Ferrets - Diseases

What are some of the common diseases of pet ferrets?

ferrets-diseases-1Common conditions of pet ferrets include diarrhea, intestinal foreign bodies, parasites, heart disease, and various kinds of tumors.

"Common conditions of pet ferrets include diarrhea, intestinal foreign bodies, parasites, heart disease, and various kinds of tumors."

What are the signs of these diseases?

  • Diarrhea: Diarrhea is not a disease per se, but rather a sign of a gastrointestinal problem. Diarrhea is liquid feces. In the ferret, there may be dark colored, green, mucoid, slimy, granular, profuse or scanty liquid feces, depending on the cause. Ferrets with diarrhea may not appear to be visibly sick at all, or may show anorexia, vomiting, weight loss, depression, lethargy and/or dehydration. In ferrets, several conditions can result in diarrhea. Internal parasites such as Coccidia and Giardia can cause diarrhea, as can viruses such as rotavirus (seen in young ferrets in North America), Epizootic Catarrhal Enteritis (ECE is becoming more common in ferrets, typically in either very young or old ferrets) and, sometimes, human influenza or canine distemper (fatal in ferrets). Some bacteria such as elicobacter musteli (a spirochete-type of bacteria), Salmonella, Campylobacter (proliferative colitis) and Clostridia can cause diarrhea in ferrets. Salmonella and Campylobacter are important zoonotic (can spread to humans) diseases.
  • Intestinal Foreign Bodies: This is a common problem in ferrets, especially young ferrets less than one year old. Ferrets love to chew, so ALL FOAM, PLASTIC and RUBBER objects MUST be kept out of their reach, including shoe inserts, ear plugs, kid's toys, pet toys, erasers, rubber bands, balloons, speaker foam, headphone foam, swim goggle liners, etc. If a ferret swallows one of these objects, it can cause a gastrointestinal obstruction (blockage), which will require an expensive exploratory surgery and may cause death. These obstructions can be difficult to diagnose unless the owner observes the ferret swallowing the object or notices a piece of the object missing. Many foreign bodies are hard to identify on routine radiographs (X-rays). Common signs are the same as with many ferret diseases, and include lack of appetite, vomiting, lethargy, diarrhea, and gradual body wasting. Vomiting of a severe, projectile nature is suggestive of a complete obstruction.
  • Parasites: Like dogs and cats, ferrets can contract various intestinal parasites, as well as external parasites such as fleas. Yearly microscopic fecal examinations will allow easy diagnosis and treatment. External parasites, such as fleas, ticks, mange, and ear mites, can also infect ferrets.
  • Tumors or Cancer: Unlike dogs and cats, ferrets develop cancer quite readily and early in life. Since early detection is critical to survival, every ferret should have at least yearly examinations; ferrets over the age of three years should have a geriatric screening at least annually. This screening includes a complete blood count and organ profile, radiographs (X-rays) of the chest and abdomen, urinalysis, and an EKG (an electrocardiogram).
  • There are several types of cancers commonly seen in the pet ferret. These include cancer of the pancreas (called an insulinoma), adrenal gland tumors (often seen in conjunction with the insulinoma), mast cell tumors of the skin and lymphosarcoma (cancer of the lymph nodes and lymphocytic white blood cells). Other types of cancers can also occur in ferrets; any lump or bump should immediately examined by your veterinarian. Treated early, many types of cancers can be successfully managed.
  • Heart disease in ferrets: Cardiac or heart disease is relatively common in ferrets. They can develop congestive heart failure due to cardiomyopathy, usually when they are over 3 years old. They can also develop heart failure from an infection with the heartworm parasite. Clinical signs of heart disease include weakness (hind end or hind legs), ataxia (loss of full coordination of the body), anorexia (not eating), depression, dyspnea (trouble breathing), coughing, or abdominal distension. Your veterinarian may hear a heart murmur or detect changes to the rhythm of the heart. Diagnosis is based on a thorough history, physical examination, blood tests, x-rays and an ECG.

How can I tell if my ferret is sick?

ferrets-diseases-2Signs of disease in ferrets may be specific for a certain disease.

"Most commonly, however, signs are vague and non-specific."

Most commonly, however, signs are vague and non-specific, such as a ferret with anorexia (lack of appetite) and lethargy, which can be seen with many diseases including intestinal foreign bodies, various causes of diarrhea, and many types of cancer. ANY deviation from normal should be a cause for concern and your veterinarian should immediately evaluate your ferret.

How are ferret diseases treated?

The treatment for diarrhea depends upon its cause. Intestinal parasites are treated with the appropriate deworming medication. Infectious causes of diarrhea in ferrets are treated with antibiotics and occasionally anti-ulcer medication. Owners should avoid home treatment without a proper diagnosis, as many diseases have similar symptoms and mimic each other.

Intestinal foreign bodies usually require immediate surgical removal. Since signs of foreign bodies are very similar to other diseases (such as parasites and infectious causes of diarrhea), early diagnosis and aggressive surgical intervention is important.

The various cancers can be treated surgically, medically, or with a combination of both surgical removal of the tumor and medical chemotherapy depending upon the type of cancer involved. Many cancers in ferrets can be treated, but early diagnosis is essential. Insulinomas are often treated with surgery and/or medical therapy. While treatment can help control the signs and improve the quality of life, insulinoma is not usually considered a type of cancer that can be cured. Adrenal tumors can be surgically removed or treated medically in selected cases. In many instances, if the tumor is benign and the ferret is normal except for hair loss, treatment may not be needed. This should be discussed with your veterinarian.

Most heart conditions cannot be cured, but the appropriate treatment will help the heart work better and improve the ferret's quality of life.

All health problems should be brought to the attention of your veterinarian as soon as possible, so that assessment, diagnostic testing and specific treatment can be performed. It may be necessary to hospitalize your ferret for supportive or intensive care, which can include specific medications, fluid therapy and force-feeding.

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