Health Matters 3

The focus this issue is on older ferrets, but as usual, here's the round up of PM reports and treatment reports.
One PM report

A cytopathology report was received on Ulrike's hob, Igor. Igor's symptoms were described in the last issue of Health Matters. These included weight loss, accumulated abdominal fluid and swelling. The examination of the cells in the fluid suggest presence of cancer and liver disease. He was put to sleep to save suffering. The examination of the cells in the fluid suggest presence of cancer and liver disease. A full report will be shortly available on the NFWS web site.

A few other health related reports
Uterine tumour

A six year old jill was taken to surgery for a routine spay. She had lived most of her life with a vasectomised hob who had naturally mated her each season. Although apparently suffering no ill effects from repeated matings over the years, her spay operation showed her to have a large uterine mass of pre-cancerous tissue. This was removed fairly easily although the spay incision needed to be larger. Recovery seems good but it was obviously a little more serious than a routine spay operation. No-one can be sure but it is suspected that the tumour may have arisen through repeated matings and false pregnancies. Maybe another argument in favour of spaying jills?
Blocked salivary gland (salivary muocoele)

A three year old jill presented with a swelling to her lower jaw. She had no pain and seemed extremely well in herself. The swelling, at first suspected to be a submandibular absecss, was investigated under anaesthesia. This showed that it was not an abscess that could be drained, rather it seemed to be a blockage in the submandibular salivary gland. The jill is now booked in for surgery to either drain the gland of the accumulated salivary or, if necessary, to remove the gland.

Turning now to older ferrets
Care of older ferrets

It's super to see so many great looking ferrets of 'mature years' in veteran classes and still working in the field. Six years doesn't seem old but time has a habit of speeding by so quickly that it's easy not to notice that what seems like just yesterday's kits are now today's golden oldies. We did a quick mental tally of our own ferrets and were somewhat surprised that almost half were veterans or very close to it. Sadly we have lost a number of our really old guys between 8 and 11 years but it made me realise what sorts of changes can happen in ferrets as they progress from six or seven years to eight or nine, and how we can help them lead a more comfortable older life.

Again, I'd like to thank all of you who wrote/rang/emailed etc your tips for care of the older ferret. It is clear that many of you have great concern for the comfort of your ageing animals whether they are working, show or pet. Many of you spoke of ferrets who have since died but who benefited from changes in their care as they grew older. To you and them, the following is a tribute to caring ferret husbandry.

There were lots of general items of good advice, such as making sure there were sources of extra warmth and/or shelter; adapting housing to minimise the need for climbing; taking steps to ensure that oldies weren't at risk of being bullied or pushed out of the food bowl by dominant younger thugs in the group; adapting feeding routines to fit and 'little and often' regime; and giving supplements to help diet and coat condition. All are excellent items to put on a checklist for caring for an older ferret. Here's some more specific areas in which our oldies may need attention:

Regular mouth checks are vital. Teeth can decay, break, develop abscesses or otherwise cause pain. The first sign of toothache may be when your ferret refuses to eat, or if he claws at his mouth. Sometimes a ferret may just seem depressed and look as if he is in pain or uncomfortable - e.g. lowered head, eyes semi-closed, maybe some dribbling from the mouth. If this occurs there is little alternative but to have the tooth extracted under anaesthesia. I have encountered many older ferrets who have needed this and all have taken the extraction in their stride and have clearly felt better for it almost immediately. Even our 10 year old had a new lease of life after an incisor - chipped some four years previously but only recently started to decay - was removed.

Teeth can also become severely coated with tartar which can lead to gum disease, bleeding from the gums and pain on eating. Take a look at your ferret's gums, if they are red (rather than pink) and spongy looking, your ferret has a mouth problem. The breath is usually pretty awful, too! Ferrets fed on soft foods may be especially prone to developing teeth and gum problems. Prevention is better than cure and regular checks in all ferrets can prevent discomfort in later years. I know Frieda Byng cleans her ferrets' teeth with a small brush (see her article in the last Newsletter). As vets are always recommending similar care of dogs' and cats' teeth this seems a good idea. There is even flavoured toothpaste for cats and dogs that would be perfectly suitable for ferrets! Ferrets who already have tooth or gum problems may benefit from gentle regular cleaning, but it is best to consult your vet. Dental work is becoming increasingly common in most veterinary practices and surgical cleaning under a light anaesthesia can really improve quality of life for many animals.
Stiff joints

Like most animals (and people!) ageing will involve some stiffening in the joints, whether through arthritis or rheumatism. When this stiffness is an inconvenience rather than a pain, there is much that can be done just to make life easier. A 'bungalow' home without steep ramps; vet-bed or heat reflective material for bedding; keeping caging indoors or under extra shelter; dietary supplements such as cod liver or halibut oil can all help. Food bowls might be better mounted on stands or hung from cage wires as stiff necks and shoulders may mean that a ferret gives up eating before they have had enough simply because of the discomfort of having to put the head and neck downwards to eat. It is always worth checking a ferret who is losing weight for either stiffness or bad teeth!

If your ferret is really slowing down and showing signs of pain rather than just stiffness, there are medications available. Ferrets can take most medications for stiffness in cats and dogs (and unlike cats they can take aspirin) so it is worth seeing your vet to find out what is most suitable for your ferret, it may be painkillers or anti-inflammatories. Warm massage can be soothing, as can a heat pad on the affected joint. I have used a biopulse-type magnetic collar with surprising success in an old hob.

Cataracts are common in ferrets. These will appear as small milky or cloudy areas on the eye ball. Often there is little or no indication that the ferret is suffering any inconvenience at all, although sometimes it will be apparent that the ferret is seeing less e.g. bumping into things, seeming 'lost' for a moment while he sorts out his bearings. Usually the ferret manages very well, after all sight is not a dominant sense in ferrets at the best of times. There may be no real effects on quality of life, especially if you don't rearrange his court to confuse him moving around. However, loss of sight can mean a slightly less confident animal. They may be a little more prone to startle if you pick them up without warning or approach on a 'blind side'. This may mean a nip from a normally sweet ferret! Don't immediately assume he's gone cranky in his old age, you might just have made him jump! A few words or a tap on the floor of his cage to let him know you're are there will be much appreciated.
Coat and body

It is common for older ferrets to go through quite dramatic moults, frequently leading to bald patches or very sparse coats. Naked tails become more common than ever! The hair losses should be temporary, but are often regular occurrences as the animal gets older. There is no easy solution, some cases improve with dietary supplements, others do not. Raw eggs in the diet are thought to make any hair loss worse. It can be quite worrying, even if the ferret seems very well and happy. Part of the reason for this is that hair loss (alopecia) can be a clinical sign of a number of illnesses such as adrenal disease and some cancers. In the majority of cases if the skin is healthily pink and clear of blotches or sores, and the ferret is behaving normally, it is likely that hair loss is through harmless reasons. If there is any discolouration, raised, warty areas, sores or other signs of abnormality, and you can rule out parasite infestation, it is best to seek veterinary advice. Sometimes a Woods lamp can show up fungal infections that can cause hair loss. These can usually be treated quite easily with fungicidal ointment or lotion.

Ferrets may also show changes in body shape as they age (don't we all!). It is quite common for an older ferret to become less heavy looking or feel less densely muscled, so that strapping great hob may end up looking like a little wizened old man after about 8 or 9 years. Others become positively rotund and lazy! Provided that they are well in themselves there is usually no need for concern. However, it is worth keeping an eye on round tummies just to make sure that there is no abdominal mass. Odd looking or odd feeling tummies should be investigated further, older ferrets do seem to be a bit prone to developing tumours.

There's a good deal of publicity about special diets for older animals, especially cats and dogs. You only have to look at the supermarket shelves to see a range veteran diets (often at inflated prices!). Are they necessary? Well, yes and no is the not-so-simple answer. Getting old doesn't necessarily mean falling apart, but it can mean a less efficient digestive system. Kidneys become less efficient in dealing with waste from the digestive system. Quite simply many older animals need a nutritious but more easily digestible diet. In dog and cat diets this has meant a 'lighter' formula, often of chicken and rice, to balance nutritional needs with ease of digestion. So far there have been no such developments in proprietary ferret feed, maybe because there is little research on changes in dietary requirements in older ferrets. One comment that many of you reported is that older ferrets HATE having their food changed! (Even when this meant a change from cat biscuit to 'proper' ferret food, or from one type of ferret food to another.) It is obviously common sense to stick with what they seem to do well on; feed little and often, and to watch the amount they have. Less active ferrets may need less than they used to, so watch their waistlines! Ferrets with a poor appetite may need a vet check for dental or other problems. Of course, one of the best indicators of whether the diet is OK is the litter corner. If all's well there, the ferret is probably doing pretty well.

So, with the entertaining image of lots of you peering into your ferrets' poo corners, I thank you all again for your terrific help in this column.

I've had a lot of requests for up to date information on drug usage in ferrets, I'll put it all together for the next newsletter. I'm also planning future articles on skin problems and nutritional problems - your news and views are much appreciated.

June McNicholas

Health Matters