Adrenal gland tumors are a common problem
for ferrets over three years of age, though this condition
can occur at almost any age. Though rare, it has
been reported that ferrets as young as one year of age
have developed adrenal disease
On occasion, a ferret with adrenal
associated hair loss will suddenly grow back most or all
of its hair when no treatment has been provided. This
does not mean the adrenal disease spontaneously
disappeared. Dr. Bruce Williams says: "Adrenal
disease causes hormone imbalances which in turn cause
the hair loss. The changing season also causes hormone
changes, which can sometimes "balance out" the
adrenal-associated ones and let the hair grow back for a
while; but the underlying adrenal disorder is still
there, and chances are good that the hair loss will come
back again at the next coat change."
In our experience, if spontaneous
remission of symptoms does occur, it will only happen
one time. When the symptoms return, they will not clear
up a second time. Few ferrets experience this
spontaneous remission of symptoms. It may be that
this phenomenon will only occur if a normal, seasonal
hormonal change occurs during the very early stages of
adrenal disease. By the next seasonal
change, the disease is advanced enough that it can no
longer be offset.
- Symmetrical hair loss or thinning on the body of the ferret.
In advanced cases, hair may only remain on the head and
feet. Some have been so bald as to have only their
- Loss of muscle mass and a pot-bellied appearance.
- Skin can appear 'thin' or almost translucent. Red
spots or sores may be present
- Excessive water consumption
- Aggressive or mating behavior. They may even
exhibit mating behavior with inanimate objects, i.e. a
blanket, stuffed toys, etc.
- In females, an enlarged vulva is often exhibited.
In males, urination difficulties may be present due to
enlarged prostate tissue and this can be life-threatening
if not treated.
For vets experienced in the medical problems
of ferrets, adrenal disease is usually diagnosed by clinical
signs. There are no tests that can be run by your vet in-house
that will reveal adrenal disease. Standard blood work will
be normal assuming the ferret is healthy in every respect
except for the adrenal problem. There is currently only
one test that will confirm adrenal disease in your ferret
and that is the Adrenal Panel which is run by the University
of Tennessee, School of Veterinary Medicine. This test is
often referred to as "The Tennessee Panel."
While X-rays and ultrasound may be useful
at times in the diagnosis of adrenal disease, these tests
can be unrevealing. Diseased adrenal glands can be
normal in size and shape and therefore appear normal
in an x-ray or ultrasound. If your ferret is exhibiting
the clinical signs listed above then your money is better
spent on going right into surgery rather than on expensive
Veterinarians who are not familiar
with this disease or ferrets in general will frequently
misdiagnose this condition. Common incorrect diagnoses
are skin problems or allergies, incomplete spay of a
female ferret (because estrogen levels are often high),
and seasonal baldness. Another common misdiagnosis is
that of Cushing's disease which is a different adrenal
problem that is not seen in ferrets.
Surgery is the most effective treatment
for adrenal disease, and involves the removal of the affected
gland. In the past, it was commonly reported that the left
adrenal gland was most often involved. In recent years,
with more vets becoming experienced with adrenal surgery
in ferrets, it has become obvious that the right adrenal
gland can be affected just as frequently as the left. The
right gland is often attached to the vena cava, the largest
vein in the ferret's body, and removal can be difficult
and dangerous. If you do decide to go with surgical treatment,
be sure to ask your vet what his or her experience level
is with right adrenal gland surgery. You don't want to put
your ferret through major surgery only to find out after
the fact that your vet didn't remove a diseased right adrenal
gland because of the difficulty of its surgical removal.
Medical treatment of adrenal disease
is usually reserved for ferrets that are poor surgical candidates.
They may be older ferrets, or ferrets with other medical
problems that would make surgery high risk. Some people
will opt for medical treatment because of the cost of surgery.
Keep in mind that drug treatment must be continued for the
rest of the ferret's life and in the long run can cost more
The two drugs used most frequently and
successfully for the treatment of adrenal disease are Lupron
and Melatonin. Neither will cure the disease, but
may provide a relief of the symptoms. You can find
out more about these two methods of treatment under the
Adrenal Disease category on the
home page of this website.