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In this article, a ferret named Zodiac brings a ferret’s perspective to a typical veterinarian checkup. Her human explains the people perspective of a vet visit.
by Erika Matulich, Ph.D.
Volume 6, Number 2
March/April 2003
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Hi! My name is Zodiac, and I am a sable-mitt ferret who lives with my Mom and Dad (humans) and a ton of other ferrets. I am in the peak of great health, and have enough energy to steal tons of socks, climb walls, and bounce about. Nevertheless, my humans inexplicably drag me off to the ferret doctor every six months! I tell you, it is an appalling practice to be inspected by the greatest veterinarian in the world, only to find out I am perfectly healthy!!! Such a waste of time! When I think about all the things I would rather be doing – and I have sooooo much to do!
Hi! My name is Erika, and I am Zodiac’s human mommy. I know how critical it is to bring your ferrets to the vet at least once a year for their annual checkup. Because I have several ferrets on different shot schedules, I bring all my ferrets to the vet every six months. And if I get a new ferret, I am off to the vet within a day or two – the initial exam is vital for long-term health! Even though I live and work with my ferrets every day, the veterinarians can diagnose problems that an owner may miss. Regular vet visits are a necessary part of preventive health care and treatment for a ferret. I am lucky to have Dr. Deborah Whiting Kemmerer, DVM as the veterinarian for my ferrets (see “Ferret Vets” in the March/April 2002 issue of Ferrets). Yes, it’s a two-hour drive to her office, but having a ferret expert as a vet is worth it! A local vet is available for accidents and emergencies, but he would also prefer that the expert, Dr. K, call the shots!
I just took Zodiac to see Dr. K for a semi-annual checkup. Here’s a review of our visit to show you what to expect on a typical examination at the ferret veterinarian.
Preparation Pointers
Whether the ferrets will be driving for a few minutes or a few hours in the car, the preparation is the same. A sturdy carrier with plenty of room for food, water, a small litterpan, and a sleepsack or hammock is ideal for a comfortable trip. My carriers are also airline approved, in case I have to fly with ferrets. Because I live in a warm climate, I bring along extra water – but it is frozen. In an emergency such as the car breaking down or an airconditioning failure, I can use frozen jugs of water wrapped in a towel to keep the ferrets cool. Never, ever let your ferrets run loose in the car. Within minutes, a ferret can climb behind the dashboard, or crawl under the car pedals and cause an accident. Other items I pack for a trip to the vet are paper towels, ferret oil (Furotone), extra food and treats, and some extra clean sleepsacks and blankets.
You may be tempted to do extra ferret grooming so you can proudly show off a perfect ferret to the vet. However, resist that temptation! Allow your vet to see your ferret in a “normal” state. This way, your vet can check out potential problems that have not been temporarily masked by a recent bath, ear cleaning, or toothbrushing. I do, however, try to trim all ferret nails a week before a trip to the vet. Nails that are too long can catch on things (sleepsacks or a vet’s skin), and nails just cut are very sharp!
Ooooh, Noooo! It’s the ferret carrier! I hate it! It is no fun and there is nothing to explore on the inside. Look at all those other stupid ferrets! As soon as Mom puts the carriers on the floor, they are all dumb enough to crawl inside to check it out! How stupid can you get? Mom just shuts and locks the door. Me? I am not that stupid and I am going to RUN! Ha, ha, can’t catch me! I am so fast! Wheeee – look at me run! OUCH! Ooops, I just ran into Dad, who scooped me up. Hey, lemme go! Put me DOWN! No, No, not in the carrier! Well, of all the nerve! Let me out right now! Here we are in the car, and it is my right as a ferret to be able to explore it, but I am stuck in this carrier! I’ll try to dig my way out. I can dig for hours! Those other ferrets have no work ethic. They just went to sleep!
Yes, Zodiac can dig for hours. The scraping noise becomes somewhat half-hearted after an hour or so. My other ferrets go to sleep right away. For safety reasons, each carrier is strapped into the back seat with a seat belt run through the carrier handle. This keeps the ferrets secure in case of a sudden stop. I also make sure to set the car stereo on low volume or turn off the rear speakers. Rear speakers are usually louder and might be too much noise for your ferret backseat passengers. For a car trip, I also carry a spare set of car keys. If I have to stop, I can leave the engine running with the heater or airconditioner operating for the ferrets’ comfort, and I can still lock the car.
Checking In
Finally! The car engine is turned off! Mom and Dad finally got the hint that I needed to get out of this carrier, because I really need to go! Hurry, hurry and let me out! Oh goody, we are in Exam Room #3, which is decorated especially for ferrets. Quick! I need to find a corner! Nope, not this corner, how about the next one? Well, not quite right, maybe back to the first corner – wait, here is another corner! Aaaah, I feel much better now!
After arriving at the West End Animal Hospital in Newberry, Florida, I immediately ask for an examination room where I can unload the ferrets and let them stretch their legs. The receptionist brings the ferret files as I wait for Dr. Kemmerer to finish up a last-minute adrenal surgery on a rescue ferret.  Ferrets would generally rather not soil the area they are sleeping in, so whenever I unload the ferrets, they immediately go to the bathroom. If you have multiple ferrets, note the owner of each deposit, and don’t clean up just yet! Your veterinarian may wish to collect a stool sample.
The Physical Examination
Despite a morning packed with ferret surgeries, Dr. K arrives with an energetic smile to greet an energetic Zodiac. She observes Zodiac running around on the floor – watching movement helps ascertain physical mobility issues. Zodiac is quite healthy in this regard, as she zips about and then tries to steal a shoe off Dr. K’s foot!
Zodiac is then weighed and the information recorded in her file. Although ferret weight fluctuates with seasonal changes, recording this information regularly is useful to prescribe many medications (such as heartworm preventive), because dosages are calculated by weight. Zodiac weighed a healthy 2 pounds!
Zodiac’s skin and fur was checked to make sure there were no fleas, dry skin flakes, balding or bumps. Ferrets commonly have mast-cell tumors that appear as bloody warts. Balding can also indicate possible adrenal disease.
Hey, I like all this attention! Now I know I am a very special ferret! The Doctor said how healthy I looked when I was running around, so this visit should be over pretty quick! Now I am being petted and held. I got to sit in a big white bowl to get weighed and I found out I weighed a whole half-pound more than I did when I came here for the first time!
Next came taking Zodiac’s temperature. Some vets do this with a rectal thermometer, which can be challenging with a struggling ferret! The only plus is that you usually get a fecal sample when you remove the thermometer! Fortunately, Dr. K uses an ear thermometer that takes just one second to read a normal 100 degrees (ear temperatures register a bit lower than rectal temperatures, which are 100-104 F).
Dr. Kemmerer used a warmed stethoscope to listen to Zodiac’s lungs (nice and clear) and heart (beating normally at a pulse rate of 200 beats per minute).  Vets need to listen to heart sounds or murmurs, as some ferrets can have congenital heart problems. Then came a good look at Zodiac’s eyes (clear and bright, normal movement) and ears with a lighted scope. Her ears had some dark wax, which is normal, but Dr. K wanted to make sure there were no ear mites or other parasites common in ferrets, so she took a sample. Fortunately, the microscope revealed that all was well.
OK, this kind of attention I can do without!  Get that thing outta my ear! Why are humans always messing with my ears? I have beautiful ears that don’t need any assistance from anyone else! Ah ha! Now is my chance! The Doctor left with the cotton swab from my ear and the door is open! I’ll bet I can get off this cold examination table while nobody is looking. Oooof! The floor was farther away than I thought! And now, exit, stage left! Ha ha! I am free and racing around in the clinic!
After recapturing Zodiac, Dr. Kemmerer “palpated” Zodiac’s abdomen to feel if all the internal organs were normal. Ferret spleens can often feel oversized, but this is pretty common, as was the case with Zodiac. She also checked lymph nodes at the throat, armpits, and groin. During parts of the palpation, Zodiac was “scruffed,” which is a common, painless restraining method.
Why does the Doctor have to squish me all over? Ooof, that was my stomach! Hey, that tickles under my arms! Stop it! What are these humans thinking? Why am I here being squashed and prodded? I haven’t done a thing wrong (well, except for nipping Abby, the receptionist!) I need to take another flying leap off the exam table the next time I have a chance. This time, I will run to the right.
Next came the fecal exam. This time, Zodiac was lucky because she had left a “deposit” on the floor upon arrival. Last time, Zodiac was being polite and had not left a “sample” in the examining room, so a fecal loop was used to swab a sample. Zodiac did object to this procedure and tried to nip the vet! The fecal float test showed no parasites, thank goodness!
Another important examination is the mouth and teeth. Dr. K checked the teeth and gums, which showed no signs of tartar or damage. Vets also check teeth to estimate the age in ferrets. It is also important to check the roof of the mouth and throat for abnormalities and tumors. To perform a proper oral examination, a wide-open yawn is a necessity! Dr. K uses a cheek-stroking technique to encourage yawning. With a stubborn ferret, the stick of a cotton swab can be used to push the mouth open.
Ahhh, this is much better! The doctor is petting and stroking my head and cheeks, and it is so relaxing! I really like this “spa treatment” and it is putting me to sleep. Yawn! Wow, why did everyone stare into my mouth when I yawned? Let’s try that again!
Another option your vet might recommend, particularly for older ferrets, is a blood test and urinalysis. These tests can detect possible problems such as kidney disease, liver problems, or insulinoma. When Zodiac was a baby, I had her blood tested for heartworms, because I live in Florida where mosquitos are abundant! All my ferrets have annual CBCs (complete blood counts) when they reach the age of five years or if there seem to be other health problems. Zodiac got a break this time!
Then came the dreaded vaccinations! Zodiac needed to get her distemper and rabies shots. There are two USDA-approved canine distemper shots for ferrets: Fervac-D by United Vaccine, and Purevax by Merial. Baby ferrets need to have a series of 3 canine distemper shots, and then yearly boosters after that. If you guy a baby ferret and the seller tells you that the ferret has already been inoculated, that is only the FIRST shot of the 3-shot series. The next ones need to be on 2-3 week intervals for your ferret to be properly protected from canine distemper, which is fatal to ferrets. If you get an older ferret with an unknown vaccination history, give the ferret a series of two distemper shots two weeks apart. It might be a good idea to have your vet pretreat your ferret with Benadryl or some other antihistamine, because some ferrets have allergic reactions to the Fervac distemper vaccination.  If you don’t pretreat, wait for at least 45 minutes at the vet to make sure there is no reaction. If there is (vomiting, lethargy, and possible loss of bowel control), your vet will need to treat your ferret immediately for anaphylactic shock – these reactions can be life threatening!
Different states have different regulation on when your ferret should be vaccinated against rabies, usually somewhere between 3 and 6 months of age. Note that Imrab-3 by Merial is the only USDA-approved rabies vaccination for ferrets. Zodiac received two subcutaneous (under the skin) injections – Imrab-3 in the right shoulder and Purevax in the left. Zodiac was quite unimpressed with her injection experience. Although she was scruffed and being tempted with Ferretone, she squirmed and complained during the process.  But it was all over in a few seconds!
Hey, what do you think you are doing? I was just being petted, and then I was such a good ferret I got some magic ferret oil, and now I am being scruffed? I haven’t done a thing wrong, and I don’t deserve – OW! What was that for?! How dare you stick me with a needle! As soon as you let go of me, I’ll show you what getting stuck with a needle feels like and then you’ll be sorry and –OW! You did it again! I have had enough of this and I want to go home right NOW! I’ll just take another flying leap off this exam table…OOF! And away we go!
Checking Out
After recapturing Zodiac, it was pharmacy time! What medications did I need to take home with me? First, I got flea and tick monthly drops (Frontline) for Zodiac – ¼ to ½ a small cat dose, or  6-12 drops per month. I also got Ivermectin liquid for monthly heartworm prevention, kitty laxative for hairball prevention, and extra pet toothpaste. A rabies tag was issued, and although it is way too big to ever put on Zodiac’s little collar, I file the tags in my own records because I need them for licensing in my own county. In the meantime, all the records were being input into the computer so a bill could be generated. During this time, I started my car to pre-cool the interior with airconditioning and went back inside to pay the bill. Then I loaded up and waved goodbye to Dr. Kemmerer and her crew and promised I’d be back in six months!
Well, thank goodness that is all over! I could have just TOLD everyone I was a perfectly healthy ferret! Those humans should have figured it out when they saw how fast I could run through the clinic! Now I am glad to crawl into my sleepsack in the condo carrier. I deserve a looooong snooze on the drive home. I don’t think I will try to dig my way out, because I have already worked hard enough today. Some overtime pay will be in order. I think I will demand a few extra socks, treats, and toys as soon as I get home!