COMMUNICABLE DISEASES

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A variety of ailments can pass from you and your other pets to your ferrets. Learn what to watch for and how to prevent transmission.
by Erika Matulich, Ph.D.
Volume 2, Number 1
January/February 1999
 
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You should not rely on the veterinary advice or information provided on this site for diagnosis or treatment of any specific situation. Always consult your own veterinarian for specific advice concerning the medical condition or treatment of your own pet or animal.

A frequent question received by ferret experts is about disease transmission. "Can my ferret catch leukemia from my cat?" (No). "Can I give my ferret my cold or flu?" (Yes). "Can my ferrets give their green slime disease to my child?" (No). This article first covers the diseases we routinely vaccinate our ferrets against, and those we vaccinate humans against. Then colds and flus are covered. Finally, the article lists possible diseases that ferrets can catch from or give to other family members, as well as diseases we routinely vaccinate our other pets against. These diseases are presented alphabetically in categories, such as gastrointestinal ailments, respiratory problems, and other important diseases. An attempt has been made to cover as many of the more common diseases as possible, but not all are listed.

ROUTINE FERRET VACCINATIONS

Ferrets should be routinely inoculated with distemper and rabies shots. These should be administered annually by a veterinarian. Other vaccinations, typically given in combinations to dogs and cats (such as parvo, feline distemper, or feline leukemia), are not necessary and can even make your ferret sick.

Distemper

Canine distemper is a virus (paramyxovirus) that is shed from the infected animal through nasal secretions (sneezing), eye discharges, urine, feces, and skin debris. Pregnant ferrets can also transmit it to their unborn babies. These materials can be "aerosolized" and another animal can breathe the airborne particles and become infected. A person may get these materials on their clothing, shoes, or hands and transmit it to another ferret in this manner. This means the disease can be transmitted without your pet having direct contact with an infected ferret or dog. You can transmit it unknowingly on clothes or hands, or it can travel through the air.

The virus attacks body tissues such as the gastrointestinal tract, bladder, lymph nodes, spleen, salivary glands, skin, adrenal glands, lungs, and brain. It depresses the body's immune system and makes it incapable of fighting disease properly. The pet dies from a combination of the direct effects of the virus on various organs and from the secondary bacterial and viral infections that attack the body. Th damaged immune system is unable to fight the virus.

Canine distemper is 99.5% fatal in the ferret, so once they have it, treatment is difficult, expensive, and often futile. The ferret may take from 7 to 21 days from the date of exposure to start showing signs of the disease. There are a variety of signs, but usually it starts with an eye discharge that becomes yellow or green and sticky followed by the eyelids becoming swollen. This infection rarely responds to antibiotic medications. Next there is nasal discharge, swelling of the lips and chin, and thick crusts that form on the eyes, nose, chin, and lips. The ferret becomes more lethargic, and loses its appetite. Diarrhea may develop. As the disease progresses, there may be swelling of the anus, thickening and hardening of the pads of the feet, and orange crusting of the skin in the abdominal and anal areas. Finally there are muscular tremors, hyperexcitability, convulsions, and death.

Each ferret is an individual and some ferrets go directly to the convulsion and hyperexcitable stage without any discharges. There is no other disease in the ferret that has the characteristic crusting of the lips or chin and hardening of the pads all occurring at the same time. Diagnosis is based primarily on signs. If the pet is not exhibiting "typical" distemper signs, and one wants to check for the disease, your veterinarian may wish to run specific tests to confirm the problem. Animals diagnosed with canine distemper are normally euthanized because the disease difficult and expensive to treat, and even with treatment, survival is not guaranteed. The treatment is a transfusion of a serum made from the blood of well-vaccinated ferrets. To let a pet die "naturally" of the disease is a cruel choice, unless your vet thinks recovery is likely with treatment. Additionally, an infected ferret is putting other animals at risk, as the disease is easily transmitted to other ferrets and dogs. Any other ferret or dog that has not had distemper shots is at high risk around an infected ferret.

Your ferret needs an annual canine (not feline) distemper vaccination of the USDA-approved Fervac-D (by United Vaccine). Some people use Galaxy-D, which is not specifically approved for use in ferrets, but has shown to be effective in practical use. Make sure your dogs receive their appropriate canine distemper shots as well. Keep in mind that it takes about 14 days for the ferretís immune system to build up protection from the vaccine, so your ferret is still susceptible to the disease when first given the shot.

Some ferrets (as many as 10%) have anaphylactic shock reactions 30 minutes to 3 hours after getting a distemper vaccine. To reduce the risk associated with this reaction, there are several safety measures you can take. First, do not give rabies and distemper shots at the same time. These shots should be given ideally 6 months apart, otherwise at least 2 weeks apart. Second, plan to stay at your vet's office at least 30 minutes after the shot, to check for reactions. Symptoms include lethargy, vomiting, drooling, loss of bowel control, and coma. Should a reaction occur, a swift response will save your ferret's life. In case of a reaction, you or your vet needs to administer an antihistamine. The most common is 1:10,000 epinephrine given subcutaneously. If you are at home and you see the beginnings of a reaction, you can orally administer children's Benadryl (3ccs or one teaspoon) before going to the vet, but never give liquids to an unconscious pet!

The distemper vaccination can protect your pet for up to 14 months (although it is valid for only 12 months), but this protection time can diminish if: (1) your ferret was ill during the vaccination; (2) the ferret had secondary problems at the time of the shot (such as lymphoma, insulinoma, or adrenal disease); or (3) your ferret has had repeated exposures to distemper and fought the disease off (each exposure weakens the protection). Therefore it is important to keep vaccinations current. Kits need a series of three vaccinations, each 2-3 weeks apart, beginning at the kitís fifth or sixth week of life, and then an annual booster. Most pet store kits have only had their first of three distemper shots, so you must be responsible enough to finish out the series. If you adopt an older ferret with an unknown vaccination history, or one that has not had a distemper vaccine in over two years, a series of 2 shots 3 weeks apart is recommended to keep your ferret out of danger.

Rabies

Rabies is a serious disease that has reached epidemic proportions in several areas of the United States. The disease is typically carried by skunks, foxes, racoons, bats, and some rodents. The disease is carried in the saliva glands of these animals and is spread by an infected animal biting another. Because of the seriousness of the disease, many state health departments require that your ferrets are routinely vaccinated. Check with your state health department and city ordinances on rabies shots for your ferrets. Some require the first vaccination at 3 months, and annually thereafter. Others require the first vaccination at 6 months and then every year.

Fortunately, ferrets are not very likely to catch rabies, and even less likely to spread it. Ferrets, because they are housed indoors, seldom have contact with wildlife that could carry rabies. Even if a ferret does have contact with a rabid animal, they are not very susceptible to the disease, or if they do get it, they die very quickly (within a matter of days). Furthermore, most strains of rabies donít seem to survive well in the ferretís salivary glands, so it is difficult for the ferret to spread rabies. There have been a few cases of rabies in ferrets reported in the United States, but no human beings have ever gotten rabies from a ferret. Even so, for legal reasons it is extremely important to get your ferret inoculated. Your ferret may be at risk of being destroyed, according to local laws, if he accidentally nips or scratches a human and has not had a rabies shot.

IMRAB-3 is a rabies vaccine of killed virus organism that has been approved for ferrets by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the American Veterinary Medical Association. IMRAB-3 is manufactured by Rhone Merieux, Inc. It is commonly used for cats and dogs, where it has been tested to be effective for three years. It has not been specifically tested in ferrets past one year, so ferrets must still be vaccinated annually. This vaccine can be given to healthy ferrets 3 months of age or older with an annual booster. In most states, only a licensed veterinarian can administer a rabies shot. For legal reasons, get a rabies certificate (showing the name of the vaccine, the lot number, and date of inoculation) to show that your ferret has been vaccinated. In many states, a rabies tag or license is not sufficient documentation for protection.

ROUTINE HUMAN VACCINATIONS

Humans vaccinate their children against a number of diseases such as diphtheria, mumps, measles, whooping cough, and polio. None of these diseases transmit to or from ferrets.

COLDS AND FLUS

Ferrets are susceptible to the same types of colds and flu as humans get and will display the same symptoms: runny or stuffy nose, watery eyes, sneezing, coughing, and loss of appetite. In particular, the human viral influenza type A is a problem. If any members in your household are experiencing symptoms of illness you should not let your ferrets come in contact with them, especially kits, elderly, or pregnant ferrets. Ferrets can easily catch your cold or flu, and your sick ferret can re-transmit the disease back to you.

There is generally no need for medication; just make sure the ferret drinks plenty of water and its environment is free of drafts. Some ferret owners will give a 1cc dose of Children's Sudafed (raspberry-flavored) for the stuffiness. If symptoms become chronic and persist for more than three days, take your pet to the vet, as a secondary infection may have set in. Never give aspirin to a ferret.

GASTROINTESTINAL (DIGESTIVE) AILMENTS

Ferrets can suffer from a wide variety of gastrointestinal ailments that cause diarrhea, or other types of unusual stools. Because there are so many sources of these problems, a fecal check by your veterinarian may be the best bet for accurate diagnosis. Many of these diseases may be preceded by vomiting. These ailments include:

Aleutians Disease is a form of parvovirus that is highly contagious from ferret to ferret. The disease causes gastrointestinal and neurological problems and is usually fatal within 6 months. Aleutians is not the same parvo that cats and dogs get, so the diseases is not contagious to or from these other household pets. Unfortunately, there is no preventive vaccine for ferrets and no effective treatment available. A test is available from United Vaccines to see if your ferret had Aleutians.

Botulism is a form of food poisoning from canned food that has spoiled. Botulism is potentially fatal (to both humans and pets). Do not feed your ferrets food that you would not eat, or food from old, dented cans. The botulism organism must be ingested, so the disease is not contagious in any other way. Vomiting and diarrhea occurs, with rapid onset of shock.

Coccidia is when intestinal parasites cause loose stools or stomach upset. Coccidia is highly contagious from ferret to ferret and can also be transmitted to other pets and humans. Microscopic examination of stool samples can help to diagnose this problem. This disease is fairly common in ferrets.

Cryptosporidiosis is a potential disease with all humans and animals from water filtration problems. Because the public water supply in this country is fairly safe, this problem would be seldom encountered. The disease is difficult to diagnose, often fatal, and would have symptoms of severe gastrointestinal upset by all family members.

Epizootic Catarrhal Enteritis (ECE): The "greenies" is highly contagious from ferret to ferret, but does not appear to transmit to other pets or humans. Characterized by vomited and green, slimy diarrhea, the disease is potentially life-threatening if supportive care (fluids, liquid nutrients, and antibiotics) are not provided. Even after symptoms have disappeared, and ECE-ferret will be a carrier and will continue to spread the disease to other ferrets.

Giardia (Montezuma's Revenge) is highly contagious to and among humans, cats, dogs, ferrets through fecal-oral contact. The usual source is fishtanks, rodents (pet hamsters or rats), or any stagnant water. Do not let your ferret lap water from your fishtank or turtle bowl! Gastrointestinal upset, ulcers and other problems may result from giardia. This disease is treated with antibiotics and/or paste wormers, along with bleach disinfectant of all surfaces a ferret may contact.

Proliferative Colitis is camphylobacter infection of the intestine and can be treated with antibiotics. Both humans and ferrets can get this, but it is unknown how the disease is transmitted.

Salmonella can easily be caught by both humans and ferrets; this disease causes severe gastrointestinal upset. Salmonella can be transmitted by reptiles. Do not feed your ferrets raw eggs or raw chicken, which both carry salmonella. Those who have caught salmonella can potentially spread it.

RESPIRATORY (LUNG AND NOSE) PROBLEMS

Ferrets can also suffer from a wide variety of lung and nose ailments. Often, these can be allergies, so make sure you are not using scented laundry detergent or fabric softener on their bedding, avoid smoking around ferrets, clean litterboxes at least daily, and don't use insecticides in the house. Ferrets may also cough because of hair or other items lodged in the throat (try Laxatone). Diseases that are not allergies are detailed below.

Bordatella bronchiseptia (kennel cough) is normal to be carried by dogs, cats, humans, and ferrets; the disease asserts itself when the immune system is stressed or when the animal is exposed to high concentrations (such as when boarding your ferret in a dog kennel). Do not treat ferrets with preventive dog medications (nasal drops); these can CAUSE bordatella; treat with antibiotics post-infection.

Histoplasmosis is a deep fungal disease originating from bat guano. The disease results in pneumonia-like symptoms, but is difficult to identify and treat.

Pneumonia in the human respiratory system does not appear to transmit to or from ferrets.

Pneumocystic pneumonia is a protozoal disease common in HIV patients. This type of pneumonia could be transmittable to ferrets with suppressed immune systems.

Rhinotracheitis is a cat-specific disease apparently nontransmittable to other pets (including ferrets) or humans.

Respiratory Syncytial Virus is sometimes seen in human infants; ferrets could be prone to catching this if their immune systems are depressed. There is the possibility of transmitting this virus from human to ferret and back to humans.

Tuberculosis has been seen in ferrets in New Zealand. This disease can be transmitted back and forth between ferrets and humans. This strain's source is usually a monkey and has not been seen in the United States.

OTHER DISEASES

There are a variety of other diseases that cause skin, eye, urinary tract, or other problems. These include:

Chlamydia psittaci is a potential problem for ferrets, resulting in conjunctivitis of the eye. The disease could be caught from parrots. It is potentially transmittable from an infected ferret to humans.

Coronavirus is not transmittable to ferrets from dogs.

Cryptococcosis is menengial encephalitis. 3 cases have been found in ferrets; it is a deep fungal disease from pigeon excreta and soil.

Distemper (feline) is not transmittable from cats to ferrets.

Distemper (canine) as noted above is easily transmittable from dogs to ferrets and vice versa..

Feline AIDS is thought not to transmit to other animals, but more research is needed in this area.

Infectious canine hepatitis has shown no evidence that it can be transmitted from dogs to ferrets.

Leptospirosis is a potential problem for ferrets (and humans), but uncommon. The bacterial infection may cause a urinary tract infection that must be treated with antibiotics.

Leukemia (feline) is not transmittable from cats to ferrets.

Parvovirus (feline or canine) does not appear to be in ferrets.

Ringworm is a fungal infection causing circular rashes; highly contagious to and from humans and other animals, as well as between ferrets. Must be treated with topical creams.

Tetanus clostridium is a potential danger to ferrets, as with humans. The disease usually enters through a puncture wound, causing stiff walking, "wooden tongue," and slobbering. It is otherwise not contagious.

Toxoplasmosis is rarely seen in ferrets. A ferret can ingest oocytes from cat feces, but most ferrets do not appear to re-shed the oocytes. In cat feces, the oocytes can cause placental separation in pregnant human women. To be safe, pregnant women should not change the litterbox of a cat or a ferret.

CONCLUSION

In general, ferrets are healthy animals, especially when receiving regular canine distemper and rabies vaccinations and annual or semi-annual visits to their ferret veterinarian. Human colds and flus are a potential problem, but few other diseases will be contagious among your pets and other family members.

Special thanks to Dr. Roger Kendrick, DVM, for assistance with this article