FERRET - MEDICAL CONSIDERATIONS
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FERRET – MEDICAL CONSIDERATIONS DISEASE There are two medical conditions of ferrets which demand special mention: the ferret's extreme susceptibility to canine distemper and the unusual consequences of female ferrets coming into heat. Brief mention of other medical conditions will be made following a discussion of these two conditions. CANINE DISTEMPER Ferrets are highly susceptible to canine distemper. The initial signs of the disease appear 7 to 10 days after exposure to the virus and include inappetence and a thick mucous and pus-laden discharge from the eyes 1460 Gordon Street and nostrils. A rash commonly appears under the chin and in the groin Guelph, Ontario N1L 1C8 area 10 to 12 days following exposure. The foot pads become greatly 519-837-1212 thickened. This disease is considered 100% fatal, with infected ferrets email@example.com dying 3 to 31/2 weeks after initial exposure. www.petsandvets.ca Prevention of this disease should be an absolute priority because treatment is useless. Kits should first be vaccinated against canine distemper at 6 to 8 weeks of age (4 to 6 weeks of age if kits are from unvaccinated mothers). A booster vaccine is essential 2 to 3 weeks later. We use modified live vaccines and recommend yearly boosters. CONSEQUENCES OF FEMALES IN HEAT Female ferrets are seasonally polyestrus which means they are capable of coming into heat more than once during the breeding season (March through August). They are also induced ovulators which means that ovulation occurs as a result of the act of copulation. The onset of heat is primarily recognized by swelling of the external genitalia. If a ferret in heat does not engage in copulation, she will remain in heat up to 160 days. If she is bred, the swelling of the external genitalia usually regresses to normal size within 2 to 3 weeks after copulation. Sustained heat is dangerous and life-threatening because it usually results in bone marrow suppression which results in severe anemia and decreases in the number of circulating white blood cells. Because of this likelihood, any female ferret not intended for breeding should be sterilized (spayed/ovariohysterectomized) by 6 to 8 months of age. Female ferrets in heat can be taken out of heat within about 3 weeks by the injection of a specific hormone given after the first ten days of heat. Once out of heat, they can be spayed before they come back into heat (usually 40 to 50 days after administration of the hormone). RABIES Ferrets should be vaccinated against rabies annually with Imrab3. OTHER VIRAL DISEASES Ferrets are not susceptible to the viruses which commonly produce upper respiratory disease in domestic cats (Rhinotracheitis, Calicivirus), nor are they susceptible to canine hepatitis. There is no definitive evidence that ferrets are susceptible to Canine Paryovirus or Feline Leukemia Virus and we currently are not recommending vaccination against any of these diseases. We have, however, documented a number of cases of lymphoma and lymphosarcoma (cancer) in ferrets over the years. Some of these cases were tested for Feline Leukemia Virus; some tested positive. We cannot prove a cause and effect relationship on such a small number of cases, but feel that the possibility definitely exists for ferrets to become infected with this virus and for cancer to be one possible end result of such an infection. Some researchers believe that leukemia and related diseases among ferrets may be caused by a virus or viruses specific to ferrets. Feline Infectious Peritonitis is another serious viral disease of cats for which ferret susceptibility is not yet known. There is no vaccine available for this disease, not even for cats. Because of our lack of knowledge regarding ferret susceptibility to this disease and the other feline diseases previously discussed, we feel that ferret owners should be extremely cautious with regards to their pet's exposure to cats, especially those exhibiting definite symptoms of illness and those of dubious or unknown health status. It is interesting to note that ferrets are susceptible to infection with several strains of human influenza ("flu") Virus. Signs of this illness may mimic those of canine distemper (listlessness, fever, inappetence, sneezing, nasal discharge, etc.) Unlike distemper, however, recovery from influenza usually occurs within 5 days of the onset of the illness. Exceptions to this occur when a bacterial infection complicates the viral infection. HYPERADRENOCORTICISM This is the single most common disease seen in ferrets. Typical age of presentation is four years and older. The first sign is a thinning haircoat over the tail and sacrum that does not re-grow seasonally. Itchiness is also a common indicator of this disease. Females often have swollen vulvas whereas males can have urinary tract obstructions from enlarged prostates. Up to a few years ago the only treatment was surgery. Now we have an injectable medication called Lupron which seems to be highly effective in the vast majority of cases. This drug is given on a monthly basis and is somewhat costly. INSULINOMAS An insulinoma is a tumor of the pancreas which excretes excessive amounts of insulin. This results in dangerously low levels of glucose in the blood. Clinical signs consist of episodic weakness, hypersalivation and star gazing. This disease can be controlled with surgery for a period of time but tends to recur. Medical options can also "buy time" but not a cure. PARASITE PROBLEMS AND SKIN DISEASE Most of the external parasites of domestic dogs and cats (fleas, mange mites, ear mites, etc.) are capable of causing diseases in ferrets. Less is known about the ferret's susceptibility to the more common internal parasites (roundworms, etc.) of dogs and cats. Protozoan (onecelled) parasites also shared by dogs and cats (especially giardia and coccidia) can cause intestinal disease among ferrets. We recommend periodic fecal (stool) examinations to check for such parasites and the administration of the appropriate treatment if warranted. Ringworm (a fungal disease of the skin similar to athlete's foot) has been reported in young ferrets and may be transmitted by infected cats. As a general rule of thumb, products manufactured and intended for use within and on cats (wormers, flea products, ringworm medications, etc.) are safe and suitable for use within and on ferrets, with one exception. Flea collars should never be used on ferrets. HEARTWORM DISEASE Ferrets are susceptible to heartworm disease, a mosquito-transmitted illness primarily of dogs. Ferret owners must carefully consider the pros and cons of preventative therapy for this disease. Accounts of adverse reactions to the standard canine preventative therapy among ferrets have been reported. Furthermore, the average pet ferret would be very unlikely to be bitten by an infected mosquito unless it lives in an area of heavy heartworm infection and has an above average exposure to mosquitoes (e.g. housed outdoors.) Most pet ferrets housed exclusively indoors would be safe from exposure and not require the preventative therapy. HEAT STROKE Ferrets lack sweat glands and are, therefore, somewhat compromised in their ability to maintain normal body temperature in the face of extremely warm environmental temperatures. If the temperature rises above 90 Fahrenheit and if water is restricted or not available to ferrets, heat prostration is likely and death quite possible. Providing ample shade and spraying ferrets on hot days will help to reduce the likelihood of this problem. CARDIOMYOPATHY Cardiomyopathy is a condition of the heart muscle that afflicts dogs, cats, and ferrets. Most reports involving ferrets Implicate males over 3 years of age. The cause of this condition is unknown. The muscle walls of the heart become thickened, reducing the ability of the heart to pump adequate quantities of blood to the rest of the body. Symptoms include inappetence, fatigue, increased periods of sleep, intolerance to exercise, faintinq, and shortness of breath. Diagnosis of cardiomyopathy is made using chest x-rays, an electrocardiogram (ECG), and echo-cardiography (a diagnostic technique using ultrasound waves). All ferrets older than 3 years should have an EGG to screen for this disease.