Emergency First Aid
Many of the urgent calls for help received by my colleagues and myself are when a ferret has been found ill, collapsed, been injured or some similar type of emergency. Although most owners will realise that this means an urgent trip to the vet, the main question is 'What do I do now?' - how to deal with the emergency in the first instance. It would obviously not be possible to cover every emergency situation, but here are a few tips on immediate action in two of the most common situations - accidental injury and poisoning.
The basic principles in any emergency situation are:
a) To help the animal survive until it can receive veterinary attention
b) To reduce any likelihood of further injury
c) To alleviate immediate pain where possible
d) To prevent the animal injuring people who are trying to help it
Perhaps the most fundamental piece of first aid is to have already made contact with a vet who is willing and able to treat your ferret. Knowing who to ring and where to take your ferret is half the battle in an emergency. An injured or seriously sick ferret may die while you try to find a vet, so please do not put off finding a vet until it's too late. If you do not already know of a vet in your area check Ferret Friendly Vets NOW! You may well find an experienced ferret vet through these sources. Alternatively take time to ring around vets in your area BEFORE you need them.
Dealing with an Injured Ferret
Like most small animals, ferrets can be victims of a range of accidents - road accidents, crush injuries such as being stepped on, trapped in doors or having objects fall on them. Ferrets also suffer falls from stairways, windows and any other high surface on which they can climb. The first priority is to move the ferret to safety, where further accidents cannot occur. This is especially important in the case of road accidents where it could be hit again.
However, in the case of road accidents you need to take care yourself as bending over an animal will make you very difficult for motorists to see. If possible get another person to keep watch and indicate to oncoming motorists that you are there.
Moving an injured ferret:
a) Try to stay calm and quiet. Shouts, noises and sudden movements can panic a ferret into trying to run, even if badly injured.
b) Cover your hands and arms and keep your face away from the ferret. An injured ferret may bite if frightened or in pain. c) Gently lift/roll the ferret enough to wrap a coat/rug/ towel around it. Try to form a tube around the ferret so it can be held at both ends. The head can be covered loosely provided breathing is not obstructed.
d) Use a board, tray, shovel or similar flat surface to lift the ferret from the accident site.
e) Place into a deep box or carrier. If no carrying box is immediately available, keep the animal wrapped in its 'tube' on the board or tray, getting someone to hold both ends of the tube securely.
Once the ferret has been moved you will need to check whether other emergency procedures are needed.
Cover any wounds with a clean damp cloth. This keeps the wound site from drying. If there is serious external bleeding, apply a pressure pad of cotton wool or similar, taping it or tying it in place until you get to a vet. Internal bleeding is indicated by collapse and very pale membranes in the nose, mouth and eyes. Immediate veterinary attention is needed.
Keeping the airway clear:
Remove any collar the ferret may be wearing. Make sure the ferret can breathe, especially if it is unconscious or semi conscious. If there seem to be problems you may have to take steps to help breathing. Very gently open its mouth and clear any vomit, blood, mucous that may be in the mouth or throat. You may need to gently pull the tongue forward. Be careful when doing this as it may cause the ferret to regain consciousness quickly and it may panic and bite. Keep the ferret's head slightly lower than its body to allow fluid to continue to drain from the mouth. If the ferret is unconscious, do not let it lie too long on one side as the lungs can become congested. Gently turning the ferret over every 10-15 minutes (by rotating its 'tube' covering) helps to reduce this risk.
Conserving body temperature:
Injured, shocked ferrets lose body heat quickly. Wrap the ferret in a warm blanket or rug, making sure the feet and legs are also covered. If no blanket is available, use whatever fabric is to hand; newspaper, bubble wrap, even cooking foil to help retain adequate body temperature. Do not use direct heat such as heat pads, hot water bottles or the like as this diverts blood flow to the brain where it is most needed.
In cases of injury and/or collapse, immediate veterinary attention is needed. By attending to the sorts of emergency procedures above, you can help your ferret survive long enough to get to the vet for treatment. NB: Don't forget to ring the surgery to let them know you are coming or, in out-of-surgery hours, to find out whether you need to go somewhere different to your normal surgery address.
Dealing with Suspected Poisoning
Ferrets are both carnivorous and curious so they run the risk of primary poisoning (eating something poisonous) and secondary poisoning (eating another animal which has eaten something poisonous).
Symptoms which should alert you to the possibilities of poisoning include sudden violent vomiting, diarrhoea, drooling/frothing at the mouth, staggering, fits and collapse. Although these symptoms can occur in illnesses not associated with poisoning, you should immediately start to think whether your ferret has recently been anywhere it might have had contact with something poisonous. For example, has it been rummaging around in cupboards where bleach, dyes, mothballs, medicines, detergents or disinfectants are kept? Has it been in the garden shed amongst slug pellets, weed-killers or rat poison? Garages may contain oil, paint, creosote, putty, glues and so forth. Even handbags in which paracetamol or other headache remedies may have been kept have proved a serious risk to curious ferrets. Many house and garden plants can also be poisonous so think back to whether the ferret was investigating any shortly before the onset of the symptoms. Ferrets are not always put off by smells or tastes that we would think unpleasant, so don't rule out anything on those grounds alone.
Obvious clues will be if the ferret is found having ripped open a packet of something harmful, or if it is found with a half-eaten mouse. If this happens or you have strong suspicions as to what the ferret may have eaten take that packaging/substance/carcass to the vet with the ferret.
Immediate steps to take if you suspect poisoning is to put the ferret in a quiet, darkened place (especially if it is having a fit) while you ring the vet for advice. DO NOT try to do anything to make the ferret vomit or give anything not recommended by the vet. The vet will decide from your information whether to come to you or get you to bring the ferret to surgery immediately.
Finally, always, always have a clean carrier available for emergency use. If possible, keep one to be used only for vet visits and emergencies. Clean it thoroughly after each use and store in somewhere immediately accessible. There is no time in an emergency to have to scrub out a carrier or rearrange the loft to find one. It is too optimistic to hope we will never need to deal with an emergency, but we can at least be prepared.
June McNicholas (2012)