Runny Nose, Sneezing, Gagging in Ferrets

By PetMD Editorial on Jun. 13, 2010

Nasal Discharge in Ferrets

If your ferret has a runny nose, it is actually referred to as nasal discharge. This discharge may be clear, mucoid, pustulant, or even contain blood or food debris. The source of nasal discharge is typically the upper respiratory organs, such as nasal cavities, sinuses, and the postnasal area. However, if the ferret has a swallowing disorder or a digestive tract disease, secretions may be forced into the postnasal area. Irritation of the mucosa (the pink tissue covering of the nasal passages) by mechanical, chemical, or inflammatory stimulation can also increase nasal secretion.

Sneezing, meanwhile, is the reflexive expulsion of air through the nasal cavity. It is commonly associated with nasal discharge. The same could be said about gagging and retching, which are defined as the involuntary, reflexive attempts to clear secretions from the pharynx or upper respiratory or gastrointestinal tract.

Symptoms and Types

Typical symptoms include fever, secretions or dried discharge on the hair around the muzzle and front limbs, and discharge from the eyes or nose. The discharge may exit through one (unilateral) or both (bilateral) of your ferret's nostrils. If gagging occurs, it may be associated with a more severe nasal disease or a disease of the esophagus or gastrointestinal tract. Moreover, gagging often follows a coughing episode, because excessive secretions enter the oropharynx (located at the back of the throat).


The underlying cause for nasal discharge varies, and often depend on whether it is unilateral or bilateral. Unilateral discharge, for instance, is often associated with fungal infections, dental issues (e.g., abscess), and nasal tumors. Bilateral discharge, meanwhile, can be attributed to nasal tumors and infectious agents (e.g., influenza virus, canine distemper virus); allergies, though not reported as a cause, should be considered. Another risk factor for nasal discharge in ferrets is exposure to another sick animal, as some causative infections are contagious.

If your ferret's nasal discharge is bloody, it may be due to a disease of the bloodstream or an immune reaction. In young ferrets, this is usually canine distemper virus. In older animals, it may be nasal tumors or primary dental disease (rare).


There are many conditions and diseases that will cause similar symptoms, so your veterinarian will first need to rule them out. He or she may do this by conducting various blood tests on your ferret, or by performing a fluorescent antibody test on mucous membrane scrapings, which can confirm canine distemper virus. X-rays of the nasal cavities, meanwhile, can be helpful in cases of chronic nasal discharge, especially to rule out tumors, foreign bodies, or dental diseases. However, because of the location and sensitivity of the overlying structures, the ferret should be first anesthetized. A lateral view is useful in detecting any abnormality over the nasal bones; for gross changes in the maxillary teeth, nasal cavity, and frontal sinus; and for evaluating the air column of the area behind the throat.

Rhinoscopy may be indicated in cases of chronic or recurrent nasal discharge, but the small size of the ferret may make this this procedure more challenging. If cancer is suspected, a biopsy of the nasal cavity will probably be recommended.


Typically hospitalization is not required unless surgery is recommended, or if an exploratory scope of the nasal cavity or the sinuses is needed. Treating the symptoms and maintaining proper hydration, nutrition, and hygiene (keeping passages clean) are vital. In fact, many ferrets with nasal discharge become anorectic, so a high-calorie diet should be considered. Dietary supplements may also be added to increase caloric content to these foods, or your veterinarian may recommend warming the food to body temperature or offering via syringe.

Living and Management

Your veterinarian will want to observe nasal discharge and note changes in volume or character. He or she will also monitor the blood count, which should return to normal after successful treatment of infectious diseases. However, if discharge is due to canine distemper virus, clinical signs will progress and is typically fatal for the ferret.

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