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Ferret Adrenal Disease

Updated: September 24, 2014

Adrenal gland disease is caused by hormone-producing tumors of the adrenal gland. It is an extremely common condition, most often 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 sex steroid hormones, such as estrogens and androgens. 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 can be benign and slow growing, or malignant. Benign tumors secrete excessive hormone, but do not become large enough to compress other organs or cause symptoms typically associated with malignant cancer, such as weight loss. Malignant tumors can grow quickly and compress other organs, and cause weight loss, weakness and other systemic effects, along with secreting excessive hormones. The cause of this condition is unknown but may be related to the young age at which pet ferrets are often neutered or genetics.

Adrenal gland disease is only seen in both males and female ferrets. 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 disease are responsible for most of 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 can cause enlargement of the prostate gland or other tissues around the urethra, resulting in trouble urinating, which can be life-threatening.

Because 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 most females develop a swollen vulva.

What To Watch For


There is no simple, single test to confirm adrenal disease, and many cases are diagnosed based on symptoms alone. Diagnostic testing is important; however, to determine if the tumor is malignant, to evaluate the overall health of the ferret, and to see if the adrenal condition has led to other complications.


Surgical removal of the affected adrenal gland(s) is the only permanent treatment for this condition, and is highly recommended if a malignant tumor is suspected. For benign tumors, medical therapy to counteract the effects of excessive hormone production is generally very effective. The most widely used of these drugs is Deslorelin (Suprelorin F®). This is an implant that blocks the effects of excessive hormones on their target tissues. Implants can work for 8 months or longer. A similar type of drug is leuprolide (Lupron®) but this medication typically only lasts 1-3 months. Both of these drugs may block f the symptoms of the disease (such as 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, even many older-neutered ferrets are susceptible to developing the disease in time.

Adrenal disease refers to a hormone-producing tumor of the adrenal gland in the ferret. It is an extremely common condition, usually 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 sex-steroid hormones, such as androgens and estrogens. The high level of hormones are then responsible for a myriad of symptoms including hair loss, signs of heat, anemia, and problems urinating. Some of these glands become tumors, which can be either benign or malignant. Both tumor types secrete excess hormone.

Diagnostic tests


Because this condition is a hormone-producing tumor of the adrenal gland, the only definitive treatment is removal of the tumor or “adrenalectomy”. In most cases, only one adrenal gland is abnormal. Both can be affected, however, so it is important that each gland is examined carefully during surgery. The right adrenal gland is adhered to the vena cava, the largest vein in the abdomen. Right adrenal tumors can actually wrap around this vein or grow into it making surgical removal very tricky on this side. An accomplished surgeon is recommended for this procedure. The left adrenal gland is easier to approach and remove.

Medical therapy is used to block the actions of the adrenal hormones without actually affecting the tumor. While this type of therapy may reverse the symptoms of adrenal disease, it is does not stop the growth tumor. Therefore, if medical therapy is chosen, the gland should still be monitored for evidence of growth. Fortunately, most ferrets with Adrenal Disease have benign disease, and medical therapy alone is adequate. Medical treatment alone may also recommended for ferrets unable to withstand surgery because of age or other medical problems (heart disease, e.g.).