Ferrets and Adrenal Disease
Adrenal disease is one of the most common disorders of ferrets. Symptoms usually occur in middle aged to older ferrets, but ferrets as young as one year old can also be affected. Clinical signs include lethargy, alopecia (hair loss), loss of appetite and a general loss of energy.
The adrenal glands are small structures found sitting on top of each kidney. Their purpose is to make hormones for growth, reproduction and general health. Often as ferrets age, their adrenals undergo hyperplasia, which means that the adrenal glands enlarge. Tumours can also grow in the glands, leading to the same consequence. Due to the enlargement, more hormones are produced than are needed, resulting in the symptoms described above.
Hair loss is the most common sign. Alopecia usually starts around the rump and tail and then progresses up the flanks and over the back, chest and abdomen. Although some ferrets can go completely bald, the head and limbs usually retain some hair. The hair loss progresses if no treatment is implemented. In some cases the skin may be slightly red and itchy. Some ferrets show signs of hair re-growth while others do not.
A diagnosis is usually made looking at the clinical signs, along with bloodwork, an x ray or ultrasound. Bloodwork will show the increased hormone levels, but to get an idea of how severe the case has progressed, other diagnostics may be called for. For example, a vet knowledgeable about ferrets will be able to see exactly how much the adrenal glands have enlarged via an ultrasound. For a yet unknown reason, it is usually the left gland that enlarges, but sometimes both glands can enlarge.
The gold standard of treatment is surgery. The entire left adrenal gland can be removed; however, if the right is also enlarged, it is a trickier surgery because it is very close to the vena cava, the largest vein in the body. Thus, with the right adrenal, a small portion of the gland must be left behind, for fear of accidentally rupturing the vena cava.
The condition can be managed medically with drugs as well. However, it is important to note that drugs only control the hormone release; they do not actually fix the enlarged gland or shrink the tumour inside it. The drugs work by desensitizing the gland and thus stopping the overproduction of hormones. However, if medical treatment is picked as the treatment of choice, the treatment is lifelong; as soon as the drugs are stopped, the hormones will be produced in enormous quantities once again, leading to the symptoms recurring.
As a ferret owner, it is important to be aware of adrenal disease, since it is probably the most common disease of domestic ferrets. If caught early, chances are good that you and your vet can work out a treatment protocol that works. So, keep an eye on your ferret and speak to your vet if you see any changes in your ferret’s bubbly personality as it ages!
By Amrita Banerjee – Pets.ca writer