Are Ferrets Just Small Cats?

Presenter – John Chitty BVetMed CertZooMed CBiol MSB MRCVS director, Anton Vets, Andover, Hampshire with a 100% avian/ exotics/ small mammal caseload- referral and first opinion. Co-editor of two texts on avian medicine, one on rabbit surgery and co-author of a new textbook of tortoise medicine and the author of various book chapters and papers on a range of species. Secretary of European Association of Avian Veterinarians, Journal co-editor and board member of the Association of Exotic Mammal Veterinarians, and consultant to the Great Bustard Re-introduction Project.

If you could take home just one message from last week’s veterinary webinar covering selected topics in ferret medicine, it has to be that ‘a ferret is a cat that looks like a weasel’. This is according to John Chitty who led this webinar organised by ‘The Webinar Vet’ and advised if the worst comes to the worst, and you have a sick ferret in front of you without any available books or access to advice then  by treating them as you would a small cat you are highly likely to get it right.

Of course if it was that simple then the blog would finish here and no longer would many of us (including myself) fret every time a ferret comes through the door. Correct handling of ferrets is usually our first obstacle and John advised they should be held either around their shoulders or be scruffed as per cats. The difference with ferrets is they prefer to be ‘dangled’. John explained that even when he anaesthetises his patients usually through isoflourane induction, he will always apply the mask with the ferret hanging vertically as they detest being held down.

Blood sampling ferrets is not always easy but, again with a nod to our feline friends, it is fine to use a standard feline profile. However, most ferrets will need to be anaesthetised to obtain a decent blood sample usually from the right jugular vein. Accessing blood from the cranial vena cava is another option and John goes through the technique for this within the webinar. One of the problems obtaining a blood sample from ferrets is the thickness of their skin and it may be easier to use an ‘orange’ small needle if you are struggling with a larger bore needle.

When examining a ferret it is worth bearing in mind they are, in the words of John ‘walking tumour factories’. Lymphoma is very common in ferrets and if a ferret presents with alopecia and pruritis affecting its feet, lymphoma should be high on the list of differentials. Often there will be secondary bacterial involvement and if a biopsy indicates the presence of pyoderma but the ferret does not respond to antibiotics, John advises to always re biopsy as lymphoma may well be the underlying cause. Other common tumours found include mast cell tumours which are interestingly benign in the ferret and basal cell tumours which are usually malignant.

It is clear that good knowledge of feline medicine will give you a good grounding in ferret medicine but this veterinary webinar also indicates where the differences are and what to be more aware of in the ferret. Diseases such as Aleutian Disease, epizootic catarrhal enteritis (ECE) and insulinoma are also covered in this webinar which will act as an excellent reference point for when a ‘weasel like cat’ next comes through our consulting room door.

The Stethoscope (MRCVS)