Last week I attended a lecture at a conference discussing common problems seen in ferrets. The speaker began by saying some of the medial conditions seen in ferrets were similar to what we see in dogs and cats. As a matter of fact, we use a lot of the same medications for ferrets. However, ferrets do have their own unique problems and the majority of the lecture focused on one of them ó adrenal gland disease.
Each adrenal gland is located very close to each kidney. These normally very small glands are responsible for secreting quite a variety of hormones. Normally, as with most processes in the body, there is a delicate balance to allow just the right amount of these hormones to be released. In a lot of ferrets, this balance gets disrupted allowing the hormone levels to get out of control and get too high.
The cause for adrenal gland disease in ferrets isnít really known for certain. The most common theory involves the fact that ferrets are neutered/spayed at very young ages and removing this hormonal influence sets them up in the future for hormonal imbalances. Without the ďnormalĒ hormone levels seen in intact ferrets, the adrenal glands get constantly bombarded with signals to produce these hormones. Eventually, they do just that and then canít shut themselves off. This theory makes sense, but we donít know for sure if that is the cause.
The most common signs associated with adrenal gland disease are progressive hair loss starting at the tail and progressing up onto the body of the ferret. It is also common for ferrets to become itchy. Because some of these hormones are ďsex hormones,Ē these ferrets can develop a stronger than normal odor, they can become more aggressive, females can have an obvious vulvar swelling, and males can develop an enlarged prostate, making urination difficult.
Diagnosing adrenal gland disease in ferrets can be done by measuring these hormone levels in the blood. The cost for these tests can be in the $200 to $300 range. Because this condition is so common in ferrets and the signs are so distinct, I often make a presumptive diagnosis based on the history and clinical signs and discuss treatment options without running these tests.
The best option to initially treat ferrets with adrenal gland disease is to surgically explore the abdomen to get a good look at the adrenals. Ferrets with adrenal gland disease usually have a benign enlargement of one or both adrenal glands. Thankfully, it is much less common for ferrets to have a malignancy in an adrenal gland causing these signs. An enlarged left adrenal gland can normally be removed completely. An enlarged right adrenal gland can only be partially removed due to its close association with a very large blood vessel which canít be disrupted. Even if both adrenal glands are enlarged, removing just the left will often reduce the clinical signs for a period of months to maybe a year. Once a ferret develops adrenal gland disease, the realistic goal isnít to get a cure, but to control the signs.
For some ferrets, surgery isnít really an option. Perhaps the left adrenal has already been removed and clinical signs have returned. Or maybe surgery isnít an option because the ferret is a poor surgical candidate or the cost of the surgery is prohibitive. An alternative treatment for adrenal gland disease is a Suprelorin implant that is injected under the skin in between the shoulders. It works by causing a brief rise in a couple hormones to try to get the body to shut down production of one of the hormones responsible for the clinical signs seen in adrenal gland disease. I have used these implants for well over a year and have found them to be very effective. The best part about them is they control clinical signs for anywhere from 8 to 30 months. I have found they typically last 12 to 14 months.
Until recently, I had to order them from Australia, which required a lot of paperwork to get through customs and the FDA. And the postage to get them here was ridiculous. At the conference the lecturer stated that the implants could now be ordered here in the United States. Although not technically ďapprovedĒ to be used in ferrets for this condition (meaning this use isnít on the label), it has been cleared by the FDA to be marketed for use in ferrets. Although these implants arenít a cure, they can often control clinical signs of this very common condition and improve the quality of life of ferrets.
Dr. Chad Higgins, DVM, is a 1989 graduate of Purdue University School of Veterinary Medicine and has owned Amanda Animal Hospital for the past 15 years. He sees dogs, cats, and other little, furry critters.