Senior Ferret Care
Ferrets remain playful throughout their lives so you may not always notice signs that indicate your ferret is aging. Preventative health care is important in keeping the older ferret active and feeling good. Certain diseases are more common as the ferret matures and being aware of the clinical signs associated with these diseases is a first step in early recognition.
The average life span for the domestic ferret is five to eight years. Veterinarians consider a ferret to be middle-aged at three years and senior at five or more years of age. To gain perspective on their life span, each year of a ferret’s life is approximately equal to 10 to 14 years of a human’s life. As a result, health changes can occur quickly as your ferret ages.
All ferrets should have a yearly physical examination. After the age of three, annual blood work can help your veterinarian detect changes in function of the liver, pancreas, kidneys and other organs. After the age of five, a veterinary examination, including blood profile and urine exam, should be scheduled every 6 months along with annual x-rays to monitor changes in size and shape of the heart and other organs. The focus of the exams is to ensure your ferret’s health, develop a plan for preventing future health problems and follow up on any previous health issues. In addition to the yearly examinations and work-ups, your ferret should be seen immediately for any signs of illness such as vomiting, diarrhea, lack of appetite, difficult breathing or excessive lethargy.
Ferrets require a diet high in protein and fat and should not be fed dog food or generic cat food. You should purchase a commercial ferret diet formulated to meet the specific nutritional needs of your ferret. As a guideline, look for foods with no less than 20% fat and 30% protein. When checking the ingredient list, the first three contents listed should be animal proteins such as chicken, eggs or poultry by-products. If the older ferret develops specific organ disease your veterinarian may recommend a special diet that is more appropriate for their health.
Part of your ferret’s annual physical exam will include an examination of the teeth to assure that dental problems have not developed. Any build-up of bacteria in the mouth may lead to plaque and subsequent tartar, which can both trap more bacteria and result in gingivitis (gum inflammation), and with time possible infection of the tooth roots and loss of teeth. Maintaining good dental health is very important as bacteria from an infected mouth may enter the bloodstream, leading to disease in other body organs such as the kidneys, heart valves and lungs. Dental disease tends to be a more common in older pets and your veterinarian can discuss ways in which to maintain oral hygiene.
Gastrointestinal (GI) Disease
Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) is an inflammation of the intestinal lining which results in a decreased absorption of nutrients and ensuing weight loss and diarrhea. Possible causes of IBD include food hypersensitivity, infectious disease, or any factor that can trigger an aberrant immune response. A chronic or intermittent diarrhea is the hallmark of IBD. Stools may vary in quality from green and mucousy, to dark black and sticky, to grainy ‘birdseed-like’ stools, to watery.
Gastrointestinal (GI) lymphoma is a form of cancer that invades the lining of the GI tract and may develop in ferrets of any age. Ferrets suffering from GI lymphoma tend to lose weight, have less energy and may have severe diarrhea and vomiting.
A definitive diagnosis of either disease is made via intestinal biopsies.
Tumors involving the pancreas are fairly common in older ferrets. These tumors are referred to as beta cell tumors or insulinomas. Beta cells of the pancreas produce insulin, which is required to maintain normal blood sugar levels in the body. In a ferret with a beta cell tumor insulin is overproduced resulting in low blood sugar (hypoglycemia). With hypoglycemia, ferrets may show signs of generalized weakness (especially in the rear legs), poor appetite, profound lethargy and muscle tremors or seizures. Sometimes ferrets drool, paw at their mouths or grind their teeth due to the nausea associated with hypoglycemia. Once a diagnosis of inulinoma is made your veterinarian will discuss available medical and surgical treatment options.
This ferret is very weak and lethargic because of a very low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) which can be caused by an insulinoma, also known as a B cell tumor. This is where tumor cells in the prancreas over produce insulin causing the blood sugar to plummet. Think of it as the opposite of diabetes.
Adrenal disease is another endocrine disease of ferrets and is very common, usually affecting middle aged to older ferrets (three to seven years old). The disease is characterized by an overproduction of sex hormones due to hyperplasia (excessive growth) or tumors of the adrenal gland. The most common symptom of adrenal disease is a symmetrical hair loss (see image below), usually starting at or near the base of the tail and progressing toward the head. If left untreated, affected ferrets can look nearly bald, and may have dry, itchy skin. Despite being neutered or spayed, affected ferrets may return to behaviors typical of an animal that is sexually intact, and may develop aggression toward other ferrets or people. In some cases this behavior change may be the only sign of adrenal disease. Females with adrenal disease may appear to be in heat, with a swollen vulva. Male ferrets may have difficulty urinating or develop repeated urinary tract infections due enlargement and inflammation of the prostate.
Diagnosis of adrenal disease is often based on medical history, the classic signs of illness and blood hormone assays. Treatment options include surgery to remove the affected adrenal gland(s) or monthly injections of Lupron® to combat the excess hormone production associated with adrenal disease.
Like dogs and cats, ferrets can lose kidney function as they age. The kidneys serve a number of varied functions including maintenance of fluid balance, promoting red blood cell development, keeping calcium and phosphorus in balance and excreting waste products from the body. When the kidneys begin to fail these functions fail also and affected ferrets will suffer from excessive fluid losses and the buildup of toxic wastes. The ferret may initially show an increase in water intake and increased urination, but with time and disease progression the appetite will diminish and ferrets will lose weight. Severely affected ferrets become progressively weaker and more dehydrated. If any of these signs are noted, your veterinarian can run blood tests to determine kidney function and prognosis. These tests also serve as an aid in recommending appropriate therapy.
Congestive heart failure (CHF), associated with aging in older ferrets, is the most common form of heart disease seen by veterinarians. With congestive heart failure one or more heart valves is not functioning properly and the heart is unable to pump enough blood to meet the body’s nutritional and oxygen needs. Heart failure commonly results in a backup of blood to the lungs where it causes a fluid buildup known as lung congestion. A ferret with heart disease may show a variety of clinical signs including reluctance to play, loss of energy, weight loss, rear leg weakness, difficulty breathing, increased respiratory rate, or coughing. In order to diagnose heart disease your veterinarian may recommend several tests. These may include listening to the heart with a stethoscope, blood work, taking an X-ray of the chest (see image below), performing an electrocardiogram (ECG), or an echocardiogram (an ultrasound of the heart). Once the condition is diagnosed, your ferret will likely be placed on one or several medications that may include a diuretic to decrease the buildup of fluid in the body, or a medication that will help the heart muscle to perform more efficiently.
Neoplasia, or cancer, is the formation of tumors. When benign, tumors are slow growing and remain localized to one location. When malignant, tumor cell growth is uncontrolled and progressive. Malignant cancer is more likely to spread to various areas of the body and in general, carries a poorer prognosis. Treatment options are available to surgically and medically treat various cancers, with the goal of extending and improving the quality of life. As with any pet, the earlier that signs are detected the greater the success in treating the cancer. Therefore, any growth or bump noticed should be examined by your veterinarian.
Two of the more common cancers seen in ferrets include mast cell tumors and lymphoma. Mast cell tumors in ferrets appear as small, slightly raised skin growths. These tumors may cause itchiness and, if scratched, may develop an overlying dark discharge or scab. These tumors are usually considered benign and surgical removal by your veterinarian is curative.
Lymphoma is cancer of the lymphoid system and can affect various organs in the body including the spleen, liver, gastrointestinal tract (as previously mentioned) and various lymph nodes throughout the body. A ferret with lymphoma may be less energetic and has a decreased appetite resulting in weight loss. Some owners may notice enlarged lymph nodes as bumps protruding from the body in various locations, most notably the neck. Other ferrets with lymphoma present with enlarged abdomens as the result of spleen, liver or internal lymph node enlargement. Chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy have proven to be very successful in extending a good quality of life in ferret lymphoma patients.
Take time to observe your ferret for changes in behavior, appetite or body functions. Periodically run your hands over him or her to assure that you aren’t missing subtle changes. The list below identifies signs that may indicate your ferret should be examined by your veterinarian.
• Decreased appetite
• Tiredness, decreased play activity
• Diarrhea or dark tarry stools
• Straining to urinate or defecate (often an emergency)
• Excessive urination
• Excessive drinking
• Dazed look or staring
• Pawing at mouth
• Tooth grinding
• Loss of fur
• Excessive itching
• Increased breathing rate or effort
• Weight loss
• Development of lumps or skin changes
• Seizures (medical emergency)