Skip NavigationSkip to Primary Content

Ferret Information Package


We are extremely proud of our clinic and of our team consisting of over 20 caring and experienced staff. We are dedicated to providing excellence in care for our patients and their families since 1972. Our entire team cares deeply for your pet and will treat them with caring hands and a tender voice; their comfort and well-being is why we are here every day.

We are also very involved in our community through our popular Junior Vet program which has been running since 2003, and wildlife triage that we offer at no cost. We are delighted to be one of the veterinary clinics providing patient care for the Northumberland Humane Society. 

Please check out our website at for more information on these programs and on our clinic and staff. We look forward to being your other family doctor!

Beyond What You See

Both Doctors and Staff have your pet's best interest at heart and strive to make their stay with us as pleasant as possible. We encourage you to accompany your pet to their kennel to allow you the opportunity to see where they will stay and to help them to settle in. Every pet has his or her own separate kennel or run, furnished with a clean, dry, comfy towel or blanket. If your pet has a "special toy” or “security blanket" feel free to bring it in with them.

If your pet is to have a general anesthetic we would like you to know that we minimize the risks by providing exemplary care during their stay. We highly recommend a pre-anesthetic blood screen prior to a general anesthetic. Just as your doctor would run a blood test before your procedure we do the same for your pet. A pre-anesthetic blood test is like an internal physical exam that will check organ function and help identify unknown diseases. For this blood work, we collect a small sample of blood that is sent to an outside lab. Blood work must be submitted at least 24 hours before the procedure.

Veterinarians will do a physical exam the morning of surgery to ensure that your pet is healthy before undergoing general anesthetic. Patients are assessed individually to determine which anesthetics will be safest for them. We have anesthetics available for all ages, from the very young to our senior patients. We also carry anesthetics specific to our work with exotic pets.

The doctors adhere to strict sterile techniques, complete with a cap, mask, sterile gown, and gloves when performing surgery. A separate sterile surgical pack is used for each procedure to avoid infection and cross-contamination. The animals are surgically prepared both at their incision and intravenous sites. This involves first shaving the hair, then cleaning the skin with antibacterial solutions.

Prior to the anesthetic, every animal is placed on intravenous fluids. Intravenous fluids are important to help maintain optimal blood pressure during surgery as well as provide access that will allow us to administer drugs if an anesthetic emergency arises.

While under anesthesia, every pet is connected to a Cardell monitor for carbon dioxide, blood pressure, and heart monitoring. Each pet is provided with a warming blanket to manage its temperature during the anesthetic. As well, our Registered Veterinary Technicians continually assess the animals, during both the anesthetic and recovery periods. During recovery one of our technicians or assistants sit with your pet to comfort them as they recover from the anesthetic.

We are acutely aware of the level of pain of our patients and have very current protocols in place to help manage their pain while in the hospital as well medications for use at home to keep them comfortable.

Uncomplicated surgery cases are discharged the same day. This allows the animal to rest at home, which is usually less stressful for both patient and owner. We do keep some animals overnight if they require bandaging after surgery. We recommend that more complicated cases be transferred to the Animal Emergency Clinic in Whitby for overnight observation.

If you have any questions or would like to tour our facility, please ask any one of our staff members. Your comments and suggestions are always welcome as we strive to provide the best service possible for you and your pet.

Owning A Pet Ferret

General Information

Ferrets come in several different color schemes: The Fitch ferret is the most popular. Fitch ferrets have a buff-colored coat with black markings on the face, feet, and tails. Albino ferrets are white with pink eyes. Some ferrets have a buff coat with light markings.

The female ferret is called a jill, the male is a hob, and the infants are called kits.

The gestation period, or length of pregnancy, is about 42 days (compared to 60 days for dogs and cats and 270 days for people). Like puppies and kittens, kits are born deaf and with their eyes closed. They begin walking by about 3 weeks of age, which is also when their eyes and ears open. By about 6 weeks of age, they are weaned onto kitten or ferret food. The average life span is 5-8 years; ferrets are considered geriatric pets at 3 years of age (compared to 8 years of age for dogs and cats).

Ferrets can make good pets. Their diet is cat food or ferret food, and they easily learn to use a litterbox.

They can be nippy; check with your veterinarian prior to purchasing a ferret if you have small children.

Ferrets are escape artists and are easily able to squeeze through the tiniest openings and cracks. Homes must be "ferret-proofed" to prevent escape and injury. Naturally inquisitive, they will chew on and swallow many things. It is highly recommended to put a collar with a bell attached on your ferret, so that it can be easily found if it escapes your sight (make sure the bell can't be swallowed if it becomes detached, or make sure it's firmly secured to the collar and can't easily detach). Never let your ferret out of your sight when it's out of its cage. If you leave the room even for a minute, take the ferret with you or put it back in its cage (carrier).

As stated above, ferrets love to chew. Rubber toys are not safe for ferrets, as they often chew off and swallow small pieces!  Diagnosis of an obstruction is often difficult in a ferret; usually the problem is diagnosed during exploratory surgery and is often fatal if not treated early. Hard toys like Nylabones are safe, as are rawhide treats in small amounts (although some veterinarians feel rawhide shouldn't be given to any pets). Other safe toys include ping pong and golf balls, small cans, cardboard mailing tubes, and very hard plastic toys. Cloth toys are all right IF the ferret is not chewing off pieces of it!

Ferrets are usually spayed or neutered and de-scented prior to purchase. Unless you want to breed your prospective pet, sterilization is preferred. Intact (un-neutered) male ferrets have a musky odor and can be aggressive; female ferrets never go out of heat unless bred. This prolonged heat results in bone marrow suppression from high levels of estrogen, which is fatal unless treated early and aggressively with blood transfusions.

The anal sacs of ferrets secrete a foul smelling liquid, and thus de-scented ferrets (which have these sacs removed at the time of spaying and neutering) make better pets. Even after de-scenting, ferrets still have a slightly musky odor. Bathing can be done weekly or every other week with a gentle moisturizing shampoo that your veterinarian recommends. Ferrets should also have their sharp claws trimmed regularly (ask your veterinarian for instructions). Ferrets should not be declawed.


Just like dogs and cats, ferrets require a series of vaccinations as youngsters. Once a year, they also require an examination, a fecal test for internal parasites, and vaccination boosters. Once a ferret becomes 3 years of age, it requires a complete geriatric profile (see below).

Ferrets are usually vaccinated at 8, 12, and 16 weeks of age against canine distemper. There is an approved vaccine for rabies in ferrets. However, since many local laws vary regarding ferret bites, some veterinarians do not vaccinate ferrets for rabies.

Anatomical Interests

Ferrets do not have any identifiable blood types; if needed, blood from a dog or preferably a cat can be given to a ferret that needs a blood transfusion.

Ferrets are very susceptible to hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). For this reason, they are only fasted for a few hours (rather than overnight) prior to surgery or blood sampling.

Ferrets, like many small mammals and pocket pets, are extremely susceptible to heat stress or stroke. The temperature must be kept below 90o F (32o C).

Selecting Your Pet

Some areas make it illegal to own a pet ferret, due to potential attacks on people (specifically children, as ferrets can be aggressive and nippy) and the chance of an escaped ferret becoming established in the wild (and potentially destroying crops). If owning a ferret is legal, they can often be purchased at pet stores or through breeders or ferret club members. Look for a young ferret (ideally). The eyes and nose should be clear and free of any discharge that might indicate a respiratory infection (or distemper). The ferret should be curious and inquisitive; it should not be thin and emaciated. Check for the presence of wetness around the anus, which might indicate diarrhea. Check for the presence of external parasites such as fleas. If possible, examine the ferret's mouth for broken teeth, discolored gums (they should be light pink), or any obvious sores, any of which could suggest disease. Inquire as to whether the ferret has been surgically altered (spayed or neutered) or de-scented (had its anal sacs surgically removed); most ferrets have these operations performed by 8-12 weeks of age prior to purchase.

The First Veterinary Visit

Your ferret should be examined by a veterinarian who treats these special pets within 48 hours of purchase (this is often required by the seller or the guarantee is voided). They will discuss proper diet, housing, and toys for the ferret. A vaccination program will be set up, a fecal sample checked for worms, and the ferret may be started on heartworm preventative. Like dogs and cats, ferrets require annual veterinary visits.

Once a ferret becomes 3 years old, a complete geriatric work-up, which includes an EKG, urinalysis, blood profile, and radiographs (X-rays) is necessary for the early detection of diseases so commonly seen in older ferrets, such as cardiomyopathy and cancer.

Housing Your Pet Ferret

What type of cage does my ferret require?

Due to their reputation as curious creatures and escape artists, ferrets should be housed in a carrier, which is securely closed and locked. A litterbox can be placed in the cage for elimination.

Does my ferret need bedding in his cage?

Towels can be used for bedding. Ferrets like to burrow, so the towels can serve this purpose or a container such as a shoe-box can be placed in the cage.

What else do I need in the cage?

Food and water bowls are often left in the ferret's cage. Since ferrets are naturally playful, it is not uncommon for them to spill their food and water. You might try a heavy ceramic crock (safe for eating and drinking) to prevent this, or a holder for the food and water bowls that easily attaches to the cage. Some owners construct a multi-level "apartment" for their pets; this can be done with wood or cardboard, as long as the ferrets don't chew and swallow the "flooring".

The litterbox should also be placed in the cage so that the ferrets can eliminate at will.

Anything else I need to know? 

Ferrets are very sensitive to heat stroke. It is critical to keep their environmental temperature at or below 80o F (27 o C), and make sure their "house" is well ventilated.

Feeding Your Pet Ferret

What do ferrets eat?

Ferrets eat cat food or ferret food. Many brands of cat food are available for your ferret if you choose to feed cat food. Additionally, you have the choice of wet, dry, or semi-moist foods. Any of these diets will be enjoyed by your ferret. Keep in mind that your ferret "is what he eats", so try to feed him the best food possible, such as one of the premium foods your veterinarian can recommend.

How often should I feed my ferret?

Ferrets can easily develop hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), therefore they should be fed several meals throughout each day. This is most easily accomplished by leaving food available for them 24 hours a day.

Do I need to give my ferret vitamins?

If your ferret is eating a high quality premium diet, extra vitamins are not essential. However, there are several brands of very palatable vitamins that can be offered as a low fat treat.

Can I offer my ferret treats?

Yes, but be sure to check with your veterinarian first about what treats he or she might recommend. While obesity is not a common problem with ferrets, they certainly can become overweight if fed an abundance of high calorie treats.

Be sure to check with your veterinarian before you feed your ferret any people food. It is usually not recommended to offer ferrets people food, such as chips, cookies, or candy, as treats. This can contribute to problems such as an upset stomach, pancreatitis, obesity, and in some instances (i.e. chocolate) can be fatal!

What about water?

Fresh water in a crock that won't easily tip over should be available at all times.

Common Diseases of pet ferrets

What are some of the common diseases of pet ferrets?

Common conditions of pet ferrets include diarrhea, intestinal foreign bodies, parasites, ringworm, and various kinds of cancer.

What are the signs of these diseases?

Diarrhea is not a disease per se, but rather a sign of a gastrointestinal problem. In ferrets, there are several conditions that can result in diarrhea. Internal parasites can be a cause of diarrhea in ferrets. Viruses, although not common, can also cause diarrhea in ferrets. Helicobacter musteli is a spirochete-type of bacterium that causes ulcers and diarrhea in ferrets; similar spirochetes cause ulcers in people and dogs. Proliferative colitis is caused by a Campylobacter bacterium and is treated with antibiotics.

Intestinal foreign bodies are a common problem in ferrets, especially young ferrets less than one year old. Being curious creatures, ferrets commonly investigate, chew, and swallow many objects; most commonly rubber parts of shoes, furniture and mattress stuffing, rubber bands, erasers, and parts of dog and cat toys are chewed and swallowed. These obstructions are difficult to diagnose unless the owner observes the ferret swallowing the object or sees a piece of the object missing. They are hard to identify on routine radiographs (X-rays). Common signs are the same as with many ferret diseases, and include lack of appetite, vomiting, lethargy, diarrhea, and gradual body wasting. Vomiting of a severe, projectile nature is suggestive of a complete obstruction.

Like dogs and cats, ferrets can contract various intestinal parasites, as well as external parasites such as fleas. Yearly microscopic fecal examinations will allow easy diagnosis and treatment. External parasites, such as fleas, ticks, mange, and ear mites, can also infect ferrets.

Ringworm is occasionally seen in ferrets and usually manifests as a circular area of hair loss with slight scaliness along the periphery of the circle. Diagnosis can only be accurately made with a special culture of the skin, scales, and hair. It can be transmitted to other pets and to people, so care should be used in handling infected ferrets.

Cancer can be a concern in ferrets and unlike dogs and cats, cancer can affect ferrets quite readily and early in life. Early detection is critical to survival, every ferret three years of age and older should have a geriatric exam completed annually. This exam can include blood work, fecal testing and any other tests that may be specific to any concerns that your veterinarian has over your ferret. Additional tests can sometimes include urinalysis, radiographs (X-rays), specific blood tests and even an ECG (an electrocardiogram).

There are several types of cancers commonly seen in the pet ferret. These include cancer of the pancreas (called an insulinoma), adrenal gland tumors (often seen in conjunction with the insulinoma), and lymphosarcoma (cancer of the lymph nodes and lymphocytes a type of white blood cell). Other types of cancers can also occur in ferrets; any lump or bump should be immediately aspirated by your veterinarian to check for cancer. Treated early, many types of cancers can be cured.

How can I tell if my ferret is sick?

Signs of disease in ferrets may be specific for a certain disease. Most commonly, however, signs are vague and non-specific, such as a ferret with anorexia (lack of appetite) and lethargy, which can be seen with many diseases including intestinal foreign bodies, various causes of diarrhea, and many types of cancer. ANY deviation from normal should be a cause for concern and requires immediate evaluation by your veterinarian.

Adrenal gland disease is quite common in ferrets three years of age and older. Most commonly, the ferret begins to lose hair over its rump and back, which can progress to total baldness. Blood testing or an abdominal ultrasound evaluation can be diagnostic, although the clinical sign of baldness in the absence of primary skin lesions often allows the diagnosis to be made without further testing.

Insulinoma, which is also quite common in ferrets three years of age and older, usually causes weakness or excessive salivating due to lowered blood sugar (glucose) levels. Blood testing is needed for diagnosis. However, since excessive insulin secretion by the pancreatic tumors is not constant, the condition is not always easy to diagnose with a single blood test.

How are ferret diseases treated?

Diarrhea can be treated with several different medications depending upon the cause of the diarrhea. Intestinal parasites are treated with the appropriate deworming medication. Infectious causes of diarrhea in ferrets are treated with antibiotics and occasionally anti-ulcer medication. Owners should avoid home treatment without a proper diagnosis, as many diseases appear similar and mimic each other.

Intestinal foreign bodies usually require immediate surgical removal. Since signs of foreign bodies are very similar to other diseases (such as parasites and infectious causes of diarrhea), early diagnosis and aggressive surgical intervention is important.

Ringworm can be treated much the same as it is in dogs and cats and involves medicated shampooing, topical medications, and oral medication for severe infections. Mild infections often respond to topical therapy alone. Since ringworm appears similar to other skin conditions, correct diagnosis is important before treatment is started.

The various cancers can be treated surgically, medically, or with a combination of both surgical removal of the tumor and medical chemotherapy depending upon the type of cancer involved. Many cancers in ferrets can be treated, but early diagnosis is essential. Insulinomas are often treated with surgery and/or medical therapy. While treatment can help control the signs and improve the quality of life, insulinoma is not usually considered a type of cancer that can be cured. Adrenal tumors can be surgically removed or treated medically in selected cases. In many instances, if the tumor is benign and the ferret is normal except for hair loss, treatment may not be needed. This should be discussed with your veterinarian.

Any of these diseases can be severe enough to cause a loss of appetite and lethargy. When seen, these signs indicate a guarded prognosis and the need for hospitalization and intensive care, which can include fluid therapy and force-feeding.

Special problems of pet ferrets

General Information

Ferrets have several unique problems; understanding these problems will allow you to better care for your pet and minimize future health care problems.

Enlarged Spleen

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

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.

Heat Stroke

Ferrets are very susceptible to extreme heat, and as such their environmental temperature should be kept below 80o F (26 o 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 o -104 o F (38 o - 40 o C); average temperature is about the same as dog and cats (101 o F or 38 o 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.

Canine Distemper

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.

Human Influenza

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.

Gastrointestinal disease

Gastrointestinal disease occurs commonly in ferrets: from dental disease, through gastrointestinal foreign bodies to persistent diarrhea. Some, such as foreign bodies, are readily prevented while others require considerable diagnostic investigation and long term treatment.

Dental disease

Ferrets 2 years of age and older are commonly affected with dental tartar, gingivitis (gum inflammation) and frank dental decay. These problems are particularly seen in animals fed moist (canned) diets. Regular brushing can help control tartar but many ferrets resist this practice. Most commonly an annual dental cleaning done under gas anesthesia can safely control the problem. The common habit of biting and gnawing objects often prevents the build-up of tartar but can lead to dental damage.

Gastrointestinal foreign bodies

Ferrets chew with such fervor that rubber or plastic objects are often swallowed, especially by young ferrets. In older animals hairballs are more often the cause of gastric problems. The key features of a gastrointestinal foreign body are lethargy and anorexia (reduced appetite) with or without diarrhea. Interestingly one would expect vomiting to be the main sign, but in many cases it is not. Foreign objects in the small intestine often cause pain and are relatively easy to feel by palpating the abdomen. Objects in the stomach cause less pain and are more difficult to feel in the abdomen. Ferrets rarely pass such foreign bodies. Exploratory surgery of the abdomen is essential after taking x-rays to confirm that signs of a foreign body are present. Gas will be present in the intestine and stomach even if the object cannot obviously be seen. After such surgery with removal of the offending object ferrets should be given soft food for the first 24-48 hours but can be allowed to go home after that time. Gastrointestinal foreign bodies are often difficult to diagnose and are sometimes only diagnosed during exploratory surgery on animals with vague clinical signs.


Gastrointestinal parasites are rarely seen in ferrets but any ferret with diarrhea should have a routine microscopic fecal examination. While gastrointestinal worms are very rarely seen, protozoa such as Giardia or Coccidia may occur. Persistent diarrhea may occur with these and rectal prolapse can be a problem associated with such diarrhea in young animals.


Diarrhea can occur with a number of different diseases but some of the most important are: distemper, fatal in ferrets and untreatable; influenza, an important but not fatal disease; and rotavirus, a problem seen in young ferrets in North America. More common and more important, given their zoonotic nature (meaning it is transmissible to humans), are the organisms Salmonella and Campylobacter. Viral enteritis is becoming more common in ferrets and causes the green slimy feces seen in ferrets affected with the disorder. Supportive treatment is essential in any case of diarrhea in these small mammals since fluid loss can be fatal. Three other diseases, gastritis, proliferative bowel disease and eosinophilic gastritis are also characterized by diarrhea and are covered in more depth below.


In humans, Helicobacter has been identified as a significant factor in stomach ulceration, and similarly in ferrets Helicobacter mustelae has been found to be associated with stomach ulceration. In animals stressed by a change of environment and diet, especially when moved as a young animal to new owners, this organism can cause ulcers with gastrointestinal bleeding. Treatment for this disease relies on a combination of antibiotics, together with gastrointestinal protectants.

Proliferative bowel disease

This condition, very similar to a disease with the same name in pigs and proliferative ileitis in hamsters, is caused by an organism known as Lawsonia intracellularis. This leads to a thickened lower bowel and rectal prolapse. Indeed rectal prolapse in an older ferret is almost only seen in this disease. Treatment is with antibiotics and an affected animal should make a rapid recovery.

Eosinophilic gastroenteritis

This condition is rarely seen in ferrets. While food allergy has been suggested in people and dogs affected with the same disease, no such link is obvious in ferrets. In can be investigated using elimination diets. Chronic diarrhea is the classic sign in these cases with or without mucus and sometimes also blood. Differentiation of these causes of diarrhea and wasting can be difficult and supportive care is essential since these small animals are very readily compromised by fluid and nutrient loss.

Respiratory diseases

Diseases of the respiratory system are particularly important in ferrets as some can be fatal and the signs of each are difficult to differentiate from each other.


  • Canine distemper virus is a paramyxovirus that can cause severe signs in dogs but is regularly fatal in ferrets. The virus is normally spread by air droplets but can stay alive for around half an hour on surfaces so can be spread by gloves and cage furniture.

  • The key sign of this disease is a purulent discharge of the eyes and nose. However, the first sign in a ferret is often a rash (of the chin or abdomen) followed by the skin around the eyes and muzzle becoming swollen and crusty. Ferrets with the disease are also normally lethargic, depressed, and develop a cough. Bacterial infections occur secondary to distemper, probably because of a reduction in the immune system's effectiveness in affected animals.

  • The disease initially appears very similar to influenza (flu) but ferrets with distemper generally appear in worse condition than those with influenza. Signs such as hardening of the footpad (which give the disease in dogs the name hard pad) show that distemper is the cause.

  • Treatment is very rarely effective and the mortality rate is usually 100%. Supportive therapy such as antibiotic treatment, nutritional support and placing in an oxygen tent are the only measures to ease the animal's suffering.

  • Vaccination is essential in any animal that may come into contact with the disease. a vaccine approved for ferrets that only contains distemper should be used because of problems with use of so-called multivalent vaccines that also contain organisms that do not cause disease in ferrets. Young ferrets should have three vaccinations at 6-8 weeks, 10-12 weeks and probably again at 14-16 weeks of age and then booster vaccinations yearly.

  • Ferrets can have adverse reactions against vaccination and it is always worthwhile for owners to wait in the veterinary practice for 20-30 minutes to ensure that acute breathing problems do not occur. If problems do occur, an antihistamine should be administered. Ferrets may develop a fever or diarrhea but generally these are transitory effect, although, it is always wise to hospitalize and monitor a ferret having such a reaction.


Human influenza virus can affect ferrets and indeed ferrets can infect humans in close contact. Rather than the severe purulent (pus-type) discharge with distemper, influenza causes conjunctivitis and a watery discharge from the eyes. Young ferrets can develop a much more severe disease but in adults involvement of the lungs is uncommon. Young and immunosuppressed ferrets can develop an infection of the bronchi or small air passages within the lungs. In such a case, antibiotics are essential to control secondary bacterial infections. It is these secondary infections which can prove fatal to young ferrets - supportive therapy is essential to prevent fatalities in such cases.

Other causes for respiratory problems

  • Bacterial pneumonia without an initial viral infection is uncommon in ferrets but can occur, as can fungal infection in warmer wetter climates. Systemic antibiotic therapy is necessary following identification of the organism involved by use of a tracheal wash where a small amount of sterile fluid is introduced while the animal is under anesthetic and then removed for microscopic examination and bacterial culture.

  • Lymphoma cancer can present as a respiratory problem if the tumor involves predominantly the lungs. Cardiac disease giving rise to abnormal breathing or coughing is more common. Heart failure can first manifest as a cough or rapid breathing, and so a ferret with these signs where an infectious cause is not obvious should certainly have investigation of cardiac function. Treatment with a diuretic, which increases urine output, reduces the waterlogging of the lungs in cardiac failure, which accounts for the coughing and respiratory compromise seen in heart failure. Heartworm disease in ferrets can cause similar clinical signs.

  • Clearly, respiratory problems following trauma may be caused by bleeding within the chest cavity, or, by a pneumothorax where air has entered the thorax. In such cases, investigation by radiography is important and an x-ray will show whether there are problems within the chest.

Reproductive disease

What is the main reproductive disease in ferrets?

The main reproductive disease in ferrets is actually one associated with failure to reproduce!  That is to say a female ferret, which is not mated, fails to ovulate and consequently suffers the effects of a persistently high blood level of estrogen.

What signs should I look for?

  • Like cats, ferrets are what are known as induced ovulators, that is, that eggs are only released from the ovary after the vaginal stimulation associated with mating. Unlike cats the ferret susceptible to toxic effects from high levels of circulating estrogen which occur just before estrus. The main effect of this hormone, when circulating at chronically high levels, is to reduce production of blood cells by the bone marrow. This is most obviously seen in a lowering of red blood cells or erythocytes giving anemia. Signs of this are pale mucous membranes, seen most readily around the gums.

  • Additionally there is a reduction in the platelets,which can lead to hemorrhage. . This can be seen most easily again in the gums but occurs in all mucous membranes and indeed in the gastrointestinal tract and internal organs. Hemorrhage is the most common cause of death in these hyper estrogenic ferrets, rather than anemia itself.

  • In chronically affected animals infections can occur because of a reduction in the white blood cells. The bone marrow produces the whole spectrum of circulating cells, thus problems are seen in the white as well as the red cells. The anemia that occurs develops gradually and thus the ferret compensates and the signs of disease are subtle until fairly late in the condition.

  • Before any life-threatening blood disorders occur, however, the signs of persistent estrus are obvious - a swollen vulva and possibly also some vulvar discharge. Later on in the condition depression and reduction in appetite signal the beginning of serious problems. At this point a careful examination will reveal pale gums and perhaps some small (petechial) hemorrhages.

  • The diagnostic tests required in such a case will, at a minimum, be a complete blood count with red and white cell count as well as a platelet count. It might be argued that the vulva swelling is enough of a diagnostic sign and blood tests are hardly required to confirm the diagnosis. What they do, however, is to show how severe the condition is and give some idea of the long-term outlook (the prognosis), for the animal.

What other signs of hyperestrogenism are there?

  • Another sign characteristic of chronic hyperestrogenism is flank hair loss (alopecia.) The confusion here is that a tumor of the adrenal gland can cause the same signs, although with adrenal gland disease the animal is not usually compromised by anemia.

  • The treatment for hyperestrogenism is to stop estrus. The most obvious way of doing this is to spay (surgically remove the ovaries and uterus) the animal. This is where the results of the blood sample are essential. A ferret with dangerously low levels of red blood cells and platelets is not a good candidate for surgery.

  • In such cases medical management is the best option. Hormonal stimulation with human chorionic gonadotrophin, the hormone used by the body to stimulate ovulation, is effective in the vast majority of cases.

  • In cases where the anemia is very severe blood transfusions can be given. When the PCV (packed cell volume or percentage of red blood cells compared to total blood volume) falls below 15% a transfusion will be required. It does not seem that ferrets have different blood groups like people and dogs, so a blood cross match is not required. Between 5 and 10 ml of blood can safely be taken from an adult ferret and immediately transferred to the anemic animal. If a vein is not readily available, as may be the case in extremely moribund animals, blood may be given into the marrow of a long bone by the technique known as intraosseous transfusion.

  • A ferret in this debilitated state will also require nutritional and fluid support.

What other diseases of the reproductive system occur in ferrets?

Other diseases of the reproductive system are much rarer than persistent estrus, but are clearly of paramount importance to the owner of an affected ferret. Pyometra or infection of the uterus is very uncommon in ferrets and is treated, as in cats and dogs, by removal of the uterus and ovaries (ovariohysterectomy). Similarly tumors of the ovary are rare although tumors of the testes have been reported. In these cases castration is required. Enlargement of the prostate can occur in older male ferrets with problems of urination. The diagnosis may be an enlarged prostate or bladder stone or urolithiasis. Prostatic enlargement is normally a consequence of an adrenal tumor and thus full diagnostic testing is essential. The enlargement reduces very rapidly after removal of the adrenal tumor, if this is indeed the cause.

Skin diseases

What are the most common skin problems?

The main skin diseases in ferrets are associated with parasites - fleas, mites, and ticks - with bacterial skin disease occurring after trauma and tumors such as squamous cell carcinoma and mast cell tumors. Skin disease can occur around the muzzle and on the footpads in distemper and information on this can be found in the Ferrets - Respiratory Disease Information Sheet. Alopecia (loss of hair) occurs in persistent estrus and in adrenal gland disease - coverage of these conditions is given in Information Sheets on Ferrets - Reproductive and Hormonal Disease. These conditions do show the importance of a general clinical examination in any animal with skin disease, since often the skin problem is a manifestation of a more serious generalised condition.

What causes ferrets to have an unpleasant smell?

  • A consideration not related to skin disease but to a normal physiological function of the skin glands is that of the characteristic odor of a ferret, particularly a male animal. Some prospective ferret owners consider this unpleasant, which is probably a good indication that ferrets are not the pet of choice for these people!  Anal sac removal is sometimes suggested as an ameliorative step in such cases but while the glands of the anal sacs produce secretions with a very strong musky odor, liberated when the animal is stressed or frightened, the general ferret odor arises from sebaceous glands widely spread over the skin. Castration reduces this odor but does not prevent it completely.

  • Thin dull hair coat can be associated with an inadequate diet and self-excoriation can lead to skin disease in animals housed with insufficient bedding.

Flea infestation

Flea infestation is not uncommon in pet ferrets. Itching (pruritis) is the most common sign with hair loss around the back in heavy infestations. Treatment uses the standard flea control measures as in cats and dogs but the smaller size of the ferret means that a substantially smaller dose should be used. This smaller size means that the ratio of skin surface area to body weight is substantially higher and giving the same duration of spray as for, say, a cat or small dog leads to the possibility of toxic levels of drug being absorbed. The best way to use a spray on a ferret is first to spray a cloth and then rub this into the ferret's coat. Organophosphate flea medications should be avoided in ferrets since safe levels of the drug have not been ascertained in this species. Always check with your doctor before using any flea or tick products on your ferret.

Ear mites

Ear mites are common in pet ferrets with presenting signs of headshaking and ear scratching. A waxy discharge from the ears may be noted and in severe cases scratching produces self-excoriation with crusty scars visible around the ear (normal ferrets do have ear wax not associated with mites that can be gently cleaned if needed.)  Mite identification is possible with microscopic examination of the waxy ear exudate.

Sarcoptic mange

Sarcoptic mange or scabies is not seen commonly in ferrets but can affect either the feet alone or the whole body in a more generalized manner. In the localized form of the disease severe inflammation with pruritis is seen with swollen crusted paws, developing into a condition, known in the world of the working ferret as foot-rot, where the whole foot can be lost. Ivermectin together with local and generalized antibiotic treatment is curative in both the foot and the more generalized form.


As is the case with fleas, ticks can occur on ferrets. Contact your veterinarian for a safe treatment if your ferret is afflicted with ticks.

Bacterial disease

Bacteria readily infect bites and scratches gained during fights or in juvenile play. In most cases the ferrets own immune system resolves the infection but in severe cases topical or systemic antibiotics are required.


As with any animal,  ferrets can suffer from a wide range of tumors from benign cancers of the skin to aggressive malignant tumors of internal organs. It does appear that a large number of ferrets are affected by tumors of the lymphoid system and the pancreas. Here we will discuss these two tumors only.


Lymphoma tumors of the lymphoid (immune) system can affect very young ferrets and in these cases is a severe disease with weight loss, anorexia and lethargy. Respiratory problems and coughing may occur, as may hind limb weakness. This diversity of signs can make diagnosis difficult but a blood sample with a high number of lymphocytes is diagnostic. In adult ferrets, enlargement of lymph nodes is an important sign as is enlargement of the spleen, although this can occur without tumors being present. A biopsy of lymph node provides the definitive diagnosis. For a dedicated owner with a compliant patient, treatment with chemotherapy is an option, along with the various antioxidants and immune stimulating supplements.


Tumours of the pancreas involving the beta cells, which produce insulin, are surprisingly common in ferrets. Since insulin reduces blood sugar, an increase in this hormone as produced by an insulinoma results in dangerously low levels of glucose in the blood with the risk of the ferret lapsing into a hypoglycemic coma. In fact, the results of these low levels of blood glucose are manifest on the brain and the adrenal gland. Neurological signs include dullness and confusion but end in seizures and coma. The adrenal gland reacts to precipitous reductions in blood glucose by producing adrenaline and so the signs of this include a rapid heart rate, tremors and irritability. On the other hand some ferrets with tumours of the pancreas show no obvious clinical signs.

So how are insulinomas diagnosed?  A measure of blood insulin would seem the obvious test, but all too often ferrets with insulinomas have normal insulin levels at the time of sampling. The ration of insulin to glucose is a more useful test, since if there is a high level of insulin in the face of a low glucose level, the diagnosis is definitively made.

Treatment of insulinomas can be by drug therapy and a collapsed ferret, with a perilously low blood sugar level, should be treated by rubbing honey or glucose syrup onto the gums, the only danger of this being a bite, especially if the ferret is having seizures. A veterinarian attending such an emergency will give an intravenous drip of 50% dextrose slowly. Surgical treatment to remove the tumours is the optimal therapy and the largest reported series of cases to date demonstrated a mean survival time after surgery of around 500 days, which is relatively long given that these are generally middle-aged ferrets.

Hormonal Disease

Two major diseases associated with hormonal disturbance are abnormally high levels of estrogen associated with persistent estrus and abnormally high levels of insulin associated with the pancreatic tumor called insulinoma. These two diseases are covered in our handouts: Reproductive diseases and tumors in ferrets. This leaves two other major diseases to cover: hyperadrenocorticism (adrenal gland disease) and diabetes mellitus. The first is seen in a large number of ferrets in North America and the second considerably rarer but still important to recognize if it does occur.

Adrenal Gland Disease

Disease associated with over activity of the adrenal gland is recognized as a very common finding in older ferrets in North America. The main sign to note in such cases is hair loss on the flank with or without pruritis (itchiness). Affected ferrets also have an enlarged vulva if female and often some problem with urination if male due to prostatic enlargement. A major problem is that hair loss and a swollen vulva are common signs of persistent estrus, which can confuse the diagnosis in some cases. In many affected ferrets enlarged adrenal glands can be felt just in front of the kidneys and there may also be enlargement of the spleen, although these signs are not always detected.   Unlike the situation in dogs with hyperadrenocorticism, commonly run hormonal tests and measurements in ferrets do not seem to readily separate affected from normal animals. Ultrasound of the abdomen can be useful in detecting enlarged adrenal glands but the most useful test is probably the measurement of blood levels of plasma steroids. In many cases clinical signs and a thorough history can make the diagnosis. Treatment can be surgical with removal of one affected gland or, where both glands are affected by removal of one and reduction in the size of the other. In dogs, drug treatment which is effective in reducing adrenal activity is used. However, in ferrets this treatment is rarely successful and has significant side effects of reducing blood glucose to dangerously low levels. Newer experimental medications may be helpful but expense is an issue for some clients. Speak with your veterinarian to see if new treatments are available.

Most cases are found to be an increase in size of the adrenal tissue or a benign adrenal tumor (adrenocortical adenoma). Many ferrets with benign disease can live normal lives without therapy; the pros and cons of treatment should be discussed with your doctor.

Diabetes mellitus

Diabetes mellitus, caused by an inadequate production of insulin, is rarely a primary problem, but often secondary to removal of insulinomas, especially where numerous tumor nodules are found in the pancreas. The diagnosis can be made on persistently high glucose levels but definitive diagnosis requires measurement of a low insulin level in the face of high blood glucose levels. Treatment is by injectable insulin twice daily. The ferret should be monitored daily for the presence of glucose in the urine. This should be only a trace in the morning sample if the correct amount of insulin is being given.

Other endocrine disease

Interestingly, given the interest in estrogen-related and insulin-related endocrine disorders no reports of thyroid-related endocrine disease have been noted to date.