Adrenal disease is a concern for most ferret owners. If you are not familiar with the endocrine disorder, be sure to read the Ferret Adrenal Disease article prior to this one to better understand the disease process.
What are the Treatment Options for Adrenal Disease in Ferrets?
The best way to treat adrenal disease is to do surgery. The left adrenal gland is able to be removed if affected but the right adrenal gland, since it lies on the large blood vessel called the vena cava, can only be debulked or frozen. A few exotics vets are capable of performing cryosurgery (freezing it) on the right gland which kills the adrenal cells but doesn't permanently harm the large blood vessel that the gland sits on. Although most vets simply debulk the right gland, there are mixed thoughts as to whether or not the freezing is better.
If surgery is not an option for you or your ferret, Lupron injections (a human drug) are the next best thing. Most ferrets get 200 mcg of leuprolide acetate depot (Lupron) once every 28 days in a muscle for the rest of their lives. Lupron seems to work well but often another disease process alongside the adrenal disease complicates things. This is another reason why surgery is the best thing to do for your ferret. Your vet will be able to visualize their entire little abdomen insides and see if there are any other abnormalities. It is reported that up to 40% of ferrets who go in for adrenal surgery are found to have other problems in surgery such as hepatic cysts, enlarged lymphnodes, and even gastrointestinal foreign bodies.
Lupron injections are also sometimes given even after surgery is performed if symptoms of adrenal disease still prevail. Like I stated previously, 15% of ferrets will have both glands affected by adrenal disease and surgically removing both glands is not a good option. Without either adrenal gland producing some hormones, your ferret will go into an Addisonian crisis (Addison's disease or secondary adrenal insufficiency) due to the sudden lack of any adrenal hormones.
Melatonin supplementation is the third option for adrenal disease. It is only for hair regrowth and does nothing for the disease itself. It has to be given orally on a daily basis as well.
Deslorelin acetate implants are now available in the United States as an alternative to monthly Lupron injections to help control the adrenal disease. These implants last about 12 months and most ferret owners have been pleased with the results. They are implanted just like a microchip would be, under the skin and between the shoulder blades. Your ferret may need to be sedated to administer the large implant injection.
Can I Prevent Adrenal Disease in My Ferret?
There are several trains of thought regarding what causes adrenal disease in ferrets. A lack of UVB exposure, a lack of a whole prey diet, genetics, and early spaying and neutering are all suspects for causing adrenal disease. Pet ferrets in Europe claim to not have as such as high an incidence of adrenal disease as pet American ferrets, but there are few formal studies to prove or disprove this argument. It is thought that the European ferrets, since they are housed outside, receive proper light exposure and therefore don't get adrenal disease as often, but there are also people who think European owners just aren't seeing the same symptoms as American owners, such as the obvious hair loss. Perhaps the sunlight exposure has something to do with hair growth.
American ferret owners also feed their ferrets a ferret kibble, not a natural whole prey diet like Europeans do. It is also unknown as to whether or not this plays a role in adrenal disease.
Recent studies suggest adrenal disease is a genetic issue, especially since most of the ferrets in America are from the massive ferret company, Marshall Farms. More testing of course needs to be done to know if this is just a small factor in ferrets developing adrenal disease or the main reason for it.
Early spaying and neutering seems to be the primary thought train. By altering the ferret's natural hormone cycle at such a young age, many people worry it is harming them long term and playing a major role in why they develop adrenal disease.
Some exotics vets are now recommending giving Lupron injections before adrenal symptoms rear their ugly, hairless, little heads. This is a pretty new practice so it is far too early to know whether or not it is helpful (or harmful!).
All in all, if you suspect your ferret has adrenal disease, or another common ferret disease, be sure to find an experienced exotics vet who is well versed in the options available in treating this endocrine issue.