Q: My ferret is almost 6 years old. About three months ago he just stopped playing. I was gone for about 10 days and left him in good hands, but since I’ve been back he just doesn’t want to play anymore. We used to run the hallway, fight the stuffed bears, and he jumped on the blanket for a ride. He would nip at my ankle to get me to play. I took him to the veterinarian for a checkup and everything was OK, so they said. He has seemed to lose some of his appetite and some of his hair around his head and under his chest, but not a lot. He eats a ferret-specific, dry food, and I give him some FerreTone two times a day, in the morning and at dinner. (He also sneaks some dry cat food when he can!) I put that on some dry food and sometimes he will eat everything, but not like he used to. He doesn’t seem to have lost a lot of weight. Also, now he licks me all the time. I mean it’s almost obsessive how he licks my face, arm, ear, whatever he can get to. Is this a normal part of aging or should I go back to the vet?
A: You mentioned that you went to your veterinarian to have your ferret examined. Did your vet do any blood work on your ferret at that time? At 6 years of age, your ferret is a senior citizen (the average life span of a ferret is 5 to 7 years). Your ferret should have a complete blood workup done, including a CBC and blood chemistry panel.
Although I am not a veterinarian, based on your description I believe there is a good chance that your ferret has insulinomas, which are small tumors of the beta cells of the pancreas that make a ferret’s blood sugar drop. Low blood sugar can cause your ferret to be less energetic. If your ferret’s blood work indicates that he has insulinoma, there are medications that he can be given to control the condition.
Another thing to check for is the formation of a hairball. If your ferret is losing his hair, he could be ingesting it as he grooms himself. This can cause loss of appetite and make him not feel well, too. If your vet is very experienced with ferrets, he may be able to palpate (feel) a hairball in your ferret’s stomach if it has formed there, but he may also need to take an X-ray of your ferret to be sure. If the hairball is big enough, then it will need to be surgically removed.
Another thing to address is the cause of your ferret’s hair loss. There’s a slight chance that it could be from an allergic reaction to something in your ferret sitter’s house, but most likely it is being caused by an adrenal tumor. These are tumors of the adrenal gland that can cause hair loss. They are very common in older ferrets. Most ferrets with adrenal gland disease start with hair loss by the tail and progressively lose hair up their backs. A few start with hair loss on the head and chest. Gently pull on some of his hair on the top of his head or on his back near his tail. If it pulls out easily and there is no new hair growth visible underneath, then your little friend probably has adrenal disease.
Please don’t view this information as the end of the line for your little guy. If he has any of the problems that I mentioned, they are all treatable and you ferret can still have a lot of time left to share with you. Talk to your veterinarian as soon as possible and he or she can help you work out a treatment plan, which may or may not include surgery (in the case of a large hairball, surgery is a must). If you don’t feel that your current vet is up to the task, then find another veterinarian who is more experienced with treating ferrets.