Canine Distemper Virus Shuts Down Ferret Shelter

The Greater Chicago Ferret Association’s shelter went into quarantine in late August due to an outbreak of canine distemper virus.

ferret in arms of vet
© Gina Cioli/I-5 Studio
Prevention is the best treatment for canine distemper virus in ferrets.

You might not guess it by the name, but canine distemper virus is contagious to ferrets, and it usually causes a painful, prolonged death. At the end of August 2013, the Greater Chicago Ferret Association announced that it is dealing with an outbreak of this disease at its shelter, which is a converted office space. Once the disease was confirmed, the shelter separated ferrets showing signs of illness from those that were not, and it went into quarantine. Its volunteers started the fight to save the ferrets.

More than 70 ferrets were in the shelter at the time of the outbreak. To date, the GCFA reports that almost 30 have died, but volunteers were “cautiously optimistic for the over 40 ferrets we have who are not showing signs of distemper.”

The GCFA expects to remain in quarantine through December 2013 and possibly into January 2014.

Dr. Karen Rosenthal, dean of the School of Veterinary Medicine at St. Matthew’s University, paints a picture of how deadly canine distemper (CDV) is for ferrets. “CDV is a fatal disease in over 99 percent of the ferrets that get it.”

The cost in ferret lives has been heartbreaking. And the medical bills for the aggressive treatment plan used on the exposed ferrets have already exceeded $5,000. The shelter seeks donations of money and supplies. Supplies include hair covers, shoe covers, nonlatex-gloves, masks, bleach and paper towels.

Steve Malec, president and foster manager at GCFA  said all ferrets at the shelter were given a distemper booster vaccination on September 12. Additional treatment includes GI medications when needed and a Vitamin A regimen. He added that interferon treatments are scheduled for this week.

Malec believes the battle has only begun. “There are still ferrets fighting for their lives and volunteers needed to care for them,” he said. “Since we have ceased all adoptions and intakes, we now have no income to depend on. What adds to the fear of no income, and is even more troubling, is that since we can no longer take in ferrets for the time being, and we average approximately 8 to 12 rescues/intakes a month, what will be the fate for all these ferrets? I personally have nightmares about that very subject.”

In addition to the care of the ferrets in quarantine at the shelter, the GCFA is also financially responsible for the medical care of approximately 30 ferrets that are fostered in private homes.

People and organizations have stepped forward with donations, including the Xavier: A Ferret Abroad Fund and the Ferret Association of Connecticut, but more help is needed.

The shelter’s biggest annual fundraiser is only weeks away, a ferret show called the Greatest Ferret Show On Earth. It takes place on October 12 at the Odeum Expo Hall in Villa Park, Illinois. This is the 25th anniversary of the show.

For people who are considering attending, the show committee addressed canine distemper concerns by stating that the venue for the show is a 30-minute drive from the shelter, no ferrets from the shelter attend the show and no volunteer who has been at the shelter within the previous 12 hours or the day of the show will attend the show. There has also been a change regarding canine distemper vaccination or titer results for any ferret brought to the show. Further details are at the show website.

While the battle still rages for the lives of the remaining ferrets, the mystery of how the distemper arrived at the shelter might be solved. Malec said the source appears to be two ferrets taken in from a local cat and dog shelter, which was done many times before. The first ferret’s initial signs of illness sent it to the veterinarian. The diagnosis was an unknown rash, and it was returned to the shelter.

“Our hospital listed several possible reasons for the rash,” Malec said. “The distemper virus was one of them. The ferret was returned to our shelter for further care, having been tentatively diagnosed with allergies or an immune disorder. Two days later one of our volunteers found this ferret non-responsive in the cage. On the way to the vet, the ferret died. The vet performed a necropsy exam and saved tissue from that exam, which was later sent out and used for confirmation of the virus.”

Malec said the cagemate of the ferret died several days later. “At that point our animal hospital strongly advised that it more than likely was the deadly canine distemper virus. We took immediate steps to stop all incoming ferrets and adoptions and start notification to appropriate parties; the shelter was subsequently quarantined and remains quarantined to date.”

Malec said he and the GCFA consider this a personal tragedy. “History has taught us that only the foolish would not review all policies and procedures to ensure that everything is being done to ensure the ferrets are getting the best care and treatment possible. So since this event is still unfolding we are still taking notes to compare as part of a full review before we reopen our shelter.

The GCFA has rescued 7,123 ferrets since it first opened. Malec said previous to the quarantine, the shelter took in 188 ferrets in 2013, adopted out 105 and fostered 43. In 2012, it took in 296 ferrets, adopted out 228 and fostered 68. More than 30 volunteers keep the shelter running to help ferrets every day of the year.

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