Hair loss and a swollen abdomen in ferrets are usually symptoms of adrenal disease. This disease can kill a ferret, so the ferret needs to see a vet as soon as possible. Although there are many reasons for a ferret to lose hair, such as its annual spring molt, to also have a swollen abdomen means the ferret needs to see a vet as soon as possible. Other symptoms of adrenal disease include sudden aggression, sexually mounting other ferrets or inanimate objects like pillows or toys and problems urinating.
It is unknown why ferrets get adrenal disease. It is also unknown why American and Canadian ferrets get it far more often than European pet ferrets. Theories as to causes of adrenal disease include spaying or neutering the ferret at 6 to 7 weeks old, which is normal in North America; genetics; diet; genetics and/or too much exposure to artificial light. Whatever the cause, the adrenal glands grow too large or grow tumors and that is what causes symptoms.
Usual Age Symptoms Begin
Adrenal disease mostly happens to ferrets four years old and up. It is seen in 25% of all North American ferrets over 4, according to Holly Nash, DVM. However, adrenal disease has been seen in ferrets as young as 1 year old. Because it is unknown why ferrets get adrenal disease, it is unknown why older ferrets mostly get it and not younger ones. Unfortunately, there is still a lot about the causes of ferret adrenal disease that we do not know.
Hair Loss Pattern
Hair loss in ferrets due to adrenal disease tends to fit a pattern. The balding begins at the base of the tail and then gradually moves up to the ferret’s head. Both sides of the ferret become equally bald. The hair often comes off very easily. (See Reference 4) Without the protective covering of fur, the skin often dries out and becomes dandruff-like. The ferret will sometimes find these bald patches to be very itchy and may rub, bite or scratch them constantly.
Other Symptoms to Watch For
A ferret in the early stages of adrenal disease may or may not have other symptoms along with balding and a pot belly. They include a return to sexual behavior, even in neutered or spayed ferrets. They often become tired all of the time; drink more often than usual and as a result urinate more often than usual; males will have an enlarged prostate and may have problems urinating or can only urinate in dribbles; females have a greatly swollen vulva and may get urinary tract infections as a result. The ferrets may begin to put off a strong, offensive musky odor. Later symptoms of ferret adrenal disease include appetite loss, weight loss and coordination problems.
Treatment is usually surgical removal of the adrenal glands. Often both glands are removed, even if only one is affected because the changes are high that the other gland will also grow tumors.
But if the ferret is a poor candidate for surgery because it is too old, then medication can be tried. These medications include Lupron Depot injections, Lysodren and melatonin. In some cases, implants can be surgically placed in the ferret to release melatonin or deslorilin. This eliminates the need for daily injections, although they often last only a few months. However, this may be enough time to help the ferret get better.
There may also be other medications given depending on the ferret’s individual health and symptoms. For example, medications like Casodex or Proscar may be given to male ferrets to help shrink their prostates.
Ferret Universe.com. “Adrenal Disease.” http://ferret-universe.com/health/adrenal.asp
Pet Education. “Adrenal Disease in Ferrets.” Holly Nash, DVM. http://www.peteducation.com/article.cfm?c=11+1286&aid=522
“Ferrets For Dummies.” Kim Schilling. For Dummies; 2000.
University of Georgia. “Adrenal Disease in Domestic Ferrets: An Overview.” http://www.vet.uga.edu/vpp/clerk/johnson/index.php