Adrenal disease is a condition that affects 25% of ferrets in the United States—but this statistic doesn’t have to be so high. Early neutering has been found to correlate to adrenal gland tumors. In countries where ferrets are left intact until one year of age, such as the Netherlands, the rate of adrenal disease drops staggeringly to just 0.55%.
In this article, we’ll talk more about adrenal disease in ferrets, why it’s so common, and what we can do about it.
What is Adrenal Disease?
Adrenal disease in ferrets, also known as hyperadrenocorticism, is different from adrenal disease in humans. While humans with adrenal disease experience overproduction of cortisol, symptoms of adrenal disease in ferrets are caused by the overproduction of reproductive hormones.
- Hair loss starting from the tail
- Itchy skin
- Waxy, yellow skin
- Swollen vulva
- Pale gums
- Increased sex drive
- Enlarged prostate and difficulty urinating
How Common is Adrenal Disease in Ferrets?
Currently, one in four ferrets in the United States develops adrenal disease. Overseas, however, things are much different. In the United States, ferrets are spayed and neutered very young. This is because they are mass-produced by a breeding mill that cares more about money than the animals’ welfare.
Unfortunately, the company Marshall breeds most ferrets you’ll find in pet stores. This massive company offers little transparency about their breeding practices—but what we do know is, where mass breeding is involved, there’s typically abuse. We also know that ferret mill ferrets are less healthy and live shorter lives than reputably bred ferrets.
One example is the one-in-four adrenal disease statistic. It drops considerably when ferrets are spayed or neutered past one year of age, yet pet store ferrets are almost always spayed or neutered before adoption.
In the Netherlands, where they typically wait until ferrets are one year old, the rate of adrenal disease in ferrets is just 0.55%. The rate is even lower in other countries where it’s less common to spay and neuter ferrets.
This may make you think; maybe we shouldn’t spay and neuter ferrets at all, then! However, things are a bit more complicated than that.
Reducing the Risk—to Spay or not to Spay?
Unspayed female ferrets have to mate, or they’ll die! Once a female ferret is in heat, the only way to stop it is by breeding. Ferrets produce more estrogen in heat, and the excess estrogen causes anemia and then death. An alternative to breeding is veterinary intervention, but this would get pricey over time.
Aside from these health complications unique to ferrets, breeding any animal is complicated. That’s why it’s so difficult to find reputable breeders who know their animals well enough to produce healthy litters responsibly. Also, if everyone’s ferrets were breeding, we’d have to find homes for all the babies! The average litter size for ferrets is 4-8 kits.
So, the right answer likely lies in the grey area between what we’re doing now and never spaying or neutering ferrets.
How Long Can a Ferret Live with Adrenal Disease?
Left untreated, adrenal disease is fatal. Your ferret could develop complications like tumor growth, cancer, inability to urinate, and anemia. However, ferrets who receive medical treatment have a much better prognosis. Medical treatment can allow ferrets to live out their normal lifespan, while surgery can be curative.
There are never any guarantees when it comes to medicine, but adrenal disease doesn’t have to be fatal for most ferrets.
How Much Does it Cost to Treat Adrenal Disease in Ferrets?
Veterinary prices differ, but it is expensive to treat adrenal disease in ferrets—you’ll easily end up paying thousands of dollars in vet bills. Most exotic pet veterinarians charge higher fees for their specialty, so even routine visits can be pricey. Your veterinarian will perform diagnostic tests first. These include a blood test and ultrasound. Once your veterinarian has diagnosed adrenal disease, there are two treatment options.
Surgery is most costly but can be curative, while medications will only manage the disease and help dampen the symptoms. Medications won’t stop tumor growth. What your veterinarian recommends and which option you decide to pursue will vary depending on your ferret’s age, health, and the affected adrenal gland.
Adrenal disease to the left gland is easier to cure through surgery, while the right gland is closer to the vena cava, your ferret’s largest vein, and the liver. This makes the surgery more complex, and it’s possible the surgeon won’t be able to remove the entire gland.
Of course, ferrets with health conditions and senior ferrets have more risks when it comes to surgery. You and your veterinarian should also take this into account.
How to Prevent Adrenal Disease in Ferrets
Experts are still researching how to best prevent adrenal disease in ferrets. Some veterinarians recommend Lupron vaccines during breeding season, while other studies show that yearly deslorelin implants may delay or prevent adrenal disease from developing.
Veterinarians use both of these drugs to treat adrenal disease now as well.
A Solution to Adrenal Disease in the United States
The number one way to prevent adrenal disease in your ferret is to adopt from a reputable breeder, not the pet store. We can end it by refusing to support mass breeding and, hopefully, forge the way to a place with better breeding and care practices.
A reputable breeder will advise you to wait to spay or neuter your ferret and will discuss adrenal disease and other ferret health issues with you.
Another option is to support your local shelter or ferret rescue. While your ferret will most likely have been mass-bred, your money isn’t going to those breeders. Instead, it goes toward saving a life and opens up a space for that organization to rescue even more animals.