Adrenal gland disease has become the most common problem in pet ferrets. Adrenal gland disease in ferrets is very different than the adrenal disease that people and dogs develop. In ferrets, the adrenal glands overproduce the sex hormones (estrogen and progesterone) and the androgens (andro and DHEA). The sex hormones and androgens cause the common signs of the disease such as hair loss (“the bald ferret”), vulvar enlargement in females, itchy skin, return of sexual behavior, aggressive behavior, and a noticeable increase in musky odor. Additional signs of adrenal disease include prostatic problems in males, mammary gland hyperplasia, mammary gland cancer, anemia, lethargy and muscle loss.
Normally, ferrets shed their coats in the spring and again in the fall. Oftentimes when a ferret with adrenal gland disease sheds, it does not grow a new coat. Baldness is usually the sign that most owners notice. Thus, in the spring and again in the fall I have a lot of ferret clients bring their ferrets in to be examined for excessive hair loss. Adrenal gland disease is almost always the cause of the hair loss.
A recent ferret adrenal case had a very large vulva that did not respond to medical treatment. Surgery was performed to remove the adrenal gland that was overproducing the hormones. The left adrenal gland is typically easy to get to and easy to remove; however, the right adrenal gland is located under a lobe of the liver and attached to the largest vein in the ferret’s body (the vena cava), which makes it hard to get to and sometimes extremely hard to remove. Fortunately, this ferret had an abnormal left adrenal gland that was removed in a routine manner. Unfortunately, this sweet little ferret also had a second cancer (hemangiosarcoma) involving her liver. This type of cancer is almost always fatal even with chemotherapy treatment.