Ferret Friendly Facts and Advice by Erika Matulich, Ph.D.

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© Erika Matulich
When my first ferret, Critter, started coughing one day, I called up the vet in a panic. The vet asked, “What does it sound like?” I obliged by hacking and rasping into the phone in a reasonable imitation, and then concluded that Critter “sounded kind of like a cat coughing on cat hair.” “Oh, that’s easy,” the vet responded glibly, “it’s a gastric trichobezoar.”  “A WHAT?” I shrieked in panic, interrupted by the vet giggling, “That’s a ferret coughing on ferret hair.”
Shedding Season
Ferrets change their coats to get ready for seasonal changes. The winter coat is shed out to make way for a thinner, summer coat. The summer coat will shed out in fall to make way for the thicker, winter coat. During this shedding time, you may notice the fluffy undercoat hairs floating around in the air, and the longer stiff “guard hairs” all over your ferret’s bedding. The finer undercoat hairs seem to stick on everything, including food and ferret noses! During shedding season, as your ferret grooms or eats, these hairs may be swallowed. If enough of these hairs are ingested and clump up in the stomach, a hairball can form.
Hairballs are Hazardous!
Unfortunately, ferrets do not vomit up hairballs like cats do. The coughing sound that Critter made was because some hairs were stuck in the back of her throat on the way down! This means that if a hairball forms, a life-threatening intestinal blockage can take place. Even a few hairs tangled together in the stomach that are not passed into the intestine can cause problems. Each new piece of fur that goes down will get caught on the “hairnet” and the problem will become bigger and bigger. The hairball will eventually become too big to be passed through. The hairball can then stop up the stomach. In this case, the ferret can’t digest food very well and may vomit up any food that can’t continue through the system. This problem leads to malnutrition and dehydration. The worst-case scenario is when the hairball leaves the stomach but blocks the intestines. This blockage cuts off the blood supply to that part of the intestine, which can lead to shock and death for your ferret.
Symptoms and Signs
Besides coughing on the occasional piece of fur stuck in the throat, your ferret may show other signs of hairball problems. Small, skinny poops indicate that only small amounts of food at a time can be digested – indicating something is partially blocked. Frequent vomiting or “dry heaves” can also be a symptom. Finally, in an intestinal blockage situation, your ferret may be lethargic, vomiting, unable to eat, and have a decreased body temperature. Take your ferret to a veterinarian before shock sets in. Blocked intestines are life threatening if not treated immediately. I spent my millennium New Year’s Eve at the vet to perform emergency surgery on a shocky Little Bear to remove an intestinal blockage (a piece of foam). The vet agreed that waiting even a few more hours would have likely been fatal (Little Bear is doing great now!)
Hairball Prevention
Removing hair from the ferret and the ferret’s environment during shedding season is a big help. Brush your ferrets, or use a gentle pet vacuum. Bathing can also help during this time. Frequently launder the ferrets’ bedding because the lint-trap on the dryer will catch lots of extra fur. Vacuum clean and sweep the house as often as possible, too.
Cat hairball laxative pastes are ideal for hairball prevention. Most have a sweet, malt flavor that ferrets seem to love. The pastes help the hair glide through the entire digestive system without getting stuck anywhere. During shedding season, give your ferret a ½-inch ribbon of paste, or about ¼-teaspoon every other day. If you notice coughing and hair stuck in your ferret’s teeth, you might try this every day. During the non-shedding season, you could do preventive maintenance with a dose every week or two. A few cautions:  First, this is a laxative, and you can expect to see looser stools. If your ferret develops diarrhea, cut back on the dosing. Second, the high amount of sugars in most hairball remedies can cause dental problems. Plan to brush your ferret’s teeth every week during the shedding season to prevent tartar and decay.
I hope these tips will help keep your ferret happy, healthy, and free of gastric trichobezoars!