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Subject: Ferret FAQ [4/5] - Health Care
This article was archived around: 21 May 2006 04:23:52 GMT
Last-modified: 19 Jan 1998
Posting-Frequency: monthly (around the 20th)
FERRET FAQ (part 4 of 5) -- HEALTH CARE
Compiled and edited by Pamela Greene <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Additions, corrections, and suggestions for this file are welcomed!
This document is copyright 1994-1998 by Pamela L. Greene. See section
0.5 (in Part 1, About Ferrets and This FAQ) for authorship information
and redistribution rights. In short, you can give it away, but you
can't charge for it or include it in any for-profit work without
The basic Ferret FAQ has five parts, all of which should be available
wherever you obtained this one. Most people will want to look at
parts 1 through 4, and perhaps skim part 5. A complete table of
contents for all five files is given in Part 1. Please at least read
section 0 in Part 1, About this FAQ. In addition, there are separate
FAQ's for several common ferret diseases. Information about those is
given in section [1.1].
Please note: I am not a ferret expert, and I did not write, nor did I
independently verify, all the information in this file. I have done
my best to include only accurate and useful information, but I cannot
guarantee that what is contained in this file, whether written by me
or by one of the contributors, is correct, or even that following the
advice herein won't be harmful to you or your ferret in some way. For
advice from an expert, you may wish to consult one of several books
available, or, especially in the case of a suspected medical problem,
a veterinarian who is familiar with the treatment of ferrets.
Subject: CONTENTS OF THIS FILE
Part 4: HEALTH CARE
9. *** Basic health care ***
(9.1) Do I need to spay/neuter my pet? How about descenting? Declawing?
(9.2) What vaccinations will my ferret need, and when?
(9.3) Can I vaccinate my own ferrets?
(9.4) What kind of checkups should my ferret be having?
(9.5) What should I look for when I check over my ferret myself?
(9.6) Do I need to brush my ferret's teeth?
(9.7) Is my ferret overweight (or underweight)? What can I do?
(9.8) Are ferrets really as prone to disease as it seems?
(9.9) How do I contact Dr. Williams? I hear he'll help with diagnoses.
(9.10) What special needs do older ferrets have?
10. *** Problems to watch for and related information ***
(10.1) What warning signs of disease should I look for?
(10.2) Why does my ferret scratch so much?
(10.3) What do I do for my ferret's prolapsed rectum?
(10.4) My ferret's had funny-looking stools for a few days. What's
(10.5) What is that huge bruised-looking or orangish patch?
(10.6) My ferret is going bald (tail only or all over).
(10.7) What are these little (black oily)/(red waxy)/(orange crusty)
spots on my ferret's tail/skin?
(10.8) How well do ferrets handle heat? What about cold?
(10.9) How can I get rid of these fleas?
(10.10) How do I tell if my ferret has ear mites? What do I do about
(10.11) Do I need to worry about heartworms?
(10.12) Is there an animal poison control hotline?
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
9. *** Basic health care ***
Subject: (9.1) Do I need to spay/neuter my pet? How about descenting?
Ferrets intended as pets must be neutered or spayed. Neutering
drastically reduces the odor of a male, prevents him from marking his
territory with smelly slime, and makes him less aggressive (males in
season may kill other ferrets, even females). Spaying saves a
female's life, since once she goes into heat she will need to be bred
or she will almost certainly die of anemia. However, many people
disagree with the common practice of performing the surgery at a very
early age, and prefer to wait until the ferret is at least six months
old and has reached nearly full size. It should be done before the
first time the ferret would go into heat, but apart from that there's
A female can be spayed even after she goes into heat, but if she's
been in heat for a month or more, your vet should do a blood test
before the surgery. Females can be brought out of heat without
becoming pregnant with a hormone injection or by breeding with a
vasectomized male, either of which will lead to a false pregnancy
which will last long enough to let her be spayed. Neither one is a
good long-term solution, though.
Breeding ferrets is difficult and time-consuming. Before even
thinking about breeding, you should have owned ferrets for some years,
be a member of a ferret organization, and find out as much about it as
you can. The actual mating is rather violent, and jills tend to have
problems giving birth, producing milk, and so forth. If you're
serious about breeding, talk to someone who has first. You'll need to
have more than one whole male available (in case your female goes into
heat when your male isn't) and more than one breeding female available
(in case you need a foster mom because your jill has milk problems) --
and be prepared to lose some or all of the kits and perhaps the mom
too. Grim, but true. To learn more about breeding or where to find a
good breeder, get a sample copy of the Breeder's Digest by sending
$2.75 to P.O. Box 2371, Leesburg, VA 22075.
There's debate about whether descenting ferrets is necessary or
useful, and some belief that it's harmful. It's bad for a ferret's
health to descent it before 6 or 7 weeks of age, and it may be
somewhat harmful when done at any age. Many people feel that the
procedure accomplishes no purpose; that is, that neutered ferrets who
aren't spraying smell the same whether or not they've been descented.
Note that, like a skunk, a ferret will use its scent if it's greatly
distressed or feeling amorous, but ferrets can't spray their scent as
effectively as a skunk, it doesn't smell as bad, and it dissipates in
just a few seconds. How often a ferret sprays and how bad it smells
depend on the individual ferret, and different people have different
tolerances for the scent, so if given the option you may want to wait
and see if you think descenting is necessary in your particular case.
Most pet stores sell neutered and descented kits. Many breeders sell
kits which have been neutered but not descented.
Ferrets have nails like dogs, not retractable claws like cats, and
declawing them is more difficult that it is for a cat. I have only
ever heard of a handful of declawed ferrets; most of them are doing
well, but a few had long-term problems from the surgery. Many people
feel very strongly that ferrets should never be declawed, and nearly
everyone agrees that declawing should be done only as a last resort,
when non-surgical solutions to the problems [5.2] have failed. Still,
a few people support declawing, and in the end, it's a decision you
and your vet will have to make for yourselves.
Subject: (9.2) What vaccinations will my ferret need, and when?
Fervac-D or Fromm-D canine distemper vaccine
The manufacturer recommends shots (1 ml subcutaneously) at 8, 11,
and 14 weeks. (Some vets recommend four shots, three weeks apart,
instead. Two is not enough.) Then a yearly booster shot.
Although rabies gets more press, the canine distemper vaccine is
much more important for your ferret's health.
Adults who have never been vaccinated, or whose vaccination status
is unknown, should get two canine distemper shots, three weeks
apart, then yearly boosters. If you know they've been vaccinated
within the last year, then one shot is enough.
If you can't get Fervac-D or Fromm-D, or if your ferret has
reacted to them in the past, Galaxy-D is an acceptable third
choice. If you can't get either of these, you're taking the risk
that your ferret won't be protected, or worse, that he'll become
sick from the vaccine. At least be sure that it's a vaccine for
canine distemper which is a MODIFIED LIVE virus and was NOT
cultured in ferret tissue. Chick embryo culture is best.
Imrab-3 rabies vaccine
One subcutaneous vaccination at 14-16 weeks, separated from the
distemper vaccines by 2-3 weeks, then boosters yearly. This is
the same rabies vaccine that's used for dogs and cats, so your vet
should have it around. It's good for three years in cats, but
only one year in ferrets, mainly because the company hasn't done
tests to see how long it lasts in ferrets. This is the only
rabies vaccine approved for ferrets.
Ferrets do not need to be vaccinated for feline distemper or
parvo. They don't need a 5-way dog vaccine.
They can contract Bordatella (a common cause of kennel cough in
dogs), but it's very rare, and the effectiveness of the vaccine is
unknown in ferrets. Don't vaccinate for it unless you'll be
boarding your ferrets at a kennel, and possibly not even then.
The intranasal Bordatella vaccine has been known to give ferrets
It's best to give the distemper and rabies vaccines be spaced a
couple of weeks apart, since giving them at the same time seems to
increase the chances of an adverse reaction (see below).
If you want to change a ferret's vaccination schedule, for
instance to move all your pets to the same schedule, you can
safely give another vaccination as long as it's been at least a
month since the last one.
Most states don't recognize the rabies vaccine for ferrets,
because official studies of virus shedding time in ferrets are yet
to be done. This means that even if your ferret is vaccinated, it
may be destroyed if someone reports to the authorities that they
were bitten. However, having the vaccination may keep the person
from reporting a bite in the first place, and of course it will
protect your ferrets from getting rabies. (Even closely watched
ferrets do occasionally escape [8.9].)
Like any other animals, ferrets occasionally have adverse reactions to
vaccinations, typically on the second or third exposure to a
particular vaccine. Reactions are rare, and giving the rabies and
distemper vaccinations two weeks apart is thought to reduce the
chance, but they can be life-threatening.
There are several kinds of vaccine reactions. The most dangerous,
anaphylactic reactions, usually occur within an hour after the
vaccination. You may want to stay at your vet's for 30-60 minutes
after a vaccination, just in case. Watch for vomiting, diarrhea or
loss of bladder/bowel control; signs of nausea or dizziness; dark
bluish-purple blotches spreading under the skin; difficulty breathing;
pale or bright pink gums, ears, feet or nose; seizures, convulsions,
or passing out; or anything else that's alarming -- bad reactions are
hard to miss. Get the ferret back to the vet right away, probably for
a shot of antihistamine (Benadryl) and perhaps a corticosteroid or
epinephrine. Ferrets who have had mild to moderate anaphylactic
reactions to a particular vaccine can be pre-treated with an
antihistamine the next time, or you might consider switching to a
different vaccine (from Fervac to Galaxy or the other way, for
instance). If your ferret had a severe reaction, you and your vet can
discuss the relative dangers of leaving that ferret unvaccinated.
Most delayed reactions aren't dangerous. You might notice the ferret
acting tired, showing flu-like symptoms, or possibly even vomiting a
little within a day or two after the vaccination. As long as the
symptoms don't last longer than a day and don't seem too extreme,
there's no need to worry. If the ferret has trouble breathing, is
more than a little lethargic, or shows other worrisome symptoms, call
or visit your vet. Antihistamines don't help much with delayed
reactions, but your vet might suggest pre-treating the ferret next
time anyway, in case it helps.
Jeff Johnston, an epidemiologist (though not specifically for
One thing that isn't proven but is worth a try is to give your
ferret the contents of a small-dose vitamin E capsule (say, 100
IU) a few days before the injection. Vitamin E in large doses
suppresses inflammatory responses (also suppresses vitamin K and
clotting, so, warn your vet if blood is taken for any reason). It
may help blunt any reaction. Vitamin E is also fairly non-toxic,
too, so 100 IU once every few months shouldn't hurt. [Don't use
more than that, though; anything can be toxic in large enough
Subject: (9.3) Can I vaccinate my own ferrets?
It's not recommended. Giving an injection to a squirming or nippy
animal is not easy. Even experienced veterinarians with good
technicians sometimes get bitten. Also, an injection in the wrong
place can injure the sciatic nerve and permanently paralyze the
ferret's leg; and in case of a bad reaction to the vaccine, a vet has
the experience and equipment on hand which may be needed to save the
In addition, a licensed veterinarian's signature is required for a
rabies certificate to be legal. The annual trip to the vet (or semi-
annual, for older ferrets) [9.4] is also the best time to have your
ferrets checked for other health problems.
Dr. Bruce Williams, DVM, adds:
Unfortunately, vaccination are what supports the vets - sick
animals don't. The extra few dollars is what pays the help, and
the electricity, what feeds the strays that are dropped off weekly
to your vets, or the dogs that nobody bothers to pick up. Or the
ones that are hit by cars and dropped off by Good Samaritans.
However, if you have a lot of ferrets to be vaccinated, you may be
able to save yourself some money by purchasing the vaccines themselves
directly from the manufacturer and taking them to your vet to be used.
You save on the materials, but you still get your vet's expertise.
Check with your vet to see if he or she will work with you like this.
Subject: (9.4) What kind of checkups should my ferret be having?
Dr. Bruce Williams, DVM, says:
I know that some practicing vets consider a 3-year animal to be
"geriatric" and to require a CBC [complete blood cell count] and a
fasting blood glucose yearly, but as one who stands to make no
money on this deal anyway, I don't recommend it until age 5.
Three years is just too young to consider a ferret geriatric.
Now, remember, all ferrets are different. If you have one that is
sort of "puny", never eats well, sluggish, etc. a yearly CBC and
glucose is a good idea every year. But if your three or 4 year
olds are healthy, well, then it's just not required. I start mine
at 5 years.
Considering dental work - have your vet check the teeth and then
recommend who needs it. Not every ferret will need to have it
done, and if your 4 year olds have been on hard food all of their
lives, chances are good that they may not need any work yet.
Remember - a healthy 3- or 4-year old doesn't necessarily require
any annual bloodwork, but a sickly 2 year old should get it on at
least an annual basis.
Subject: (9.5) What should I look for when I check over my ferret myself?
It's a good idea to give your ferrets a general check-over from time
to time. This should not substitute for the annual vet visit [9.4],
but you might notice something before it gets bad. Anytime you notice
anything unusual, take the ferret to the vet.
Start by checking your ferret's ears, which should look clean and
pink. If you see wax, clean them. If the wax is black or has dark
flecks, the ferret might have ear mites [10.10]. Check the cartilage
for swelling or distortion. Check the ferret's eyes, which should
look clear and alert, with no films or discharge. (Ferrets do have a
"second eyelid" which might appear as a bluish-white rim around the
edge of the eye.) Feel carefully all around the neck, throat and chin
area, looking for lumps or swelling. Check the gums, which should be
pink and healthy-looking, and the teeth, looking for excessive tartar
or discoloration. Whiskers should be long and strong, not brittle or
Now hold the ferret under the front legs, with the back legs on your
lap or a table. Run your hands lightly along the ferret's body,
checking for lumps. You can also check muscle tone and weight this
way: you should be able to feel ribs, but not see them, and the ferret
should feel firm and supple, not loose, flabby or skinny. Pull gently
on the ferret's legs to check for lumps or swelling on the legs,
knees, or feet; the ferret should pull the legs back in. The pads
should be pink and soft, with maybe a bit of callus, not irritated or
Your ferret's behavior is also a good indicator of its general health.
Sleeping a lot is normal, and older ferrets will slow down a bit, but
they should always be curious, alert, and playful. Any change in
normal habits might be a sign of a problem.
Subject: (9.6) Do I need to brush my ferret's teeth?
Ferrets do get plaque and tartar buildup on their teeth. You can see
it as dark patches on the cheek teeth if you gently lift the ferret's
upper lip. You can help control it by brushing their teeth with a pet
enzymatic toothpaste and a small cat toothbrush at least twice weekly,
especially after sticky or sugary treats. The dry food most ferrets
eat also helps to keep the teeth clean; ferrets eating soft food on a
long-term basis will need their teeth cleaned more often.
However, most tartar and plaque starts out under the gumline, and it
takes a proper cleaning by a vet to get it off. The job will be
easiest and most thorough if the ferret is under anesthesia [12.5]
during the cleaning; ferrets tolerate isoflurane very well, and the
risk from anesthesia is very slight. A professional cleaning should
be done every one to three years, depending on how dirty the teeth
Subject: (9.7) Is my ferret overweight (or underweight)? What can I do?
Ferrets come in all different sizes and body shapes. A healthy adult
male is normally anywhere from 2 to more than 5 pounds (900 g to 2.25
kg), and a female from 0.75 to 2.5 lb (340 g to 1.1 kg). Ferrets,
especially males, normally gain up to 40% of their weight in the
winter and lose it again in the spring. Some ferrets are naturally
"chunkier" than others, too. When you run your hand down your
ferret's flank, you should feel his muscles ripple a bit and be able
to feel the ribs, but they shouldn't stick out or feel too bony.
Small "love handles" are common in the winter. If he feels soft and
"mushy" or looks pear-shaped, he might be overweight, or just have
poor muscle tone from insufficient exercise.
If you think your ferret might be overweight, make sure he doesn't
have some other health condition that makes him appear overweight. If
the weight isn't evenly distributed, especially if you feel a large
mass or a number of smaller masses in his abdomen, he may have an
enlarged spleen. He might also have heart disease which is causing
him to retain fluid in his abdomen [1.1]. Unless you are absolutely
certain that he is simply overweight and does not have another
condition, please take a trip to the vet just to be sure.
If your ferret is indeed overweight, he needs to eat a "leaner" food
and get more exercise. To reduce his calorie intake, mix his regular
food with a high quality food for cats (as opposed to kittens) or
Totally Ferret for Older Ferrets. You still want to keep the protein
and fat content relatively high, but not quite at the top of the
recommended range [6.1]. Mix the new food in gradually so he accepts
it better. Of course, also reduce the number of high-calorie treats,
especially sugary ones and those designed for weight gain (NutriCal,
FerretVite, etc.). To give him more exercise, make sure he's not
spending too much time in his cage, especially since many ferrets will
eat when they're bored. Play with him as much as possible,
particularly games like chase; if he enjoys going outside, consider
taking him on a short walk each day.
If your ferret is underweight, there's probably some underlying
medical condition. In addition to the obvious diarrhea and vomiting,
many diseases can cause loss of muscle mass, especially in the hind
end. If your ferret seems to be eating and he's still underweight,
take him to a vet to find out what's wrong.
On the other hand, perhaps he hasn't been eating because he's been
nauseated, congested from a cold or allergies, or stressed from some
change in the environment. He might not like a new food, or the bag
he's been eating from might have spoiled. If he isn't eating and
you've recently changed something, try changing it back; if that
doesn't work, get him to a vet right away.
"Duck Soup" [12.8] and other things [12.7] have been suggested as
good ways to put weight back on a recovering ferret or to help
persuade a ferret to eat.
Subject: (9.8) Are ferrets really as prone to disease as it seems?
No, in fact they're pretty hardy animals. It's always worth knowing
what signs of disease to look for, and every species has common
problems that tend to crop up in elderly individuals, but most ferrets
go for years without even catching a cold.
A lot of the discussion about ferrets on alt.pets.ferrets, rec.pets
and the Ferret Mailing List (FML) [1.3] deals with health problems,
and it's easy to get the incorrect impression that ferrets are
As Dr. Bruce Williams, DVM, puts it:
Ferrets are no more prone to disease than other animals. However,
they do have a much shorter lifespan, so these problems come up an
a more frequent basis. Plus, most of us own anywhere between two
and fifteen animals, and many own more than this, or run shelters.
When you are dealing with such large numbers of animals, you will
have proportionately more health problems.
Also, the FML also has several vets that give health advice. We
are well known as a place where you can get a prompt response to a
question about the health of your animal, and several of us also
are involved with the health care of many of the animals which you
Another thing to consider is that many of the FMLers live in areas
where vets are not very familiar with ferrets and their diseases,
so the FML is a good place to get a second opinion or advice for
their vets. I field anywhere from 3-8 phone calls daily [9.9] on
ferret matters from veterinarians around the country.
Any type of animal that you may obtain as a pet will have
predisposition to disease. Ferrets should be expected to get
diseases of their own, too. But as most people on the FML will
tell you, the benefits are far more than the risks.
Subject: (9.9) How do I contact Dr. Williams? I hear he'll help
Dr. Bruce Williams, DVM, is a ferret expert who works at the Armed
Forces Institute of Pathology. He also operates a pathology lab,
AccuPath, on his own time. He can be contacted at
<AccuPath@primenet.com> (new address as of 9 Sept 1997) or
<email@example.com>. Please include your phone number in your email,
since complex questions are often easier to answer by phone. There is
no consultation fee, but he says, "Due to the number of calls that I
receive, I must reverse [phone] charges when contacting ferret owners
and their veterinarians."
Tissues of all kinds can be sent to Dr. Williams at AccuPath for
low-cost, expert examination with a short turnaround time. Email
<firstname.lastname@example.org> for more information.
Subject: (9.10) What special needs do older ferrets have?
[This information was provided by Sukie Crandall.]
The age at which a ferret should be considered "senior" varies from
one ferret to the next. Some 5-year-olds are as active as they were
at three, while others are settling into ferret retirement. Pretty
much every ferret is an oldster by 7, though many do very well for
several more years.
There are three big things you need to take into consideration for
older ferrets: physical health, diet, and mental health. First, get a
full medical checkup for your ferret, including full blood work.
Depending on the results, you might want to start getting checkups
every six months.
Although older ferrets sometimes have trouble eating dry food, you
might not want to eliminate crunchy food, since that will keep your
ferret's gums and teeth healthy. Some people swear by Totally Ferret
for Older Ferrets. There's no reason you can't supplement the dry
food with something like one of the "Duck
Be sure that your ferret has a lot to do, plenty of of old knotted-up
socks to stash (at which point you must, of course, move them to
continue the game), tubes and so on. Play with him as much as you can
each day, and provide him with things to keep him interested and
alert. These can be anything from culinary herbs in a box to dig up
and roll in, to tricks, to some easy barriers to defeat. Exercise is
good! Mental exercise is, too. Older ferrets often seem to need a bit
more direct attention than young ones so try to set aside some time
just for your ferret every day.
Even if your ferret is ill, give him a bit of self-sovereignty, too.
Having someone else control all your choices makes life a drag for
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
10. *** Problems to watch for and related information ***
Subject: (10.1) What warning signs of disease should I look for?
An outline of noninfectious, parasitic, infectious, and cancerous
health problems in the pet ferret is also available [11.2.4], as are
brief explanations of some of the more common ones [11.1].
NOTE: I am not a veterinarian. I haven't even owned ferrets very
long. (Dr. Bruce Williams, on the other hand, -is- a vet and ferret
expert.) The following is by no means a comprehensive list of
symptoms of disease in ferrets. However, some of the more common
problems are often accompanied by these symptoms. If you notice one
of these, or any other unusual behavior, see your vet.
ALSO: Ferrets are small. While they generally enjoy good health, any
kind of disease or disorder can be fatal in a surprisingly short time,
so if you suspect a problem, see your vet immediately.
Lethargy, lack of playfulness, loss of appetite, dull/glassy eyes, etc.
Symptomatic of a number of problems.
Lack of bowel movement
If your ferret has gone longer than usual without using the litter
pan (or some other corner) productively, he may have an intestinal
blockage. Certainly by the time it's been 24 hours you should go to
the vet immediately. Note that a ferret can continue to defecate
for as much as a day even with a blockage, since there's still waste
in the intestines to be eliminated.
Dr. Bruce Williams, DVM, adds:
More often than not, [the cause of a lack of bowel movement] is a
lack of food intake for some other reason.
Ferrets generally go to the litter three or four times a day.
Owners should look for adequate stools, although some may be a
little loose. Also look for string-like stools. Ferrets with
intestinal blockages can continue to pass stool which is very
thin- like a pencil lead. But adequate ferret-proofing [5.1] is
much more important than stool-watching.
Swollen or painful abdomen
Bloating may come from many problems such as heart disease, splenic
enlargement, or even just fat animals. Pain could be from any of
several disorders, but the most common is an intestinal blockage,
caused by eating something indigestible such as a sponge or an
eraser. Not all blockages cause abdominal pain, though.
Change in "bathroom" habits
Suddenly refusing to use a litter pan or missing a lot more than
usual, signs of discomfort or distress while using a pan, or any
funny color or texture in the feces [10.4] or urine could be a sign
of any of a number of problems. Stress, perhaps from a change in
environment, can also cause this.
Lumps on the body or feet
These may be cysts or infections, or they might be associated with a
tumor, usually benign but sometimes malignant. They can also be a
sign of dietary problems or a vaccine reaction. Have any swelling
or lump checked out and probably removed by your vet, and have
anything that's removed sent to a pathologist. For more
information, see the Ferret Medical FAQ on Skin Tumors [1.1].
Difficulty using the hind feet, awkward gait, lack of movement
Most often a sign of an adrenal or islet cell tumor (insulinoma), or
arthritis, in older ferrets. Could also be an injured back, the
result of having been stepped or sat upon, closed in a door, or the
like. Ferrets have very flexible spines, but they're easily
Says Dr. Bruce Williams, DVM, about hind-end awkwardness:
This is a common finding in older animals of many species - the
most common cause is a mild degeneration of the nerves in the
spinal cord or those innervating the legs. In most of these
cases, there is nothing to be done, but it also rarely results in
paralysis, just variable amounts of weakness.
Ferrets do not tolerate high temperatures well at all. They (like
any pet) should NEVER be left in a hot car, and if you're keeping
them outdoors be sure to provide some shade and plenty of water in
summer. Allowing them to sleep under hot radiators is probably also
a bit risky. Temperatures as low as the 80's can be life-threatening
to ferrets without shade and cool water [10.8].
Loose skin and dull eyes
Generally caused by dehydration, which is quite serious in such
a small animal. Get your ferret to drink more, take him to a vet for
subcutaneous fluids, and look for the underlying cause.
Unexplained hair loss
Not the usual seasonal shedding, which should happen twice a year
(but the times may vary due to indoor lighting conditions), but a
severe loss, especially if more than the tail is affected [10.6].
It's pretty obvious that these indicate some kind of problem. Most
often the result of insulinomas in the pancreas causing
extremely low blood sugar, but there are many other causes too.
This can be serious, since ferrets are easily dehydrated. Diarrhea
may be caused by milk products, which contain lactose that ferrets
do not tolerate well, or by a number of diseases. A green or orange
color or a bit of mucus just means the food didn't spend the usual
amount of time in the digestive system, not that it's necessarily ECE
(Epizootic Catarrhal Enteritis, or the "Green Diarrhea Virus"),
but for more information on that, see the Ferret Medical FAQ on ECE
One thing you can try for mild cases, especially after consulting
your veterinarian, is Pepto Bismol. Most ferrets don't like the
taste of the liquid, but you can give them 1/15th of a tablet
crushed up in food instead. A compounding pharmacist can also
prepare the medication in Pepto Bismol in a different suspension to
minimize or mask the taste. Call 1-800-331-2498 to locate the
nearest compounding pharmacist. Dr. Mike Dutton suggests the
prescription anti-diarrheal medication Amforol for cases that Pepto
Bismol doesn't help.
Ferrets do sometimes vomit from excitement, stress, a change of
diet, or overeating, but if it's repetitive or if there are any
signs of blood, get to a vet. During shedding season ferrets may
"spit up" a bit due to hair in the throat. This can be helped with
Sneezing, runny nose, watery eyes, lethargy
Yes, ferrets catch human flu. They'll generally rest and drink a
lot. A visit to the vet would probably be a good idea, particularly
if the flu looks bad or lasts more than a few days. According to
Dr. Susan Brown, "The antihistamine product Chlor-Trimeton may be
used at 1/4 tablet 2 times daily for sneezing that may interfere
with sleeping or eating."
If only the tip is broken, the tooth may discolor slightly, but it's
nothing to worry about. A more extensive break will cause pain, a
definite unhealthy look to the tooth, and possibly gum problems, and
should be treated (probably root canal or removal) by a vet or a
Persistent hacking or coughing
An occasional cough might be caused by dust or swallowed fur, and
can be treated with a bit of cat hairball preventative. A cough
from a cold can be treated with children's cough medicine; ask your
vet for a recommendation and dosage. A persistent cough is most
likely a respiratory infection, probably viral. A fever, yellow or
green discharge from the eyes or nose, or congestion indicate a
bacterial infection. In either case, see a vet. Another
possibility is cardiomyopathy. For more information, see the Ferret
Medical FAQ on Cardiomyopathy [1.1].
In an unspayed female, she's probably going into heat, especially if
it's springtime. For young spayed ferrets, under 18 months or so,
the most common problem is pieces of the ovary that were missed in
the spaying and have begun to produce hormones. These pieces might
be scattered around the abdomen. For older ferrets, however, by far
the most common cause of a swollen vulva is adrenal disease, usually
cancer. For more information, see the Ferret Medical FAQ on Adrenal
Return to whole male behavior (in a neutered male)
The most common reason for a neutered male to try to mate, dribble
urine or mark his areas, become aggressive, or have erections is
unusual hormone production caused by adrenal disease. For more
information, see the Ferret Medical FAQ on Adrenal Disease [1.1].
Other possibilities include cryptorchidism (a testicle which never
descended into the scrotum and so wasn't removed) or bladder stones.
The treatment for any of these is surgery.
Subject: (10.2) Why does my ferret scratch so much?
Ferrets just seem to be itchy little critters, and a certain amount of
scratching is normal. Even waking up from deep sleep for a
"scratching emergency" is normal. However, itching can also be a sign
of several problems.
If it's fleas, you'll probably see fleas or "flea dust" (bits of dried
blood) if you look closely [10.9]. Other possibilities include mites,
bacterial or fungal infections, dry skin, allergies to food or
cleaning supplies, or poor nutrition. Excessive itching can be a sign
of serious illness, including adrenal disease [1.1], so see a vet if
you're at all concerned. In some cases, an appropriate dose of
children's Benadryl can help an itchy ferret, but please use this only
under the supervision of a qualified vet.
Subject: (10.3) What do I do for my ferret's prolapsed rectum?
Diarrhea, constipation, irritation from surgery (especially
descenting), and other things can cause a ferret to strain more when
defecating, which in turn can push a portion of the rectum out the
ferret's anus. It's similar to hemorrhoids, but the particular tissue
that leads to hemorrhoids in humans doesn't exist in ferrets.
If only a small portion of tissue (1-3 mm) is protruding, a softened
diet and creams such as Preparation H can help. If there are any
other symptoms (constipation, pain, diarrhea, redness or swelling), or
if more than 3 mm (about 1/8 inch) is showing, have a vet look at it.
Subject: (10.4) My ferret's had funny-looking stools for a few days.
Maybe nothing. If there are no stools at all, though, he may have
an intestinal blockage.
According to Dr. Bruce Williams, DVM:
Ferrets occasionally have dietary "indiscretions" and may get hold
of something that is not particularly to the GI tract's liking.
They may get loose or discolored stools, and if no groceries are
going in for a day or so, their stools will lose volume and may
become somewhat thin. As long as they are playing and acting
okay, they can usually tolerate this for 48-72 hours. If it goes
on any longer than this, or their play/sleep cycles become
affected, then it's off to the vet for a check. Most problems
resolve within 72 hours on their own. If it doesn't, then there
may be a problem. (However watch for dark tarry stools - they are
more than just discolored and indicate GI bleeding. If you ever
see these - go see your vet. Likewise for profuse green
diarrhea.) A one- to two-week course of Laxatone is also a good
idea following changes in stools. If there is some foreign matter
in the intestine, it will help it move along, and, at any rate, it
I caution everyone - don't throw out those abnormal stools without
going through them (pick them apart in a bowl of water) and seeing
if there is any foreign material in them. It may sound "gross",
but it can tell you if your ferret is eating something it
Dr. Charles Weiss, DVM, adds that GI parasites such as giardia and
coccidia can sometimes be the cause, though it's not common; and even
lymphosarcoma may cause funny-looking stools. Both of those will
generally present other symptoms, too, though.
Subject: (10.5) What is that huge bruised-looking or orangish patch?
If your ferret was recently shaved for some reason or just finished
shedding [8.4], it's probably the tips of the new fur growing in.
Dark-colored ferrets look bluish-black, and albinos and other
light-colored ferrets often look orange. Wait a day or two, and you
should see the stubble start to poke through the skin.
Subject: (10.6) My ferret is going bald (tail only or all over).
Hair loss on just the tail is generally nothing to worry about. It
can be caused by stress, such as a change of environment or the
arrival of a new animal in the household. Even the normal seasonal
coat change [8.4] can be enough stress to make your ferret's tail go
completely bald, and sometimes it will take several months for the fur
to grow back. Often this seasonal "rat tail" shows up with tiny black
If your ferret is losing hair other places, there's something wrong.
Apart from shedding, by far the most common cause of hair loss in
ferrets of any age is adrenal-associated endocrinopathy, a serious,
but treatable, disease of the adrenal glands. Even if the hair comes
back at the next coat change, it's probably still an adrenal problem.
There's a separate Ferret Medical FAQ for adrenal disease, which you
should take a look at if you even think your ferret might have this
Other possibilities include poor nutrition, fleas, a severe mite
infestation, a bacterial or fungal infection, dry skin, or allergies
to food, detergents, or cleaning products.
Subject: (10.7) What are these little (black oily)/(red waxy)/(orange
crusty) spots on my ferret's tail/skin?
Reddish-brown wax or black spots on the tail
Ferrets sometimes get tiny black spots on their tails, often
accompanied by a reddish-brown waxy deposit and hair loss. They look
a lot like blackheads, and in fact that's probably pretty much what
they are. Gentle cleaning, perhaps with a medicated cleanser (a
dilute benzoyl peroxide shampoo or cream will work better than ones
with coal tar or sulfur) that your vet can recommend, should help,
though it may take many weeks. Often this is a seasonal problem that
clears up on its own in a few months.
Orange-speckled, crusty patches
Dr. Bruce Williams, DVM, says:
An orange, flaky discoloration of the skin is a very non-specific
finding in the ferret. The crustiness of the skin means that the
skin is not coming off in small microscopic flakes (1 to several
cells at a time) like normally happens. When you see a crust - it
means that the normal way that a ferret sheds devitalized
epidermis [dead skin] has been impaired.
As far as the cause - there is not just one cause. Many things
can cause this change - skin parasites, fleas, ear mites,
bacterial infections of hair follicles, fungus, endocrine disease,
Minor skin disorders such as these are more common with age. They
may be exacerbated by poor husbandry, or excessive bathing (more
than once per week to ten days.)
Most cases are due to a very superficial bacterial infection which
will respond well to a weekly application of a gentle bactericidal
shampoo. Other tests that can be done at the time of diagnosis by
your vet would include a skin scraping and fungal culture. Should
all tests turn up negative, and a four-week course of topical
therapy not help, then the next step would be biopsy and
submission to a pathology lab for microscopic examination.
Allergies are another possibility; and the area around bites, whether
caused by fleas or another animal, may take on a pink or orangish
color from dried blood.
Subject: (10.8) How well do ferrets handle heat? What about cold?
Ferrets don't tolerate heat well at all. Even temperatures in the 80s
(say, above 27 C or so) can cause problems, and older ferrets can be
even more sensitive. The first thing to do, of course, is to prevent
heat exposure in the first place, by providing shade and plenty of
cool water. If you live in a hot climate, you must realize that your
ferret will need special care in mid-summer. Never leave a ferret or
any pet in a car in hot weather, even with the windows partly open.
It just doesn't do enough good.
There are a couple of ways to keep your ferrets cooler if you don't
have air conditioning. Fans are an obvious idea, but unless you can
blow in some cooler air, they don't do very much good for ferrets, who
can't sweat. A plastic bottle of ice wrapped in a towel is helpful.
Finally, you can drape a damp towel over your ferrets' cage, set a
bucket of water on top, and drape another wet rag over the side of the
bucket so one end is at the bottom of the bucket and the other is on
the cage towel. The rag acts as a wick to keep the towel wet, and the
cage stays cooler from evaporation.
Ferrets in distress from heat will first pant, then go limp, then lose
touch with their surroundings. The first thing to do is to get the
ferret out of the hot place and start cooling him down slowly. Cool
water is best, but not too cold, since the ferret's body temperature
will drop way too far, with him unable to stop it. Anything you can
get him to drink is good, but never force liquids into an unconscious
After these emergency measures, get your pet to the vet immediately.
Even ferrets that seem to have recovered may die within 48 hours due
to the massive shock they've undergone. Things to watch for include
tarry stools and vomiting.
On the other hand, ferrets handle cold pretty well. If they have full
winter coats, they'll be perfectly happy living in a chilly room, say
60 F (15 C). They can easily handle going outdoors in cold weather,
and many of them love to play in the snow. Use common sense, though.
Don't take your ferrets out in really frigid (much below freezing) or
wet weather, and bring them inside if they shiver too much, paw at the
door, or try to climb up into your coat.
Subject: (10.9) How can I get rid of these fleas?
Even if your ferrets are never outdoors, you can bring in fleas or
their eggs on your shoes or clothing.
There's a whole FAQ dedicated to ridding your pet and your home of
fleas and ticks. It's distributed in the usenet newsgroup rec.pets.
You can also get it by FTP:
(that is, ftp to rtfm.mit.edu and get the indicated file)
or by sending email to
with the line
in the body of the message (with an empty subject line).
In general, most products which are safe for use on kittens are safe
for ferrets. Products containing pyrethins are okay, but don't use
anything containing organophosphates, carbamates, or petroleum
distillates. Be especially careful with dips and sprays; shampoos are
much safer. Follow the directions on the bottle carefully.
Dr. Bruce Williams, DVM, adds:
You can use a premise spray around the cage, but often, the house
requires bombing, too. Get a bomb from your vet which contains
methoprene (a flea growth regulator). This will allow you to
complete the job in just two applications - one to kill the adults
and larva, the second two weeks later to get the ones that have
hatched out since the first spray. (Make sure of course to remove
your ferrets from the house at the time of the bombing...) Fleas
can be a real nuisance - before you bomb, make sure to wash all of
their bedding and vacuum carefully so you only have to do it
Most insect foggers don't have a strong enough residual effect to
hurt your ferrets. We routinely bomb our house for fleas and two
hours later, the ferrets and dogs are romping through the house.
(But I know that Siphotrol has a weak residual.)
Signs of trouble - lack of appetitie, rumbling stomachs, diarrhea,
vomiting, salivation, dilated pupils, stumbling. You probably
won't see them, but it's nice to know what to look for...
Long-term flea treatments
None of the three common long-term flea treatments -- Program,
Advantage, and Frontline -- have been tested on ferrets, so use them
at your own risk. However, many people have been using them in
ferrets successfully for some time. At least one vet prefers
Advantage because it's entirely external and never makes its way into
the ferret's bloodstream.
Program is used at the cat dosage per pound, administered monthly.
The medicine circulates in the blood and prevents fleas which have
bitten the ferret from laying viable eggs. Therefore, every pet in
the house should be on Program to completely break the cycle; and you
may need to use this in combination with another product temporarily,
to kill most of the adults. The pills can be crushed and mixed
with a treat or food, or the suspension can be put directly on the food.
Be sure that the right ferret gets the whole dose. It should be taken
with a meal; in fact, the more food it's taken with, the more
effective it will be. Have your vet call Ciba-Geigy at 800-637-0281
Advantage comes in a tube. It's applied once a month to the shoulder
blades, where the ferret can't easily lick it off (but other pets
could). Ferret owners report that it works very well. It's water
soluble, so you shouldn't bathe your pet except right before another
application, and the ferret must be completely dry before the next
dose. The idea is to kill the fleas before they can lay their eggs,
and hopefully before they bite.
Frontline is also applied externally, and is also said to work very
well. It's alcohol-based and smells a bit until it dries, but it's
also water resistant. This means it may last longer than Advantage,
but if your ferret should happen to have a reaction to it (which I've
never heard of), getting it off could be more difficult.
Subject: (10.10) How do I tell if my ferret has ear mites? What do I do
Check when you clean your ferret's ears, perhaps once a month [7.5].
Reddish-brown ear wax is normal, but if you see any thick, black
discharge then you probably have mites. It's also a good idea to have
your vet check the ears whenever you visit. You can't catch ear mites
from your pet, but your cats, dogs, and other ferrets certainly can.
Dr. Williams, DVM says:
Ferrets very commonly get ear mites, so you don't need to get
upset. Check with your vet and get two products: a ceruminolytic
(such as "Oti-Clens"), which will dissolve the wax that the mites
live in. This is far preferable to trying to dig the wax out with
Q-tips. Then get a good ear miticide from your vet (I use
Put a little of the ear cleaner (which dissolves the wax) in the
ear and massage. Let it sit for about a minute. Your ferret will
probably shakes its head, sending wax all over you and the floor.
Use a Q-tip and gently collect the rest of the wax from the ear
canal. You won't hit the ear drum, as the ferrets ear canal is
roughly L-shaped - you will just be cleaning the vertical part of
the canal. After you have cleaned the wax, put the ear drops
[miticide] in. Make sure that the fluids that you are using are
body temperature - put them in your shirt or pocket for a few
minutes before using. No one likes cold water in their ears!!!!
Clean every day for a week to 10 days, stop for a week, and go
again for another week to take care of mites. If your problem is
just dirty ears (some ferrets have a lot of wax) - just use the
ear wax remover once a week.
Ivermectin can be used in bad cases, either orally, injected, or
directly in the ear. Today I ran across an article (Bell, JA.
Parasites of Domesticated Pet Ferrets, Comp. Clin. Educ. Pract.
Vet. 16(5): 617-620), which gives a dosage for topical
administration of ivermectin:
Injectable ivermectin is mixed with propylene glycol at a ration
of approximately 1:20 - then 0.2 to 0.3 ml (4-6 drops) into each
ear canal daily. Ferrets on ivermectin for heartworm prevention
should not have problems with ear mites.
Dr. Susan Brown, DVM says:
Do not depend on the oil [used for cleaning] to completely rid
your pet of mites either although it will help to suffocate them.
Mites are easily taken care of by using Ivermectin directly in the
ears at 0.5mg/kg divided into two doses to be used in each ear and
then repeated in two weeks. You need to have a positive diagnosis
of mites made by your vet and get the medication from him or her.
On at least two occasions, Oterna ear mite drops from Pitman-Moore Ltd
England (containing betamethasone BP, neomycin BP and monosulifiram)
have caused damage to the (outer) ears of ferrets, necessitating the
surgical removal of a portion of the ear. It is recommended to avoid
using this medication for ear mites in ferrets, and to check other
medications for those ingredients.
Subject: (10.11) Do I need to worry about heartworms?
If you live in a heartworm-endemic area, yes. Heartworm is
transmitted by mosquito, so generally areas with lots of mosquitos
have a lot of heartworm too.
Dr. Deborah W. Kemmerer, DVM, writes:
My practice has been "ferret-intensive" for about nine years. I've
diagnosed and treated about thirty ferrets for heartworms. Many
who were not on preventive have been found to be heartworm-
positive on necropsy when presented for "sudden death
syndrome". In my opinion, any ferret in a heartworm-endemic area
should be on preventive even if he never goes outside.
The American Heartworm Society recommends Heartgard for use in
ferrets. In theory this is great, but sometimes less than
practical. Most ferret owners are not comfortable with giving
tablets and most ferrets will not consume the entire "brick" of
the canine chewable monthly tablet. The new Feline Heartgard is
promising, however. In a taste test using ferret patients
conducted at this hospital, we observed about 60% acceptance of
the small feline chewable tablet. This will be a relief to many
owners who do not enjoy administering the liquid mixture described
If a ferret will not eat the chewable feline tablet, this is what
I use as an alternative: Mix 0.3 cc's of Ivermectin 1% Injection
in one ounce of propylene glycol (Ivermectin is not
water-soluble). this makes a 100 microgram/ml
suspension. Administer 0.1 cc per pound of body weight once
monthly by mouth. We dispense the mixture in amber bottles with
appropriate warnings about sunlight, and we put a two- year
expiration date on it. The injection itself has a longer
expiration date, so this should be adequate.
I have been using this mixture since 1988. Owner compliance is
very good, complications and side effects are virtually nil, and
no ferret who is taking it has been diagnosed with heartworms. I
do see heartworm-positive ferrets who are not taking preventive. I
don't worry too much about the lack of USDA approval for ferrets,
because there is virtually nothing approved for any use in ferrets
with the exception of two vaccines anyway.
The CITE Snap test for occult heartworms has proven to be very
accurate and dependable for use in ferrets. It has shown positive
results even in the face of only one or two very stunted adult
worms. I cannot attest to personal experience with accuracy in any
other antigen test.
Dr. Kemmerer reports that in her experience, all heartworm-positive
ferrets die without treatment. If your ferret tests positive for
heartworm, contact Dr. Kemmerer at 352-332-4357 for information about
the regimen she recommends, which she has found to give about a 75%
If your pets are on heartworm preventative, consider giving it to them
all year. That removes the possibility that a worm might sneak in
before you start it up again, so your pet will be safer, and won't
have to have another heartworm test every spring.
Just so you know, the signs of a heartworm infestation include chronic
cough, lethargy, labored breathing, fluid accumulation in the abdomen,
fainting, and a bluish color to the tongue, gums and lips.
Subject: (10.12) Is there an animal poison control hotline?
The National Animal Poison Control Center (NAPCC) can be reached one
of two ways: either call 1-900-680-0000 ($20 for the first 5 minutes,
$2.95 for each additional minute) or 1-800-548-2423 ($30 flat fee on
your credit card). Give them as much information as you can: what
your ferret got into, what the ingredients are, how much he
ate or contacted, and how long ago it was.
They also have a Web site at <http://www.napcc.aspca.org/> which
offers advice on preventing animal poisoning, what to do if your pet is
poisoned, and so on.
== End of Part 4 ==
- Pamela Greene
Ferret Central: http://www.ferretcentral.org/
Clan Lord (online game) FAQ: http://faq.clanlord.net/
This sentence would be seven words long if it were six words shorter.