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Ferrets are rapidly becoming the third most popular house pet in America, after dogs and cats. Their small size, lack of noise, and the fact that they are generally caged when the owners aren't home make them an ideal pet for the urban lifestyle.

Ferrets are members of the family Mustelidae, which includes ferrets, minks, weasels, and skunks. By contrast, dogs are in the family Canidae and cats are in the family Felidae. Ferrets naturally have a strong odor produced by their anal, or musk glands, which must be surgically removed to make the ferret a household pet. Fortunately, the vast majority of ferrets sold at pet stores have been descented and spayed or neutered by the time they are shipped to the pet stores at six weeks of age. If you somehow acquire a non-neutered, non-descented ferret, you should have a veterinarian perform these surgeries as soon as possible.

Ferrets are very personable, loving, and entertaining, and make wonderful pets which is why they are skyrocketing in popularity. They do require veterinary care however, and there are important husbandry facts that all owners should know.
Ferrets are carnivores, and require a high-protein meat-based diet. They can be fed high-quality cat foods, but now there are several excellent commercial ferret foods available, which are preferable to cat food. Ferrets can get canine distemper and rabies, and we recommend yearly vaccinations for these diseases. They also can get heartworms, which are spread by mosquitoes, so we recommend that any ferrets that go outside be put on heartworm preventative, just like dogs and cats. Ferrets do get fleas, but because of their small size are more prone to toxicity problems with flea treatments. Owners should consult their veterinarian before applying any flea product to a ferret.

Ferrets, like cats, can get hairballs, so we recommend giving them a hairball remedy such as Ferotone or Laxatone several times weekly. Because of their small size and desire to eat everything in sight, it is best to keep them caged when you are not home, for their own protection. Many owners end up getting two or more ferrets, because they play so well together.

On average, ferrets only live about seven years, so they start having age related problems as early as three years of age. We recommend veterinary check-ups of ferrets every six months after three years of age so we can detect problems early, and we will often recommend blood work and X-rays to more accurately diagnose problems.

Ferrets can succumb to digestive problems, heart disease, respiratory disease, and problems of the urinary tract, as well as ingestion of foreign bodies. Ferrets seem to be more prone to cancer than dogs and cats. It has been estimated that over 50% of ferrets will develop some form of cancer during their lifetime.

Ferrets can develop various sorts of skin cancer, so any new or unusual skin lesion should be brought to a vet's attention. Ferrets can also get lymphoma, which is a cancer of the lymphatic system. This cancer can often be detected by blood work or palpation of the lymph organs.

Ferrets also frequently develop insulinomas, which are insulin secreting tumors of the pancreas. An overproduction of insulin tends to lower the ferret's blood glucose, often to dangerous levels. Ferrets with this condition often stare into space, drool excessively, and show signs that include extreme lethargy, seizures, coma/and death. Insulinomas can be treated medically or by surgical removal of the tumor.

Adrenal gland cancer is very common in older ferrets. The adrenal glands are tiny glands near the kidneys that normally produce corticosteroid hormones as well as adrenalin. When these glands become cancerous, they tend to produce excessive corticosteroids and estrogens. The most common sign of adrenal gland cancer is hair loss over part or all of the body. In spayed females the vulva can enlarge and in neutered males, the prostate can enlarge, contributing to urinary tract problems. Other signs can include itching, dry, brittle hair coat, thin skin, hind limb weakness, increase in body odor, lethargy, pot belly, drinking more water, weight loss and anemia. The treatment of choice for this cancer is surgical removal of the affected adrenal gland.

These are just a few of the most common medical conditions affecting ferrets. As you can tell, ferrets have a short life packed with numerous possible medical problems, so it is especially important to get your ferret to your veterinarian early and often.

If you have ferrets as pets, or are thinking about getting one (or more!) please contact the Roslyn-Greenvale Veterinary Group at 516-621-4010. We can schedule you an appointment for a ferret wellness visit and vaccinations, or an appointment for diagnostic tests for your sick ferret.

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