Posted: February 1, 2010, 5 a.m. EST
Q: My 4-year-old, neutered ferret got up Friday night with massive swelling around his neck; he had two hard lumps, was unable to walk, and wobbled everywhere. His hind legs were spread out with his toes curled in, absolutely terrified. I took him to the closest emergency veterinarian, who had never treated a ferret. My ferret’s temperature was 97.7 Fahrenheit (36.5 Celsius). The vet gave him metacam for pain relief and baytril. The swelling was down slightly the next morning, and I gave fluid subcutaneously until I took him to my ferret vet.
It looks to my vet and me as though a white tail spider bit my ferret. I live in New Zealand. White tail spiders eat venomous spiders, so the white tail spider can be highly toxic or not, depending on what it's eaten. My ferret’s on baytril subcutaneously for five days. He's now drinking and eating soft food. The swelling is going down, but my ferret can't walk and keeps turning his head up to the right, falling over and going around in circles. He is not making any sounds at all. I have wondered if he has lost his sight from this as well; he is so scared when he leaves contact with anything.
I googled spider bites but can't find anything on this reaction. Could it be the toxins from the venom causing this? I am keeping him separate from my other ferrets, which are all OK, so this seems to rule out anything infectious.
My ferrets are not in contact with other animals, we do not have rabies in New Zealand or any of the other fatal ferret diseases. I would appreciate anything you can come up with to figure out what is wrong with him. I don't know anyone who has had this happen to his or her ferret, so I don't know whether he will come right or whether this has caused permanent damage to his system.
A: This is a very, very unusual case. The emergency veterinarian that you saw did a very nice job and may have prevented further damage with the treatment that he or she gave.
I agree from your description that your ferret may be blind. This is something that your vet might be able to determine. It is not always so simple in a ferret.
I have not seen a case of a white tail spider bite, but I know that their venom can cause some very serious diseases. The venom and the subsequent swelling can cause permanent damage to nerves and even muscles. Ask your veterinarian to contact a veterinary neurologist who can take a look or at least comment on what you are describing. Although the neurologist may never have examined a ferret before, the same tests and responses that used in dogs can be done in ferrets.
Also, it may be worthwhile for your vet to contact a veterinary toxicologist who can shed more light on the destructiveness of the venom and long-term implications of this bite.
I hope your ferret recovers from this. With venomous bites, as the swelling and tissue damage slowly decreases over time, much of the functions that are lost slowly come back. So, there are many reasons to continue with supportive care and to hope there is a turnaround, even with the vision.
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