What is Adrenal Disease?

The adrenal glands in a ferrets are located in front of both the right and left kidneys. Each adrenal gland is made up of two crucial parts; the cortex (outer layer) and the medulla (center). The adrenal cortex itself has three layers that each produce a different set of steroidal hormones. The outermost layer controls the body’s balance of potassium salts and sodium by releasing mineralocorticoids. The middle layer of the cortex is responsible for metabolizing nutrients and reducing inflammation in the body by releasing glucocorticoids. Finally, the inner layer of the cortex regulates the reproductive cycle by releasing progesterone and estrogen. The adrenal cortex is vital in controlling the body’s response to low glucose levels and stress by releasing norepinephrine in addition to epinephrine. These hormones are also vital in slowing digestion and regulating blood sugar levels, the ferret’s blood pressure, and cardiac output. 

Damage to either of the ferret’s adrenal glands due to disease or immune mediated conditions will result in a termination of the adrenal gland function. Without the release of vital life-supporting hormones from the adrenal glands, potassium levels build up in the blood resulting in a low heart rate followed by severe health conditions. 

Adrenal disease in ferrets is a potentially life-threatening disorder caused by an inadequate amount of hormones produced by two small glands that sit just in front of the kidneys. Adrenal disease is also referred to as hypoadrenocorticism, as it is the corticosteroids that are deficient in this rare ferret disease. Cortisol is vital for life as it plays part in several important functions, including the release of glycogen and the conversion of proteins to energy, as well as having immunosuppressant and anti-inflammatory qualities. A ferret with adrenal disease will appear weakened, depressed, and have a low body weight. Without veterinary medical treatment, the ferret’s body will not be able to carry out routine organ functions and the condition soon becomes an emergency situation. 

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Symptoms of Adrenal Disease in Ferrets

In most adrenal disease cases, clinical signs are usually noted within days of damage to the ferret’s adrenal glands. However, symptoms can also appear over a monthly period, and are not limited to: 

  • Hyperkalemia (elevated blood potassium levels)
  • Weight loss
  • Weakness
  • Shaking 
  • Tremors 
  • Listlessness
  • Lethargy
  • Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar/glucose)
  • Gastrointestinal irregularities including diarrhea and vomiting 
  • Depression
  • Dehydration 
  • Arrhythmias (irregular heart beat)
  • Anorexia (loss of appetite) 

Causes of Adrenal Disease in Ferrets

Adrenal disease in ferrets is characterized by abnormal levels of hormones regularly produced by the adrenal glands. The reason as to why the adrenal glands discontinue hormone production is not known, but we do know that some diseases are linked to this rare ferret condition. In many cases, the immune system, which normally protects the body from illness, begins to attack itself and destroys the tissues of the adrenal glands. This abnormality of the immune system attacking the body is referred to as immune-mediated disease, which in itself has no known cause. Other invasive diseases such as cancer or infections destroy the tissues of the adrenal glands and can cause the ferrets to develop adrenal disease. 

Diagnosis of Adrenal Disease in Ferrets

Adrenal disease in ferrets mimics the symptoms of a number of other ferret health conditions, so the symptoms alone will not be enough to diagnose a ferret with hypoadrenocorticism. Therefore, your veterinarian will likely request a blood test to identify any abnormalities that could link the ferret’s condition to the disease. The evidence of very high potassium level, as well as very low sodium levels, in the blood will be a clue that would suggest adrenal disease. However, the only sure test of adrenal disease is the test that has the ability to measure the adrenal glands’ response to adrenocorticotropic hormone, known as the ACTH stimulation test. The adrenocorticotropic hormone is produced by the pituitary gland that is naturally produced to stimulate the release of adrenal gland hormones. Therefore, if the doctor can see if the pituitary gland can trigger a response in the adrenal glands, the gland is likely fine and adrenal disease can be ruled out. 

Treatment of Adrenal Disease in Ferrets

Initially, your ferret will need to be hospitalized as the majority of patients are admitted to the veterinary clinic with what is called an adrenal crisis. Ferrets are usually severely dehydrated and require stabilization therapy of intravenous fluids containing electrolytes. Once the ferret is stable, he or she will need to have hormone replacement medications substitute the absent adrenal hormones. The medication can be administered by mouth or as an injectable, every day for as long as the ferret is affected by this condition. 

Recovery of Adrenal Disease in Ferrets

A ferret with adrenal disease will need to be given hormone replacement therapy drugs for the rest of his or her life, but can be administered in the comfort of your own home. As soon as the absent hormones are substituted with adequate medication, the ferret will be restored to her normal self and life a long, happy life.