Ferret Distemper

It is estimated that over 8 million pet ferrets live in the United States. They are said to be the third most popular pet in the United States. Ferrets are a commonly used research animal for such disciplines as infectious and neoplastic diseases. They are also used for hunting, mainly in Great Britain. They have been domesticated for over 2000 years. In their relatively short life, ferrets develop numerous diseases and annual visits to the veterinarian are essential. Older ferrets should be seen twice a year. Vaccinate ferrets for canine distemper virus and rabies virus.

Canine Distemper Virus (CDV) causes ferret distemper. Canine distemper is the most serious disease in ferrets. This disease in the U.S. is primarily seen in young kits from pet stores. An outbreak of distemper can rapidly spread throughout a susceptible ferret colony, due to distribution of virus particles in the air, with case-fatality rate approaching 100% in a susceptible populations. Canine distemper virus replicates in all epithelial and lymphoid organs. In ferrets, however, the course of distemper virus infection always causes a respiratory and central nervous system disease.

Clinical signs of ferret distemper appear 7 to 10 days after exposure and include loss of appetite and pus-filled discharge from the nose and eyes, and high sensitivity to light. A rash appears under the chin and around the anus area 10 to 12 days after exposure. The footpads may become crusted. Death generally occurs 12 to 16 days after exposure. Ferrets that survive the respiratory phase may die during a central nervous system phase of distemper, signs of which include hypere../xcitability, excess salivation, muscular tremor, convulsions and coma.

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Clinical diagnosis of CDV infection can be confirmed with fluorescent antibody (FA) techniques on conjunctival scrapings and other tests. With the high case-fatality rate, treatment of ferret distemper is not possible, and euthanasia is a practical alternative to treatment. Distemper is 100% fatal for ferrets, so they must be vaccinated. The American Ferret Association (AFA) recommends vaccinating ferrets with USDA licensed vaccine products labeled for use in ferrets. Killed vaccines are not recommended due to a lack of long lasting immunity. In the face of an outbreak in a susceptible colony, sick animals should be removed from apparently healthy ferrets, and the healthy ferrets should be vaccinated immediately.


  1. MU College of Veterinary Medicine, Ferret Diseases
  2. Bruce H. Williams, DVM. Pathology of the Domestic Ferret (Mustela putorius furo L.)
  3. Karen L. Rosenthal, DVM, MS, Diplomate ABVP-Avian Director. Pet Ferret Basics and Techniques

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