Ferret FAQ: Ferret Health Issues

Unfortunately our little fuzzies suffer from a wide variety of illnesses. It’s important to know as much as possible about the symptoms and treatments of these diseases so we can give our ferrets the best medical care possible!

You can find articles about these health issues and others at the following link: Health Issue Articles.

It's important to locate a veterinarian who is familiar with ferrets. Ferrets have different health problems and concerns than dogs and cats, so it's important to find a veterinarian that sees ferrets fairly regularly. Your regular veterinarian may also be able to point you in the right direction.

If you already have a veterinarian but aren't sure how familiar he or she is with ferrets, you can ask a few key questions to determine this.

  • How many ferrets do you see a week?
  • How long have you been seeing ferrets?
  • Do you like working with ferrets?
  • How do you keep up with advances in ferret medical care? (continuing education, online groups, conferences, etc)
  • Do you perform ferret surgeries? If so, which ones?
  • How many adrenal surgeries have you performed?
  • What vaccines do you carry for ferrets? (should be Imrab-3 for rabies, and Purevax-D or Galaxy-D for canine distemper)
  • What are your fees for checkups, vaccinations, and other procedures

Absolutely! They need a canine distemper shot and a rabies shot. The canine distemper shot should be given at 8, 11 and 14 weeks. After that, a yearly booster shot is all they need. Ferrets also need a rabies shot at about 14 to 16 weeks (at least 2 – 3 weeks after the distemper shot), then once a year after that.

We highly recommend that you have these two vaccinations done at two separate appointments at least two weeks apart. Having the vaccinations done in the same visit heightens the risk for an adverse reaction. It also means you won’t know which vaccine caused the reaction.

After getting the shot, you should stay at your veterinarian’s for 30 to 60 minutes, just in case your ferret does go into anaphylactic shock. Signs of a reaction include vomiting, diarrhea, signs of dizziness, wheezing and other difficulties breathing, seizures, pale or bright pink gums, dark purplish-bluish blotches spreading beneath the skin, convulsions, and passing out. In short, any behavior that is alarming after the vaccination is probably a sign of some kind of reaction. If you have already left the veterinarian’s office, get back right away so your veterinarian can treat the reaction.

Read more about ferret vaccinations.

Yes! Ferrets can definitely get hairballs, especially during the spring-shed season. Hairballs can be very dangerous for ferrets. Ferrets can't vomit up hairballs as cats can, so if they can't pass the hairball in feces, it can get stuck in your ferret's stomach or intestines and form a blockage. Blockages are life-threatening conditions that require surgery.

Do you think your ferret may have a hairball blockage? Some of the signs include:

  • Tiny, stringy stool
  • Coughing
  • Sudden loss of appetite and weight
  • Vomiting or dry heaves
  • Pawing at mouth
  • Rubbing face on the carpet
  • Dehydration
  • Bloating
  • Swollen belly that is painful to the touch

Sometimes ferrets will get a floating partial blockage that causes them to exhibit these symptoms only occasionally while other times they are fine. If your ferret starts showing symptoms of a blockage, take him to the veterinarian immediately, even if the symptoms go away! If you aren't already, start giving him or her a ferret hairball remedy to try and help the hairball through your ferret's system and keep an eye on your ferret's feces to see if he passes it.

The best way to help prevent hairballs is to give your ferrets a hairball remedy regularly. Once a week is usually fine for most of the year, but during the spring shed, you should give a hairball remedy or a laxative to your ferret at least a few times a week. If your ferret is "blowing" his coat (shedding all of the guard hairs leaving only the soft undercoat), administer the hairball remedy daily.

If you have multiple ferrets but only a few are shedding, you still need to give all of them a hairball remedy. Ferrets groom not only themselves but their cagemates. So if a non-shedding ferret grooms a shedding ferret, the non-shedding ferret is also at danger of developing hairballs.

To prevent hairballs, you should also wash ferret bedding and vacuum your house frequently. Loose hairs will be lying everywhere, just waiting to stick to your ferret, so keeping the environment clean will help. Brushing your ferret to remove loose hairs also helps.

There are a variety of reasons for hair loss on ferrets, but if your ferret is three years of age or older, your first thought should always be Adrenal Disease. Other reasons include:

  • Rat Tail (limited to the tail only)
  • Skin infections
  • Skin conditions
  • Parasites, such as ear mites or fleas
  • Malnutrition
  • Allergies
  • Old Age
  • Hormonal imbalances
  • Stress
  • Improper light cycles

For more information, check out our article on Ferret Hair Loss.

Adrenal disease, also known as hyperadrenocorticism, occurs when a tumor or neoplasia on the adrenal glands overstimulates one or both glands, causing an oversecretion of the hormones produced naturally. Fully 75 - 80% of ferrets will have adrenal disease at some point in their lives. The most common age at which symptoms appear is 3 years, but ferrets as young as 10 or 11 months have been diagnosed with it.

Diagnosis can be done through symptoms or with the use of the Tennessee Panel, a blood test run by your veterinarian. Symptoms include:

  • Hair loss - there are many different patterns, though the most common is starting at the base of the tail and spreading up the back
  • Sexual aggression and mating behavior in neutered males
  • Swollen vulva in spayed females
  • Change in skin texture - it becomes thin and papery feeling
  • Difficulty urinating for males - this is also a sign of a swollen prostate

Swift treatment is necessary, and there are a few options.

  • Surgery - This is the only way to completely remove the tumor. There is a chance that the tumor will grow back, either on the same side or the other side. Any infected tissue that remains in the ferret will grow and spread. Not all ferrets are surgical candidates. You will need to discuss that with your veterinarian before making any decisions.
  • Lupron Depot Shots - There is 1-month, 3-month, and 4-month Lupron available. These shots will need to be administered at the given time for the rest of the ferret's life. This option is good for owners who decide they do not want to do surgery, ferrets that are not good surgical candidates, and ferrets that have already had one gland removed.
  • Melatonin - Melatonin can be given as an implant or orally, and should be used in conjunction with Lupron when treating adrenal disease.

For more information, read our article on Adrenal Disease in Ferrets.

No, ferrets don't get colds. Colds are caused by rhinoviruses, which are species specific viruses. Humans are affected by rhinoviruses, but ferrets are not. Ferrets can get influenza (flu) and other respiratory infections however, so if you're sick, it's best to avoid excessive handling of your ferrets until you know what you have.

The first thing to do is determine whether or not your ferret is actually deaf. Don’t rely on testing your ferret at the veterinarian’s office, do it yourself at home first, preferably in a room without any other animals so the potentially deaf ferret can’t get any cues from his friends. Don’t just do one test and diagnose him. Make different noises at different volumes to see if he is completely deaf or only partially deaf.

Some tests that you can do are:

  • Shake a can of pennies
  • Squeak a squeaky toy
  • Make your cell phone ring
  • Turn on a vacuum cleaner

This last test is actually better done in the room with all of your ferrets. Most ferrets will scatter if they hear the vacuum, but the deaf ferret would just stand there looking around for the source of the vibrations he’s feeling.

Always make sure that you are out of your ferret’s line of sight when you do these tests. If he can see you, you won’t know if he’s reacting to your movement or the sound. Test him a few days in a row, just to be positive.

For more information, read our article on Deafness in Ferrets.

ADV is a very contagious, deadly parvovirus. There is no cure, so it's very important to know how to protect your ferret.

For more information, read our article on ADV in Ferrets.

Insulinoma is one of the most common forms of cancer diagnosed in ferrets. It’s a common misconception that insulinoma is a ferret’s version of diabetes, but in fact, insulinoma is the exact opposite of diabetes for ferrets.

A ferret with insulinoma has cancer of the pancreas, which is when Islet cell tumors on the pancreas cause an overproduction of insulin. Insulin is a hormone that allows cells in the body to use glucose in the blood. Overproduction of insulin forces the glucose in the blood into the cells, which causes a drop in glucose level, or hypoglycemia. Diabetes in ferrets is when low levels of insulin render cells unable to use the glucose, causing an overabundance of glucose. This is known as hyperglycemia.

So to summarize:

  • Hypoglycemia = too much insulin = low blood sugar = Insulinoma
  • Hyperglycemia = too little insulin = high blood sugar = Diabetes

A normal blood sugar level for a ferret is anywhere between 90 and 120. When a ferret has low blood sugar (anything 70 or below), this is considered to be diagnostic of insulinoma. A fasting blood sugar test (no food for 4 – 6 hours before the test) can be administered by your vet, but what symptoms should raise the alarm?

  • Weakness
  • Lethargy
  • Excessive Salivating
  • Staring off with a dazed look
  • Mouth ulcers
  • Tremors
  • Pawing at the mouth
  • Hind leg weakness (this is one of the most common signs that is almost always attributed to insulinoma)
  • Loss of coordination
  • Vomiting
  • Weight loss

If your ferret is exhibiting one or more of these symptoms, a visit to an experienced ferret vet and a blood sugar test are highly recommended. If you see these symptoms and they stop, don’t assume that your ferret is alright. Insulinoma symptoms can come and go as their blood sugar rises and falls. Things that trigger these changes in blood sugar are diet, exercise & stress.

Treatment options are:

  • Surgery – either to remove any pancreatic masses or a full pancreotomy. This will stop or slow the progression, but it is rarely a cure. Pancreatic tumors are small and seedy nodules, generally located throughout the pancreas of an insulinomic ferret. The chance that a vet will get all of the tumors is unlikely, and they will probably come back.
  • Medication – surgery is not always the best option for older, unhealthy ferrets, and sometimes it’s not an option at all, due to money issues or ferrets with conditions that prevent it. The most common medications used to control Insulinoma are Prednisone, diazoxide (Proglycem), and dexamethasone. Prednisone raises blood glucose and increases the production of glucose in the liver. It doesn’t, as some people think, block the insulin. Rather, it counteracts the hypoglycemic effects of insulin with hyperglycemic action, effectively balancing it out. For best results, medicine should be given twice a day, 12 hours apart, to keep the glucose levels as stable as possible.
  • Diet Change – This is recommended regardless of whether you choose surgery, medication, or both. Ferret diets higher in animal protein help insulinomic ferrets to lead a more symptom-free life, as protein helps to regulate and raise blood sugar levels. Frequent feedings of duck soup can be very beneficial.

For more information, read our article on Insulinoma and Prevention in Ferrets.

Ferrets will have strange feces from time to time, and if diarrhea is the only symptom, monitor your ferret closely to make sure he is still eating and drinking. If the diarrhea is gone within 24 hours, everything is probably okay.

However, if the diarrhea lasts for longer than 24 hours, and is a strange color (black, green, yellow) or a strange texture (jelly-like, seedy), make a veterinary appointment immediately. The longer a ferret has diarrhea, the more dehydrated he gets, and the less he will eat and drink, causing further problems.

Black color means that there is digested blood in the feces, and it is usually a sign of gastric ulcers.

Green feces can mean a number of things - the color itself means that the food is going through the system too fast, and it's not being digested properly. Neon green can be a sign of ECE.

If your ferret stops eating, get him to a veterinarian immediately. Ferrets do not eat when they do not feel well, so it's a sign that something is wrong. Reasons for not eating include:

There are many many more, but these are some of the main causes of a loss of appetite.

Your ferret may be experiencing what is known as "Rat Tail." You can clear this up by cleaning his tail thoroughly with soap and warm water once a day, and every other day cleaning his tail with an over the counter acne medication suggested by your veterinarian.

Eventually the tail will be clean and pink again. After this point, the hair will start to grow back and you can just check it weekly and during seasonal coat changes to make sure that the rat tail isn't coming back.

No. All cedar and pine shavings give off chemicals (phenols) that are irritating to your ferrets’ eyes and can cause respiratory disease and asthma. The only wood pelleted litters that you can use are those that are denatured, which means they are kiln dried, and the harmful phenols are removed.

Whether a ferret's nose is wet or dry is not an indication of health. Most ferrets have a dry nose when they wake up and a wet nose at other times. However, it isn't a way to diagnose illness, so don't worry if your ferret has a dry nose during playtimes unless the ferret is sneezing, coughing or has a runny nose. These can be signs of respiratory infections, flu, or other health problems, so make a veterinary appointment.

Black, tarry stool means that there is digested blood in the stool, and it's usually a sign of gastric ulcers. The blood is digested because it's coming from somewhere in the stomach or high in the intestines, as opposed to from the lower intestine or colon. Blood from lower down in the system that appears in the stool appears as "frank" blood, which means it is still red.

You can read all about what you will need to do before and after the surgery at the following link:

What You Should Know About Surgical Recovery

ECE stands for Epizootic Catarrhal Enteritis, and it is a highly contagious virus. It is characterized by neon green, slimy diarrhea. You can read about symptoms, prevention and treatment at the following link:

ECE: The Green Slime Disease