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Common Ferret Diseases

Common Ferret Diseases

Ferrets are sweet, intelligent little animals that many of us love. Before introducing one to your family however, there are a few things to know about ferrets, namely the common diseases they may suffer from. Here is a list of some of the diseases that ferrets commonly get, along with how they are diagnosed and treated.

Pyoderma: Pyoderma literally means pus (pyo-) in the skin (derm-). This is due to a bacterial infection; usually secondary to trauma or self-inflicted wounds from having itchy skin. Clinical signs are variable, either from mild superficial lesions to areas of furunculosis, which means the hair follicle itself is completely damaged from all the bacteria hiding in and around the hair shaft.

Diagnosing pyoderma is done by looking at clinical signs and something called an FNA or ‘fine needle aspirate’, or impression smears. An FNA is made by inserting a small needle into one of the pus-filled lesions, sucking out a bit of fluid, and looking at it under a microscope. An impression smear is much the same, except a glass slide is pressed against a pus-filled, wet lesion and then observed. By doing these things, your vet can find bacteria, yeast, or any other cause for the pyoderma, and then dose drugs appropriately. Treatment for pyoderma involves using antimicrobial shampoos and antibiotics to kill the bacteria.

Cutaneous Neoplasia: This type of cancer (cancer affecting the skin) is common in ferrets. Unfortunately, cancer on the whole occurs very often in these sweet animals. When it comes to cutaneous cancers, there are three that are most common; mast-cell tumours, basal cell tumours and sebaceous cell tumours. Thankfully, these are most often benign, which means that they do not usually spread to other parts of the body and don’t usually cause too many problems unless they grow for a long time.

There are other tumours, however, such as squamous cell carcinomas and adenocarcinomas, which are both rare and malignant. This means they grow quickly and can invade into other organs, which can be fatal. To diagnose these tumours, FNAs (fine needle aspirations) can be done, but biopsy is best to identify tumours. Ferrets grow many neoplasms (another name for a tumour) and identifying tumour type will help greatly with prognosis. For example, knowing what type of tumour it is can help your vet tell you how quickly the tumour will spread, and whether it will invade organs and cause other problems or not. There is only one treatment for these tumours, and it is surgical excision. If caught early, prognosis is much better than when a tumour is in a more advanced stage. That is why it is very important to give your ferret a quick physical on a weekly to monthly basis, just so you can quickly notice any lumps or bumps early!

Hyperestrogenism: This is caused by another type of cancer, this time of the adrenal gland, which is a tiny gland that sits on top of the kidney. It is an extremely common disease! Unfortunately, US/Canadian lines of ferrets are far more inbred than European lines; thus more incidence of (all) neoplasias in the North American ferret population. Hyperestrogenism may also have a genetic component, since a certain protein has been identified in ferrets with this condition; perhaps this can be used as a screening test when more research is done. The clinical signs include bilateral (on both sides of the body) symmetrical alopecia (bald spots), vulvar swelling in females and enlarged prostate in the males, pale lips and gums due to blood cells being killed, as well as recurrent infections for the same reason. The average age of diagnosis is from 3.5-4.5 years, but some studies have seen ferrets from 8 months to 9 years with this condition!

Diagnosis is made by looking at the history, clinical signs, palpably enlarged adrenal glands +/- possibly doing an adrenal ultrasound to actually visualize the enlarged adrenal glands. A blood test is also sometimes used.

Treatment includes supportive care +/- blood transfusion if the blood cell count is extremely low. Melatonin therapy may help as well. If possible, surgery is preferred, because it is the cancer on the adrenal gland which is ultimately causing all these problems. Depending on the size of the cancer and amount of infiltration into adjacent tissues/vessels (the adrenal gland is very close to the largest vein in the body; the vena cava!), surgery may range from just debulking to complete resection. In debulking, the cancerous growth is cut away as much as possible, but some cancerous cells are left over because they are simply too close to vital structures. With complete resection, the tumour is completely cut away, so there is much less chance of it growing back.

By Amrita Banerjee

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