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Can You Make Your Ferret Sick?

Explore the myths about human-to-ferret disease transmission.

By Bruce H. Williams, DVM, DACVP
Posted: December 1, 2010, 5 a.m. EST

Transmission Of Other Potential Ailments
In reality, influenza is the most common potential disease that you can give to your ferret, and all other infectious diseases fall into the realm of” possible but highly unlikely.” There are a number of infectious agents that can cause disease in both humans and ferrets, but very specific requirements for transmission would have to be met. Usually, one or both of the parties would have to be immunosuppressed and ripe for infectious disease. We see immunosuppression in the very old and very young of both species, and in humans that are deliberately immunosuppressed following organ transplants, during chemotherapy or AIDS patients. In ferrets, immunosuppression may be seen in animals that are on high doses of steroids to combat insulinoma or immune-mediated diseases.

The transmission route of an infectious disease is also important. When considering infectious agents with the potential to infect both humans and ferrets, agents of the respiratory tract are those that are the most likely to jump from owner to pet (usually via coughs or sneezes, which expel viruses or bacteria). The possibility of transmission of GI infections is more remote and potential circumstances of their transmission (usually through feces) would obviously be uncommon. Finally, transmission of blood-borne agents would be the most remote as the contact of pets with their owner’s blood is highly unlikely under any realistic circumstance.

Ferrets And MRSA
At this point, a brief mention of MRSA (short for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) should be mentioned, as it is often of concern to ferret owners. MRSA is becoming a serious health problem in humans, resulting in skin infections that are resistant to most known antibiotics. Today’s MRSA is a result of the relatively liberal use of antibiotics by MDs and DVMs in past decades, as well as this bacterium’s amazing ability to generate resistance to antibiotics over relatively short periods of time. In humans, skin infections are most common, but if the bacteria gain a foothold to the systemic circulation, life-threatening disease can result.

Ferrets (especially those kept outdoors or in unsanitary conditions) do get Staphylococcal infections, which can result in abscesses (usually skin), mastitis, and rarely systemic infections, but so far MRSA does not appear to be a problem. There are no reports in the current veterinary medicine about MRSA infection in ferrets. MRSA is most commonly a problem of humans who congregate in hospitals (“healthcare-associated MRSA”) or places where skin-to-skin contact facilitates its transmission — sports facilities, child care centers and crowded living spaces. As the primary sign of MRSA infection is a painful cutaneous boil, I’ll just leave you with the following recommendation which I think is pretty easy to follow and will keep MRSA away from your ferret in most instances: Don’t let ferrets around your painful skin boils. For now, case closed!

Ferrets And C. Difficile
There has also been a bit of discussion in ferret circles recently about a particular bacterium that affects both humans and ferrets, which goes by the name of Clostridium difficile. C. difficile is a ubiquitous bacterium that lives in small numbers in the gastrointestinal tract of most mammalian species. It is an innocuous inhabitant when the normal bacterial flora is in appropriate proportion, but may grow unimpeded if the normal “healthy” bacteria are killed off. This most commonly occurs when antibiotics are prescribed either for excessive duration, in excessive doses or both. In large numbers, C. difficile can produce enough toxin to kill off the cells of the intestinal lining, and may even be fatal. In rabbits and guinea pigs, even a single dose of some antibiotics may be enough to start this chain of events, but in carnivores, it is a fairly rare event. It is occasionally seen in humans, especially following surgery or after severe bacterial infections when high doses of antibiotics are required. Clostridiosis, however, is not a transmissible disease, and pops up only when the bacterial flora of almost any mammal is seriously “out of whack.”

This year, a lot of talk about C. difficile infection occurred following the identification of C. difficile toxin in the feces of ferrets that died from diarrheal disease. However, as everyone (humans and ferrets, and many other species) has this bacterium normally in the GI tract, very sensitive tests can often pick up levels of toxin far below that which causes problems. The diagnosis of C. difficile in animals involves not only finding the toxin in intestinal contents, but identifying the characteristic lesion it creates in the intestinal wall in autopsy samples. A positive diagnosis is achieved only when both criteria are met. In the cases this year, the toxin was identified, but the lesion was not; the final diagnosis in this series of cases was severe coccidiosis, not clostridiosis

People can make ferrets sick in a number of ways — poor nutrition, poor breeding practices, lack of exercise, and even in some cases, withholding proper veterinary care such as not vaccinating. Transmission of human diseases to our pets, however, falls far down this list. If you can remember to keep your ferrets at arm’s length when you have the sniffles, then you’ve probably covered your bases with your infectious disease.

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Dr. Bruce H. Williams is a recognized expert in the disease and pathology of the domestic ferret. He works at The Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Washington, D.C.

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Can You Make Your Ferret Sick?

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Reader Comments
Good article! I've had ferrets for years and, as a school teacher, I get my share of colds and flus. Through being very cautious when I'm sick, I've been lucky enough that none of my crew have ever come down with anything I've had! (Washing your hands is a major component!)
Kerrie, Albuquerque, NM
Posted: 12/8/2010 7:55:03 AM
Great article - thanks for the information. I wouldn't want to do anything to make my fuzzies sick!
Lisa, Rochester, NY
Posted: 12/6/2010 4:57:05 AM
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