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Bald Butt is the Least of an Adrenal Ferret's Woes
One day when
Gizmo, my second ferret, was 3 years old, I noticed that her usually
lush fur was thinner and duller. A week later, a bald patch appeared at
the base of her tail and I noticed her vulva swelling, so off she went
to the veterinarian. The diagnosis: adrenal disease.
This was the first of my many experiences with adrenal disease, which is
quite common in American-bred ferrets. Some studies say that as many as
50 percent to 80 percent of American ferrets are affected. Female
ferrets seem to be at higher risk. Ferrets can experience this problem
any time in their life, but it's most common in those between 2 and 4
years of age.
Adrenal disease causes lesions or tumors on
one or both adrenal glands. The adrenal glands—in ferrets as in humans—are
complex organs (located near the kidneys) that produce certain sex
hormones as well as secretions necessary for food metabolism, muscle
maintenance, proper healing of wounds, and other important functions.
A benign glandular tumor is known as an adenoma; a malignant (cancerous)
one is called a carcinoma. Fortunately, most adrenal tumors are benign.
Unfortunately, even benign adrenal tumors cause problems for ferrets. In
addition to losing their hair, adrenal ferrets lose muscle mass and have
There's lots of debate as to why adrenal disease is so common in
American ferrets. One theory says that poor nutrition can lead to these
tumors. Another blames inbreeding and a genetic pool that isn't very
diverse. It's also thought that the early-alter practice (in which
ferrets are spayed or neutered at 5 or 6 weeks of age) is a source of
later adrenal problems. Finally, some people believe that artificial
light cycles mess up the hormone cycle of ferrets, leading to
The most common symptom of adrenal disease
is “alopecia,” or baldness, usually starting at the butt. For Gizmo,
hair loss progressed from her tail forward over the body until she had
fur only on her head and feet. Males may lose hair starting at the neck.
In spayed females like Gizmo, the vulva can become swollen.
Other common signs are increased itching and scratching, a potbelly,
muscle wasting, orange skin patches, sexual aggressiveness (especially
in males), and brittle fur. Sometimes you will also see a thinning of
the skin, excessive drinking and urination, anemia, and weight loss.
To make things especially confusing, not all these symptoms are present
in every case. I once noticed that Socks, another of my ferrets, was
scratching more than usual. He showed no other symptoms, but an
ultrasound test showed a large adrenal tumor.
Baldness or a swollen vulva are sufficient cause for immediate
treatment. But if you're not sure (as with an itchy Socks), you can have
an ultrasound performed by an experienced technician to detect a mass on
the adrenals. Ultrasound is not entirely reliable, however; for
instance, it can't detect very tiny tumors.
Another option for diagnosis is the ferret adrenal panel, available only
at the University of Tennessee. For this test, your vet must draw blood,
freeze it, and ship it under climate-controlled conditions to Tennessee.
Then you have to wait for the results. Because of the expense involved
with these two diagnostic tools, ultrasound and the adrenal panel should
be used only for questionable cases.
The most common and effective treatment—and
the only permanent one—is surgical removal of the entire affected
adrenal gland. When an adrenal gland is diseased, it gets much larger,
presumably because there are tumor cells on it; the vet can't really cut
away only the bad part, because it's hard to tell what part that is.
For some undetermined reason, the left adrenal gland is affected more
often than the right. This is a great source of relief to vets, because
removal of the left adrenal gland is not an excessively difficult
surgery and has a low risk of complication. Because the right adrenal is
located near several large blood vessels, it can be difficult or even
impossible to remove.
If both glands are affected, typically the left is removed and the right
is “debulked,” a process by which the surgeon cuts away some of the
glandular tissue. Aside from being risky, removing the entire right
gland could lead to a hormone imbalance. Ferrets who have had both
adrenal glands removed completely will require precortin injections (for
hormone replacement) by a vet every few weeks for life.
If a ferret shows clear signs of adrenal disease but the vet cannot
visually detect which gland is enlarged, the left gland is often removed
If the ferret is very old or in poor health,
surgery may not be an option. Also, a ferret who has already had one
adrenal gland removed might still be suffering from adrenal disease. For
these ferrets, the problem can often be controlled (but not cured) with
One option is Lysodren (mitotane), which must be given orally every
three or four days without fail for the remainder of the ferret's life.
Another option is the drug Lupron, given in monthly injections by a vet.
(Stronger, twice yearly Lupron injections are another, but more
Whether your vet recommends Lysodren or Lupron depends on the ferret and
the situation. The drugs work in different ways. If the ferret is
younger and you are on a budget, a vet may try Lysodren first (it's not
cheap, but it's cheaper than Lupron).
But some ferrets don't respond well to Lysodren and experience nausea or
no results. Also, Lysodren lowers the blood glucose level, so it would
cause serious problems in a ferret who already has insulinoma (a
blood-sugar regulation problem). Lupron is also recommended if a
ferret's owners are not up to the medication regimen required with
My elderly ferret Slinky had already had his left adrenal gland removed
and his right one debulked; he had been on Lysodren for several years
when he quit responding to the drug (evidenced by another bald butt). He
now gets injections of Lupron every six months.
Some owners don't wish to put their ferrets
through the stress of surgery or are unwilling to spend the money. But
drug treatments—aside from being less effective and having side
effects—are just as expensive as surgery in the long run.
Adrenal ferrets who do not undergo surgery sometimes regrow their hair,
but this does not mean the adrenal tumor has gone away. Adrenal disease
is cumulative and progressive. And although the tumors don't appear to
be painful, the other problems associated with this disease greatly
decrease the quality of a ferret's life.
Without surgery, your ferret can live bald and relatively happy for six
months to two years; with surgery, she can live a full life span (eight
years on the average) with good health.
Ferrets up to 6 years old are considered good candidates for surgery,
and recovery time is quick (all of my ferrets have recovered within two
weeks). Also, during exploratory surgery the vet can look for other
common diseases such as insulinoma, spleen problems, or cysts. When my
Little Bear was having her “routine” adrenal surgery, the surgeon
found that part of the tumor was threatening to choke off her kidney.
Had I postponed or forgone the surgery, Little Bear could have died from
Having been through dozens of adrenal tests, surgeries, and medication
regimens, I always hope that the next ferret will stay healthy. But
adrenal disease is common, and dealing with it comes with the territory
of sharing your life with ferrets. My husband and I start a savings
account for each new ferret so that we will be financially ready if and
when the time for adrenal treatment comes. We think our ferrets are
disease and light cycles
Because there is
some evidence that artificial light cycles can mess up the
hormone cycle of ferrets and lead to adrenal problems, I am
careful to keep my ferrets on a natural light cycle.
The large closet where the cages are has a timer on the light.
When the sun goes down, that room is dark. When the sun comes
up, it is lit. Other rooms that the ferrets use during the day
have natural light from windows, and when the ferrets are out of
their cages, we try (as much as possible) not to use artificial
lights to “overcome” the natural light level.