Ferrets

I have an older ferret and I am thinking of getting a young one. Will they get along?

Ferrets are usually very social, and seem to like having a friend around to interact with. Whether or not any two ferrets will get along is anybody's guess. More times than not they will, however we have seen instances were two individuals just do not seem to like each other. It is very important to keep a new ferret quarantined for at least 3-4 weeks and have it checked by a veterinarian to be sure it is healthy.


My ferret is loosing hair on the lower part of her body. What causes this?

There are a few different reasons why ferrets can loose hair. By far the most common reason is the presence of an adrenal tumor. These tumors secrete hormones which can cause the hair loss, itching, and swollen vulva in spayed females. Other reasons can be skin parasites, fungus, and skin cancer. Please see the rest of our ferret section for a discussion of adrenal tumors and another cancer ferrets get, insulinomas. There is a normal seasonal hair loss that ferrets experience, but the bald area is only on the tail.


Why are ferrets sold spayed?

Ferrets are very sensitive to the effects of the female hormone estrogen on their bodies. If they are not spayed, go into heat and cannot breed, the high level of estrogen causes their bone marrow to shut down and they become anemic and will die.


Do ferrets need shots?

The Rutherford Animal Hospital recommends yearly examinations and vaccinations for all ferrets. Ferrets get distemper and rabies vaccines. Only vaccines which are approved for use on ferrets should be used.


What kind of food should I feed my ferret?

We generally recommend a high quality ferret food. In our hospital we feed and carry Marshalls, and Totally Ferret. Many ferrets are fed kitten or cat food. Some ferrets do well on these, but most ferrets will be healthier on the ferret foods which are higher in fat and protein.


My ferret paws at his mouth. Is something stuck in there?

There are a few reasons why ferrets paw at their mouths. Sometimes this is a sign of an upset stomach. Ferrets do not vomit very often, so if they paw at their mouths this can be a sign that they are sick. This can also be a sign of low blood sugar which happens when ferrets commonly get insulinomas. See our discussion on insulinomas. Also pawing at the mouth can be a sign of dental disease. Your ferret should have a complete checkup and possibly blood work.


Adrenal Tumors and Insulinomas in Ferrets

Adrenal tumors and insulinomas are seen with high frequency in ferrets 3 years of age and older. These tumors may be found separately or concurrently in the same ferret. We are seeing an incidence of insulinoma that may be as high as 50% of ferrets over 3 years of age. The cause for the high incidence of these tumors is not known, but it may be related to the diets we feed, raising ferrets indoor in artificial light, or inbreeding and early neutering of U.S. ferrets. Due to our extensive experience with ferrets we have the opportunity to treat many of these cases. We have developed procedures and approaches that are very effective.

Please familiarize yourself with the signs of these tumors and if you notice any, schedule a check-up appointment for your ferret. Both tumors can be treated successfully. Early

detection improves the prognosis for your pet!

I. Adrenal Tumors

The adrenal glands produce many different hormones that are important for the body's equilibrium and daily rhythms. In ferrets, the adrenal glands often become overactive or, in some cases, cancerous. This condition is common in ferrets, typically from 2-6 years of age, although it can occur in ferrets as young as 1 year of age.

Clinical signs of an adrenal problem may include: swollen vulva (vagina) in spayed females, a return of sexual behavior in neutered ferrets of both sexes, an increase in body odor, hair loss (typically over the rump and back), itchiness, and increased drinking and urination. Affected ferrets may show one or several of these clinical signs.

An adrenal problem is diagnosed by 1) ultrasound examination (sonogram) of the adrenal glands or 2) "exploratory" surgery. Ultrasound is a non-painful, non-invasive procedure where sound waves are bounced off the internal organs, painting a picture of their structure. Some adrenal tumors are too small to be detected on ultrasound. If the ultrasound is normal but we suspect an adrenal problem due to clinical signs, we may recommend exploratory surgery to more closely examine the adrenal glands. At this time, an abnormal-appearing adrenal gland is biopsied or removed for microscopic examination to get a definitive diagnosis.

Adrenal tumors are treated either by surgical removal of the affected adrenal gland or by administration of a medication that shrinks the gland. Speak with your doctor about which treatment is best for your pet. (A similar problem in people and dogs is called "Cushing's Disease.")

II. Insulinoma

Insulinoma is a tumor of the pancreas that produces too much insulin. High insulin levels in the blood drive down the blood sugar, and cause "Hypoglycemia" (low blood sugar), the opposite of diabetes.

Insulinomas occur in ferrets 3 years of age and older. Signs of hypoglycemia in ferrets tend to be intermittent, and, in mild cases, will get better without treatment within 20 minutes to 2 hours. Signs of hypoglycemia may include: rear leg weakness, a dazed expression, collapse, unconsciousness, and seizures. Some ferrets become very nauseous when they are hypoglycemic; these ferrets will drool heavily and claw at their mouths with their front paws. Ferrets with insulinoma typically become hypoglycemic after a period of exercise or after a long sleep. If you see these signs in your ferret, give it some honey, Karo syrup, Nutrical, or other sugary food. As soon as it looks more normal, encourage it to eat some "solid" food, such as its regular ferret food. Otherwise, the blood sugar will go crashing down again (the same way you can get a "sugar high" then a "sugar low" after eating a candy bar).

A tentative diagnosis of insulinoma is made by doing full blood tests after a carefully monitored 4-6 hour fast. Ferrets with insulinoma typically have low blood sugar after this short fast; their other blood tests are usually normal. (We like to run a full blood screen to check for anything else that could cause low blood sugar, such as liver disease. Ferrets with a poor appetite for several days due to illness other than insulinoma also will typically have a low blood sugar.)

If we suspect insulinoma based on blood tests, we will usually recommend exploratory surgery. Insulinomas occur as one to several small tumor nodules in the pancreas. The nodule(s) are removed surgically and submitted for biopsy (microscopic examination), which gives us a definitive diagnosis. Surgery to remove the insulinoma will typically alleviate clinical signs and allow your ferret to be without medications for 3 months to 2 years after surgery. Therefore, surgical removal "buys time," but is not a cure. This is because the development of insulinoma nodules in the pancreas appears to be a continuous process, progressing more rapidly in some ferrets than in others.

Ferrets with insulinoma should always be encouraged to eat frequent small meals, especially after play or a long sleep. Try to feed them regular dry or canned ferret or cat food and avoid sugary treats. Some insulinoma ferrets do better on a daily supplement of Brewer's yeast: mix 1/10 th to 1/4 of a teaspoon into the food daily (you might need to mix it with water or disguise it in meat, baby food, Deliver, or another liquid nutritional supplement). Brewer's yeast has a high level of chromium (in addition to lots of other vitamins); chromium helps to stabilize blood sugar. Keep Karo syrup, honey, or Nutrical on the shelf so it's handy to treat an episode of low blood sugar.

Medical therapy for insulinoma is initiated when the hypoglycemic episodes become frequent or severe. There are two drugs we use; we generally start with one and add the second as clinical signs dictate. We let the ferret's behavior and attitude guide us in establishing the correct dosage. Every ferret is different! With both drugs we start at a low dosage and gradually increase it as necessary. This is because insulinoma is a progressive disease, as mentioned above. The first drug we use is prednisone, which is a type of cortisone. Prednisone helps to stabilize blood sugar. At the medium to higher dosages, side-effects can include weight gain and increased thirst and urination. The second drug we add when necessary is called diazoxide (Proglycem). Diazoxide counteracts the effects of insulin in the body. Most ferrets do not like the way it tastes! Side-effects of diazoxide, although very rare, include lethargy, nausea and loss of appetite. If you notice these signs, or are having trouble giving the medication, please call one of the doctors. Ferrets with insulinoma require frequent monitoring and good care, but most live good quality lives for months to years following the diagnosis.


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Do not use e-mail for emergency situations. If your pet is in need of medical assistance, call the Rutherford Animal Hospital at (201) 933-4111.