When A Rescue Arrives...

by Dr June McNicholas

A step-by-step guide to assessing rescue ferrets

I work a lot with vets who deal with a variety of different animals and it's often surprising how similar assessment procedures are for animals coming into care. Most recently, I found myself teamed up with the new Head of Vet Services for Cats Protection, Beth Skillings.

Beth and I were both presenting papers at a conference and I was very impressed at her presentation of how to conduct a health assessment of animals coming into rescue. It took very little effort to adapt the basic assessment procedure to suit ferrets or, indeed, any othe species. Here, with thanks to Beth, is a step-by-step guide to assessing the health status of a ferret coming into rescue. These checks should be carried out.

i) when the ferret arrives
ii) periodically during its time in rescue
iii) prior to rehoming

The rescue ferret arrives
When possible get as much information as possible about the ferret. If it is being handed in by a former owner, the age, sex, vaccination status, any health history (including neutering.jill jabs/vasectomisation) is invaluable.

Most ferrets, however, come in as strays or without any background information at all. Information on where they have been found, whether they have been seen around for some time before capture can be helpful but a full assessment will be needed.

Step 1. Watch and listen from a distance. Observe

a) Behaviour - is the ferret acting normally or is it cowering/hiding which could indicate shock or injury
b) Stance - is the ferret standing OK, or is it holding itself in some sort of discomfort
c) Movement - is the ferret walking/running normally or could there be some injury
d) Symmetry - is the ferret using all limbs equally and is it physically well balanced indicating no problems with limbs, eyes or ears
e) Breather - are there audible problems like panting, rasping or wheezing f) Vocalisation - ferrets don't make much noise but the curious 'dooking' sound can be reassuring whereas whines/grunts can indicate distress

It is best to show the ferret some time to settle before moving on to a hands-on examination but, once reasonably settled, start a step-by-step examination of the animal.

Step 2. Eyes

a) Lids/eye surrounds - are they clean or crusted
b) Discharge - are the eyes 'weeping' or show signs of discharge
c) Symmetry - both eyes should look equal
d) Membrane colour - are they pink and healthy looking or pale/discoloured e) Whites of eyes (sclera) - are they visibly? They shouldn't be in ferrets

Step 3. Ears

a) Look at the position of the ears in relation to each other - are they symmetrical
b) Is there any damage to ears through bites/old wounds
c) Is there any discharge or build-up of dirt that could indicate ear mites, infection or abscess
d) Is there any pain on handling the ears

Step 4. Nose

a) Look at the symmetry of the nose - is there any swelling/scars or soreness
b) Is there any discharge from the nose
c) Is the ferret breathing OK through both nostrils
d) Is breathing silent or noisy

Step 4. Mouth

a) Look at the lips - are they clean or crusted, pink or stained brown and dirty
b) Is there any salivation (wet mouths can mean bad teeth or gums
c) What is the colour of the membranes - pink and healthy or sore red and puffy, or pale, almost white, indicating shock or anaemia
d) How are the gums - firm and pink or sore and red
e) Look at teeth for breaks, chips or decay
f) Build-up of tartar on teeth
g) Look at the tongue, it should be pink and healthy but could be grey, yellow or pale
h) Breath - does the breath smell, indicating tooth decay or gum disease

Step 5. Skin and coat

a) Look at general condition of coat, it can help determine general health
b) Look for hair loss. Except during general moults, hair loss (especially the pattern of loss) can indicate presence of disease or parasites
c) Examine for lumps and bumps. Lymph glands under the chin and neck should not be visible or be obvious to the touch, the same goes for glands in the abdomen or groin. Other lumps may be through injury and abscess formation.
d) Look for scurf or flea dirt (Tip: if you find black specks in the coat transfer these on to a damp tissue. If they start to 'bleed' dark red they show active signs of flea infestation). e) Ferrets often pick up ticks. Favourite spots are around eyes, ears, in 'armpits' or belly. Very young ticks are tiny and pale, often looking like tags of skin. Older ticks swell up on the blood they have engorged and turn darker grey. Don't pull these off as they tend to leave their head parts embedded in the ferret and may cause an abscess. Spray with Frontline (good for ticks and fleas) and leave until they die and drop off.
f) Look for wounds, sores and scabs on the skin which may need veterinary attention.
g) If possible, scan for microchip. Ferrets are increasingly being chipped and you may have someone's long lost pet!
h) 'Condition score' the ferret. This may be something new to many owners and rescues, although it is familiar to all people working with larger animals. A 'condition score' refers to the amount of weightbody fat an animal is carrying and is usually carried out by feeling the hip bones and assessing a score between 1 and 5. A score of 1 means a very thin (emaciated) animal with pelvic bones sticking out very prominently; a score of 2 means a thin animal which does not carry much fat; a score of 3 means a lean but fit animal i.e. you can feel the pelvic bones through a decent covering of flesh; a score of 4 means an animal is carrying some surplus fat - you can just feel the bones of the hips/pelvis if you push into the fat; whilst a score of 5 means an animal is carrying a lot of surplus fat. In fact, you may not even be able to feel its pelvic bones! Ideally, a ferret (or any animal) should achieve a score of between 3 and 4, depending on the time of year.

Step 6. Limbs

a) Examine the angle of the joints - are they normal. Some ferrets suffer breaks (recent or otherwise) without complaint
b) Look for lameness or pain
c) Examine for lumps and bumps on limbs
d) Look at claws for length and condition. Overgrown claws can cause pain or difficulties in walking, and claws can be infected
e) Look at pads for soreness. Ferrets kept in poor conditions can suffer urine burns, foot rot and other infections that require veterinary treatment

Step 7. Anogenital region

a) Look for dirtiness around the anus which may mean recent diarrhoea or incontinence
b) Look for presence of worms, either roundworm or segments of tapeworm that will look like tiny flat rice-like grains
c) Check the sex of the ferret! You would not be the first or last to assume a tiny, malnourished, sharp-faced is a jill when it is actually a hob!

Step 8. Ongoing Monitoring - this can be vital information to a vet

a) Keep records on the ferret's appetite, how much it is eating
b) Keep records on how much the ferret is drinking
c) Keep and eye on the amount/colour/smell of urine that is passed
d) Keep records on colour/consistency of faeces
e) Keep records on changes in mood, behaviour and temperament of the ferret during its tiem in rescue

Obviously if any of the above checks gives rise to concern the ferret should be taken to a vet for more comprehensive examination. The vet will probably examine heart and lungs, palpate the absomen and major glands for abnormalities and may advise on worming, neutering procedures, vaccination and parasite control.

Whatever records you keep, and those from any veterinary consultations, should be documented ready to hand on to the new owner when he/she adopts the ferret.

Ferrets deserve good homes and the level of care we can give in rescue, together with willingness to support new owners, can only benefit ferrets in the long run. Maybe, just maybe, with a high level of care and ongoing support given in rescue we can persuade many new owners to adopt a rescue ferret instead of going to backyard breeders.

First published in NFWS News #75 Spring/Summer 2006

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