When caring for ferrets, you’ll notice they are fur balls of boundless energy and hours of mischievous fun. Burning through that energy can leave the little guys tuckered out, resulting in long bouts of sleeping. While this is normal, there are other signs that could be a warning that your ferret is ill and needs attention. When caring for ferrets, there are several signs to look for and plenty of hazards for your mischief makers to come across. Below is a list of common hazards, health concerns, and ailments that all ferret owners should be aware of.
Before I go into things to worry about when carry for ferrets, let me list some things that should not usually be a reason for concern. Shivering, yawning, excessive sleeping, scratching, and sneezing or coughing are regular parts of ferret behavior. Unless a rash or fleas are visible, scratching is a normal ferret antic. They just get itchy!
Sneezing and coughing are also normal. Ferrets don’t see very well, so they seek things about by smell. As they sniff along the floors and such, they’re sure to sniff up a lot of dust. They may also be coughing up a bit of food that was stuck in their throat. If they are hacking as if something is stuck in their throat, you can give your ferret laxatone, which works as a hairball remedy. If the coughing is persistent, you should take them to a vet. Ferrets also occasionally and randomly get hiccups just like us, but give them ferretone or nutrical if you’d like to shorten their duration.
Excessive sleeping in ferrets causes alarm for some owners because they can seem like they are in a coma. Sometimes, to bring your ferret out of this deep sleep, a dab of his favorite treat on his nose or scratching between his ears should do it. As a last resort, you can put a small amount of nutrical or karo syrup on his gums. These deep sleeps are referred to as SND, “sleeping not dead”. If they are frequent or you notice a change in your ferret’s sleeping patterns , it may be a good idea to take your fuzzy friend to the vet.
Remember that only certain “after hour” animal clinics have vets that are knowledgeable when it comes to exotic pets like ferrets, so make sure you know which ones you can take your ferret to if your vet in unavailable. It wouldn’t hurt to call animal hospitals before going in to make sure there is a ferret friendly vet on duty. Now, I’ll go on to causes for concern. I’ll break them up into three sections: “Common hazards / First Aid” “Symptoms To Watch For” and “Common Ailments”.
Common Hazards / First Aid
By their very nature, ferrets are mischievous and curious critters. This presents plenty of opportunities for them to get into. Caring for ferrets is very much like parenting. You have to do your best to keep them from getting into a harmful situation and be prepared to help them when they do.
Electric Shock: As ferrets often look for things to take back to their favorite hiding place, using their teeth, electrical cords present a common hazard. An electric shock can kill your ferret so it is important to keep electrical cords out of their reach so they are not tempted to chew on them. You can buy staples that you nail over your cords to attach them to walls instead of running them along the ground. You’ll want to take your ferret to the vet immediately, but keep him warm and quiet until you get there. Frayed cords can cause a fire, so check for and replace frayed or chewed cords.
Burns: Ferrets can get into awkward places and get their paws on unsafe objects. Make sure you try to keep them away from cigarettes burning in ashtrays and try to ferret proof your house so they can not get into the oven, fireplace or near the pilot light. If they do get a burn, you should immediately apply cold water. Get them to a vet immediately.
Poisoning: Again with their curious and thieving nature, ferrets could ingest something that is not good for them. Rodent and pest poisons present a common hazard but so do medications such as pain relievers and cold medicines. If you think they’ve gotten ahold of something, it is important to take the ferret and the substance in question to the vet right away. You can also call the National Animal Poison Control Center. You can call 800-548-2423 and pay $30 per case with a credit card or call 900-680-0000 which is $20 for the first five minutes and $2.95 for each additional minute, but allows the charges to be placed on your phone bill.
Fractures / spinal injuries: I haven’t seen this in any ferret “how to” books, but we lost a ferret once when it dove off of dad’s shoulder. He was sitting in a lazy boy with the ferret in his lap. The ferret took off full speed up his arm and off his shoulder. It is common for people to let ferrets ride in their pockets or on their shoulders, but precautions should be taken. These little fur balls are certainly unpredictable at times! You should also always make sure you know where your ferret is before plopping on to a couch or bed (especially if there’s a blanket), reclining a chair or returning it to its upright position. If there’s a possible fracture or spinal injury, wrap the ferret firmly in a towel and get him to the vet.
Eyes: Because ferrets tumble around with each other and use kitty litter or sand, it is possible for them to get some in their eyes or receive a small scratch. Flush their eyes with cool water, but do not apply pressure to the eyes. Take them to the vet right away.
Bleeding: Ferrets don’t have much blood, so they can’t afford to lose much. No matter the source for bleeding, see the vet immediately. Bleeding from ears, nose, mouth, rectum or vaginal area is a sign of a serious injury or illness.
Toenails cut too close or ripped off The most common reason for bleeding is a toenail cut too close. It hurts, and your ferret will definitely let you know. To stop the bleeding, use styptic powder. Styptic powder burns, however. Your ferret will not be happy with you. Also, get the powder off your finger quickly or it will burn you, too. If the nail has been torn off completely, you should apply pressure to the top of the toe. Do NOT use the powder. You should see the vet as soon as possible or the toe may become infected.
Lacerations: If your ferret receives a cut, you will need to wash it gently with cold water and apply firm but gentle pressure with something clean like a wash cloth or gauze. You will want to have a vet examine it to make sure there are no internal injuries and that antibiotics are not needed to prevent infection. When caring for ferrets, remember that they do NOT have much blood to lose.
Animal bites: If you have other animals in the house, be sure to watch your ferrets closely around them. Wash a bite wound with cold water and then dab it with hydrogen peroxide. If it is bleeding, apply pressure. Take the ferret to the vet immediately to rule out internal injuries and prevent infection. Cat bites are most dangerous because there is a high amount of bacteria in cat saliva. If your ferret is bitten by a wild or stray animal, take it to the vet right away and make sure it is up to date on its rabies vaccination. Afterwards, watch for changes in behavior and be sure to let the vet know of any that may occur.
Heatstroke: Ferrets are very sensitive to heat and should never be left in direct sunlight or in a hot car. Temperatures above 80 degrees are extremely dangerous for ferrets. A heatstroke can be fatal. If your ferret has a heatstroke, he will exhibit the following signs: limpness or extreme lethargy, heavy panty, mucous coming from the nose or mouth and possibly even seizures or loss of consciousness.
You will want to lower the ferret’s body temperature slowly. If you lower it too quickly, it could result in shock. Here are some ways to lower the ferret’s body temperature. Get the ferret out of sun or heat and give him water. Pedialyte and Gatorade are even better. If he is unconscious, do not try to give him liquids. He might choke. Apply cool water to the less furry parts of your ferret. You can also put the ferret in room temperature water or place a wet washcloth on him. Use cool or room temperature water, NOT cold. You can also apply rubbing alcohol or ice cubes to the ferret’s feet. Placing a ferret in front of a fan will not work as well, but it is an option if nothing else is available. You will want to get your ferret to the vet as soon as possible.
Symptoms To Watch For:
Vomiting: Vomiting can be a result of bad food or a blockage. If a piece of food comes up with the vomiting, the vomiting usually stops. Blockages can be deadly for ferrets, so if the vomiting continues or your ferret shows no interest in food, you want to get your ferret to the vet right away.
Diarrhea: Diarrhea can be a symptom of many different illnesses or diseases, but it can also be a result of one too many treats. It can also be due to internal parasites or a blockage. Keep a close eye on the ferret, because diarrhea causes your ferret to lose liquids. If it lasts more than half a day, take a sample of the poopie with the ferret to the vet right away so that they can test it for the many different things that diarrhea could be a symptom of. Also, you’ll want to replace fluids with Kaopectate and electrolyte replacers, but let your vet be the one to make the decision on treatment.
Dehydration: This can be caused by vomiting or diarrhea, but it also could mean they are not drinking enough. You want to make sure your ferret always has a full bottle of drinking water. Dehydration can be fatal if not taken care of quickly. “Ferrets for Dummies” lists an excellent way to tell if your ferret is dehydrated. Scruff your ferret (pick him up by the skin and fur on the back of his neck), and then put him down. If the skin stays bunched up, that’s a good indicator. The longer it takes the skin and fur to flatten back down, the more dehydrated your ferret is. You want to get fluids back into your ferret by getting him to drink extra water, pedialyte, Gatorade, or even warm chicken broth. Ferrets are hard to force feed. Your vet may want to give him fluids under the skin (subcutaneous) or through an IV (intravenously). It is important to take the dehydrated ferret to the vet, as the dehydration could be a symptom for an underlying illness.
Shock: Shock is a reaction to a traumatic event, whether it be injury, sickness or even a big scare. It can be fatal, so it’s important to recognize the signs of shock: fast heartbeat and rapid breathing, cool to the touch, bluish gums, diarrhea, lethargy, shivering, and a pale nose, skin and ears. Your ferret will also probably be unresponsive. You’ll need to keep the ferret warm and quiet and maybe even give him some karo syrup on his gums. You do not want to try to feed the ferret or give him anything to drink. He isn’t able to swallow well. Get him to the vet right away, and let the vet know what you’ve already done for the ferret.
Seizures: Seizures can be symptom of many different things including a severe ear mite infestation. Seizures can include thrashing about and some of the following, loss of bladder / bowel control, vomiting, involuntary vocalizations and salivating. There is nothing you can do to stop a seizure. You can move your ferret to a soft pillow, bed or couch cushion so they don’t hurt themselves. DO NOT put your finger, pen, wallet or anything else in their mouth or try to hold them down. You could hurt them further or end up with a very severe bite if the jaws clamp down on you. Once you have him in a soft place, the only thing you can do is let the seizure run its course. When it is over, keep him warm and quiet. You can rub some karo syrup on his gums and repeat every five minutes until he seems more like himself. You can then offer canned soft food that is high in protein. You may have to feed your ferret with a feeding syringe. It will take about 30-40 minutes from start to finish for a ferret to recover. You will then want to take your ferret to the vet so the underlying cause can be found, preventing future seizures.
Colds and Flu: As tempting as it is to cuddle with your furry friends, you’ll want to stay away from them if you have a cold or the flu. Be sure to wash your hands thoroughly if before handling their food or water. They can catch your cold or flu or pass theirs on to you. Like us, caring fot hem and fluids will usually get the through, but the vet may be necessary if they have extreme symptoms. One thing to watch for is discolored discharge from the nose. With a flu or cold, it should be clear.
Cardiomyopathy: This is a heart disease that is common in ferrets, especially ferrets over three years old. It can be hereditary or be caused by viral infections. There is no cure, but with good care a ferret can live with this disease for up to two years. Your vet can decide if medications will help. Labored breathing, hypothermia, fluid build up in the chest, irregular or rapid heartbeats and labored breathing are signs of this disease.
Adrenal Disease: It is not known why adrenal disease is a common sickness in ferrets, but it is when the adrenal glands produce too many hormones. It is usually caused by an enlarged gland, tumor or lesion rather than a faulty pituitary gland like in cats and dogs. It is most common in ferrets once they reach the age of three and half years old. Symptoms can include massive fur loss, patchy fur loss, red and flaky skin, aggression, an enlarged spleen , an enlarged prostate, a pot belly, anemia, high blood pressure and rapid heartbeat among other random signs. It depends on the hormones that are being overproduced.
Epizootic Catarrhal Enteritis – ECE: Very old or very young ferrets risk contracting this virus and so so ferrets already dealing with other illnesses. It can linger up to several months or be over in a few days. ECE causes the mucous membranes in the intestines to become inflamed. This means the ferret won’t be able to absorb food and water correctly. It can be transmitted through bodily fluids, feces, air, contact with another ferret or the people handling them. It can quickly become fatal to a ferret, but the only way to diagnose it is by ruling out other illnesses. If your ferret has ECE, they will have diarrhea that is foul-smelling, slimy, and a neon green to yellow color or poop with undigested food bits in it. Weight loss is another common indicator as is vomiting and oral ulcers.
Insulinoma: We recently lost a five year old ferret to Insulinoma. It is the most common cancer found in ferrets. It is a cancer of the pancreas or it means there are tumors on the pancreatic cells, which secrete insulin. It can cause hypoglycemia in your ferret. It is hard to spot right away sometimes as the ferret’s system will often times try to regulate its own blood sugar levels. Exercise, stress, and diet can trigger and aggravate symptoms. Some symptoms are weakness, dazed and confused look, lethargy, tremors, loss of coordination, vomiting, weight loss, pawing at the mouth or a coma. Our ferret lost weight and then one day seemed to stumble around as if drunk. Within hours, it was comatose and after taking it to the vet, it was too late. It never really revived, despite using karo syrup, fluids and soft food to try to bring its blood sugar levels back up. It can be found in ferrets after the age of two, but is most common after the age of five.
Lymphosarcoma: This is another common cancer found in ferrets. This one attackes the lymphatic system and will impair their immune system. Some believe it is linked to a virus as it seems to show up in ferrets that share cages. Some signs are diarrhea, labored breathing, loss of appetite, enlarged lymph nodes and spleen and wasting away. It comes in two forms: juvenile (usually found in ferrets under the age of 14 months) and classic, which is usually found in middle aged and older ferrets. The juvenile form can usually cause death suddenly without symptoms, because it attacks many organs at once.
Dental Problems: While chipped teeth may not be that big of a worry, broken teeth may expose pulp which is painful and can be an opportunity for infection. As ferrets get older, some tooth decay is expected and they may need a softer diet. Vets can file teeth down if they are irritating to the ferrets lips or leaving their gums dry. Gum disease can happen quite often with ferrets, especially when the enter the ripe age of five years old. This can be prevented by giving them crunchy foods to remove tartar build up, and by regular monthly cleanings by their human and more detailed cleanings by the vet. Sicknesses can also lend a hand to periodontal disease Drooling, difficulty eating, red and inflamed gums, stinky breath and mouth ulcers are indicators that your ferret needs to see a vet for the possibility of gum disease.
Blockages: Like cats, ferrets can get hairballs, which can lead to stomach or intestinal blockages. When caring for ferrets, remember that this is the leading cause of deaths in ferrets under 2 years old. Hairball remedies can be found at pet stores, ferret shelters and at the vet’s. This is something that you should always keep on hand. For more about these remedies and regular use of them, see my article “Exotic Pets: Caring for ferrets part 3. If you don’t have a hairball remedy, you can also use Vaseline. You might need to mix it with a liquid to help your ferret swallow it. Constipation, tarry poop, bloating, pawing at the mouth, teeth grinding and loss of appetite are all signs of a blockage. Surgery is necessary to remove the blockage or a ferret can die a very painful death within one or two days. Administering fluids is also very important to keep your ferret from becoming dehydrated.
Bladder / Urinary Tract Infections: Ferrets an also get bladder or urinary tract infections. This is caused usually by E. Coli, which is found in poop. Signs of an infection are painful urination, frequent urination, extremely smelly urines or straining to urinate. You’ll want to take your ferret to the vet right away because the infection could spread to their kidneys and even become fatal.
Caring for ferrets probably sounds like a high maintenance task, but it’s not as rough as it sounds. It is a lot like having kids and can be a lot of work, but their fuzzy fun is worth it. By paying attention to their nutritional needs, taking safety precautions around them and being an attentive parent, you can remove a lot of possible health concerns. To find out how to “ferret-proof” your house and supply them with a safe living environment of their own, see my article “Exotic Pets: Caring for ferrets part 3”. To learn how to satisfy their nutritional requirements, see the article “Exotic Pets: Caring for ferrets part 1”.