Adrenal gland disease in ferrets – look for the signs

Also known as hyperadrenocorticism, this hormonal disease is caused by an overproduction of the sex hormones from the adrenal gland. Adrenal Disease in ferrets, however, is not the same as Cushings disease in dogs.

Posted: 14 May 2018

Adrenal gland disease in ferrets – look for the signs


A strong link exists between the age of neutering and the onset of signs. It can be seen in animals as young as 18 months, but it’s usually diagnosed in middle age and older ferrets (5 years +/- 2yrs). Both males and females are susceptible.

12 clinical signs of adrenal gland disease in ferrets

  1. Symmetrical alopecia – this usually starts in the spring (at the start of breeding season) and may resolve in the autumn, only to reoccur the following year. The coat may develops a moth eaten appearance, but can also present with bilateral hair loss. In most cases, hair loss is evenly distributed, beginning in the tail region and progresses up the abdomen towards the head.
  2. Thinning of the skin – this happens as a result of the breakdown of dermal proteins. Changes in elasticity may also found. Look for translucent looking skin, sometimes with sores from scratching.
  3. Swollen vulva – this is a very common sign. Spayed females can also produce a mucoid vaginal discharge.
  4. Sexual behaviour – this will be apparent despite an animal being neutered (esp. castrated hobs). Some animals will also become sexually aggressive.
  5. Pruritis – owners may notice their pet continually scratching. For some patients this can be quite debilitating.
  6. Prostatic enlargement – look for prostatic and peri-urethral cysts, resulting in dysuria. These can often be found with an ultrasound examination.
  7. Urinary obstruction - male ferrets can become critically ill if the bladder cannot be voided.
  8. Mammary gland enlargement – this occasionally happens.
  9. Weight loss – resulting from a decrease in muscle mass. You may also notice a pot bellied appearance. It always helps to keep a record of the ferret’s weight.
  10. Adrenal glands tumors – initially the gland undergoes hyperplasia, later changing adenomas and adenocarcinomas with local invasion or metastatic disease. 85% of cases are unilateral. With experienced clinicians, these can be detected via ultrasound.
  11. Smell – there may be an increase in musky body odour.
  12. Ear sucking – you may notice excessive grooming of themselves or companions.

How to make a diagnosis

  • Look for the signs – the clinical signs will offer a high level of suspicion.
  • Blood tests - ACTH stimulation and dexamethasone suppression tests are not used. Plasma cortisol levels are not raised. Most laboratories however will offer a ferret Adrenal panel. Elevations in Androstenedione, 17 hydroxyprogesterone or oestradiol are diagnostic, with Androstenedione being the most sensitive. The levels of sex hormones are raised due to lack of negative feedback by low levels of testosterone and oestradiol on the hypothalamus.
  • Ultrasound - measure the size of the adrenal glands. This is useful for confirming a diagnosis as well as planning treatment surgery. Also look for splenic and prostatic enlargement.

What treatments are available?

  • Deslorelin implants – this is a popular current method of treatment. The implant has been reported to be effective for up to 18 months or more.
  • Surgery – until the advent of the deslorelin implant, this was the treatment of choice. Removal of the left adrenal gland is possible for a competent surgeon in general practice, but the right gland is a lot more challenging and carries a higher risk. Bilateral adrenalectomies can induce an Addisonian type crisis.
  • Don’t use Trilostane (Vetoryl) – this is a popular drug used in dogs with Cushing's disease. Giving this to a ferret with adrenal disease would make the problem worse as it increases 17-hydroxyprogesterone levels.

Did you know that we produce food for Ferrets under our vet recommended Excel brand?

Burgess Excel Ferret Nuggets