The domestic ferret has become an increasingly popular pet in the United States and other parts of the world in recent years. The domestic ferret is a member of the mustelid family that includes otters, minks, and skunks. Ferrets are lively, inquisitive, and comical in their movements. The life span of the ferret is five to seven years on average in the United States . Males are called hobs, females are called jills, and young are called kits.
The basic cage needed to house up to two ferrets is a wire rabbit cage 24”x24”x18”high with a wire or solid floor. Newspaper or pine shavings may be used under the wire floor. Aquariums are not suitable cages for ferrets because the ventilation is very poor. An enclosed sleeping area is necessary for psychological well being. This can be as simple as a towel or shirt, and old stocking cap, a cardboard or wooden box with a hole cut in the side, the sleeve of a sweatshirt, etc. Ferrets can be litter box trained about 90% of the time. A small low-sided box should be placed in the preferred toilet area of the cage. You can use pine shavings, recycled newspaper (pellets), CAREFRESH Bedding, or clay kitty litter (non-perfumed).
Never give your pet any rubber toys! Ferrets like to chew and swallow rubber, which could result in an intestinal obstruction and death. Make sure to ferret proof you home and remove access to any rubber items such as ear phones, stereo speakers, rubber soled shoes, pipe insulation, molding, etc. Safe toys to give your pet are nylon bones, Ping-Pong balls, small cans, paper bags, cardboard mailing tubes, and very hard plastic toys.
Ferrets are carnivorous animals, meaning that they are strictly meat eaters. It has been shown that they can only utilize amino acids from meat proteins and cannot utilize amino acids from plant proteins. Many of the cat foods available in the grocery stores have a cereal or plant in their formulation, so they are not the best diet for your pet. High quality cat foods such as Iams, Eukanuba, or Science Feline diets are made up of highly digestible top quality meat proteins, these would work well. There are also a variety of pelleted ferret diets available on the market that are also suitable. Check the food label, make sure that the protein level is between 32% and 38%. A protein content over 40% may be detrimental to the kidneys of the older ferret. Another item to check in the food is the ash content, because ferrets are prone to develop bladder stones on foods that are high in ash. The foods recommended above are all relatively low in ash.
Never feed your pet foods that are high in complex carbohydrates or refined sugars! Ferrets cannot digest a lot of sugar and feeding these types of foods puts a tremendous strain on the pancreas. The result is diabetes. This disease is extremely difficult to treat in the ferret and ultimately leads to an early death. So avoid feeding candies, cake, sugar coated cereals, ice cream, etc.
Ferrets have a high fat requirement and it may be necessary for some animals to receive an additional supplement to improve coat quality. Four to five drops of Linotone (a fatty acid supplement) in the food daily is recommended. Many ferrets love the taste and will take it right off the spoon.
To prevent accumulation of hairballs in the stomach, use a cat hairball laxative (laxatone). This product generally comes as a sticky past and ferrets usually like the taste of it. Give one to two inches of ribbon in length twice a week.
Canine Distemper vaccines are given at 8 weeks and 12 weeks of age with annual boosters thereafter. (This disease is 100% fatal in the ferret)
Adrenal gland tumors are a common problem for ferrets over three years of age. The adrenal glands are important hormone producing glands that are located near each kidney. These tumors may be benign or malignant, but in either case the symptoms are the same, due to the production of abnormal amounts of hormone and hormone precursors from the tumor. The progress of this disease is slow, and affected ferrets may live two or three years after symptoms start.
The most common early symptom of adrenal tumors in the ferret is hair loss. This hair loss can involve the tail, back, sides, and abdomen, but generally hair of the face and legs remains. This skin may become visibly thinner in these bare areas. Muscle loss is common in affected ferrets, so that bones of the vertebrae, pelvis and ribs become prominent below the skin, and the weight loss can be dramatic. Females with adrenal tumors will often develop symptoms of estrous even though they have been spayed previously, due to the effect of sex hormones from the tumor. Males may develop cystic enlargement of the prostate gland that can cause them to strain while urinating.
Canine distemper is a common viral infection that is virtually 100% fatal in ferrets, although it can be prevented with appropriate vaccination. It can be transmitted directly from exposure to affected dogs or ferrets, or by airborne particles in an enclosed environment. The disease is high infectious, and outbreaks in households must be carefully managed to prevent high mortality rates.
The symptoms of this disease are quite distinct in the terminal stages, but initially they resemble an upper respiratory disease like influenza. After exposure to the virus, no signs are evident during the incubation period of 5 to 7 days. Then loss of appetite, lethargy and thick discharge from the eyes and nose develops. Swelling of the membranes around the eyes (conjunctivitis) is another characteristic symptom. The eyelids may crust shut. Fever is common in ferrets with distemper. As the disease progresses, red skin rashes consistently develop on the chin, muzzle and in the inguinal area. The footpads may become thick and dry. Ultimately the virus can infect the nervous system leading got convulsions, coma and death.
Cardiomyopathy is a disease of the heart muscle which leads to impairment of the heart’s ability to pump blood, and eventually to heart failure. It is the most common cause of heart failure in the ferret. There are two types of cardiomyopathy, dilatative and hypertrophic, with a dilatative form being most common in ferrets. In this disease the walls of the heart become increasingly thinner and weaker until a point is reached when the heart can no longer function effectively as a pump. The cause of cardiomyopathy is unknown in ferrets.
Symptoms of cardiomyopathy are similar regardless of whether it is the dilatative or hypertrophic form. Weakness, lethargy, and breathing difficulty are commonly seen. Coughing may be a symptom also.
As the heart begins to fail, blood pressure changes lead to an accumulation of fluid in the chest, making it increasingly difficult for the ferret to breathe, and thus reducing stamina. Other blood pressure changes may lead to enlargement of the liver and spleen, and the accumulation of fluid in the abdomen, so the abdomen may look distended.
Gastrointestinal Foreign Bodies
One of the most frequently encountered problems with ferrets in veterinary practice is GI foreign bodies. Ferrets are not always very discriminating about what they swallow, and seem to have a special affinity for soft, chewy objects such as foam rubber, neoprene, pencil erasers, etc.
Symptoms of intestinal foreign bodies vary considerably according to the location and the degree of obstruction that is being caused. Cases involving foreign objects in the stomach which are irritating to the stomach lining, but are not obstructing the flow of intestinal contents may take a long chronic course consisting of intermittent periods of diarrhea, appetite depression and vomiting. On the other hand, if the foreign objects make their way into the narrow small intestine they are capable of causing complete obstruction. Symptoms of such obstruction are acute and dramatic, and may include abdominal pain, vomiting, anorexia and collapse.
Ferrets are susceptible to human influenza virus, and it has been demonstrated that the disease can be transmitted from human to ferrets, and from ferrets to humans. Both type A and B influenza virus can infect ferrets. As with all viral infections, there is no cure, so careful prevention is the best control. This includes preventing exposure of ferrets to humans who are actually infected, and separating infected ferrets from susceptible ferrets in a household while they are ill.
Diagnosis of influenza is made on the basis of symptoms and exposure history. While a definitive diagnosis can be made by viral isolation from nasal secretions, or from rising antibody levels in the blood, these tests are not generally practical in a clinical setting. Symptoms include thick discharge from the eyes and nose, sneezing, and conjunctivitis (swelling and redness of the membranes around the eyes). Affected ferrets become lethargic and depressed. Fever above 104 degrees is seen commonly with influenza. The infection generally runs a course of one to two weeks. Although most ferrets will recover from influenza, it can be a fatal disease, and the very young and the very old are at greatest risk.
Hypoglycemia is low blood sugar, and in ferrets this is caused by pancreatic nodules called insulinomas or islet cell tumors. While these tumors are usually benign, they produce large amounts of insulin, which lowers blood sugar (glucose) levels. This is the opposite of the situation encountered with diabetes, where low insulin levels lead to high blood glucose levels. Hypoglycemia is a common disease in adult ferrets of both sexes.
Symptoms of hypoglycemia can be very subtle in the beginning. As the disease develops over many months, symptoms become increasing severe and ultimately fatal. Initially episodes of weakness or disorientation arise, then quickly pass after a matter of several seconds or minutes. Ferrets may stand still, staring blankly during a hypoglycemic episode, or may temporarily drag the rear legs while moving about. As the disease progresses and then tumors grow, the ferret may salivate and make chewing motions. Rubbing or pawing at the face is also frequently noted during a hypoglycemic attack. Episodes become more frequent and more severe, ultimately leading to collapse, seizures or coma.
Lymphosarcoma is a debilitating cancer of the lymphatic system that affects ferrets of all ages, and occurs with equal incidence in both sexes. Lymphosarcoma can affect many different organs in the body, and for this reason the symptoms of this disease are extremely variable. Malignant lymphocytes may be found in bone marrow, lymph nodes, liver, spleen, intestine, spinal cord, and are often widespread thorough many different sites. There is some evidence that lymphosarcoma in ferrets may be caused by a virus, as occurs in some other species, but this has not been proven.
Symptoms of lymphosarcoma in the ferret can include lethargy, weight loss, fever, coughing, and breathing difficulty. Symptoms vary according to the organs which are principally involved at the time, but chronic weight loss is a very common finding. In addition, on a physical examination the veterinarian may find enlargement of peripheral lymph nodes, enlargement of the spleen, or he may feel masses in the abdomen or chest.