Routine veterinary care for pet ferrets includes yearly vaccinations. It is currently recommended that all ferrets be vaccinated against two deadly and life-threatening diseases: canine distemper and rabies. The vaccine products available are specific for ferrets and have undergone extensive laboratory testing to determine that they are effective in preventing both diseases. Unfortunately, some ferrets may have adverse reactions to either vaccine.
Canine distemper is caused by a virus. There are a variety of symptoms, usually starting with fever, appetite loss, clear nasal discharge, and a rash on the chin. As the virus progresses, infected ferrets typically develop severe eye inflammation (conjunctivitis) and dermatitis with red blotchy skin and thickened footpads. Within several weeks, distemper causes inflammation of the nervous system resulting in incoordination, convulsions, coma, and death.
Unfortunately, ferrets with canine distemper almost always die of the disease. Ferrets can acquire canine distemper from other animals sick with the disease. Since the virus can live for a short time in the environment or on clothing, ferret owners can potentially pick up the virus from infected animals and bring it home. Once exposed, unvaccinated ferrets typically begin showing signs of the disease within 7–10 days. Ferrets vaccinated against canine distemper with an approved vaccine are usually well protected against the virus.
Rabies is caused by a virus and is transmitted through the bite of an infected animal. Rabies in ferrets is rare, as most ferrets are kept indoors where exposure to rabid animals is uncommon. However, accidental exposure may occur, and given that rabies is a serious cause of human illness and death, it is highly recommended that ferrets be protected against the virus.
Many communities require rabies vaccination of pet ferrets, along with dogs and cats. If an unvaccinated ferret bites a human, the health department is called in to make a determination of likely rabies involvement and, in some cases, may require that the ferret be killed and tested for rabies.
Vaccine reactions typically occur within 1–30 minutes of vaccine administration. The signs of vaccine reaction are variable. The ferret initially becomes depressed and quiet with a glassy-eyed appearance. Within a short period of time, panting, quivering, vomiting, and/or diarrhea, with eventual collapse may follow. Without appropriate therapy, the signs may progress to seizures, coma, and death.
Reactions are not uncommon in ferrets. We give all ferrets Benadryl prior to any vaccines and ask that you wait in our office for 15 minutes post-vaccination in case a reaction occurs. A ferret with a vaccine reaction will become suddenly very quiet and may soon have bloody diarrhea. Treatment must begin immediately and will involve fluid therapy and various medications to help restore blood pressure, combat shock, and control symptoms.