Cushing’s Disease in Ferrets

Pete Wedderburn
10th June 2020 - 4 min read

Ferrets are interesting creatures: they are unusual pets that offer a real alternative to the usual dog or cat that people usually choose. They are smart, lively creatures, full of curiosity and a type of comic charm.

Vet’s in general pet practice, do see a number of ferrets, and they suffer from some of their own unique diseases. One common illness in ferrets is Cushing’s Disease, and it’s an illness that’s seen more in ferrets than any other species.

Signs

  • Start to loose fur
  • Bald area
  • Itchiness
  • Dull personality, not as playful

Examination


These signs of illness are typical of an adrenal gland tumour that it is almost unnecessary to do any tests to confirm the diagnosis. However the treatment that animals need for this mean that a vet has to be 100% sure about what is going on. The simple way to look into the problem in more detail is to carry out an ultrasound examination of the abdomen, so that they can actually physically check the adrenal glands.

Adrenal Glands


The adrenal glands are tiny; the size of a frozen pea. They are located just in front of the kidneys, one on each side, which makes it fairly easy to find them during the ultrasound examination. If there is a tumour, the adrenal gland is obviously enlarged.


The ultrasound scan is easy to do if the pet stays still, lying placidly on their back while the probe is pressed against their abdomen. If the scan confirms what the vet suspected, and the left adrenal gland is around five times the normal size, while their right adrenal gland was completely normal, there is generally no need for any other blood tests or investigations. This would indicate that the animal is definitely suffering from overproduction of hormones by the adrenal gland, a condition known as Cushings Disease.

white ferret in grass

Dogs and Cats

This condition is seen in humans, dogs and cats as well, but it’s far more common in ferrets, and it’s different to the type of disease seen in other species. In dogs, cats, and humans, the abnormal adrenal gland produces an excess of corticosteroid hormones.

Hormones

In contrast, in ferrets, a different type of hormone is produced in excess: so-called sex-steroids. If a pet wasn’t neutered, these would cause surges in oestrogens and testosterones in the animal, but since nearly all ferrets are spayed or neutered, this doesn’t happen.

Effects

Instead, the sex-steroids have different effects on the body, causing changes in the metabolism which include baldness and changed behaviours.

Treatment


Textbooks report that there are four ways of treating Cushings Disease in ferrets:  “benign neglect” and euthanasia are the “cheap” options, while medical and surgical treatments are also available.

Benign Neglect

The first two of these need to be explained: some people can’t afford complex treatments for their pet ferrets, and sometimes the signs of Cushings Disease are minor. If a ferret just has a bald area on their back, and no other signs of illness, “benign neglect” is a viable option. This means just doing nothing: a ferret doesn’t know that he’s going bald, and so it isn’t a problem that necessarily needs any action. It’s only when other signs develop, such as itchiness or dullness, that intervention is needed. And some ferrets never develop these signs: they just have a bald patch which continues until the end of their days.

Euthanasia

In other cases, a ferret might develop severe signs of Cushing’s Disease (like itchy skin) but the animal might be elderly and the owner may not have enough money for major treatments. In these cases, euthanasia is a realistic option. Ferrets live to be 7 to 10 years of age, so if an eight-year-old ferret develops serious illness, euthanasia can be the kindest way of helping them.

Medical Approach


The medical approach is the next possibility: that means giving daily tablets for the rest of the ferret’s life. It can be a good choice, but the problem is that it’s a daily burden to do this.

Surgery


So the final choice is surgery. The task was simple: to remove the enlarged adrenal gland. This can be risky surgery, and it is sometimes too risky: for an elderly ferret, it could be a lot to put them through. If they are young and fit, the aim of the operation would be to cure them completely, so that no daily medication would be needed. For the right case, surgery is often the best answer.