By Bruce H. Williams, DVM, DACVP
Posted: December 1, 2010, 5 a.m. EST
© Courtesy Jackie Gross
If you've got the sniffles, don't handle your ferret unless necessary.
A zoonotic disease is defined as an infectious disease that can be transferred between humans and animals. If you look online for information on zoonotic diseases of ferrets, the vast majority of diseases listed are those that are carried by ferrets and in truth, only rarely transmitted to humans. There is a significant difference between potential zoonotic disease and real zoonotic disease. The majority of discussions of zoonotic disease concern potential transfer of disease and are, in truth, cautionary — based on a perceived threat and often without actual basis in truth.
For a change, I would like to look at the flip side of zoonotic disease. Let’s see how many diseases are transmitted from humans to ferrets, and possibly dispel a few myths and misinformation in the process.
Assessing The Risk To Your Ferret
The last thing that any ferret owner wants to do is make their ferret sick. Many owners now look for the best diet, the best lifestyle, and the best way to give their ferret a stress-free and long life. When we get sick, the last thing we want to do is to pass it on to our pets. So when are they at risk?
Ferrets and humans share quite a few infectious agents, but almost never directly. For example, both ferrets and humans can be infected by Mycobacterium bovis, one of the bacteria that cause the human disease tuberculosis. However, there are no documented cases of infected humans ever transmitting tuberculosis to ferrets. The story is the same for rabies, salmonellosis, and ringworm, all diseases that both humans and ferrets can contract, but which simply don’t travel from humans to their pets.
There is a lot of misinformation out there, on both sides, from well-meaning people warning about diseases you can get from your ferret, and well-meaning ferret owners who warn of potential dangers to your ferret. But in the majority of cases, the real danger is largely imaginary.
Ferrets And The Flu
Let’s start with a real and relatively common danger — the flu. Influenza is a disease (and in truth, probably the only one) that is commonly transmitted from humans to ferrets. The ferret is one of the most susceptible animals to influenza, being able to contract every type of influenza — the old one, the new one and the one that we will have five years from now.
So it is very susceptible to your regular, everyday case of the flu. We all want to be cheered up by our pets when we are feeling sick, but a sneeze in the face of your furball during the acute phase (that first day of the flu when you are feverish, achy and have a watery discharge from your nose), and your ferret will soon join you in your sickbed.
What does flu look like in ferrets? A lot like it does in you — watery eyes, runny nose, sneezing, not wanting to eat and malaise. What is “malaise” in a ferret? Malaise means your friend is not coming out of its cage, not bouncing around the room and just basically acting “un-ferretlike.”
The biggest difference between flu in ferrets and flu in humans is the duration. We are sick for three to five days, but ferrets are sick for two to three weeks. But it is basically the same disease in both species. In ferrets, it lasts longer — imagine having the flu for three weeks! But the flu is not life-threatening in ferrets, unless their owners choose to share their over-the-counter meds with their sick little friends. Human flu medicine contains some ingredients that are toxic for ferrets, especially those containing acetaminophen, such as Tylenol. Even a small dose of acetaminophen will cause fatal liver damage in ferrets.
The best treatment for the flu is actually the best prevention — stay away from your fuzzies when you feel like you are coming down with something, and wash your hands carefully when you aren’t feeling well.