Ferrets, dogs, cats, humans and foxes can all be plagued by sarcoptic mange, also known as scabies. It is a common ailment in ferrets. This contagious skin disease is spread by a parasitic microscopic mite with the scientific name of Sarcoptes scabiei. There are many species of Sarcoptes which each have a favourite host animal but which infect other animals. Luckily all respond to the same treatment.
The life cycle of the mite lasts 2 to 3 weeks, all of which is normally spent on an animal. Eggs are deposited by the female who burrows under the skin depositing eggs as she goes. The burrows may reach several centimetres in lengths. Once the eggs have been laid the female dies. Somewhere between 3 and 8 days, the eggs hatch into six-legged larvae. Interestingly, when the larvae mature into nymphs they have eight legs. While still in the burrow, the nymph moults into an adult, the adults mate and soon new tunnels are made and more eggs laid as the cycle continues.
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Should the mite become separated from the host, it can still survive for some time. Under cool, moist conditions, the mite may live for around 22 days. Two to six days is more likely at normal room temperature. This ability to live off the host means that ferrets can become infected without direct contact with an infected animal.
Sarcoptic mange affects ferrets in two different ways. There is a generalised form of the disease whereby there is patchy or generalised hair loss accompanied by severe itching. There may be small red pustules on the skin. These will have a yellow crust. The continual intense itching and subsequent scratching results in a breakdown in skin integrity leading to a range of sores and infections.
Sarcoptic mange can also affect the feet without the rest of the body being affected. In these cases, sarcoptic mange may be referred to as 'foot rot'. The paws swell and become red, raw and painful. As in the generalised form, there is intense itching and weeping, crusty sores. In severe cases, the nails become deformed to the point where the nails fall off. If not treated promptly, the foot may be lost. These symptoms are all similar to those exhibited by animals suffering from contact dermatitis ie an allergy to something with which the ferret comes in contact.
It can be difficult to diagnose sarcoptic mange. Generally a skin scraping will be taken and microscopic examination undertaken in an attempt to identify the organism. If this shows a positive identification, treatment can commence but few ferrets give a positive reading. A negative outcome does not necessarily rule out sarcopic mange and sometimes ferrets are treated for scabies anyway. Blood and urine samples, and tissue cultures may be taken in an effort to get a true diagnosis.
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Follow your veterinarian's advice if your ferret contracts sarcoptic mange. Ivermectin is widely used and 2% lime sulphur dips can also be effective. Dips need to be used for six weeks or more until the mites are eradicated. Lime sulphur dip has a strong odour and may discolour the coat. Some ferret breeders recommend a monthly dose of Revolution.
Where the paws are affected, the nails should be trimmed, the feet soaked in warm water and the crusts carefully removed. The vet may prescribe antibiotics to treat secondary infections. The environment and anything that comes in contact with the ferret should be disinfected. This includes bedding, cages, food and water bowls. Keep infected animals away from each other until the danger of contamination is past.