Ferrets - Skin Disease
What are the most common skin problems?
Most skin diseases in ferrets are associated with parasites - fleas, mites and ticks. Ferrets may also develop bacterial skin disease if the skin is traumatized, and they are susceptible to tumors such as squamous cell carcinoma and mast cell tumors. Canine distemper infection can cause skin lesions in ferrets; further information on this can be found in the handout "Ferrets - Respiratory Disease". Alopecia (loss of hair) occurs with persistent estrus and in adrenal gland disease; further information about these conditions is given in the handouts "Ferrets - Reproductive Disease" and "Ferrets- Hormonal Disease".
Since skin symptoms may be a symptom of a more serious, generalized condition, it is important to your ferret's health that it undergoes an immediate general clinical examination if it has any skin lesions.
What causes ferrets to have an unpleasant smell?
In normal circumstances, ferrets have a characteristic musky skin odor, related to the normal physiological function of the skin glands. Some people consider this odor unpleasant, which is probably a good indication that ferrets are not the pet of choice for these people! The general ambient odor arises from sebaceous glands that are widely dispersed over the skin and that may cause the fur to have a greasy feel. Male ferrets often have a more pronounced skin odor. Castration reduces the odor but does not prevent it completely. Bathing with a ferret shampoo as recommended by your veterinarian may also be helpful.
"Ferrets have a characteristic musky skin odor, related to the normal physiological function of the skin glands."
In addition, the anal sacs of the ferret produce secretions with a very strong musky odor. These secretions will be expressed when the animal is stressed or frightened. In these cases, anal sac removal may be suggested as an ameliorative step to reduce the odor.
Flea infestation is a common problem in pet ferrets. Itching (pruritus) is the most common sign of flea infestation, with hair loss around the back and base of the tail occurring with heavy infestations.
"Using the same amount of flea powder or spray as for a cat or small dog may lead to toxic levels of drug being absorbed."
Fleas can be killed with the standard flea control measures used in cats and dogs, but the smaller size of the ferret means that a substantially smaller dose is needed. The smaller size of a ferret means that the ratio of skin surface area to body weight is substantially higher; thus, using the same amount of flea powder or spray as for a cat or small dog may lead to toxic levels of drug being absorbed. Always check with your veterinarian PRIOR to using any pesticide or chemical on or around your ferret. The safest way to use a pesticide spray on a ferret is to spray a cloth with the product and then rub ferret's coat with the cloth. Avoid using organophosphate flea medications in ferrets, since the safety of these pesticides have not been determined in this species. Various topical veterinary medications (such as ProgramTM, RevolutionTM, FrontlineTM and AdvantageTM) have been used, but none is specifically tested for safety in ferrets. It is important to treat the environment for fleas as well.
Ear mites are common in pet ferrets. Otodectes cynotis, the same mite that affects dogs and cats, causes itching with the resulting symptoms of headshaking and ear scratching. A dark or black waxy discharge is usually seen in the ears (normally, ferrets do produce some light-colored earwax not associated with mites, that can be gently cleaned away). In severe cases, excessive and severe scratching produces excoriation (scratches and scrapes), with crusty scabs visible around the ear. Mite identification is possible with microscopic examination of the waxy ear discharge.
"Ear mites are common in pet ferrets."
Ear mites can be treated successfully with an ivermectin drug injected under the skin every two weeks or with a topical veterinary ear medication prescription until the signs resolve. All animals in contact with the affected ferret will require treatment, even if no ear mites are found on them. Topical ear medication to treat the secondary inflammation may offer relief from the itching until the anti-parasitic medication has killed all mites present.
Sarcoptic mange or scabies occasionally seen in ferrets; it can affect either the feet alone or the whole body in a more generalized manner. In the localized (feet) form of the disease, severe inflammation with pruritus is seen with swollen crusted paws; left untreated, in extreme cases the infestation can develop into a condition known as foot-rot, where the toenails or even the whole foot can be lost. Treatment with ivermectin, together with topical and/or systemic (oral or injectable) antibiotic treatment is curative in both the foot and the more generalized form. All animals in contact with the affected ferret will require treatment.
As is the case with fleas, ticks can occur on ferrets that play or are housed outdoors. Contact your veterinarian for a safe treatment if your ferret is afflicted with ticks.
Bacteria readily infect bites and scratches acquired from trauma or during fights, in juvenile play. In most cases, if the ferret has a healthy immune system, it is able to combat the infection on its own, but in severe cases topical or systemic antibiotics are required.
Canine distemper can cause skin lesions around the muzzle and on the footpads. The skin of the chin, lips and eyelids becomes very swollen and the foot pads become crust and thickened (also called "hard pad"). This disease is fatal in ferrets. Further information about this deadly disease can be found in the information handout "Ferrets - Respiratory Disease".
"Cases of ringworm (which is a fungus NOT a worm)."
Fungal disease is uncommon in ferrets, but some veterinarians report seeing cases of ringworm (which is a fungus NOT a worm). Ringworm presents as well circumscribed areas of hair loss and inflammation. The skin can become thick, red and crusty. Some cases are self-limiting (will resolve on their own), but all should be investigated and treated by a veterinarian.
Most of the skin tumors that ferrets develop are benign. Mast cell tumors are the most common, followed by basal cell tumors and sebaceous cell tumors. In some cases, skin tumors are malignant and aggressive. Diagnosis of the type of tumor is made by removal under general anaesthesia, which also effectively treats benign tumors.
All skin problems should be brought to the attention of your veterinarian, who will recommend the most appropriate treatment for the specific problem.