Pet ferrets are becoming more and more poular and all ferret owners should know what hyperadrenocorticism is. Hyperadrenocorticism is one of the most common reasons for a sick ferret to go to the veterinarian. This disease is usually found in ferrets aged one to seven years, but most commonly in ferrets that are at least three years old. If you recognize the signs, you should be able to catch the problem before it progresses too far. This article will give you an introduction to what causes hyperadrenocorticism, the signs, and some potential treatments.
Hyperadrenocorticism simply means enlargement of one part (the cortex) of the adrenal gland. The adrenal gland is responsible for the production of many hormones, including adrenaline, cortisol (‘stress hormone’), and sex hormones (estrogen and testosterone). In ferrets, it is thought that the signs are caused by an increased number of sex hormone-producing cells, and subsequently an increase in sex hormones in the body.
Do not mix this disease up with hyperadrenocorticism of dogs, cats, or humans. In dogs, cats, and humans, the disease is called ‘Cushing’s disease’ and causes an increase in cortisol, rather than sex hormones. Therefore, hyperadrenocorticism in ferrets is much different, even though it has the same name!
There are two reasons for the adrenal gland to enlarge: either a simple increase in the size of the gland, or cancer of the gland. Fortunately, adrenal gland cancer is fairly uncommon. The cause of adrenal gland enlargement is not known, although there has been research indicating a few potential situations which might increase the likelihood of enlargement. Possible influencing factors include genetics, extended periods of light, and early spay/neuter. There also might be a greater possibility of insulinoma (cancer of the insulin producing cells) in ferrets with hyperadrenocorticism than in healthy ferrets.
The most prominent sign of hyperadrenocorticism in ferrets is hair loss. This hair loss usually starts around the tail and progresses forward over the belly and back. Your ferret may or may not also be itchy. Other possible signs include lethargy (tiredness) and muscle wasting. A ferret with muscle wasting will appear weak and may develop a pot-belly as the abdominal muscles begin to give out. Also, it is very common for female ferrets to have swelling of their vulva, with or without discharge. There is no normal reason for a spayed ferret to have a swollen vulva. Male ferrets may become more aggressive and display sexual behaviour.
If your ferret shows any of the above signs, you should take it to the veterinarian. Although these signs, especially the hair loss, are classic for hyperadrenocorticism, any of these signs can indicate a variety of problems that need to be looked at.
If your ferret is diagnosed with hyperadrenocorticism, you have a few options. This disease is not fatal, and your ferret can actually survive for a while with no treatment. However, keep in mind that it will become progressively more sick and uncomfortable as the above signs get worse. You may have to treat it for other problems that are caused by the disease. You and your veterinarian may decide to medically treat the disease. The medicine targets and kills adrenal cortex cells, in order to sufficiently reduce the size of the gland. The third major option is surgery. Removal of the adrenal gland (the body has two glands, and surgery will leave one normal gland in the body) is a common solution. It is generally a straightforward surgery, but is more complicated if the right, rather than the left, adrenal gland is affected.
If you treat this disease quickly, many of the signs are reversible, and it is very likely that your ferret will continue to live a long and happy life. There is a low risk that this problem will happen again after it has been treated. So ferrets owners should be aware of the possibility that, as their ferret ages, it could develop hyperadrenocorticism. If you recognize the signs (such as hair loss), you and your veterinarian will be better able to promptly treat your ferret!
By Ashley O’driscoll – Pets.ca writer