Fleas in Ferrets

By Gregory Rich, DVM; Laurie Hess, DVM; Rick Axelson, DVM

What are fleas?

Flea infestation is a common problem in pet ferrets. Fleas are small, parasitic insects that may take up residence on your ferret, especially if it is exposed to fleas outdoors or lives in a house with dogs, cats, or other animals who have fleas. A ferret acquires fleas from other infested animals or environments (e.g., visiting another home with a flea infestation).

What are the signs that my ferret has fleas?

Fleas can affect a ferret of any age and sex. Your ferret may or may not be itchy (pruritic), depending on the animal’s sensitivity to flea bites. You may see the ferret biting, licking, chewing, or scratching itself. Early in the infestation, there may be no signs that your ferret has fleas. There may be a history of fleas on other animals living in or visiting the home, as in the case of a previous tenant in an apartment.

Fleas leave their feces on the pet’s skin, hidden in the hair coat. The fecal material from the flea is often called “flea dirt”. Flea dirt is small, comma-shaped, black debris, the size of pepper grains. Actively moving fleas or flea dirt may be seen on a fine flea comb used for grooming your pet.

"Small red bite marks or sores may be found on the skin and these may occasionally develop into a secondary bacterial skin infection."

Small red bite marks or sores may be found on the skin and these may occasionally develop into a secondary bacterial skin infection. Each flea takes a small blood meal, and young ferrets with heavy infestations may even become anemic (low red blood cell count) as the fleas feed over time. Ferrets typically have reddened skin with hair loss on the shoulders when they develop sensitivity to flea bites, as opposed to dogs, which show hair loss on the top of the pelvis.

Regular veterinary examinations (at least once a year) will aid in early identification of flea infestations and proper treatment. Other diagnostic tests may be done to ensure that the ferret’s pruritis (itchiness) is not due to other common diseases or problems in ferrets, such as ferret adrenal gland disease or ear mites. Your veterinarian will examine the ferret’s fur and skin for evidence of fleas and other external parasites and will prescribe appropriate treatment accordingly.

What is the treatment for ferrets with fleas?

Because fleas can affect dogs and cats, all animals in the house should be treated. Selamectin is a topical, anti-parasitic medication that is commonly recommended and effective. Senergy™, Advantage®, and Revolution® appear to be safe for treating ferrets but should only be used under the guidance of a veterinarian familiar with ferrets. All topical medications are prescribed according to the pet’s weight and recommended dosage. Topical flea powders, premise sprays, or even professional pest exterminators may be used safely, but consult your veterinarian first. The only flea medication labeled for use in ferrets is Advantage®.

"Adult fleas can live off the ferret in carpets and other areas of the home."

Since flea eggs fall off the animal, routine vacuuming is recommended as well as environmental treatment. Adult fleas can live off the ferret in carpets and other areas of the home. It is therefore extremely important to treat the environment, as well as the pet. Depending on environmental humidity and temperature, flea eggs may hatch in as little as 14 to 28 days, producing the next crop of adult fleas looking for a blood meal. Treatment must be long enough to get the last egg hatched. Consult with a veterinarian familiar with ferrets regarding the proper topical and environmental treatments.

Certain products should not be used on ferrets. Do not use flea collars, and do not use organophosphates, straight permethrin sprays, or permethrin “spot-on” treatments on your pet ferret, as these may be toxic.

Do I have to worry about being affected by fleas myself?

In heavy infestations, fleas may bite humans and may cause problems in people especially sensitive to insect bites. You may notice bite marks, particularly around the ankles. Generally, the problem is self-limiting, once the parasite is eliminated from the home; however, anyone living in a flea-infested house experiencing skin issues should be sure to consult their physician.

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