Abscesses in Ferrets

Abscesses in Ferrets

An abscess is a focal accumulation of degenerating and dying cells. It forms when infectious agents such as bacteria, fungi or parasites or foreign bodies like splinters, lodge in tissue and cause a persistent inflammatory response.

Abscesses are typically filled with a creamy material called pus and can form in any tissue in the body. Clinical changes that may occur vary with the location of the abscess.

What to Watch For

  • Swelling
  • Redness
  • Signs of focal irritation
  • Pain
  • Excessive grooming
  • Itchiness
  • Discharge
  • Moistened fur
  • Firm, painful mass
  • Drooling
  • Persistent malodorous breath
  • Depression
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss

    Seek veterinary care immediately if a mass is noted, the mass suddenly disappears, and the ferret becomes acutely depressed or lethargic.


  • History and physical examination
  • Complete blood count
  • Blood chemistries
  • Cytology (microscopic evaluation of cells)
  • Biopsy and microscopic evaluation of affected tissues
  • Culture and antimicrobial sensitivity testing
  • Radiographs (X-rays)
  • Ultrasound


  • Surgical drainage or removal of affected tissues
  • Surgically opening and flushing the abscess
  • Systemic and local antimicrobial agents
  • Fluids and supportive nutrition

    Home Care and Prevention

    Keep infected ferrets in isolation during treatment. For skin abscesses, make certain that the abscess stays open so it will heal from the inside to the outside.

    On a daily basis, monitor fecal and urine output to assure proper food and water consumption and digestion and monitor weight daily.

    Keep sharp objects away from your ferret and keep his living area clean and sanitized.

    Avoid contact between ferrets and other animals that may result in puncture wounds from teeth or nails. Prevent your companion ferret from chewing on sharp or fibrous objects that may cut the gums or inside of the mouth or that may splinter and cause penetrating wounds in the mouth.

    If your ferret is scratched or cut, see your veterinarian as soon as possible, so the wound can be properly cleaned and treated.

    Abscesses form when invading infectious agents lodge in tissue and cause a persistent inflammatory response. As part of the body's defense mechanism, the immune system stimulates the production of cells and secretions that attempt to wall off and destroy invading organisms or foreign bodies; a wall of fibrin (inflammatory cells) creates the borders of an abscess.

    Abscesses are typically filled with a creamy material that is usually white, yellow, grey, or brown in color. This creamy material is called pus and is formed by the body's attempt to liquefy and remove dead or dying cells. Some abscesses may contain blood or be black in color from degenerating and dying red blood cells.

    Cysts, tumors, hematomas ( swelling of blood), fibrous scars and granulomas (granular formation of cells), can cause swellings that appear similar to an abscess. Bot fly larvae may cause swollen areas in the skin of ferrets housed outdoors.

    In ferrets, the most common causes of abscesses are aeromonas, E. coli, actinomyces, corynebacterium, pasturella, staphylococcus and streptococcus. Any foreign body, bacteria, fungus or parasite that can encyst as part of its life cycle, could cause an abscess. Penetrating wounds from fighting or puncture wounds in the mouth from chewing on sharp objects are particularly common.

    Abscesses can form in any tissue in the body like the skin, muscle, walls of blood vessels, liver, lung, heart and brain. The clinical changes that might occur vary with the location of the abscess. Abscesses in the skin either become encapsulated (form a sheath or capsule around it), and slowly resolve, migrate internally, which may lead to septicemia (infection in the blood) and death, or migrate externally allowing the pus to be released from the body.

    The material contained within an encapsulated abscess may be slowly absorbed to a point where only a small knot remains as evidence of the former abscess. Abscesses in internal tissues either become encapsulated and slowly resolve or rupture. When these internal abscesses rupture, the immune system either cleans up the released debris or this material causes septicemia, which can be fatal. Infections that originate in the middle or internal ear, tooth roots, bone, heart, lungs or nasal sinuses may spread to and cause abscess formation in the brain, which are particularly dangerous.

    Abscesses involving the skin, tissue around the eyes or lining of the mouth are recognized by swelling, redness, heat or signs of focal irritation or pain. A deeper abscess should be considered in ferrets that excessively groom or constantly scratch at the same area. The sudden moistening of fur with a thick creamy discharge that is usually malodorous, might indicate that a deep abscess has recently ruptured. If this clinical change is noted, seek veterinary attention as soon as possible so that any deep tissue damage can be treated and any infectious material that may still be present in the deeper tissues can be removed.

    Abscesses in the lining of the mouth or associated with the teeth may cause excessive salivation and persistent malodorous breath. Abscesses in the back of the mouth may be associated with difficulty swallowing or difficulty breathing.

    Abscesses associated with bacteria and fungi can be life threatening if not treated appropriately and in a timely manner. If the body is not successful in walling off an infectious agent, then the site of a persistent bacterial or fungal infection can be a center for producing millions of infectious organisms (or large quantities of toxins from the infectious organism), that can enter the blood stream and seed infections in other organs or cause system failure and death. Seek veterinary care immediately if a mass is noted, the mass suddenly disappears, and the ferret becomes acutely depressed or lethargic. These changes could indicate that an abscess has ruptured with the toxic material contained in its center is being released to the blood stream.

    In well-walled off abscesses, the ferret may be clinically normal with no recognizable changes in attitude or blood values. If an abscess is discharging a portion of degenerated cells to the blood stream, then the patient is likely to be feverish, depressed and have an elevated white blood cell count. These clinical changes are similar to those associated with many bacterial, fungal or viral infections.

    Infections are most common in crowded conditions where numerous ferrets are congregated.

    Diagnosis In-depth

    Your veterinarian may use radiographs (X-rays) or changes in the types of blood cells (CBC) or enzymes found in the blood (blood chemistry) to evaluate the overall health status of a sick animal.

  • Radiographs. The most common radiographic change associated with an abscess is a soft tissue mass in the affected tissue. Radiographs may be used to determine if the abscess is associated with an underlying bone (requires more aggressive and longer therapy), joint or internal organ or if the abscess is undergoing calcification. Radiographs may be helpful for determining if a foreign body is the cause of an abscess. Cysts, tumors, hematomas, fibrous scars and granulomas can appear radiographically similar to an abscess. Ultrasound may be used to determine if a mass is fluid-filled or solid and to determine if a foreign body is present in the mass.
  • If the abscess is completely walled-off by the immune response, then there may be no changes in the white blood cell count. If the abscess has recently formed or is leaking infectious agents to the general circulation, then there may be a substantial increase in the number of white blood cells (neutrophilia) with or without toxic changes in these cells. In ferrets that are septic, the white blood cell may be decreased (neutropenia), with a high proportion of immature cells and/or toxic changes. This finding is associated with a poorer prognosis.
  • Confirming the cause of an abscess is best achieved by combining tests that demonstrate the morphologic (how it looks), characteristics of an organism (cytology or biopsy), with culture and antimicrobial sensitivity. Culture is usually necessary to specifically identify the type of bacteria or fungus present in the organism, but cultures from abscesses are frequently negative. Cytology is important in helping to identify the presence of organisms that may be difficult to grow in the laboratory. Cytology and culture of fluid collected from the spinal canal (CSF tap) may be used in patients with suspected infections in the brain or nervous system.

    Therapy In-depth

  • Complete surgical excision of an abscess is best if all of the affected tissue can be removed without causing problems in the ferret. If excision is not possible, then as much affected tissue as possible will be surgically removed and the wound will be left open to facilitate flushing and healing from the inside to the outside. Depending on the location of the abscess, your veterinarian may or may not place a piece of tubing called a drain in your ferret.
  • Both local or topical and systemic (given by mouth or given by a shot), antimicrobial agents will probably be prescribed for your ferret. Depending on ease of administration your veterinarian may suggest an injectable or oral antimicrobial agent. Long-term antimicrobial therapy may be necessary, particularly with fungal infections or when bone is involved.
  • Local abscesses will probably be treated on an outpatient basis. Ferrets with septicemia or with abscesses involving internal organs will probably be hospitalized for the initial treatment period.
  • Spaying will probably be recommended in a female with an abscess of the uterus. Castration will be recommended if a testicle is abscessed. Abscessed teeth will be removed.
  • Other therapies that may be needed include fluids to correct dehydration and supportive nutrition, if the ferret has not eaten for several days or has lost considerable weight.
  • Treatment is considered successful when a ferret is removed from antibiotics and remains clinically normal.

    Follow-up Care

    Optimal treatment for your companion ferret requires a combination of home and professional veterinary care. Follow-up can be critical, especially if your ferret does not rapidly improve.

  • Make certain you administer all prescribed medications at the appropriate times. Contact your veterinarian immediately if you have difficulty treating your ferret as prescribed. If you are having problems, it may be best to hospitalized him to assure that a proper course of treatment is administered.
  • Ferrets that are being treated for abscesses should be isolated from other animals to prevent transmission of infectious agents.
  • For skin abscesses, make certain that the abscess stays open so it will heal from the inside to the outside. If a surgically opened abscess closes over, contact your veterinarian immediately.
  • Clinical changes associated with an abscess should begin to improve within 24 to 48 hours after the abscess has been surgically opened, and antimicrobial therapy has been initiated. If your ferret does not respond within this time period, you should contact your veterinarian. As the abscess heals, it should begin to decrease in size, drainage should decrease, inflammation should decrease, and the ferret's general condition should improve.

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