Sickness in Ferrets

Prevention is better than cure and this saying is particularly true when it comes to ferrets. Ferrets are more demanding in their needs than either a cat or a dog but with commonsense and good husbandry, your pet ferret will hopefully live a long, happy and disease-free life.

Ferret(54241)Credit: Wikimedia

It is always good practice to actively observe your ferret when he is well and happy. Take note of his little mannerisms and habits so that when your vet asks 'does he normally do whatever' you have some idea how to answer. If you know how he acts and reacts you will be more attuned to any behaviour which is abnormal for your particular ferret.

Stress can cause a number of ailments. Ferrets can become stressed if not given sufficient time to themselves. They need a safe place to rest and sleep. Being constantly disturbed is not good for any animal and particularly not for a ferret.

The immune system of a ferret is not strong and they catch cold easily. Keep their cage and bedding clean and dry. This may not be easy as ferrets are messy eaters and drinkers. Supplying water from a water bottle will help ensure bedding does not become damp. Clean the bottle frequently as contaminated water will discourage a ferret from drinking as much as he should and could also make him sick. A constant supply of clean, fresh water is essential.

Uneaten food should be removed and thrown out. Ferrets eat on and off all day but try to remove stale food as this can cause diarrhoea or stomach upsets. Clean food bowls well. Don't just wipe them over as any fat deposits will not be removed by this method.

Ferrets vary in their response to different types of litter. Some litters cause allergic reactions; others are ingested and cause stomach problems. Because ferrets sniff their litter areas and/or drag their rumps over the area, clumping litters can be taken into the nose or rectum. Cedar shavings are best avoided as respiratory and/or allergy problems are quite commonly linked to such litter.

Even with good maintenance of general hygiene, ferrets are susceptible to several diseases. Infection from canine distemper and heartworm is one. Your veterinarian can vaccinate for canine distemper and Heartguard will help prevent heartworm infection.

Symptoms of heart disease are respiratory problems, coughing and weight loss. Heart disease is not common in young ferrets. Those with heart problems should not be fed chocolate or liquorice.

Some ferrets develop tumours of the adrenal gland. There may be hair loss either on the hind quarters or over the whole body. The ferret may be lethargic and bloated, with an excessive thirst and general itchiness. Weight loss is common with this condition as are swollen vulvas in jills (female ferrets) and difficulty in urinating in hobs (male ferrets).

Insulinomas or tumours on the pancreas cause the production of excessive insulin. Blood sugar levels drop, victims become sleepy and lethargic, there is excessive salivation, weakness in the hindquarters and ferrets may paw at the mouth. If not treated, the victim will lapse into a coma. Insulinoma is common in ferrets over two years old. Corticosteroids are used to treat this condition.

Often associated with insulinoma is ptyalism or excessive production of saliva. Ptyalism may be caused by exposure to some cleaning agents or plants. Affected animals may be nauseous and paw at their face. The condition may disappear once the cause is removed.

Also relatively common in ferrets of any age is lymphosarcoma. Lymph nodes are enlarged, there is difficulty breathing, weight loss, loss of appetite and general lethargy. Chemotherapy is usually suggested.

Very common among jills is pyometra (also known as prolonged oestrus disease or fading syndrome). Pyometra is a form of aplastic anaemia.

Unmated adult jills have a 90% chance of developing this disease. Animals remain in heat and gradually waste away, generally dying within about six weeks. Desexing is recommended for both sexes unless planning to breed from the ferrets. The strong scent associated with the male ferret will be reduced by desexing.

Sarcoptic mange or scabies presents in two forms. One form, often called footrot, affects the paws which become red and painful. The feet may swell and itch intensely. Crusts form on open sores and the nails may fall off. The other form affects the body, causing severe itching and hair loss.

Infestations of fleas will cause scratching resulting in raw, red patches and thinning of the coat. Evidence of fleas is most easily seen between the shoulder blades. Dry, itchy skin and dull coats can be caused by harsh shampoos, too many baths and insufficient rinsing. A diet too low in animal fats will also result in the same symptoms.

Ferrets have less allergies than cats and dogs. If the ferret is itching over the whole of his body, suspect a a food allergy. Soybeans and dyes seem to be common allergens.

Ear mites may produce a brownish scurf. The ferret will scratch persistently at the ears. Ferrets should have their ears regularly cleaned as part of their grooming regime.

Older ferrets often develop hairballs causing intestinal problems and blockages. Loss of appetite, lethargy, with perhaps vomiting and diarrhoea may indicate a hairball or ingestion of a foreign object. Regular administration of small amounts of a hairball remedy for cats may help the ferret pass hairballs before they become a problem.

Care and attention to general hygiene will not prevent all problems but will ensure your ferret has the best chance of a happy, healthy life.

Other articles on ferrets that you might enjoy:
Sarcoptic Mange in Ferrets
Diarrhoea in Ferrets - Causes, Prevention and Treatment