Caring for your Ferret
Your ferret is a delightful and entertaining pet but can be vulnerable to health and environmental hazards. The professionals at Community Animal Hospital offer these basic guidelines for the care of pet ferrets.
Housing, Diet, Grooming, and Physical Exams
It is recommended that cages be a minimum of 2 x 4 feet. Many ferret cages have several levels to allow for more surface area for the ferret to climb and play. Sleeping areas and a litter box should be provided in the cage. Use a low-dust litter, such as those made from paper pulp: Carefresh Bedding and Yesterday's News both work well. Allow your ferret supervised daily exercise time out of the cage. Ferrets love to play in boxes and run through tubes. Dryer vent hoses that you can purchase from a hardware store work well. Small, hard rubber dog toys or ones with squeakers usually appeal to ferrets. Watch your ferret closely to be sure it doesn't chew pieces off of the toy.
Ferrets are a carnivorous species. They should be fed a high-quality, high-protein ferret food. Some ferrets enjoy treats, such as Cheerios, Pounce cat treats, and ferret treats. Ferretone or Linatone can be offered as a treat and both can help keep the skin from becoming dry indoors.
Ferrets need their nails trimmed on a regular basis. When their nails become long or sharp, they can get them caught in bedding, which will injure toes, feet, and legs. You may bathe your ferret with a ferret or kitten shampoo every month or so. Bathing them more often will remove natural oils from the coat and will cause dry, itchy skin. Occasionally, you will need to clean your ferret's ears. You can do this at bath time and dry them with a cotton ball. Be careful if you choose to use cotton swabs as you can injure the eardrum if you go into the ear too deep. You can read more about ferret hygiene at the AAHA Healty Pet website.
Always have an initial physical exam performed on any newly acquired pet. During the exam, the doctor will check the teeth, eyes, ears, heart, and lungs, palpate the abdomen, and discuss rabies and distemper vaccinations. It is also recommended to have your ferret checked for internal parasites (a fecal exam) and ear mites (an ear smear). Your ferret will need to return to the vet once a year for a physical exam and for vaccine booster shots.
Conditions Requiring Medical Attention
- Foreign body—Young ferrets tend to eat things that they shouldn't, especially when they are not supervised. The intestinal tract may become fully or partially blocked by the consumed item and cause a serious medical emergency that will require surgery. Favorite edibles are items such as rubber bands and erasers, felt or rubber padding, rubber soled shoes, small plastic toys and their parts, foam or stuffing from stuffed animals or pillows, cherry pits, and any other small item made out of these materials. We also see hairballs in older ferrets that will cause a blockage and can require surgery to remove.
- ECE or green slime disease—ECE is a virus that ferrets pass to one another via any contact and is extremely contagious. Symptoms include diarrhea and lethargy. Again, because ECE is a virus, there is no real treatment for it, but most ferrets benefit from supportive care with fluids, anti-diarrheal medications, and antibiotics. This virus can be extremely dangerous in young and older ferrets and can even cause liver disease or death. If you suspect that your ferret may have ECE, call your veterinarian for advice immediately.
- Geriatric ferrets—A ferret is considered geriatric around 3 years of age. Annual or even twice-yearly exams are more important in geriatric ferrets because health problems are more common as they age. Blood work may be recommended to better evaluate your ferret's health.
- Adrenal gland disease (see special discussion below)—Most ferrets over the age of 3 years old will get adrenal gland tumors. Symptoms include hair loss over the tail and pelvis or hip area of the body, dry itchy skin, a swollen vulva in female ferrets, behavior changes, and difficulty urinating (due to enlargement of the prostate gland) in male ferrets. Treatment for adrenal gland disease includes either surgical removal of the affected adrenal gland, hormonal injections, or implantation of a melatonin chip. Prior to surgery, it is recommended to have blood work, ultrasound, and X-rays taken of your ferret to help ensure its safety while under anesthesia.
- Insulinoma—Many ferrets over the age of 3 years old will eventually get insulinoma, insulin-secreting tumors on the pancreas. Symptoms include lethargy, hind end weakness, decreased appetite, chronic weight loss, difficulty waking the ferret after sleep, drooling, pawing at the mouth, seizures, and death. The symptoms are caused by low blood glucose and get worse the lower the glucose becomes. Insulinoma is often diagnosed with yearly geriatric blood work. Treatment includes oral steroids or other medication for the rest of the ferret's life or surgery.
Adrenal Gland Disease
One of the most common diseases of our pet ferrets is adrenal gland disease.
Adrenal gland disease is an endocrine disease of ferrets that is believed to be related to the removal of the gonads (testes in males, ovaries in females). As ferrets age (usually at 3 years or older but has been seen in ferrets as young as 1.5 years), the adrenal glands begin to become receptive to gonadal hormones from the pituitary gland. The affected adrenal glands then begin to produce excessive levels of sex hormones such as estrogens. These elevated hormones begin to cause problems for our ferrets such as hair loss, itchy skin, lethargy, swollen vulva in females, and prostatic problems in males.
Currently, treatment involves surgery to remove the effected glands of younger and healthier ferrets and lifetime monthly hormone injections with Lupron for older ferrets or ferrets not healthy enough to be good candidates for surgery. Some symptoms respond to the implantation of a melatonin chip.
Future research will hopefully provide a slow-release hormone that can be implanted in ferrets or perhaps an immunization that will deactivate the effect of the pituitary hormones on the adrenal gland to prevent this disease.