Ferrets can be curious, comical pets, full of fun
Last week, I brought Rolo, a seven year old ferret, into the TV3 studios with me: I was talking about ferrets on my regular Ireland AM vet spot. He's a cute, cuddly character: he was the perfect ambassador for his species. He entertained everyone with his playful antics.
Ferrets are interesting creatures: they are unusual pets that offer a real alternative to the usual dog or cat that people usually choose. They are smart, lively creatures, full of curiosity and a type of comic charm.
In Ireland, they are more associated with hunting than being kept as pets. People have traditionally used them to catch rabbits and rodent pests. The idea of keeping them as companion animals is popular in Europe and the USA but has not taken off in this country in any significant way so far.
However as a vet in general pet practice, I do see a fair number of ferrets, and they suffer from some of their own unique diseases.
One memorable case had an illness that's seen more in ferrets than any other species.
Freddy was a four year old ferret who had started to lose his fur along his back: when I saw him, there was a big bald area over his rump, and he was very itchy. His owner also explained that he was duller than normal, and that he'd lost his normal playfulness.
These signs of illness were so typical of an adrenal gland tumour that it was almost unnecessary to do any tests to confirm the diagnosis. However the treatment that he'd need for this meant that I had to be 100% sure about what was going on. The simple way to look into the problem in more detail was to carry out an ultrasound examination of his abdomen, so that I could actually physically check his adrenal glands.
The adrenal glands are tiny; the size of a frozen pea. They are located just in front of the kidneys, one on each side, which makes it fairly easy to find them during the ultrasound examination. If there is a tumour, the adrenal gland is obviously enlarged, and I was hoping that this is what we'd find.
The ultrasound scan was easy to do: Freddy stayed still, lying placidly on his back while the probe was pressed against his abdomen. The scan confirmed what I suspected: his left adrenal gland was around five times the normal size, while his right adrenal gland was completely normal. There was no need for any other blood tests or investigations. He was definitely suffering from overproduction of hormones by the adrenal gland, a condition known as Cushings Disease.
This condition is seen in humans, dogs and cats as well, but it's far more common in ferrets, and it's different to the type of disease seen in other species. In dogs, cats and humans, the abnormal adrenal gland produces an excess of corticosteroid hormones. In contrast, in ferrets, a different type of hormone is produced in excess: so-called sex-steroids. If a pet wasn't neutered, these would cause surges in oestrogens and testosterones in the animal, but since nearly all ferrets are spayed or neutered, this doesn't happen. Instead, the sex-steroids have different effects on the body, causing changes in the metabolism which include baldness and changed behaviours.
Textbooks report that there are four ways of treating Cushings Disease in ferrets: "benign neglect" and euthanasia are the "cheap" options, while medical and surgical treatments are also available.
The first two of these need to be explained: some people can't afford complex treatments for their pet ferrets, and sometimes the signs of Cushings Disease are minor. If a ferret just has a bald area on their back, and no other signs of illness, "benign neglect" is a viable option. This means just doing nothing: a ferret doesn't know that he's going bald, and so it isn't a problem that necessarily needs any action. It's only when other signs develop, such as itchiness or dullness, that intervention is needed. And some ferrets never develop these signs: they just have a bald patch which continues until the end of their days.
In other cases, a ferret might develop severe signs of Cushings Disease (like Freddy, with uncomfortable, itchy skin) but the animal might be elderly and the owner may not have enough money for major treatments. In these cases, euthanasia is a realistic option. Ferrets live to be 7 to 10 years of age, so if an eight year old ferret develops serious illness, euthanasia can be the kindest way of helping them.
The medical approach is the next possibility: that means giving daily tablets for the rest of the ferret's life. It can be a good choice, but the problem is that it's a daily burden to do this.
So the final choice is what I used for Freddy: surgery. The task was simple: to remove the enlarged adrenal gland. This can be risky surgery, and it is sometimes too risky: for an elderly ferret, it could be a lot to put them through. Freddy was young and fit, and the operation aimed to cure him completely, so that no daily medication would be needed. For the right case, surgery is often the best answer.
The surgery went well: Freddy went home the same evening, and after ten days, the sutures in his abdomen were removed. Within a month the itch had stopped, and three months later his fur had grown back in. He's now a normal, hairy and non-itchy ferret. And he's become playful again!