By Karen Rosenthal, DVM, MS
I have a 4-year-old jill ferret who has muscle loss and weakness in her back legs. She is being treated for an infection with antibiotics, but this does not appear to be helping with her mobility. She has sensation in her feet and has extremely limited movement but is constantly wobbling over. When lifted by the scruff she is holding her legs up to her abdomen. She has no loss of appetite and drinks regularly. She is bright and alert. The vet says there is no evidence of trauma to her back or legs, and although we have researched we cannot find anything to match her symptoms. Two years ago her brother was put to sleep after suffering similar symptoms. He had no movement whatsoever in his back end, and after two weeks of antibiotics and water therapy to try encourage him to use his legs, he appeared to lose the will to live. We live in the UK and are on a low income, but I hope you may have information that could point our vet in the right direction. Unfortunately we do not have a ferret-friendly vet anywhere near us because ours ceased practicing a few months ago. Do you have any idea what this may be? She has a mother, two sisters and a half sister in our group. We are hoping this is not something genetic or contagious, because we have a total of nine ferrets.
I am sorry to hear about your ferret. Rear leg weakness is a very, very common sign in ferrets and is called a “non-specific sign of illness” in a ferret. Why is it called that? Because rear leg weakness does not point to a specific cause of the problem. For example, if a ferret’s skin has taken on a yellow hue, we know that can only happen due to live disease so that makes it a specific sign of liver disease.
Whenever ferrets become weak, feel sick or become anorexic, the first signs owners may see are a ferret who does not want to use his rear legs. In the United States, the first disease we consider in a ferret over the age of 3 that has weakness in the rear legs is insulinoma disease, as those ferrets have such a low blood sugar that they are too weak to move properly. But ferrets with neurologic disease, liver disease, kidney disease, gastrointestinal disease, just to name a few systems, can all look like you describe your ferret.
The best way to start your pathway to the correct diagnosis is to have a veterinarian do some basic tests like a complete blood count, blood sugar concentration, urine analysis, and sometimes whole body radiographs (X-rays).
If you do not have a veterinarian in your area who is familiar with ferrets, my suggestion would be to find a veterinarian you are comfortable with and then ask that veterinarian if he or she would be willing to consult with a veterinarian who has an expertise in ferrets. Twenty years ago, that would have been very difficult. But today, there are many avenues veterinarians use to consult with colleagues on cases, so it should not be difficult to find someone to help your veterinarian.