Ferret Dermatology 101
Disorders of the skin and fur are very common in pet ferrets. Adrenal gland disease is the most common cause of skin and hair problems in ferrets.
Ferrets And Adrenal Gland Disease
In adrenal gland disease, the adrenal glands oversecrete hormones such as estrogen, progesterone and androgens. These hormones commonly cause hair loss (alopecia) and itchy skin (pruritus). If not treated, the hair loss can progress and turn the ferret into an almost completely bald ferret. The itchy skin can lead to self trauma from scratching at the skin and cause the skin to become reddish in color (erythema). The itchy skin can also cause the ferret to chew on its hair and skin. This can increase the risk of a hairball forming in the stomach from the ingested fur.
A high estrogen level can cause a suppression of the bone marrow. This can result in a serious anemia and a problem forming blood clots. Small hemorrhages (petechiae) can be seen on the skin as small red spots. It is thought that a high progesterone level is responsible for some rare and truly odd-looking skin problems, such as erythema multiforme and erythema annulare centrifugum. Progesterone can also cause the skin to bruise easily after blood collection and surgery, and circular bruises that disappear after a few days are occasionally seen with adrenal gland disease. In addition, the sex hormones and androgens can stimulate the sebaceous glands in the skin to produce oily secretions. This leads to a musky odor and an oily fur. In white ferrets, it changes the color of the fur to a yellowish tint.
Most veterinarians who are familiar with ferrets can diagnose adrenal gland disease based on a ferret’s history, age and clinical signs. Treatment can be either surgery to remove the adrenal gland and/or medications to decrease the hormone production. With successful treatment the ferret will grow new fur. One peculiar thing happens right before the new hair starts to come in. The skin frequently develops a blue tint (blue ferret syndrome) for a few days to a week. This is likely due to the hair follicles producing melanin for the new fur. No treatment is needed for this normal process.
Ferret Skin Parasites
Ferrets can have problems with parasites of the skin. Fleas are common in ferrets that are kept outdoors or are allowed to play outside. Occasionally, indoor ferrets can be infested with fleas from dogs and cats in the household. Fleas typically produce only a mildly itchy skin and mild hair loss from scratching. Fleas can also cause tapeworms, and in some Western states fleas can carry the bacterium (Yersinia pestis) that causes plague. It is usually easy to diagnose a flea problem by simply seeing the fleas or flea dirt on the ferret. Under veterinary supervision, Advantage for cats or Frontline Plus for cats can be used to treat flea problems in ferrets; however, it is necessary to treat all of the animals in the house. In severe infestations the house and yard may need to be treated also.
Likewise ferrets kept outdoors are prone to ticks. Ticks can also carry a lot of diseases, including Lyme disease, Babesiosis, Ehrlichiosis and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. In some Western states ticks can carry the bacterium (Francisella tularensis) that causes Tularemia. Due to the ferret and human health concerns, it is important to treat and prevent tick infestations. Frontline Plus for cats can be used for tick control in ferrets, under veterinary supervision.
Outdoor ferrets are also at risk for fly problems. Botfly (Cuterebra) problems are sometimes seen during the summer and fall months. The larvae can produce a small hole in the skin with a swollen area around the opening. The lesion is typically painful and infected. This disorder can look like an abscess or a reaction to a foreign body, but the moving larvae can typically be seen in the opening. Treatment is for a veterinarian to remove the entire larvae, debride the infected skin and treat the skin infection with an antibiotic.
Ferrets commonly have ear mites. Ear mites typically cause a mild increase in earwax and an itchy ear, but sometimes ear mites can actually rupture the eardrum. This will cause a severe head tilt and an inner ear infection. Diagnosis of ear mites is relatively simple. Some of the earwax is examined under a microscope to look for ear mites. Under veterinary supervision, ear mites can be treated with several different medications, such as Revolution for cats, Advantage Multi for cats, Acarexx otic, Milbemite otic or ivermectin injections. It is important to treat all the ferrets in the house and to clean the ferret’s cage and wash all of the bedding and ferret supplies. Inner ear infections will need additional treatment with antibiotics and an antibiotic eardrop.
Ferrets are also susceptible to skin mites (mange). Sarcoptic mange is common in working ferrets in England and Australia, but it is uncommon in pet ferrets in North America. Sarcoptic mange causes an itchy skin with hair loss, crusty lesions and skin infections. Sarcoptic mange can be diagnosed by scraping the skin and looking at the material under a microscope for sarcoptic mites. Sarcoptic mites can also spread to people and other pets. Under veterinary care, sarcoptic mange can be treated with Revolution for cats, Advantage Multi for cats or with ivermectin injections.
Demodectic mange is usually a result of immune suppression from prednisolone use, lymphoma or adrenal gland disease. Signs of demodectic mange include itchy skin, red skin, hair loss and skin infections. Demodectic mange is diagnosed by skin scraping and finding demodex mites with the microscope. Under veterinary care, demodectic mange can be treated with daily ivermectin, weekly dips with Mitaban, or weekly Advantage Multi for cats. Fortunately demodex mites are not contagious to other ferrets or people.
Ferrets And Fungal Infections Or Distemper
Ferrets are susceptible to fungal skin infections; however, fungal infections are uncommon. The most common of the fungal infections is ringworm. Most cases of ringworm are associated with recent exposure to either kittens or cats. Skin lesions from ringworm are typically circular with a red tint and crusty skin. It is usually not itchy to the ferret. Diagnosis is based on the signs and by fungal culture of the hair. Treatment may require both topical anti-fungal creams such as miconazole and oral anti-fungals like itraconazole or griseofulvin. It is important to treat all the animals in the house and to clean the cage and everything in it with a dilute bleach solution.
One virus can cause skin problems in ferrets. Distemper normally begins as a respiratory infection, but soon afterward a skin rash develops on the chin, lips, groin and rectal area. Then the pads on the paws become thick, crusty and hard. Next the ferret shows neurologic signs like muscle twitching and seizures. Sadly, a ferret eventually passes away from distemper; therefore, the recommendation is to vaccinate all ferrets to prevent this fatal disease.
Most of the ferret skin disorders can be treated and usually cured; however, a few of the skin problems are a result of a more serious and sometimes even fatal underlying problem. Whenever your ferret has a skin or fur problem, have a veterinarian familiar with treating ferrets do a physical exam to determine the root of the problem and formulate a treatment plan.
By: Jerry Murray