When an animal spreads a disease to a person it is called a zoonotic disease. Most pets are capable of spreading some diseases to their owners, and ferrets are no exception. There are actually several diseases that ferrets are able to give to their owners. Most of these diseases are quite mild, and most of them are completely avoidable.
The first disease most people think about when it comes to an animal transmitting a disease to a person is rabies. Rabies is a fatal viral infection for animals and people. Most mammals, including ferrets, are capable of contracting rabies if exposed to a rabid animal such as a raccoon, skunk or fox. Thus, it is possible for a pet ferret to actually get rabies, and it is possible for it to pass this terrible disease to a person with a bite or through the saliva. Ferrets are less likely to pass the rabies virus in their saliva than most mammals (including dogs and cats); however, they are able to pass the raccoon strain of rabies in their saliva. Fortunately, there is a rabies vaccine (Imrab-3) that is approved for ferrets, so you can prevent your ferret from contracting the disease with a simple vaccination. In addition, most pet ferrets are kept indoors and have very little risk of ever being exposed to a rabid animal. Fortunately there have been no known cases of a ferret passing rabies to a person.
While it is extremely unlikely for a ferret bite to spread rabies to a person, it is possible to spread a bacterial infection. Bacteria that are normally in the ferret’s mouth, such as Pasteurella and Corynebacterium, can be transmitted by a bite. This is uncommon, because ferrets do not normally bite people. These bacterial infections can be treated with antibiotics.
It is flu season, and the human flu is a disease that ferrets are susceptible to and can spread to people. Ferrets are susceptible to both human influenza type A and type B viruses. Typically, a person with the flu exposes a ferret to the influenza virus. Then the ferret becomes sick with the flu. Ferrets will have the normal signs of the flu, such as runny nose, runny eyes, lethargy, anorexia, mild fever and sneezing. The sick ferret is contagious and able to spread the influenza virus to other ferrets and to people.
Ringworm is a fungal infection of the skin that is common in kittens and cats. Ferrets can also be infected with ringworm if exposed to it. This happens sometimes in pet stores, shelters or when there are kittens or cats in the same household as the ferret. The infected kitten, cat or ferret is able to spread the fungal infection to people. Bedding, hammocks and blankets that come in contact with the infected pet can also spread ringworm to people. Ringworm is a very itchy infection for people, but it is easy to treat and cure.
Sarcoptic mange is another skin problem that ferrets occasionally end up with. Ferrets can be exposed to this type of mange from puppies, dogs or other animals with sarcoptic mites. It will cause a very intensive itch in the ferret, and these mites are contagious to other animals and to people. It is easy to treat ferrets with this skin condition. Sarcoptic mange in people is also extremely itchy, but it can be treated and cured.
Fleas are also a problem for pet ferrets. Ferrets usually get infested from a dog or cat in the household that brings fleas into the house. Once the fleas come into the house, the ferret may become infested. People can be exposed to the fleas when playing with the infested pets. In addition to annoying flea bites, fleas can also spread diseases such as plague and cat scratch fever to people. Fleas are easy to treat on ferrets, dogs and cats. In severe infestations, the house and yard will need to be treated along with the pets.
Ticks are another parasite that ferrets can pick up. Ferrets that are allowed to play outside or with dogs or cats may be exposed to ticks. Ticks can carry a lot of diseases that can be transmitted to people. Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Tularemia, Heartland virus and Babesia are some of the more serious diseases that a person could get from a tick. Ticks are easy to treat on ferrets, dogs and cats. In people, most of the tick diseases – but not all of them – can be treated with antibiotics, so it is important to quickly treat any pet with ticks to prevent any disease transmission to people.
Salmonella And E. Coli
Ferrets can also transmit diseases through their feces. Salmonella and E. coli are two bacterial diseases that could be spread to humans from the feces. Ferrets that are fed raw meat (especially chicken) or raw eggs are at a high risk of becoming infected with salmonella or E. coli. The raw food can also contaminate their food bowls, cage and litter box with bacteria. A person could get exposed to these two agents by handling the raw food, food bowl, cage or litter box. I encourage feeding high protein supplements like meat and eggs, but I recommend cooking the meat or eggs before feeding it to the ferret. The cooking process should prevent any infection to the ferret or a person.
Another potential bacterial infection is from Helicobacter. Helicobacter mustelae is a very common bacterium in the stomachs of ferrets, and it can be passed in their feces. Helicobacter pylori is the most common bacterial infection in people, and it is associated with causing stomach ulcers in people. It has been recently shown that some of the animal forms of Helicobacter (dog, cats, cattle and pigs) may be able to cause stomach infections and ulcers in humans, too. Fortunately, H. mustelae has not been isolated from humans yet, but it is always a good thing to thoroughly wash your hands after cleaning litter boxes and handing feces to further reduce the chance of acquiring a ferret Helicobacter infection.
Giardia And Cryptosporidium
In addition to bacterial infections, feces may also spread protozoan infections like Giardia and cryptosporidium. Giardia, which causes a diarrheal disease, is a rare infection in pet ferrets. It is possible for humans to acquire a Giardia infection from an infected ferret. Cryptosporidium is another rare infection in ferrets, but it may be possible to spread from a sick ferret to a person. One possible viral infection that might be present in a ferret’s feces is the Hepatitis E virus. Some animal Hepatitis E virus strains (pig and deer) can infect humans, but no human cases have been linked to ferrets. These potential fecal pathogens can be prevented with good hygiene and thorough hand washing, especially after handling litter boxes and fecal material.
Acquiring a zoonotic disease from a pet ferret would be rather rare. Most of these diseases are mild and easy to treat. Most are also easy to prevent with vaccination or good hygiene and thorough hand washing. It is also important to talk to your doctor and veterinarian about zoonotic diseases if you or anyone in the house is immune-compromised (chemotherapy, AIDS, transplant recipient, etc.). Some extra precautions may be needed in those special situations.