Health Matters 8
by Dr June McNicholas
Thanking members and other readers has become an almost inevitable start to each edition of Health Matters, but you are all truly wonderful in sending me information about your ferrets' health problems. Better still, I am getting more and more 'success' stories where ferrets have responded to prompt appropriate treatment. As ever, on behalf of all the ferrets it may help in the future, I thank you for your efforts. Long may it continue.
I've been asked to put together some general information on kits, development, weaning, hand-rearing and so forth for this issue, but first some treatment reports starting with the range of lumps and bumps our ferrets seem so fond of acquiring!
A two year old neutered hob developed a large (2cm) abscess on his right cheek. It was drained under general anaesthetic and a ten day course of antibiotics (Synulox) was prescribed. Within two weeks the abscess had recurred. It was again drained and a further course of antibiotics given. The abscess again recurred, this time it was drained without anaesthetic. This continued at approximately three week intervals for ten months. The ferret remained well and active but clearly uncomfortable when the abscess became large. Eventually another form of draining was employed. This involved 'marsupialisation', the cutting and folding of the skin over the abscess to form a 'pouch' to prevent the wound closing up and filling again. Post-operative healing tends to be slow after this procedure and the wound required frequent swabbing out with diluted Hibiscrub, but within six weeks it began to heal and two months later it is reported that there is no further sign of abscess formation.
Dental abscesses are not always obvious to detect. A neutered rescue hob, approximately 2-3 years old, suffered severe weight loss, lethargy and was obviously unwell, although there were no clear signs of what the illness might be. An enteric infection was suspected when the hob lost his appetite and developed a temperature of 106 degrees. There was some response to a course of Synulox but not a complete recovery and the hob continued to ail. Repeated antibiotic courses given intermittently over the next ten weeks gave only limited improvement and there comes point when continued use of antibiotics must be considered a risk in itself. The hob then developed a large swelling at the front of his lower jaw resembling a bee-sting. This was pus-filled but manual draining revealed that even more pus was being discharged inside the mouth from under a lower molar, despite this tooth appearing in good health. The hob was anaethetised and the tooth removed and the area of jaw below the tooth cleaned out of seeping pus. He was given a post-operative injection of Synulox and another of Rimadyl, an anti-inflammatory drug. The hob made a rapid recovery of appetite and weight gain. It is likely that the underlying problem over the months had been the developing abscess, causing pain, discomfort and high temperature.
A five year old neutered hob was found to have a small (2-3mm) lump on his back. A few days later it began to bleed but then disappeared. However, it reoccurred within a short period of time, again bleeding slightly. Veterinary examination found this to be a small tumour. It was removed under anaesthesia and sent for an histology report. It was found to be benign. As with many of these types of lumps, removal, if complete, usually gives a good prognosis for non-recurrence. The hob's owners report he 'made a complete and uneventful recovery!"
An eight month old silvermitt jill was noticed to have a swelling to the right side of her abdomen which felt hard to the touch. The swelling appeared to be growing daily over the weekend whilst awaiting a veterinary appointment. The jill was given an ultrasound scan which revealed a fluid and tissue mass on or near her right kidney. Surgery resulted in the removal of the kidney found to be very much enlarged. The jill lost a substantial amount of blood during surgery and ferrets were kept 'on standby' for transfusion, if necessary. She did receive some plasma post-operatively plus 2x 0.1ml Synulox injections and 2x0.1 Rymadyl. On returning home she was given a weeks supply of Synulox and foods rich in vitamin B12 were added to her diet.
This jill appeared well even up to the time of her operation and within days after was taking gentle exercise and having the occasional visit from her litter sister. Her staples were removed two weeks after the operation and she was returned to her group. Her owner reports that it was some six weeks before she seemed normal again in energy levels and several months before she was totally back to her normal, feisty self.
The kidney was sent for analysis which showed that her ureter had been blocked, preventing urine from draining into the bladder. Few cases have been reported in ferrets so it is worth giving the histology in full here.
SAMPLE - right kidney and adjacent fibrous tissue.
DESCRIPTION - Macroscopically the tissue appears to be a collapsed fibrous cyst-like structure. Representative sections show parts of a kidney which has a thick fibrous capsule continuous with a linear area of fibrous hyperplasia which appears to form the wall of an unlined cyst. The kidney has a congested parenchyma and shows interstitial fibrosis with lymphocytic infiltration at the poles and around the renal pelvis. One of the samples contains a dilated tubule which is presumed to be ureter ( it is lined with transitional epithelium ). This is surrounded with hyperplastic fibrous tissue and there is an area of necrosis, calcification and early pathological ossification in the immediately surrounding tissue.
INTERPRETATION - Interpretation is not straight forward, partly because orientation of the histological sections is difficult.
The appearance is of reactive fibrosis closely associated with the ureter and possibly early hydronephrosis. The small area of calcification may be the result of ischaemic necrosis.
NB - This ferret went on to recover well enough to be placed at NFWS Todmorden Show. Wonderful!
A five and a half year old pregnant jill showed weak signs of labour at the time of her expected delivery but the birth process did not progress. The jill appeared well but was taken for veterinary examination as a matter of concern. She was X-rayed without anaesthesia to avoid risk to unborn kits. The X-ray showed at least two or three kits but individuals and positioning were not able to be determined. It was suggested that the jill may be resorbing the litter. Since she remained well it was decided to observe her for a week and then x-ray again. By the end of that time, the jill's abdomen had reduced greatly and she was lively and energetic. This time the x-ray showed even less so it was concluded that the jill was indeed resorbing her litter. To avoid complications the jill was spayed two days later. Two kits were found in the body of the uterus when it was removed, both showing signs of resorption, and there were adhesions between the bladder and uterus suggesting that spaying was a timely procedure to prevent complications already underway. The jill made a good recovery from her spay and is reported to be well.
Very few cases of foetal resorption have been reported in ferrets, let alone one as clear as this. That's not to say they haven't occurred, only that they have not been noticed or reported. Small litters have been associated with insufficient production of the hormones required to start labour so this may be implicated in this case. However, in many other mammals, resorption is usually more associated with foetal death in the first half of pregnancy. It is clear we still have much to find out about ferret pregnancy problems.
As ever, summer means ferret kits. Some are the result of carefully planned litters with knowledgeable caring owners, others are the result of ignorance, neglect and downright carelessness. Jeff and I take scores and scores of ferrets to be neutered before rehoming and so, each year, we live in hope that one year the rescues will see a dramatic decrease in the number of kits. Sadly, so far, there are as many as there have ever been.
Yes, I'm on my soapbox again! Please, please, do not breed unless you are certain that your kits have caring permanent homes to go to. OK, I'm probably preaching to the wrong crowd, but all of us in Welfares need to keep hammering home the message that indiscriminate breeding just can't continue.
Anyway, having said that, I get a lot of questions about kits, rearing them, weaning, feeding and so forth, so here's a potted guide to kits.
Gestation (pregnancy) is between 40 and 44 days in ferrets with 42 days being most usual. Over 44 days indicates an urgent need for a visit to the vet. Average litter size is about 8 kits, although up to twelve (and occasionally even more) is not unknown. The kits are near hairless and blind, and will be dependent entirely on the jill for care and feeding. It is worth remembering that jills have only 8 nipples and so not all kits in a large litter will be able to suckle simultaneously. Jills should receive up to double rations of her usual complete ferret food and all the fluids she can take to enable her to produce milk for the kits. It is also a good idea to increase the fat content to about 30% during lactation - try adding poultry fat, beef dripping or a spot of butter to her feed. Obviously the more kits she is feeding the more food she will need for herself.
A common question is "When can I look at the litter?". This usually depends on the individual mum. Some jills are quite happy for you to peek in the nest box a day or so after you first hear the squeaks of kits, others get upset. It is probably best to suspend your curiosity for at least the first few days unless you think there is something amiss, perhaps indicated by continual kit cries. Occasionally, first time mums can seem so overwhelmed that they appear almost frightened of the kits and not at all interested in mothering. Other problems may be that the jill can't cope with a large litter or she is not producing enough milk for the litter. If this is the case you may have to consider finding a foster mother or bottle feeding some or all the litter. You will have to be certain there are problems because bottle feeding is not easy for kits or owner, and you may not successfully raise all the kits. More about fostering and hand rearing kits towards the end of the article.
The kits grow quickly. From birth weights of around 6-10grams they will be around 75 grams at two weeks of age;150 grams at four weeks of age, and around 300-350 grams by six weeks. Up to about six weeks kits of both sexes are much the same size but after six weeks the young hobs start to gain in size and weight over the young jills. At eight weeks hobs may weigh around 650 grams against jills at 475 grams; and by 10-11 weeks the hobs may be around 1000 grams with jills averaging about 650-700 grams.
The first downy hair will gradually grow and change in colour over the first couple of weeks of life. It is sometimes possible to identify which kits will be white coated or which will be very dark coated at this early stage but in-between colours such as silvers, sandies and others take longer for the colours to show through.
Another frequently asked question is "when can I start handling the kits?". Again, it's a bit dependent on the mother. If she's happy for you to handle the kits, all well and good. If not, don't upset her by seeming to kidnap her kits. You will just make her insecure and anxious - and possibly aggressively protective. A good mother will keep the kits and the bedding area clean and tidy so there's no need for you to interfere on those grounds. Many owners say that a good sign is when the jill comes out to you for some attention. You can give her some fuss and a dish of treats while you look at the litter. The jill will tell you if she 's happy with this! Some even seem proud to show off their litter, but be guided by the jill wherever possible.
"When do I start giving the kits solid food?". One sign many ferret keepers go by is when the kits are moving around for themselves. The kits will leave the nest box for themselves at about three weeks old, even though their eyes are not open and they can only crawl about on their tummies. They can be introduced to solid foods at this time although they will still be mostly reliant on the jill. Finely chopped raw meat; ferret food soaked and mashed to a paste or shredded chicken can be good first foods to introduce to kits at this age. They will enthusiastically flop in it, lie in it and paddle in it as well as learning to eat it! The jill will be very vigilant of her kits and will probably try to return them to the saftey of the nest box as quickly as they leave it!
The kits' eyes and ears remain closed until between four and five weeks. By this time the kits are well grown and beginning to try to stand on their feet rather than crawl on their tummies. They will be eating much greater quantities of solid foods and will be nearly ready to wean. Weaning should take place between 6 and 8 weeks. The kits should weigh a minimum of 250 grams before complete weaning. Each kit will need approximately 30grams of solid food a day and free access to water. It is worth noting that kits tend to drink rather a lot and may easily get through 150mls of water per kit per day.
Although weaning may seem the final stage before kits can be thought of as independent, there is still an important period for them to go through. It can be best thought of a period of emotional development/confidence formation/temperament development. The kits need a couple of weeks after weaning to mentally grow up. This is seen as vital for dogs, cats and, I believe, is part of good ferret keeping practice too. The playing and interacting with their litter mates, handling by you and others, and experiencing different sounds and happenings in their world will help make for a more confident young ferret - better to home, and better to work.
Finally, a word or two on orphaned and abandoned kits. If it is possible to find a foster mum, this is probably the best option. Ideally the foster-jill's own kits should be close in age to the ones you want her adopt. Remove all the kits and mix them together, preferably in some of the jill's and kits' bedding material. Then return all to the jill and watch her reaction very carefully. Many jills are quite accommodating and will accept incoming kits. This is much the best solution as the kits will have a completely natural upbringing.
However, if a foster jill will not accept strange kits or there isn't an available foster mother, then you will have to consider hand-rearing is you are going to raise the litter at all. This is difficult with newborns but the chances do get considerably better if the kits are over a week old. Therefore if you do have orphaned newborns it is worth trying your utmost to find a foster mum first. Ferret milk is around 34% fat, 26% protein and 16% carbohydrate. As there is no substitute ferret milk on the market it is necessary to adapt substitute milk available for kitten or puppy rearing (e.g. Cimicat, Whelpi, Esbilac). Either have been used as a successful base. Ferret milk has more fat content so it is necessary to add this to the canine or feline milk substitute. This can be done by mixing one part single cream to three parts milk substitute.
Using a dropper or a kitten feeding bottle, the kits should be fed every two hours (day and night!) for the first 10-14 days and then gradually reducing the frequency (but increasing the quanities) until about three weeks old by which time the kits can be on four feeds spread throughout the day. Quantities are difficult to recommend so let the kits takes what they want without you coaxing them to take more. There is a fine dividing line between enough and too much, and kits are susceptible to bloat. Be guided by each kit slowing down and probably dozing off when full! It is important to remember that the mother will lick her kits tummy and rear end to stimulate them to pass urine and faeces. Kits cannot do this themselves in the first weeks of life and will die if you do not help in a similar way. The easiest way is to stroke the tummy gently with a warm finger or piece of cloth until the kit urinates and defecates. Clean it up and lay it comfortably in the nest while you deal with the next.
As you will gather, rearing kits is a major task. In the very early days it seems as if no sooner have you finished topping and tailing after one feed and it is almost time to start all over again! But it is worth it. Sometimes a non-lactating jill will take over kit cleaning and bedding down which is a great help and time saver! I have even had a large castrated hob voluntarily adopt 13 kits which he cared for as devotedly as any natural mother and helped rear all 13 successfully. Many of these kits have been familiar names at shows and none have shown any signs of being disadvantages by their unconventional family upbringing!
Delightful as kits are, it is a sad fact that so many are bred with no homes to go to. Rescues are as busy as ever with unwanted kits. They deserve better. As always, albinos are the hardest to place. Why? Because people want the colours. It's a shame, the albinos are just as full of character and, for me, every bit as attractive as the fancy colours. In fact, I'd go further and say that an albino in good condition takes some beating for looks, even at top shows.
Anyway, before I get on that soapbox again, if you can give a kit (albino or otherwise) a home, please contact any of the following
John Barton (Worcestershire) - Broadway Ferret Rescue.
01386 852279, mobile 07769 720973
Julie Stoodley (Lincolnshire) - Sleaford Ferret Rescue.
I also have contacts with kits needing loving homes.
That's it for this issue. Next Health Matters will be on 'over the counter' medications suitable for ferrets and ferret first aid. If you have any tried and tested remedies that work for your ferrets' minor problems, let me know and I'll add them to the list.
As you may have read elsewhere in the Newsletter, Jeff and I are moving to the Highlands sometime in September.
I'll make sure phone numbers and emails are put on the NFWS website as soon as we are connected up there, so don't think you've any excuse for not contacting Jeff and me with ferrety health matters!
By the time you read this Newsletter we will be in the final stages of relocating ourselves and our entire ferret population to the far North West of the Scottish Highlands. We are swapping city life for life on a croft in Wester Ross, on the shores of Little Loch Broom where our main visitors are pine martens, otters, eagles and the red deer. Seal and porpoises aplenty in the loch, with summer bringing the dolphins and minke whales to the mouth of the loch as they pass by the Summer Isles on the warm gulf stream.
There are numerous stone barns for the ferrets, and plenty of room for their pens in the fields and the orchards around the croft. However, theirs will not be a life of idle luxury as we have already been enlisted for ferreting duties on the Dundonnell estate farms!
Our contact with NFWS will, of course, remain strong as ever and we hope to raise the profile of NFWS in Scotland. Jeff and I will still continue our roles on the committee and I will still continue to do whatever I can on ferret health matters. Although we will miss meeting our many friends in the ferret world at shows and events, we will still be coming back to England from time to time, so don't think you've got rid of us that easily!
We'll keep you all posted on how the ferrets adjust to the hills, heather, mountains and Gaelic speaking sheepdogs!
Polecat hob agaed approximately 6 years. Given sleep after a long renal illness.
Polecat hob, 4 years old, released from a long battle with liver disease.
Sandy hob, died suddenly aged about 8 years.
Polecat jill, aged 9 years. Top notch worker in her time and a lady to the end.
Albino jill, aged approx 7 years. A first ferret and sadly missed.
Polecat hob, aged 2 years, from cardiac respiratory failure.
Feisty albino jill, aged approx 6 years. Died suddenly.