Ferrets have several unique problems; understanding these problems will allow you to better care for your pet and minimize future health care problems.
During a physical examination, it is not uncommon for your veterinarian to find an enlarged spleen, especially if your ferret is an older pet. While not a sign of any one disease, it does indicate the need for further investigation. Several diseases that can result in splenic enlargement include inflammation of the spleen, malignant tumors, cancer, and heart disease. Obviously an enlarged spleen is a serious sign that indicates the need for complete laboratory testing to determine the cause. Occasionally, diagnostic tests are negative for a specific disease, in which case the diagnosis of "benign hypersplenism" or "benign splenomegaly" will be made.
Aplastic anemia literally refers to bone marrow suppression, which results in a complete loss of red blood cells (and often white blood cells and platelets) in the bone marrow. This disease is rarely seen due to early (pre-purchase) spaying of female ferrets. However, ferrets that are not spayed and not bred when they are "in heat" stay in heat indefinitely. While in heat, the ferret's estrogen levels remain high. High doses of estrogen are very toxic to bone marrow.
Signs of aplastic anemia include lethargy and pale mucus membranes in a female intact ferret that is obviously in heat (manifested by a swollen vulva, the outer lips of the female reproductive tract).
Treatment includes hormonal therapy to bring the ferret out of heat, antibiotics, iron, vitamins, and often blood transfusions. After stabilization, the ferret is spayed. Ferrets with extremely low packed cell volumes, which measures the red blood cell mass, usually are beyond help and euthanasia is recommended. This is a very serious and often expensive disease to treat. All female ferrets that will not be bred at every heat cycle should be spayed by 4-6 months of age.
Ferrets are very susceptible to extreme heat, and as such their environmental temperature should be kept below 80°F (26°C). Just like dogs and cats, ferrets don't sweat. Heat stroke is manifested by open mouth breathing and an elevated rectal temperature (normal temperature is between 100°F - 104°F (38 ° - 40°C); average temperature is about the same as dog and cats (101°F or 38°C). Heat stroke is a true emergency. First aid involves rapidly cooling the ferret by running cold water over its body, fanning it, or whatever is needed to rapidly reduce its body temperature. Be careful not to chill the ferret or cause shivering; if shivering results, stop the cooling process. After a few minutes of attempted cooling, rush the ferret to your veterinarian. Medical care by your veterinarian includes temperature reduction (often with cold water enemas or cold fluids instilled into its abdominal cavity). Hospitalization is required to monitor vital signs.
Ferrets can contract the dog distemper virus. Like dogs, it is fatal. Ferrets should be vaccinated against this disease. Clinical signs include loss of appetite, a thick eye and/or nasal discharge (similar to pus), and often a rash on the chin, abdomen, or groin. Treatment is supportive and should be attempted as the disease mimics human influenza. The difference is that with distemper, the ferret will be dead within 1-2 weeks, whereas with influenza the ferret should be better within 1-2 weeks.
Ferrets can contract and spread human influenza, or flu. Signs are similar to people with the flu (or to ferrets with distemper). Treatment consists of antibiotics and decongestants. Occasionally fluid therapy or force feeding by the veterinarian will need to be done. NEVER give your ferret any over-the-counter medications or prescription drugs without checking with the doctor first. Like dogs and cats, ferrets can be easily poisoned or killed with common human medications
This client information sheet is based on material written by Rick Axelson, DVM & Shawn Messonnier, DVM © 2005 Lifelearn, Inc. Used with permission under license.
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