Ferrets are susceptible to both rabies and canine distemper. Both viruses produce serious illness for which there is no treatment and usually result in death within three to four weeks of infection. The good news is that both are preventable through regular vaccinations.
All ferrets are susceptible to rabies, although incidence in pet ferrets is very low. Rabies is acquired through contact with the saliva of an infected (rabid) animal. Usually, infection occurs in an outdoor ferret that has a fight with a wild animal like a raccoon, bat, fox or a stray rabid cat or dog.
The only approved rabies vaccine for ferrets can be given when the animal is 3 months of age and older and is then administered yearly. It is often given in conjunction with the distemper vaccine.
While any vaccine can elicit an allergic reaction, adverse reactions are unusual.
Check with public health department officials concerning the status of ferret ownership. Some states do not consider pet ferrets domestic animals and may not recognize the rabies vaccine. In these cases, if a ferret bite is reported, the ferret may be confiscated and checked for rabies even if already vaccinated with an approved product.
All unvaccinated ferrets are susceptible to infection with the canine distemper virus, which is incurable. Ferrets that are exposed to the distemper virus start showing symptoms in seven to 10 days and usually die within several days of getting sick. Fortunately, this disease is becoming less common due to vaccination programs.
Vaccinations begin at six to eight weeks of age; boosters should be given at three to four week intervals until the ferret is 16 weeks old. The vaccine is then given yearly. Adult ferrets not fully immunized as juveniles, should receive two injections three to four weeks apart and then annual boosters.
It is especially important for ferrets to get the correct distemper vaccine. Two products are considered safe: Fervac® and Galaxy-D®.
The vaccine reaction is an allergic-type response that is characterized by profuse vomiting, diarrhea, and lethargy. The reaction usually occurs within 12 hours of the shot and in most cases within the first 60 minutes. Most reactions are controllable with these drugs and most ferrets quickly respond to treatment. Ferrets that have vaccine reactions are still protected against the virus.