Health Matters 11

So many people have contacted me that I have a veritable patchwork quilt of health matters this time! As ever, my thanks to everyone who took the trouble to share their experiences for the good of ferrets everywhere.

Post Mortem report
Possible Fatal Reaction to Canine Distemper Vaccine

My thanks to members, Sue and Steve, for this very comprehensive case history of ‘Siegfried’.

‘We collected Siegfried on Maundy Thursday from a local Ferret Rescue. He had been with them since February and appeared healthy and friendly. He had been neutered around March and had recovered well from the op. We guessed Siegfried's age to be about 4. He was given a health check that day and pronounced fully fit by our usual vet (who is very experienced with ferrets) and given his CD vaccination.

Late on Easter Monday night Siegfried began to 'slow down' and seemed a bit off colour. By Tuesday a.m. his breathing was slightly laboured and his hindquarters were not moving properly. We took him to see the vet. He examined by a vet that we did not know who said that he had a tumour or trauma to his spine that was causing paralysis to his rear legs. He also had pneumonia. He was given subcutaneous shots of Baytril, re-hydration fluid and an appetite enhancer, and we were told to return with him the following day. Next day Siegfried was walking normally but still breathing noisily. Our usual vet was available and she dismissed the idea of a tumour and said that it was a reaction to the CD vaccine, to keep giving Siegfried his Baytril prescription (0.3ml daily) and fluids and she would see him again on Monday 28 April. We understood from the vet that such a reaction was very uncommon but that she had never lost a ferret patient from it. We kept him hydrated overnight and by Thursday afternoon Siegfried seemed greatly improved and began to eat a little if offered his favourite turkey ham. He still wasn't drinking by himself though so we kept him giving him water and a little consommé. We mixed his oral Baytril with a little Ferretvite and he seemed willing to take his medicine like that. He was walking normally still and when we checked him at 0100, 0430 and 0630 on Friday to give him more fluids he was up and about and looking a bit better. Then on Friday at 1100 am he had some consommé and turkey and more water (he still wasn't drinking by himself) and lots of cuddles but an hour later he had a fit, slipped into a coma and died shortly after that while we held and stroked him.’

Although the symptoms were not consistent with canine distemper, and the vaccine administered (Nobivac) was not a ‘live’ vaccine, a major concern was that it may have caused Siegfried to develop distemper and this would be a risk to the family’s other ferret. A post mortem was carried out. This revealed that Siegfried died of a major chest infection. However, there was no evidence of canine distemper. The vet believes a probable cause was a highly uncommon reaction to the vaccine.

It should be stressed that death or complications through reaction to vaccine are very rare. Problems, if any, usually occur within a very short time (under and hour) of the vaccination. Siegfried’s case is especially unusual since the complications did not occur until some days afterwards.

Siegfried’s owners were understandably shocked over what had happened, but wished me to assure ferret owners that they would still have their present ferret and any future ferrets vaccinated since the risk of distemper is greater than the minute risk of reaction to the vaccine.

Thank you, again, to members Sue and Steve. I hope that another ferret will soon find a loving home with you.

Blood transfusion

Julie Stoodley of Sleaford Ferret Rescue recently had a jill in rescue who bled profusely after routine surgery. The vet had to consider a possible need for blood transfusion. Since requests for advice on blood transfusion are becoming more frequent I thought it a good idea to outline the procedures here.

Ferrets may need transfusion after surgery or after injury where blood loss is particularly severe. As a general rule, ferret with a PCV of below 15% should be transfused. (PCV = Packed Cell Volume. Blood tests to determine the number and type of blood cells in a standard volume of blood usually include PCV tests which look at the amount of space taken up by the cells compared with plasma when they are allowed to settle).

Good blood donors are large hobs, preferably under four years old. However, since ferrets do not have detectable blood group antigens, it is possible to use more than one donor. In the past I have selected a couple of good sized, healthy ferrets in the prime of life for donor purposes.

Both donor and recipient will need to be anaethetised but no pre-transfusion drugs are necessary. Blood collection is usually done via the jugular vein with an 18G catheter. As a rough guide, Lewington (2000) suggests collection of around 6 ml from a jill donor, and between 9 ml and 12 ml from medium to large hobs. The blood can then be transfused into the recipient via the jugular vein or, in some instances, into the bone.

Most transfusions will be because the ferret needs both red blood cells and plasma. However, in some cases there may only be a need for plasma (such as in some poisoning cases and where clotting agents in the blood are defective). Donor blood can be centrifuged to collect plasma, or it can be allowed to settle for about half an hour in a fridge to let the plasma separate from the red blood cells. This can be drawn off for transfusion.

Obviously this is an abridged version of the procedure, mainly to illustrate that transfusions can (and are) done successfully on ferrets. For those wanting a more complete account there is a very good description included in a section on emergency techniques in Lewington (2000) ‘Ferret Husbandry, Medicine and Surgery’.


A 5 year old neutered polecat hob presented classic symptoms of insulinoma. These included hind leg weakness, staring very blankly into space as if only partially conscious of his surroundings, and drooling from the mouth. The episodes were very intermittent for some months but became more frequent.

The condition is similar to diabetic hypoglycaemia - low blood sugar - but is caused by small tumours in the pancreatic cells. It is most usually seen in ferrets of three years and older. Vets may opt for surgery to remove tumours where possible, but the prognosis is not promising and the condition will probably mean on-going medication and attention to diet throughout the ferret’s life.

The ferret in question is being stabilised, at least temporarily, through diet. During his blank/hypoglycaemic phases he is given honey in water to restore his blood sugar. This is followed by a high protein meal of whipped egg within an hour. The routine diet of dry ferret food has been replaced by raw meat, egg, and goats milk or milk substitute such as Cimicat. Any sweet treats or carbohydrate foods are totally excluded, apart from the honey which is strictly for use when needed to restore blood sugar.

The prognosis is not good and surgery, if feasible, is likely in the near future. This would necessarily be followed by on-going medication and diet.

It is not known what causes insulinoma, although diet is believed to be a major candidate factor, especially diets with high levels of carbohydrate or dry foods with a corn starch base.

Kidney and Bladder stones (Uroliths)

This is another condition strongly suspected to be linked to diet. The increase in feeding dry foods has given rise to a corresponding increase in reports of kidney and bladder stones. Three unrelated cases ( two jills and one hob) have been reported to me since Christmas, and many vets are seeing more and more cases

A major cause is the build up of magnesium particles in the urinary tract. These can form stones or a sandy-like sediment which causes pain when the ferret tries to pass urine.

Symptoms are straining to pass urine. This can be extremely painful and the ferret may scream or moan while straining. It can be particularly severe in hobs as a urinary blockage can be life-threatening. Veterinary attention is required urgently.

In hobs, surgery is really the only option. It is difficult to catheterise hobs because of the odd shape of their penis, although it is possible and some vets will prefer to try this first. In the case reported to me, the hob was in such severe discomfort and distress that surgery was immediate.

In jills, there may be more scope for use of a combination of diet and drugs to dissolve stones over the course of several weeks. A lot will depend on the outcome of your vet’s examination of where the stones are and the level of discomfort the jill is experiencing. Special low magnesium ‘science diets’ can be useful.

I don’t mean to knock complete diets but I am concerned about the effects of dry diets in general. Complete ferret foods are fine IF ferrets drink adequately. The problem is that ferrets are either lazy about drinking or wasteful of water and spill it everywhere, or both. This means that ferrets often simply do not drink enough. The lack of fluid intake is believed by many vets to be a main cause of kidney and bladder stones. In fact, many dry feeds marketed in America now carry the warning that lack of available drinking water can lead to kidney disorders.

In an earlier Health Matters I mentioned that ferrets seemed not to drink enough from water bottles and recommended that bowls of water be given as well. A number of people contacted me to say how much more water their ferrets drank when given a bowl rather than just a bottle. It really is worth a try. If your ferret is a ‘water weasel’ and would rather splash it around, try placing the bowl on a large plastic tray to catch the water or using a clip-on bowl that he can’t throw about.

Another factor believed to contribute to stones is the feeding of dry cat foods and/or dry dog foods. Cat biscuits often contain a corn base which increases the risk of stones forming. Dog foods often have a high vegetable and fibre content which is not good for ferrets in any case, but can also lead to greater risk for stones. For those reasons alone ( besides the lack of nutrition) it is not advisable to feed cat or dog foods as a basic diet.

I take the question of stones very seriously, simply because I see many cases in lots of animals. Some are caused by bacterial infection but more and more are being attributed to dry diets. This is obviously a problem where ferrets are concerned. After so many years of inadequate diets, ferrets have a complete food available that ensures excellent nutrition - but it is dry, and therein lies the problem. I wouldn’t abandon dry ferret foods, but I would make every effort to see that a ferret drinks enough. In fact I confess to being a little paranoid about it! On average a ferret should drink around 75-100 mls of water a day. This means a lot of water for a group of several ferrets. We use very large water bowls, holding around a litre, filled twice daily. Although we do use dry ferret food (and kitten food for some ferrets) most of our ferrets have varied diets which include eggs, fresh meat, some liver, and, occasionally, fish. Many of the ferrets enjoy the milk formula we use for bottle feeding other young mammals. The combination of wet and dry foods, plus the fluid in the milk formula and availability of easy-to-drink water means most precautions against kidney stones are covered.

Is there an inventor in the house?! If so, now is a good time to invent a good water dispenser that enables a ferret to lap freely but is not easy to tilt, overturn or otherwise be emptied. Stones cause such distress and pain, and so many cases are avoidable, it really is worth making a few small changes to safeguard your ferrets.

That’s it for this newsletter. Items recently arrived for inclusion in the next Health Matters include skin and coat problems, jill jabs and ear infections. Write, fax or email me

Dr June McNicholas,
Croit Cullach,
4 Durnamuck,
IV23 2QZ.
Tel/fax 01854 533796

Absent Friends

  • Sage (Gizzy) - albino hob. Had a long eventful career as a working ferret, show ferret, and PR ferret. His life was much appreciated. Died two months before his 12th birthday.
  • Stonebridge - polecat hob, aged approx 11 years. Died peacefully in retirement after many years of working with blind and disabled children. Very much missed by his young friends at ‘his’ special schools and hospital.
  • Grub - albino hob, aged 8 years. A real nutcase of a character! Died after a long battle with liver cancer, but fun loving until the end.
  • Merlin - polecat hob, aged 6 years. A ‘first’ ferret for his owner, and especially missed.
  • Burnet - Polecat hob, he was just 5 years old. His insulinoma did not stabilise. A sad to ferret PR
  • Sindy - a feisty polecat jill, aged 7 years. Died in her sleep daughter of the late Tara and sister to the late Paw Paw.
  • Beano - albino hob, aged approx 8 years.
  • Lulu - polecat jill, aged approx 7 years. A victim of cancer
  • Scully - albino jill, aged approx 7 years. A greeat little worker and PR ferret
  • Brecon - silver mitt, aged 7 years. Died in his sleep. A lovely, if somewhat dim, character, great PR ferret.
  • Lady - albino jill, aged approx 7 years
  • Tuppence - silver jill, aged approx 11 years. Winner of the NFWS racing trophy in 2001. Died in her sleep.
  • Casanova - polecat hob, aged approx 7 years. Lost his cage mates and just gave up. Possible stroke. A great clown who will be sadly missed.
  • Beverly - sandy jill, aged approx 8 years. Died in her sleep.
  • Stanley - aged 5 years. He was put to sleep due to heart failure. Much loved and greatly missed by his young owner.

Health Matters