Why You Should Bring in Ferrets

Should your practice expand to include these popular critters?

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Originally published in the February 2015 issue of Veterinary Practice News

The males are known as hobs, females are jills and a group of them is known as a business. Did you also know they love to perform the “weasel war dance”?

These are just a few factoids exotic veterinary practitioners wish general practitioners knew about ferrets. Estimates of the number of ferrets owned in the U.S. vary widely. But as of a 2011 survey, the American Veterinary Medical Association estimates that 748,000 are owned. Only a handful of veterinarians have experience in treating them medically.

Exotics experts said that most veterinary students get minimal instruction on ferrets, specifically, but practitioners shouldn’t shy away from taking an interest in accepting these playful, curious creatures as patients. Sandra C. Mitchell, DVM, Dipl. ABVP (Exotic Companion Mammal and Feline Practices), in Saco, Maine, has been treating ferrets for 20 years.

“I love their ‘can’t get me down’ attitudes. There is nothing in the world that can make me smile faster than a 'war-dancing’ ferret,” she said, referring to the frenzied series of sideways hops they perform when excited and playful.

“They are also interesting challenges from a medical perspective, and really make you get back to the basics of physiology and anatomy when making diagnostic and treatment choices.”

If you’re a small animal veterinarian on the fence about including ferrets in your practice, ferret experts offer advice to get you started.

Ferrets Aren’t Dogs ’n’ Cats

Take heed not to extrapolate from feline or canine medicine and surgery when examining or treating ferrets, said Byron de la Navarre, DVM, chief of staff for exotics at Animal House of Chicago.

Their husbandry needs are quite different from other small animals, as are their nutritional requirements. Dr. Mitchell recommends allowing ferrets to explore the exam room while you get a history, and take note that certain behaviors are quite normal.

“You will gain a lot of information just watching how they move,” she said. “Be prepared for them to crawl up your legs—and realize that most ferrets are very friendly! Nipping is a common behavior—and not one of aggression—but one to be prepared for.”

Healthy ferrets will generally destroy your exam room, tipping over the trash, opening cupboards, urinating/defecating in corners—and a ferret that does not do these things usually isn’t feeling well, she said. De la Navarre warned—from experience—that ferrets shouldn’t be left unattended in a room that has not been properly ferret proofed.

“They often get themselves into trouble and can escape if not placed in a secure cage with proper cage bar spacing.”

Exams are Easier Than You Think

Most squirmy pets can be coerced to cooperate for an exam, and the playful ferret is no exception. When it comes time for the physical, gently scruffing ferrets will typically cause them to yawn and relax, making palpating their abdomen and examining their teeth a cinch, said Jerry Murray, DVM, of Dallas.

Evaluate the patient from nose to tail, suggests de la Navarre: Start with a TPR, then check skin and coat for thickness or hair loss; look for bright eyes, clean ears and clear noses; look for clean teeth, a proper bite, pink, healthy gums and tongue; palpate all the various lymph nodes; auscultate the heart and lungs; palpate the liver, kidneys, spleen, intestines, bladder; and check the extremities for abnormalities, growths or injuries.

In addition to the physical, de la Navarre noted that indicated blood tests are crucial to staying on top of ferret health.

“This includes a complete blood cell count and serum biochemistry, as well as a complete fecal examination—direct and flotation evaluation—and often other indicated tests such as a cytology of increased wax in the ears.”

About Vaccines

Ferrets have specific vaccines and vaccination protocols, different from canine and feline protocols.

“This often involves splitting up vaccinations,” said de la Navarre. “For example, not giving the ferret distemper on the same day as the rabies, as well as including pre-medications to avoid or lessen any type of vaccine-associated reaction.”

Colorado State University recommends a vaccination schedule with a canine distemper vaccine at 8, 11, and 14 weeks followed by yearly boosters, and a rabies vaccine at 3 months followed by yearly boosters.

Common Ferret Illnesses

Ferret experts said that a handful of ailments plague pet ferrets, so be on the lookout for adrenal disease, vulvar/prostate hypertrophy, insulinoma, inflammatory bowel disease and neoplasias such as lymphoma, lymphosarcoma, and mast, basal or squamous cell tumors.

Murray warned that foreign body ingestion is quite common in young ferrets especially, and other issues such as heart disease, including dilated cardiomyopathy, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy and heartworms, should be on practitioners’ radars.

Some clinical findings can be trickier to interpret in ferrets, Mitchell said.

“Be aware that many males deposit fat around their lymph nodes, so do not confuse this with lymphadenopathy. Also, enlarged spleens are very common in ferrets and are often completely normal.

Practitioners ready to dive in to ferret medicine and surgery will be excited to know of a few recent advancements. “There is a lot going on in the world of ferrets, but one of the revolutionary concepts is that adrenal gland disease —long feared by ferret owners as a massive surgical problem from which many ferrets died or suffered complications—can now be effectively treated with a nearly painless deslorelin implant given approximately once annually,” Mitchell said.

De la Navarre also noted that ferrets suffering from bladder stones, specifically cystine stones, are being fed grain free diets, with success.

Brushing Up on Ferret Care

Exotics experts said adding ferret care to a practice can be fun and worthwhile, especially because there are very few ferret specialists across the country.

“There are by no means enough to fill the void, given how many ferrets there are in homes out there,” Mitchell said. “I would say to general practitioners to go for it! Be sure to work the case up well, don’t be afraid to get the data you would need to make a diagnosis, and if you get stuck, know there are practitioners out there you can turn to for help.”

Practitioners will also benefit from buying what Murray calls the pink book, “Ferrets, Rabbits, and Rodents: Clinical Medicine and Surgery,” and Dr. James Fox’s book “Biology and Diseases of the Ferret.”

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