Health Matters 5

I've had an incredible number of letters and emails from members, non-members and vets from many parts of the country. In fact, there have been too many to include in one Health Matters column. However, please do not stop them coming. All will be included and/or will appear on the web site. It is only by sharing our knowledge that we can help other ferrets and ferret owners. As ever, my thanks to all who contributed.

Just for a change let's start with a book review.

Ferret Husbandry, Medicine and Surgery

John H. Lewington.
Published by Butterworth-Heinemann, Oxford, 2000.

There is still a great need for a book on ferret health written in lay terms. Until this eventually happens there is the consolation of such comprehensive books as this. John Lewington is a vet, trained in the UK, now resident in Australia and a self-confessed ferret fan. His book covers all matters from basic ferret care to surgical techniques, anaesthesia and radiography. The content ranges from the near eccentric (how to re-landscape your garden into a de-luxe ferret area and the use of discarded dolls' houses to add interest to your 'ferretarium') to extremely detailed descriptions of clinical cases, drug usage and surgery. His knowledge of ferrets not only spans ferret keeping in Australia but compares this with UK and American practices. His affection and respect for ferrets is obvious. To produce a book such as this not only takes time but much dedication to the ferret and its welfare. For me, this has become my personal favourite book on ferret health. True, the language is not always accessible to non-medics but it will prove very valuable to many ferret enthusiasts and vets alike. It is a book that spends more time off my shelf than on, so what more can I say?

(My thanks to publishers Butterworth-Heineman for sending me my original copy for my opinion and review commentary.)

And now on to the more usual PM and health reports

Post mortem report
Paracetamol poisoning

A four year old jill, accustomed to free ranging her owner's house died unexpectedly overnight. There had been no illness but her owner had been alarmed the previous evening to find a blister pack of paracetamol capsules had been ripped open and scattered by the investigating ferret. It was unclear how many had been in the packet or whether the ferret had eaten any, although she had seemed well and active. The ferret died overnight and was presented for post-mortem which indicated liver and kidney damage consistent with paracetamol poisoning.

Thank you to her concerned owner who wishes everyone to exercise caution in storage of pills and tablets.

Adrenal disease with additional diagnosis of spleen, liver and kidney disease.

A PM report was received for a 7 year old ferret. Symptoms appear to be a greatly distended abdomen with ascites (build up of abdominal fluid), hair loss and generalised illness.

The PM revealed 500mls of cloudy fluid present in the abdomen; lung lesions; nodules in liver and pancreas;two masses in the spleen and an enlarged left adrenal gland.

PM diagnosis was myeloproliferative disease of the spleen and liver, adrenal cortical adenoma contributing to skin scaliness and hair loss. In addition there was hypercalcaemia affecting the kidney and lung.

No conclusive diagnosis

A four and a half year old neutered hob became ill over 24 hours, presenting extreme weakness, some bloody faeces and low body temperature. His conditioned stabilised a little over the following three days during which he was able to take himself to the litter corner and drink small quanities voluntarily. Feeding was by two hourly syringe feeds. By the fourth day severe anaemia was evident. Death occurred on the sixth day. No conclusive diagnosis has been possible although one opinion is that it may have been immune reactions to haembartonella, a blood parasite, and possibly related to an earlier, near fatal illness experienced by this ferret three years previously.


A rescue hob, approximately six years old, developed a small lump to the right side of his neck. Within two days this had grown to span the underside of his throat from right to left.. Breathing was laboured and the ferret in obvious discomfort. He was euthansed. It was subsequently found that there was a larger, probably primary, tumour in his liver but which had caused no symptoms until the secondary tumour occurred.

Other health reports
Anal gland problem

An eight year old spayed jill developed a large pink mass on her right anal gland. This resembled an abscess but attempts to drain it failed as little fluid appeared present when the mass was opened. The resulting 0.5 cm wound failed to heal over, instead opening up and remaining raw and weeping. Antibiotics (Synulox) and predisalone had little effect. The jill, however, remained cheerful with little or no discomfort. It was decided to permit her to lead a normal life until the wound ulcerated further or gave pain. After three weeks, with no further medication, the wound began to close. Two weeks later only a small area of redness remains and the jill appears in good health and good spirits.


Two ferrets in a group of three developed diarrhoea with (at least in one case) vomiting being witnessed. The usual routine of fasting for 24 hours followed a bland diet produced no improvement. Veterinary treatment was sought and the ferrets were injected an antibiotic (0.10mls Clamoxyl LA) and given Stomorgyl 2 2 tablets (half per day). Treatment included the third ferret who was showing no symptoms at the time. The vet advised fasting until that evening and then giving Hill's feline prescription diet (a canned food for cats with digestive problems). The two symptomatic ferrets recovered within 36 hours.

However shortly after this the third ferret started to vomit and shiver and seemed very subdued. The vet diagnosed colitis and gave an injection of 25mls Dexadresson20, with Synulox in tablet form for the next six days. The ferret was well enough to resist tablet taking within two days!

A hint from his owners - coat a tablet in Ferretvite and push to the back of the throat. This limits a ferret's ability to spit it further than you can catch!

And now a few words on something that seems to have been a major problem for many owners this season.

Hair loss - rat tails and poor coats.

We've had an unusually high number of calls about bald tails. Many owners, especially comparatively new ones, become very alarmed when their ferrets lose most or all of the hair on their tails. I must admit, it is a bit worrying when you first encounter this. However, in the vast majority of cases bald tails is a normal part of a major moult. Autumn and Spring see ferrets moulting from summer coats to winter coats and vice versa. Temporary thinning of the coat is normal, and this is often quite dramatic on the tail resulting in the typical 'rat tail' appearance.

A number of other factors add to owner's alarm. Firstly there is the speed at which ferrets can lose tail hair - often over a very few days. Then there is the age at which it happens. Some ferrets get bald tails from the word go, as soon as they go through their first adult moult. This can give rise to concern that a young, healthy animal is showing abnormal coat condition. On the other hand, many ferrets don't get bald tails until a few years old and this causes worry because it's a change from the norm. A third factor is that the exposed skin often looks grubby or covered in blackheads.

Many owners will take their ferrets to the vet, which is right and proper when you suspect that your ferret has a health problem. However, many vets are not fully aware of the normal pattern of ferret moults. This can lead to a sequence of treatments, skin scrapes and so on to try and diagnose the problem - very costly to the owner and not too pleasant for the ferret.

I'd never discourage people from seeking veterinary advice but it seems a shame that worry, expense and stress could be avoided if it were just a little better known that most ferrets adopt the rat tail fashion at some time in their life, and often once or twice a year.

A good yardstick is that if it is either Spring or Autumn and the ferret is acting normally, it is highly likely that hair loss on the tail is normal. If the grubbiness of the skin or the blackheads get you down, you can wash it with a mild soap. It won't do any particular good but it will make you feel better! If you think your ferret would benefit from an all over bath, use a proper shampoo for ferrets or a mildly medicated shampoo for cats or kittens. This can soothe itchy skin. Sporal-D shampoo from Medivet is excellent for non-specific itchiness.

Most bald tails will re-grow within a few weeks. Our Harry loses all his tail hair each Autumn , spends three weeks looking positively awful and then grows a tail to rival a fox's brush. Unfortunately he then loses his body hair!

Hair loss on the body is not as simple to dismiss as bald tails. Again, in Autumn and Spring many ferrets drop a lot of coat. Some do it tidily and gradually, others go for the moth-eaten patchwork look, whilst some just drop all their outer coat at once and trot round in their undies for a couple of weeks.

Again, timing is part of the decision whether anything is wrong. If it is normal moulting time, and the ferret is generally well and happy, the chances are that he or she is OK. Jills who have had litters may look especially scruffy in the first Autumn moult after giving birth. Jills left in season may develop hormonal-related hair loss which will correct itself providing the underlying cause of prolonged season is dealt with through jill-jabs; spaying or putting to a vasectomised hob.

Danger signs to look for in hair loss are when it occurs outside normal moulting time; when it is accompanied by sores or a rash; or when it is a symmetrical loss on either side of the body.

Not all causes of abnormal hair loss are serious. Hair loss through inadequate diet is correctable with a good feeding regime. A noteable case study is that of a near-hairless ferret who had been fed on a vegetarian diet by its vegetarian owner. Hair growth became normal once a more normal meat-based diet was given (the ferret, not the owner!) Most fungal infections respond well to treatment, as do problems caused by fleas ticks and mites. However, some hair loss is associated with adrenal and ovarian cancers and mast cell tumours so if your ferret is showing genuinely abnormal, untimely hair loss rather than a heavy but seasonally normal loss, it would be wise to seek advice rather than wait for other signs of illness. But for the majority of cases it is more than likely your ferret is simply having a few bad hair weeks!

Post-script Preview
Ferret Nutrition

Take a look at what you are feeding your ferret. What is the dietary analysis of the mix you select as your ferrets' basic diet? Chances are I could ask a dozen of you and the answers would vary widely. In ferret foods, protein content can range from 30% to 39% and represent a variety in sources from vegetable to poultry. Fibre - is it better to feed above or below 5%? Is 3% fibre better, should it be higher or lower? And what about ash, oil and fat?

Ferret foods do vary a great deal - even though there are so few brands to choose from! Compare them again to cat biscuits (which many ferrets love and may have become fixated on before the advent of easily obtainable proprietary ferret kibble). The content is different again. Does it matter? Can it lead to health problems?

I am grateful to a team of British and European researchers who have sent me latest results of extensive tests into small animal nutrition. The ferret is represented in these trials and I promise to wade through the 400 page report to summarise the findings for the next Health Matters column.

Any thoughts, views and news are always gratefully received. As ever you have been wonderfully helpful in the compilation of this section.

Fax, phone or email
Dr June McNicholas
Tel/Fax 01854 633796

Absent Friends

  • Ferdinand (aka Yob/Yoblet) - A dignified silver-mitt in his eighth year. His days battling with advanced lymphoma eventually became too much, but rallied enough to enjoy his last afternoon rolling in the sunshine and determined to investigate a lump of pigeon poo! He slept from then right through his last visit to the vet.
  • Podge - a rescue ferret and a much-loved little character, aged about six years. Former injuries had left him with a twisted leg but he lived life to the full and charmed all who met him. Put to sleep when a large throat tumour made normal quality of life impossible.
  • Gondor - another rescue, aged about 7 years. Died peacefully of natural causes. A sandy hob with a sweet nature - except to cats! Proud owner of his own 'ferret flap' into the kitchen and a valued worker in the field.
  • McCoy - aged 6 years. On medication for hind limb problems and minor seizures, he suffered a series of major seizures whilst working at the Royal Show Ground. Put to sleep by the duty vet at the show ground. A much loved (if never quite face-safe!) friend and working companion.
  • Rowan - a huge hob, aged four and a half years. Leader of a gang of renegade polecats, and scourge of the Lewis kitchen where he opened fridges and washing machines. Died after a short illness that sapped even his great strength. No conclusive cause of death discovered, although continued post-mortem research strongly suggest a blood parasite (see above). Very grateful thanks to Professor Yair el- Koykoaf, a veterinary haematologist in Israel, for his expertise and opinion in this matter.
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