A female can be spayed even after she goes into heat, but if she's been in heat for a month or more, your vet should do a blood test before the surgery. Females can be brought out of heat without becoming pregnant with a hormone injection or by breeding with a vasectomized male, either of which will lead to a false pregnancy which will last long enough to let her be spayed. Neither one is a good long-term solution, though.
Breeding ferrets is difficult and time-consuming. Before even thinking about breeding, you should have owned ferrets for some years, be a member of a ferret organization, and find out as much about it as you can. The actual mating is rather violent, and jills tend to have problems giving birth, producing milk, and so forth. If you're serious about breeding, talk to someone who has first. You'll need to have more than one whole male available (in case your female goes into heat when your male isn't) and more than one breeding female available (in case you need a foster mom because your jill has milk problems) -- and be prepared to lose some or all of the kits and perhaps the mom too. Grim, but true. To learn more about breeding or where to find a good breeder, get a sample copy of the Breeder's Digest by sending $2.75 to P.O. Box 2371, Leesburg, VA 22075.
Most pet stores sell neutered and descented kits. Many breeders sell kits which have been neutered but not descented.
Adults who have never been vaccinated, or whose vaccination status is unknown, should get two canine distemper shots, three weeks apart, then yearly boosters. If you know they've been vaccinated within the last year, then one shot is enough.
If you can't get Fervac-D or Fromm-D, or if your ferret has reacted to them in the past, Galaxy-D is an acceptable third choice. If you can't get either of these, you're taking the risk that your ferret won't be protected, or worse, that he'll become sick from the vaccine. At least be sure that it's a vaccine for canine distemper which is a MODIFIED LIVE virus and was NOT cultured in ferret tissue. Chick embryo culture is best.
They can contract Bordatella (a common cause of kennel cough in dogs), but it's very rare, and the effectiveness of the vaccine is unknown in ferrets. Don't vaccinate for it unless you'll be boarding your ferrets at a kennel, and possibly not even then. The intranasal Bordatella vaccine has been known to give ferrets the disease.
It's best to give the distemper and rabies vaccines be spaced a couple of weeks apart, since giving them at the same time seems to increase the chances of an adverse reaction (see below).
If you want to change a ferret's vaccination schedule, for instance to move all your pets to the same schedule, you can safely give another vaccination as long as it's been at least a month since the last one.
Most states don't recognize the rabies vaccine for ferrets, because official studies of virus shedding time in ferrets are yet to be done. This means that even if your ferret is vaccinated, it may be destroyed if someone reports to the authorities that they were bitten. However, having the vaccination may keep the person from reporting a bite in the first place, and of course it will protect your ferrets from getting rabies. (Even closely watched ferrets do occasionally escape.)
There are several kinds of vaccine reactions. The most dangerous, anaphylactic reactions, usually occur within an hour after the vaccination. You may want to stay at your vet's for 30-60 minutes after a vaccination, just in case. Watch for vomiting, diarrhea or loss of bladder/bowel control; signs of nausea or dizziness; dark bluish-purple blotches spreading under the skin; difficulty breathing; pale or bright pink gums, ears, feet or nose; seizures, convulsions, or passing out; or anything else that's alarming -- bad reactions are hard to miss. Get the ferret back to the vet right away, probably for a shot of antihistamine (Benadryl) and perhaps a corticosteroid or epinephrine. Ferrets who have had mild to moderate anaphylactic reactions to a particular vaccine can be pre-treated with an antihistamine the next time, or you might consider switching to a different vaccine (from Fervac to Galaxy or the other way, for instance). If your ferret had a severe reaction, you and your vet can discuss the relative dangers of leaving that ferret unvaccinated.
Most delayed reactions aren't dangerous. You might notice the ferret acting tired, showing flu-like symptoms, or possibly even vomiting a little within a day or two after the vaccination. As long as the symptoms don't last longer than a day and don't seem too extreme, there's no need to worry. If the ferret has trouble breathing, is more than a little lethargic, or shows other worrisome symptoms, call or visit your vet. Antihistamines don't help much with delayed reactions, but your vet might suggest pre-treating the ferret next time anyway, in case it helps.
Jeff Johnston, an epidemiologist (though not specifically for ferrets), comments:
One thing that isn't proven but is worth a try is to give your ferret the contents of a small-dose vitamin E capsule (say, 100 IU) a few days before the injection. Vitamin E in large doses suppresses inflammatory responses (also suppresses vitamin K and clotting, so, warn your vet if blood is taken for any reason). It may help blunt any reaction. Vitamin E is also fairly non-toxic, too, so 100 IU once every few months shouldn't hurt. [Don't use more than that, though; anything can be toxic in large enough doses.]
In addition, a licensed veterinarian's signature is required for a rabies certificate to be legal. The annual trip to the vet (or semi-annual, for older ferrets) is also the best time to have your ferrets checked for other health problems.
Dr. Bruce Williams, DVM, adds:
Unfortunately, vaccination are what supports the vets - sick animals don't. The extra few dollars is what pays the help, and the electricity, what feeds the strays that are dropped off weekly to your vets, or the dogs that nobody bothers to pick up. Or the ones that are hit by cars and dropped off by Good Samaritans.However, if you have a lot of ferrets to be vaccinated, you may be able to save yourself some money by purchasing the vaccines themselves directly from the manufacturer and taking them to your vet to be used. You save on the materials, but you still get your vet's expertise. Check with your vet to see if he or she will work with you like this.
I know that some practicing vets consider a 3-year animal to be "geriatric" and to require a CBC [complete blood cell count] and a fasting blood glucose yearly, but as one who stands to make no money on this deal anyway, I don't recommend it until age 5. Three years is just too young to consider a ferret geriatric.
Now, remember, all ferrets are different. If you have one that is sort of "puny", never eats well, sluggish, etc. a yearly CBC and glucose is a good idea every year. But if your three or 4 year olds are healthy, well, then it's just not required. I start mine at 5 years.
Considering dental work - have your vet check the teeth and then recommend who needs it. Not every ferret will need to have it done, and if your 4 year olds have been on hard food all of their lives, chances are good that they may not need any work yet.
Remember - a healthy 3- or 4-year old doesn't necessarily require any annual bloodwork, but a sickly 2 year old should get it on at least an annual basis.
Start by checking your ferret's ears, which should look clean and pink. If you see wax, clean them. If the wax is black or has dark flecks, the ferret might have ear mites. Check the cartilage for swelling or distortion. Check the ferret's eyes, which should look clear and alert, with no films or discharge. (Ferrets do have a "second eyelid" which might appear as a bluish-white rim around the edge of the eye.) Feel carefully all around the neck, throat and chin area, looking for lumps or swelling. Check the gums, which should be pink and healthy-looking, and the teeth, looking for excessive tartar or discoloration. Whiskers should be long and strong, not brittle or broken.
Now hold the ferret under the front legs, with the back legs on your lap or a table. Run your hands lightly along the ferret's body, checking for lumps. You can also check muscle tone and weight this way: you should be able to feel ribs, but not see them, and the ferret should feel firm and supple, not loose, flabby or skinny. Pull gently on the ferret's legs to check for lumps or swelling on the legs, knees, or feet; the ferret should pull the legs back in. The pads should be pink and soft, with maybe a bit of callus, not irritated or cracking.
Your ferret's behavior is also a good indicator of its general health. Sleeping a lot is normal, and older ferrets will slow down a bit, but they should always be curious, alert, and playful. Any change in normal habits might be a sign of a problem.
However, most tartar and plaque starts out under the gumline, and it takes a proper cleaning by a vet to get it off. The job will be easiest and most thorough if the ferret is under anesthesia during the cleaning; ferrets tolerate isoflurane very well, and the risk from anesthesia is very slight. A professional cleaning should be done every one to three years, depending on how dirty the teeth get.
If your ferret is indeed overweight, he needs to eat a "leaner" food and get more exercise. To reduce his calorie intake, mix his regular food with a high quality food for cats (as opposed to kittens) or Totally Ferret for Older Ferrets. You still want to keep the protein and fat content relatively high, but not quite at the top of the recommended range. Mix the new food in gradually so he accepts it better. Of course, also reduce the number of high-calorie treats, especially sugary ones and those designed for weight gain (NutriCal, FerretVite, etc.). To give him more exercise, make sure he's not spending too much time in his cage, especially since many ferrets will eat when they're bored. Play with him as much as possible, particularly games like chase; if he enjoys going outside, consider taking him on a short walk each day.
A lot of the discussion about ferrets on alt.pets.ferrets, rec.pets and the Ferret Mailing List (FML) deals with health problems, and it's easy to get the incorrect impression that ferrets are constantly ill.
As Dr. Bruce Williams, DVM, puts it:
Ferrets are no more prone to disease than other animals. However, they do have a much shorter lifespan, so these problems come up an a more frequent basis. Plus, most of us own anywhere between two and fifteen animals, and many own more than this, or run shelters. When you are dealing with such large numbers of animals, you will have proportionately more health problems.
Also, the FML also has several vets that give health advice. We are well known as a place where you can get a prompt response to a question about the health of your animal, and several of us also are involved with the health care of many of the animals which you read about.
Another thing to consider is that many of the FMLers live in areas where vets are not very familiar with ferrets and their diseases, so the FML is a good place to get a second opinion or advice for their vets. I field anywhere from 3-8 phone calls daily on ferret matters from veterinarians around the country.
Any type of animal that you may obtain as a pet will have predisposition to disease. Ferrets should be expected to get diseases of their own, too. But as most people on the FML will tell you, the benefits are far more than the risks.
Tissues of all kinds can be sent to Dr. Williams at AccuPath for low-cost, expert examination with a short turnaround time. Email <email@example.com> for more information.
The age at which a ferret should be considered "senior" varies from one ferret to the next. Some 5-year-olds are as active as they were at three, while others are settling into ferret retirement. Pretty much every ferret is an oldster by 7, though many do very well for several more years.
There are three big things you need to take into consideration for older ferrets: physical health, diet, and mental health. First, get a full medical checkup for your ferret, including full blood work. Depending on the results, you might want to start getting checkups every six months.
Although older ferrets sometimes have trouble eating dry food, you might not want to eliminate crunchy food, since that will keep your ferret's gums and teeth healthy. Some people swear by Totally Ferret for Older Ferrets. There's no reason you can't supplement the dry food with something like one of the "Duck Soups".
Be sure that your ferret has a lot to do, plenty of of old knotted-up socks to stash (at which point you must, of course, move them to continue the game), tubes and so on. Play with him as much as you can each day, and provide him with things to keep him interested and alert. These can be anything from culinary herbs in a box to dig up and roll in, to tricks, to some easy barriers to defeat. Exercise is good! Mental exercise is, too. Older ferrets often seem to need a bit more direct attention than young ones so try to set aside some time just for your ferret every day.
Even if your ferret is ill, give him a bit of self-sovereignty, too. Having someone else control all your choices makes life a drag for anyone.
NOTE: I am not a veterinarian. I haven't even owned ferrets very long. (Dr. Bruce Williams, on the other hand, -is- a vet and ferret expert.) The following is by no means a comprehensive list of symptoms of disease in ferrets. However, some of the more common problems are often accompanied by these symptoms. If you notice one of these, or any other unusual behavior, see your vet.
ALSO: Ferrets are small. While they generally enjoy good health, any kind of disease or disorder can be fatal in a surprisingly short time, so if you suspect a problem, see your vet immediately.
Dr. Bruce Williams, DVM, adds:
More often than not, [the cause of a lack of bowel movement] is a lack of food intake for some other reason. Ferrets generally go to the litter three or four times a day. Owners should look for adequate stools, although some may be a little loose. Also look for string-like stools. Ferrets with intestinal blockages can continue to pass stool which is very thin- like a pencil lead. But adequate ferret-proofing is much more important than stool-watching.
Says Dr. Bruce Williams, DVM, about hind-end awkwardness:
This is a common finding in older animals of many species - the most common cause is a mild degeneration of the nerves in the spinal cord or those innervating the legs. In most of these cases, there is nothing to be done, but it also rarely results in paralysis, just variable amounts of weakness.
If it's fleas, you'll probably see fleas or "flea dust" (bits of dried blood) if you look closely. Other possibilities include mites, bacterial or fungal infections, dry skin, allergies to food or cleaning supplies, or poor nutrition. Excessive itching can be a sign of serious illness, including adrenal disease, so see a vet if you're at all concerned. In some cases, an appropriate dose of children's Benadryl can help an itchy ferret, but please use this only under the supervision of a qualified vet.
According to Dr. Bruce Williams, DVM:
Ferrets occasionally have dietary "indiscretions" and may get hold of something that is not particularly to the GI tract's liking. They may get loose or discolored stools, and if no groceries are going in for a day or so, their stools will lose volume and may become somewhat thin. As long as they are playing and acting okay, they can usually tolerate this for 48-72 hours. If it goes on any longer than this, or their play/sleep cycles become affected, then it's off to the vet for a check. Most problems resolve within 72 hours on their own. If it doesn't, then there may be a problem. (However watch for dark tarry stools - they are more than just discolored and indicate GI bleeding. If you ever see these - go see your vet. Likewise for profuse green diarrhea.) A one- to two-week course of Laxatone is also a good idea following changes in stools. If there is some foreign matter in the intestine, it will help it move along, and, at any rate, it won't hurt.Dr. Charles Weiss, DVM, adds that GI parasites such as giardia and coccidia can sometimes be the cause, though it's not common; and even lymphosarcoma may cause funny-looking stools. Both of those will generally present other symptoms, too, though.
I caution everyone - don't throw out those abnormal stools without going through them (pick them apart in a bowl of water) and seeing if there is any foreign material in them. It may sound "gross", but it can tell you if your ferret is eating something it shouldn't.
If your ferret is losing hair other places, there's something wrong. Apart from shedding, by far the most common cause of hair loss in ferrets of any age is adrenal-associated endocrinopathy, a serious, but treatable, disease of the adrenal glands. Even if the hair comes back at the next coat change, it's probably still an adrenal problem. There's a separate Ferret Medical FAQ for adrenal disease, which you should take a look at if you even think your ferret might have this problem.
Other possibilities include poor nutrition, fleas, a severe mite infestation, a bacterial or fungal infection, dry skin, or allergies to food, detergents, or cleaning products.
An orange, flaky discoloration of the skin is a very non-specific finding in the ferret. The crustiness of the skin means that the skin is not coming off in small microscopic flakes (1 to several cells at a time) like normally happens. When you see a crust - it means that the normal way that a ferret sheds devitalized epidermis [dead skin] has been impaired.Allergies are another possibility; and the area around bites, whether caused by fleas or another animal, may take on a pink or orangish color from dried blood.
As far as the cause - there is not just one cause. Many things can cause this change - skin parasites, fleas, ear mites, bacterial infections of hair follicles, fungus, endocrine disease, even distemper.
Minor skin disorders such as these are more common with age. They may be exacerbated by poor husbandry, or excessive bathing (more than once per week to ten days.)
Most cases are due to a very superficial bacterial infection which will respond well to a weekly application of a gentle bactericidal shampoo. Other tests that can be done at the time of diagnosis by your vet would include a skin scraping and fungal culture. Should all tests turn up negative, and a four-week course of topical therapy not help, then the next step would be biopsy and submission to a pathology lab for microscopic examination.
There are a couple of ways to keep your ferrets cooler if you don't have air conditioning. Fans are an obvious idea, but unless you can blow in some cooler air, they don't do very much good for ferrets, who can't sweat. A plastic bottle of ice wrapped in a towel is helpful. Finally, you can drape a damp towel over your ferrets' cage, set a bucket of water on top, and drape another wet rag over the side of the bucket so one end is at the bottom of the bucket and the other is on the cage towel. The rag acts as a wick to keep the towel wet, and the cage stays cooler from evaporation.
Ferrets in distress from heat will first pant, then go limp, then lose touch with their surroundings. The first thing to do is to get the ferret out of the hot place and start cooling him down slowly. Cool water is best, but not too cold, since the ferret's body temperature will drop way too far, with him unable to stop it. Anything you can get him to drink is good, but never force liquids into an unconscious animal.
After these emergency measures, get your pet to the vet immediately. Even ferrets that seem to have recovered may die within 48 hours due to the massive shock they've undergone. Things to watch for include tarry stools and vomiting.
There's a whole FAQ dedicated to ridding your pet and your home of fleas and ticks. It's distributed in the usenet newsgroup rec.pets. You can also get it by FTP or by sending email to <firstname.lastname@example.org> with the line
SEND usenet/news.answers/pets/fleas-ticksin the body of the message (with an empty subject line).
In general, most products which are safe for use on kittens are safe for ferrets. Products containing pyrethins are okay, but don't use anything containing organophosphates, carbamates, or petroleum distillates. Be especially careful with dips and sprays; shampoos are much safer. Follow the directions on the bottle carefully. Dr. Bruce Williams, DVM, adds:
You can use a premise spray around the cage, but often, the house requires bombing, too. Get a bomb from your vet which contains methoprene (a flea growth regulator). This will allow you to complete the job in just two applications - one to kill the adults and larva, the second two weeks later to get the ones that have hatched out since the first spray. (Make sure of course to remove your ferrets from the house at the time of the bombing...) Fleas can be a real nuisance - before you bomb, make sure to wash all of their bedding and vacuum carefully so you only have to do it twice....
Most insect foggers don't have a strong enough residual effect to hurt your ferrets. We routinely bomb our house for fleas and two hours later, the ferrets and dogs are romping through the house. (But I know that Siphotrol has a weak residual.)
Signs of trouble - lack of appetitie, rumbling stomachs, diarrhea, vomiting, salivation, dilated pupils, stumbling. You probably won't see them, but it's nice to know what to look for...
Program is used at the cat dosage per pound, administered monthly. The medicine circulates in the blood and prevents fleas which have bitten the ferret from laying viable eggs. Therefore, every pet in the house should be on Program to completely break the cycle; and you may need to use this in combination with another product temporarily, to kill most of the adults. The pills can be crushed and mixed with a treat or food, or the suspension can be put directly on the food. Be sure that the right ferret gets the whole dose. It should be taken with a meal; in fact, the more food it's taken with, the more effective it will be. Have your vet call Ciba-Geigy at 800-637-0281 with questions.
Advantage comes in a tube. It's applied once a month to the shoulder blades, where the ferret can't easily lick it off (but other pets could). Ferret owners report that it works very well. It's water soluble, so you shouldn't bathe your pet except right before another application, and the ferret must be completely dry before the next dose. The idea is to kill the fleas before they can lay their eggs, and hopefully before they bite.
Frontline is also applied externally, and is also said to work very well. It's alcohol-based and smells a bit until it dries, but it's also water resistant. This means it may last longer than Advantage, but if your ferret should happen to have a reaction to it (which I've never heard of), getting it off could be more difficult.
Dr. Williams, DVM says:
Ferrets very commonly get ear mites, so you don't need to get upset. Check with your vet and get two products: a ceruminolytic (such as "Oti-Clens"), which will dissolve the wax that the mites live in. This is far preferable to trying to dig the wax out with Q-tips. Then get a good ear miticide from your vet (I use Tresaderm). Put a little of the ear cleaner (which dissolves the wax) in the ear and massage. Let it sit for about a minute. Your ferret will probably shakes its head, sending wax all over you and the floor. Use a Q-tip and gently collect the rest of the wax from the ear canal. You won't hit the ear drum, as the ferrets ear canal is roughly L-shaped - you will just be cleaning the vertical part of the canal. After you have cleaned the wax, put the ear drops [miticide] in. Make sure that the fluids that you are using are body temperature - put them in your shirt or pocket for a few minutes before using. No one likes cold water in their ears!!!!Dr. Susan Brown, DVM says:
Clean every day for a week to 10 days, stop for a week, and go again for another week to take care of mites. If your problem is just dirty ears (some ferrets have a lot of wax) - just use the ear wax remover once a week.
Ivermectin can be used in bad cases, either orally, injected, or directly in the ear. Today I ran across an article (Bell, JA. Parasites of Domesticated Pet Ferrets, Comp. Clin. Educ. Pract. Vet. 16(5): 617-620), which gives a dosage for topical administration of ivermectin:
Injectable ivermectin is mixed with propylene glycol at a ration of approximately 1:20 - then 0.2 to 0.3 ml (4-6 drops) into each ear canal daily. Ferrets on ivermectin for heartworm prevention should not have problems with ear mites.
Do not depend on the oil [used for cleaning] to completely rid your pet of mites either although it will help to suffocate them. Mites are easily taken care of by using Ivermectin directly in the ears at 0.5mg/kg divided into two doses to be used in each ear and then repeated in two weeks. You need to have a positive diagnosis of mites made by your vet and get the medication from him or her.
Dr. Deborah W. Kemmerer, DVM, writes:
My practice has been "ferret-intensive" for about nine years. I've diagnosed and treated about thirty ferrets for heartworms. Many who were not on preventive have been found to be heartworm- positive on necropsy when presented for "sudden death syndrome". In my opinion, any ferret in a heartworm-endemic area should be on preventive even if he never goes outside.Dr. Kemmerer reports that in her experience, all heartworm-positive ferrets die without treatment. If your ferret tests positive for heartworm, contact Dr. Kemmerer at 352-332-4357 for information about the regimen she recommends, which she has found to give about a 75% survival rate.
PreventionThe American Heartworm Society recommends Heartgard for use in ferrets. In theory this is great, but sometimes less than practical. Most ferret owners are not comfortable with giving tablets and most ferrets will not consume the entire "brick" of the canine chewable monthly tablet. The new Feline Heartgard is promising, however. In a taste test using ferret patients conducted at this hospital, we observed about 60% acceptance of the small feline chewable tablet. This will be a relief to many owners who do not enjoy administering the liquid mixture described below.
If a ferret will not eat the chewable feline tablet, this is what I use as an alternative: Mix 0.3 cc's of Ivermectin 1% Injection in one ounce of propylene glycol (Ivermectin is not water-soluble). this makes a 100 microgram/ml suspension. Administer 0.1 cc per pound of body weight once monthly by mouth. We dispense the mixture in amber bottles with appropriate warnings about sunlight, and we put a two- year expiration date on it. The injection itself has a longer expiration date, so this should be adequate.
I have been using this mixture since 1988. Owner compliance is very good, complications and side effects are virtually nil, and no ferret who is taking it has been diagnosed with heartworms. I do see heartworm-positive ferrets who are not taking preventive. I don't worry too much about the lack of USDA approval for ferrets, because there is virtually nothing approved for any use in ferrets with the exception of two vaccines anyway.
Diagnosis and treatmentThe CITE Snap test for occult heartworms has proven to be very accurate and dependable for use in ferrets. It has shown positive results even in the face of only one or two very stunted adult worms. I cannot attest to personal experience with accuracy in any other antigen test.
If your pets are on heartworm preventative, consider giving it to them all year. That removes the possibility that a worm might sneak in before you start it up again, so your pet will be safer, and won't have to have another heartworm test every spring.
Just so you know, the signs of a heartworm infestation include chronic cough, lethargy, labored breathing, fluid accumulation in the abdomen, fainting, and a bluish color to the tongue, gums and lips.
The NAPCC Web site offers advice on preventing animal poisoning, what to do if your pet is poisoned, and so on.