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Adrenal Gland Disease in Ferrets

By: Dr. Heidi Hoefer

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Adrenal gland disease refers to the hormone-producing tumor of the adrenal gland in the ferret. It is a common condition affecting ferrets over three years of age. The adrenal glands are a pair of endocrine organs located in the abdomen near the kidneys. In this disease, one or both adrenal glands become hyperactive and start to overproduce the hormones normally made by the glands in small amounts. The high level of hormones are then responsible for a myriad of symptoms including hair loss, anemia and urinary tract obstruction.

The adrenal gland tumors are usually benign and rarely affect other organs. The cause of this condition is unknown but may be related to the unique early development of the adrenals and genitals (ovaries and testes) in the very young ferret.

Adrenal gland disease is only seen in neutered ferrets (both males and females). The incidence increases with age making the majority of affected ferrets over three years of age. Younger ferrets can also develop the condition.
The hormones produced by this condition are responsible for all the problems of adrenal disease. The most common effect is hair loss that may be subtle at first but typically progresses over time. Most ferrets are excessively itchy. Some of the hormones result in enlargement of the male prostate gland, and these ferrets have trouble urinating. Bone marrow suppression (anemia) can also result from long-term untreated adrenal disease.

Because some of these hormones are sex-related hormones, like testosterone and estrogen, affected ferrets may develop signs of being "in heat." They may develop a bad odor, the male can become sexually aggressive toward the other household ferrets, and the female may develop a swollen vulva.

What To Watch For

  • Hair loss
  • Excessive scratching
  • Increased body odor
  • Trouble urinating or defecating
  • Vaginal discharge

    Diagnosis

    There is no simple, single test to confirm adrenal disease, and most cases are diagnosed based on symptoms alone. Diagnostic testing is important; however, to evaluate the overall health of the ferret, it is important to check for concurrent diseases and to see if the adrenal condition has led to other complications.

  • Abdominal ultrasound (sonogram) is a relatively simple and safe test to evaluate the size of the adrenal glands and a test for prostate enlargement in the males. Radiographs (X-ray's) are not as helpful.

  • Complete blood count (CBC) and platelet count are recommended to evaluate the activity of the bone marrow. Most veterinarians also run a plasma chemistry panel to assess overall health of the ferret and check for concurrent diseases.

  • Plasma hormone testing can be performed on early cases but once the ferret is showing the typical symptoms, this test is usually not necessary to make the diagnosis.

    Treatment

    Surgical removal of the affected adrenal gland(s) is the only real treatment for this condition, but medical therapy to counteract the side-effects of the adrenal hormones is now being used by some veterinarians. The most widely used of these drugs is leuprolide (Lupron®) but this should be considered experimental in nature. This drug may block some of the symptoms of the disease such as the hair loss but does not arrest the growth of the adrenal tumor.

    Home Care and Prevention

    Home care consists of careful, educated observation more than any particular remedy. Because ferrets with adrenal disease can have trouble urinating, both urination and defecation need to be monitored. A "constipated" ferret may actually be trying to urinate and not move bowels.

    Any ferret unable to urinate for more than 6-8 hours should be brought to see a veterinarian immediately (that same day!). Complete urinary tract obstruction is a life-threatening emergency.

    Because we have not fully identified the cause of adrenal disease in ferrets, it would be difficult to try to prevent this. Some people feel that early neutering is to blame and maybe pet ferrets should be spayed or castrated as young adults, rather than very young juveniles. However, some researchers have shown that even these older-neutered ferrets are susceptible to developing the disease in time.

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