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Ferret Adrenal Disease Information

A review of the basics about ferret adrenal disease, which is a common ferret ailment.

Leticia Materi, PhD, DVM
Posted: June 30, 2015, 3:45 p.m. EDT

ferret losing fur
Courtesy of Leticia Materi, PhD, DVM 
Fur loss is one of the classic signs of adrenal gland disease in ferrets.

Adrenal disease is one of the most common problems that veterinarians diagnose and treat in pet ferrets. The following outlines the basics of the disease and what treatment options are available.

The adrenal glands are located just in front of the kidneys on either side of the body and produce a variety of hormones that control various bodily functions, including blood pressure, electrolyte balance, metabolism and the immune system. The adrenal glands are also responsible for producing sex hormones and, in ferrets, it is this function that is greatly impaired with the disease.

Signs And Diagnosis Of Adrenal Disease
Adrenal disease is associated with a variety of clinical signs including:
  • Fur loss
  • Itchiness
  • Muscle loss and weakness
  • Enlarged vulva (females)
  • Enlarged prostate and difficulty urinating (males)
  • Aggression
On average, adrenal disease is most prevalent in ferrets more than 3 years old, although I have seen the disease in ferrets younger than this. It occurs equally in males and females.

Diagnosis of this disease is often based on clinical signs, however further tests may be pursued to confirm the diagnosis:

  • A blood panel offered by the University of Tennessee screens for elevated hormones. 
  • An ultrasound may be able to identify abnormally large or irregularly shaped adrenal glands. 
I usually recommend routine blood and urine testing as other problems, such as urinary tract infections and anemia, are common with adrenal disease.

Treatment Of Adrenal Disease In Ferrets
Once a diagnosis has been made, there are two main treatment options available: surgery or medical management. While surgery can cure some cases and is considered the gold standard treatment, there are some details to consider. 

First, the ease of surgery depends on which adrenal gland is affected. Anatomically, the left gland is easier to remove than the right. This is because the right gland is close to and, when diseased, often adheres to or invades the vena cava, a very large blood vessel.

Second, even removing the affected gland does not guarantee a cure because the remaining gland can develop disease as well. There have been reports of surgeons removing both glands. Some ferrets have been reported to respond well to this treatment, others need life-long medical management and monitoring of electrolyte levels while some ferrets, unfortunately, have died due to complications.

In my practice, most people elect medical management. This treatment option essentially counteracts the effects of the excess hormones, thus reversing the clinical signs. Medical management does not cure the disease. Options include:

Melatonin: This drug has been used in the mink industry to promote hair growth and thus improve pelts for the fur industry. In ferrets, melatonin implants appear to work better than the oral form of the drug in terms of fur growth.

Leuprolide acetate and deslorelin: These drugs ultimately work to counteract the effects of the excess hormones produced by the abnormal adrenal tissue. Leuprolide acetate is a monthly injection. Deslorelin is an implant that may last anywhere from 6 to 30 months.

There are a few theories about why this disease occurs including: early neutering/spaying, inappropriate light/dark cycles and genetic predisposition. If you are concerned that your ferret may have adrenal disease, please seek veterinary care.

Posted: June 30, 2015, 3:45 p.m. EDT

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