Many people think that since their ferrets don’t go outside the house or interact with other ferrets, they don’t need to vaccinate them. This couldn’t be further from the truth, and it actually puts their ferrets at risk. Ferrets need two vaccinations, canine distemper and rabies, and there are certain protocols you will need to follow to make sure they are effective and safe.
Canine Distemper, or CD, is 100% fatal for unvaccinated ferrets, so it is very important to make sure your ferrets are protected against this dangerous and deadly disease. CD is an airborne disease, so even if your ferrets have no contact with other animals, you could still infect them by carrying it into your household on your shoes or clothing.
Pet store ferrets will almost always come with proof of their first canine distemper shot, which is done around 8 weeks, or right before they are shipped to the pet store. They will need additional boosters at 11 and 14 weeks, and then annually thereafter on the date of the last booster shot.
The USDA approved CD vaccines for ferrets is Purevax-D, manufactured by Merial. If your vet does not have access to Purevax-D, another vaccine that can be used is Galaxy-D, manufactured by Schering Plough. This is actually used for puppies, and has not been USDA approved for ferrets, though there are many ferret owners who use it. Fervac-D was another USDA approved CD vaccine for ferrets, but it is no longer available.
The vaccines for CD are live virus vaccines, which means that they should not be given to ferrets that are pregnant, ferrets with infections, or ferrets with compromised immune systems. In ferrets with these conditions, live viruses are not as effective and can sometimes cause the animal to contract the disease.
If you aren’t sure what your ferret’s vaccination history is, or you have an older ferret that has no vaccination history, here is the procedure you should follow:
- Under 14 weeks of age: 3 boosters given 3 weeks apart, then annually on the date of the last vaccine
- Over 14 weeks of age: 2 boosters given 2 weeks apart, then annually on the date of the last vaccine
This is the protocol for ferrets with an unknown vaccination history recommended by the AFA, or American Ferret Association.
While there are fewer than 20 documented rabies cases among ferrets in the United States and rabies is fairly rare among ferrets, it is still very important to vaccinate for this disease. This is not only for the health of the ferret, but is also important in the event that the ferret bites someone. If this happens, you already have proof that your ferret cannot have rabies.
You will need to get your ferret its first rabies vaccination around 3 months of age. The vaccination should be done yearly thereafter.
The current USDA approved ferret rabies vaccination is Imrab-3, manufactured by Merial. This is the same company that produces Purevax-D.
Though Imrab-3 is a killed virus, you still want to avoid vaccinating ferrets that have active infections, or who have compromised immune systems. Though there is not the danger of the ferret contracting the disease, as there is with the live CD vaccinations, there is still a chance that the ferret will not be fully protected.
If you aren’t sure when the ferret last had a rabies shot or if it ever had one, it is safe to vaccinate the ferret against rabies if it is over the age of 14 weeks. Thereafter, the vaccination should be done yearly at the same time as the initial shot. Again, this is the protocol recommended by the AFA for ferrets with unknown rabies vaccination histories.
Studies have shown that as many as 2% to 5% of ferrets have moderate to severe vaccination reactions. This is just among ferret owners that report the reactions, and does not include those who do not, so the number is probably higher. Therefore it is very important to know what to do to minimize, recognize, and possibly prevent reactions.
Ferrets that have an allergic shock reaction, or Anaphylaxis, in response to their vaccines can show a variety of symptoms. Severe reactions will usually occur within minutes of the vaccination, and the signs include:
- Reddening of skin
- Pale or bright pink gums, ears, nose, or feet
- Difficulty breathing
- Seizures or convulsions
- Loss of coordination
- Coma and death if not treated
These are not all the signs you may see, so anything alarming and out of the ordinary should be viewed as a reaction. Treatment will have to administered immediately by your vet, and will probably include an antihistamine shot, an epinephrine shot, and a corticosteroid shot. If the reaction is severe enough, the ferret might also need to be placed in an oxygen tent.
The need for immediate treatment means that you should always stay at your vet’s office for at least 30 – 45 minutes following a vaccination. This way if there is a reaction, treatment will be swift and more effective. Additionally, whether or not your ferret has a reaction, you should monitor it for about 24 hours after the vaccination. Almost all severe reactions will happen within the first hour after the shot is administered, but it’s best to be on guard.
Always give the CD vaccination and the rabies vaccination in two separate visits, at a minimum of 2 weeks apart. Some people think that this will lessen the possibility of a reaction, and this may be true. But it will definitely let you know which shot caused the reaction, so you can make well informed vaccination decisions in the future. Most reactions are to the CD vaccine, but there have been some reported rabies vaccination reactions.
Some vets will pre-treat ferrets that have had reactions in the past with benedryl. Some ferret owners worry that this may just delay the reaction, but several well known vets suggest doing this. If you are concerned, discuss pre-treating with your vet before making any decisions.
If your ferret has had a reaction to a certain CD vaccine in the past, you should try to use a different one in the future. So if your ferret had a reaction to Purevax-D, talk to your vet about using Galaxy-D the next year. If your vet doesn’t have these vaccinations, perhaps he or she can recommend a vet that does.
While the possibility of a serious reaction may seem to outweigh the benefits of vaccinating, it really doesn’t. The chance that your ferret could contract a horrible disease that causes a painful death is a much more serious concern. If you are unsure as to whether or not you are going to vaccinate, please discuss the risks and consequences with an experienced ferret vet first.