There are a number of diseases which commonly occur in pet ferrets which can generally be prevented with proper care, a good diet and regular veterinary check ups.
Distemper is fatal and while it has been almost entirely eradicated due to vaccination in dogs, it is still advised to vaccinate against it ferrets. Vaccination should be performed in ferrets from 6-8 weeks of age, then 1 month later followed by yearly or triannual vaccination boosters.
When you first get your ferret check how many vaccinations he has had, as often only the first vaccine is given prior to sale. Please note backyard breeders are prone to lying about this so please ask for their vaccination certificate! Before booking an appointment with your vet, make sure they carry the C3 vaccination proven to be safe for ferrets.
Distemper usually starts with signs of conjunctivitis, with watery eyes or a greenish discharge. Skin signs such as thickened and crusty footpads and face, as well as the inside of the back legs and around the anus are pathognomonic for the disease. There is also a very rapid form involving fever, seizures and coma before any other signs develop.
Distemper is highly contagious and is usually carried in on shoes or hands, so even an indoor ferret will be susceptible. Unfortunately there is no specific cure for distemper and many ferrets do not survive the disease. If one of your unvaccinated ferrets is showing signs of distemper, even just a little lethargy, separate him quickly and get the others vaccinated.
Gastrointestinal Foreign Body Obstruction
Being curious fiends, ferrets are often admitted for surgery after consuming something unusual. They may be lethargic, have reduced appetite, vomiting or diarrhoea and may stop passing faeces altogether.
Ferrets love to chew, so treat them like a baby and ensure that there is nothing around that has small parts that can easily break off. They love to chew rubber and plastic, so watch things like the TV remote. The size that is of particular concern is equivalent to those little nose-pieces from a pair of glasses, or an olive pit.
All food given to your ferret should be either soft and easily chewed (eg. meat/bones), or very small. Never give carrot pieces or similar hard foods which can inadvertently be swallowed. Ferrets are not designed to grind hard foods with their teeth like herbivores and will often swallow things whole.
Before you let your ferret out to play, make sure your house is ferret-proof.
Ferrets are made to make babies, so a female ferret will stay on heat until she is mated. If she is not mated, high levels of oestrogen suppress the bone marrow, leading to reduced red and white blood cell production. This leads to lethargy due to anaemia as well as increased susceptibility to disease.
Signs might include lethargy, inappetence, swollen vulva and pale gums. It occurs after being on heat for approximately one month and is curable if you get your ferret to the vet quickly. It is easily prevented by desexing your ferret at 6-12 months if she is not to be used as a breeding animal.
Ferrets are often fed inappropriate diets, leading to high rates of dental disease. Ferrets are built to eat whole raw prey items, such as a mouse. Feeding high carbohydrate diets meant for other species, will lead to accelerated dental decay and periodontal disease.
When tartar and calculus builds up around the base of the teeth due to inadequate chewing, this weakens the tissue holding the tooth in the socket, loosening the tooth and leading to infection.
Dental disease is entirely preventable by ensuring your ferret is chewing raw meaty bones ideally twice daily. Chicken necks or wings, or baby chicks and mice are ideal. Anything chewable should be approximately golf ball sized not cut up or minced.
Adrenal Gland Disease
Adrenal Gland Disease (AGD) is one of the more common diseases seen amongst pet ferrets around the world. In the United States AGD was recorded to have a prevalence of 70% in 2003.
Early sterilisation has been strongly linked to predisposing ferrets to this disease, along with artificially prolonged photoperiods experienced by indoor ferrets and possible genetic factors. This disease appears to be most common in the US where many ferrets are desexed prior to 14 weeks of age than in other countries where ferrets are commonly desexed between 6 and 12 months of age. The basic gist of the disease is that the adrenal glands over produce sex hormones in the absence of the reproductive organs, which leads to a chronic stimulatory effect on the adrenal cells and in turn hyperplasia and neoplasia.
It is possible to implant your ferret with a desorelin implant (subcutaneous suprelorin implants) after surgical desexing and so far evidence point to the implants being effective for AGD control in desexed ferrets. Much like birth control in human females, there will be members of the ferret population who (for whatever reason) have negative consequences of the implant including excessive weight gain, but for the vast majority it is quite safe. If you are concerned you are best to speak to your veterinarian or the closest qualified exotic (not Dr.Google).
Insulinomas may not be entirely preventable but there is some evidence to suggest that insulinomas could be due to poor diet. This pancreatic tumour produces excess insulin, leading to hypoglycaemia and lethargy.
It is not known what the true cause of a pancreatic tumour is, however, in countries where ferrets are fed a more natural diet high in protein and fat, insulinomas are rare. This had lead to the believe that a balanced raw diet is the best way to reduce your ferrets risk of developing this disease. Ferrets fed processed dried foods, vegetables, fruits and high carbohydrate treats are more likely to develop this disease.
Feeding whole, natural foods and reducing carbohydrate-rich processed pet foods is the best way to lower the risk of your ferret developing an insulinoma. For more information on ferret diets check out our article Ferret Food: A Recipe for Success.