Ferrets are well known for their lively antics, big personalities, and mischievous curiosity. As a result, it often comes as a surprise to learn that these spunky little carnivores are also prone to some serious health concerns. Whether you’re a long-time ferret aficionado or an eager new ferret parent, it is important to familiarize yourself with the most common ferret ailments and their classic signs and symptoms.
What Kind of “Health Concerns” Are We Talking About?
The most common ferret health issues tend to fall into one of two camps: “internal” or “external.” Internal health concerns sprout from a systemic trigger resulting in illness. External health issues, on the other hand, most often result from improper diet or husbandry, or the general curiosity or clumsiness of the animal. It is also important to note that some health conditions are an overlap of both internal and external factors, or one can exacerbate the other (ex: feeding an improper diet to a chronically ill ferret).
Because many of the signs and symptoms of these health issues are quite similar, it is always best to have your ferret seen by a veterinarian as soon as possible for a formal diagnosis and appropriate treatment.
Common Internal Health Conditions
The fact that ferrets make fun, vivacious companions led to a “ferret craze” that boomed during the 1980’s and 90’s throughout the United States. In response, ferrets were being inbred and overbred to meet the demand. Though these unhealthy breeding patterns allowed more people to share their homes with these amazing animals, it also resulted in some common systemic defects across many breeding lines. These defects can still be found in many ferrets born today and can result in some of the most serious, life-altering illnesses. Though not an exhaustive list, the following four diseases are the most prevalent. If you notice any of these signs or symptoms in your pet, contact a veterinarian immediately.
Adrenal Gland Disease
Otherwise known by the medical term “hyperadrenocorticism,” this disease is arguably the most common health concern seen in ferrets today. In this condition, the adrenal glands (tiny glands above the kidneys) produce too many hormones. In the early stages, ferrets generally feel okay, but an increase in reproductive hormones over time often come at a cost both physically and behaviorally. Classic signs include:
- Hair loss (generally the first sign)
- Excessive itchiness
- Vulvar swelling in females
- Prostatitis in males
As their name suggests, insulinomas are tumors that specifically increase the amount of insulin your ferret produces. The excess insulin puts afflicted ferrets at risk of dangerously low blood sugar levels. Though insulinoma tumors can be either malignant (cancerous) or benign (non-cancerous), they both wreak havoc in similar devastating ways. Classic signs include:
- Pawing at the mouth
- “Stargazing” – a temporary state in which a ferret is awake and staring off into space, but unresponsive to the environment around them
- Weight loss
- Tremors or tics
- Abnormal behavior – lethargy, confusion, easily worn out, etc.
- Hypoglycemic coma
Lymphomas are cancerous tumors that can affect any part of the lymphatic system, including (but not limited to): lymph nodes, liver, spleen, bone marrow, digestive tract, and skin. Though most people consider cancer to be more common in older animals, lymphoma is indiscriminatory and can impact ferrets of any age. Lymphoma that has affected the lymph nodes or skin may be visible from the outside, but there can be a lot going on inside the body that cannot be seen from the surface, so it is important to watch for the following classic signs:
- Poor or absent appetite
- Weight loss
- Bloody stools
- Any visible bulges or masses
- Abdominal swelling
- Difficulty breathing
- Hind limb weakness
Commonly referred to as “DCM,” dilated cardiomyopathy is the most common heart disease seen in ferrets. Over time, the walls of the heart stretch and thin, enlarging the heart’s size and making it weak and unable to effectively circulate blood throughout the body. Though the root cause of DCM in ferrets has not been definitively determined, it is thought to have a hereditary link or be a result of a lack of amino acids (specifically taurine) in the diet. Classic signs include:
- Rapid breathing
- Difficulty breathing
Common External Health Conditions
Often just as fearless as they are curious, ferrets love to get themselves into trouble. They often chew on things they shouldn’t, swallow non-food items, and find themselves in compromising situations. While the health concerns outlined below are often the result of external circumstances, there can also be a layer of genetic predisposition. As with the illnesses discussed above, if anything seems out of the ordinary for your ferret friend, or if you happen to notice they’ve gotten into something they shouldn’t, a prompt call to your veterinarian is always recommended.
Gastrointestinal (GI) Obstruction
GI obstructions (a partial or complete blockage of the digestive tract that keeps food, liquid, gas, and stool from moving through in a normal way) can be a result of swallowing something they shouldn’t (part of a toy, piece of plastic, etc.), or from hairballs resulting from their fastidious grooming rituals. Classic signs include:
- Lack or absence of appetite
Dental disease is just as common in ferrets as it is in other companion species. If their dental health is not properly addressed, ferrets can develop gingivitis, tooth root abscesses, and break their teeth – all resulting in feeding difficulties. While a healthy, high quality, species-appropriate diet goes a long way in protecting your pet’s dental health, ferret parents are encouraged to routinely brush their little ones’ teeth to ensure tarter build-up is kept at bay. Ferrets also have a propensity to be a bit clumsy and can injure their mouths should they fall, making adult supervision in ferret-proofed spaces even more essential. Classic signs of dental disease include:
- Bad breath
- Pawing at the mouth
- Unable to close the mouth all the way
- Dropping food from their mouth as they eat
- Swelling along jawline or under eyes
As mentioned above, unsupervised ferrets often find themselves in dangerous situations. Falls, entrapments, and an unfortunate run-in with a grumpy housemate can result in traumatic injuries such as broken bones, sprains/strains, lacerations, and spinal damage (to name a few). Ferrets tend to be rather stoic in nature and may try to hide signs of an injury after an accident has occurred. Even if your ferret seems fine right after the event, it’s best to call the vet. Classic signs of traumatic injury include:
- Blood coming from the mouth and/or nose (even if only a little)
- Pupils are different sizes (anisocoria)
- Eyes move back and forth or up and down rapidly (nystagmus)
- Dragging a limb
- Dragging both hind limbs
- Walking as if they’re inebriated (ataxia)
- Rapid, heavy breathing
- Avoiding touch or crying out when handled
What Are the Chances My Ferret Will Get Sick?
Unfortunately, there is no guaranteed way to ensure your beloved ferret will not get sick, but there’s also no guarantee they will get sick, either. Every ferret is a unique individual. The best way to provide your little one with the happiest, healthiest life possible is to feed a high-quality, high-protein, high-fat diet; give them plenty of time to play in a safe, supervised, ferret-proofed environment; take them to routine well visits with a trusted veterinarian; and shower them with loads and loads of love and affection.