Pet Project: Some common health woes for ferrets : Dr. Dana Koch Correspondent

Dear Dr. Dana,

My son is interested in adopting a ferret. What are some common diseases that ferrets can contract?

Nicole, Bensalem

Dear Nicole,

Ferrets make wonderful pets and being prepared on how to properly care for a special type of animal like a ferret is very important. By learning about the common diseases your ferret can get you will be better prepared to recognize the abnormal clinical signs or even possibly prevent your ferret from getting sick.

  • Foreign bodies: This is not necessarily classified as a disease but ferrets are notorious for ingesting household items that could potentially cause an obstruction in their body. Closely supervise your ferret out of his or her enclosure to prevent eating any potentially dangerous items.
  • Adrenal gland disease: This is a very common issue for ferrets which results from diseased or overactive adrenal glands. These glands, which live in close proximity to the kidneys, produce certain sex hormones, especially the sex hormones estrogen and testosterone. There has been research to suggest a link between early neutering and the incidence of adrenal disease in ferrets. The common symptoms associated with adrenal gland disease includes hair loss, dry and itchy skin, weight loss, difficulty urinating, enlarged vulva in females, aggressive behavior, enlargement of mammary gland tissue. A common treatment that is often pursued is surgical removal of the affected adrenal gland. For those ferrets that are not ideal candidates for surgery there are other medical options that may reduce the production of sex hormones and suppress continued adrenal growth.
  • Lymphoma: This type of cancer is accompanied with enlarged lymph nodes in the body. Ferrets have lymph nodes in several locations in their body including in below their jaw, in their neck and on the back of their hind legs. There are also internal lymph nodes that can sometimes be palpated if enlarged. Lymphoma is more commonly diagnosed in ferrets over the age of 3. Your veterinarian might want to obtain cells or tissue from the lymph nodes to evaluate under the microscope to aid in diagnosis. There are treatment options for ferrets diagnosed with lymphoma including chemotherapy, radiation therapy and steroid therapy.
  • Dilated cardiomyopathy: This type of heart disease is a concern for ferret owners. In this condition there is progressive loss of cardiac contractility, resulting in a dilated or enlarged heart. In turn, the walls of the heart become thin and weak and unable to efficiently pump blood out into the general circulation. If left untreated fluid can accumulate in the chest or abdomen. Clinical signs include weakness, lethargy, coughing, abdominal distension, and increased respiratory rate. Your veterinarian will listen for a heart murmur and may want to perform testing such as an X-ray, electrocardiogram (ECG) and echocardiogram (ultrasound of the heart). There is no cure for this condition but medications can be given to help slow the progression of the heart disease and prolong the ferret’s life.
  • Insulinoma: This a condition characterized by a tumor the beta cells in the pancreas. This causes excessive levels of insulin to be released in the body, thus leading to a drop in the glucose or blood sugar. Symptoms include weakness, lethargy, salivation, pawing at mouth and seizures. Treatment may include surgery, medication and diet changes.
  • Aplastic anemia: If a female ferret is not spayed there is a chance she may develop this condition. In the female ferret, called a jill, there will be high levels of estrogen circulating in the body leading to bone marrow suppression. This in turn reduces the amount of red and white blood cells produced. The anemia causes the ferret to be lethargic and have pale gums. If the anemia becomes severe the ferret may need a blood transfusion and hormone therapy. Spaying jills is the best preventative medicine.

Dr. Dana Koch, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, works for HousePaws Mobile Veterinary Service. Her professional interests include dentistry, pocket pets, preventative medicine and internal medicine. She services Bucks County, Philadelphia and South Jersey.

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