Ferrets are very popular across the country and can make excellent pets. They are curious, active, playful and entertaining to observe. They can easily be taught to use a litter box and walk on a harness. They don’t require enormous space if allowed to walk and play daily. And the grooming requirements are minimal with only a soft brushing and occasional bathing needed. But in spite of their many attributes, it has taken me some time to start my ferret page. Why? Primarily because ferrets seem to have more health problems then all our other pet species combined. Okay, this may be over stating the facts, but if you are planning on adding a ferret to your family it is important to understand that the pet ferret will in all likelihood require veterinary care not just for preventative medicine, but to treat some of the many problems they are predisposed to. Throughout my life I’ve had many rescue ferrets and have thoroughly enjoyed my time with them. I don’t wish to discourage anyone from owning ferrets but I do hope that future pet owners go into ferret ownership with some knowledge on ferret diseases and husbandry. Another important consideration to ferret ownership, is that some states restrict or even prohibit ferret ownership – notably California. Please check your state laws prior to adopting a ferret.
Endocrine refers to hormone related diseases, one of which is very common in ferrets. The majority of ferrets sold in the U.S. are spayed/neutered and descented prior to puberty. Desexing is not only necessary to control indiscriminate breeding and reduce aggression but also is an important safety issue in females (see effects of estrogen). Sexual hormones (estrogen and testosterone) are released from the adrenal gland and can occasionally be over produced in spayed and neutered ferrets and result in disease. The disease is often mistakenly called ferret Cushing disease by some people as a way of relating it to the canine hyperadrenalcorticism. However, in dogs disease results because too much cortisol is released and canine disease is not due to the effects of sexual hormones, but ferret disease is. Therefore the two conditions are entirely different diseases that are diagnosed and treated differently.
Adrenal Hyperplasia: Also called adrenal-associated endocrinopathy or AAE
What is it?
Ferret adrenal hyperplasia is an endocrine (hormone) disease due to a benign or malignant tumor in the cortex of the adrenal gland that produces an over secretion of estrogen resulting in the disease we typically call ferret adrenal hyperplasia.
- Benign: for our purpose is basically just an area of normal tissue that is over active
- Malignant tumor: typically thought of as actual cancer, more aggressive & spreads
The most common sign owners notice is alopecia, or hair loss, with areas of balding. The hair loss usually starts on the tail and progresses up the spine with ferrets eventually becoming bald except for some fur on their feet and face. Owners of spayed female ferrets may notice swelling of the genital area or vulva secretions. Some neutered males will have swelling or enlargement of their prostatic tissue from the effects of the hormone and these males can actually become blocked and unable to urinate. Behavior changes will also be seen due to the effects of the elevated hormone levels, with many ferrets becoming more aggressive. High levels of estrogen can be life threatening and can result in bone marrow failure with anemia and immunosuppression developing.
How is it diagnosed?
- 1. Based on clinical signs as described above – very characteristic.
- 2. Based on blood testing: hormone panel demonstrating elevated sexual hormones.
- 3. Ultrasonography may often be helpful to identify an enlarged adrenal gland. However it is important to remember that both adrenal glands can be abnormal and that even an abnormally large adrenal gland is still fairly small with this condition.
How is it treated?
Surgery is still the most common method of treatment and often the best option. Treatment involves an exploratory surgery with identification and removal of the enlarged adrenal gland. But surgery is not the ideal solution for all patients. Ferrets with tumors involving the right adrenal gland often have the gland intimately associated with a very large vein making complete surgical removal troublesome. Also, even if the diseased adrenal gland is removed, there is no guarantee that the other gland will not develop disease in the future. And lastly, many of these ferrets with adrenal disease also have pancreatic tumors which will have to be removed at the time of surgery.
Only for those ferrets in which surgery is not an option. Lupron is a hormone used in humans with prostatic disease and is widely available but can be expensive. Lupron is not a cure of adrenal disease in ferrets and will not stop a tumor from enlarging, but it does often alleviate the clinical signs of the disease. The medication is given in regular injections to be administered by your veterinarian. In many ferrets it will result in regrowth of hair and decreased genital swelling. It is important to remember that while the ferret may “look” better a tumor may still be developing.
Some veterinarians are utilizing freezing as a means of controlling adrenal tumors. The patient is prepped as for a surgical adrenal gland removal, but a probe which has been in liquid nitrogen is applied to the gland. The most important thing to remember with ferret adrenal disease is that even
if caught in later stages it is often treatable.
The pancreas is an organ that performs dual functions in the body. It secretes digestive enzymes and also produces insulin which is responsible for regulating glucose (sugar) levels in the body. With pancreatic neoplasia or cancer, ferrets have an over production of insulin and blood glucose level are lowered to very dangerous levels. Think of this are the opposite of diabetes. These tumors are often very small and often occur along with adrenal disease. Surgery is curative, but because these are very small tumors and difficult to see, surgery is not always successful. Medical therapy is a second option and involves utilizing medications to produce insulin resistance and artificially raise blood glucose levels.
Unspayed female ferrets or those with adrenal disease are susceptible to very high estrogen levels. These females will go into a perpetual heat cycle and can die of estrogen toxicity on bone marrow. The high levels suppress the bone marrow which is a necessary for the production of both red and white blood cells. With bone marrow toxicity the ferrets become anemic, are predisposed to bruising and bleeding and have a suppressed immune system.