New Ferret In Pair Stops Eating And Is Listless

Ferrets stop eating and become listless for many reasons, including stress and illness.

two ferrets sleeping
Courtesy of Lisa Schuster 
These ferrets are healthy, but ferrets can pass illnesses like ECE between each other.

Q. I have just adopted a ferret from a family who said he was very playful and sweet, and they got him very young. I guess so young that they shouldn’t have had him yet. Anyway, he is a Marshall male ferret, and he is 2 years old, going to be 3 in December of this year. I just got him a week ago. I also have a male Marshall ferret that I purchased from a store. He was 3 months old when I bought him. I have had him for about a month. I adopted the new one to keep him company. Well, the new one hisses at Ari and bites his back and shakes his head back and forth. Ari will go jumping back over by the new one like he wants to play. That situation has gotten a little better, but now the new one has stopped eating and he will get on my bed and go to sleep. He doesn’t play at all. I’m wondering if you think he is depressed being away from his old family? They were all he knew. He is out of the cage for hours when I’m home, and I have not changed his food. It’s the same food they had him on. I was wondering if maybe you think he could have worms? Compared to my ferret Ari, the new one is older and so much smaller in size and weight. He is very skinny. Any help on his behavior would be great. 

A. It is cause for concern any time a ferret stops eating. I tell people that ferrets are so small that, for them, not eating for a day or two is like you not eating for a week — dangerous!
I personally have never seen a ferret become depressed about losing his family. You have him out a lot and his home life now could be a big improvement. However, ferrets are very susceptible to stress. And the older the ferret, the more stressed they will be moving to a new environment, especially for a ferret who has lived alone and must now adjust to living with another.
It’s good that the hissing and biting has improved, but his weight and loss of appetite are worrisome. We know ferrets can catch and pass human flu viruses, but epizootic catarrhal enteritis (ECE) is always a possibility, and a week would be just about the time that he would start showing symptoms if he caught it from your baby ferret. 

It might not even be “classic” ECE. It’s my suspicion that ferrets have all sorts of little viruses they can pass between each other, and that could be what happened. Such minor illnesses, worsened by stress, often equal upset tummies, diarrhea and anorexia. The big problem with a ferret refusing food is the ulcers that can form in his mouth or digestive tract. Ulcers make it uncomfortable to eat, so he eats even less, and you get a vicious spiral going that can lead to serious illness or death.

I’ve never seen worms in a ferret, but if he has them you can’t cure them yourself. While you might help improve his weight by making him supplemental food or possibly transitioning him to a high-quality diet, the best advice is to consult a veterinarian. He may need antibiotics, and the vet can prescribe those as well as other medications, depending on his symptoms. An experienced vet can give him an overall physical and may be able to verify his age. 
Over the past 24 years of operating a ferret shelter, I’ve learned to view information provided by former owners skeptically. Unless they passed along the original purchase paperwork, you don’t really know how old this little fellow is. Sometimes, people just forget how long they’ve had an animal, and often have no idea it is sick. Other times, because they are looking to give away their pet they have incentive to paint his age and health in a better light than may be entirely true.
Once his physical health is up to speed, you should see his behavior improve also. Good luck! 
Article Categories:
Critters · Ferrets