Fun ferrets need owners who keep them out of trouble
By Dr. Laurie Hess
“I’ve never had to bring him to the vet before, because he’s never been sick …”
At the animal hospital, I hear this same declaration every day from pet owners about their sick pets, regardless of the species they own. And here’s the catch-22: If these folks had brought in their pets before they were sick, instead of waiting until after they showed signs of illness, their pets might not have become ill in the first place.
This is especially true of ferrets, those masked mischief-makers who make wonderful companions but have become so popular as pets that their domestication and inbreeding have made them susceptible to a handful of common — often preventable — illnesses. Among the top preventable health problems in ferrets are:
?Foreign object ingestion: Just as human children put everything in their mouths, so do young ferrets. Shoes, parts of the couch, toys — you name it; they’ll eat it. And then they develop intestinal obstructions, which are marked by diarrhea, bloating and sometimes vomiting. This requires lifesaving intestinal surgery to resolve. So if you ferret-proof your crazy critter’s environment by removing all small objects from the floor and never leaving him out of his cage unsupervised, you can avoid a costly trip to the emergency room.
? Hairball ingestion: Just as young ferrets eat foreign objects, middle- to older-age ferrets ingest hair, and can develop intestinal obstructions due to hairballs. These furry friends often groom excessively, consuming large amounts of hair that stick together with mucus in their saliva to form cigar-shaped mats that plug up their narrow intestines, leading to diarrhea, lack of appetite, lethargy and occasional vomiting. Sometimes a laxative treatment will help these hairballs pass, but more often, complicated intestinal surgery is required to unplug these tiny creatures. With brushing and a couple of oral doses of a petroleum-based cat hairball laxative each week, you can avoid this situation.
? Urinary-tract obstruction: The most common cause of urinary-tract obstruction in male ferrets is prostate gland enlargement, which compresses the urethra (outflow tract of the bladder), preventing urination. Prostate gland enlargement in ferrets is most often a result of an adrenal gland tumor that produces hormones that cause the prostate to swell. Both males and females can develop these tumors, but because females don’t have prostates, they don’t develop urinary-tract obstructions. While the cause of adrenal disease in ferrets is not completely understood, and we cannot prevent it, we can recognize its telltale signs — hair loss and itchy skin — and treat it with hormones and sometimes surgery when it first occurs, before urinary obstruction develops. So if your ferret starts scratching and showing patchy baldness, it’s time for a visit to the vet.
? Dental disease: Can you imagine eating every day and never brushing your teeth? That’s what most pets do, but at least most cat and dog owners take their pets for regular dental cleaning. On the other hand, most ferret owners never do. In fact, most ferret owners are not even aware that their naughty nibblers need dental cleaning. Ferrets, like dogs and cats, should have an annual dental scaling and cleaning, and ferret owners should brush their pets’ teeth weekly to help keep tartar buildup down. There are tiny toothbrushes that fit on a human finger that are used with poultry-flavored toothpaste especially designed for ferret fangs. Regular tooth care in ferrets reduces gingivitis, tooth root infection and tooth loss that commonly occurs in ferrets as they age.
So if you own a ferret and he has never visited a vet, it’s time for a checkup — even if he isn’t ill. Remember, an ounce of prevention is always worth a pound of cure.
Dr. Laurie Hess cares for birds and other exotic pets, such as rabbits, ferrets, guinea pigs, smaller rodents and reptiles at the Veterinary Center for Birds & Exotics in Bedford Hills, N.Y. Dr. Hess previously served as head of the Avian & Exotic Pet Service at the renowned Animal Medical Center in New York City.