Ferret News
Pet Ferret Care Tips
and Information.



Ferret News #59: Ferret Adrenal Disease - Ferrets and Tylenol
March 22, 2004

by Mary R. Shefferman and Eric Shefferman
along with Gabrielle (the lone ferret)

contact: marymodernferret.com

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Hello Ferret Friends!

  This newsletter includes an article on one of the most common illnesses in ferrets: adrenal disease. If your ferret has lost fur at the base of the tail or elsewhere on her body, she may have adrenal disease. Read on for more information.

  This newsletter also has a warning about a common pain reliever that's deadly to ferrets. You need to know this!

  Meanwhile ... the sun is out, but it's still chilly here in the Northeast. But that doesn't stop us from thinking about warm weather and ... T-Shirts! Mother's Day is May 9th -- shop early for your #1 Ferret Mom!

-- Mary

In this newsletter:

  • Adrenal Disease

  • Did You Know That ... (acetaminophen warning)

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What Do You Say to a Naked Ferret?
Adrenal Disease

By Mary R. Shefferman

  It may start showing as hair loss at the base of the tail or as lethargy. You may notice thinning fur at the shoulders or an overall "bad coat." If you have a bunch of ferrets or even just one, the odds are you will have a ferret who develops adrenal disease.

  Maybe you've heard people talk about adrenal cancer or tumors. Maybe you've been told that ferrets just "go bald" when they get older. Well, right now we're going to set the record straight. If you want more in-depth articles or articles by vets, look through these back issues of Modern Ferret magazine: #6, #8, #10, #14, #21, #22, #26 and #30. Don't have back issues of Modern Ferret? You can get them -- look here.

What Is It?

  Adrenal disease is most commonly hyperplasia or a benign tumor. It is not Cushing's Disease; adrenal disease in the ferret affects a different part of the adrenal gland than it affects in dogs (which do get Cushing's Disease). Thus, treatment for Cushing's Disease (that is, Lysodren or Mitotane) does not work in ferrets with adrenal disease.

  In adrenal disease in the ferret, the adrenal gland produces a lot of sex hormones (in Cushing's Disease in the dog, the adrenal produces a lot of cortisol). It's this overproduction of sex hormones that causes the signs and symptoms we see in adrenal disease.

  Sometimes a female ferret may have ovarian remnants: some small bit of ovarian tissue left over from spay surgery. This can produce symptoms similar to adrenal disease. However, if your ferret is more than two or three  years old, the odds are that the problem is adrenal disease and not an ovarian remnant.

  Sometimes adrenal tumors can be malignant, but this is not nearly as common as benign tumors. However, just because the tumor is benign doesn't mean you don't have to treat it. Adrenal disease is not merely a cosmetic condition. It needs to be treated.

This is Gonzo. When we first visited him, he obviously had adrenal disease. Note the overall thin coat and the bald patch on his shoulders. Gonzo's tail is almost hairless. Before his surgery, he barely walked around on the couch.

What Are The Symptoms?

  Most ferrets with adrenal disease will show some kind of symptom of the disease. Sometimes a ferret will show no signs or very subtle signs. These are the "classic" signs of adrenal disease:

Hair Loss: Usually hair loss begins at the base of the tail and proceeds up the body equally on both sides. You may also see hair loss on the tops of the feet, the shoulders, or the top of the head. You may see an overall thin and rough coat.

Marshall Ferret Lax Remedy for Ferrets 4 oz
4 oz ferret lax

TIP: Ferrets with adrenal disease lose a lot of fur. Make sure you give your all your ferrets hairball remedy until the adrenal ferret stops losing fur.

We personally use: Marshall Ferret Lax because it is specifically made for ferrets.

Lethargy: Less playing; more sleeping.

Excessive Thirst: Your ferret may drink long and often from her water bottle or dish.

Excessive Itching: Ferrets can sometimes be itchy animals (though this may be caused by incomplete rinsing of shampoo or insufficient humidity during winter months), but if your ferret is itching more than usual, he may have adrenal disease.

Swollen Vulva (females): You may notice that your female ferret's vulva is enlarged as if she were in heat.

Sexual or Aggressive Behavior (usually males): Your male ferret may play more roughly with other ferrets or may attempt to mount other ferrets (male or female).

Difficulty Urinating: Your male ferret may have difficulty urinating due to an enlarged prostate. You may see him strain to urinate or hop in and out of the litter box frequently without actually going. This can become an emergency situation.

Weight and Muscle Loss: Your ferret may lose weight or muscle and begin to feel less "dense."

Skin Changes: Your ferret's skin may begin to look thin and pale. This will be particularly noticeable in any area with hair loss.

What Are The Complications?

  Left untreated, adrenal disease causes a host of problems. An enlarged prostate can cause urinary blockage. A swollen vulva is susceptible to infection. The adrenal gland on the right side may infiltrate the vena cava and cause it to burst (and the ferret will die). The ferret's quality of life will be reduced.

  It is because of these serious medical problems that adrenal disease is not simply a "cosmetic" problem involving hair loss. A ferret with adrenal disease is not just a naked ferret. He is a ferret with an illness that is usually not life-threatening, but can be life-threatening. The problem is, you can't tell if the illness is life-threatening unless you actually look at the adrenal gland; in other words: surgery.

What Causes Adrenal Disease?

  There are several theories about what causes adrenal disease in ferrets. However, we have no proof that any one factor is the cause. It could be that adrenal disease can be caused by several different things. Theories range from early spay/neuter to exposure to "unnatural" light to inbreeding. However, ferrets who are spayed or castrated in adulthood also get adrenal disease. Not all ferrets kept in unnatural light get adrenal disease. Even ferrets that are privately bred can get adrenal disease. Certainly stress plays a large role in any disease. In Newsletters  #28, #29, & #30 (a three-part series) we covered stress in ferrets and how to reduce it.

  With continued ongoing efforts to unravel the cause(s) of adrenal disease in ferrets, we may one day know how to prevent it.

How Is Adrenal Disease Treated?

  If your ferret is young and otherwise in good health, surgery to remove the affected adrenal gland is the first treatment choice. The results of adrenal surgery are, in my personal experience, better than results from other types of surgery (such as insulinoma). An experienced ferret surgeon can get in and out quickly, thus reducing potential complications from surgery. When the affected adrenal glad is removed, the ferret is considered cured.

  Cryosurgery is a surgical technique wherein the adrenal gland is frozen (the blood vessels around it do not freeze) and thus the cells die. With the advent of cryosurgery, surgical removal of the right side adrenal gland (which often involves the vena cava) has become safer and simpler.

  Ferrets who are not good surgical candidates (for example, elderly ferrets or those with other illnesses that make surgery too risky) are often given a combination of medications that can alleviate the symptoms. The most commonly used medication is Lupron. Propecia is also used. There are ongoing studies at this time to determine if Lupron treatment actually shrinks benign adrenal tumors. Until final results are obtained in these studies, Lupron remains a treatment for ferrets who cannot have surgery. Often, Lupron is given in conjunction with surgery, particularly in male ferrets who have enlarged prostates. Although Lupron does not cure adrenal disease, it alleviates symptoms, which increases the quality of life in ferrets who cannot have surgery.

How Long Before The Symptoms Go Away?

  Sometimes it can take a few months for a ferret to re-grow hair after adrenal surgery. You may not see new fur until the next seasonal coat change. Remember that the adrenal gland has been secreting an over-abundance of sex hormones and it can take a while for the ferret to clear the excess from her body. This is another situation in which Lupron is used. If the symptoms, such as swollen vulva or enlarged prostate, do not go away soon after surgery, a shot of Lupron can help things along.

This is Gonzo after his surgery. You'd hardly know it was the same ferret! When we visited Gonzo this time, he was curious and playing like a ferret ought to be.

Things To Consider

  Younger ferrets (2 to 5 years old) are more likely to tolerate surgery better than older ones. But there are no hard-and-fast rules. Each ferret has to be considered individually. Some 8-year-old ferrets do fine with surgery; some four-year-old ferrets don't do well with surgery. You know your ferret best. The goal is to cure the adrenal disease unless surgery is impossible or inadvisable. If the ferret can't go through surgery, the goal becomes alleviation of symptoms or improving quality of life.

  When our first ferret, Sabrina, had adrenal surgery at the age of 3.5 years old, she bounced back beautifully. She became more active and re-grew all her fur. She lived to 8.5 years old without any further adrenal problems. Marshmallow had surgery at about 5 years old and did all right afterwards. However, he later developed insulinoma. Koosh had adrenal surgery at about 3.5 years old and bounced back just fine.

  The bottom line: If you have ferrets, plan on adrenal surgery at some point. Make sure you take everything into consideration and discuss all the options with your vet. But remember, not treating adrenal disease is not an option.

  We've covered adrenal disease and its various treatments in more depth in Modern Ferret:

  • Issue #6: Doctor To Doctor: Adrenal-Associated Endocrinopathy in the Domestic Ferret By Bruce Williams, DVM
  • Issue#8: Gonzo's Story: Adrenal Surgery and Recovery
  • Issue #10: Adrenocortical Adenoma: Sabrina's Adrenal Surgery By Mary R. Shefferman
  • Issue #10: Sabrina's Case By Charles Weiss, DVM
  • Issue #14: The Doctor Is In: Adrenal Disease: Surgery vs. Medical Treatment By Karen Purcell, DVM
  • Issue #21: Marshmallow's Surprise Adrenalectomy By Mary R. Shefferman
  • Issue #22: New Advances in the Treatment of Adrenal Tumors (Lupron) By Charles Weiss, DVM
  • Issue #26: New Advances in Ferret Surgery: Cryosurgery By Charles Weiss, DVM
  • Issue #30: Ferret Medical Topics with Bruce Williams, DVM, DACVP: Is Adrenal Disease Just Cosmetic?

  All these issues are available in the Super Monster Pack of Back Issues (see below).

The Super Monster Pack of Modern Ferret back issues has several articles on adrenal disease, as well as all kinds of valuable ferret information written by ferret owning experts -- the ones who know what's what with ferrets.

You get more than 1,000 pages of ferret fun and information. (If you bought all  these back issues separately, it would cost about $150.00.)

You can browse through the tables of contents for the available back issues at ModernFerretStore.com. Take a look. We're sure you'll find the topics you want to know about and some that you didn't even realize you should know about.

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Did you know that ...

By Mary R. Shefferman

  Acetaminophen can kill your ferret. Although we usually  think of acetaminophen (Tylenol) as a safe drug, it can cause liver problems in humans. That's why there's a warning on the label not to take Tylenol if you drink  alcohol. In ferrets, the drug causes liver damage and failure ... and death.

  It's fairly easy to keep acetaminophen tablets out of ferret reach, but the real danger lies in not realizing that you're giving your ferret acetaminophen. Many cold remedies contain acetaminophen (medications that treat several symptoms). So before you give your ferret any human medication -- even under your vet's recommendation -- check the label carefully to make sure you're not giving your ferret anything that contains acetaminophen or Tylenol.

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  That's about it for this Newsletter. If you have questions or comments about adrenal disease in ferrets, please send me an e-mail at: marymodernferret.com. I'll take the best questions and run them in a future newsletter.

-- Mary & Gabby & Eric, too!

  Stay tuned for more. You can always get updates by reading my blog (a blog is an online journal). I keep it sporadically and it usually runs to the more personal stuff. But you might like it. It's at


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Copyright 2004 Modern Ferret magazine.
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