Should we be doing more for working ferrets? - Veterinary Practice
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Should we be doing more for working ferrets?

Brush up on the diseases and injuries commonly encountered by working ferrets, which are still prevalent in the UK

Ferrets (Mustela putorius furo) have been domesticated for several hundreds of years. In recent years they have increased in popularity as pets, but they continue to be used for pest control and in sport.

Why are working ferrets important?

There are still substantial numbers of working ferrets in different parts of Britain. A national survey 10 years ago, conducted by pet food manufacturer James Wellbeloved in collaboration with the Ferret Education and Research Trust (JWB/FERT, 2009), indicated that nearly 20 percent of ferrets in Britain fall in the category known as “working”: in other words, they are used to help to catch rabbits or to kill rodents and, sometimes, other species. In some parts of the country, such as Norfolk, the figure was nearer 40 percent.

It is highly probable that more working ferrets are kept than that survey suggested. There appears to be no recent published evidence to suggest that the numbers have declined, nor has such a trend been noted by those of us who are familiar with farmers, gamekeepers, pest control operatives and falconers, many of whom continue to keep and use working ferrets.

A working polecat-ferret in its carrying box

Can the veterinary profession do more?

Although many books and scientific papers about ferrets have appeared in recent years, these are almost entirely concerned with those kept as pets or in laboratories. For instance, the otherwise excellent BSAVA Manual of Rodents and Ferrets, edited by Emma Keeble and Anna Meredith (2009), devoted only one introductory paragraph to the history of ferrets (noting that they were originally domesticated for hunting rabbits) and nothing specific about the (often unique) ailments and welfare needs of working ferrets appears elsewhere in that book.

Many owners of working ferrets do not seek professional advice, in part because there is a widely held belief among many that the average vet knows little about working ferrets and their particular needs. There is also the question of fees. As “pet ferret medicine” becomes more specialised, the cost of a consultation and investigative techniques rises – and those who keep their animals as a means of catching rabbits or controlling rats are less able to pay. It is sometimes easier to dispose of the ferret, or to attempt treatment with traditional remedies, rather than involve a vet.

Diseases and suceptibilities

Ferreters in Britain recognise signs of ill health in their animals, but most have little scientific understanding. They still sometimes refer to “the sweats” when describing ill health associated with external lesions in ferrets and “the staggers” when an animal shows general signs, such as incoordination (Porter and Brown, 1985). Some diseases of working ferrets are given in Table 1.

  • Bites, scratches, kicks from quarry
  • Broken glass, tin cans, protruding nails, spades
  • Cleaning and disinfection of woundPossibly suturing and antibiotics
  • Damage can be caused by rats and sometimes rabbits or hawks (birds trained for falconry). Deep wounds from rats can cause local or systemic disease. Hobs (male ferrets) may also fight. Ferrets working (hunting) on farms and rubbish tips easily damage themselves. Abscesses may follow injuries by thorns or spines during hunting. Spade injuries are minimised if ferrets wear location devices.
  • Transient ectoparasites, such as fleas and ticks
  • Manual removal of ticks
  • Parasiticides
  • Some ectoparasites (eg rabbit fleas) are acquired from quarry, others (eg ticks) from vegetation and burrows.
  • Mites (Sarcoptes)
  • Hygiene
  • Parasiticides
  • Pedal lesions (“footrot”) were formerly often seen in working ferrets.
    Heat stress
  • Hyperthermia
  • Rapid cooling – cold water, ice, damp vegetation
  • IV or SC fluids
  • One of the causes of the “sweats”. Commonly a result of placing ferret-carrying boxes in sunlight (even on cold days), leaving ferrets in closed vehicle or poor design/overcrowding of boxes or cages.
    Chilling and
  • Hypothermia
  • Slow, gentle warming
  • Medical/surgical attention to frostbite lesions
  • Avoid metal cages and protect all outside cages from cold by insulating, covering opening with sack, avoiding prevailing winds. Provide ample bedding, especially for ferrets in poor condition with thin hair-coat, or nursing kits.
  • Probably bacterial infections
  • Poor hygiene, especially in carrying boxes
  • Improve hygiene
  • Treat symptomatically
  • Eliminate other causes
  • Carrying boxes and other hunting equipment should be regularly cleaned and disinfected. Working ferrets that are fed on bread and milk have loose, pale faeces – not to be confused with diarrhoea.
  • Toxins of Clostridium botulinum A, B or C
  • Supportive therapy
  • Antitoxin if available
  • Ferrets are found dead or show ataxia, paralysis, etc. Avoid feeding carcasses or meat of doubtful quality. Remove uneaten food.
  • Toxic or irritant floor in cages or boxes
  • Palliative therapy
  • Corrections to environment
  • Change of substrate
  • Soiled and abraded wooden floor surfaces, some forms of bedding (eg certain types of sawdust) and disinfectant (eg phenolic compounds) are associated with skin lesions. Inadequate bedding in wooden cages may lead to greasy surfaces that discolour ventral hair and possibly lead to dermatitis (Cooper, 1990).
    TABLE 1 Some diseases and susceptibilities of working ferrets

    Discussions and conclusions

    The current situation is disturbing. The veterinary surgeon has access to a rich variety of literature about the health and diseases of pet ferrets but next to nothing about those that are used primarily to hunt and to control pest species.

    The developments in veterinary care of pet ferrets, on both sides of the Atlantic, are to be applauded. However, they have led to a sidelining of working ferrets and there is an assumption by some that these animals are now a dying breed.

    Ferrets kept as working animals have their own range of health problems that are not the same as those seen in pets; their welfare and health will continue to be neglected unless better, focused, less expensive, attention is available. Working ferrets have served the human race well for 2,000 years. They deserve better from the veterinary profession.


    I am grateful to my wife Margaret who for many years tolerated ferrets in our house and for helpful advice from friends and colleagues who keep and work ferrets, or have experience of treating them, especially Graham Wellstead, James McKay and Stephen Cooke. The National Ferret Welfare Society is to be commended for its concern for the health and welfare of all ferrets.


    Cooper, J. E.


    Ferrets and the profession. Veterinary Record,125, 404-405

    Cooper, J. E.


    Skin diseases of ferrets.In:The Veterinary Annual. Grunsell, C. S. G., Hill, F.W.G. and Raw, M. E.(eds) Butterworths, London

    Cooper, J. E.


    Working ferrets –forgotten and neglected. Veterinary Record,168, 518-519

    Cooper, J. E.


    Reference intervals and working ferrets. Veterinary Record,171, 484-484


    James Wellbeloved/Ferret Education and Research Trust census 2009

    Keeble, E. andMeredith, A.


    BSAVA Manual of Exotic Pets. British Small Animal Veterinary Association, Gloucester

    Porter, V. and Brown, N.


    The Complete Book of Ferrets. Pelham Books, London

    John E Cooper

    John E Cooper, DTVM, FRCPath, FRSB, CBiol, FRCVS, trained as a veterinary surgeon and is now a pathologist with particular interests in wildlife and exotic species, tropical diseases and comparative medicine. John is a Diplomate of the European College of Veterinary Pathologists and of the European College of Zoological Medicine

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