What are some of the common diseases of pet ferrets?
Common conditions of pet ferrets include diarrhea, intestinal foreign bodies, parasites, heart disease, and various tumors.
Diarrhea is not a disease, per se, but rather a sign of a gastrointestinal problem. By definition, diarrhea is loose, watery feces occurring several times a day. In a ferret with diarrhea, the feces may be dark green to brown, slimy, grainy, profuse, or scant. Ferrets with diarrhea may not appear sick, or they may show anorexia (lack of appetite), vomiting, weight loss, weakness, lethargy, and dehydration.
Several factors can cause diarrhea:
- Abrupt changes in the diet
- Intestinal parasites, such as Coccidia and Giardia
- Viruses, such as Coronavirus, Rotavirus (seen in young ferrets in North America), epizootic catarrhal enteritis (becoming more common in very young and mature ferrets), and, sometimes, human influenza or canine distemper (fatal in ferrets)
- Some bacteria, such as Helicobacter musteli(a spiral-type of bacteria), Salmonella, Campylobacter (the cause of proliferative colitis in ferrets), and Clostridia; Salmonella and Campylobacter are essential to identify by a fecal culture, as they are considered zoonotic diseases (can spread to humans).
- Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
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.
See the handout “Gastrointestinal Diseases in Ferrets” for additional information.
"Owners should avoid home treatment without a proper diagnosis, as many diseases have similar symptoms and mimic each other."
Intestinal foreign bodies
Foreign object ingestion is a common problem in ferrets, especially 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, kids’ toys, pet toys, erasers, rubber bands, balloons, speaker foam, headphone foam, and swim goggle liners to name a few. If an object can fit inside a ferret’s mouth, it can be swallowed.
If a ferret swallows one of these objects, it can cause a gastrointestinal obstruction (blockage), requiring a delicate and sometimes lengthy exploratory surgery to remove the foreign material. 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).
"If an object can fit inside a ferret’s mouth, it can be swallowed."
Common signs of foreign object ingestion are the same as many other diseases, including anorexia, vomiting, lethargy, diarrhea, and progressive weight loss. If the blockage has been present longer than 24 hours, the location of the blockage in the intestinal tract may become devitalized (loss of blood supply). This requires a bowel resection, a much more complicated surgery. Vomiting of a severe, projectile nature suggests a complete obstruction that requires emergency treatment and surgery. Like cats, ferrets can ingest hair, causing a ‘hairball’ to form in the stomach. Medical therapy with enzyme treatment may help break up the compact hairball. Surgery may be necessary in these cases as well.
Like dogs and cats, ferrets can contract various parasites. Yearly microscopic fecal examinations will allow easy diagnosis and treatment for intestinal parasites. External parasites, such as fleas, ticks, mange, and ear mites, can also infect ferrets. These can be treated with topical and injectable medications.
For additional information about parasites in ferrets, see the handouts “Gastrointestinal Diseases in Ferrets” and “Skin Diseases in Ferrets”.
Cardiac or heart disease is relatively common in ferrets. Ferrets can develop congestive heart failure due to cardiomyopathy (improper function of the heart muscle), usually when they are over three years old. They can also develop heart failure due to heartworm infection. All ferrets should be on a monthly heartworm preventive.
Clinical signs of heart disease include weakness (in the hind end), ataxia (wobbliness or loss of coordination), anorexia, weakness, dyspnea (trouble breathing), coughing, or abdominal distension. Your veterinarian may hear a heart murmur or detect changes to the heart’s rhythm. Diagnosis depends on a thorough history, physical examination, blood tests, radiographs, an electrocardiogram (to measure electric pulses generated by the heart), and/or an echocardiogram (ultrasound of the heart).
Most heart conditions in ferrets cannot be cured, but the appropriate treatment will help the heart work better and improve the ferret's quality of life.
Tumors and cancer
Ferrets commonly develop cancer somewhat early in life. Since early detection is critical to survival, every ferret should have yearly health examinations. Ferrets over the age of three years should have a geriatric screening at least annually. This screening includes a complete blood count (CBC), blood chemistry profile, and chest and abdomen radiographs. A urinalysis and electrocardiogram may also be recommended. There are several types of cancer commonly seen in pet ferrets.
"Ferrets over the age of three years should have a geriatric screening at least annually."
The three most common types of cancer are pancreatic adenocarcinoma (insulinoma), adrenal gland tumors, and lymphosarcoma (cancer of the lymph nodes and lymphocytic white blood cells). Common skin tumors are basal cell carcinoma, hemangioma, and mast cell tumors. Any lump or bump should immediately be examined by your veterinarian. Treated early, many types of cancers can be successfully managed or resolved.
The various cancers commonly seen in ferrets can be treated surgically, medically, or with a combination of surgical removal of the tumor and chemotherapy, depending upon the type of cancer involved.
While treatment can help control signs and improve the quality of life, insulinoma is not usually considered a type of cancer that can be cured. Adrenal tumors may be surgically removed and may also be treated with hormone therapy in addition to surgery. Adrenal tumors should always be treated, as the hormones produced by the tumor can enlarge the prostate in male ferrets, leading to life-threatening urinary tract obstruction and bone marrow suppression and, in males and females, anemia. There may be more than one treatment option, so the course of therapy and prognosis for return to health should be discussed with your veterinarian.
See the handouts “Insulinomas in Ferrets”, “Lymphoma or Lymphosarcoma in Ferrets”, “Ferrets – Mast Cell Tumors”, and “Skin Diseases in Ferrets” for additional information about these cancers and tumors.