Yesterday, I talked about some very old treatment modalities (using honey and sugar to treat large, open wounds). Today, I want to bring a brand new option to the attention of ferret owners.
One of the more common diseases that affect middle-aged ferrets is hyperadrenocorticism. Symptoms typically include hair loss, vulvar enlargement in females, aggression, sexual behavior in neutered males, and an enlarged prostate that can inhibit normal urine flow in males. The diagnosis is usually confirmed when blood tests reveal elevated levels of sex hormones and/or an abdominal ultrasound confirms adrenal gland enlargement.
The best way to treat hyperadrenocorticism in ferrets is to surgically remove the affected adrenal gland(s), but this is sometimes easier said than done. The right adrenal gland is closely associated with the caudal vena cava — the largest vein in the abdomen — and if both adrenal glands are involved, total removal leads to hypoadrenocorticism, which requires lifelong treatment. Even with surgery, a recurrence rate of around 50 percent is pretty typical, so you can see why some owners would decline surgery, particularly in an older ferret.
Medical management is the next best option. Most veterinarians prescribe leuprolide. It counters the effects of the ferret’s elevated sex hormone levels but has to be given once a month or once every four months depending on the type used and is very expensive. Ferrets can also take a daily dose of melatonin that helps improve their symptoms (primarily hair loss) in some cases.
Now, a new option is available. An implant containing the hormone deslorelin acetate has been shown to control the symptoms of hyperadrenocorticism in ferrets for approximately one year. The implant slowly dissolves over that time and so never needs to be removed. When a ferret’s symptoms and blood work indicate that the effect of the implant is waning, another can be put in place.
Research has shown that "within 14 days post-implant, vulvar swelling, pruritus [itching], sexual behaviors and aggression decreased or disappeared. Hair re-growth was evident by 4-6 weeks post implant. Within two months post deslorelin implant, plasma concentrations of steroid hormones decreased…" 1
Deslorelin needs to be handled with caution. The human safety warnings on its label read "keep out of reach of children. Do not handle this product if you are pregnant or nursing or you suspect you may be pregnant." Once it is in place, however, owners can interact with their ferrets in a normal manner.
A potential downside of deslorelin use is that it appears to increase the size of the adrenal glands in some ferrets (although it decreased their size in others). The long term effects of this are not known. But, if surgery is not an option and a ferret is miserable due to his or her hyperadrenocorticism, I think the potential upside of a deslorelin implant could certainly outweigh its risks.
Talk to your veterinarian to see if a deslorelin implant is right for your "weasel."
Dr. Jennifer Coates
1. The Treatment of Adrenal Cortical Disease in Ferrets with 4.7-mg Deslorelin Acetate Implants. Wagner RA, Finkler MR, Fecteau KA, Trigg TE. J Exotic Pet Med. April 2009;18(2):146-152.