Health Matters 13
by Dr June McNicholas
Season's Greetings to everyone from up here in the not-so-frozen north. It was lovely to see you all again on my flying visit to the NFWS Show. Thanks for all your good wishes for our new life in the Highlands, and thanks, as ever, for all your contributions to Health Matters.
Moults and skin problems
A number of people have mentioned what awful moults their ferrets have been having. Many ferrets seemed to shed vast quantities of hair this year. While this is relatively unworrying on its own, there have been several instances where the ferret has appeared unwell or has had various sores or minor skin problems during the moult.
I have often wondered about the level of physiological stress involved in moulting. Although it is obviously a natural occurrence, some species of animal and bird do become less active, less playful and seem generally dejected as well as looking scruffy. Birds spring to mind, but there is also a fairly hefty literature on moulting stress in mink. The reason for this is obvious. Farmed mink need to be kept in as good a coat as possible. Moulting periods need to be monitored not just for coat loss but for more general loss of condition that can lead to decrease in food intake, delays in reaching breeding condition and so forth. Fur farming is not a pleasant subject so I don't want to go into too much detail except to say that many of the problems we see in ferrets at the time of moult may be similar to those associated with moulting stress in mink.
Lack of appetite, less activity and playfulness may be 'natural' things that go with a heavy moult. Physiological stress associated with the hormonal changes prior to moulting may allow some level of immune suppression which can lead to greater susceptibility to fungal infections of the skin. It's a bit like what stress or overwork in humans can trigger - more minor infections, or greater incidence of things like eczema or acne in those who suffer from it.
I'm not sure what the answer is for moulting stress in ferrets, if indeed it does exist. A number of our ferrets have gone through the same symptoms over the years and we have found several things that can help. If the ferrets show any of the symptoms around the time of a moult, we first obviously need to rule out that it isn't something more serious which can mean a trip to the vets if we are uncertain. However, in most cases, it has just been 'that time of year' and we have taken steps to perk them up. A change in diet can help considerable as it tempts appetite. This can be a new ferret food or a greater proportion of meat, chicken, scrambled egg. Milk substitute (Cimicat or similar), and packaged kitten milk is appreciated and probably helps new coat condition. Don't go overboard too much, though, fat ferrets are also less active, less playful and dejected!
Where moulting leaves bare patches, a lot depends on where the baldness is and whether they are itchy or have sores. Symmetrical bare patches on either sides of the body may indicate a more serious problem such as adrenal disease and these should be checked by a vet. Thin coat or small areas of baldness which do not appear to cause itching may well occur in older ferrets, as moulting tends to be a bit more drastic in some of our senior citizens. Itchiness and/or sore spots can mean there is a fungal infection on the skin and this will need treating. In fairly mild cases where the ferrets is only a little irritated by it, you could try a little Betadine cream which works well on quite a few common fungal infections. Griseofulvin is perhaps the most effective although this is a prescription only medicine. My vet uses Canaural eardrops as a topical treatment for some skin infections because the antifungal ingredient it contains is so effective.
If a fungal infection is present, you will have to keep an eye on all ferrets in a group. Often the fungus involved is not an invader, simply one which is usually present but in smaller amounts, only causing problems in particular animals which have had their normal balance disrupted. However, it is obviously a good idea to thoroughly clean and disinfect all areas, and to totally renew bedding material. In cases where an infection is likely to be more than simply a moult-related imbalance of natural skin fungi, your vet will probably advise you to separate the infected ferret whilst it is treated.
Happily, most moult problems resolve themselves and result in good new coats eventually - as I keep telling our Jasper who, at 10 years old, in amazing health and with boundless energy, is going through a major moult and is currently sporting the 'shaved look' apart from a furry balaclava, four fur boots and a chest wig. Anyone know of show classes for ferrets with a poodle clip?!
After the moult problems, come the questions about weight. Again, a lot of people have said they are concerned that their ferrets have suddenly piled on the weight. On average, ferrets can increase their weight by around 30-40% in winter and they seem to be able to do it over a remarkably short period of time. It seems to be a legacy of their wild ancestors who needed to cope with cold weather and shortage of prey. As no-one has ever told the domestic ferret that there are few seasonal changes in supply of ferret kibble their bodies simply do what nature designed them to do. As long as a ferret does not exceed the 30-40% increase on correct, normal summer weight, there should be little to worry about. However, ferrets, in common with many domestic pets (and people), are prone to obesity which brings a number of serious problems, so do monitor the weight gain sensibly.
May be it's because there are so many more older ferrets around, or may be it's something to do with current diets, but there are many ferrets needing dental treatment. Tooth decay and gum disease are as problematic to ferrets as they are to cats, dogs and people. And a ferret doesn't have to have toothache to need treatment. Badly tartared teeth will almost certainly lead to gum disease, probably even before tooth decay. Sore mouths, bleeding gums and painful teeth will cause ferrets distress and lead to poor appetites and weight loss. Many of the bacteria in gum disease can lead to more serious infections elsewhere in the body.
It really is worth keeping a close watch on your ferrets' teeth. Dental treatment is relatively safe and easy on ferrets and can give a new lease of life to older animals. Younger animals can be helped in preventing problems by feeding chicken wings, Dentabits and even brushing the teeth with doggy toothpaste. Chipped and/or discoloured teeth do not always need treating. Many ferrets chip an incisor when working or playing. These gradually discolour but if they are still firm in the jaw and the gums healthily pink rather than red and spongy looking, they can be left providing the ferret is showing no signs of discomfort. Real toothache does occur in ferrets through decay or injury, and is usually noticeable because the ferret paws at its mouth. This should alert you that dental treatment is urgently required.
Readers of the magazine Ferrets First will have already seen the story of Mulligan, a ferret who developed a large swelling on his neck. It was suspected to be an abscess but when the vet tried to drain it found that it was an apparently solid encapsulated mass formed around a major blood vessel. The owners were understandably very shocked and upset when the vet reported the findings. They were offered the choice of having the ferret euthanased while still under the anaesthetic or having him stitched up and allowed home. As Mulligan had not been ill or in pain - in fact he was quite bouncy and happy in himself - they elected to have him home for whatever time he had. He duly arrived home with a large row of stitches down the side of his neck. Over the next week the lump continued to grow until one morning his owner picked him up only to find herself covered in the most evil smelling liquid pouring from the wound. The vet cleaned it and flushed it thoroughly but also took samples for a lab report. The results when they came were startling. The lab had found the infection was the antibiotic- resistant acinetobacter, a bacteria usually associated with human hospitals. It probably wasn't very accurate for it to be described as a 'superbug' and luckily no-one was unduly alarmed but it did pose a problem for treating it. Luckily once the bacteria had been identified it was reasonably easy to locate the right combination of drugs to use and Mulligan has recovered completely. Neither the vet nor the lab had seen acinetobacter in ferrets before. I wonder if this is because it isn't tested for or because it hasn't occurred? Anyone got any information?
The other sort of season's greetings
Last year lots of jills surprised their owners by coming into season in January. It could be warmer weather conditions, more artificial light, better nutrition. Whatever the reason, don't be caught out. If possible get your unspayed jills done as soon as possible or arrange jill jabs.
And finally, because it's Christmas, here's something on a lighter note passed on to me by a vet colleague.
The Dead Duck story
'A woman brought a very limp duck into the vet's surgery. As she lay her pet on the table, the vet pulles out his stethoscope and listened to the bird's chest. After a moment or two the vet shook his head sadly and said, 'I'm, so sorry, I'm afraid Cuddles has passed away'.
The distressed owner wailed 'Are you sure?'
'Yes, I'm sure. I'm afraid your duck is dead'
'How can you be so sure?' the owner protested, 'I mean, you haven't done any testing or anything. He might just be in a coma or something'.
The vet rolled his eyes and went out of the room for a moment, returning with a large black Labrador dog. The dog stood on his hind legs against the examination table and sniffed the duck from top to bottom. He looked at the vet with sad eyes and shook his head. The vet patted the dog and took it out of the room. The vet then came back in with a beautiful tabby cat. The cat sat on the examination table, looked at the duck, shook its head, meowed softly and walked out of the room.
The vet turned to the duck's owner and said 'I'm sorry but your duck is undoubtedly, 100% definitely, undeniably dead'. He then tapped a few keys on the computer terminal and printed out a bill that he handed to the duck's owner.
'£150!!', she cried, '£150 just to tell me my duck is dead?!!'
The vet shrugged. 'I'm sorry. If you'd have believed me the first time it would only have been £10, but what with the Lab report and the Cat scan.....'
And on that note, a very happy Christmas to you all and I hope you find better jokes in your crackers!
Keep the health news coming
Dr June McNicholas