Pet ferrets can get a variety of different diseases, just like dogs and cats. But ferrets, especially those in the United States, often get one or two of the same four diseases. It's important to be aware of common symptoms of these diseases and to catch them early on.
This is probably the most commonly diagnosed disease in ferrets. Adrenal disease, also known as hyperadrenocorticism, is a broad term for any problem with the adrenal glands resulting in too much production of the hormones that are naturally secreted. There might be a tumor, an enlargement to the gland, or another issue that causes one or both of the glands to by hyperactive. The treatment option of choice is surgery but Lupron injections are often given to older ferrets or ferrets that are not surgical candidates to manage the disease.
Different exotics vets may recommend slightly different treatment plans and tools to diagnose the disease, but be sure to take your ferret to a vet who has experience with adrenal disease.
Symptoms of adrenal disease include hairloss, pruritis (itching), aggression, enlarged prostates in males (which will cause difficulty urinating), and enlarged vulvas in females.
The cause of adrenal disease is not currently known but researchers, ferret owners, and veterinarians suspect a few culprits. A lack of UVB rays, not feeding a whole prey diet, and early spaying and neutering are often mentioned in textbooks and journals on ferret health as possible reasons for so many ferrets being diagnosed with adrenal disease.
Probably the second most commonly seen problem in pet ferrets is the development of insulinomas. Insulinomas are also referred to as pancreatic islet cell tumors. Similar to adrenal gland tumors in the sense that too large an amount of something is secreted, pancreatic islet cell tumors secrete too much insulin. Too much insulin results in low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) and causes your ferret to become weak.
Typical presentation of a ferret with an insulinoma is one who can't get into his litterbox due to hind leg weakness, or seems to tire more quickly and doesn't play as much. A lethargic ferret is often a ferret with an insulinoma, or two.
Treating a ferret with an insulinoma usually includes administering daily steroids, such as prednisolone, and making sure your ferret eats several small meals throughout the day to keep his blood sugar stabilized. Surgery to remove part of the pancreas may be an option to remove an obvious insulinoma as well.
This is a very common kind of cancer that unfortunately affects many middle aged to older ferrets. Bloodwork can diagnose your ferret with lymphoma, along with symptoms such as weakness, swollen lymphnodes, diarrhea, and weightloss. There is no cure for this kind of cancer since it will affect the many lymphnodes throughout your ferret's body, but chemotherapy often buys your ferret at least a few months and sometimes over a year.
Heart disease is the fourth most common disease that affects pet ferrets. Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy is a congenital disease (some ferrets are born with it) that doesn't typically manifest (show itself) until a ferret is older. The heart muscles weaken and over time enlarge and blood becomes more and more difficult to pump through the body.
Since we don't know exactly what causes cardiomyopathy we don't know how to prevent it, but taurine is a good supplement for heart health and is in most high quality ferret formulas.
Radiographs (x-ray's) and EKG's may be used to diagnose heart disease. If your ferret is diagnosed with cardiomyopathy your exotics vet may put him on a diuretic to slow disease progression but there is no cure or reversal.
Other common problems seen in pet ferrets include flea infestations, ear mites, ECE (Epizootic catarrhal enteritis), intestinal parasites, splenomegaly (large spleen), heartworm disease, colds and the flu, dental disease, and the development of mast cell tumors. It is important to get annual physical exams on your ferrets to catch diseases and problems in the earliest stages to give your ferret the best possible chance for a long and healthy life.