What are Fleas?
Fleas are a species of parasitic insect that feed on the blood of the animals they attach themselves to. Because they favor animals with dense coats, which provide the perfect environment to hide in, it can often take a while before the fleas' presence on the animal becomes apparent to the humans that live alongside them. Although they are not commonly regarded as dangerous by themselves, fleas can often act as a vector of disease transmission and can provoke quite unpleasant symptoms in an infested animal.
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Symptoms of Fleas in Ferrets
Although the fleas themselves are easily observed by the naked eye, there are several symptoms that should prompt a closer inspection. Once the signs are observed, it is best to seek veterinary help as soon as possible.
The fleas will often irritate the surface of the ferret's skin during the course of their normal activities. This happens for two reasons. The first is that the fleas need to break the skin in order to feed on the host animal's blood supply. In order to do this, they use their proboscis-like mouthparts to puncture the skin and draw out the blood underneath, almost like a hypodermic syringe. Understandably, this can cause a great deal of discomfort to the animal being bitten. The fleas also have sharp legs, covered in a multitude of spines and hairs, which dig into the host's skin in order to provide traction when moving and prevent the flea from being dislodged by scratching. Owners will often notice their ferret scratching and biting itself in response to this near-constant itching.
Damage To The Skin
As the flea population on the ferret grows and the infestation worsens, the amount of irritation felt by the animal will increase, causing it to scratch and bite itself constantly in order to get some relief. This scratching can cause a great deal of damage to the skin over time, as can the normal feeding habits of a large population of fleas as they constantly bite through the skin. This damage will often manifest itself in the form of visible clusters of bite marks and lesions. In some cases, the damage to the skin can even cause localized hair loss in badly affected areas.
When bitten by the fleas, a small quantity of blood will spill onto the surface of the ferret's skin and congeal into a ball. The fleas themselves will also often excrete tiny clumps of digested blood. This dried blood is referred to as 'flea dirt' and can often be seen stuck in an infested animal's coat.
As the parasites continue to feed on the ferret's blood supply, they can (with a sufficiently large population) start to deprive the animal of vital nutrients. The most common consequence of this is anemia, which will quickly result in the ferret losing much of its characteristic energy. Additionally, this loss of blood can result in an elevated heart rate, which can be especially noticeable when picking the animal up and coming into direct contact with its chest.
Due to the constant breaking of the ferret's skin, there is a greatly increased chance of foreign contaminants entering the wounds and starting a bacterial infection. Additionally, the fleas themselves can often transmit diseases and other parasites from one animal to the next.
Causes of Fleas in Ferrets
A ferret will typically contract fleas by coming into direct contact with an infested animal. This will most likely occur when the ferret is allowed outside for recreation or if it is used for activities such as rodent hunting. Many wild animals carry fleas and it can prove useful to know the identity of the original host, as this can help determine what secondary infections the ferret is most likely to be exposed to. Fleas themselves tend to jump across distances using their hind legs in order to latch onto a new host, meaning that actual contact between hosts is not always required for transmission to take place. It is worth bearing in mind that fleas can also choose to feed on human blood, so it may be advisable to keep physical interaction with an infested animal to a minimum.
Diagnosis of Fleas in Ferrets
When the ferret is brought to the veterinary clinic, the vet will usually start the appointment by performing a full physical examination of the animal. Due to the easily observable size of fleas, this will usually be all that is needed in order to make a diagnosis. However, depending on the flea-borne diseases that are commonly found in a given region, the vet may choose to perform further testing in order to rule out their presence. This will usually just consist of drawing a simple blood sample for laboratory analysis. The vet may also have some questions regarding the source of the infestation, as this can also help determine what pathogens may be present in the ferret's body.
Treatment of Fleas in Ferrets
The most common treatment for a flea infestation is an anti-flea shampoo. This can be taken home by the owners and applied to the ferret on a regular basis, acting in much the same manner as an anti-head lice shampoo for children. It can take several weeks before the fleas will be permanently removed, however, as their eggs can sometimes survive the chemicals present in the shampoo. By keeping the baths up for several weeks, it gives an ample opportunity for all the larvae to hatch and be destroyed. The vet may also prescribe a course of antibiotic drugs to treat any infections that may have developed as a result of damage to the ferret's skin.
Recovery of Fleas in Ferrets
Once all the fleas have been removed, the process of recovery should be fairly rapid. The ferret's energy levels should quickly increase as the fleas are no longer drawing sustenance from its blood and any uninfected wounds should heal within a week or two. It may be advisable for owners to thoroughly wash or destroy the ferret's old bedding, as this can harbor fleas which could go on to re-infest the animal once the treatment has ended. It is also crucial to identify the source of the infestation, in order to prevent a repeat of the situation.