Why is my ferret losing its hair? Some facts about ferret adrenal disease
Adrenal disease is a very common disorder in domestic ferrets, especially ones that are more than 18 months of age. Adrenal disease in ferrets typically causes hair loss on the tail, the belly, the shoulders, or the crown of the head, and may progress to almost the whole body. Affected ferrets may be very itchy and develop comedones (blackheads) on their bare skin. Adrenal disease ferrets develop thin skin and swollen pot bellies. Some seem to be very weak, especially in their hind legs, and may be sleepy and have little energy to play. Males may develop problems urinating from an enlarged prostate gland or may urinate outside their litter boxes. Females may develop swollen vulvas and life-threatening anemias. Some ferrets will mount other ferrets as if to have sex with them. Others may show sudden aggression. Some ferrets develop soft stools and diarrhea. All of these changes are due to excess sex hormones (estrogen and testosterone) that are produced by the abnormal adrenal glands. The adrenal glands may be growing abnormally (hyperplasia) or have a benign tumor or a malignant cancer. Without treatment, a ferret with adrenal disease is likely to live a shorter life with a lower quality of life than if it receives treatment.
I usually diagnose adrenal disease based on the clinical signs and medical history of the ferret. Any sort of hair loss suggests that the condition has been developing for 90 days or longer. I recommend taking a blood sample to rule out anemias, infections, and other conditions, and to confirm that the sex hormones are abnormally high. An ultrasound will help determine the size of the adrenal glands and a follow-up ultrasound will let us know how quickly any changes in size or shape occur. This helps separate out the aggressive adrenal gland cancers from the slower growing adrenal gland tumors or hyperplasia. X-ray films may help detect other medical conditions, such as an enlarged heart or liver.
I usually treat ferrets with deslorelin implants and melatonin implants. A single deslorelin implant suppresses sex hormone production for 12 to 18 months. The melatonin implants may only be needed for the first treatment to help relieve intestinal issues and more rapidly regrow hair. For 95% of ferrets with adrenal gland disease these treatments provide a good quality of life for 8 to 26 months with an average of 19 months. For the 5% with malignant cancers of the adrenal gland, the lifespan is much shorter even if surgery is pursued.
Another medical treatment you may read about is leuprolide acetate (Lupron). These injections are much more costly and need to be given every month for best effect.
If your ferret was treated with deslorelin or Lupron and is not showing any response within a month, surgery should be considered to better assess what is wrong with the adrenal glands and to remove the abnormal tissue is possible.
Copyright 2012 Dr. Kevin Wright, DABVP (Reptile & Amphibian Specialist)
Member of the Association of Exotic Mammal Veterinarians
Wright Bird & Exotic Pet House Calls
Distinctive Veterinary Care for Unusual Pets
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