Health Matters 6

Happy New Year to you and all your ferrets. The New Year Newsletter is often a packed one as it includes the AGM reports and Christmas Show results so I've been a bit selective in what to cover in this edition of Health Matters. I've decided to keep the bulk of the post-mortem reports and treatment news until the next issue to make room for several timely pieces of information and the Nutrition summary.

However, there is one report I'd like to include in the owner's words as it so clearly demonstrates the final obligation we have to the animals in our care. The case concerns Piper, an eight year old, diagnosed with lymphoma of the spleen.


Report from Sandie Hardcastle on her beloved "PIPER".

Sadly Piper had to be put to sleep on 28th December aged 8 years 4 months.

Piper's tumour started, or should I say, I found a small marble sized lump the last week in November, it didn't change in size until the week before Christmas. It then grew very quickly and although Piper was still as busy as usual running around indoors playing with us and his 8 friends (ferrets) on Boxing Day he just wanted to curl up on my lap most of the time instead of his usual antics. I knew I'd have to make the decision and on the 28th he came indoors as usual, played for about an hour before he decided to curl up in the dogs' bed. I gave him a nice warm egg with a little piece of cheese (his favourite treat). Sat with him on my lap for an hour or so and then took him off to our vets for his last trip.

He was injected straight into the tumour and laid snoring in my arms until he finally took a big sighing breath and was no more. Painless, relaxed and contently lying in my arms I knew I'd done the right thing.

Piper has a brother, Humphrey, who is still at 8 years 5 months as fit as a fiddle. Humphrey is living with Harvey, an 18 month old silver hob, Josie, Blossom, Molly and Florence aged 3 years but he still keeps looking out for his brother; let's hope he still has a few more happy years left.

When Piper was younger he and Humphrey used to sleep in my little girl's cot, she and her brother age 8 years have grown up with the boys and loved Piper very much. They helped to bury him and have both been giving Humphrey that little bit more attention to help him get over losing his brother.

Ferrets have always been an important part of my life and I would never be without them. They are such cute, naughty, thieving, funny little folk and give so much just being themselves. We work 4 of our ferrets, Harvey, Todd, Josie and Blossom. Humphrey was retired 2 years ago, Florence is hopeless, Molly belongs to Meg, my daughter, and she worries too much for her safety so she doesn't really work as Meg keeps calling her back (and she comes) if she's gone for anymore than 10 minutes. Brock, our new man, is only 6 months old so hasn't started yet.


On to a couple of things worth alerting you to.

Changes in vaccine for canine distemper

The Nobivac vaccine used by most of us is now not available. Vets are now using Vanguard DA2Pi (Pfizer). It has been used on ferrets for some time with few reported problems. One member has reported a reaction at the injection site, resembling an abscess. There should be no reason to worry about having your ferret vaccinated. However, if you are worried you should discuss it with your vet. Some vets do suggest you stay in the surgery for half an hour or so after vaccination, just to make sure all is well.

Slugs and snails and..

It may be Winter at the moment but ferrets still love their outside exercise periods. Many also love the slugs and snails they encounter! This can be a real problem if you have neighbours who are using slug killer/pellets as these can be fatal to your ferret if he eats one of the slugs or snails who have ingested it. Even at this time of year, gardners are putting in their veg and liberally scattering pellets about so don't be fooled that poisoned slugs are only a summer hazard. In any case, it's not a good idea to let ferrets eat these beasties. Aside from the slimed up whiskers, slugs and snails do carry parasites, notably heartworm. It's not as big a problem in this country as in some others but some veterinary pharmaceutical companies have incorporated treatment for heartworm into their worming preparations. Maybe they know something we should know.

Spring Pruning

No, I'm not going all Charlie Dimmocky on you. I just needed a way of reminding everyone that if they have entire hobs and jills please consider getting them neutered now. It is so easy to think there is plenty of time but it seems that jills come into season earlier and earlier. The 'accidental' litters are still a major feature of summer work for rescues. So, please, book them in now; and remind everyone else to do the same. If you have problems finding a vet (or a reasonably priced vet) please ring for advice - any committee member or area coordinator. We should be able to sort you out.

Recently, it seems that feeding ferrets has become something of a topic of discussion and I've quite a few questions and comments addressed to me on the subject. I thought I'd take advantage of a new report into small animal nutrition to do a summary.

Nutrition Notes

We've come a long way since the most important dietary advice to ferret owners was 'Don't feed bread and milk!' Now it is far more likely that questions will be couched in terms of 'what is best to feed my ferret?' And owners are often faced with conflicting advice on the value of proprietary diets for ferrets, cat foods, dog foods, home made diets and so on. It should be easy - feed ferret food. However, just because something is called ferret food, it does not mean that it has been tested on ferrets, so don't automatically assume that it will make a perfect diet for your ferrets. Even then you may find that the ingredients in proprietary feeds vary so much that they don't easily compare to eachother. Why do some contain 30% protein, others 36%, 39% or higher? What is best? What about fat - 10%, 15% 20+%? Or fibre -look at ferret foods and you'll find it as low as 2% or over 5%.

So how do you choose?

Just as you should know the basics of what makes a healthy balanced diet for yourself, you should take the trouble to know the basics of the ferrets' nutritional requirements to maintain health and why. Rather than attempt a potted lecture on the ferret digestive tract and what nutrients are contained in what foods, here's a run down of basic information in the format you'd read on food labels. Remember, ingredients on labels are listed in order of the amount of each ingredient. Thus a list starting with 'poultry meat' means that this is the greatest ingredient. Avoid foods where vegetable proteins are high on the list and also avoid foods which do not specify sources or merely list as 'animal protein products' or 'plant protein products'.

Proteins and amino acids - ferrets are carnivores, they have high protein needs which should be met by feeding a diet derived from meat. A good rule of thumb is to look for a minimum of 36% protein in dry ferret foods. It also matters what the protein source is. It should be as much animal protein as possible. Poultry is probably the best source followed by other meat, liver, eggs and fish meal. Although vegetable protein is included in most ferret foods as an aid to manufacture, it should not be a replacement for animal protein sources.

Although all proteins are made up of amino acids, it has recently been discovered that one amino acid may be especially important to ferrets. This is taurine, known to be essential in other carnivores. It is found only in animal proteins, giving another reason why it is important to make sure protein comes from the correct sources.

Fats/oils - these provide the high energy fuel needed by your ferret's energetic lifestyle. In dry foods look for levels of about 20-22%. As with proteins it does matter to your ferret's diet where the fats and oils come from. Ferrets require some essential fatty acids that can only come from animal fat, so there should be poultry fat, pork or beef fat and fish oils listed in the ingredients. Animal fats also make food more tasty for your ferret. Some vegetable oils derived from corn, soy oil or similar will also be included in most proprietary feeds to help balance oils. The correct amount and type of oils and fats is also important for maintaining healthy skin and coat.

Carbohydrates/Fibre - simple carbohydrates and simple sugars are not required in a carnivore's diet although starch is used in the manufacturing process simply to bind the ingredients together into a biscuit. The manufacturing process should thoroughly cook starches to prevent poor digestion and loose stools. Generally, foods that look like rabbit feed (hard pellets) have not been cooked through this extrusion process and will make a poor diet for your ferret.

Fibre comes from the complex carbohydrates in a diet. Now we are all used to being told that high fibre diets are good for us. This is true but we must not assume that this is the same for ferrets. In fact, the reverse is true! Ferrets have a very short digestive tract and do not have a caecum - the part of the guts that deals with fibrous matter. Therefore a low fibre diet is critical for ferrets. There will be some fibre in any proprietary food but look for beet pulp as the source and avoid foods with over 3% fibre content. High fibre diets are now increasingly being associated with kidney and bladder stones.

Vitamins - complete foods will contain all the vitamins needed by your ferret under normal circumstances. In fact, it can be dangerous to supplement a complete food with additional vitamins.

The two types of vitamins are fat soluble vitamins and water soluble vitamins. Fat soluble vitamins are listed in quantities expressed as IU/kg, meaning International Units per kilogram. They include vitamins A, D, E, and K, and can be stored in the body over time. Supplementing these vitamins long term may well produce toxic effects. This is why caution is often advised when feeding the high Vitamin A liquid treats so loved by ferrets.

Water soluble vitamins such as vitamin C, all the B vitamins, and others like folic acid and niacin cannot be stored in the body and so need to be in a daily diet. On the other hand, excess is usually just harmlessly excreted.

Minerals - again, in a complete food these will be in the quantities required by your ferret. The balance between minerals is quite delicate and, as with vitamins, can be harmful if supplemented to excess. It is not usually advisable to feed mineral supplements except under the guidance of your vet.

Finally, don't forget water as a vital ingredient. It is the most important daily requirement. This is even more the case when feeding dry foods. It is becoming a matter of concern in some researchers whether ferrets voluntarily drink enough fluid to replace what is missing in a dry diet.

Comparing foods

OK, reading the label is the easy bit - or is it? What if the labels are off different types of food? For example, how do you compare the contents of a dry food with that of a semi-moist or 'wet' food? In fact you can - and you may be surprised! You'll probably need a calculator but here's an example.

Most of us will be concerned about protein levels and protein sources in a food. The sources will be listed either as greatest first in the list, or as a percentage of the ingredients. Similarly protein amounts are expressed as percentages. So what has most protein - a wet (tinned) food, a sachet of semi-moist food, or a dry food? The way to tell is to look at the percentage of protein against the percentage of moisture in the food.

Typically a wet food has 8% protein and 75% moisture; a semi-moist has 20% protein and 25% moisture; a dry cat food has food has 30% protein and 10% moisture; a dry ferret food has 36% protein and 10% protein. How do we compare them?

Firstly, calculate the dry matter in the food by taking the percentage moisture from 100%. For example the wet food with 75% moisture has 25% dry matter (100%-75%). Divide the stated protein level on the label by the dry matter percentage and multiply by 100.

e.g. wet food is 8% protein and 75% moisture. The dry matter content is 100% - 75% = 25%. 8 divided by 25, multiplied by 100 is 32. Therefore the comparable amount of protein from a wet food is 32%.

By the same method the comparable protein content of
semi-moist food is 20/75 x 100 = 27%
dry cat food is 30/90 x 100 = 33%
dry ferret food is 36/90 x 100 =40%.

Of course, whether you should use the food for your ferrets will also depend on what sort of protein it is, what the proportions of other ingredients are etc. However, it does give food for thought, doesn't it? (Pardon the pun) We feed a complete ferret food to most of our ferrets with little or no supplementation, although I do like to feed some soaked food every so often. However, for our old ferrets, I tend to use a lower protein feed, often a semi-moist type, or a home-prepared mix of chicken meat and chicken fat. This is because older animals often do well on a slightly reduced protein and fat diet and seem to do better on a less dry diet, possibly as it poses less problems for ageing kidneys.

At the moment there is a lot of discussion on ferret diets. Some people advocate 'natural' diets, others specially formulated diets. At the end of the day, there's nothing magic about 'natural' diets. A diet is as good as the nutrients it provides and it is our responsibility to the animals in our care to decide on the best we can for them.

Next issue will be the Spring Newsletter, so Health Matters will be examining some of the signs of Spring in our ferrets - parasites!

As ever, your views, news, and information are very much appreciated. Write, phone or fax:

Dr June McNicholas
Croit Cullach
4 Durnamuck
IV23 2QZ
Tel/Fax 02476 305911


Absent Friends

  • Bracken -
    aged 8+ years. Died of natural causes. A loveable sandy hob, not over-blessed with brain, but possessed of a sweet nature. A particularly awful rescue case but had a much better second part of his life than his first.
  • Folly -
    also aged 8+ years. Cage mate to Bracken, followed him within six weeks, also of natural causes. A gentle, sociable old chap who worked hard for rescue as a PR ferret. Also RBIS at NFF in '96 and a cracking little rabbiter in his time.
  • Saffron -
    aged 9 years. A gentle sandy jill. A worker, show ferret and a PR lady. Died peacefully after a short battle with lymphosarcoma.
  • Hinge & Bracket -
    aged approximately 7 years. Two albino jills, valued work companions in their day but gracefully retired two years ago. Both put to sleep after a viral infection caused severe illness. Their gamekeeper owner wishes to acknowledge these 'grand old girls' for their help in his work over the years.
  • Hettie -
    age not known. House ferret and assistant editor of Ferrets First. Given sleep on the operating table when bowel cancer was diagnosed.
  • Piper -
    aged 8+ years. Put to sleep to prevent pain and suffering and given a dignified and peaceful end. Subsequently discovered to have an advanced lymphoma in the spleen.
  • Snowy -
    aged about 9 months. Died suddenly, cause was a brain infection.

Health Matters