Pet Talk: Ferret Distemper

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While it is not legally required by law to vaccinate pet ferrets for canine distemper, it is imperative for pet owners to protect their ferrets against this fatal and highly contagious disease.

Exotic mammals, like ferrets, are susceptible to diseases that affect many domestic pets, including the canine distemper virus. Ferrets are highly susceptible to canine distemper, and the disease proves fatal for virtually all of the ferrets that come into contact with the virus. Though the disease is extremely deadly, proper vaccination protects ferrets from infection.

Canine distemper is caused by a paramyxovirus (RNA virus) that can affect numerous species, including dogs, foxes, skunks, badgers, raccoons, bears, primates, and large felids such as tigers and lions. Transmission of the virus is primarily through aerosol droplet secretions from an infected animal, which can live in grass, weeds, trees, and shrubs for up to 10 days. Once infected, the animal can spread the virus for several months. Though canine distemper is considered highly contagious, the virus can be quite unstable in the environment and most common disinfectants are effective in preventing transmission.

“Specific clinical signs of distemper in ferrets include ocular and nasal discharge, anorexia, diarrhea, skin rashes in the chin and inguinal region, hyperkeratosis, brown crusts on the eyes, nose, lips, and chin, immunosuppression with secondary infections, and seizures,” said Dr. Michelle Whitehead, a zoological medicine and surgery intern at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM). “There is no treatment for distemper in ferrets other than supportive care. Death usually occurs in two to four weeks after coming into contact with the virus. Diagnosing distemper is usually based on clinical signs and inclusion bodies in the white blood cells and tissue cells.”

To protect your pet ferret against the canine distemper virus, be sure to contact your local veterinarian about vaccination. Ferrets should first be vaccinated at eight weeks old, and then every two to three weeks after until they have reached 12 to 14 weeks of age. An annual booster is required in order to provide continuous protection for your ferret into adulthood. “Inactivated or recombinant viral vaccines are more effective than modified-live virus vaccines, because modified-live vaccines have the potential to cause clinical disease in ferrets,” Whitehead explained. “The current recommended vaccine is a canarypox vectored vaccine that is safe and effective and can be used in ferrets.”

Even if a ferret owner has properly vaccinated against the canine distemper virus, it is possible that the ferret may experience vaccine reactions. After vaccine injection, the ferret should be monitored for 20 to 30 minutes by your veterinarian. Reactions include vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy, respiratory distress, restlessness, seizures, coma, and rarely, death. Though most reactions are seen within 30 minutes of injection, it is important for ferret owners to keep an eye on their pet for the next 24 hours for a delayed reaction. “Only one vaccine should be administered at a time,” Whitehead said. “If a patient has a reaction, future precautions may be taken, such as pretreatment with an antihistamine 15 to 30 minutes prior to vaccination.”

Although the canine distemper virus is 100 percent fatal for ferrets that come into contact with it, a safe and effective vaccine is available at the CVM. If you think your ferret has come into contact with the canine distemper virus, restrict the potentially infected animal from other house-hold pets and contact your veterinarian.

Pet Talk is a service of the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, Texas A&M University.

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