Caring For Your Senior Ferret
Veterinary & Aquatic Services Department, Drs. Foster & Smith

Caring For Your Senior FerretOlder ferrets, sometimes referred to as "senior" or "geriatric" ferrets, often have special needs and health care requirements. Most ferrets live 5-7 years, and serious health problems can start to occur as early as 3-4 years of age, so most veterinarians consider a ferret to be a senior when she is about 3-4 years old.

Senior ferret nutrition
As with younger ferrets, senior ferrets have special nutritional needs: high quality protein and fat content, frequent feedings, and minimal treats. As ferrets age, any dietary deficiency becomes more apparent, and as appetites may decrease, malnutrition becomes a concern.

Adult ferrets, including seniors, should be fed a diet that is 30-40% protein, and the protein should be of animal origin.

Ferrets have distinct needs for linoleic, linolenic and archidonic fatty acids, so sources of these should be available. Supplements such as Linotone or Ferretone can supply these fatty acids in an easy-to-feed way. The total fat content of the food should be in the range of 18-30%.

Ferrets should be fed multiple times per day, preferably every 3-4 hours. Avoid any treats high in sugar content or cereal grains. Stick to "meaty" treats as much as possible.

If your older ferret starts to lose weight or loses her appetite, contact your veterinarian.

Exercise and mobility
Although arthritis is not as common in older ferrets as it is in geriatric cats and dogs, it still can become a problem. Other causes of stiffness and apparent weakness may also occur. Monitor your ferret for any signs of weakness or muscle or joint pain such as:

  • Reluctance to play
  • Difficulty going up or down steps or ramps
  • Difficulty grooming
  • Difficulty getting in or out of the litter box, sleeping nest, or other cage accessory

If you notice any of these signs, contact your veterinarian.

To help your ferret who is less mobile, consider:

  • Increasing softness of sleeping areas and cage floor
  • Adjusting shelves so they are closer together
  • Decreasing the angles of ramps
  • Using ramps instead of stairs
  • Adding more litter boxes
  • Selecting litter boxes with lower sides and easier access
  • Making food and water more accessible (consider placement of dishes on multiple levels)

Behavior changes
As ferrets age, they may show behavior changes such as:

  • Increased sleeping
  • Less playing
  • More finicky about food
  • Less able to handle stress such as changes in routine, young kits, etc.

Some of these normal age-related changes may be identical to those you would see if your ferret was sick. If you notice behavior changes, it is best to have your ferret examined by a veterinarian to determine the cause.

Skin and coat changes
You may notice that your senior ferret's coat does not feel or look the same as when she was younger. Some changes can be normal, such as:

  • Coarser hair coat
  • Sparser hair coat
  • Drier skin

Some of these changes, especially the sparser coat could also indicate serious disease problems. If you notice coat and skin changes, contact your veterinarian. In addition, since skin tumors, some of them cancerous, are more common in older ferrets, a lump in the skin should be checked as well.

Hairballs appear to be more of a problem in older ferrets, so it is recommended to increase the grooming you give your ferret. Most older ferrets will appreciate this extra attention. If you do notice the skin is drier, you may want to gradually increase the amount of fatty acids in the diet, provided your ferret is not on a special diet.

In addition to the skin changes mentioned above, some ferret owners find that their older ferret's nails are more brittle and the pads of the feet become harder.

Digestive system
As with any pet, as the animal ages, dental problems become more common. Your veterinarian can determine if your ferret needs a professional dental cleaning and help you provide good home dental care.

Older ferrets may be more subject to dietary upsets, such as constipation or diarrhea, if their diet is changed. Therefore, if you are going to switch ferret foods, be sure to do so gradually, over the course of a week or so. If your ferret has problems defecating, you may need to regularly and gently clean the anal area.

As discussed above, hairballs become more common as ferrets age, and are the primary cause of intestinal obstructions in older ferrets. Regular grooming and hairball remedies may help prevent hairballs from causing problems.

Nervous system, eyes and ears
Older ferrets develop cataracts rather commonly. You may notice that your ferret's eyes appear somewhat cloudy and he is not able to see as well. Always have any problem with your ferret's eyes checked by your veterinarian.

Helping Your Aging Ferret
Your senior ferret relies on you to provide for his special needs. His quality and length of life, in a large part, depend on you. You can help make the "golden years" of your ferret the very best if you:
  • Provide good nutrition and dietary supplements
  • Provide a quality environment (ease of access, temperature, etc.)
  • Perform regular grooming
  • Schedule veterinary exams every 6 months and have laboratory tests, professional dental cleanings, vaccinations, etc. performed as recommended by your veterinarian
  • Familiarize yourself with signs and symptoms of diseases commonly seen in older ferrets and have your ferret examined by your veterinarian if you notice any of these signs

Some older ferrets may also experience some hearing loss, even to the point of deafness.

Increased sensitivity to temperature is observed in some senior ferrets. Try to maintain the temperature of your ferret's environment at 68-72°F.

Heart and respiratory
Cardiomyopathy, an enlargement of the heart, is the most common heart condition in senior ferrets. Signs of cardiomyopathy may include coughing, loss of weight, decreased appetite, and lethargy.

Unfortunately, many older ferrets develop cancer. This is one reason every ferret over 3 years of age should be examined by a veterinarian every 6 months. Those cancers most commonly diagnosed in ferrets, and the typical signs they cause include:

As you can see, many of these symptoms are very general, and could easily be attributed to "old age." Any ferret showing these signs should be examined by a veterinarian.

Kidneys and urinary system
Signs of kidney disease in ferrets include:

  • Depression and lethargy
  • Ulcers in the mouth
  • Weakness
  • Increased drinking and urination
  • Loss of weight and appetite
  • Dehydration

Kidney disease, in some cases, can be managed through diet, medications, and fluid therapy.

References and Further Reading

Murray, MJ. Ferret Geriatrics. Presented at the Western Veterinary Conference, Las Vegas, Nevada, 2002.

Brown, S. Ferret senior citizens and their special needs. Journal of Small Exotic Animal Medicine. 1994; 2(3):169-170.

Lloyd, M. Ferrets: Health, Husbandry and Diseases. Blackwell Science, Malden MA. 1999.

Quesenberry, KE; Carpenter, JW (eds). Ferrets, Rabbits, and Rodents Clinical Medicine and Surgery. W.B. Saunders, Philadelphia PA. 2004.

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