Back to Basics - 'Fleas a Jolly Bad Fellow...!'

Jeff 8k Dr Jeff Lewis, a parasitologist, tells us how to ward off unwanted visitors this Summer. Dr Lewis is a National Ferret Welfare Society member and a respected judge at ferret shows.

We all welcome Spring and Summer but the warmer weather also means the flea and tick season, bringing unwelcome lodgers to our ferrets and their housing. Now is the time to look into parasite control to keep ferrets (and owners!) free from unwanted guests

Broadly parasites fall into two types. External parasites which live on the ferret, like ticks and fleas, and internal parasites which live in the ferret, such as worms. This Back to Basics looks at external parasites. Internal parasites will be covered in a later issue.

These are perhaps the most common of the external parasites to be found on ferrets. A light flea load may not even make the ferret scratch much so don't rely on scratching as a sign of fleas. To detect fleas, inspect your ferret's coat and skin, especially around the base of the tail, under armpits and behind the ears. You may not see fleas, they are excellent runners through the ferret's fur, but a sure sign is the presence of tiny black specks. These are flea faeces and show that fleas are feeding on the ferret. These black specks turn dark red if placed on a damp tissue - the residue of a blood feed! Once well fed, fleas will leave the ferret and lay eggs in the bedding or in your carpets. These hatch and eventually turn into the next generation of fleas. This means that any signs of fleas should trigger immediate treatment of the ferret, its cage mates, and the cage and bedding, plus rugs and carpets in any rooms of the house that your ferret has been in.

Bathing is not very effective, even if a flea shampoo is used. It is best to use a topical flea preparation to put directly on the ferret. Generally speaking, products from the pet shop are not as effective as those from your vet, so it is worth paying a visit. We use Frontline on our ferrets with great effectiveness. This is only available from vets and you may to sign a form that you have requested it, as it is not specifically licensed for ferrets. However, the NFWS has checked with the manufacturer's laboratories and found that it is safe to use on ferrets. We use the pump spray in preference to the 'spot-on' alternative since the latter involves quite a heavy dose in one area. As ferrets tend to dislike the feel of the spray, we spray a cotton wool ball and then wipe it over the ferret, spaying special attention to the base of the tail, up the spine, under the legs and then a wipe down the belly. Avoid contact with the ears and eyes. Frontline not only the fleas, it gives a protective effect for up to six weeks. All ferrets in a group should be treated.

It is very important to clean sleeping areas and then spray Frontline into the corners. Change the bedding completely. Burn straw/hay used for bedding or put fabric bedding into a hot wash before using again.

In many cases the fleas found on ferrets are cat fleas. If you have a cat or a dog (dogs often harbour cat fleas) you should treat them for fleas too. Working ferrets will pick up fleas from rabbits and other wild animals. Frontline is effective on these, too.

These are most commonly picked up where sheep and other livestock are close by, or if your garden is visited by badgers, foxes, hedgehogs or other wild animals. Working ferrets are especially prone to picking up ticks when working in the field.

You will probably first notice a tick just before it is ready to drop off the ferret. By that time it will be a small, roundish white/grey lump sticking out of your ferret's skin, a little like a fleshy tag. Closer inspection will show tiny legs close to the ferret's skin. The tick's head will be buried in the ferret, feeding on the blood. Before this stage, ticks are very hard to see because they are so small and the body is flat before it is engorged with blood.

The most important thing to remember when dealing with ticks is not to try to pull them out. In most cases this will lead to the tick's head being left embedded in the ferret's skin and cause a painful abscess to form. There are several ways to remove a tick. There are special 'tick remover' gadgets available, or you can dab the tick with alcohol or surgical spirit. Alternatively you can put Vaseline over the tick. Since ticks breathe air, this causes them to suffocate and eventually drop off over a couple of days. The popular trick of burning the tick with a lighted cigarette is effective but can be distressing for the ferret. Try holding a lighted cigarette a few millimetres from your skin and see what it feels like! Whatever you use to rid the ferret of ticks on its body, you will still have to treat the cage and bedding as, like fleas, ticks will drop off the ferret when fully fed and lay eggs, ready for the next round of ticks to emerge.

We use Frontline for ticks, too. We find that dabbing the ticks on the ferret with Frontline will kill them very quickly so that they just harmlessly drop off. Spraying the cage and sleeping area with Frontline kills eggs and larvae. The protective effect of Frontline is not so great for preventing ticks as for fleas, but ferrets should still have three or four weeks protection after use. Again, it is important to treat other pets in the household.

People are often puzzled as to where the fleas and ticks come from, especially if no other pets are kept. Apart from wild animals which may be visiting near the ferret accommodation, both fleas and ticks can be brought in on hay and straw. The stuff bought pre-packed from pet shops will have screened but bales from farms or other outlets may well have 'bonus' livestock attached!

Although this may sound as if it is an advertisement for Frontline, it isn't meant to be. We just find it very effective and worth the cost from the vet. You can use most flea and tick products designed for cats and kittens safely on ferrets. However, the most effective are those purchased from your vet. It is worth remembering to ask for recommendations on flea and tick control when you visit your vet as most products available through vets' surgeries require the vet to have examined the animal within six months of dispensing the treatment. Asking your vet when you are there for another reason can save time and money.

Finally, a word on mites. The most common is the ear mite. These live in the ferret's ears, living off the ear wax and other skin debris. Mites are detectable by dark grittiness in the ferret's ears. A severe infestation of ear mites will cause the ferret to scratch at its ears, shake its head, or develop a tilted head. In extreme cases, the ferret seems disorientated and may sway, stagger and fall over as its balance becomes disturbed through the mites

Treat ear mites as soon as they are detected to prevent major problems, even death or permanent disability. It is best to get ear drops from your vet to make sure that you clear the problem quickly. Ear mites are easy to clear up if caught early but it is vital that the right drops are used. Some drops kill the mites but can set up a secondary problem where the outer ears become infected with a fungus, causing a sort of skin rot. In severe cases this has led to the outer ears having to be amputated. As a general rule, ferret owners have always been advised to avoid ear drops whose name begins with an 'O' as these preparations tend to include the ingredient which triggers the out ear problem.

These can cause mange and various sores throughout the body and the feet as the mites burrow under the ferret's skin. Hair loss, itching and sore areas should receive immediate veterinary attention as these is little an owner can do without prescription drugs.

I hope that all this hasn't left you all itching and scratcing! Good luck in repelling unwelcome boarders this summer.

(From Ferrets First Issue no. 12 - June/July 2003)

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