Ferret Friendly Vets - A Cautionary Tale

by John Whittles

Finding a vet with knowledge and experience of the particular ailments of ferrets can be a problem. Most practices will treat ferrets but unless they have a particular interest or have treated a lot of ferrets, they are likely to treat them the same way as small cats.

Most small animal practices see a lot of cats, dogs and rabbits but very few ferrets and ferrets will not feature prominently in veterinary training.

Most responsible ferret keepers (the ones who are prepared to pay for veterinary treatment) have to rely on word of mouth and the lists of ferret-friendly vets published by organisations such as the NFWS.

When we started keeping ferrets seventeen years ago a NFWS committee member recommended her vet and we used him for several years umtil, unfortunately, he had to give up on grounds of ill health. When he was ill, I took a ferret to his practice and was seen by a very young locum who could only have qualified recently. He conducted the entire consultation without taking his hands out of his pockets!

I then tried my local vet and was lucky that there was a young vet who liked ferrets, had obviously read up on them and who consequently saw most of the ferrets brought to the practice. If she was unsure about anything she was prepared to phone around until she got an answer. I was pleased with the treatment and made a point of asking for her whenever I took a ferret in. I also nominated the practice for the NFWS ferret friendly vet list, wher it remains to this day. The vet then obtained a job at a veterinary college and left

I had routine check-ups carried out at that practice subsequently, but the first time I presented a ferret that was ill, they suggested that I take it to another practice some thirty miles away. When this happened a second time I decided to cut out the middleman and transferred my six to the new vet.

I had one other experience with this practice a few years later. I found an injured ferret on my drive one evening. It was bleeding and clearly in need of urgent veterinary attention. I therefore took it to the nearest vet and arrived just before closing. The following day, a vet phoned to say that an x-ray had revealed a broken upper jaw. With a cat or dog they would try to wire it but this was not practical with an animal as small as a ferret. It would also not be possible to feed it via a drip. The only option was to put the animal down. Fifteen minutes later he phoned to say that they were going to see how it healed on its own. The change of heart had come about as a result of a revolt by the nurses, one of whom kept ferrets and who volunteered to feed it. Four days later he was returned to me. He was on a soft food diet but otherwise not in any distress. He made a full recovery.

The new vet was and is on the NFWS list. The proprietor had been the vet for a ferret welfare and therefore had a lot of experience. I was very satisfied with the treatment provided for my animals and would still be happy for the proprietor to treat them. Unfortunately the rescue closed and not all the vets in the practice now have the same experience.

A couple of months ago I noticed that the jill did not drink any cat milk in the morning. She did however take a piece of rabbit. The next day she refused the milk again and looked lethargic. I took her to the vet within the hour. The proprietor was not there and the vet on duty could not feel anything wrong. She gave a subcutaneous injection of fluid as the jill was dehydrated, together with an antibiotic injection and asked me to take her back the next day.

She deteriorated overnight and I took her back first thing. I was seen by another vet who thought that he might be feeling something. He admitted the animal for x-ray and blood tests. The blood tests did not reveal anything and he had changed his mind about the lump. No x-rays were taken. They kept her in and gave her injections of fluids and antibiotics. She became so weak that they eventually were able to set up an intravenous drip. She picked up quite markedly but continued to decline once she pulled the drip out. The proprietor was away for a few days at this time

I pointed out that she had been under the care of vets for several days. The maintenance regime was not working as she was getting steadily weaker. They had no diagnosis or ideas, the jill was not receiving any specific treatment and they had still not taken any x-rays. The vet then decided to take an x-ray and an ultrasound scan.

I was told the following day that the x-ray was not clear but possibly showed a soft foreign body in the intestine. They decided to take another x-ray. By this time she had been under the care of the vets for five days and was very weak. They suggested that I might like to take her for a second consultation to another practice approximately two hours drive away. I could not be seen until mid afternoon and I did not know how the jill would stand up to the journey in her weakened state. The proprietor was returning early the following morning and I decided to wait. The jill died that night.

I asked for a postmortem which revealed three very small pieces of latex which were causing an obstruction. I accept that she might not have survived an operation, but she would have had a much better chance if the x-rays had been taken at the outset and the vets had been prepared to take action when it was clear that the fluids and antibiotics were not arresting the decline.

I started to look for another vet, preferably closer. The NFWS list showed one about ten miles away and I rang them to ask what experience they had with ferrets. The receptionist said that they dealt with quite a few ferrets and one of the vets kept several. I took a new ferret there to be microchipped and checked for fleas. I asked the vet about their experience and was told that they did not see many ferrets and none of the vets in the practice would regard themselves as an expert.

I then contacted the nearest welfare and asked if they had any recommendations. I was given the name of their vet who they thought was excellent. It turned out to be the very first vet that I had used. He had returned to general practice after he recovered from his illness.

My experiences have taught me the following:

The lists of ferret friendly vets are a guide but need to be treated with caution.

They frequently name practices and not individual vets. Experience with ferrets may not be shared by all the vets in the practice.

The vet that was the reason for the recommendation may have moved on or may not be available when you have a sick ferret needing urgent attention.

It would be better if the lists had the names of individual vets together with the practice in which they are currently working.

If you live in the vicinity of a ferret rescue/welfare ask if they can recommend a vet.

If possible, have the names of two experienced ferret vets and do not hesitate to seek a second opinion if you are dissatified with the treatment. Small animals can die very quickly if they do not get the right treatment.

I am grateful to Sheila Villiams for the help and support that she gave when I was trying to come up with a diagnosis for my sick jill and also to June McNicholas.

Unfortunately June was out of contact in darkest Africa when I tried to contact her but she e-mailed me afterwards. Her comments on ferrets swallowing foreign bodies will be of interest to all ferret keepers and I am copying them here.

"I'm afraid that ferrets do have a terrible habit of ingesting things they should not; foam rubber off carpets and shoes/trainers seem to be a favourite and these do cause blockages, sometimes fatal if not detected early. I have had many reports of blockages cause by such things, plus elastic bands, elastic from knickers or tights, cling film, bath sponges, parts of toys and styrofoam cups. if detected early enough they can be removed under surgery and the ferret can make a full recovery. Some indication of a blockage are difficulty in passing faeces, or thread-like faeces which suggest that the bowel is not 'open' enough to pass normal motions. Ferrets may also salivate, hunch their backs to indicate abdominal pain, or simply become very lethargic and unwilling to move, eat or drink. Teeth-grinding may also occur which indicates pain."

(First published in NFWS News - #79 September 2007)