One of the most frequently asked questions I hear is “Why is my ferret losing hair?” Ferrets should shed in the spring and summer and build up a thick, fluffy coat during the winter. Any significant coat changes at other times should be regarded with some suspicion. While adrenal disease is the most common reason, especially if the hair loss starts at the base of the tail and works its way up, there are other reasons for a ferret to start losing hair, a condition known as “alopecia.” This article will run through the various reasons, and, when possible, give a hair loss pattern to look for.
When hair loss is due to adrenal, there are a few hair loss patterns you might see:
- Base of the tail moving up the back
- Along the sides
- On the hind feet, tops or bottoms
- Up the back
This alopecia will frequently be accompanied by itchiness, a swollen vulva in females and possible aggressive mating behavior or trouble urinating in males. If you suspect adrenal disease, take your ferret to a vet as soon as possible. Adrenal disease left untreated in males is not only uncomfortable, but if prostate problems develop, can also be deadly if it the urethra is completely blocked.
This is also known as “stud tail”, as many hobs (unneutered males) have this condition due to the high level of oils in their coats. Rat tail is limited to the tail only, and it usually begins on the tip or on the underside of the tail. It is characterized by small black dots (blackheads) on the skin and hair loss along the tail. Treatment is fairly simple. Just wash the tail daily with soap and water, and use an over the counter acne medication (no higher than 5% concentration) every other day. Once the blackheads clear up, the skin should be shiny and pink. When the next coat change time comes, the hair should grow back with no problem.
Skin Conditions, Infections & Parasites
This category covers a few different problems. All of these conditions will cause excessive itching which could actually lead the ferret to scratch at parts of its body until all of the hair is gone. The alopecia is not uniform, and could occur anywhere on the body.
- Overly dry skin
Try getting a humidifier for the room your ferret is in. Dry heat affects them the same way it affects us. You could also try rubbing down the ferret with olive oil on a towel. Avoid giving the ferret more Ferretone, as too much of any good thing can be a bad thing! Instead, give them food with a lot of fats and oils in it such as canned A/D or duck soup.
You would see patches of hair loss with reddened and scabby edges. You will need to see your vet for medication.
- Fungal infection
The symptoms for this are varied, depending on what kind of fungal infection it is (skin, hair follicle bacterial fungus, etc). A skin scraping might be necessary, and a vet visit definitely is.
- Scabies (sarcoptic mange)
Itchy patches of hair loss would be seen on the stomach, face and/or legs. See the vet immediately for treatment, as this is easily passed back and forth between humans and animals!
- Ear Mites
Signs of ear mites include lots of black ear wax, continuous or prolonged scratching at the ears, the neck and the shoulders, and walking with the head tilted to one side. Your vet can prescribe the proper treatment for mites.
- Fleas, ticks
The easiest place to spot ticks is on the stomach. Use your fingers to ruffle the hair upwards and check both the hair and the skin. Using a flea treatment such as Advantage or Biospot during the heavy flea months in your area is a good idea to prevent infestation that can lead to very itchy ferrets. Some ferrets are allergic to flea bites, and you will see hair loss much more quickly in ferrets with these allergies.
Malnutrition causes abnormal hair loss outside the regular shedding seasons. The hair loss won’t usually be a complete balding unless the ferret has been malnourished for some time, and even then the alopecia is due to more than one factor. When malnourishment is the reason, the hair usually thins over the ferret’s entire body. The ferret would need to be switched to a high quality diet as soon as possible. It should also be given duck soup in addition to its regular kibble.
There are two kinds of allergies that ferrets would have – food allergies and topical allergies. One of the most common food allergies in ferrets is to corn gluten meal. Food allergies usually exhibit themselves first as vomiting, diarrhea, and general troubles digesting. If allowed to continue, however, hair loss will begin. Topical allergies refer to allergies that involve irritants to the skin. Possible causes include detergents or fabric softeners, cedar shavings, corn cob bedding, household cleaners, and, as mentioned above, flea and tick bites. The topical allergies are much more likely to show up as hair loss immediately, and there may not be any distinctive hair loss pattern.
Some ferrets’ coats naturally grow thinner as they grow older. However, even if you see no other signs of adrenal, it is best to take older ferrets to the vet to verify that the hair loss is due to old age and not adrenal disease.
Hormonal Imbalances – Hyperestrogenism
This only affects intact females in heat. The hair thins or falls out in large patches due to the high level of estrogen in the jill’s system. Aplastic anemia is also a condition associated with hyperestrogenism, and it’s deadly. If you aren’t planning on breeding your female, please bring her out of heat with a hormone shot and get her spayed immediately.
Stress can cause hair loss just on the tail, or, in more extreme cases, anywhere on the body. Causes of stress can include a change of environment (moving, being abandoned) or the arrival of a new animal. For some ferrets, a seasonal coat change can be enough of a shock to cause hair loss.
Improper Light Cycles
There are studies that have been done that directly link a ferret’s health to light cycles. Ferrets are very photosensitive, and sudden light changes in their environments have been found to cause some ferrets to blow their coats (lose large amounts of hair in a short time, down to just the undercoat or almost to the skin).
While it’s good to have other possible explanations for alopecia, or hair loss, adrenal disease should always be the first thought for any hair loss on the “trunk” of the ferret, especially if the ferret is around the age of 3 or 4 or older and there are no other signs of trauma (rashes, bites, etc). Fully 75% – 80% of ferrets over the age of 4 develop adrenal disease, so it’s good to be on the lookout for the symptoms. Remember, any hair loss outside of the usual spring/summer shedding period should be a reason for a trip to the vet, just to make sure that everything is ok!