What are the most common skin problems?
Many skin diseases in ferrets are associated with parasites: fleas, mites, and ticks. Ferrets may also develop bacterial skin disease if the skin is traumatized. Ferrets are commonly susceptible to skin tumors, including mast cell tumors, hemangiomas (benign growths), and carcinomas (basal and squamous).
Canine distemper infection can cause skin lesions in ferrets, including a red rash that typically starts on the chin and lips and spreads to the nose, eyelids, and groin. Further information about distemper virus infection in ferrets can be found in the handout "Respiratory Diseases in Ferrets".
Alopecia (loss of hair) occurs with persistent estrus (ovulation) in unspayed female ferrets and in both male and female ferrets with adrenal gland disease. For more information about these conditions, see the handouts "Reproductive Diseases in Ferrets" and "Hormonal Diseases in Ferrets". The classic clinical picture begins with hair loss on the tail or base of the tail and progresses to thinning of the hair over the entire body.
Since skin symptoms may be a symptom of a more serious, generalized condition, your ferret should have a thorough physical examination by a veterinarian familiar with ferrets. If your ferret has any areas with hair loss, nodules or swellings on the skin, or has any unusual scabs or crusty skin, they must be seen by a qualified exotic animal veterinarian.
Adrenal gland disease
Many ferrets develop benign or malignant tumors in one or both adrenal glands after two to three years of age. These tumors occur in both males and females, and they produce sex steroid hormones that have several effects on the skin.
Ferrets with adrenal gland disease may lose hair, have itchy skin (pruritis), and often develop small pimples or blackheads over the entire length of the tail. To reduce these signs, veterinarians can suppress hormone secretion from the diseased adrenal gland(s) with monthly injections of synthetic hormone, such as leuprolide acetate (brand name Lupron®) or with hormone implants, such as deslorelin, placed beneath the skin every six to ten months.
Treatment with a drug called melatonin has shown benefits for hair regrowth, but it does not shrink the diseased adrenal gland or curb other symptoms, so most veterinarians do not recommend the use of melatonin for adrenal gland disease.
Diseased adrenal glands also may be removed surgically. Any ferret with signs of adrenal disease should be examined by a veterinarian as soon as possible.
Flea infestation is a common problem in pet ferrets. Itching is the most common sign of flea infestation, with hair loss around the top of the neck and down the back occurring with heavy infestations.
Fleas can be killed with the standard flea control measures used in cats and dogs, but a ferret’s smaller size means that ferrets require a substantially smaller dose. If you use the same amount of flea treatment (powder, spray, or topical) on a ferret as you would for a cat or small dog, the ferret may absorb toxic levels of the medication. Before using any pesticide or chemical on or around your ferret, check with your veterinarian.
Avoid using organophosphate flea medications in ferrets, since the safety of these pesticides have not been determined in this species. Various topical veterinary medications (such as Program®, Revolution®, Frontline®, Senergy® and Advantage®) have been used successfully in ferrets, but only Advantage® has been specifically tested for safety in ferrets.
It is important to treat the environment for fleas, as well as the pet.
Ear mites are common in pet ferrets. Otodectes cynotis, the same ear mite that affects dogs and cats, causes itching, headshaking, and ear scratching in ferrets. These mites produce a large amount of dark waxy build-up, which is different than the smaller amount of light-colored earwax normally seen in ferret ears that can be gently cleaned away with a moist cotton ball. In severe cases, excessive and severe scratching produces scrapes and crusty scabs inside the ear canal and around the external ear. Your veterinarian can identify mites once a sample of the waxy build-up is examined under a microscope.
Ear mites can be treated successfully by a veterinarian with ivermectin, an anti-parasitic drug injected under the skin every two weeks; selamectin (Revolution®, Senergy® or Advantage®) applied once a month topically to the skin; or with a prescription ear medication applied inside the ears daily until the signs resolve. All animals in contact with the affected ferret will require treatment, even if no ear mites are found on them, as they may be carriers. Topical ear medication or oral nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) may be used to treat the secondary inflammation and may offer relief from the itching until the anti-parasitic medication has killed all the mites.
Sarcoptic mange, or scabies, is occasionally seen in ferrets. These mites can affect just the feet or the whole body in a more generalized way. In the localized form of the disease, severe inflammation and itchiness occurs with swollen, crusted paws.
Scabies may be transmitted from an affected dog or cat to ferrets. If left untreated, in extreme cases, the infestation can damage the skin and tissues of the feet to the point that the toenails or even the whole foot can be lost. Treatment with injectable ivermectin or topical selamectin, together with topical and/or systemic (oral or injectable) antibiotics, typically cures both the localized and the more generalized form of scabies.
All animals in contact with the affected ferret will require treatment, as scabies are very contagious from pet to pet and can also be transmitted to people.
As with fleas, ticks can occur on ferrets that play or are housed outdoors. Ticks look like small brown, black, or red spots that, when engorged with blood, become spherical and raised. Ticks can cause anemia and can transmit several infectious diseases. Contact your veterinarian for safe treatment if your ferret is afflicted with ticks.
Bacteria may infect bite wounds and scratches acquired from trauma or during fights, in juvenile play. In most cases, if the ferret has a healthy immune system, it can combat the infection on its own; however, in severe cases, topical or systemic antibiotics are required. If there is redness, swelling, or discharge from any skin wound, get veterinary attention as soon as possible, as bacteria may enter the bloodstream and cause a life-threatening condition.
Canine distemper can cause skin lesions around the muzzle and on the footpads. The skin of the chin, lips, and eyelids becomes very swollen, and the foot pads become crusty and thickened (a condition called “hard pad”). This disease is fatal in ferrets and preventable with routine, annual vaccination against the distemper virus. Further information about this deadly disease can be found in the handout "Respiratory Diseases in Ferrets".
Fungal skin diseases are uncommon in ferrets, but one reported fungal infection is ringworm, which is a fungus, not a parasitic worm. Ringworm (Dermatophytosis) appears as well-defined areas of hair loss, dry flaky skin, and inflammation. The skin can become thick, red, and crusty.
Some cases will resolve on their own but all should be investigated and treated by a veterinarian, as this condition is contagious to other pets and to people. The environment, as well as the affected pets, must be treated to eliminate the infection. Ferrets can contract ringworm from an affected cat or by digging in soil where the fungus may be living.
Most of the skin tumors that ferrets develop are benign. Mast cell tumors are the most common, followed by basal cell tumors and sebaceous cell tumors. Mast cell tumors look like crusty, raised scabs that are usually itchy. They can appear anywhere on the ferret’s body and often fall off and recur. Chordomas are round, firm tumors that most often occur on the tip of the tail and can grow to be the size of a large marble.
In some cases, skin tumors (such as squamous cell carcinoma) are malignant and aggressive. To diagnose this type of tumor, your veterinarian will either obtain a fine needle aspirate (FNA) of the mass or surgically remove all or part of the mass (biopsy). The material will be analyzed under a microscope or sent to a pathologist for diagnosis. Malignant tumors or large, rapidly growing benign tumors should be removed as completely as possible to try to prevent recurrence.
Does my ferret’s odor indicate a skin condition?
Although abnormal odors can indicate skin disease, ferrets normally have a musky skin odor that some people consider unpleasant. This odor arises from sebaceous glands that are widely dispersed over the skin and that may cause the fur to have a greasy feel. Male ferrets often have a more pronounced skin odor. Neutering (castration) may reduce the intensity of the odor but does not eliminate it completely. Monthly bathing with a ferret shampoo may also help reduce the musky scent.
In addition, the ferret’s anal sacs, two little pockets beneath the skin on either side of the anus, produce secretions with a very strong musky odor. These secretions are expressed in small amounts when the animal defecates. The secretions may also be released all at once if the ferret becomes physically stressed or frightened.
For ferrets with very strong musky scents, anal sac removal may be recommended, in addition to castration, to help reduce the odor. The majority of ferrets that are sold at pet stores come from the same facility and have been descented and spayed/castrated before they are shipped to the pet store. If your ferret has 2 black dots on the outer right ear, then it has been descented and neutered.
If you notice a change to your ferret's odor, consult your veterinarian.