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Ferrets are engaging, rambunctious four-legged exotic pets. Dr. Robinson discusses nutrition, husbandry and other tips about keeping your ferret healthy.
If you want an engaging rambunctious four-legged exotic pet to keep you on your toes, then a ferret is the pet for you! Ferrets are loyal, intelligent, playful creatures that will make any animal lover smile, but their needs are unique. So educate yourself on their needs and potential illnesses before you adopt. Additionally, certain cities in Texas do require rabies vaccination, licensing and registration of your pet ferret, so check with your city for current regulations.
Ferrets live on average 5-10 years, and are between 1-4 lbs as adults (males tend to be larger than females). They come in many different coat colors. Be aware that many of the ferrets that have white faces, or white blazes on their faces, might be partially or completely deaf. This doesn’t make them bad pets – they are still wonderful additions to your family – but extra training might be necessary with these ferrets.
Most ferrets in the United States are bred at Marshall Farms (you can tell a Marshall Farms ferret by a tattoo on the inner ear). The ferrets are spayed or neutered, have their scent glands removed, and they usually have one set of kit (the name for a baby ferret!) vaccinations prior to going to the pet stores for purchase. Ferrets are highly inquisitive by nature, so make sure to ferret-proof your home before adopting a ferret. Cords, cables and wires can be dangerous. We do not recommend allowing your ferrets to be left free in the house, but if you do not wish to cage your ferrets, then a specific room designed to meet their needs will have to be planned for their safety.
Commercial ferret cages are available at pet stores. Find the largest cage with as many different levels as possible, especially if multiple ferrets are going to be housed in the same cage. These guys need some room to explore and climb! Fleece blankets can be used as a soft substrate on the bottom of the cage, and on any level to offer a soft surface. Ferrets also love to snuggle inside of hammocks hung or placed inside the cage. Include a litter box in the corner of the bottom of the cage (you might need 2 litter boxes if you have more than 1 ferret in a cage). Ferrets usually like to back up and eliminate with their tails facing a corner. Watch your ferrets closely – many will “choose” a corner they designate as a bathroom. Move the litter box to the ferret – it is infinitely harder to make them choose a different corner!
Litter should be recycled newspaper (Yesterday’s News). Avoid clumping cat litter and wood shavings, as these can cause excessive dust and respiratory infections. Ample playtime outside of the cage should be provided frequently throughout the day; however, this time should be supervised to prevent any chewing or ingesting of plastic or rubber objects (think door stoppers!) that may cause intestinal obstruction.
Ferrets are obligate carnivores, meaning their diet should consist mainly of meat products. Commercial ferrets diets are available and are formulated to meet your ferret’s specific nutritional needs. Ideal brands of ferret food include Totally Ferret, ZuPreem, and Marshall Farms. Ferrets should not be fed cat food as their primary diet. This used to be recommended when there was not a better option available, but commercial ferret diets are superior to cat food diets and should be chosen to feed instead. Homemade diets should also be avoided because it is very difficult to meet a ferret’s nutritional needs.
Ferrets are obligate carnivores (similar to cats) and they require high protein diets to thrive. Commercial diets are specifically designed to give ferrets optimum nutrition. Improper diets can cause severe health issues including infection, gastrointestinal disease, and kidney disease.
Ferrets have very high metabolic rates, and therefore need food available to them all the time. They tend to graze rather than eat large meals. Always offer food free choice at all times. Provide water at all times as well. Bottle sippers that hang on the cages are typically the best option for ferrets, as they can be kept clean and cannot be easily spilled. Some ferrets prefer drinking out of dishes, so make sure your ferrets know how to and actually do drink out of the water bottle.
New pet ferret should be examined within the first week to look for any signs of illness, ear mites, and intestinal parasites. Bring your ferret in a carrier or travel cage for safety. Exams should then be performed once a year, and then twice a year once your ferret turns 3 years old, to make sure your ferret is healthy. Ferrets should be vaccinated yearly for rabies and distemper, usually until they are 4 years of age. We typically stop vaccinations at this time because the risk of having an allergic reaction significantly increases as the ferrets get older. Yearly routine blood work and x-rays are needed starting around age 3 to detect early onset of diseases at a time when treatment will be most effective. Knowing the common diseases in ferrets and what signs to look for will help you know if you need to bring your ferret in for an exam. Below are some common diseases in ferrets and what signs to watch for in your pets:
Though ANY age ferret can get ANY of these problems listed below, we have listed here the most common diseases based on age groups for ferrets.
Young ferrets are prone to eating things they shouldn’t. Strings, rubber door stoppers, and pieces of toys can all get lodged in the intestinal tract and cause an obstruction. Signs include vomiting, appetite loss, lethargy, and abdominal pain. Treatment is surgical removal of the obstruction. Hairballs can also be a cause of obstruction in any aged ferret, and sometimes have to be removed surgically.
Epizootic Catarrhal Enteritis (ECE)
This is a viral disease that happens typically to ferrets in an established household when new, young ferrets are brought in from pet stores, but it can occur in any ferret. Young ferrets typically recover faster than older ferrets. Signs include a greenish-colored, mucous diarrhea that may have the appearance of what looks like bird seeds coming out in the stool. Ferrets can be lethargic, have a poor appetite, and become dehydrated. Treatment is symptomatic and owners should be aware that episodes can happen throughout life during periods of illness or stress.
Does your ferret have itchy ears? Then ear mites may be the cause. Though any age ferret can get ear mites, most are typically young ferrets coming from pet stores, breeders or other places where many ferrets come in contact with each other.
Coccidia, nematodes, and protozoal parasites are all found in newly acquired ferrets coming from pet stores, breeders, and other places where ferrets are housed together in larger numbers. A fecal should always be performed on any new ferret to identify parasites, even if a dewormer has been given.
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
Some ferrets that have chronic gastrointestinal problems will actually have IBD. Food allergies, stress, and infections can all be underlying causes of IBD in ferrets. Signs include diarrhea, decreased appetite, lethargy, and occasionally vomiting. Treatment is symptomatic during flare-ups, and hypoallergenic diets are usually prescribed to control signs.
Insulinoma This is a cancer of middle-aged to older ferrets. Tumors grow in the pancreas that secrete too much insulin, which is a hormone the body uses to regulate blood sugar. Blood sugar levels drop too low because there is too much insulin being made by the tumors in the pancreas. Signs include stumbling (especially weakness in the hind legs), staring off into space with a dazed expression, drooling, teeth grinding (a sign of nausea and intestinal pain), and if the blood sugar levels drop too low, coma, seizures and death can occur. Emergency treatment is necessary if your ferret is unresponsive or seizuring. Place some honey or Karo syrup on the gums and bring your ferret immediately to the hospital. Treatment for insulinoma is for life. Medical treatment is preferred unless signs continue, then surgical removal of the tumors might be recommended.
This is another common tumor that ferrets get as they age. The adrenal glands sit next to the kidneys and are responsible for producing sex hormones and the body’s natural steroids and mineralocorticoids. Ferrets with adrenal tumors produce too many of these hormones, which causes clinical signs. Ferrets with adrenal disease typically first have signs of hair loss (especially along the tail, hip and back regions). They can be incredibly itchy, have a pot-bellied appearance, females get enlarged vulvas, and males can get enlarged prostates; some even so large that they can block urination. Medical treatment is usually preferred, but surgical removal of the affected adrenal gland can be performed based on the results of an abdominal ultrasound. Removing one adrenal gland will not prevent the other adrenal gland from developing a tumor, though, so medical treatment will likely be needed at some point.
Mast Cell Tumors
These are bright red, button-like skin tumors that can be very itchy and have a black crust on top of them. They are typically benign, but need to be surgically removed if they are causing problems.
This is a cancer that can affect ferrets as young as 1 year of age, but more commonly is found in adult and older ferrets. Ferrets can become depressed and lethargic, have swollen lymph nodes in the neck and legs, stop eating, and have gastrointestinal problems like vomiting and diarrhea. Treatment includes steroids as well as other chemotherapy agents. Signs usually respond well to initial treatments, but eventually the cancer returns and spreads, and treatment usually fails at this point.
This is a bacteria that almost all ferrets have, but some ferrets will get sick directly because of the bacteria. We don’t know why some get sick and some are fine, but it is likely related to environmental stress (small caging, overcrowding, or other causes), genetic predisposition, and improper nutrition. The bacteria causes stomach ulcerations to form. Signs include drooling, grinding teeth and pawing at the mouth (all these are signs of nausea), lethargy, and decreased appetite. Diarrhea may occur. Treatment is supportive care and antibiotic regimens designed to reduce the numbers of Helicobacter organisms in the stomach. We cannot cure this disease, but manage flare ups when they occur.
Senior ferrets are prone to heart disease, which is usually first diagnosed by hearing a heart murmur on physical exam. Heart disease, when treated early, can be managed for some time with medications. Heart disease is not a curable condition, and will eventually progress to congestive heart failure despite therapy. Many ferrets can have a long and good quality of life with heart disease while receiving appropriate care.
Ferrets get tartar buildup and dental infections just like dogs and cats, and routine dental care is part of keeping them healthy. Most ferrets will need yearly dental cleanings once they turn 4-5 years of age.
Most people don’t know that ferrets can get the flu! Symptoms are similar to those in people, and ferrets with the flu are usually so depressed that they will not eat or drink on their own, and most require hospitalization. Treatment is symptomatic, and can last for 5-7 days. If anyone in the household has the flu, make sure to stay away from the ferrets while they are symptomatic to avoid spreading it!
Ferrets, like other mammals, are susceptible to getting heartworms. Though most ferrets are housed indoors in Texas, mosquitoes are present here year-round and can still fly indoors to bite ferrets! Every ferret should receive a monthly heartworm preventative year-round in Texas to prevent this fatal disease. Even 1 heartworm is enough to kill a ferret.
A minimum of a 30 day quarantine period is recommended for any new pet being brought into a home with existing exotic pets. This is to protect the owner’s previous pets from any new diseases or parasites a new pet could be carrying. Most infectious diseases will have symptoms show up within that 30 day period. Quarantined pets should be kept in a separate room if possible, and have separate food and water bowls throughout the quarantine period. Handle your previous pets first, then handle your new pet last. After the quarantine period is over, and your new pet has shown no signs of illness and has seen a veterinarian, your previous pets should be safe from most communicable diseases.