Health Matters 7

Many thanks for all the health matters you have all passed on to me. I am sorting through a number of PM's but it's great that so many of you have also let me know of ferrets whose health problems have been resolved or have found drugs to successfully manage the condition. Thank you for sharing this information with other ferret owners.

For example, here's a mine of information from Cambridgeshire Ferret Welfare

Sian Browne, Secretary of Cambridgeshire Ferret Welfare and Rescue writes:

"After reading your Health Histories it occurs to me that I have had similar problems with my ferrets - at the moment totalling 34 of which I have 2 ill ferrets (hobs), not expected to recover, one (Sonic) has a congenital heart defect diagnosed when he was 5 years old (now 7 years) who I have to keep quiet and is doing well and the other (Marmite) has been diagnosed, after x-ray under sedation, with a liver tumour and as a result fluid retention which causes him some distress. He is only 4 years old. We first became aware of a problem when he lost fur from his abdominal area and developed scabby sores all over his body. After various treatments from the vets, with no improvement, it was decided that blood tests and x-rays were needed. He is at the moment receiving diuretics for fluid dispersal, which seems to be working and he is still in a commune with 14 other ferrets. The tumour is inoperable as he has developed a heart murmur and would not survive the anaesthetic. He appears to be in no pain and is quite happy and we will endeavour to make his remaining time comfortable and enjoyable.

Other ferrets we have rescued/owned may be of interest to you:

Enlarged Oesophagus - Mulder (Hob 5 years old Vasectomised) - clinical signs included lethargy, inappetence and regurgitation. At first we thought that he had a foreign body in his throat but after various treatments at the vets - including an emergency call when they had to infuse him with fluids as he was very dehydrated - it was decided to do a barium meal x-ray - hence diagnosis. Our vets were very surprised and we decided to try to help him by extending his neck backwards and using a syringe feed him a porridge of raw meat and water. This worked for a few days but eventually he seemed to give up and developed pneumonia and we decided to end his days, sadly.

Lymphoma - George (Hob 8 years old Castrated) first diagnosed when he was 3 years old - clinical signs large swelling either side of his neck. He has always been a weak ferret but this did not stop him from developing normally and he was just as playful and friendly as the others. His quality of life was excellent and although he may not have won any prizes in shows he was lovely in our eyes. He died peacefully in his sleep.

Various ferrets have had abscesses, heart attacks and I still believe strokes, who have lived after intensive TLC long and productive lives."


Two hob ferrets are being treated for suspected cardiomyopathy. One, a seven year old hob had been ill for approximately two years with a cardiac cough and abnormal 'sloshing' heart sounds. The other, a four year old hob, suffered a chest infection between december last year and February this year, at one time the lungs becoming so congested that he was almost drowning in his own chest fluids.

Each are on Fortekor, dosed at 1/4 of a 5mg tablet daily. The owner has found that crushing the tablet and mixing it with chocolate spread to be very effective! Interestingly, when one ferret received his tablet mixed in Ferretone, he began to lose ground and the owner wonders if the oil in the Ferretone inhibited the absorption of the tablet. The ferret's condition improved again when the Ferretone mix was stopped and the chocolate spread reintroduced!

Now just a couple of snippets of info worth passing on.

Pre-op feeding

I often get asked whether ferrets should be starved before an operation and I know many vets advised this for some time. However, recommendations are now that most small animals should not be starved pre-operatively. In the case of ferrets this seems especially sensible because of their high metabolism and short digestive tract. Current advice to vets is that ferrets should not be starved longer than 6 hours prior to surgery, and not more than 3 hours for older ferrets (e.g. 3-4 years old and above). Food and water should be offered as soon as possible after the ferret comes round.

Water bottles vs water bowls

Many of us use water bottles to make sure that our ferrets always have water on tap. However, there have been some concerns raised that ferrets are not very good at drinking enough from these. This is important because ferrets on dry diets need to drink enough to replace the moisture taken out of the food. Some ferrets may drink just enough from the water bottle to slake their thirst but not enough to compensate for the dry diet, leading to health problems such as kidney stones. It may be advisable to provide a water bowl and a water bottle so the ferrets have easy options, too. I know lots of ferrets love to splash the water about and can make a terrible mess, but try standing a heavy bowl of water in a large plastic plant pot saucer - it does genuinely help! You could also try some of the clip-on bowls used in parrot cages - easier to drink from than a bottle but not easy to splash or overturn.

Signs of spring

What heralds Spring for you? The first daffs? The first cuckoo? The first flea?!!!!

Whatever joys Spring brings for you, it is also the season for parasites! So here's a quick run-down on the more common forms of uninvited guests your ferrets may encounter.


In theory, ferrets are susceptible to all the internal and external parasites of cats and dogs, so it can't be stressed enough that you should treat any dogs or cats in the household regularly. After all, there are plenty of licensed and approved drugs for treatment and prevention of parasites in these species but none as yet for ferrets. Regular worming and flea/tick control of your dogs and cats will help limit some parasite problems for your ferrets.

Having said that, it won't be a total prevention. Fleas will still occur via other domestic or wild animals in the neighbourhood, as can ticks. Working ferrets are especially likely to collect a variety of lodgers out working the warrens! And if your ferret ever eats mice, snails, slugs etc, internal parasites are a merely a mouthful away!

External parasites

FLEAS must be the most common parasite living externally on the ferret and almost every ferret owner is guaranteed to come across the odd flea from time to time even in the most pampered of pet ferret. However, infestation of fleas is a reflection of poor care and poor husbandry.

Signs of fleas - the first signs may be that your ferret is scratching more than usual. On inspection of his/her coat and skin there may well be tell-tale signs of flea dirt - tiny black specks near the skin. These are flea faeces and if dropped on a damp piece of tissue will turn dark red, a sign that the flea has been feeding on the ferret's blood. Often the fleas themselves are not seen, even if quite numerous, as they are experts in scurrying away for cover once you start parting the ferret's coat, so it's worth remembering that not seeing fleas doesn't mean that there aren't any!

An important thing to remember about fleas is that they will leave their animal host to lay eggs elsewhere. This means if there are fleas on your ferret there will be flea eggs and larvae elsewhere in the ferret court or the house. It also means that if you treat your ferret for fleas you must also treat the areas he/she has been living and exercising in.

Treatment - there are no specific flea treatments licensed for ferrets but most that are suitable for kittens will be suitable for the ferret. One of the most effective treatments is 'Frontline' available from vets. This comes in a pump spray and a droplet /ampoule form. I am still somewhat suspicious of the drops to the neck type of treatments since the Droplix fatalities in cats, although I have no evidence that there is any risk attached to Frontline drops.

Frontline is very effective both as a treatment and a repellant, deterring fleas for up to six weeks after application. It is not licenced for ferrets and your vet may ask you to sign that it has been supplied at your request. However, I have checked with the manufacturers and their laboratory reports and it is fine for ferrets. I have been using it for some years now with no problems. I use the pump spray but not directly onto the ferret. Ferrets seem to hate the sensation so I spray a cotton wool ball with Frontline and then rub it into the back of the ferret's neck and work down the spine, paying special attention to the base of the tail and back legs. Then another sprayed cotton wool ball is used down the front of the ferret, especially under the armpits. That is usually all that is necessary to get rid of the fleas.

Don't forget to change bedding, and spray sleeping boxes and other areas. Also important is to treat ALL the ferrets in a group, not just the one with signs of fleas. Whatever you use on the ferret, it is better to use the same on the bedding etc rather than risk potentially dangerous mixes of chemicals. Check the ferret and the area after a couple of days. Frontline can be reapplied after a few days if necessary.

TICKS are tiny parasites that look like minute flattish spidery creatures when they are not attached to your ferret. Once attached, they bury their head into the flesh and the body swells up with engorged blood. Working ferrets are almost bound to pick up a tick or two in their working lives, but other sources are possible. Dogs pick them up in sheep fields, and hedgehogs, badgers and foxes all carry a plentiful supply of ticks. These can be transferred to your ferret whether he's out in the field or not!

Signs of ticks - invariably it is the tick itself. Depending on the age of the tick it may be a tiny pale, almost whitish speck on the skin. Older ticks will appear greyish and can be as big as a match head or even bigger. The essential thing to know is not to try and pull it off the ferret. The tick will detach but leave its head parts buried in the ferret's skin and this is likely to cause an abscess to form.

Like fleas, ticks leave their animal host to lay eggs so treatment must include the animal, the court and bedding.

Treatment - Frontline is recommended for ticks as well as fleas. In fact one of the good things about this preparation is that it will treat and deter both with one treatment. Apply as described for fleas but dab directly to ticks where possible, but avoiding ticks that are attached to, or very near, ears and eyes. The ticks will not immediately drop off but will gradually die and drop. Do not be tempted to pull at stubborn ones, it is better to reapply a little Frontline to finish the job.

Really heavy infestations of fleas and/or ticks should be referred to your vet as it may be preferable to give an Ivermectin injection to kill heavy parasite loads. Ivermectin is not licenced for ferrets but has a broad safety margin and has been used successfully by many vets.

EARMITES in ferrets are usually the same common earmites found in cats and dogs - again underlining the need to keep your other animals treated accordingly. Mites are minute parasites, barely visible to the naked eye. They live in the ear wax normally produced by the ferret and feed off skin debris. The life cycle is roughly about three weeks so infestations can quickly build up.

Signs of earmites - the ferret's ears appear mucky with dark wax which may seem a little gritty. Sometimes the ears smell a little, too. The ferret may shake his head as if he is experiencing itching in the ear or he may rub his head/ear against the ground or an upright as if to soothe itching. Untreated earmite infestation can lead to middle ear and inner ear disease in which the ferret becomes unsteady, and circles with a marked head tilt. Veterinary treatment is required if this occurs.

Treatment- normal cases of earmites can be cleared up with ear drops prepared for kittens. However, a general rule is to avoid any drops which begin with the letter O when treating ferrets. This sounds irrational but, without mentioning brand names, most of the drops beginning with that letter have been shown to cause complications in ferrets. They have been successful in clearing up the ear mites but have led to a secondary fungal infection of the ear which has, in several cases, required amputation of the outer ear. If earmites do not clear up with mild, over the counter ear preparations, it is better to consult your vet.

Internal parasites

Again, theoretically, ferrets are susceptible to all the various worms and protozoans that inhabit carnivore digestive tracts. Ferrets that live outdoors, have free range of gardens and/or working ferrets may have increased risk of internal parasite problems simply because they are more likely to come in contact with eggs and larvae in intermediate hosts. For example, dog and cat faeces may, in unwormed animal, contain worm eggs which could possibly be transmitted to your ferrets. Snails are an intermediate host for heartworm and many a ferrets enjoys a crunch on a snail if not prevented!

Uncooked meat, snails, slugs, frogs, wild caught mice and rats and exposure to dog and cat faeces are the greatest risks for internal parasites in ferrets (and us!)

Having said that, internal parasites are not widely reported in ferrets. This does not mean they are not there, it simply means they have not been reported! Vets are only just beginning to examine the risk of internal parasites in ferrets. As yet, most internal parasites are considered as probably as much of a risk to ferrets as they are to other carnivores like cats and dogs . Australian vet, John Lewington, has identified many methods in which internal parasites could be transitted to ferrets and it probably only a matter of time before these are confirmed as correct.

To date, heartworm has been reported in ferrets in USA and Australia and Giardia has been induced in lab ferrets. Several whipworms and nasal worms naturally affect polecats, stoats, weasels and pine martens so are likely to be parasites of ferrets if transmitted. I have come across three cases of common roundworm in feral ferrets, probably caused through eating mice acting as intermediate hosts. All three ferrets were treated with worming preparations from the vet and the roundworms were eliminated.

Of course the few wee bugs and beasties mentioned above are only a tiny proportion of parasites that could, in theory, infect your ferret - or you. Do please remember in all animal handling and treatment that you could be at risk of parasites, a very tiny one perhaps, but a risk nonetheless so take sensible precautions and wash hands thoroughly.

Not sure what the next topic will be - let me know if you have suggestions!

In the meantime, as ever I am indebted to you for the help and interest you show in this column. Whatever you think can help ferret matters let me know

Write/phone/fax to

Dr June McNicholas
01854 633796

Absent Friends

  • Dumpling -
    silver hob, 6 years, one of the most popular PR ferrets in the Crompton ferretaria. Cause of death is unknown—his early death could possibly be attributed to being inbred. He had problems walking and became slightly incontinent, died in his sleep.
  • Nipper -
    an albino hob, 6 years. A first ferret sadly missed. Put to sleep after on going treatment for one year due to failure of back legs and associated problems. Thanks to Nipper, his owners went on to get more ferrets, and now have 7.
  • Minxie -
    4 years, a much loved Pie, released from long suffering. "Her ashes will go on Ruabon Mountain, to join Jesse."
  • Jack -
    albino hob, 6 years after a short illness.
  • Floss -
    albino jill, 8 years, a prized working girl.
  • Buddy —
    albino hob, 8 years (?). He had insulinoma—put to sleep to save further suffering. Buried near Bog Wood.
  • Treacle —
    sandy hob, 7 years (?). Great PR ferret—various tumours put to sleep to save further suffering. Buried near Bog Wood
  • Stumpy —
    albino hob, 7 years (?) Great PR ferret—various tumours, cage mate to Treacle. Put to sleep. Buried near Bog Wood.
  • Max -
    sandy hob, 7 years—brother to the late Daniel, McCoy and Dax. Died in his sleep on St George’s Day. Buried near Bog Wood.

Health Matters