Posted: April 2, 2014, 5:35 p.m. EDT
Pet ferrets normally have a seasonal shed in the fall to put on their thick winter coat, and they shed again in the spring to put on their thinner, summer coat. It usually takes about two weeks for a ferret to lose the old coat and put on the new coat. If your pet ferret loses hair and does not grow new hair, then there is a problem that needs veterinary treatment. While bald is beautiful for people, a bald ferret has a serious medical problem with his adrenal glands.
Adrenal gland disease is the most common medical problem in pet ferrets. Ferrets with adrenal gland disease frequently experience hair loss as the first sign of a problem. Over time, additional signs of adrenal gland disease develop. Common clinical signs can include itchy skin above the shoulders, an enlarged vulva in females, an enlarged prostate in males and anemia. Other clinical signs include an enlarged spleen, aggressive behavior, sexual behavior, an increase in musky body odor, bacterial infections of the bladder and prostate, damage to the gallbladder, mammary gland cancer and loss of muscle mass. A few of these signs can be serious and even life-threatening, so adrenal gland disease is definitely worse than just cosmetic hair loss.
The adrenal glands normally produce several hormones that are needed for life, including cortisol, aldosterone and epinephrine. In ferrets with adrenal gland disease, the adrenal glands overproduce the sex hormones (estrogen, progesterone) and adrenal androgens (andro, DHEA). It’s the elevated hormone levels that cause the hair loss and other more serious problems.
Images © Courtesy Jerry Murray, DVM
Hair loss is one of the first signs of adrenal gland disease, female ferrets also often have an enlarged vulva and the necropsy photo shows an enlarged right adrenal gland.
Fortunately, adrenal gland disease can be treated either surgically or medically. There are two adrenal glands, with one gland located next to each kidney. The left adrenal gland is easy to surgically remove in most cases, but sometimes the left adrenal gland is so big and firmly attached to nearby organs, such as the intestinal tract and kidney, that it is very difficult to remove. The right adrenal gland is typically more difficult to get to and remove, and it can be extremely difficult to remove when really large.
Several good medical treatment options exist to control the overproduction of adrenal hormones. The newest option is a once-a-year implant called Suprelorin F that contains deslorelin acetate. This long-acting implant stops the stimulation of the adrenal glands and controls the production of the sex hormones and androgens.
Another medical option is the human product called Lupron Depot that contains leuprolide acetate. Lupron Depot is an injection that is given once a month, and it controls the adrenal hormones and androgens.
A third medical option is melatonin. Melatonin is a natural hormone that can be given via a long-acting implant or daily with a liquid or tablet version. Melatonin lowers the hormone and androgen levels, and it also helps treat the enlarged prostate, enlarged vulva and anemia. Melatonin can also be used with the Suprelorin F implant and with Lupron Depot.
Of course, it would be much better to prevent adrenal gland disease instead of treating it. One option for this is to use the Suprelorin F implant. To use as a preventative, a pet ferret would be implanted as a young kit (4 to 6 months of age) then have a new implant repeated once a year for the rest of the ferret’s life.
Another option to prevent adrenal gland disease would be to use a vaccine that would stop the stimulation of the adrenal glands. Currently there is a clinical trial using a vaccine called GonaCon to prevent adrenal gland disease. Preliminary results have been really good with this vaccine. This vaccine is not commercially available yet, but hopefully someday soon it will become available for use in pet ferrets. In the meantime Suprelorin F is a good way to prevent this all-too-common ferret problem.
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