Ferrets are prone to many different types of health problems, and it's a good idea to take your ferret for regular veterinary checkups to find any potential problems before they become untreatable or require more drastic treatments.
While a young ferret may need to go to the vet only on an annual basis, barring emergency or illness, it is recommended that once a ferret reaches the age of 3 years, he begins a 6-month checkup regimen. The ferret should have blood checkups done annually to screen for disease as well as to give your vet a baseline for what is "normal" for that particular animal. Most diseases common to ferrets are treatable if caught early enough. Although the extra tests may seem costly, it can actually save you money in the long run.
Intestinal Disorders and Blockages
These disorders are often caused by the ingestion of foreign objects. Hairballs are most common in the older ferrets. Signs of foreign object ingestion include loss of appetite, diarrhea, lethargy and sometimes vomiting. Very rarely will a ferret pass foreign objects unassisted. Surgical removal of foreign objects is usually necessary.
Rotavirus infection affects ferrets from 1 to 7 days old causing diarrhea, dehydration and stunted growth. Kits look wet and hairs from the head and neck are slicked down.
Epizootic Catarrhal Enteritis (Green Slime Disease)
This is a highly infectious disease of the gastrointestinal tract often leading to a large amount of green, mucous-type diarrhea. This disease is usually seen in ferrets that are new to the house (sometimes called "stress diarrhea") or have recently been housed with strange ferrets. Any ferret showing this symptom should immediately be quarantined away from your other ferrets. The suggested treatment is to use aggressive supportive care (IV fluids, nutritional support etc.) to keep the ferret strong, and the virus will have to pass on its own. Ferrets also commonly develop intestinal inflammation (enteritis) leading to diarrhea.
Insulinomas are common in ferrets over 2 years of age. An insulinoma is a tumor in the pancreas, which causes it to secrete extra insulin, causing the glucose in the blood to drop. Signs of insulinoma include decreased activity, increased sleeping, weakness in the back legs, hyper salivation, and sometimes pawing the mouth. High insulin level will depress blood sugar to the point of collapse and coma. Routinely, ferrets with insulinoma are treated with corticosteroids.
Another common and potentially fatal problem is adrenal disease.
The adrenal gland grows in size and causes abnormal amounts of adrenal hormones to enter the blood stream. Signs include hair loss, scratching, and swollen vulvas in females. This disease is commonly seen in ferrets around 2 to 3 years of age. The treatment for adrenal tumors is surgery.
Lymphosarcoma is another common disease in ferrets that may be seen in young or older ferrets. Signs include decreased activity, weight loss, appetite loss, respiratory distress, and enlarged lymph nodes. Chemotherapy is generally the preferred treatment. The cause is unknown.
Mast Cell Tumors
Although these growths are benign, they cause intense itching. These tumors look like scabs, but they don't go away the way scabs will. Surgical removal is the only available treatment.
While rabies are rare in ferrets, canine distemper is not and is almost 100% fatal in ferrets within 12 to 42 days after exposure. Once a ferret gets the disease, euthanasia is recommended to prevent the spread of the disease to other animals and end the animal's suffering. Some of the sign of canine distemper include loss of appetite, foul-smelling yellow or green sticky eye discharge, swollen eyelids, green or yellow nasal discharge, swelling of lips and chin, thick brown crusts that form on the eyes, nose, lips and chin, lethargy, diarrhea, difficulty breathing, dehydration, convulsions, and, in the later stages, a thickening and hardening of the paw pads.
Since canine distemper is an airborne virus, ferrets can become infected even if they don't leave the house by inhaling the virus from your skin or clothing. Because the incubation period for canine distemper can be as long as 10 days, always isolate any new dogs or ferrets brought into your household for 14 days unless immunity to canine distemper can be ascertained.
Aleutian Disease Virus is a parvovirus that can infect mink and ferret. ADV-F is a strain of parvovirus that affects ferrets. ADV is chronic systemic illness characterized by wasting and nervous system signs. Some ferrets may be infected but will show no signs. Unlike parvovirus in dogs and cats, the disease is caused by long-term effects on immune system, and antibody complex depositions in kidneys, gastrointestinal tract, liver and arteries, not by the toxins of the virus. The course of the disease is usually protracted, extending over 12 to 24 months. Suspect ADV if your ferret has rear limb weakness, fecal/urinary incontinence and head tremor. There is no specific treatment for ADV. Emphasis is on supportive care (fluids and electrolyte balance, proper nutrition.)
Ptyalism is excessive production of saliva and is an extremely common complaint in ferrets. It is usually associated with nausea. This can be caused by lesions in the mouth or underlying diseases of esophagus, stomach or throat. Young ferrets are more likely to have ptyalism caused by ingestion of a toxin, caustic agent or foreign body. In older animals, the cause is often a metabolic disease such as insulinoma. Pawing at the face or muzzle that frequently accompanies ptyalism is a common sign of nausea. Many infectious diseases (canine distemper, rabies, botulism) as well as seizures cause excessive salivation. Treatment is directed against the underlying disease. Some household cleaning agent and plants can also cause ptyalism.
Kidney and Cardiac Problems
Kidney and cardiac problems are also common in ferrets. Kidney disease can be recognized by increased water consumption and increased urination. Heart disease is most common in middle aged and older ferrets. Cardiac signs include weight loss, coughing, exercise intolerance, labored respiration, or shortness of breath. The long-term prognosis is poor.
Urethral Obstruction & Anal Prolapse
Urethral obstructions are most common in male ferrets. They are often seen in conjunction with prostatic enlargement due to adrenal gland disease and can also be caused by urinary stones, infections, etc. Initial treatment is to relieve obstruction with a urinary catheter. Further treatment includes fluid replacement, correction of electrolyte imbalances, and treatment of the infection.
Anal Prolapse is an emergency condition that is signaled by a ferret sliding across the floor, dragging his rear end, and sometimes whimpering in pain. It can be caused by the E. coli bacteria that can be transmitted from human to ferret and vice versa. It can be treated by medication prescribed by a veterinarian.
Although heartworms are parasites and not a disease, they affect the heart adversely and can be fatal if not treated. The number of heartworm cases seen each year in ferrets is increasing, especially in the southern states. Ask your veterinarian about heartworm preventive medicine, especially if your ferret spends any time outdoors.
Cold and Allergies
Ferrets have a very weak immune system and can catch a cold or the flu from members of their human family, other animals, or airborne germs. Ferrets can also suffer from allergies. A head cold that might keep you out of work or school for a couple of days can prove fatal to a ferret. Always keep away from your ferret if you have any sort of influenza or virus.
If your ferret has excess discharge form his nose, you can wipe it with a tissue to help ferret breathe and swallow. Running a cool mist humidifier near his cage, or placing your ferret in a travel cage inside a steamy bathroom will also help to loosen up mucus in the lungs, throat, and nose. If the cold lasts a couple of days, and your ferret is off his food more than usual, you may need a visit to the veterinarian for antibiotics.
Obesity has become extremely common and debilitating in ferrets. Ferrets tend to prefer sweet-tasting treats; overfeeding of these treats is the main cause of obesity in pet ferrets. Obesity results in serious muscular, cardiac and liver problems. Lethargy and rear legs weakness are common signs of obesity. Discontinue feeding sweet and high-fat treats and dietary supplements.
A clean living environment is a very important part of keeping your ferret healthy. Ferrets eat often and tend to eliminate frequently; therefore, the litter box needs to be scooped daily and scrubbed down weekly. Ferrets are very sensitive to many chemicals, so be cautious when choosing your household cleansers.
Because ferrets snack all day long, it is necessary to keep their food bowl constantly full. It is also necessary to clean out these food bowls at least once a week because of the grime that tends to build up on the bowl.
- Ferrets, T.F.H. Publications, Inc.
- Barbara L. Oglesbee. The 5-Minute Veterinary Consult: Ferret and Rabbit