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Chapter 1: ferrets
Do you have a rabbit, ferret, guinea pig, rat, hamster or gerbil?! If so, our own Dr. Kovacic would love to meet it! When you own one of these little critters, a common question arises: "when do you take one of these pocket pets to the vet?" It may be obvious to answer, "when it seems sick", but preventive care can be very important, especially for the larger pocket pets such as ferrets, rabbits, and guinea pigs. Dental disease and husbandry issues such as improper diet, bedding mistakes, and grooming needs are common issues found on routine physical examinations so it is recommended to bring them in for twice-yearly visits with the vet. These issues can generally be easily fixed if noted early on routine examinations, before your pet "seems sick". This translates to longer, healthier lives, and will be far less expensive than the medications or surgery an advanced illness can require to be successfully treated. Dr. Kovacic can perform a complete physical exam and husbandry analysis to help get, and keep, your furry friend on the right track.
Another common question involves vaccination requirements for pocket pets. While there are no vaccinations for rabbits or guinea pigs, both rabies and distemper vaccinations are recommended to be administered yearly for ferrets. Distemper virus is 100% fatal in ferrets. You may ask how a ferret kept indoors might get distemper: from your dog! Distemper is the D in the DH(L)PP vaccination that is routinely given to dogs. It is important to note that Distemper is still quite prevalent, especially in the wild animal population such as raccoons, so exposure can, and does, occur. It's the vaccination's protection that keeps your dog from getting sick. However, they can still carry the virus indoors? right to your ferret! This vaccine series can be started as young as 8 weeks of age. The rabies vaccine is recommended yearly and should be started at 12 weeks of age. If you need to have your ferret vaccinated, please let us know when you call to schedule your appointment as arrangements need to be made: since ferrets have a high tendency to react to their vaccines, they need medication before the vaccination and we like you to stay with them in the office for about an hour!
As you may already know, ferrets are very curious and playful. They need to eat a high quality diet to support all their escapades! Ferrets are very similar to cats in many different aspects and, like cats, they are carnivores. This means that they require a diet with a high meat protein content. When ferrets do not eat an appropriate diet, there are multiple problems which can occur. Urolithiasis, or stone formation in the urinary bladder, is one of the more common issues. If this happens, your ferret will strain to urinate, which can sometimes be confused with trouble having a bowel movement. This can become life threatening. Imagine if you needed to pee and couldn't!
A diet balanced in fiber will help to provide regular bowel movements. However, the fibers of your carpet, couch, blankets, etc. are not the kind of fiber we are talking about! Ferrets, just like a puppy, can be quite destructive. They will chew, sometimes even swallow, anything they can get into their mouths. "Foreign bodies" (i.e. items that are not intended for ingestion) in the stomach and intestine are a common occurrence in ferrets. If some of this material is toxic or gets stuck along the gastrointestinal tract, it can be a life-threatening emergency. Providing close supervision while your ferret is out of its cage is the best way to prevent this disaster. Signs to watch for include vomiting, depression, not wanting to eat, and teeth grinding. If you notice these signs, please contact our office immediately to have your pet examined.
Ferrets love to have a partner in crime. If you already have a pet ferret and you wish to add another one, it is recommended to quarantine the new ferret for 4 weeks. This means that your current ferret and the "new guy" must not have any contact with each other for the first month! This is because the new guy may be harboring a disease that could easily be transmitted to your other ferret. The best way to accomplish this quarantine is to use a separate disinfected cage in a separate, quiet, enclosed area that has low traffic through it. After handling the new ferret, be sure to practice proper hygiene. Disease can be easily spread by our hands and other items such as our clothing, cleaning supplies (think handprints on bottles), shoes, toys, bowls, etc. Be sure to thoroughly wash everything that was touched by you and/or the new ferret prior to handling your "old friend". Bacterial diarrhea is one such disease which can be easily spread during this quarantine period. The diarrhea can range from mild to severe "green slime" and your ferret can suffer from significant dehydration and can even die from the disease. If you have any questions on proper quarantine procedures, please ask us!
Another reason to practice proper hygiene when handling your pet ferret is because of influenza, or "the flu". Most of us at some point in our life have had the flu: fever, aches, cough and congestion. A zoonotic disease is a disease which can be transferred between human and animal. Did you know that Influenza is one of those zoonotic diseases? Not only can your ferret catch the Influenza virus from you, your family, or friends, but it can give it to us as well. Therefore, it is advisable to wear a mask and gloves when handling your ferret or its cage, food, bowls, and other "stuff", if you suspect yourself or your ferret of having the flu.
As the story goes with any aging pet, ferrets are prone to developing cancer. Two common cancers which ferrets can develop are insulinomas and adrenal tumors. Insulinomas are tumors of a specific cell in the pancreas which produce insulin. When there is an excessive amount of insulin in the body, the glucose, or sugar, in our body is used a lot faster. As you may have already guessed, this will lead to a low blood sugar known as hypoglycemia. Signs of low blood sugar can be subtle such as lethargy and weakness or trembling in the back legs, but they can also be as seriously obvious as seizures, coma, and even death. Insulinomas cannot be cured. However, they CAN be treated. If your ferret begins showing signs of low blood sugar at home, you can rub karo syrup, honey or pancake syrup on the gums just prior to leaving the house to take him/her to the vet: this is an emergency! If you suspect your ferret of having an insulinoma, please seek veterinary care immediately.
Adrenal tumors are the other type of common tumors in ferrets. These tumors generate the symptoms of symmetrical hair loss along the back, a dry hair coat, muscle wasting, and/or the appearance of a sagging belly or genital enlargement. Once these tumors are diagnosed, they are treated with either hormonal therapy and/or surgery.
In closing, you can see that there are a lot of reasons to take your ferret to a veterinarian with both experience and a fondness for them! They are curious, fascinating, enjoyable little creatures that can lead healthy and long lives with the right care!