MOT Your Ferret!

by Dr June McNicholas

September may be the season of 'mists and mellow fruitfulness' for poets, but for me it's always been a time for assessing animals prior to the onset of winter whether this is running 'MOT clinics' for tortoises to make sure they are fit enough to hibernate, or checking over the sheep to see which ones will be put to the ram in the next month or two. Ferrets are no different; they, too, need a check over before having to put up with everything that winter may throw at them.

Here's my checklist for a ferret MOT.

First of all take a look at your ferret(s) and actively try to remember approximately how old each one is. I know this sounds daft but it's very easy to somehow forget the years going by and simply not register that a ferret is getting older (I referred to one group of ferrets as 'the kits' until they were almost 8 years old!) Ferrets can stay young-looking and young-acting until late middle age, but knowing that a ferret's years are advancing can help detect any problems early.

Before any 'hands-on' examination, it is worth observing any changes in behaviour. All owners should be aware of their ferret's 'normal' reactions when approached for handling. Friendly ferrets that suddenly become shy or reluctant to be handled may be in pain. Any head-shaking or tooth-grinding should be noted. In fact, any deviation from normal behaviour should be seen as a sign that something is amiss. Ferrets are such stoical little animals they can put up with pain without obvious signs apart from some changes in their normal behaviours, so do be vigilant and investigate any changes in normal behaviour, whether this is the way they stand, the way they act or any changes in noises they make. Ferrets are usually quite silent animals apart from the playful 'dooking' when they are exploring or playing. Abnormal noises like hisses or tooth-grinding could mean they are in pain and need a trip to the vet.

For the actual MOT I start with a 'body check'. Although I handle our ferrets every single day, I still start a MOT with a thorough going over the body systematically, using a vet's guide to external examination, starting at the head end.

Eyes. Make sure that the eyes are bright with no discharge. Take a careful look to see that eyes are symmetrical on either side of the skull. Eye problems can manifest themselves as slight closure, swelling or somehow being 'off centre' with the eye on the other side of the head.

Ears. Look at the position of the ears. Again symmetry is the key. Abscesses or other ear problems are often noticeable at very early stages by the ferret holding his/her ear at an angle. There may be minor external damage to the ears caused through fights or honest working wounds (treatable by a simple medicated cream like Sudocrem) but these need to be checked. Also look at any discharge in the ear or pain on handling. Mites are a persistent problem in ferrets' ears. If there is a dark, waxy residue and any grittiness, do refer the ferret to your vet for treatment for ear mites. These can be easily treated and will be an enormous relief to the ferret. (I remember reading about one researcher who deliberately infected himself with ear mites to experience what animals had to put up with. His reports were that the noise and discomfort were incredibly uncomfortable, so we can all imagine what ferrets may have to put up with if infected. NB. Do not try this at home!)

Mouth. Main problems are the teeth and gums, but do check that the lips are free from swelling and that gum colour is a healthy pink. Red gums usually indicate an infection, especially if swollen and 'spongy' looking. Very pale gums may indicate anaemia. Since anaemia is a symptom of a lot of illnesses, this would mean a very worthwhile trip to your nearest ferret-friendly vet for a check up. Teeth should be clean looking, although some discolouration is expected in older ferrets. Chips or breaks to the teeth should be investigated early as this can cause decay and gum disease. Ferrets with tooth problems or soreness of the gums often go off their food as eating is uncomfortable, so any lack of appetite or weight loss should prompt an urgent inspection of teeth. Build up of tartar also occurs as a ferret gets older and it is wise to book your ferret in for a dental at the vet's before problems arise. Even very elderly ferrets seem to sail through the light anaesthesia used in dental treatment and it can really give a new lease of life to some of our golden oldies. Some ferrets seem to be prone to dental absecesses, often due to root decay. Do not delay in seeking treatment as these can be very very painful, as anyone who has had a dental abscess will testify! Also watch out for any excess salivation (dribbling) which could mean discomfort in the mouth. Tooth-grinding is also common when a ferret is in pain, especially from abdominal problems such as stomach ache, colic or gastric ulcer.

Coat. Next look at the coat. This year has been an awful time for abnormal moults. I've had people ringing worried because their ferret hasn't moulted or is losing coat by the handful. A couple of our ferrets moulted so scruffily that they looked as if the moths had been at them! Older ferrets seemed to have been more affected by the unusual climate conditions than younger ones, but, providing they all seem fit and healthy enough in other in other respects, the moults should correct themselves. It is sometimes helpful to supplement diets with various products like Ferretone, Ferretvite etc. or to give a few extra goodies like tuna in sunflower oil, cartons of Whiskas or Felix kitten milk (not ordinary milk as ferrets cannot tolerate the lactose content) but if you feed a complete diet then these should be regarded as treats rather than necessities.

When looking through the coat watch out for signs of fleas. Sometimes you may see a flea but usually it will be the flea excrement that is most noticeable. This looks like little black gritty bits in the fur. If you take some of these bits and place them on a damp piece of tissue they turn dark red, indicating that fleas have had a blood-feed off your ferrets. If fleas are found, you will need to treat all the ferrets and the cage/run. Discard any bedding and replace with fresh. Don't forget that any other animals you own, such as cats and dogs, should also be treated as they are often the main source of fleas (especially cats). Working ferrets will pick up fleas and ticks out in the field and a treatment of Frontline (available from your vet) will help give protection during the working season, as well as treating any fleas present on the ferret.

Ticks are rather revolting little beasties that attach themselves to ferrets and gradually suck blood until they swell up to the size of sultanas. Don't be tempted to pull them off as the mouth parts of the tick, which are embedded in the ferret's skin, can be left behind and result in a nasty abscess. Ticks are air-breathing so a dollop of Vaseline effectively suffocates them in a few days so they drop off. Frontline is very effective as a spray-on remedy. Other people use surgical spirit. I don't advocate using a lighted cigarette to burn the tick off, as many people suggest. It works, but you try holding a lighted cigarette close to your hand and see how unfortable it is! You couldn't blame a ferret for becoming hand-shy if his last experience of your hands was being mildly scorched!

Unnatural hair loss. Although moults have been somewhat odd this year, you should still be on the look-out for unnatural hair loss. This may mean amount of loss of position of loss. 'Rat tails' (i.e. bald tails) are common enough and usually sort themselves out, but symmetrical loss of hair on either side of the body can mean adrenal gland problems, so if there is anything odd do consult a ferret friendly vet for advice. However, be aware that if you have a ferret which has been recently neutered its next moult will be quite dramatic due to the hormone changes following castration/spaying. This is normal and will certainly correct itself, so do be prepared for a little ferret trotting around in its undies for a few weeks before its proper coat grows back!

Body condition scoring. It's useful at various times of the year to 'body score' your ferret. This is effectively checking that he or she is of a heathly body weight. It's a procedure carried out on most animals when doing a routine health check and involves running your hands over the animal's back, ribs and pelvic bones to feel how much fat there is covering the bones, and 'scoring' on a scale of 1-5. If your can feel almost every bone with no flesh or muscle covering it, the score would be 1, indicating a rather emaciated animal. If you can feel hardly any bone through the flesh, the animal is too fat and should score 5. Ideal body condition should be around 3, i.e. you can feel the bones through a moderate covering of fat and muscle. Ferrets will tend to vary a little between summer and winter weights, but it's a good general guide. Ferrets with low condition scores should be excused working and breeding duties until reaching adequate condition. Ferrets that have body condition scores of 4 or 5 should have their rations reduced gradually until they are of a healthly weight.

Lumps, bumps and swellings. Obviously in running your hands over your ferrets, you will become aware of any oddities like lumps or bumps that shouldn't be there. Don't delay in seeking advice from a ferret-knowledgeable vet. Some lumps may be nothing at all, others may be precursors to more serious problems. Also look for what I can only describe as squelchy tummies, where there is a lot of fluid. The ferret may seem fine, but oedema/ascites as these swellings may be known, can mean something that needs a vet to examine.

Anogenital areas. First check the sex of any new ferret or kit arriving this season. Don't be embarrassed if you have wrongly sexed your ferret! You would not be the first or the last to make a mistake, especially if you deal in neglected and sick rescues which often resist handling and are very slow to mature. Males should have an observable penis by Autumn and may even have the starting of testes that you can feel, although they will not have descended fully. Jills have a much shorter length between the anus and vulva, but if you ahve any doubts try and contact a knowledgeable ferret owner or go to your vet. Any entire ferrets should be mentally noted and a date made for neutering. I always favour the Christmas holidays for neutering. Kits are usually well-grown enough for the op, and jills will not (usually) have come into season. Book the ferrets in and make arrangements for them to come back to indoor (whenever possible) post-op quarters for a few days until they are back on their paws. They cope well ops very well and, after a couple of days of warmth, rest and recuperation, are pretty much back to normal.

Aside rom sexing the ferrets, while you are 'down that end', do check for any dirtiness, diarrhoea, signs of urine stains and general yukkiness. This can indicate that the ferret is poorly or cannot clean himself. Ferrets can get worms, although there are no worming products licensed for ferrets at the moment, or there may be problems with kidneys. Whatever; a ferret can get very sore and uncomfortable if his bottom is not clean. Veterinary attention should be sought promptly if a ferret has a nasty, dirty of very stained bottom.

Finally do a check of claws for clipping and make a general note of general well-being such as feeding, and what happens in the litter corner.

Ferrets give so much for so little. All they need is for us to keep an eye on what they can't see to themselves. An all-over check takes minutes but can add years to our little friends' lives, both in time and quality. It's not much for them to expect of us.

First Published in NFWS News #79 September 2007

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