Category: miscellaneous health problems

Viral and bacterial infections in ferrets

Ferrets are prone to a number of viral and bacterial infections. There are vaccines available to prevent some of these, but good management practices go a long way to lower the risks of infectious disease in ferrets.

Ferrets are not susceptible to the viruses that commonly produce upper respiratory disease in domestic cats (rhinotracheitis, calicivirus), nor are they susceptible to canine hepatitis. There is also no definitive evidence that ferrets are susceptible to canine parvovirus or feline leukemia virus; therefore, vaccination against these diseases is probably unnecessary.

The most commonly seen viral disease in ferrets include canine distemper and influenza; rabies, epizootic catarrhal enteritis and Aleutian disease are occasionally seen.

Ferrets are susceptible to infection with several strains of human influenza (“flu”) virus. Signs of this illness may mimic those of canine distemper (listlessness, fever, poor appetite, sneezing, nasal discharge, etc). In general, influenza causes only mild disease in ferrets. Unlike distemper, however, influenza usually passes within 5 days of the onset of illness and ferrets recover. Bacterial infections may complicate the viral infection. If you are suffering from a cold or flu, it is advisable not to handle your ferret until you are well again.

A few cases of lymphoma and lymphosarcoma (cancer) have occurred in ferrets over the years. Some of these cases tested positive for feline leukemia virus, while others tested negative. Though a cause-and-effect relationship cannot be proven by such a small number of cases, the possibility exists that ferrets may become infected with feline leukemia virus. Cancer can be one possible result of such an infection. Some researchers believe that leukemia and related diseases among ferrets may be caused by a virus or viruses specific to ferrets.

Bacterial infections aren’t as common as viral infections in ferrets, however a number of bacteria can produce a variety of diseases in ferrets, including botulism, tuberculosis, dysentery (caused by Campylobacter fetus), and abscesses and infections caused by bite wounds and other injuries.

Bacterial pneumonia, proliferative colitis (proliferative bowel disease) and helicobacter gastritis have also been seen in ferrets.

Bacterial pneumonia usually occurs secondary to another disease, such as viral pneumonia. Signs of infection can include nasal discharge, difficulty breathing, increased respiratory rate, loss of appetite, lethargy, discolouration of the mucous membranes, and fever.

Proliferative colitis and helicobacter gastritis causes diarrhoea which leads to severe weight loss. These are often referred to as “wasting diseases” because of the rapid weight loss seen. They occur in ferrets of any age, but most commonly affect young kits up to 20 weeks of age.

Judicious use of antibiotics is usually sufficient for treatment of most, but not all, of these conditions.

Parasitic diseases in ferrets

Most of the external parasites of domestic dogs and cats (fleas, mange, ear mites, etc.) can cause disease in ferrets. However, less is known about the ferret’s susceptibility to the more common internal parasites (roundworms, etc.) of dogs and cats.

Ferrets can suffer from both internal and external parasitic diseases.

Although internal parasitic diseases are uncommon, ferrets can suffer from intestinal parasites.

Ferrets are commonly affected by external parasites such as mites, ticks and fleas.

Intestinal protozoan parasites, also shared by dogs and cats, can cause intestinal disease among ferrets. Coccidiosis is the most common intestinal parasitic disease of ferrets.

Infection with worms (helminths) is rare, but roundworms can potentially pass between ferrets, puppies and kittens. Cryptosporidiosis, a parasitic disease caused by Cryptosporidium, is also occasionally seen in young ferrets, and can potentially pass between ferrets, puppies and kittens. Other protozoan diseases are possible, but rarely seen.

Most ferrets with intestinal parasites won’t show any signs of being infected. However, the following signs may be seen: diarrhoea (with or without blood), weight loss, dehydration, decreased activity, dull hair coat, straining to defaecate, prolapse of the ferret’s rectum, and even death.

Periodic faecal examinations should be performed by your vet to check for such parasites.

Most intestinal parasites can be treated with antiparasitic drugs. Hospitalization may be required in severe cases, but most can be treated with a spot on treatment which is easy to give and stress-free for your ferret.

External parasites are common in ferrets.

Ferrets housed indoors rarely have a problem with fleas or ticks. Fleas and ticks are more common in ferrets that spend time outdoors or who come into contact with infected dogs or cats. Mange and ear mites are common in both ferrets that are housed indoors and those that live outdoors.

Fleas can cause itchiness in your ferret which will result in red patches of skin, scabs and hair loss. Severe infestations can cause blood loss and weakness. Infestations need to be treated vigorously; the ferret, its home environment, and all infested household pets must be treated with an appropriate anti-flea treatment.

Ticks are rarely a problem, but if you do find a tick on your ferret make sure you wear gloves when removing them to avoid exposure to their disease-carrying saliva.

Mange, also known as scabies, is caused by microscopic Sarcoptes scabiei mites. These will cause your ferret to scratch resulting in red patches of skin, scabs and hair loss. Mange also affects the foot pads, known as foot rot, where the feet become red, swollen and sore. Your vet will probably need to do a skin scrape to determine the cause of the itching as the mites cannot be seen with the naked eye.

Ear mites will cause your ferret to scratch its ears or rub its head on the floor in an attempt to scratch its ears. Your ferret may have a dark, waxy discharge from the ear, and in severe cases, your ferret may develop an infection which will require antibiotics.

Most external parasites can be treated with antiparasitic drugs. Most can be treated with a spot on treatment which is easy to give and stress-free for your ferret. However, if your ferret is suffering with ear mites, a more aggressive treatment regime may be necessary which will involve an ointment which will need to be placed directly into your ferret’s ears.

Miscellaneous health problems in ferrets

Two medical conditions of ferrets that demand special mentions are the ferret’s extreme susceptibility to canine distemper and the unusual consequences of female ferrets coming into heat. These are therefore covered in separate factsheets.

However, there are other medical conditions that affect ferrets that are briefly covered here.

Ferrets lack sweat glands and are somewhat compromised in their ability to maintain normal body temperature in extremely warm environmental temperatures.

If the temperature rises above 32°C/90°F, and if water is restricted or not available to ferrets, heat exhaustion is likely and death quite possible. Providing ample shade and spraying your ferret on hot days will help reduce the likelihood of this problem.

Ferrets can also suffer from either kidneys or urinary bladder stones, which can cause serious problems in ferrets. Both sexes seem to be affected equally.

Signs of urinary stones include blood in the urine, inability to urinate, a swollen and painful abdomen, vomiting, lack of energy and poor appetite.

Surgery is usually necessary to correct this problem, though a special diet may eliminate certain types of stones or prevent recurrence.

Cardiomyopathy is a condition of the heart muscle seen in dogs and cats, which ferrets can also suffer from. Most affected ferrets are males over 3 years of age. The cause for this condition is unknown.

The muscle walls of the heart become thickened, reducing the ability of the heart to pump adequate quantities of blood to the rest of the body. Signs include poor appetite, fatigue, increased periods of sleep, intolerance to exercise, fainting and shortness of breath.

Cardiomyopathy is diagnosed using chest x-rays, an electrocardiogram (ECG), and echocardiography (EKG). All ferrets older than 3 years should have an EKG to screen for this disease.

Ferrets are prone to ringworm, which is a fungal disease of the skin, similar to Athlete’s foot in humans. It has been reported in young ferrets and may be transmitted by infected cats.

As a rule of thumb, products manufactured and intended for use in and on cats (dewormers, flea products, ringworm medications, etc.) are safe and suitable for use with ferrets, with one exception: flea collars should never be used on ferrets.

Canine distemper in ferrets

Ferrets are highly susceptible to canine distemper – a disease normally seen in dogs that is transmitted through moisture droplets. Dogs usually pick it up when sniffing where infected dogs have been, and since the incubation period can be as long as three weeks, it is usually too late to vaccinate once any outbreak has begun.

The initial signs of the disease appear 7-10 days after exposure to the virus and include a lack of interest in food and a thick mucus and pus-laden discharge from the eyes and nostrils.

A rash commonly appears under the chin and in the groin area 10-12 days following exposure, and the pads on the feet become greatly thickened.

Prevention of this disease should be an absolute priority because treatment is useless. Canine distemper is considered 100% fatal in ferrets, with infected ferrets dying approximately 3 1/2 weeks after initial exposure.

Kits should first be vaccinated against canine distemper at 6-8 weeks of age (4-6 weeks of age if kits are from unvaccinated mothers).

A booster vaccination is essential 2-3 weeks later. Yearly boosters are recommended thereafter.


Arthritis is a well-known, documented condition affecting humans, cats and dogs. R rabbits can often be affected too, especially as they get older, and sometimes this can go un-noticed.

Arthritis is a general term given to the inflammation of a joint or joints, and any joint within the body can be affected. Arthritis isn’t a single disease, but rather a group of abnormalities that can have different causes, all of which lead to inflammation of the joints. Arthritis is a progressive condition and can cause significant pain and discomfort.

Arthritis can occur naturally as your rabbit ages; however rabbits are particularly susceptible to arthritis if the joints are put under extra strain, i.e. large breeds of rabbit, fat/obese rabbits or those with missing limbs. These extra stresses cause the joints to wear more quickly than they would do under normal circumstances. Arthritis due to injury of the joint earlier in life is also common. These conditions are commonly referred to as osteoarthritis.

Other causes include bacterial infections causing septic arthritis. This can be caused by penetrating injuries where bacteria are introduced to the joint capsule leading to inflammation. This type of arthritis can occur at any age and in any breed of rabbit. If a rabbit contracts an infection, as a results of trauma, dental disease or upper respiratory tract infection, there might be an increased risk of bacteria migrating to the joint, causing septic arthritis.

Rheumatoid arthritisis another type of arthritis caused by an over-reaction of the immune system; the immune system mistakes the body’s own protein for bacteria and attacks it leading to inflammation within the joints. Rheumatoid arthritis does not seem to occur spontaneously in domestic rabbits.

As your rabbit ages, you may notice your rabbit slowing down and isnt as active as it used to be. This can be a normal sign of aging, and may creep up very slowly, making recognising and diagnosing arthritis quite difficult on clinical signs alone.

You may notice that your rabbit has difficulty getting in and out of the litter tray, getting up or hopping around. Your rabbit may struggle to move around, present an abnormal gait or have difficulty grooming, leading to an unkempt coat or a mucky bottom. Your rabbit may not be able to scratch its ears, so excess amounts of earwax may accumulate. Urine scalding may develop in some cases.

Sometimes subtle behavioural changes, such as being quieter than usual or aggressive when handled, are also an indication of discomfort or pain. Less commonly, reduced appetite may also be seen. If you notice any of these signs, you should consider taking your rabbit to the vet as they may all indicate the onset of arthritis.

Your vet will give your rabbit a full clinical examination. Radiographs will then confirm or rule out the presence of arthritis. On x-ray, arthritis joints will show a haze or fuzziness around the joint, which is diagnostic of the condition. Other more sophisticated diagnostic imaging techniques, including ultrasound, computed tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and arthroscopy, can also be used for a more accurate diagnosis. All these techniques can prove very useful to visualize the degree of bone and joint destruction.

Your rabbit will probably require sedation or general anaesthesia in order to achieve good enough images to be diagnostic.

Your vet may also do a blood test, urine test, or take a sample of joint fluid (joint aspirate) to test in the lab to rule out any underlying problems.

It is possible to treat arthritis in rabbits in order to try and ease some of the discomfort and difficulties that the rabbit may be experiencing, but it is not currently possible to cure the problem completely.

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are commonly used in rabbits to reduce inflammation around the joints and to ease the discomfort that is usually present with the condition. Your vet may want to check your rabbit’s liver and kidney function to safely prescribe these medications, especially if long-term treatment is required.

Septic arthritis can be resolved if it caught and treated early enough.

There has been controversy regarding supplementation of joint problems in both humans and animals; however there are some rabbit foods that now contain added glucosamine, which is thought to benefit animals with arthritis and help with joint mobility.

Gentle massage over the muscle of the affected area can help decrease the degree of muscle tightness. Gently flexing and extending the affected joint for a few minutes several times daily may help as well, but always remember that physical therapy may be detrimental in cases of trauma. Always follow your vet’s recommendation in these cases and be careful and gentle when handling your rabbit.

Acupuncture has also been reported to help in some cases by reducing the amount of pain medication used, and providing relief for many patients.

Ensure that you do not allow your rabbit to become overweight, and encourage them to exercise regularly to build up muscle mass.

If you think your rabbit may be developing arthritis (symptoms can be attributed to other conditions), then take your rabbit to see your vet as soon as possible.

If your rabbit is diagnosed with arthritis then keeping the hair clipped around the perineum and applying a barrier cream will help with any urine scalding, deep and soft bedding to prevent pressure sores is also recommended.

Keep your rabbit on a soft absorbent bedding to prevent soiling and further complications.

Your rabbits litter tray will need to have a low entrance if it is having difficulty hopping in and out, and if your rabbit has a ramp in their hutch/run or stairs, then you may need to make other arrangements as they may struggle to use these.

Some rabbits may not be able to reach their caecothrophes, so it is a good idea to collect them and place them in, or near to, their food area as most rabbits will eat them on their own.