Respiratory diseases of ferrets

Our approach to veterinary care in ferrets is very similar to that in dogs, cats and rabbits, with no special equipment being required. Pet ferrets can and should be easily be accepted into any small animal practice.

Posted: 22 September 2020

Respiratory diseases of ferrets

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With specific reference to respiratory conditions, they are susceptible to a number of different complaints. The symptoms of respiratory disease are usually similar, regardless of the cause, but since some of these conditions can be fatal, it’s important to try to determine the cause of disease in order to establish a prognosis.

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Stress and poor husbandry conditions are important factors that predispose ferrets to respiratory infections. The most common respiratory diseases of ferrets are canine distemper and influenza. Bacterial pneumonia is uncommon and usually develops secondary to viral pneumonia. Pulmonary mycoses are also rare in ferrets, although cases of cryptococcosis, blastomycosis, and coccidioidomycosis have been described.

Keywords: cryptococcosis, distemper, ferrets, influenza, mycobacteriosis, pneumonia, Pseudomonas luteola, respiratory disease

Primary respiratory disease is actually unusual, and most ferrets are diagnosed with respiratory problems secondary to another cause. In this article we look at 3 of the more likely reasons a ferret might be presented with breathing difficulties.

1. Canine Distemper

The canine distemper virus (CDV) can vary considerably in virulence but needs to be taken seriously as it is almost always fatal. It’s highly infectious, and can be spread via;

  • Exudates (nasal and conjunctival)
  • Aerosol particles
  • Fomites
  • Faeces
  • Urine

Since the incubation period is between 7 and 10 days, suspected cases need to be isolated from others for up to two weeks.

The respiratory signs to look out for include;

  • Dyspnoea – oxygen levels can be measurably low
  • Tachypnoea and hyperpnoea
  • Exudates – check for an oculonasal discharge
  • Coughing – this doesn’t occur in all cases
  • Sneezing
  • Secondary bacterial infections – this will be most likely in animals that are immunocompromised

On top of the respiratory signs, many ferrets with CDV will also present with;

  • Lethargy – owners may notice their pet hiding and sleeping
  • Loss of appetite – this will also result in weight loss
  • Erythematous and pruritic rashes – check the pads, chin, mouth as well as the periorbital, interscapular and perineal areas. These rashes tend to develop into hyperkeratosis and crusts
  • Neurologic signs – some animals will present with paresis, muscle tremors, incoordination and convulsions
  • Photophobia – look for closed eyelids or hiding away
  • Immunosuppression – this can result in secondary bacterial infections, particularly in the lungs

Treatment

Unfortunately, there is no specific or effective treatment for CDV, and with the condition often being fatal, euthanasia is probably the most likely and humane way we can help. Without support, animals will usually die within a month of being diagnosed.

If the owner is determined to try, then supportive and symptomatic treatments can be used, such as;

  • NSAID’s (meloxicam)
  • Antihistamines to help reduce pruritus
  • Analgesics such as buprenorphine
  • Nutritional support
  • Bronchodilators
  • Fluid therapy

2. Influenza

As a species, ferrets are particularly susceptible to influenza viruses, and can easily catch flu from infected people or other infected ferrets. All ferrets are at risk, with it being more severe in the very young. It’s really important to appreciate that the influenza virus can also be transmitted from ferrets to humans, so there is considerable zoonotic risk in a veterinary environment.

The influenza virus is generally transmitted by aerosol droplets, so particular care must be taken, much like to the precautions we are now all used to with Covid-19.

Unlike CDV, the influenza virus is not usually fatal and tends to be self-limiting, with most animals recovering within a week. Look for some or all of these respiratory signs;

  • Oculonasal discharge – this tends to be serous rather than purulent
  • Conjunctivitis
  • Sneezing

Other clinical signs to be aware of include;

  • Pyrexia
  • Lethargy
  • Anorexia
  • Photophobia
  • Hearing loss
  • Enteritis

Treatment

This usually consists of supportive care such as;

  • Nutrition – most will be well enough to eat their favourite foods, but if required, they can also be hand or syringe fed. At Burgess Pet Care we produce our own brand of Ferret Nuggets, produced as a single component extruded diet which helps prevent selective feeding. This super premium complete ferret food is made from high quality ingredients and is fully supplemented for optimum health. Find out more here.
  • Antibiotics – these are only needed in cases where secondary bacterial infections are present
  • Parenteral fluids – these are rarely required but may be indicated
  • Antipyretics – used to control fever
  • Antiviral treatments – Tamiflu has been used to reduce clinical signs, but if you elect to use this, remember to get written off licence use consent from the owner
  • Anti-tussive medication
  • Bronchodilators
  • Decongestants

3. Pneumonia

Apart from the viral causes of pneumonia mentioned above, secondary bacterial infections can also result in pneumonia. Primary or secondary bacterial pathogens reported to cause pneumonia in ferrets include;

  • Streptococcus zooepidemicus
  • Pseudomonas aeruginosa
  • Bordetella bronchiseptica
  • Listeria monocytogenes
  • Klebsiella pneumoniae
  • Pseudomonas luteola
  • Mycobacterial spp.
  • Escherichia coli

The clinical signs you would expect to see are similar to those in dogs and cats, and include;

  • Dyspnoea
  • Cyanotic mucous membranes
  • Increased lung sounds
  • Nasal discharge
  • Lethargy
  • Fever
  • Anorexia

Treatment

The basic approach to treating a ferret with pneumonia is to provide;

  • Oxygen therapy – this should always be given if the animal is struggling
  • Fluid therapy – many animals become dehydrated as they don’t feed and drink properly
  • Assisted feeding – may animals will require hand and syringe feeding
  • Antimicrobials – common ones used include amoxicillin/clavulanate, a fluoroquinolone, trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole, or a cephalosporin.

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