Veterinarian Jerry Murray answers 16 of the most frequently asked questions about ferret health.
Ferrets owners often ask questions about the care of their ferrets. Over the years the questions have remained the same, but some of the answers have changed as a result of research and new information on ferret medicine and surgery. Here is a list of commonly asked health questions and answers. Please note that it is always best to talk to your veterinarian if your ferret has a medical problem or if you have any questions on the proper care for your ferret.
1. Why is my ferret going bald?
Hair loss is very common in ferrets. Ferrets normally shed their winter coat in the spring and grow their new summer coat. Likewise, they shed their summer coat in the fall and grow their new winter coat.
Excessive hair loss is also a very common sign of adrenal gland disease. Adrenal gland disease is the most common problem in adult ferrets. In addition to hair loss, ferrets with adrenal gland disease often have other signs, such as an increase in musky odor, itchy skin and return of sexual behavior; they may even become nippy. Female ferrets with adrenal gland disease often have a swollen vulva, and males may have difficulty urinating due to an enlarged prostate.
Most ferret-knowledgeable veterinarians can do a physical exam and determine the cause of hair loss.
If the cause is adrenal gland disease, then your ferret will need surgical and/or medical treatment. Surgery to remove the diseased adrenal gland may sound easy, but it can be quite difficult to remove all of the right adrenal gland because of its location right next to a major blood vessel, the vena cava. Medical treatment can include Lupron injections, Suprelorin implants and/or melatonin. Your veterinarian can help you decide what treatment options are best for your pet. There are also some options to prevent adrenal gland disease, such as a yearly Suprelorin implant or the adrenal (GnRH) vaccine.
2. Why is my ferret so weak in the rear legs?
Weakness in the rear legs is common in older ferrets. Many different things can cause this problem, but insulinoma is the most common reason for hind leg weakness.
Insulinoma is a cancer of the pancreas that overproduces insulin. Too much insulin causes the blood glucose (sugar) level to become abnormally low. The low blood glucose causes the ferret to become weak, especially in the rear legs.
Other signs of insulinoma can include lethargy, pawing at the mouth, increased salivation, mental dullness, staring blankly into the distance, seizures, cataracts and death. Insulinoma is an easy disease to diagnose. Your veterinarian can perform a simple blood glucose test to check the blood glucose level. A below-normal glucose level confirms the disease.
Insulinomas can be treated with surgery and/or medications. In general surgery provides a slightly better outcome, but medications such as prednisolone and diazoxide can control the blood glucose level, too. Chemotherapy with doxorubicin or streptozocin is another option. In addition, a high-protein diet can help control the glucose level and may even help to prevent an insulinoma in the first place. Carbohydrates tend to make the disease worse, and carbohydrates may be what cause an insulinoma to form.
3. What is this lump under my ferret’s jaw?
The most likely cause of a lump under the jaw is an enlarged lymph node. Several things can cause a lymph node to be enlarged, such as infections from the gums or from the ears; however, the most common cause is cancer.
Lymphoma is a common cancer in ferrets, and it can cause the lymph nodes, spleen and liver to be enlarged. Several different treatment options are available for ferrets with lymphoma. One option is to treat the ferret with just a liquid prednisolone orally. Another easy option is to use the liquid prednisolone with an oral cyclophosphamide suspension. More aggressive chemotherapy with multiple injectable drugs is another option.
Unfortunately, lymphoma is typically a progressive disease that gets worse with time and eventually becomes fatal.
4. What is this bump on my ferret’s skin?
Ferrets are prone to two types of skin tumors. The first is called a mast cell tumor. It is usually small in size. Typically these are flat, hairless and itchy. Some will have a black scab covering the mast cell tumor. Oddly enough, some owners report mast cell tumors as disappearing and then reappearing over time.
The other common skin tumor is a sebaceous epithelioma. These are large, raised and ugly tumors.
Despite their appearance, both of these tumors are benign and surgical removal is curative.
Uncommon skin tumors, such as cutaneous lymphoma and fibrosarcomas, are malignant, so all skin tumors should be removed to be on the safe side.
5. How do I get rid of fleas?
This is a common problem for dogs and cats and sometimes even for ferrets. Fortunately, most of the newer cat flea products such as Frontline, Advantage and Revolution are also safe and effective with ferrets. Check with your ferret-knowledgeable veterinarian for proper dosage and instructions on use.
If fleas are in your home, you must treat all of the animals in the household (dogs, cats and ferrets). Severe infestations may require an additional yard and house treatment.
6. How do I get rid of ear mites?
Ear mites are common in young ferrets and are easy to spread from one ferret to another. Ear mites cause an increase in earwax and sometimes the ears are itchy, especially if the ears are cleaned.
Many different products successfully treat ear mites. The newer topical products, such as Revolution or Advantage Multi, are simple to use and work well. Ear mite medications that you put inside the ear, such as Milbemite and Acarexx, also work well. Ivermectin or milbemycin can be used orally or ivermectin can be given by injection. Older ear mite products that contain pyrethrin can still be used, but they have to be used daily for three weeks in a row. Again, check with your veterinarian before treatment to get information on proper dosage and instructions on use.
Ear mites can cause serious problems if they rupture the eardrum and cause an inner ear infection, so treat all ferrets with ear mites.
© Gina Cioli/I-5 Studio
Ear mites are common and easily spread between ferrets, but they are also easy to treat.
7. Can ferrets get heartworms like dogs do?
Yes, ferrets can and do get heartworms. Ferrets can get heartworms from mosquito bites, just like dogs and cats do. Unfortunately ferrets have such a small heart that it can be deadly if only two heartworms are present.
Preventing heartworms is easy with the newer topical products, such as Revolution or Advantage Multi, or with oral medications, such as Heartgard, Interceptor or ivermectin. There are even injectable options, such as ProHeart 6 and ivermectin. Consult your veterinarian to determine the best option for your ferret.
I advise any ferret owner to have their ferret on a heartworm preventive if they live in an area with canine heartworms.
8. Can I give the flu to my ferret?
Yes, ferrets can get the same flu that people do. Ferrets are very susceptible to the human influenza virus, so you have to be careful around your ferret if you have the flu.
Ferrets with the flu typically have mild signs like anorexia, fever, sneezing and nasal discharge. Nasal congestion and malaise are also common signs.
Supportive care with fluids, antibiotics and soft foods is usually enough to get an otherwise healthy ferret over the flu. In some cases, anti-influenza medications like Tamiflu may be needed. Interestingly, a ferret with the flu can also pass the flu to another ferret or to a person.
9. Can I feed cat food to my ferret?
No, ferrets need a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet. Most of the ferret foods and only a few of the kitten foods have enough of the protein that ferrets require, but cat foods do not have enough protein for a ferret. Dog foods have even less protein and will cause serious problems if fed to a ferret.
In general, feed a ferret food with a protein level of 40 percent or higher. A low level of carbohydrates is also crucial.
10. Does my ferret need any vaccines?
Yes, there are two approved vaccines for use in ferrets. Canine distemper is an almost-always fatal disease in ferrets. Fortunately, a vaccine is available to protect your ferret from canine distemper. For a young kit, it is recommended to vaccinate against distemper at 8, 11 and 14 weeks of age. A yearly booster is recommended after that.
The second approved vaccine is for rabies. Even though it is unlikely for an indoor pet ferret to be exposed to rabies, vaccination is important in case your ferret ever nips someone. In some areas, a rabies vaccination is required by law. If a ferret is current on his rabies vaccination, then most animal control officials will allow a routine quarantine similar to a dog or cat if a bite occurs. If a ferret is not current on his rabies vaccination, then he may be put to sleep and tested for rabies if a bite occurs.
11. Why is my ferret grinding his teeth?
Teeth grinding is an indication of abdominal pain. Several conditions can cause abdominal pain, but the most common cause is a stomach ulcer.
Almost all ferrets have the bacterium Helicobacter mustelae in their stomach, and Helicobacter can cause stomach ulcers in stressed ferrets. Stomach ulcers can be treated with an antacid (like Tagamet, Pepcid or Prilosec), Carafate (the ulcer band-aid), and a combination of the antibiotics amoxicillin and Biaxin. Only rarely do ulcers perforate.
If your ferret does any teeth grinding, then it is time to see your ferret-savvy veterinarian for proper treatment.
12. How can I control the odor?
Some people do not like the slight musky odor that is normal for a ferret. Here are a few tips for limiting odors associated with ferrets. Ferrets can be bathed with a mild, oatmeal-based pet shampoo to control body odor.
Perhaps more important is frequently washing the ferret’s cage and litter boxes. Use an enzyme-based deodorizer like Nature’s Miracle or Outright to help remove the odors. All the bedding, sleep sacks and hammocks should be washed weekly. Adding an enzyme-based laundry booster (like Nature’s Miracle) to the washer helps remove the odors from the fabric. Using a plug-in air freshener in the ferret’s room will also help control odors.
Your ferret should not smell bad, so take your ferret to your veterinarian if he does.
13. Does my ferret need his teeth cleaned?
Yes, ferrets need dental cleaning and polishing just like dogs, cats and people do! As ferrets age it is common for tartar to build up on their teeth. This can lead to gum disease, loose teeth and even teeth falling out. Your ferret vet can check your ferret’s teeth and clean them as needed. Ferret owners should brush their pet’s teeth at least once a week with a pet toothpaste to reduce tartar buildup.
14. My ferret ate something odd, what should I do?
Young ferrets are prone to eating things they should not eat like fabric, carpet, foamy things and toys. This can cause a real emergency, so if your pet eats such an item, bring your ferret to your veterinarian. Depending on what was ingested and how the ferret is doing, your vet may recommend trying to pass the object with a laxative or doing surgery to remove the foreign body.
15. Can my ferret get parvo from a dog?
Ferrets cannot get parvo from a dog; however, there is a parvovirus that can infect ferrets and mink. This parvo is called Aleutian disease. Your ferret-knowledgeable vet can do a blood test to check for Aleutian disease.
16. Can ferrets develop hairballs like cats?
Yes, ferrets can get hairballs. Ferrets that are shedding or have adrenal gland disease are at high risk for hairballs. Always use a hairball medication when your ferret sheds in the spring and fall. Likewise, if your ferret is losing hair due to adrenal gland disease, a hairball product may be needed until treatment stops the hair loss.
Excerpt from the former annual magazine Ferrets USA, 2011 issue, with permission from its publisher, I-5 Publishing, LLC.
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