Common Diseases of Ferrets
Common conditions of pet ferrets include diarrhoea, intestinal foreign bodies, parasites, ringworm, and some kinds of cancer.
Signs of illness in ferrets may be specific for a certain disease. 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 diarrhoea, and many types of cancer.
ANY deviation from normal should be a cause for concern and requires immediate evaluation by your veterinary surgeon.
Diarrhoea is not a disease per se, but rather a sign of a gastrointestinal problem. In ferrets, there are several conditions that can result in diarrhoea. Internal parasites can be a cause of diarrhoea in ferrets. Viruses, although not common, can also cause diarrhoea in ferrets. Helicobacter musteli is a spirochete-type of bacterium that causes ulcers and diarrhoea in ferrets; similar spirochetes cause stomach ulcers in people and dogs. Proliferative colitis is caused by a Campylobacter bacterium and is treated with antibiotics.
Diarrhoea can be treated with several different medications depending upon the cause of the diarrhoea. Intestinal parasites are treated with the appropriate deworming medication. Infectious causes of diarrhoea in ferrets are treated with antibiotics and occasionally anti-ulcer medication.
Owners should avoid home treatment without a proper diagnosis, as many diseases appear similar and mimic each other.
Intestinal foreign bodies are a common problem in ferrets, especially those less than 1 year old. Being curious creatures, ferrets commonly investigate, chew, and swallow many objects; most commonly rubber parts of shoes, furniture and mattress stuffing, rubber bands, pencil rubbers, and parts of dog and cat toys are chewed and swallowed.
These obstructions are difficult to diagnose unless the owner observes the ferret swallowing the object or sees a piece of the object missing. They 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, diarrhoea, and gradual body wasting.
Vomiting of a severe, projectile nature is suggestive of a complete obstruction.
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 diarrhoea), early diagnosis and surgical intervention is important.
Like dogs and cats, ferrets can contract various intestinal parasites, as well as external parasites such as fleas, ticks, mange and ear mites. Yearly microscopic faecal examinations will allow easy diagnosis and treatment. A monthly spot-on flea and wormer can help prevent and control such parasites, making sure you use one suitable for ferrets such as Prinovox.
Ringworm is occasionally seen in ferrets and usually manifests as a circular area of hair loss with slight scaliness along the periphery of the circle. Diagnosis can only be accurately made with a special culture of the skin, scales, and hair. It can be transmitted to other pets and to people, so care should be used in handling infected ferrets.
Ringworm can be treated much the same as it is in dogs and cats and involves medicated shampooing, topical medications, and oral medication for severe infections. Mild infections often respond to topical therapy alone. Since ringworm appears similar to other skin conditions, correct diagnosis is important before treatment is started.
There are several types of cancers commonly seen in the pet ferret. These include;
- cancer of the pancreas (called an insulinoma)
- adrenal gland tumours (often seen in conjunction with the insulinoma)
- 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 be immediately investigated by your veterinary surgeon to check for cancer. Treated early, many types of cancers can be resolved or their symptoms treated.
The various cancers can be treated surgically, medically, or with a combination of both surgical removal of the tumour and potentially chemotherapy depending upon the type of cancer involved. Many cancers in ferrets can be treated, but early diagnosis is essential.
Any of these diseases can be severe enough to cause a loss of appetite and lethargy. When seen, these signs indicate a guarded prognosis and the need for hospitalisation and intensive care, which can include fluid therapy and force feeding.