FERRET HEALTH INFORMATION

DENTAL DISEASE

 

Tartar accumulation and inflammation of the gums are common in ferrets. Any ferret that has inflamed gums, tartar build up, or foul odour from the mouth should be examined for dental disease and may benefit from teeth cleaning.

INFLUENZA

 

Ferrets can contract “the flu,” caused by influenza virus, from affected human beings. Signs of the flu in ferrets are similar to those in people – lethargy, sneezing, coughing, fever, and decreased appetite.

 

Diagnosis is based on physical examination findings, a history of exposure to affected people, and exclusion of other diseases as possible causes. Treatment is as in people – rest, fluids, assisted feeding if the ferret isn’t eating well, and antihistamines if necessary.

OVERHEATING OR 'SWEATS'

 

When hot weather arrives, it is very important to make sure your ferrets do not overheat. Ferret are prone to heat stress, and high temperatures mean that overheating and heatstroke are a serious risk. Every effort should be made to keep your ferrets cage at a safe and comfortable temperature.

 

Some Cooling Methods

 

  • Wash empty plastic bottles (inside and out) and remove labels. Fill nearly to the top with water (leave room for expansion) and freeze. Wrap frozen bottles in a towel and place in the cage. As the water thaws the condensation on the bottle will make the towel cool and damp so your ferret can lay on it if he or she wishes.

 

  • Let your ferrets splash in cool shallow water the tub or a small pool.

 

  • A gentle misting with water can cool down your ferrets.

 

Emergency Cooling

 

If you find your ferret displaying symptoms of overheating:

 

  • Lethargic and lying flat on the floor

 

  • Nose and gums turning a darker shade of pink

 

  • Footpads turning a darker shade of pink or red

 

  • Panting or heavy breathing (heavier than normal)

 

  • Squinted eyes

 

  • Open mouth when resting and possible salivating

 

  • Feels hot and ‘floppy’ when touched or picked up

 

The emergency treatment is necessary as soon as possible.

 

Get your ferret into a cooler location if possible, maybe setting up a fan to help cool their body. Wet towels with cold water and wrap them round your ferret, replacing the towels as they get warm. This will lower the temperature slowly and will not cause your ferret to go into shock from sudden temperature change. When your ferret shows signs of recovery put them in a cool, quiet place with plenty of drinking water in order to completely recover.

 

ALWAYS MAKE SURE THAT YOUR FERRETS HAVE ACCESS TO ADEQUATE FRESH DRINKING WATER AT ALL TIMES.

CAUSES OF HAIR LOSS IN FERRETS

 

Seasonal moulting

 

Photoperiod, the number of hours of light per 24-hour period, affects ferrets dramatically. The most obvious effect is molting. Every spring, the ferret will shed out its fluffy winter coat, and grow a sleeker new one. In the autumn, the summer coat is changed for a winter one. The ferret will lose weight in the spring, and gain it in the autumn, preparing for winter. This response to photoperiod is mediated by melatonin, a hormone produced by the pineal gland in the brain, which affects the hormones released by the pituitary gland. Pituitary hormones have broad effects which include control of estrous cycles in females and testicular development in males. Photoperiod may have an influence on the development of adrenal gland tumours.

 

Hair loss due to moulting is usually gradual, but in the spring, some ferrets shed their whole coat overnight, leaving them with almost no hair for several days. Sometimes the guard hairs (the longer surface hair with the distinctive colour) are shed first, leaving only the woollier, pale yellow undercoat. The hair may come out in patches, giving the ferret a moth-eaten appearance. This is normal, and within days, shiny new guard hair can be seen coming up through the undercoat.

Rat tailed ferrets (tail alopecia)

 

Some ferrets lose most or all of the hair on their tail every summer. This phenomenon, called 'tail alopecia,' is most common in males. The tail begins to look like a rat's tail, with scaly skin, sparse, bristly hair, and blackheads. This is a very unattractive but harmless condition with no known cause. Many nutritional, medical, and dermatological remedies have been tried, and sometimes the hair grows back, with or without treatment. Usually when the ferret changes his coat in the autumn, the tail hair regrows, but he is likely to lose it again the next spring.

ADRENAL DISEASE IN FERRETS - Signs, Diagnosis, and Treatment Options

 

Adrenal disease is a disorder which is probably most common in American ferrets. However it isn’t limited solely to American ferrets and has become a bigger problem around the world in recent years, including here in the UK.

 

The disease is more likely to affect middle-aged to older ferrets and is most commonly recognised with symptoms of hair loss.

How can you recognise if your ferret has Adrenal Disease?

 

If you think your ferret is suffering from Adrenal Disease, there are a few symptoms to watch out for:

 

Hair Loss: This is the most common and most recognised sign to watch out for. Typically this will start around the stump and tail and progress upwards. Sometimes this will become itchy so watch out if you notice your ferret scratching around that area.

 

  • Muscle wasting or lethargy

 

  • Increased aggressive behaviour – even if neutered

 

  • An enlarged vulva in females – as if they are in season

 

  • A pear-shaped appearance

 

Treatment:

 

Surgery used to be the recommended treatment for most ferrets under 5 years of age, however only the left adrenal gland is easily operated on. In 2008 Deslorelin (Suprelorin), a slow-release Gn-RH implant, was licensed for use in the UK for dogs but has been used by vets for ferrets. This, when used on a ferret suffering from Adrenal disease, can cause the adrenal gland size to reduce and physical appearance to improve (hair growth to resume, appetite and body condition to improve, and in the case of females the vulva swelling to disappear within , weeks of the implant). If the gland is not carcinogenic then deslorelin will work very well, however if the gland is cancerous then surgery is the best option. The Deslorelin implant will need to be replaced every 18 months (4.7mg implant) or 3 years (9.4mg) , costs vary between vets. NOTE these replacement periods relate to use for treating adrenal not for neutering,

 

It is now recommended that where it is established only the left adrenal is affected, surgery is undertaken and a Deslorelin implant used in addition to help prevent adrenal in the right hand gland (which does tend to occur within 18 months of surgery). Where the right hand or both adrenal glands (bi-lateral) are affected then surgery is not considered beneficial (there is no point in doing surgery if any tissue is left behind and not only is the right hand gland difficult to access surgically it is also connected to the caudal vena cava, and ferrets do not fair well with both glands removed) so instead the implant is the best form of treatment currently available. If an adrenal adenocarcinoma is present treatment is essential as it can result in the cancer spreading to other parts of the body.

GASTROINTESTINAL DISEASE

 

Gastrointestinal (GI) disease is common in ferrets of all ages. Ferrets (especially young ones) commonly ingest foreign objects leading to obstruction of the passage of food through the gastrointestinal system. Unlike cats and dogs, ferrets with GI obstruction usually don't vomit.

 

Affected pets may lose weight, have diarrhoea, be weak, and grind their teeth. Diagnosis is by physical examination finding and x-rays. Ferrets seem especially attracted to sponges and pieces of rubber. Gastrointestinal obstruction by hairballs also can occur, generally in older ferrets.

 

Helicobacter is a bacteria that can cause gastrointestinal inflammation and ulcer development. Ferrets affected by helicobacter may have diarrhoea, weight loss, lethargy, and bloody stools.

 

Coccidia is a parasite that causes diarrhoea in young ferrets. Epizootic Catarrhal Enteritis (ECE), or "green slime diarrhoea," is a viral infection that is more common in older ferrets, many of whom have been recently exposed to younger ferrets who can carry this disease without any signs.

 

These older ferrets develop slimy green diarrhoea that can last for months to ultimately be replaced by semi-formed, seedy-like stool. Because of this, it is important to keep new ferrets separate from older pets for a minimum of 3-4 weeks.

DISTEMPER IN FERRETS

 

In 2011, in the UK there was a massive outbreak of Canine Distemper Virus (CDV) in ferrets. Ferrets in several locations had to be PTS as a result of CDV. It is a terrible thing for your ferret to suffer and so easily prevented with a simple vaccination.

 

The following information is courtesy of the National Ferret Welfare Society.

 

Symptoms to look out for in order of importance are:

i)

Crusting around the eyes; sensitive to light.  May or may not have discharge AND

Rash – pink with black coloured tip.  Mainly appears in the abdominal area, worsening around the groin.  Can also appear around the eyes and under the chin and, in some cases can been seen all over.

ii)

iii)

Crusting around the nose.  May or may not have discharge.

iv)

 Pads may well swell to double in size as symptoms progress and become 'crusty'.

Symptoms are typically taking between 7 to 21 days to appear and not all ferrets within an infected group develop symptoms at the same time.  There can be several weeks between the first ferret(s) displaying signs of distemper and the last ferret(s), more confusingly, not all ferrets within an infected group show symptoms or appear to develop this illness.

 

Please note that apart from swollen, crusty pads the other symptoms can be a sign of something else, remembering of course that human flu can be passed on to ferrets, BUT if your ferret is displaying these signs then please advise your vet of this before going to the surgery so that they can put their own additional protocols in place. Remember that not all ferrets that die, will die of this illness. As always if you have a ferret that is unwell then please seek veterinary advice.

 

Precautions to take include not mixing your ferrets with other groups of ferrets, refrain from walking ferrets in public areas that dogs and other ferrets have access to, avoid contact with strange and/or unwell ferrets belonging to another person.  This is not exhaustive but hopefully will help you to decide whether or not to do something/go somewhere with your ferret(s).

 

Vaccinating Ferrets

 

Distemper is the only disease ferrets can usefully be vaccinated against in the UK (apart from rabies for travelling abroad).

 

There is no distemper vaccine licensed for use in ferrets in the UK but it is possible to use vaccines licensed for use in dogs under the current UK rules for the use of medicines.

 

The use of unlicensed vaccines means that they have not been fully safety tested in ferrets.

 

If a vet uses an unlicensed product they have to obtain informed consent from the owner of the animal. Some vets ask for this consent to be in writing.

 

One company (MSD Animal Health) who make Nobivac vaccines say that they have reasonable safety data for using Nobivac DHP or DHPPi in ferrets. The vaccine should be mixed with Nobivac sterile diluent or sterile water. They recommend one dose per ferret, although vets have in the past divided doses for economy. I am not aware of any data to show how well this works. There are several other distemper vaccines in the UK but I do not know what safety data is available and I have heard it suggested that some may be less safe.

 

Please also remember that dogs can catch distemper from ferrets and that vaccination is never quite 100% reliable in any person or animal

 

Simon Thomas BSc BVetMed CVR CSAO MRCVS 15th November 2011

INSULINOMAS IN FERRETS - Signs, Diagnosis, and Treatment Options

 

Insulinomas are likely the most common tumour seen in pet ferrets. These are tumors of insulin producing cells in the pancreas, and insulinomas are also called pancreatic islet cell tumours. The tumours produce an excess of insulin, which results in hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). Unfortunately, the tumours are most often malignant although they can usually be managed with surgery and/or medication for a significant length of time.

 

Insulinomas typically occur in ferrets around 4-6 years of age, although they can be found in ferrets both younger and older than this range. The onset can be gradual, with signs starting mildly then getting worse and more frequent, or it can be quite severe and sudden. Occasionally, there are no obvious signs, and insulinoma is only discovered during lab testing done for other problems. Insulinoma can be found concurrently with adrenal disease, lymphomas, cardiomyopathy and other diseases.

 

Signs of Insulinoma in Ferrets

 

The signs often occur in episodes, with periods of normal activity and behaviour between episodes.

 

  • Weight loss

 

  • Episodes of depression, lethargy, being "out of it" (may even collapse and be unresponsive)

 

  • Weakness and incoordination, especially of the hind legs

 

  • Often salivation and pawing at mouth during episodes

 

  • Severe episodes can result in seizures, and occasionally coma

 

  • Appetite often normal, sometimes decreased

 

Diagnosis

 

If your ferret shows any of these symptoms, a trip to a vet is a necessity. Diagnosis of insulinoma is most often based on clinical signs and low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) measured in a blood sample. Occasionally, blood testing may need to be repeated or done after a short (4 hour) fast to document low blood sugar, and some veterinarians also test insulin levels. Other tests are recommended to assess overall health and the possible presence of other diseases.

 

Treatment Options

 

Surgery

 

In an otherwise healthy ferret, the treatment of choice is surgery, which allows removal of visible tumors (there are often multiple tumors). During surgery, your vet should also check the adrenal glands for enlargement, as adrenal disease may be present at the same time. Unfortunately, because of the nature of islet cell tumours they often spread despite surgery making medical management necessary in the future. However, the surgery to remove larger tumours often alleviates the symptoms for some time or at least makes medical management easier. Blood sugar should be tested at regular intervals (2 weeks after surgery then every couple of months) so medical management can begin if it becomes necessary.

 

Medical Management

 

Medical management may be needed after surgery, or may be the treatment of choice for ferrets that are quite old or ill and therefore a poor surgical risk. The drugs prednisone and diazoxide can be used (alone or in combination) and while they help control the symptoms they do not affect the progression of the disease. Dietary management is also important - make sure food is always available and provide a high quality meat based ferret diet (high in protein and low in carbohydrates). As well, sweet treats must be completely avoided as they can provoke a hypoglycemic episode (by stimulating the tumour cells to produce excessive amounts of insulin). Tips on emergency management of a hypoglycemic episode at home will also be provided by your vet. Remember that medical management is meant only to help control the hypoglycemia and that as the disease progresses the symptoms may worsen, resulting in an increase in the dosage of medication required to control the symptoms (eventually the medication may become ineffective).

LYMPHOMA

 

All mammals have, as part of their immune system, white blood cells called lymphocytes. These cells move through the body through the blood and lymphatic systems. They reside in depositories called lymph nodes and are also found in the spleen, bone marrow and thymus gland.

 

These cells sometime become cancerous. When they do, the tumors they form tend to be spread throughout the body. There are several types and stages of lymphocyte. When tumors arise, they are assigned names based on the type of lymphocyte that gave rise to them. That is why some of these tumors are called lymphoma, lymphoblastic lymphoma, lymphosarcoma, immunoblastic-polymorphous lymphoma, malignant lymphoma, etc. These classifications are not absolute and may overlap. They and are based on the judgment call of the pathologist that examine tissues taken from your pet.

These lymphoid tumors are one of the most common cancers that occur in ferrets. Lymphoma, along with adrenal gland tumours and insulinoma account for most of the cancers that veterinarians see in ferrets.

 

Lymphomas in ferrets are usually divided into two basic categories, adult form and juvenile form.

 

Adult Onset Lymphoma

 

The adult form of lymphoma usually occurs in ferrets over three years of age. The majority are 5-7 years old when their decline in health is noticed. This form of lymphoma usually progresses slowly. So the signs one sees usually depend on how long the problem has been present in your pet.

 

Early in the disease, the signs can be easily overlooked. Some pets are brought to veterinarians because of vague signs - like poor appetite, weight loss, and mopiness. Others are brought in because the owner has noticed firm swellings under the ferret’s chin or at the points of the shoulder and thigh.

 

Animals that have had the condition for longer periods may come in with signs related to multiple or single organ failure. In these ferrets, the tumorous (cancerous) cells have moved and invaded organs like the liver, kidneys and lungs. The spleen of these ferrets is usually also invaded by cancerous lymphocytes and can be many times it normal size.

 

Juvenile Form

 

Lymphoma occurs less frequently in ferrets younger than two. When it does, it is called the juvenile form. When it occurs in these young pets, it produces a different set of symptoms that progress much faster. It is also referred to as the lymphoblastic form. This alludes to the fact that the cancerous lymphocytes seen in this type of lymphoma are less well developed and larger in size.

 

In these younger ferrets, the thymus gland is often the initial focus of their problem. The thymus gland is the normal repository of a type of lymphocyte called a T-cell. This cell is critical in important cellular immunity.

 

This form of lymphoma progresses rapidly and the cancerous lymphocytes soon leave the thymus to invade other organs in the pet’s body.

 

The massively enlarged thymus gland that usually occurs in this form of lymphoma presses on the pet’s heart and lungs causing chest fluid accumulation, coughing and difficulty breathing. However, some die from sudden bleeding of the spleen or liver before these signs can occur. In other young ferrets, the walls of the digestive system are invaded, causing vomiting and diarrhoea. In juvenile cases, the superficial lymph nodes are usually not enlarged.

 

Vets do not know if the adult form and the juvenile form of lymphoma have the same cause. The disease progress very differently. It could be that the causes are different. But the difference in symptoms could also be due to the immaturity of the lymphatic system in younger pets. The way the disease proceeds seems to follow the involution timeline of the thymus gland.

 

Symptoms of Lymphoma in Ferrets

 

The signs you might see are quite variable. They depend on the age of your ferret and how long the problem has been present in your pet.

 

If your pet is an adult ferret, the initial signs are usually quite subtle and vague. Your pet may be less active than usual. It may be losing weight and have become a picky eater.

 

As the disease progresses, so do the signs. The first very distinctive symptom in mature ferrets that owners see is the enlargement of lymph nodes that are present under the pet’s skin. These lymph nodes are usually inapparent and difficult to locate. But in ferrets with lymphoma, they become large, bean-shaped and firm. They are not painful to your pet when you squeeze them.

 

Some of these ferrets develop hind leg weakness. For unknown reasons, hind leg weakness occurs in many conditions that ferrets suffer that have nothing to do with lymphoma. Late in adult onset lymphoma the cancerous lymphocytes invade and destroy many organs of the body. By then, signs can be present that reflect loss of function of the liver, kidneys, bone marrow, and nervous system. Some of these older pets have other concurrent diseases such as adrenal or pancreatic cancers.

 

When lymphoma occurs in younger ferrets, the pets go down hill much faster. Many of these younger ferrets have problems related to the greatly increased size of their thymus gland. The gland sits in the chest just ahead of the heart and lungs. When it grows in size, it’s presence prevents the heart and lungs from moving normally. So these ferrets have difficulty with breathing and heart function.

 

Some young ferrets develop other signs that are very variable. Some of these symptoms are related to enlargement of the spleen and the increased space in the abdomen that it occupies. Other pets run fevers.

HEART DISEASE

 

Dilated cardiomyopathy is a disease in which dilation of the heart affects the heart’s ability to contract properly. Dilated cardiomyopathy is common in middle-aged and older ferrets.

 

Affected ferrets are often weak, lose weight, and breathe rapidly. Rarely will a ferret with heart disease cough. Diagnosis is by physical examination findings and results of x-rays and ultrasound examination. Medication may be helpful if the disease is treated early.

PLEASE REMEMBER - IF YOU PET SHOWS ANY SIGN OF ILLNESS THE BEST ADVICE IS TO SEEK THE HELP OF YOUR VET AS SOON AS POSSIBLE.

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