Identifying and Treating Common Ferret Diseases

Ferret face close-up
Ferret standing on hind legs looking at camera close-up. Getty Images/Pilsener14 Pilsener14 / EyeEm

Ferrets are extremely entertaining exotic pets but just like dogs and cats, they are prone to a variety of illnesses. By learning about the common diseases your ferret can get you'll be better prepared to recognize the signs and symptoms of them or even possibly prevent your ferret from getting sick.

Ferret Distemper

Thankfully due to vaccinations for this disease, distemper is not as widely seen as it used to be.

But it is still a major concern to pet ferrets. Distemper is fatal and very contagious therefore it is taken very seriously in the ferret owner community. Most ferrets receive their first distemper vaccination from the breeding facility but it must be boostered about a month later and then annually.

The disease shows symptoms of watery eyes and inflammation initially but ferrets with distemper will all develop crusty food pads and parts of their face. These skin changes are classic for the disease.

Ferret Adrenal Gland Disease

Adrenal gland disease may be the most common ferret disease of them all. There are still several factors that may cause this ailment but there is no true cure for it. Thankfully, though, it can be managed.

It is thought that the early spay and neuter practices may play a role in developing adrenal gland disease but diet and a lack of UVB exposure are also thought to be contributors.

Different hormones, including sex hormones, are secreted from the adrenal glands. It is thought that since the reproductive organs of a ferret have been removed at such a young age and the adrenal glands still produce sex hormones throughout their life, the glands become enlarged and cancerous. An implant or injections are often used to manage the hormone secretions throughout the lifetime of a ferret with the disease.

Symptoms of adrenal gland disease are include hairloss, vulvar enlargement, prostatic inflammation (causing an inability to urinate in male ferrets), itchiness, and aggression. 

Ferret Lymphoma

Lymphoma is a terrible cancer of ferrets that affects the lymphnodes. It is fatal and there is no known prevention for it.

Lymphoma is usually suspected when a lymphnode is visibly enlarged. Ferrets, like other animals, have lymphnodes in multiple locations on their bodies. On their neck, in their armpits, and on the back of their hind legs are the most commonly noted places for enlarged lymphnodes in ferrets. But sometimes abdominal surgery reveals enlarged lymphnodes that wouldn't be seen externally.

Not all enlarged lymphnodes are cancerous though. Infections can cause lymphnodes to temporarily swell.

Ferret Dilated Cardiomyopathy

This is a heart condition that can cause sudden death in pet ferrets and while it isn't as common as some other diseases, it is still a concern for ferret owners. Taurine is an ingredient in quality ferret food and whole prey that may play a role in heart health but it is unknown if the exclusion of it causes dilated cardiomyopathy.

Dilated cardiomyopathy can be thought of as heart failure in ferrets.

Symptoms ferret owners might see include weakness, lethargy, coughing, and an increased respiratory rate (breathing fast). This is because the heart is working harder due to the disease process. The disease may be difficult to diagnose at first, unless your vet hears a heart murmur or you have an echocardiogram performed. Medications may be prescribed to decrease how much effort the heart has to make to pump blood but there is no cure for dilated cardiomyopathy.

Ferret Insulinoma

While diabetes causes blood sugar to spike, insulinoma causes a ferret's blood sugar to drop. One might think of this disease as the opposite of diabetes since it creates an overactive pancreas. Like diabetes, diet may play an important role in this disease of ferrets. The cells of the pancreas develop tumors that secrete more insulin than is necessary for a ferret, therefore the glucose (blood sugar) level drops and the ferret becomes lethargic.

If the blood sugar drops too low, seizures, coma, and death can occur which makes this disease so scary.

Signs of insulinoma in a ferret are usually excessive sleeping and lethargy. A simply blood sugar test at the vet's office typically diagnoses this tumor of the pancreas and steroids are usually prescribed. Surgery is sometimes performed to remove part of the ferret's pancreas and may allow a ferret to no longer require medication and regulate their own glucose levels once again. Diet also plays a huge role in the success of managing a ferret with insulinoma since regular spikes in blood sugar from eating may stress the pancreas more, leading to poor disease management.

Ferret Gastrointestinal Obstruction

Ferrets are quite the mischievous critters and because of that they often get themselves into trouble when they consume objects that aren't meant to be eaten. Rubbery items are especially tempting to ferrets due to the squishy texture and chewing sometimes leads to swallowing. These foreign items can obstruct or block a ferret's gastrointestinal tract and if they aren't removed, they can be life threatening.

It may be difficult to know if your ferret ate something that will cause an obstruction but after a little while, your ferret will start to stop defecating and vomit. They won't be able to keep food down, will lose weight, become lethargic, and may seem painful in their abdomen when you pick them up. A radiograph (x-ray) may be able to diagnose a foreign object and obstruction and then surgery or endoscopic retrieval will follow depending on what the item is and where it is located.

Preventing gastrointestinal obstructions may sound easy but usually owners don't even know how their ferrets got their paws on what they shouldn't have eaten. Remote buttons that have been chewed off, small items dropped on the floor, key chains, fridge magnets, and more have all been found in ferret tummies.

Hairballs can also cause an obstruction. These are called trichobezoars and won't show up on a radiograph but cause the same symptoms as other items that are stuck in your ferret.

Hair won't break down in the stomach or intestines so it usually accumulates and then causes a blockage that won't allow food to pass through. They often need to be surgically removed like foreign objects.

Ferret Aplastic Anemia

If you've ever wondered why ferrets are spayed at such a young age it's because of aplastic anemia. Female ferrets that go into heat need to mate in order to stop their body from producing large amounts of estrogen and suppressing bone marrow. Blood is produced in the bone marrow so if this production is suppressed the ferret becomes anemic.

Symptoms of anemia are usually lethargy, weakness, and pale gums. Ferrets that have been in heat for more than a few weeks are at risk for becoming anemic. Thankfully it is treatable by your vet and preventable by spaying your ferret.

Ferret Dental Disease

Ferrets have teeth and with teeth comes dental disease if they aren't properly cared for. Not many people brush their ferret's teeth but they can offer foods that those teeth are designed for. Kibble does not cater to the health of ferret teeth but whole prey items, like mice and chicks, do. Ferrets are made to tear apart their food and crunch on bones but most owners can't even fathom the thought of their ferret doing what comes naturally to them, so they feed them ferret kibble instead. 

Diseased teeth cause pain, bad breath, and you may see your ferret repeatedly licking their lips or pawing at their face. Bad teeth can be extracted by your vet but better yet, dental disease can be prevented with proper diets, chew toys, or someone brave enough to brush their ferret's teeth.