The most Common Ferret Diseases and Health Problems
Ferrets are becoming more and more common as pets in our homes. It is therefore important that we inform ourselves about various aspects of the life of this peculiar and cute animal before adopting them.
One of the basic things we need to know is the most common diseases of the ferret.
In many normal veterinary centres they can help us by monitoring their health, but there are veterinary centres specializing in exotic animals and more specifically small mammals such as the Mustela putorius furo (or ferret). Below we detail some of the most common Ferret diseases and health problems that may occur in this small companion.
Above all, remember as always the great importance of deworming our pets both internally and externally, not only for their health but also for ours because many parasitic diseases are transmissible to humans (zoonotic disease). To do this we must follow the guidelines of our usual veterinarian and thus avoid these diseases:
- Internal parasites: The most common internal parasites in ferrets are coccidicidiosis and giardia. These parasites cause loss of appetite, diarrhea and vomiting. In this case, the specialist in charge of ferret health will tell us what preventive guidelines to follow and the treatment in case of positive infestation. Ferrets are mainly treated with conventional antiparasitic products for cats in suitable doses, e. g. in the form of paste as it is very easy to administer.
- Otic scabies: This disease is caused by ear mites, that is, they occur in the ears of these small mammals. This is one of the most common health problems. These mites usually cause an increase in wax and a lot of itching in the ears. We will observe that the little animal shakes their head, scratches and rubs their ears and even whines because of anxiety. It is not a serious problem to begin with, and has an easy treatment with an antiparasitic treatment in doses indicated for cats. But if we ignore the problem, it can derive into ruptured eardrum, which will lead to a severe inclination of the head and infection in the inner ear, these cases are more serious and need a more thorough treatment.
- Sarcoptic scabies: Another type of scabies that can suffer from ferrets is the sarcoptic scabies or skin scabies, produced by the Sarcoptes Scabiei mite and is a zoonosis. Symptoms are an itching rash all over the skin along with hair loss, swollen, crusty claws, and possible skin infections if scabies is very advanced. In the event that our veterinarian diagnoses this type of scabies in our companion, we must follow the treatment indicated for our animal, but it is also of vital importance to disinfect any garment or object that has had contact with them to get rid of the mites that cause the disease.
- Fleas: Fleas are common in pets that live or are outdoors frequently and less frequent in those that are always inside the house, although the latter can also spread easily. These external parasites can be prevented or treated once diagnosed. There are many products to prevent and treat these infestations. Generally, not only should the carrier animal be treated, but also all other pets that share the same space as well as our home. It is good to get our animals used to periodic brushing, this will help prevent external parasites. Fleas cause itching of the skin, hair loss from scratching and may sometimes cause allergies, but they can also spread tapeworm, and ferrets are susceptible to these other parasites. We will detect tapeworms if we see small, white worms in their stool.
- Ticks: Ferrets living or playing outside are also very susceptible to ticks. Ticks are a problem in themselves, but they can also transmit various diseases such as Lyme disease, ehrlichiosis and babesiosis, among others. Because of this and because they can transmit ticks to humans, it is important to prevent them with veterinary products for cats. They are easy to detect because our friend will scratch in the area where the tick is attached to their skin and are easily visible. If the tick is removed manually, make sure that it has been removed completely and that its jaw or head has not been hooked as it will easily produce a cyst and/or can become infected.
- Dirofilaria immitis or heart worm: This disease is caused by worms that are transmitted through mosquito bites. These worms lodge in the heart of the animal they infest. Symptoms include weight loss, chronic coughing, heavy tiredness, jaundice (yellow skin) and even fluid retention in the abdomen. A preventive plan proposed by the veterinarian must be followed and if this disease reaches one of our pets, we must proceed with their immediate treatment. This disease is very easy to prevent but more complicated to treat.
These types of diseases can be easily diagnosed and treated with antibiotics. The following are some of the most common bacterial diseases in ferrets:
- Lyme disease or Borreliosis: This is an infectious disease caused by a bacterium called Borrelia burgdorferi. It is transmitted by ticks and if not detected in time it can evolve to its chronic form. Antibiotics will be used to treat this disease and if it is an advanced case, the time to take antibiotics will be prolonged and may be indefinite in cases of chronic borreliosis. Most cases occur in warm weather. The most easily recognizable symptoms are intermittent limping, persistent fever with no apparent cause, joint swelling and pain, loss of appetite, depression, swollen lymph nodes, and neurological, cardiac, and kidney problems.
- Chronic Colitis: This disease causes severe diarrhea in ferrets due to the infection of the colon. The bacteria that cause colitis and diarrhea are Desulfovibrio and Campylobacter respectively. It occurs more frequently in ferrets that are less than one year old. The main symptoms are acute diarrhea, sometimes with mucus or blood, significant weight loss, dehydration, and churning caused by pain in the abdomen. It is really important to detect the disease before the dehydration is severe, because as they are such small animals with little weight they can dehydrate very quickly and can die if you do not intervene in time. The fact that this disease lasts a long time and can makethe rectum and even the colon to prolapse in more severe cases.
Fungal infections (fungi)
Fungal infections are rare conditions in these small pets, but the most common are the following:
- Ringworm: Produced by fungus, ringworm creates redness, dryness and cramping of the skin in ferrets, but does not cause itching. Once the veterinarian has diagnosed the disease through cultures, they will proceed to the treatment indicated by him/her with products such as topical anti-fungi, ointments and oral antifungals. It is vitally important to disinfect the house, cage and toys of the infected animal and treat other animals that have shared space with them. In this case we are talking about zoonoses again, because it can be transmitted to humans.
- Valley Fever: This disease is caused by a fungus that lives in the soil and produces spores. These spores are carried in the air and inhaled by animals, thus producing infection. Animals that get valley fever are a small percentage of those who have inhaled the spores. It is not a contagious disease, so it cannot be passed from animal to animal or humans, it can only be passed through inhalation of the fungus spores. The most common symptoms are cough, chronic respiratory infection, fever, dermal lesions, weight loss, lethargy, loss of appetite and thickening of the limbs. It is usually a mild illness but can be very complicated and endanger the life of our companion, but can be treated, so quickly go to the veterinarian after detecting symptoms so that they can perform the necessary tests and if the infection is positive, should be treated with appropriate long-term antifungals. If this disease is noticed at an advanced stage or even with treatment it can spread throughout the body, almost any organ can be affected, so the symptoms will be more extensive and the treatment longer and even lifelong. The most commonly affected parts where the spread of the disease occurs are bones and brain, in this case the brain infection puts a ferret's life in great danger. On the other hand, if the infection occurs only in the lungs, the prognosis is good as a general rule.
Viral diseases are infectious diseases transmitted by viruses. There are mostly innocuous or not very serious ones like colds and in a minority there are the most serious and complicated ones that can become epidemic. Viruses are microscopic parasites that need to be inside another human, animal, plant and even bacterial cell to reproduce.
Next we detail the most common viral diseases in ferrets:
- Distemper: This viral disease that is transmitted through the air, is mainly suffered by dogs, but also affects ferrets. This is why we will have to vaccinate them for the first time at eight weeks and three months of age and follow the calendar of annual vaccinations. If our pet contracts the disease, we must go to the vet quickly. The most common symptoms are eye infection that produces a secretion at the corner of the eyes, slight nasal discharge, diarrhea and depression, as well as irritation, thickening and peeling of the skin in some areas such as the chin, lips, fingers, rectal and inguinal area and abdomen, loss of appetite, disturbance of light (photophobia) and in very advanced stage a high fever. Treatment should be started immediately, but it is complicated and long, so this disease has a very high mortality rate and hence the great importance of preventive vaccination.
- Rabies: This disease is a virus that affects the nervous system of both animals and humans, so it is not only dangerous for our pets but for ourselves too, so it is a mandatory to vaccinate a ferret against it in the vast majority of countries. Ferrets must be vaccinated from the age of eight months and then annually. There are no known cases of contagion from a ferret to a human being, but there are cases of contagion between pets with which we live and that is why vaccination is really important. The main symptoms are disorientation, lethargy, nervousness, uncontrolled movements and muscle spasms, salivation and weakness and even paralysis of their hind legs. This viral disease is of high mortality.
- Flu and colds: It is possible for ferrets and their owners to spread each other's flu and common colds. These viruses are very frequent and come in several forms. This is why it is very important that if you have a cold or the flu, you don't come close to each other. In adult specimens it can complicate into mild upper respiratory disease, while in the case of young or weakened adults, it can be fatal. The symptoms that occur in ferrets are nasal and eye discharge, accompanied by sneezing and conjunctivitis, fever, lethargy, loss of appetite and depression. The specialist veterinarian will recommend a suitable treatment for our pet including an appropriate diet.
- Aleutian Disease: This disease is caused by parvovirus, it affects the immune system and there is no vaccine or effective treatment against it. It is spread through contact with any body fluid from an infected animal and some insects, especially flies, but it does not affect humans, only ferrets and minks. Symptoms include pneumonia, posterior third palsy, lack of appetite, very dark stools, general muscle wearing, severe mastitis, lethargy, incontinence and kidney failure. The veterinarian specialist will need to do a blood test on our pet. There is no effective treatment for ferrets against this disease, so we will have to treat clinical symptoms and try to give the best care to our friend, but the disease is deadly.
- ECE or Epizootic Catarrhal Enteritis: This is an inflammation of the mucous membranes of the intestines caused by a virus, which prevents water and nutrients from being properly absorbed. This results in severe diarrhea in ferrets of an intense greenish color, as well as loss of appetite and weight loss. Other symptoms include vomiting, mouth and stomach ulcers, and lethargy. It is not a deadly disease, but as it depresses the immune system, opportunistic infections can sometimes occur. It is very important that antibiotics and fluids are given to the sick animal as treatment. A soft diet high in protein should also be given. The most direct route of contagion is from ferret to ferret, although there are others. If you have an infected pet, isolate them while them are recovering and disinfect absolutely the whole environment.
Hereditary diseases are those passed down from parents to children, so they are found in the individual genetic inheritance of animals. For this reason, breeders sometimes discard breeding specimens that are carriers of these diseases, as this prevents more and more individuals from being affected. In the case of Mustela putorius furo the most common hereditary disease is Waardenburg Syndrome, explained below:
- Waardenburg Syndrome: This disease is a congenital defect that occurs in white, striped ferrets or completely white speciments. Waardenburg syndrome causes a cranial deformity, which widens and causes partial or total deafness in individuals with Waardenburg syndrome. This deformation of the skull results in high mortality in kits with the syndrome and some cases of cleft palate. Other symptoms detectable in an animal suffering from this hereditary disease are the difficulty to socialize due to deafness, significant constipation, spinal cord and bladder problems, among others. Although there is no very specific treatment, most ferrets that thrive with this disease can lead a fairly normal life as long as we help them to adapt and above all remember that not hearing us can be frightening for them when we touch them without warning. We must teach them things through gestures and signs.
Cancer affects ferrets quite frequently. The only way to try to prevent it is to know if there is a genetic predisposition and to know our friend very well so that we can quickly detect symptoms and go to a specialist.
- Insulinoma: A type of cancer that produces a tumor in the pancreas that increases insulin production and lowers blood glucose levels. It is one of the most common cancers in ferrets. The most common symptoms are weight loss, difficulty waking up from sleep, hypothermia, tremors, depression, excessive salivation, enlarged spleen, generalized weakness but especially in the hind legs, mouth ulcers and rubbing the mouth with their paws, loss of coordination, acute fainting and seizures. We will have to fine-tune the treatment to be carried out with our specialist veterinarian.
- Adrenal gland disease or adenocarcinoma: This disease is due to an overgrowth of the adrenal glands caused by hyperplasia or cancer. It is one of the most common types of cancer among ferrets along with Insulinoma. Some symptoms of this cancer are hair loss where the skin that remains uncovered becomes thinner, dry and brittle coat, increased aggressiveness, lethargy, high consumption of water and increased urine, in addition to intense itching that may appear on the skin, red spots, scabs and scales. In females, the vulva is very inflamed and in males, prostate problems are detected due to urination problems. Although the growth of the adrenal glands turns out to be benign, it can cause hormonal imbalance that can seriously worsen the health of our little ferret. Removal of these glands is usually part of cancer treatment. Today, in addition to steroid or hormone therapy, the most recommended treatment is a product called Lupron, which is a long-lasting analog of GnRH (hormone) which inhibits the production of sex hormones.
- Lymphoma or lymphosarcoma: This is a cancer of the animal's lymphatic system and affects their immune system. It is quite common in ferrets and is mainly acute in individuals under two years of age and more chronic in adults. Symptoms may not show until some time has elapsed and may not be very specific, but the most common symptoms are swollen lymph nodes, weight loss, lethargy, poor appetite, diarrhea, increased spleen, difficulty breathing, general weakness and decay, but especially in the hind legs. The specialist should diagnose the disease based on a series of tests and then propose a chemotherapy-based treatment, to which ferrets usually respond very well, and follow the process very thoroughly. Although lymphosarcoma is seldom completely cured, long-term chemotherapy significantly reduces symptoms and improves the quality and life expectancy of the sick ferret.
- Mastocytomas: Mastocytomas are one of the most common types of skin tumors among ferrets. It increases the frequency of these tumors as the ferret grows old. In the case of these small pets, usually benign mastocytomas are detected, malignant ones are less common. They occur anywhere in the animal but most often on the neck and body of the animal. Mastocytomas occur on the skin in the form of a bump or irregular lump and may look like a wart, although these are usually not as large as these tumors. Some symptoms, apart from the irregular lump itself, are itching and bleeding caused by scratching in the area, and this can lead to infections if we do not treat the wounds immediately. The veterinarian should confirm that this is a benign mastocytoma prior to removal. In case of malignancy, chemotherapy or radiation treatment should be carried out in addition to removing the tumor.
Other common problems
In addition to all the diseases described above, ferrets tend to have a number of fairly frequent health problems and it is therefore good to be informed about these as well as the diseases. Below we explain some of these problems and mishaps:
- Stress: Ferrets can be stressed very easily and for a variety of reasons, such as a sudden change in food or home. This can lead to diarrhea, vomiting and nervousness. It will be vitally important to keep the ferret well hydrated.
- Dehydration: Dehydration in ferrets occurs easily as they are very small animals and can quickly lose water in their body. We must ensure that they always have clean, fresh water within reach. It is often caused by heat stroke, vomiting, and severe diarrhea. The skin is cramped and the mucous membranes, such as the gums, appear whitish or a very pale pink. If the animal cannot be hydrated with oral water, if they are very weak, we must quickly contact a specialist to begin treatment with subcutaneous fluids.
- Hairballs: Ferrets groom themselves by licking and nibbling their fur. Like cats, they tend to have hairballs that get stuck along the digestive tract and find it very difficult to remove them. In this case, we must provide our pet with a laxative for cats sold in pet shops and veterinary clinics. This product will lubricate the accumulated hair and facilitate its expulsion.
- Cardiomyopathy: This disease occurs mainly in males over three years old. The heart muscle thickens due to wear and tear and hardening of the heart muscle. This decreases blood pumping per minute, resulting in poor circulation. This makes ferrets more sleepy than usual, making it hard for them to wake up, lethargy, lack of appetite and even small collapses and blockages while running and playing due to tiredness. There is no cure, it is a problem that occurs with age, but we can give a supportive treatment with a low sodium diet, a reduction in their physical activity and avoid over-stimulation and stress.
- Heat stroke: This is a shock from excessive temperature rise. Ferrets do not tolerate high temperatures very well, so they should always have a cool and watery area. In fact, ferrets become lethargic above 27°C (80°F) and temperatures above 30°C (86°F) and high humidity can be fatal. In severe cases that do not lead to death, permanent neurological damage may occur. It is very important to keep in mind never to leave our pet tied or locked in the sun or in a car, we must provide them with fresh water constantly, cages or kennels must be well ventilated and in cool areas. If we detect an animal with heat stroke due to symptoms such as excessive wheezing, tongue out, general weakness, muscle tremors, unconsciousness, elevated body temperature, among others, we should place them in a cool and ventilated area immediately and call the vet, as severe dehydration can occur, among other things.
- Rubbing the mouth with the legs insistently: These animals tend to have this behavior repeatedly when they have digestive problems (vomiting or diarrhea), but also occurs in cases of intestinal blockages, gingivitis and is even a symptom of insulinoma in individuals over three years old. Therefore, if we see this behavior in our pet it will be good to take them to the vet.
- Hyperestrogenism: It occurs in young females, aged 1 to 2 years, whole or sterilized but with remaining ovarian tissue when they begin their heat but there is no male present to copulate, so some of these females will not be able to ovulate and will have very high levels of estrogen. This will cause severe anemia, as estrogens will affect the bone marrow and intoxication of the tissue responsible for the production of blood cells and we will observe symptoms such as symmetrical alopecia, vulvar hypertrophy, depression, loss of appetite, pallor of the mucous membranes, subcutaneous petechiae, weakness, mild murmurings and ecchymosis among others. This is one of the main causes of death in non-sterile females, so you should act quickly and go to the veterinarian immediately to identify any symptoms for testing and treatment.
- Splenomegaly: Splenomegaly, as its name suggests, is an enlarged spleen. It can be caused by lymphosarcoma, splenitis, aleutian disease, insulinoma, cardiomyopathy, adrenal neoplasia and other diseases. Symptoms include lethargy, loss of appetite and reduced overall activity. The specialist can detect the problem through abdominal palpation and x-rays. One possible solution is the removal of the spleen, but this will leave our ferret in somewhat delicate health as the spleen has a variety of functions such as cleaning the blood, storing blood, forming blood cells and, in case of disease, sending them to fight them. It occurs mainly in ferrets over three years old.
- Prolapsed rectum: Many animals have perianal or odoriferous glands next to the anus, which they use to mark their territory or to indicate over-excitation or fear. These glands also have the function of lubricating stools and when the glands are missing, they are sometimes removed due to a problem or because certain people think that our pets will smell less without them, or because their ducts are blocked, lack of lubrication can cause a prolapse of the rectum. It can also happen due to severe diarrhea, enteritis and other diseases. The ferret must be much stronger to expel their stool and the rectum comes out. If we detect this in our pet we must take them immediately to the veterinary specialist to solve it and avoid possible serious infections.
- High curiosity: This characteristic that occurs in the vast majority of ferrets, leads them to have accidents and get into complicated situations such as falling from windows and balconies, getting trapped in difficult places, escaping or getting lost and even eating strange things because they tend to bite everything.
- Obstruction or intestinal blockage: Due to their great curiosity, these animals put everything in their reach into their mouth and easily ingest things they should not, so it is very important to keep an eye on them and know where they are at all times. When foreign bodies are ingested, they can easily get stuck in the intestinal tract, causing severe symptoms and problems that can be easily detected by observing their usual behavior. Faced with this situation, we must quickly go to the vet so that he/she can remove the stuck object before is too late.
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This article is purely informative. AnimalWised does not have the authority to prescribe any veterinary treatment or create a diagnosis. We invite you to take your pet to the veterinarian if they are suffering from any condition or pain.
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