Q: We have a male ferret that is about 4 years old. About a month ago we found him in his cage in the middle of the night limp and drooling and his paws seemed very cold. We wrapped him in a blanket and tried to make him comfortable. He would not eat or drink or even lift his head; then, miraculously, a couple of hours later he got up and started walking around like nothing ever happened and was eating and drinking fine. Since then this has occurred three more times, but not as severely. He starts to drool, becomes very limp and seems like he is blind. The episode usually lasts for 10 to 20 minutes. The last time this happened we fed him small pieces of chicken and a few drops of watered-down honey, and he immediately got up and moved around. We have had several ferrets but never had any with this problem. Could he be diabetic? If so what, if any, help can you give us? We live in a small town and cannot find a veterinarian who is knowledgeable about ferrets. Our ferret has never had surgery or any other medical conditions. This is the first time he has been ill.
A: What you are describing is a very typical episode in ferrets that have an untreated insulinoma. This disease causes the blood sugar to be very low. The disease comes on very slowly, and a ferret becomes habituated to the low blood sugar until one day, he can no longer compensate and he shows signs of hypoglycemia. Signs include weakness, sometimes profound, drooling, and even appearing like they cannot see.
Early on with this insulinoma, ferrets respond when they are given some nutrition. But as the disease progresses, ferrets need more than food to come back from a hypoglycemic episode. Most ferrets are treated medically with steroids for this disease and they can have an excellent quality of life on this medication. We also recommend surgery to remove the diseased areas of the pancreas.
Of course, the problem afflicting your ferret may not be an insulinoma but some other disease. Other causes of episodic weakness include heart disease, liver disease, renal disease, seizures, ingestion of toxins and muscular diseases. Even though insulinoma is the most common cause of the signs you describe, your veterinarian will need to run some basic tests to rule out those other diseases.
Unfortunately, there are still many veterinarians who are not well-versed in ferret medicine, and this can be difficult for ferret owners when they try to find a veterinarian to help their ferret. In a situation such as this, I recommend that you find a local veterinarian who is willing to consult with a veterinarian who is an expert in ferret medicine. There are various ways your veterinarian can contact these experts. In these situations, you have the benefit of working with your hometown veterinarian but the knowledge of the expert veterinarian.