Pet Vet: Ferret hair loss could be sign of adrenal gland problem

May 16, 2016

Today we are going to delve into the realm of ferret companionship. As many of you undoubtedly are aware, ferrets are considered illegal as pets in California. I do not want to get into the issues of legality here as I, even after meeting with members of the California Legislature regarding the illegality of ferrets as pets, do not understand why they are illegal. The simple fact that they exist as companions in 48 of the 50 United States, including the three surrounding California, without significant incident would seem to support being able to do so in California But alas, I digress

Lonnie from Patterson has a 3-year-old female ferret named Penelope that has developed a lot of hair loss along her back and sides as well as her tail. In the past she has lost some hair, but it has always grown back until now. Lonnie sounds like a conscientious ferret caretaker and is concerned about Penelope, having researched her condition on the almighty internet only to find some scary possibilities.

It might be important here to make sure we distinguish true hair loss from hair removal. Some ferrets for a variety of reasons will chew out their own hair. Most commonly this involves external parasites such as fleas. It is usually fairly straightforward to distinguish hair loss from self-removal by looking closely at the skin. With hair loss, the skin will be smooth with no protruding nubs of hair. With self-removal, there will be shortened broken hairs present.

Hair loss in ferrets can be a normal seasonal process resulting in a thinning of the hair coat that is quite perceptible. This hair loss is temporary and it eventually returns. Hair loss as described in Penelope is very likely abnormal.

In my clinical experience over the past 29 years working with ferrets, abnormal hair loss most commonly results from disease in one or both adrenal glands in the effected patient. In ferrets in the United States, with the practice of sexually altering them at a very young age, we have found a higher incidence of adrenal tumor development when compared with ferrets from England, where alteration generally occurs at an older age. One of the outwardly apparent symptoms of an adrenal tumor in a ferret is the development of hair loss. In female ferrets, we can also find dramatic swelling of the vulva associated with these tumors.

Diagnosis of this disease can be accomplished by a series of blood tests that measure certain hormone levels within the blood that, in the presence of an adrenal tumor, will be elevated. Having these tests available is an excellent tool in working with these cases. However, I generally will recommend saving the money needed for these blood tests and putting it toward treatment for an adrenal tumor.

Again, having seen this condition in many ferret patients, after a good physical examination, the likelihood of an adrenal tumor causing hair loss is very strong. Surgery can be completely curative and, in the hands of a veterinarian experienced with this condition, most often is. There are cases in which these adrenal tumors are malignant (cancerous), but even with these cases, surgery can be curative especially, as always, when the process is caught at an early stage.

There is also medical therapy for ferret adrenal disease. This treatment can be effective in alleviating the symptoms of adrenal tumor disease although with malignant adrenal tumors, medical therapy is not generally effective. An important point also with medical management is that it usually is an ongoing therapy and is not truly considered a curative process.

A visit for Penelope to her ferret-competent veterinarian is in order first to definitively diagnose what might be happening and then to decide what treatment is best for her.



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