Bolton Ferret Welfare

Living with Aleutian Disease

by John Whittles

Most ferret keepers will have heard of Aleutian Disease (AD), but fortunately few will have encountered it. This article describes our experience of looking after two ferrets with this condition.

I am a layman and for those looking for more detailed information, there are many articles on the Internet, especially on US sites. (A recent Google search on "Aleutian Disease" produced 292,000 hits) AD is a parvovirus first found in American Mink in 1956 and was subsequently found in ferrets. It was first recognised in the UK in 1990. It is a disease of the immune system. The body produces antibodies to fight the infection, but instead of overwhelming the virus, the production of antibodies continues unchecked. Eventually the internal organs are affected by the excess and results in organ failure.

Symptoms can include full or partial paralysis of the rear legs, weight loss, progressive wasting, bleeding from the gums, tarry faeces and thirst. However an infected animal may display some or none of these. There is a blood test, but this looks for the presence of antibodies. A positive test shows that the animal has come into contact with the disease but it may not be shedding the virus or go on to develop the disease.

There is no cure for AD and no specific treatment. Little research has been carried out and vets will admit that knowledge is limited. Some say that the disease is highly contagious but Maggie Lloyd says, in "Ferrets, Health, Husbandry and Diseases", that transmission rates are low. Many advocate the culling of infected animals whereas others recommend isolation.

I would find it difficult to cull an animal that had tested positive for AD, but which was not exhibiting any symptoms.

We acquired two sibling ferrets, a hob and a jill, when they were twelve weeks old. Their parents had been rescued from being kept in very poor conditions and the jill was found to be pregnant. Both were very dark polecats with thick beautiful fur. They were of average size but the hob was very well muscled. We housed them with our other four ferrets, in the communal ferret court, from shortly after their arrival.

When they were a year old, I noticed one morning that Hal, the hob, was lethargic and not showing any interest in food. Closer inspection revealed some paralysis in his back legs. I immediately took him to the vet. At that time my local practice had a young vet who was particularly interested in ferrets. She diagnosed a viral infection and admitted him. He was treated with antibiotics, rehydration and, when a little better, with steroids. He recovered although the cause was not identified.

He was fully mobile although we could see a slight tendency to walk crabwise with his back legs and occasionally they would give way. He could however run up and down stairs and play with the others. His appetite returned and he exhibited no other symptoms. His sister, Regan, remained fit and well.

Four years later, the same thing happened again so I rushed him to the local vet, but by this time the young vet had left so it was suggested that I take him to the Julia Boness Veterinary Hospital near Luton as they had more experience of treating ferrets. This had happened once before when another jill had had an ear infection.

Hal was admitted and received similar treatment. A week later Regan showed the same symptoms. As Hal was still an in-patient and I took Regan directly to Julia Boness.

Julia and I discussed the two cases and the possibility of Aleutians Disease was considered. Hal's blood test results were consistent with AD but not exclusively so. The paralysis could have had a number of causes. He had not been tested specifically for AD and it was decided to run a test on Regan. The symptoms were identical and we did not want to subject Hal to any more tests.

When the results came back, they were positive. We immediately had the other four tested, and after an anxious wait, they came back negative.

This left us with a dilemma. Hal and Regan were responding to treatment but should we risk the health of the others? I discussed the position with Julia. All six had been living together for five years. The original four were not young. They were all rescues so we didn't know their exact ages, but from the time we had had them they had to be at least eight. They possibly had some immunity, but the fact that they had tested negative for antibodies suggested that Hal and Regan were not shedding the virus.

We decided to keep Hal and Regan and leave them with the others. If the other ferrets had been young, or if we were likely to come into contact with other ferrets, our decision might have been different. Segregation and isolation is a possibility but not feasible for many. The accommodation must be far enough away to eliminate the chance of airborne infection and it is necessary to have two lots of bedding, feeding bowls etc. On one website, the owner had two sets of clothes and she changed and showered before moving between the two groups. One would be wise to take veterinary advice before embarking on this course of action. They have to live with the problems of cross infection every day.

Regan seemed to make a complete recovery but Hal never regained the use of his hind legs. They would move in a coordinated manner but would not bear his weight. He did manage to move around at quite a speed pulling with his front legs and pushing with his rear. His appetite was good and although there was some wasting of the hindquarters, his shoulder muscles developed.

He occasionally suffered a slight relapse but responded to Prednisolone. However gradually he began to deteriorate and suffered hair loss as a consequence of the steroids. As his back legs weakened further, he was unable to stand and could not keep himself clean. We bathed him in warm water several times a day, which he seemed to enjoy, and applied cream to any inflamed areas. Throughout this time he ate well, enjoyed treats, such as cat milk, and had bright eyes. Then one morning, all this changed. He appeared lethargic and his eyes were dull and lifeless. I took him to the Vet and had him put down immediately.

Even then he had one last surprise. I held him while the Vet gave him the injection and he quickly lapsed into unconsciousness. We waited for the end, and waited and waited. His breathing remained regular and his heartbeat strong. The Vet couldn't believe it as he had administered the same dose as he used for cats. It took a second injection before Hal relinquished his grasp on life.

Regan lived for a further six months. She did not lose the use of her back legs but eventually suffered organ failure and was put down. Did we make the right decisions? I think so. I should perhaps have had Hal put down a little earlier, but he was under regular veterinary supervision and he did not appear to suffer until the very end. Hal was seven and Regan seven and a half.

The original four ferrets lived until at least ten or eleven years and died from unrelated causes.

Tetley, the diminutive king ferret, died from leukaemia and Rebus from an adrenal gland tumour. Rebus was unlucky as it was the right hand gland that was affected and this is too close to the caudal vena cava to be operable.

Opal had a tumour on the base of her tail and the only treatment was amputation. As she was to our knowledge about eleven years old, we didn't want to subject her to that. She was put down when the growth became so large as to affect her mobility.

Big-hearted Cluff never had a day's illness in all the time we had him. One evening he wandered into the kitchen and put his paw on my leg. He then did the same to the fridge. I poured him a little cat milk, he took two sips, and died. I can only hope that when my time comes, I go the same way, although with all due respect to Whiskas, I'd prefer a Single Malt!

(May 2007)

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