Ferret Preventative Healthcare
Just like cats, regular preventative health care for your ferret will help to keep them as healthy as possible for as long as possible.
When we, veterinarians, do an exam on your ferrets, we look from nose to tail. We look at the eyes for signs of redness, inflammation, or corneal ulcers. We look at the nose to make sure there is no drainage or crusting around the nares. We look at the teeth to see if they are healthy or in some stage of dental disease. We check the ears to see if they have normal reddish-brown was, or it looks more like coffee grounds, which could indicate ear mites. We check your ferret's temperature to make sure there is no fever present. The heart and lungs are listened to, to check for arrhythmias, heart murmurs, or absent or abnormal lung sounds. Your ferret's abdomen is palpated to feel for an enlarged spleen which could indicate a systemic illness, for an enlarged bladder or prostate in a male ferret, or for any masses or other abnormalities. We look at the skin all over to check for parasites such as fleas, or for hair loss or thinning that could indicate adrenal disease. We look at your ferret's overall body condition - are they overweight, underweight, or are they just right.
There are only two vaccinations that are recommended for ferrets. The first is rabies. This is required by law in pretty much every state that allows ferrets, including Nebraska. There is only one rabies vaccine that is labeled for use in ferrets and that is Imrab3 which is good for one year in your ferret. The rabies vaccination is not only to protect your ferret from getting rabies, but it also protects your ferret in the unlikely event that they might bite someone. If they are vaccinated, the most they might have to do is go through a quarantine. If they are not vaccinated, as a worst-case scenario, they could be taken from you and euthanized to test for rabies.
The second vaccination is canine distemper. Canine distemper is 99.99% fatal in ferrets. It is incredibly contagious, although thankfully not terribly common. We recommend a canine distemper vaccination as a young kit, at 3-4 months of age, at one year, and then every three years after that. There is a fairly high rate of vaccination reactions from distemper vaccinations in ferrets, however, so if your ferret has a vaccination reaction, we will discuss the advantage vs. risks of continuing with vaccinations. We also recommend separating rabies and distemper vaccinations by 3 weeks to minimize the risk of a reaction.
You may not think your ferret needs a microchip since they never leave the house. Guess what. We hear horror stories all the time of ferrets slipping out a door or window unnoticed. While their chances of surviving outside long enough to get picked up and taken to a vet or animal shelter are slim, if they do have a microchip, their chances of making it back to you go up drastically if they do get found.
Ferrets are strict carnivores, even more so than cats. They also have a very short digestive tract time - only 3-4 hours, as opposed to 6-10 hours in a cat. So, they need meat-based diets that are very digestible. We strongly recommend feeding a food designed for a ferret, although just like cat foods, there are good ones and not so good ones out there. If you would like a recommendation for a ferret food, please call us. If you don't have access to ferret foods, you can feed a high quality kitten food, but ferret food is much better for your ferret. With ferrets, much like cats, you can feed either dry food, moist food, or nutritionally balanced raw food.
Ferrets also imprint on food when they are young, so we recommend feeding your kit a variety of foods to ensure that there will always be something that they will eat. Ferrets do not do well on high carbohydrate diets, and there is a school of thought that thinks that feeding ferrets carbs may contribute to the formation of insulinoma. So, no cereal, other than maybe as a rare treat. Ferrets don't need supplements if they are on a high quality food, but there are two ferret supplements that also work phenomenally as treats - Ferretone and Ferretvite. Most ferrets will go crazy for these, and while you want to give them in small doses, they can be used as a treat and as a supplement.
Dental health is important in ferrets, just like it is in cats, dogs, and you. If you have ever heard of Bob Church, who is an anthropologist at the University of Colulmbia-Missouri, he is a very big advocate of dental health in ferrets. He sees lots of damage to the teeth and bones in the ferrets he studies after they have passed. Just like a cat or dog, you can brush your ferret's teeth, and in most cases, it is fairly easy to do. You will just need a very small toothbrush designed for a kitten or puppy, and cat or dog toothpaste. Just scruff your ferret, and brush their teeth daily. They tend to tolerate it fairly well, and it will go a long ways towards keeping your ferret's teeth healthy. We can also do ultrasonic dental cleanings on your ferret and if your ferret does develop tooth root abscesses, we can remove the painful diseased teeth. There is a product made for ferrets to chew on to help keep their teeth clean, much like tartar treats for cats and dogs. It is called Cheweasels, and be obtained at most pet stores.
Owning a ferret who is not spayed or neutered doesn't happen often, since most ferrets sold in pet stores are spayed or neutered at 4-5 weeks of age before they are sent to a pet store. Marshall Farms, who is the largest ferret breeder in North America and who provides probably 90% of the ferrets found in the US, also tattoos their ferrets in the ear and between 2 back toes to show that they are spayed or neutered and descented. However, if you happen to obtain a ferret that is not spayed or neutered, you will definitely want to get them spayed or neutered asap. Female ferrets that are not spayed, known as jills, can actually die from not being spayed. If they are not bred every time that they go into heat, they will remain in heat, and eventually, the constant hormone release will cause what is called aplastic anemia, which is life-threatening. Male ferrets that are not neutered, known as hobs, are very aggressive to other ferrets. Both male and female ferrets that are not spayed or neutered have a very very strong musky smell to them which will clear a room quite quickly.
Again, owning a ferret that is not descented doesn't happen often. Marshall Farms descents their ferrets when they are spayed and neutered. If you happen to have a ferret who is not descented, it is not a big deal unless you are very sensitive to smell. Ferrets can express their anal sacs much like a skunk can when they are extremely stressed or excited. While a ferret's anal "poof" is nowhere near as bad as a skunks, it is still pretty potent and can linger in the air for 20-30 minutes. We don't generally recommend descenting ferrets if they have not already been descented, but if it means they will lose their home if not descented, we can certainly do it for you. We also will periodically come across ferrets that have been improperly descented since it was done at such a young age, and need to fix the procedure.
We do not declaw ferrets at All Feline Hospital, and we very strongly recommend against it. Ferrets nails are more like dogs than cats, they do not retract, and ferret's need their nails for walking and climbing.
Just like a cat, ferrets will generally groom themselves, so you don't need to bathe them. However, for those of you who don't care for the light musk scent of a ferret, you can bathe your ferret. Just be sure to use a gentle soap designed for ferrets or kittens, and use a conditioner afterwards also designed for ferrets or kittens. Ferrets will completely lose their smell after a bath, but about 1-2 weeks after the bath, it will actually come back stronger as their skin is secreting more oils than normal to try and fix the dry skin caused by the bath. Conditioners will help minimize this, but it will still happen to some extent. If you never bathe your ferret at all, as long as you keep their bedding fresh and clean, ferrets will only have a light musky smell.
Ferrets also need to have their nails trimmed regularly, they are not very good at using scratching posts to wear down their nails. You can trim them just like a cat. An easy way to do it yourself is to put a little Ferretone or Ferretvite on their belly, and while they are licking away, you can trim away. Most ferrets do not need to have their ears cleaned - if it seems like they have excessive ear wax, you should have them looked at by a vet, it could be ear mites or an infection.
There isn't a whole lot of preventative testing that we do in ferrets since the most common ferret diseases don't always show up on blood work. Probably the main preventative test we may want to do on your ferret is to check their glucose as they get older, especially if it seems like their energy level is decreasing, or if we find an enlarged spleen on a physical exam. Insulinoma is a very common disease in ferrets, and can be diagnosed easily by finding a very low blood glucose. But, if your ferret gets sick, then we may want to do a basic work up consisting of blood work, a urinalysis, and an x-ray.