Enteritis is inflammation of the small intestines typically resulting in diarrhea. The inflammation can be caused from a variety of infectious and mechanical (irritant) insults to the intestines. A common condition in ferrets is called “green slime disease” and the cause is unknown at this time, but a virus is suspected. The disease causes severe green diarrhea coated with mucus. Treatment involves supportive care including fluids and nutrition.
Canine Distemper Virus:
The dog virus distemper is also infectious to ferrets and the most common sign of infection is a respiratory type of “cold” with severe chin skin lesions. Often there is also a history of exposure to an ill dog or a dog that was recently acquired from a shelter. It is important to remember that if you walk
your ferret exposure can occur via indirect contact through urine or feces of infected dogs. Canine distemper virus is almost always fatal in ferrets and the best means of prevention is avoidance through regular vaccination.
Ferrets can get influenza from us and can give it to us as well (including swine flu). An infected ferret will have a typical upper respiratory infection (head cold type signs) that must be differentiated from distemper virus based on exposure and the absence of skin lesions. Often the history includes an ill human in the house.
Ferrets are escape artists and clowns and will explore every inch of your house. If allow free roam ferrets will often play will any and all objects found and unfortunately will often swallow inappropriate items such as toys, needles, string… Ferrets with these foreign bodies will be lethargic will vomit and will often go off their food. Diagnosis is via abdominal x-rays and treatment will depend upon the object ingested and the area of the gastrointestinal tract it is located in. Some objects can be removed with an endoscope run down the oral cavity and others will require abdominal surgery. Young ferrets are notorious for this and should always be supervised when allowed out of their cage.
Ferrets can get the same types of dental disease as dog or cats. I recommend starting tooth brushing early in your ferret’s life to prevent periodontal disease.
Again, ferrets can develop the same types of cardiac conditions as other mammals and often the disease is silent, only being diagnosed at the yearly physical examination. Heart disease is diagnosed by auscultations, ECG and chest x-rays. The condition can be further defined by echocardiography. Medical treatment is implemented based on the type of disease diagnosed.
Gastrointestinal Tract Ulceration: Ulcers
Ferrets are very susceptible to ulceration of their G.I. tract from the organism helicobacter. Signs of ulceration are bloody or black stool and pain. The ferret will often be very depressed. The stress seems to predispose ferrets to ulcers and overgrowth of these bacteria (helicobacter). Treatment is
supportive with gastrointestinal protectants, antacids and antibiotics. For ferrets with severe protein loss and anemia IV fluids and artificial blood products are sometimes utilized.
Ferrets can get the same types of cancers as all other mammals but seem to be predisposed to lymphoma or cancer of the lymph nodes. Many times the ferret will not show any signs of disease until the condition is advanced and then will show weight loss and enlarged lymph nodes. Lymphoma is often treated medically with drugs such as prednisone and others that can often result in remission of disease, but the long term prognosis is poor.
Did you know that ferrets require regular vaccination? Ferrets should be vaccinated for both canine distemper virus and rabies virus. The dog/cat rabies virus is actually approved for ferrets and ferret specific distemper vaccines are available. As we’ve seen above, ferrets infected with canine distemper virus will die. Vaccination will prevent this disease in almost every case.
- Ferrets less then 1 year old:
- Should receive 3 vaccines 2-3 weeks apart for distemper and 1 rabies vaccine at 3 months of age.
- Than yearly boosters should be given for each disease.
- Frequency of rabies may vary depending upon your state of residency.
- Ferrets greater then 1 year old:
Should receive 2 distemper boosters 3 weeks apart and then yearly rabies and distemper vaccines.
Allergic Reactions to Vaccines
The important thing to remember is that the vaccines are effective at preventing life threatening disease. However, ferrets do seem to have a higher rate of allergic reactions to vaccination. Most ferret vaccine allergies are of the immediate kind and therefore generally occur within minutes of vaccination. The ferret will suddenly become lethargic, the gums will be pale, the ferret may defecate or vomit, and many other symptoms of illness may be shown. This type of allergic reaction is life threatening and requires immediate medical intervention. At our hospital we always request that ferrets owners wait 15 minutes prior to leaving and a technician checks the ferret again prior to their departure. Other procedures which are done to minimize allergic reactions
- Using vaccines made for ferrets and not the dog variety
Monitoring all ferrets after vaccination
Splitting up vaccines over 1-2 weeks to decrease the immune stimulation
Premedicating with diphenhydramine if the ferret has a history of allergies
Giving the vaccine SQ (under the skin) and not intradermal (in the skin)
What is a poor ferret diet?
Well, the easy answer is anything that isn’t ferret food. But it isn’t as easy as that of course, there are very few foods actually made specifically for ferrets and these aren’t always easy to find. Most sources recommend that the protein source be animal and not plant origin, the protein level should be about 35% and that the fat level should be about 20%. Dog food should never be fed to ferrets because is deficient in the amino acid taurine which can lead to heart disease. Also dog foods often have a lower protein percentage and more of the protein is plant based which can cause deficiencies and diarrhea. The best way to purchase ferret food is to read the labels and attempt to provide a food that follows the basic guidelines offered above. Also, dry food is often the best choice because it causes less tartar buildup on their teeth and is easier to feed.
For more information on all the subjects covered above and additional information, please see the ferret links below. The important thing to remember is that ferrets are subject to a variety of diseases, some of which can be silent and only diagnosed during a medical examination. All ferrets should be examined by a veterinarian on a yearly basis.