"Adrenal Disease in Ferrets Explained
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"Adrenal Disease in Ferrets Explained

Sharing a home with a ferret or two can be very entertaining. They are lovely, playful creatures and real clowns of the animal world. There nothing ferrets enjoy more than chasing a toy across a room or diving under a sofa cushion to hide themselves away ready to attack when you least expect it.

Ferrets often suffer from a condition known as adrenal disease and the first most owners know about it is when their pet's coat looks dull and a bald patch develops at the base of their tails. The condition seems to affect females more than males with another obvious sign being their vulvas swell up which means a trip to the vet is on the cards so a correct diagnosis can be made followed by the best way to treat the poorly ferret.

Ferrets of all ages can develop adrenal disease with a high percentage of females being diagnosed with the condition when they are anything between 2 and 4 years old. It's caused by tumours or lesions forming on either one or both adrenal glands. The function of these glands is rather complex but vital and includes the following:

  • To produce specific reproductive hormones
  • To help metabolise food correctly
  • To maintain muscles
  • To help and speed up healing processes

If the tumour is benign it’s called an adenoma, however, should it be malignant it is referred to as a carcinoma. The good news is that most adrenal tumours in ferrets tend to be benign, but they still cause lots of problems affecting the condition of a ferret’s coat which results in hair loss. Ferrets lose all their energy becoming very lethargic and they lose muscle tone too.

Why Ferrets Develop Adrenal Disease

There is some belief that poor diet contributes to ferrets developing adrenal disease although some people think that inbreeding could also be to blame. Another factor that could play a key role in ferrets developing the condition in later life could be put down to them being spayed or neutered at a young age which is typically anything between the ages of 5 to 6 weeks old. Lastly, some people think that ferrets that are kept as indoors pets develop the condition because their natural hormonal cycles are altered due to the artificial lighting in homes.

Symptoms to Watch Out For

One of the most obvious signs of a problem is when ferrets suddenly lose hair at the base of their tales which resembles a condition known as alopecia. However, the loss of hair spreads up the tail and over their bodies just leaving hair on their feet and faces. However, in males the hair loss can begin around their necks. With females another sign they may be developing the condition is a swollen vulva, but other signs of adrenal disease include the following:

  • Constant itchiness and scratching
  • A swollen, pot belly
  • Loss of muscle tone
  • Orange coloured patches of skin
  • Aggressiveness, more especially seen in male ferrets
  • Loss of condition of coat which feels brittle to the touch
  • Excessive thirst and urination
  • Anaemia
  • Weight loss
  • Occasionally a thinning of the skin

However, not all the symptoms may be present which can make it hard to recognise that a ferret may be developing adrenal disease. With this said, at the first sign of bald patches or a swollen vulva, a trip to the vet is in order to establish what is going on. A vet would be able to carry out an ultrasound to see if there are any tumours forming on a ferret's adrenal glands, although this test is not always that reliable because very small tumours would not be picked up in an ultrasound. There is, however, a specific blood test that can be performed which together with an ultrasound should help a vet establish a correct diagnosis as to whether a ferret has adrenal disease or not.

Treatments

The most common treatment for adrenal disease in ferrets is to surgically remove the entire gland should there be any tumours present because it's literally impossible to remove the tumour alone. For some unknown reason it's usually the left gland that's more commonly affected which makes it easier for vets to remove it without complications. If the right adrenal gland is affected, it poses more of a problem to remove as it’s situated that much closer to large blood vessels and in most cases it can make it impossible to remove, in which case they would attempt to remove the affected part of it.

If the vet finds that both adrenal glands are affected they would remove the left one and then cut away as much of the affected part of the right one as possible. They would not want to remove both glands as this would cause a hormonal imbalance and a ferret would need to be given hormone replacement injections every few weeks for the rest of their lives.

A vet would not want to carry out any sort of surgery on a ferret that's too old or if they are in poor health and might well decide to prescribe specific medication which has to be administered every few days for the rest of the ferret's life. Another option is an injection which a vet would administer once a month although there is one which is much stronger which only has to be given to a ferret with the condition twice a year.

Conclusion

A ferret’ hair could regrow once they have been treated, although sometimes it does not. The condition is progressive and ferrets can survive for a certain amount of time without having to undergo the surgery. It does not seem to cause them any pain, but the other health issues associated with Adrenal Disease means the quality of their lives is quite negatively affected. They can survive for anything from 6 months to 2 years. However, if a ferret undergoes the surgery, they can live a full and healthy life of up to 8 plus years.

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