Ferrets, as you probably know if you’ve been privileged to be associated with them for any length of time, are high-maintenance pets. And one area where that high maintenance is most pronounced is ferret health. Pet ferrets, unfortunately, are prone to several health issues that you need to be aware of. A vet visit early on can often mean a longer, healthier life for your favorite fuzzies.
A fairly common health problem in older ferrets is cancer stemming from adrenal disease. The good news is that this condition isn’t always fatal and is in many cases treatable or at least manageable. But early detection and diagnosis and proper treatment and medical intervention are crucial.
So let’s take a look at adrenal gland disease in pet ferrets.
Adrenal glands in ferrets, just as in humans, are small endocrine glands that sit atop the kidneys. (They are, of course, the glands from whose name we get the term “adrenaline.”) These glands produce important steroid hormones such as cortisol, aldosterone, and testosterone, as well as epinephrine and norepinephrine. These hormones play a vital role in several health areas: regulating blood glucose and electrolyte levels, increasing musculature, effective stress-related responses, and proper sexual functioning, for example. Problems arise when these glands produce either too much or too little of one or some these critical hormones.
While adrenal gland disease is fairly common in ferrets (usually ferrets three years old and older), the exact reasons why still haven’t been determined. Some of the possible causes that have been put forward by ferret experts are:
- Prolonged and excessive stress – When animals (or people) encounter a stressful situation, the adrenal glands release adrenaline in preparation for fight or flight. When this happens too often and for long periods, adrenaline gland disease may result—just as people who are adrenaline junkies and engage in activities that bring on the fight-or-flight response often experience health issues later in life.
- Early neutering – When pet ferrets are neutered before puberty/sexual development hormonal imbalances can result and lead to adrenal disease.
- Unnatural light cycles – Pet ferrets living indoors are often subjected to light cycles that are far different from what they would experience in the wild. It has been suggested that this could also be a cause of adrenal gland disease.
Adrenal disease could also be the result of a combination of all three factors listed above. In any case, the main thing is to recognize the signs/symptoms of the disease early on and then take the necessary medical steps.
The signs of adrenal disease can vary depending on specific hormones involved, ferret’s sex, and stage of disease, but here are the most common:
- Hair loss – Probably the number-one sign of adrenal disease is hair loss on the ferret’s tail, the body, or both. (Be aware, though, that hair loss doesn’t always accompany adrenal disease, and it can be intermittent and sporadic.) This characteristic hair loss usually begins at the tail and then moves up the body.
- Muscle loss, weakness, and swollen abdomen
- Excessive itching (perhaps accompanied by redness or flaking on the skin)
- Unusual aggressiveness (both toward owners and other ferrets)
Further, females may display signs of anemia, and spayed females may have swollen vulva. Males may have difficulty urinating (owing to a swollen prostate), and neutered males may even display aggressive mating behavior.
The good news here is that many times diagnosing adrenal disease isn’t all that difficult. So as soon as you see any of the tell-tale signs of this disease, get you ferret to the vet as soon as possible. The possibility of adrenal gland disease is also a good reason to schedule regular vet visits.
There are several treatment options for adrenal gland disease. The best option for you and your fuzzy will be determined in large part by your ferret’s age and health and financial considerations. These treatment options range from surgery to alternative medical options such as medication (lupron, for instance), suprelorin implants, and melatonin supplementation (orally or implanted).
The main thing, though, is to understand the signs of adrenal gland disease and always be on the lookout for them. If anything seems amiss, get you ferret to the vet as soon as possible. Your fuzzy kids deserve the best care you can provide.