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

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Heatstroke in Ferrets

Weezer cools off on a damp towel
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What Should You Know About Heatstroke? Plenty!

© Erika Matulich, Ph.D.

Because ferrets don't tolerate heat well, ferret owners must take extra care during summer to prevent heat stress and heatstroke. The main reason ferrets have heat problems is that they can't sweat. Humans perspire to cool down, but ferrets can't do this. (Wild ferret relatives live in cold climates.) Dogs pant to move air over moisture in their mouths to cool themselves. Ferrets don't normally pant; if you see your ferrets panting, he is suffering from heat stress and is in danger of heatstroke. I once took Sweet Pea to the park for a walk, and although I was comfortable in the pleasant weather, she started to pant. I immediately gave her water and took her inside.

Temperatures above 80 degrees Fahrenheit are uncomfortable for ferrets, temperatures above 85 can cause medical problems within hours, and temperatures above 90 can be fatal. Although ferrets can live through high temperatures, heat-related stress weakens their immune system and shortens their life. If the outdoor climate has temperatures above 80 degrees, ferrets should be kept indoors in a temperature-controlled environment.

These temperature guidelines assume low humidity levels (less than 40 percent). If you live in a humid climate, look at the heat index (a combination of temperature and relative humidity) rather than the actual temperature. If the thermometer reads 82 degrees F and the relative humidity is 80 percent, the heat index is 90, meaning that it feels to us like 90 degrees F. This is because higher humidity levels don't allow for moisture evaporation and heat dissipation from the skin. Although ferrets can't sweat, they still need to lose heat from their footpads, nose, ears, and mouth; high humidity doesn't allow for this. Because my ferrets and I live in South Florida, I pay special attention to humidity so that my fuzzies don't have problems.

To avoid heat stress, keep your ferret in an air-conditioned room, away from direct sunlight. Provide adequate water, and use ice or evaporative cooling to cool the surrounding air. Despite taking these precautions, you may have a ferret suffer from heat stress, which can quickly lead to heatstroke. Heatstroke can be fatal within minutes—one of the reasons you should never leave your ferret (or any pet or animal) in a parked car.

Your ferret may show initial signs of heat stress by being lethargic and lying flat on the floor. The ferret may have her mouth open, and her nose and gums might turn a darker pink (or white, if she is going into shock). If she is panting, salivating, or limp, or if she has red footpads, she is going into heatstroke. Further symptoms are a large quantity of mucus coming from the nose and mouth; collapse; seizures; and finally, coma.

A ferret's normal rectal body temperature is between 99 and 104 degrees F (the average is 101.9). Respiration should be 33 to 36 breaths per minute. Average heart rate should be 225 beats per minute. Higher temperatures, rapid pulse, and shallow breathing indicate heatstroke. To take a rectal temperature, shake down the thermometer, coat it with petroleum jelly, and insert it into the rectum a half inch. Wait one minute, remove, and read. You may need to have someone distract or restrain the ferret during this procedure.

I have also used ear thermometers; although they are much faster, I have noticed that temperatures register lower in the ear, so adjust accordingly. You may need to adjust downward by about 3 degrees. My ferrets' ears read between 96 and 100 degrees, with most at 98. When I get a new thermometer, I take a baseline temperature for each of my ferrets when they are not having any problems. That way, when they do have a health problem, I know whether they have a higher or lower temperature than normal.

First aid
In cases of heat stress and heatstroke, the goal is to lower the ferret's body temperature steadily, not suddenly. I know how hard it is to work slowly on a suffering ferret. I once found Sasha gasping for air, with bright-red ears, gums, and feet. In my panic to save her, I was tempted to dunk her in ice water, but this can be very dangerous. Keep your own head cool, remove your ferret from the heat, and start cooling slowly. If you cool your ferret too quickly, his temperature can drop to a dangerously low level.

Try offering water or Pedialyte (an infant formula that replenishes electrolytes) in a syringe. Drip it in the side of the mouth or under the tongue, making sure the ferret laps and swallows. Never force liquids into an unconscious animal. Wipe the ferret with a cool (not cold) towel, or wrap the ferret in a cool, damp washcloth. Concentrate on the feet, legs, hindquarters, groin, and tail area. Freshen the towel with cool water every few minutes. You can also dip the ferret in slightly cool water. Rubbing alcohol can be applied to the footpads (but nowhere else). Repeat until the rectal temperature reaches 103 degrees F. This may take a long time; I worked with Sasha for three hours before she stabilized.

Get to the vet
When your ferret has stabilized, go to the veterinarian immediately, even if the ferret seems fine. Your ferret may need treatment for dehydration or shock. Don't skip the veterinarian; ferrets can go into shock hours after the heatstroke symptoms have stopped. Sasha needed subcutaneous fluids and electrolytes. I'm glad to say that these methods saved Sasha, and they've gotten many other ferrets over heat stress and out of danger of heatstroke.

Wild ferrets

Ferrets are naturally cool-climate animals. Domestic ferrets are descended from European polecats (not the American Black-Footed ferret). Today, European polecats live in England and north central Europe, where it is cool. Wild ferrets live in underground burrows, where they are protected from heat.