sex hormones. This overproduction of hormones results in a variety of signs including loss of hair, increased body odor, enlargement of the vulva and/or mammary glands in spayed females, return of the mating or aggressive urge in neutered males, dry brittle hair coat and itchy skin. In addition, some males can develop an enlargement of the prostate gland, which constricts urinary outflow. These ferrets have difficulty urinating and eventually may not be able to urinate at all; this is a medical emergency. The treatment for adrenal disease is usually a combination of surgery to remove a portion or all of the adrenal glands and medical therapy, which may include Lupron injections or Deslorelin implants.

In an effort to offer more options for treatment, we carry deslorelin 4.7mg implants (Suprelorin) to help relieve some of the symptoms of adrenal disease. The implant is placed with your pet under sedation subcutaneously (under the skin) between the shoulder blades by our veterinarian. Due to its sustained slow release action, this implant is effective in ferrets for a period of 6 months or up to several years depending on the severity of the disease process. The great advantage of deslorelin implants over Lupron injections is the effective duration which is much longer than the monthly injections of Lupron. During your veterinary consultation, all options for treatment of adrenal disease will be discussed and the treatment selected to best suit your and your pet’s needs. The implant does not cure adrenal disease or cause the gland size to shrink. Presently, surgical removal of the adrenal tumor still remains the only curative treatment for adrenal disease.

Below is an intra-operative picture of a ferret after his adrenal gland was removed.

Ferret right adrenalectomystage 1

doppler
Ultrasound Doppler Image of an enlarged right adrenal gland (RAG) in a ferret next to the Caudal Vena Cava (blue), here you can appreciate its proximity to the vein and how important is to know prior to attempting surgical removal.

R post adrenalectomy
Intra-operative picture of a ferret after adrenalectomy (adrenal gland removal).

Heartworm Disease

Heartworms are transmitted by mosquitoes, and the likelihood of a ferret contracting them is much higher than dogs and cats. Clinical signs are similar to those in the dog, but often progress much more rapidly, so early diagnosis is extremely important. Clinical signs include dyspnea (trouble breathing), tachypnea (rapid breathing), anorexia (decreased appetite), pulmonary rales (harsh lung sounds), a heart murmur, ascites (fluid in the abdomen), coughing, fluid in the thoracic cavity, and sometimes sudden death. Many cases of “unexplained” sudden death in ferrets are heartworm-related.

Heartworm

Above is a heart of a ferret with 2 adult heartworms; it only takes one parasite to cause death in a ferret.

Diagnosis of heartworm disease in ferrets can be tricky since there are no ferret-specific tests. In our experience using a combination of several different tests gives the highest probability of finding the disease. Of course we don’t routinely run all these tests but they are valuable tools that are necessary in some cases. Because treatment is generally unrewarding, it vital to keep your ferret on a heartworm preventative year-round. With this particular disease we say: “An ounce of prevention is the ONLY cure.”

Influenza

Humans cans transmit “the flu” (caused by influenza virus) to ferrets. 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 individuals, and exclusion of other diseases as possible causes. Treatment is primarily supportive.

Dental Disease

Ferrets are very prone to tartar accumulation and inflammation of the gums. 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 can spread to other organs of the body including the heart, leading to more serious medical problems.

Gastrointestinal Disease

Gastrointestinal concerns are some of the most frequent issues we see in ferrets. Vomiting, diarrhea, decreased appetite, and weight loss are some of the most common clinical signs. Bacteria, parasites, viruses and/or cancer are amongst some of the culprits. If not diagnosed and treated early gastrointestinal issues can become life threatening conditions.

Gastrointestinal Foreign Bodies

Foreign body ingestion is very common in younger ferrets who swallow items such as rubber, plastic, foam, etc. Hairball obstruction and impaction can also occur in ferrets that lick and chew themselves a lot. Below is an intra-operative picture of a ferret undergoing an enterotomy (surgery of the intestines) to remove hairballs, which caused an obstruction that did not respond to medical therapy.

ferret fb removal

Heart Disease

Several forms of heart disease can be found in ferrets. Cardiomyopathy, acquired valvular disease and heart blocks are among the most common. Heart disease is typically seen 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, EKG, and ultrasound examination. Medications may be helpful if the disease is treated early.

ekg
Here is an M-mode echocardiogram of a ferret with a 3rd degree AV block. This means that his atrium is not communicating effectively with his ventricle.

The Scary “C” Word

Cancer is quite prevalent in ferrets: Adrenal Gland Tumors, Insulin Secreting Tumors (Insulinomas), Lymphoma/Lymphosarcoma, Prepucial Adenocarcinomas, Chondromas and several forms of skin cancer are among the most common. Just like in humans, the sooner we make a diagnosis, the better that the prognosis can be. Unfortunately, cancer can occur at any age and both genders are equally affected. Cancer is one of the “great pretenders” since it can appear as anything from a small nodule in the skin to difficulty urinating to occasional vomiting or diarrhea to pronounced breathing just to mention a few. Some forms can be cured by simply removing the nodule/tumor or affected tissue. It is imperative that a biopsy is done and interpreted by a pathologist that is well versed with ferrets to get a definite diagnosis.

Chemotherapy is the use of injectable or oral drugs to treat cancer or to reduce the risks of certain cancers from spreading once they have been removed. It is very different than in humans since most ferrets don’t get as sick as humans do. Those that experience side effects may show decreased appetite and vomiting. Those with more advanced cases might become sicker but most of the time is due to the disease process and not the medications. Some ferrets may lose whiskers and other may lose some hair.

In a recent scientific study it was estimated that 50-70% of ferrets over the age of 3 will develop adrenal cancer, insulinoma or both. That is 2 out of 3 ferrets! Remember that the primary goal of cancer treatment is to provide quality of life both during and after the treatment. If you have any concerns about your ferret being ill please bring it to our attention as soon as possible. This is another reason that biannual physical exams are so important, as small changes can be noted and illness caught in its early stages.

Insulin Secreting Tumor (Insulinoma)

Insulinomas are tumors of the pancreas, benign or malignant, resulting in excessive production of insulin, which leads to hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). Clinical signs can vary from an obtunded seizuring ferret to one with no clinical signs. Ferrets can adapt well to chronic hypoglycemia and do not usually show acute signs or seizures. Many ferrets present with simple lethargy or weak rear limbs. Hypersalivation and mouth pawing are often observed for unknown reasons. Treatment options can be medical, surgical, and also chemotherapy can be used early in the disease process. Below is an intra-operative picture of ferret undergoing surgery to remove the tumor and part of the pancreas.

insulinoma 3

Medical therapy is designed to reduce development of hypoglycemia and will have no effect on tumor growth at all. Medical therapy alone results in the shortest “disease-free interval” and the shortest survival times. Oral prednisolone is the medication of choice for non-critical patients. Diazoxide (Proglycem) is usually added to prednisone therapy when patients become refractory. Anorexia in an insulinoma patient can be fatal, so owners need to be vigilant in monitoring their pet’s appetite. Nutritional therapy is important regardless of the primary therapeutic regimen. Ferrets are obligate carnivores, have a very short digestive tract, a rapid transit time and don’t handle carbohydrates as well. Balanced ferret diets are high in protein and fat and low in fiber and digestible carbohydrates. Ferrets with insulinomas should not get treats with high carbohydrate content (e.g. raisins, corn syrup, hairball laxatives, or Nutrical®) unless they are in need of emergency stabilization for a crisis. Treats may be best limited to raw or lightly cooked organ meat like liver or raw meat, or an occasional frozen mouse is a great treat. Fatty acid supplements are acceptable treats/supplements as well.

Chemotherapy can also be tried for ferrets diagnosed early with insulinoma. The protocol typically involves four sessions, administered at three-week intervals, but may be altered depending on the needs of the individual patient. Chemotherapy is most successful in ferrets that have recent onset of mild symptoms, and in those with no symptoms that have been diagnosed by routine blood glucose monitoring.

Prior to beginning chemotherapy, a complete physical examination, and blood work including complete blood count (CBC) and blood glucose are required. Doxorubicin, the medication that is routinely used, can sometimes cause mild to moderate immune system suppression, so the CBC is re-evaluated before each appointment. Doxorubicin should not be used in patients with heart problems, so chest x-rays and/or electrocardiogram (ECG) are required to help evaluate the health of the heart. Each session requires a brief anesthesia and placement of an IV catheter. This is important because doxorubicin causes severe tissue irritation if any drug is injected in the muscle or under the skin. An injection of an antihistamine is given to help prevent any reactions to the medication. Ferrets usually do not experience hair loss, and typically do not experience nausea or diarrhea. While gastrointestinal upset, discolored urine and heart problems are potential side effects of this drug, most of our patients experience no adverse effects. While individual responses vary, most of our patients experience an increase in blood glucose levels, increased energy and improved quality of life.

A few special precautions are necessary after chemotherapy. Your pet should be kept separated from other animals for 2-3 days following each treatment. You should wear gloves when cleaning the litter pan for 2-3 days. If any side effects are noted, or you have any questions or concerns, you should call us immediately.

Please contact us if you have any questions, or would like to set up an appointment for chemotherapy. Ferrets receiving chemotherapy need to be hospitalized the day before their treatment so that all laboratory testing may be completed. If your pet is taking any medications, please bring them with you for your appointment.

Surgical therapy is designed to gain a definitive diagnosis while removing as much tumor tissue as possible. Surgical therapy carries a longer disease-free interval and survival than medical therapy alone. The best surgical therapy for insulinoma involves nodule removal and partial pancreatectomy. One study comparing medical therapy alone with nodulectomy, and nodulectomy/pancreatectomy demonstrated increased disease free interval and survival in those cases receiving pancreatectomy. Owner’s willingness to be aggressive or desire to be conservative is a large factor influencing the therapy chosen. Insulinoma is a disease that will likely progress despite the best efforts of the veterinarian.

Reports of ‘disease-free’ intervals and survival times after treatment vary according to the method chosen. No treatments are considered curative. While only the adenocarcinomas metastasize (most commonly to the liver, regional pancreatic nodes and spleen and never to the lungs), all insulinomas behave like a malignant tumor, since complete removal of all affected beta cells is generally not possible. Most ferrets with this disease will eventually be euthanized or die because of uncontrollable hypoglycemia within 2 years of initial treatment. Some ferrets and some treatments show better outcomes, but clients should be aware that no matter what the treatment method, survival is limited with this disease.

Patients receiving chronic prednisolone therapy should be monitored more aggressively. Fasted glucose measurement (1-3 hour fast depending on history) should be obtained at least quarterly. Complete blood cell counts, serum chemistries, and urinalysis should be performed at least once or twice a year to look for adverse effects of corticosteroids and concurrent disease. Ferrets receiving diazoxide should be monitored quarterly for increased liver enzymes and azotemia. Urinalysis should also be performed.

Secondary diabetes mellitus is a rare complication but one that should be considered. If your ferret is having a hypoglycemic crisis the owner should administer Nutrical ®, corn syrup or honey by mouth. In patients that do not seem to respond to a few drops of liquids with licking their lips and swallowing, it may be possible to simply rub a diluted corn syrup solution on their gums. The patient should then be transported to our office as soon as possible. Once conscious, the ferret should be offered protein-rich, high fat food (Hills diet a/d®, meat baby food, Oxbow’s carnivore care, or the ferret’s favorite meat treat) and encouraged to eat small, frequent meals.

Lymphoma (Cancer)

This is one of the most commonly diagnosed diseases in the domestic ferret. It can be challenging because it can involve any organ system and can present with a myriad of different clinical signs. Juvenile or “young ferret” lymphoma is often associated with respiratory distress secondary to thymic enlargement usually under 3 years of age. “Adult onset” lymphoma is seen in ferrets over 3 years. Affected animals often show non-specific signs of illness, diarrhea, and peripheral lymphadenopathy, which can be very difficult to distinguish from normal fat deposition.

Diagnostics should include hematology, serum biochemistry, radiography, and ultrasonography. Definitive diagnosis relies upon histopathology of affected organ tissue or lymph node biopsy. Chemotherapy is indicated in most cases. At this point, no conclusive information exists to indicate that any one treatment is superior for the majority of cases, and controlled studies are lacking.

ferret splenectomy
A ferret undergoing a splenectomy (removal of the spleen) that had lymphoma and was followed by chemotherapy. Remember that splenic enlargement is very common in the ferret and in most cases is not a reason for removal.

Choosing a Pet

TYPE PROS CONS

Ferret

Very interactive and playful, can be litter trained, have been spayed / neutered before they are sold Have a distinct musky aroma, enjoy lounging in their litterboxes, escape artists
FYI: Very prone to adrenal disease and insulinoma, prone to foreign object ingestion, very prone to heartworm disease