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Adrenal Gland Disease in Ferrets

By: Dr. Heidi Hoefer

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Adrenal disease refers to a hormone-producing tumor of the adrenal gland in the ferret. It is a common condition affecting ferrets over 3 years or age. The adrenal glands are a pair of 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 urinating problems in males ferrets. Because the glands are tumorous, treatment involves the surgical removal of the tumor. Surgery is considered curative.

  • 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. It is thought that perhaps the neutering of juvenile ferrets for the pet trade may interrupt this early developmental pathway and the adrenal gland takes on some of the functions of the genitals. In the U.S., ferrets for the pet trade are typically neutered at less than 6 weeks of age. Some early research in Europe has shown that even when neutered as adults, ferrets can still develop adrenal gland disease. So there is still much to learn about this very important disease.

  • The hormones produced by this condition are responsible for all the problems of adrenal disease. These hormones include estrogen, testosterone, and other adrenal androgens (male hormones). The most common effect is hair loss that may be subtle at first but progresses over time. This hair loss typically starts with the tail and moves forward over the rump and back. 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 effects of estrogen. Because these hormones are sex-related, affected ferrets may develop signs of being "in heat".

  • Complete urinary tract obstruction can occur with adrenal disease in male ferrets. The male hormones produced by the tumor result in prostate enlargement. The prostate then presses on the urethra, the small tube that exits the bladder. Early on, the ferret may strain to urinate, dribble urine, and lick the prepuce. But as the prostate grows, the urethra gets compressed and ultimately, these ferrets cannot urinate at all. This results in a life-threatening situation.

  • 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 3 years of age. However, younger ferrets can also develop the condition.

  • The adrenal gland tumor is usually benign, meaning that it doesn't spread to other body locations ("metastasis"). It can, however, grow to be very large and complicate surgical removal. Occasionally these tumors are malignant. Diagnosis can only be by biopsy and histopathology (microscopic diagnosis).

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