The phrase "adrenal disease" and the pet ferret seem like they are almost one in the same. Anyone who has had pet ferrets for a few years has either heard of or personally had a ferret with this endocrine disorder. Research is continuing to be done to find out what causes this awful disease but in the meantime, exotics vets are having better results with treatment.
What is Adrenal Disease?
Adrenal disease in ferrets happens when one or both of the tiny adrenal glands produce too large amount of hormones. Most of the time the left gland (that lies next to the left kidney) is the affected gland but about 15% of the time it is both glands that are affected.
The adrenal glands can develop tumors on them or the adrenal cells in the glands can become too numerous, developing into a condition called adrenocortical hyperplasia. Both kinds of adrenal disease cause a multitude of symptoms due to the excessive amounts of hormones that their bodies produce.
What are Symptoms of Adrenal Disease?
- Hair loss - The most commonly seen symptom of adrenal disease in ferrets is hair loss (alopecia). The hair loss usually starts on the rear end or tail and works it's way up the body, usually leaving some hair on the head and limbs. The "rat tail" syndrome where the ferrets have hair on their body but none on their tail is usually noted with adrenal disease.
- Vulvar enlargement - Females will develop swelling to their vulva, similar to a ferret in heat. Their vulva will get pink or red and become grossly enlarged.
- Pruritis - Some ferrets will become increasingly itchy with adrenal disease, making it not only an eyesore to owners, but also extremely uncomfortable to ferrets living with the disease.
- Prostatic enlargement - Males will develop an enlarged prostate gland due to the excessive hormones raging through their bodies. Enlarged prostates cause difficulty urinating and sometimes ferrets are unable to urinate all together. An emergency situation is suddenly created if a ferret cannot urinate. If you suspect your ferret hasn't passed any urine for more than 12 hours you should get him in to see his vet immediately. A ferret who is "blocked" may be straining to urinate and seem painful in his abdomen. Urine will fill the bladder until the bladder is filled to it's maximum capacity and then urine will start to back up into the kidneys causing serious issues. Your ferret may need to be catheterized to relieve the pressure and allow the bladder to drain.
- Increased aggression - Both female and male ferrets may become more aggressive towards you or their fellow ferrets if they have adrenal disease. You may notice your ferret attacking your hands or biting the other ferrets.
- Lethargy - Not to be confused with hypoglycemia often seen with a ferret with an insulinoma, lethargy can be a symptom of adrenal disease.
- Muscle wasting - Muscle loss is especially noticeable in the rear legs of ferrets with adrenal disease.
- Weakness - If your ferret has problems climbing or getting into the litter box these could be signs of weakness due to adrenal disease. You may notice your ferret having a harder time climbing the ramps in his cage or getting in and out of his hammock.
- Thinning skin - Your ferret may start to look like his skin is becoming paper thin.
- Urine marking - Due to an increase in hormones, a ferret with adrenal disease may start urinating outside of his box in specific locations to mark his territory.
- Mounting behavior - Sometimes ferrets with adrenal disease start mounting other ferrets due to the increase in some of the hormones that the adrenal glands produce.
How Will My Exotics Vet Know if My Ferret Has Adrenal Disease?
Most of the time your exotics vet will diagnose your ferret with adrenal disease by simply observing the clinical signs or symptoms or even palpating an enlarged left adrenal gland. There is a blood test that can be sent to the University of Tennessee to help aide in the diagnosis but it is not a definitive test and it can be expensive. If you are working with a vet who hasn't seen many adrenal cases in ferrets she may want to run this test to help aide in her diagnosis. An abdominal ultrasound may also be helpful to identify an adrenal gland tumor or enlargement but a highly skilled ultrasonographer must be enlisted due to the difficulty in finding the adrenal gland in a ferret, even if it is enlarged. Plus, ferrets who have gotten clear ultrasounds have gone to surgery and been found to have adrenal disease, regardless of the ultrasound report.
Some ferret owners just opt to start medical treatment of adrenal disease and wait and see if their ferret responds, but surgery is the best way to positively identify adrenal disease, plus it gives your vet an opportunity to check for other abdominal abnormalities and possibly remove the adrenal gland that is affected.
For more information on treatment options and preventing adrenal disease in ferrets continue reading...