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Can Distemper Kill A Ferret In Hours?

Could a ferret that died in only a few hours have been infected with canine distemper?

By Karen Rosenthal, DVM, MS
Posted: October 1, 2011, 5 a.m. EDT

Q: I had a ferret just die of what I think was canine distemper. It all happened over a few hours. She got brown scabs on her nose, looked like she urinated all over herself, and had a curve in her neck (the top of her head was touching her back). She couldn't move other than what looked like muscle spasms. Her eyes were closed for the most part and looked like maybe they were teary. I noticed no rashes or anything on her rear. Does this sound like distemper? If not, what is it? I have two other ferrets that I put in a different cage and cleaned everything really well. They seem OK. Should I go and get them vaccinated again? They are 2 years old. I've read that ferrets can go for up to three years on one distemper vaccination. I am so confused and worried about my two other ferrets.

A: Canine distemper virus (CDV) is an extremely serious disease in ferrets, because most ferrets that are infected die, no matter how they are treated. This virus affects cells in almost every organ of the ferret’s body including the intestinal system, respiratory system and nervous system.

The time from distemper infection to signs of illness usually is days to a couple of weeks. It is not typical for CDV to attack a ferret so completely and quickly that it shows these signs and dies within hours of first appearing sick.

One explanation could be that your ferret had been ill for days and only until she became very sick was she noticed to be abnormal. It is possible, although extremely rare, that a very, very unusual variant of the distemper virus attacked her and caused her quick demise. For this to happen, she would have to be susceptible to CDV infection and exposed to it. With our pet ferrets, such a scenario is uncommon as most are vaccinated and there are few chances for ferrets to be exposed to other ferrets.

What else could have caused the quick death you described? Anything is speculation without a necropsy (animal autopsy) of your ferret. If bacteria enter the bloodstream and become lodged in the circulatory, respiratory or central nervous system, a quick death can follow. The same is true for toxins; the ability of some deadly toxins can be quickly fatal.

Because you do not know why your ferret died, it is of utmost importance that you bring your other ferrets to the veterinarian to be certain they are not affected by whatever killed your ferret.

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Can Distemper Kill A Ferret In Hours?

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Reader Comments
One caution here is that the assumption that most ferrets are properly vaccinated is unfortunately not always true. In the question, the person states that her ferrets hadn't been vaccinated in a couple of years.
As a shelter, when we ask people surrendering ferrets about the vaccination history, the most common answer we get is "They were vaccinated at the breeder, so they're covered, right" This for a 3+ year old ferret... If they never got a kit series, they don't even have baseline immunity. We found that out when distemper went through our shelter, including ferrets that we'd given boosters to.
Kevin, Maple Valley, WA
Posted: 10/2/2011 12:21:17 PM
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