Health Matters 1

Thank you to everyone who has contributed by sending post-mortem reports. Some of these reports pre-date the last newsletter in which I asked for as full a list of symptomatology as possible so I am unable to report pre-death history for most of these. Don't forget that the N.F.W.S. will contribute toward the cost of post-mortem, (full members only) but they will be of most use if we know as much of the pre-death illness details as possible.

Also thank you to everyone who has contacted me about their sick ferrets who have recovered or who are on medication to control illness. Sharing this information may prove valuable to the treatment of other ferrets.

Post-mortem reports
Mating accident

A jill was presented for post-mortem following a recent mating. The report found that mating had taken place through the rectum instead of the vulva, resulting in haemorraging in the large intestine.


Death caused by viral infection suspected to be distemper. Histology reports supported this (e.g. congestion/haemorrage in the lungs, changes observed in lymph nodes and spleen). Further tests for distemper required immunohistiochemical tests on lung sections. These revealed that small spots on the lungs were postive for distemper.


Report indicated that the major cause of death was a large 2 cm diameter abscess towards the back of the ferret's throat, possibly arising from an earlier upper respiratory tract infection. There were no major abnormalities to internal organs and no evidence of distemper or any specific viral infection.

Liver failure

Pre-death history is available. First symptom in this two year old albino jill was a mild limp, possibly indicating some abdominal discomfort. Very rapid onset of illness with severe jaundice, weakness and lethargy. No response to antibiotics. Death occurred within 48 hours of illness. Post-mortem showed severe liver failure but no positive indication of the cause of this.

Note: Less than six months later this ferret's litter sister (polecat) displayed the same symptoms, death occurring within two days. Whilst there is no firm evidence of hereditary disease, this probably cannot be ruled out.

With the exception of the last two cases I had no knowledge of the ferret's age or name. I apologise if this makes the report a bit impersonal. It is not meant to be unfeeling and I would be pleased to mention names of ferrets and/or owners in recognition of their loss. In the meantime, to the owners of all these ferrets and of the litter sisters Anastasia and Natasha, thank you once again, we sympathise with your loss.

Treatment Reports

Now to (mainly) more optimistic health matters.


I have had two separate cases reported of ferrets with chordomas. These are hard lumps on the tail, usually near the tip. They are a form of tumour and become ulcerous destroying the tissue around the lump. Although cancerous, it seems they rarely metastasise and spread to other parts of the body. However, they should receive prompt veterinary attention. Amputation of the lower part of the tail was advised for both of these ferrets (and our own ferret, Grub, about a year ago). The tail is typically amputated several joints above the chordoma to make sure all affected tissue is removed and to prevent the ferret from being able to reach round and worry the stump. The ferrets made a good recovery and hair growth returned to the tail to give a perfectly normal, if shortened appearance. Having a half-tail seems not to disturbed them at all.


This is one of our ferrets, Eddy, a very small, 3 year old polecat hob who became ill whilst we were on holiday. Our sincere thanks to Fran George for ensuring he got prompt veterinary attention. First symptoms were severe lethargy, coughing and a general appearance of being obviously ill. Typically, he brightened up on the vet's table and refused to look like a sick ferret. Some days later, he developed severe ascites (collection of abdominal fluid which blew him up like a football). This was reduced by anti-diuretics and he was given a steroid injection. It was at this stage the vet thought she could feel a lump on his liver. Although he showed slight improvement, he remained very ill for the three weeks we were away. We were able to persuade him to take small quantities of finely minced meat, kitten milk and sachets of kitten food. He regained some condition and seemed better, if not quite well. We decided to ask for an exploratory operation to see if anything could be done. A laparoscopy was performed and showed masses of small tumours on the liver and surrounding areas. No surgery was possible. However, Eddy still had a reasonable quality of life, he had pottered about at home, enjoyed his small meals and still liked the company of his group when he felt well enough. We decided against euthanasia for the time being and he is now recovering from the operation.

The prognosis is not good, but he is not in pain and can lead a quiet life. We are told a very high protein diet may help and that daily vitamin C can sometimes have beneficial effects on these sorts of cancers. However, we have no way of knowing how long he has before we have to make that final decision. In the meantime he is leading as normal a life as possible. I hope that when the time comes that we can arrange that he dies as he lived - with his head in a food bowl!

(Eddy died at home on 1st November. And, yes, he made sure he'd finished his supper first! As far as ferrets and ferreting are concerned, there would have been many who would have thought Eddy neither use nor ornament, but he was an endearing little character who will be greatly missed.)

E.Coli infection

Some of you may know Sheila Crompton's super PR ferret, Spooky, an extremely large albino jill with a very generous figure, to put it politely. However, it may be due to her ample reserves of body fat that she survived a serious and prolonged illness.

Spooky was found one morning in the 'flat ferret' position of semi-collapse. She was dehydrated, had low body temperature and so weak she couldn't stand or hold up her head. There was a discharge from her eyes and nose and her gums were very red, all of which could indicate a form of infection. She was taken to the vet and admitted as an in-patient. She was put on a heat pad, re-hydrated subcutaneaously and given antibiotic (Baytril). During this time she passed loose, bloody stools. This abated by the following day and Spooky was able to take liquid food by syringe. It was decide to test for Distemper Virus, Aleutian Disease Virus and E.Coli bacteria.

After six days of hospitalisation Spooky returned home for further nursing.Spooky on 11th November 2000 She was syringe fed on a liquidised preparation of her own brand of ferret food. As Baytril has a particularly awful taste, Sheila asked for an alternative which would be less harrowing for Spooky to take e.g. Synulox which crushed easily and mixes with whatever treat your ferret likes - Z- Megamore in this case. Over the next couple of days Spooky began to lap her food from a spoon and she began to try to walk. She was incredibly wobbly, staggered and fell over quite a lot, but could, after a while, get to wherever she intended. This was not just weakness but a sort of neurological consequence of her illness.

She gradually improved, but it was a slow recovery. The tests came back negative for distemper and for Aleutian Disease. However, the count for E.Coli bacteria Spooky on 11th November 2000 in the faeces was very high. It seems that this was the source of the illness. Spooky had to go back on Baytril as this is one of the few antibiotics effective for this infection. Spooky hated it and Sheila learned that ferrets can spit for a distance of some feet!

By the time you read this, it will be about six weeks she became ill. Spooky is still not fully recovered, but she is on the mend. She is back with her cage mates and is a still a bit wobbly on her feet, but the prognosis is good and I am sure that the new slim-line Spooky will be back to her PR duties by next spring.

Helpful hints

Thank you to the many people who offered advice they found useful in dealing with sick ferrets.

Baytril - as mentioned above, a very effective anti-biotic but incredibly foul-tasting. Trying to get this down them is very distressing for owner and ferret. A couple of possibilities. sometimes another, more palatable anti-biotic, will do the job (e.g. Synulox) so it may be worth asking your vet if treatment has to be Baytril. Sometimes, of course, it does have to be, as with Spooky's E.Coli. Some ferrets will object less if the Baytril is mixed in a couple drops of fruit cordial such as Ribena, or in Ferretone, Z-Megamore, fruit yogurt or kitten milk. However, this doesn't always work and the only thing that can be done is to get a fine syringe and squirt the stuff down the throat and get it over as quickly as possible.

Tempting appetites - sick ferrets will often take crushed or liquidised ferret food or mild foods such as shredded roast chicken, white fish and soft kitten food. Others can sometimes be tempted to eat by offering quite highly flavoured food such as the 'gourmet' cat foods, garlic sausage, liver pate etc. Obviously these are not very suitable long term but a number of ferret owners have found them useful in maintaining a sick ferret's interest in food and they can frequently be mixed with more suitable foods.

Post-surgery - keeping body temperature up is very important after returning home from an operation. A heat pad is the obvious solution but stand-bys can take the form of a piece of body-heat reflective material (sometimes called 'space blankets' and available from Boots first aid counters etc) or even baking foil as an undersheet.

That's the round-up for this newsletter. Sincere thanks to all who contacted me with their contributions. Please continue to do so, your experiences may help other ferrets. Write, fax, phone or email

Dr June McNicholas
Tel/Fax: 01854 633796

I get so many enquiries about jills' health, I'd like to do something on these pages on it. Any jill problems or illnesses you've experienced? Spay problems, season problems, temperament, hormonal etc?

Health Matters