Ferrets have several unique problems; understanding these problems will allow you to better care for your pet and minimize future health care problems.
During a physical examination, your veterinarian may palpate or feel an enlarged spleen, especially if your ferret is an older pet. While not a specific sign of any one disease, it does indicate the need for further investigation.
"An enlarged spleen is a serious finding that indicates the need for complete laboratory testing to determine the cause."
Several diseases that can result in enlargement of the spleen include inflammation, viral or bacterial infections, tumors, and heart disease. An enlarged spleen is a serious finding that indicates the need for complete laboratory testing to determine the cause. Occasionally, diagnostic tests are negative for any specific disease, in which case the diagnosis of "benign hypersplenism" or "benign splenomegaly" will be made.
Aplastic anemia is a condition in which the bone marrow is completely suppressed, resulting in a shutdown in production of new red blood cells. Bone marrow suppression will also result in a shutdown in production of white blood cells and platelets. The condition occurs in female ferrets that are not spayed and not bred when they are "in heat". Sexually mature female ferrets that are not bred will stay in heat indefinitely. While in heat, the ferret's estrogen levels remain high. High doses of estrogen suppress bone marrow function. This condition is rarely seen now, due to early (pre-purchase) spaying of female ferrets.
Signs of aplastic anemia include lethargy and pale mucous membranes, most readily observed by looking at the gums. When the intact female ferret is examined, her vulva will usually be found to be swollen and enlarged, indicating persistent estrus or heat.
Initial treatment to stabilize the ferret includes hormonal therapy to bring the ferret out of heat, antibiotics, iron, and vitamins. A ferret with an extremely low packed cell volume (which measures the red blood cell mass in the blood) may need a blood transfusion or she can die. Once she has been stabilized, the ferret is spayed. 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.
"All female ferrets that will not be bred at every heat cycle should be spayed by 4-6 months of age."
Ferrets, like dogs and cats, don't sweat in the way that humans do. Therefore, ferrets are very susceptible to extreme heat. They should be maintained at an environmental temperature below 80o F (26 o C).
"Heat stroke is a true, life-threatening emergency."
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), and averages about the same as dog and cats (101 o F or 38 o C). Heat stroke is a true, life-threatening emergency. First aid involves rapidly cooling the ferret; this can be done by running cold water over its body, fanning it, or using whatever means is available to reduce its body temperature. Be careful not to chill the ferret too much; if the ferret begins to shiver, stop the cooling process. Do not delay taking your ferret to the veterinarian if you suspect that it suffering from heat stroke. During the trip to the veterinarian, wrap the ferret in cool, wet towels, or transport it in an air-conditioned vehicle. Your veterinarian will stabilize the ferret and reduce its temperature using cold-water enemas or cold fluids instilled into its abdominal cavity. Hospitalization is required after the temperature has been normalized, to monitor vital signs and ensure that the ferret is stable.
Ferrets can become infected with canine distemper virus. This disease is usually fatal to ferrets. Clinical signs include loss of appetite, a thick, purulent ocular (eye) and/or nasal discharge, fever, thickened and hard skin on the footpads and often a rash on the chin, abdomen, or groin. Treatment is supportive, with fluids, antibiotics (for secondary bacterial infections), nutrition, and oxygen therapy. Since the symptoms of distemper and influenza are similar, treatment should always be attempted. 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. To prevent this fatal disease, all ferrets that are at risk of exposure should be vaccinated against this disease. Discuss the risks of this disease with your veterinarian.
Ferrets can both contract and spread human influenza, or flu. Symptoms are similar to those of people with the flu (or to ferrets with distemper). Treatment consists of antibiotics (to prevent secondary bacterial infections), decongestants, and other supportive therapy.
"Ferrets can both contract and spread human influenza, or flu."
Occasionally hospitalization for supportive care such as fluid therapy or force-feeding by your veterinarian will be required. NEVER give your ferret any over-the-counter medications or prescription drugs without checking with your veterinarian first. Like dogs and cats, ferrets can be easily poisoned or killed with common human medications.
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