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All About Causes Of Itching In Ferrets

When a ferret suffers excessive itchiness, then the cause must found before treatment can begin.

Leticia Materi, PhD, DVM
Posted: July 30, 2015, 10:15 p.m. EDT

ferret sitting by cat
Courtesy of Troy Smith 
If a ferret is found to have ear mites or fleas, than all pets in a home must be treated for these parasites.

Ferrets are often presented to the veterinarian for excessive itchiness. The occasional scratch is not uncommon in any animal, but if a ferret is constantly scratching, rubbing, chewing or licking himself, then there is something wrong. Below are a few conditions that can make your pet ferret scratch at himself.

1. Parasites: Like many other mammals, ferrets can become infected with a variety of external parasites that can be very irritating to them. The most common parasite that we see in ferrets is Otodectes cynotis. This parasite is not exclusive to ferrets and can also infect cats and dogs. This means that all pets in the home need to be treated if a ferret is found to be positive for ear mites. In addition to being itchy, ferrets with ear mites often have lots of dark brown earwax. Ear mites are not zoonotic (be transmitted to people). 

Sarcoptes scabiei, which causes sarcoptic mange, is another parasite that can cause itchiness but this one can be transmitted to people. In ferrets, sarcoptic mange can cause either a localized infection (usually of the feet) or a generalized form in which there is intense itchiness and hair loss all over the body. 

Ferrets can also become infected with a variety of flea species if they come in contact with an infected animal or a flea-infested environment.

ear mites magnified
Courtesy of Leticia Materi, PhD, DVM 
A magnified view let's us see what ferret ear mites look like.

2. Bacterial Infections: Infections by bacteria can occur following a traumatic event, such as a bite wound or scratch from a cagemate. These can be very itchy for the affected ferret.

3. Cancer: Many different types of cancers can affect the skin of ferrets, including basal cell tumors, squamous cell carcinoma, adenocarcinoma and lymphoma. It has been estimated that roughly 25 percent of all ferret skin cancers are mast cell tumors. These types of tumors are benign and can occur anywhere on the body. They appear as discrete, hairless areas and are often covered with a dark brown to black crusty material. The cells that make up these tumors (mast cells) release histamines into the surrounding tissues causing the ferret to be itchy.

4. Allergies: Although there have been no scientific studies published on allergies in ferrets, there have been a few anecdotal reports of ferrets becoming itchy after being exposed to certain cleaning products/detergents and some food items.

5. Endocrine Disease: Sometimes itchiness can be a symptom of another problem. This is especially true of adrenal disease. It is estimated that about 30 percent of ferrets with adrenal disease show signs of itchiness. There is a theory that excess estrogen produced by the adrenal gland forms salts that accumulate in the skin. It is believed that this leads to inflammation and itchiness.

In order to determine the cause of the itchiness, veterinarians recommend a variety of tests including ear swab analysis, skin scrapings, hormone panels and skin biopsies. The correct treatment depends on the cause, so it is very important that itchy ferrets see a veterinarian for proper diagnosis.

Note: All articles by Dr. Materi are meant for educational purposes only and in no way represent any particular individual or case. They are not for diagnostic purposes. If your pet is sick, please take him or her to a veterinarian.

Posted: July 30, 2015, 10:15 p.m. EDT

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