Health Matters 12

I know I always seem to start by thanking everyone who has taken the trouble to contact me, but this time Iíd like to say a REALLY BIG THANK YOU because of what this section is turning into.

The NFWS is fast becoming a resource for ferret health and treatment information. Since the last newsletter we have been able to meet vetsí requests for information on spaying, blood disorders and blood transfusions (again!), pyometra, post-surgical analgesia, orthopaedic surgery on a two month old kit, and treatment for an unusual bacterial infection that is highly resistant to ordinary antibiotics. All the ferrets involved have happily come through their treatment, thanks to their caring vets and the NFWS sharing the information YOU have helped build up.

Itís not just vets who make contact, either. There have been lots of calls from owners on general ferret health, ranging from integrating new ferrets, moulting problems, nutritional advice, discussions on symptoms which might indicate a problem, pre-and post-operative care, and distressed calls over ferrets taking a fall or having a minor accident. Again, I and other NFWS members have been able to help, and itís all thanks to everyone who shares their information. As ever, this is very much appreciated by me, other readers and, of course, the ferrets that benefit. Believe me, ferrets all over the country have reason to thank you for sharing your knowledge.

Anyway, now that youíve all taken your well-deserved bouquets, on to this issueís Health Matters.

Ear mites

Iíve had quite a lot of enquiries about ear mites recently, especially about how serious they may be and what is suitable treatment for them.

For those wanting more information on ear mites, hereís a summary.

Ear mites will be a problem to most ferrets at some time and it is easy to underestimate the damage that can be caused by these parasites. Most ear mite cases involve irritation to the ferret and you may notice him scratching his ears, rubbing them on the ground or shaking his head. (Donít try this at home but some human researchers deliberately infected themselves with ear mites to feel the effects first hand and reported extreme irritation and a lot of buzzing and crackling noises from these little devils so you can imagine what your ferret is feeling!)

These should be the first signs that prompt treatment is needed. There has been some concern in the past over suitable treatments because some preparations which are very effective in cats and dogs have proved problematic with ferrets and resulted in yeast infection of the ear tissue, even requiring amputation of the outer ear in some cases. This has become more widely recognised and it is common for treatment to include an antibiotic to prevent the yeast infection as well as a preparation to kill the mites.

The BSAVA manual on exotic pets lists possible treatments such as fiprinol, selamectin, or ivermectin drops although subcutaneous ivermectin is said to occasionally cause problems.

Untreated ear mites can cause severe, even disabling, infections of the middle and inner ear. Again this is believed to be the combination of mites and yeast fungi which can occur together, especially where ferrets are bedded on hay and straw which can harbour the fungus. Middle ear infections may start with the head shaking and ear scratching associated with ear mites in the outer ear but then progress to inflammation and/or rupture of the ear drum, allowing infection of the middle ear, and possibly the brain. Sometimes there is a discharge from the ear, and the ferret will certainly seem dull and poorly. In very severe cases the infection may go deep into the inner ear and cause disturbances to balance and orientation. The ferret will develop a pronounced head tilt and circling movements, staggering or falling. The condition can become fatal as the brain tissues are affected.

As with most parasitic diseases, prevention is better than cure so inspect your ferretís ears regularly. Brown ear wax is no problem, but gritty bits in it may denote mites. Donít probe the ears with cotton buds, if ear mites are present you could force them further into the ear. Instead, wipe round the inside of the ear with a moist tissue and inspect the debris. If you suspect mites consult your vet.

Novartis Animal Health are shortly re-launching their ear-mite treatment ĎPanalogí. They have promised to come back to me on advice for its use on ferrets. Hopefully, we will soon have a choice of safe-to-use ( although sadly as yet unlicenced) treatments.


Three cases of pyometra have been sent in. This is a condition of entire jills in which the uterus (womb) becomes infected and filled with pus. If left untreated it is usually fatal.

Two of the cases sent to me involved jills taken into rescues and assumed to have been left in season for some months resulting in post-oestrous anaemia. Both were lethargic and clearly unwell; one had a temperature of 105 degrees and unpleasant smelling dark discharge from her vulva. Veterinary examination revealed that both jills had an enlarged uterus. They underwent emergency spay surgery to remove the infected uteruses and given antibiotics to clear residual infection. Happily both jills recovered and went on to new homes.

A third jill had been mated to a vasectomised hob and went on to show signs of a phantom pregnancy. On the 42nd day after mating she seemed unwell and by day 44 had a high temperature, was drinking a lot and had a dark red discharge from her vulva. Once again an emergency spay was required. It should be said that the pyometra was not directly due to being mated to a vasectomised hob rather than infection setting in during the phantom pregnancy. However, repeated mating of jills to vasectomised hobs are associated with a higher incidence of pyometra, so if your jill is never to be bred from it is probably better for her to be spayed since any complications that arise through mating to a vasectomised hob will probably mean an emergency spay anyway, so why not have it done once and for all while she is fit and healthy?

Please do keep an eye on entire jills. If they seem unwell, lethargic, have a temperature, drink excessively or show any discharge from the vulva, treat it very seriously and get to a vet immediately.

Jill jabs

Still on the subject of jills, I have had a number of enquiries about what the normal reactions to jill jabs are. Most jills have few or no reactions other than to come out of season within a week or two. This can be seen by the gradual reduction in the swelling of the vulva which can become wrinkled looking until it reaches normal size. However, it seems some jills do have some reactions. Occasionally the vulva may develop small sores or patches of dryness as it reduces. This is not serious but you do need to guard against infection, so a little mildly medicated cream (Sudacrem is good, after all itís supposed to be for nappy rash!) to help the healing process is advisable.

A minority of jills can be a bit knocked about by the jill jab, becoming lethargic and, whilst not exactly ill, definitely showing a loss of their usual bounce and sparkle. Providing they are eating OK, have no temperature or discharge or other signs of illness (in which case they would need a visit to the vet), this seems to wear off over a few weeks.

Jill jabs can also, in some jills, bring about a coat change, becoming dry at first and then going through quite a heavy moult. Again, this tends to sort itself out but a vitamin supplement is useful if this happens. Jills who become lethargic after a jill jab do seem to be the ones most prone to coat changes.

Exactly why some jills react and others donít is uncertain. It may be related to age, how long they were in season before the jab, or their general health up to the time they came into season. There may also be a link with the level of drug dosage given. The standard dosage for proligestone is 0.5ml/kg (50mg/kg). Given that some jills are very small, maybe even less than 0.5 kg, it is always worth weighing your jill to make sure the dose is reduced to suit her weight.

Spaying after jill-jabs

A frequently related question is when to spay a jill after she has had a jill jab. Like many who take in rescues we are usually faced with the jills arriving in full season during the spring and summer months. Providing the jill is fit and well, some vets are happy to spay while she is in season, and we have tended to do this wherever possible. However, many vets simply donít like spaying while the jill is in season and prefer to give a jill-jab first and book the surgery for later. The question is how long after the jill-jab should you wait. In theory, anytime from 2-3 weeks after the jill-jab should be OK since she will have come out of season. In practice, some jills seem less perky and up to the surgery after the jill jab. Whether this has any measurable impact on how well she copes with the op, or how she recovers is a bit debateable. Some people report that their jills take the operation less well than they should. I also have had jills who were spayed a few weeks after a jill jab that have had more problems getting over it. However, Iíve also had jills for whom it simply hasnít seemed to make any difference. For what itís worth, my views now are that if the jill jab is given very early in the year, leave her for as long as you can, a month if possible. If the jill-jab is given later in the year so that she is unlikely to come into season again that year, then leave her until the end of the year. This will ensure she is fit and well for the operation, although you will have to keep her indoors afterwards for a couple of days at that time of year.


This seems to be quite a regular item reported now. A chordoma is a small hard lump on the tail, usually about pea-sized, although it can be larger. The usual position is on the lower half of the tail but it can occur higher. It may first be noticeable as simply a lump but chordoma frequently bleed or weep from the upper surface. This may heal but the lump tends to break open again and again.

Ferrets do not seem unduly distressed by chordoma but they are cancerous and do need removal. The likelihood of metastases, i.e. the cancer spreading to other parts of the body, is quite low and surgical removal should solve the problem. Surgery is simple but involves the amputation of the tail two joints above the chordoma. The vet will pull the tail skin back a little before amputation so that the skin falls forward again to cover the end of the stump which heals very quickly after the two or three stitches are removed ten days after surgery. The ferret may continue life looking like a little bear cub but none the worse in other ways.

Skin problems

This should really be a topic on its own because there is so much to write about. However, as a brief list of tips:
Griseofulvin for fungal infections (Canaural ear drops for dogs are also excellent for fungal infections anywhere on the body)
Sporal-D shampoo (Medivet) for minor skin irritations
Betadine for sore spots and abrasions
Proflavine cream for sores, open abscesses and minor infected tissue

ĎRat tailí (very common this year!) is usually nothing to worry about, itís just a sign of a heavy moult. The Ďblackheadsí frequently seen on the tail are not harmful or even abnormal. If you are concerned you can clean them with baby lotion, gentle soap (Iím told that Dove is very ferret-friendly!) or gentle make-up remover/cleansing cream. This will make the skin look cleaner, but all you can do really is wait for the hair to grow again.

The one major concern with Ďrat-tailí is where other bald spots occur elsewhere on the body. This can indicate that there is a problem other than just a mega-moult. Baldness on both sides of the body can be associated with adrenal disease; loss of hair and poor skin condition can also be seen in some ferrets with nutritional problems. If there are problem areas other than Ďrat-tailí and/or the ferret seems unwell or less than his usual self, seek advice in case there is something else more serious going on.

Stings and insect bites are also frequent at this time of year, especially when temperatures have been as high as this summer. Usually, these do not cause major problems when the sting or bite is on the foot, limb or body. If visible and easy to get to, remove any sting that an insect may have left in the ferret and then treat the site with a little soothing antiseptic cream or dilute TCP. However, if the bite or sting occurs in the mouth or throat (yes, some ferrets do try to swallow wasps well once, anyway!) it is best to take the ferret to a vet immediately as he may need a fast-acting antihistamine injection. Similarly, take your ferret to a vet if he shows any signs of breathing problems, convulsions, or symptoms that lead to believe he is having a severe reaction to the sting or bite. Rarely, some ferrets (like some people) have extreme sensitivity to stings and may go into anaphylactic shock.

Snake bites are rare but can occur. The only poisonous snake native to Britain is the adder or viper and, although not highly venomous, a bite would be very dangerous to a ferret and a speedy visit to the nearest vet would be called for.

Well, there are numerous other case studies which could (and should) be discussed but Iím sure you want to read other things in a newsletter, so Iíll put them on the shelf for next issue. Amongst other topics thereíll be more details on skin problems and a treatment report on a ferret with a unusual bacterial infection in an abscess, and, of course, whatever you care to send me at my usual address!

Dr June McNicholas
Croit Cullach
4 Durnamuck
IV23 2QZ.
Tel 01854 633796

Health Matters