Your Ferret’s First Visit to the Vet

Introduction

The domestic ferrets,  Mustela putorius furo, is a descendent of the European polecat.  Its Latin name is very descriptive.  Mustela is derived form the Latin word for weasel, and puto is Latin for “to smell bad”.  The characteristic odor of the ferret is produced form numerous glands spread throughout the skin and two main odor-producing glands called the anal glands.  Most ferrets have been “descented” prior to purchase, which means the main odor producing “glands” have been surgically removed.Ferrets tend to be very gentle and playful pets.  They are extremely curious and often get into mischief if left unattended.  Please note that juvenile ferrets can be “nippy” and should not be let alone with small children.

Although the ferret is one of the most common pets in the United States, they are still illegal in some areas.  Check with your local authorities about any legal restrictions concerning ferrets.

Nutrition

Ferrets have a very high metabolic rate and should have food and fresh water constantly available, as they require multiple meals throughout the day to sustain themselves.  Water bottles are less messy and more sanitary, and therefore are preferred to water dishes.

Ferrets are true carnivores; their diet must consist mainly of meat and animal products.  Their digestive system cannot adequately handle diets high in fiber or carbohydrates. Commercial ferret diets, formulated to meet the specific nutritional needs of the ferret, are now available, and therefore ferrets should not be maintained on mink or cat food.  Raw diets such as True Carnivore are also recommended.

Occasional pieces of cooked, boneless meat make good treats.

A quality ferret diet should be 30 – 35% crude protein and 15 – 18% fat.  When reading the pet food label, the first several items listed should be animal proteins such as chicken, poultry by-products, meat meal, liver or eggs.  Most homemade formulations should be avoided as they fail to meet the high protein, high fat and low carbohydrate requirements, while maintaining a healthy vitamin-mineral balance.

An improper diet may result in an unhealthy immune system that may predispose to poor overall health, including infections in the urinary tract, gastrointestinal system and respiratory system.

Housing

Provide the largest cage that space and budget will allow.  Ferrets especially enjoy climbing in multilevel cages.  When you are home, provide frequent supervised play outside the cage, as ferrets are very fond of chewing on plastic or soft rubber items, which if swallowed, can result in potentially lethal intestinal obstruction.  In addition to providing adequate housing, a litter box should be provided.  Since ferrets especially like to eliminate in corners, it is ideal to keep a litter box in every room that the ferret can access.  Acceptable substrates for the litter box include paper products and regular, non-clumping cat litter.  Clumping litters have a tendency to stick to the ferret’s nose and can cause respiratory distress.  Due to resins that may cause respiratory irritation, cedar or pine shavings should not be used for litter material.

Elective Surgeries

Most ferrets are de-scented (had their anal sacs removed) and neutered or spayed at a very young age before they are adopted.  Although these surgeries will decrease the ferret’s odor, it will not totally eliminate the characteristic musky smell.

If you have a ferret that has not been surgically altered, it is strongly recommended to do so to keep your ferret healthy.  Neutered males will be less aggressive.  Unspayed female ferrets may stay “in heat” for prolonged periods and develop a fatal anemia as a result of estrogen toxicity.  Even though nearly all ferrets from pet stores are neutered before puberty, doing the surgery at such an early age has been suggested to be associated with development of adrenal disease in older ferrets.  If given the choice, some feel it is better to perform the surgery after the onset of puberty at 6-9 months of age.

Preventative Medicine

All juvenile ferrets should be vaccinated against canine distemper at approximately 6, 10 and 14 weeks of age and then annually.  Ferrets should also be vaccinated against rabies at 14 weeks of age and then yearly.  These viruses are fatal, so your ferret needs to be protected.  Vaccine reactions may occur and, as a precaution, your veterinarian may request a 20 minute post-vaccination period within the hospital.

Intestinal parasites (worms) are uncommon in ferrets.  However, all ferrets should have a fecal exam for intestinal parasites performed during their initial physical exam and if the ferret develops diarrhea.  Also, all new ferrets going to homes with preexisting ferrets should be quarantined and carefully observed for two weeks before being introduced to other ferrets.  A quarantine period may help prevent the spread of epizootic catarrhal enteritis (“green slime disease”), a contagious virus that causes mucousy, green diarrhea and overall debilitation.

Just like dogs and cats, ferrets are susceptible for heartworm disease, resulting in labored breathing or sudden death.  Therefore, in areas of the country where heartworm disease is prevalent, your ferret should be placed on a monthly preventative.

Ferrets, like cats, can get hairballs.  But unlike cats, ferrets do not typically vomit hairballs.  Instead, the hairball remains in the stomach where it can cause a lack of appetite with eventual weight loss and debilitation.  Administering a feline hairball remedy a couple of times each week will help prevent this.

Ferrets over the age of three may need yearly dental scaling and cleaning to prevent periodontal disease.  Daily brushing with a feline toothbrush and enzymatic paste at home may keep this from becoming an issue.

A yearly physical exam is a must for all ferrets.  Once they reach the age of three, radiographs (X-rays) and blood work should be performed every 6-12 months to detect early signs of disease.

References

  1. Bell J:  Ferret Nutrition.  In Veterinary Clinics of North America :  Exotic Animal Practice, 2:1, 1991, pp. 169-192.
  2. Boyce, Zingy, Lightfoot.  In Veterinary Clinics of North America :  Exotic Animal Practice, 4:5, 2001, pp. 697-712.
  3. Hillyer, Quesenberry: Ferrets, Rabbits, and Rodents
  4. Ivey, Morrisey JM:  Ferrets: Examination and Preventative Medicine.  In Veterinary Clinics of North America :  Exotic Animal Practice, 2:2, 1999, pp. 471-493.
  5. Johnson-Delany C: Ferrets, Exotic Companion Medicine Handbook, 2000.
  6. Rosenthal, K: Enhancing your Practice with Small Mammals and Reptiles.  In Seminars in Avian and Exotic Pet Medicine, 9:4, 2000, pp. 204-210.
  7. Rosskopf , W: Some Important Behavioral Characteristics of Various Non-avian Pets Seen in Clinical Practice.  In Seminars in Avian and Exotic Pet Medicine, 8:4, 1999, pp. 145-153.
  8. Stamoulis, M:  Cardiac Disease in Ferrets.  In Seminars in Avian and Exotic Pet Medicine, 4:1, 195, pp. 43-48.
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