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There are many glands situated throughout an animal's body that are responsible for the production of hormones that regulate many bodily functions and control the ferret's behaviors. On occasion, these glands can become compromised (usually by either direct damage or the development of growths within them) and then begin to massively increase the amounts of hormones that they are producing. This, in turn, can have a massive impact on the function of many of the ferret's organs and behaviors. If left untreated, this can result in serious health problems and some especially unpleasant symptoms being experienced by the ferret. The most common form of hormonal disorder experienced by ferrets is 'hyperadrenocorticism', which is a disorder of the adrenal system that results in the overproduction of sex hormones such as estrogen, progesterone, or testosterone.
Many of the symptoms of hormone overproduction become quite noticeable as the condition progresses. This means that if the symptoms are especially severe, then the condition provoking the overproduction is in advanced stages, meaning that it is essential for owners of affected ferrets to seek immediate medical advice.
Frequent Illness or Infections
As the adrenal system loses its ability to properly regulate the production of hormones, the ferret may experience a hugely elevated level of estrogen in their bloodstream. As well as having an external impact on the animal's physical experience, this can also wreak havoc on their immune system. High levels of estrogen will suppress the production of bone marrow, which is in turn responsible for producing a large amount of the body's white blood cells. With a low white blood cell count, the ferret will find it harder and harder to fight off viral and bacterial infections, with even relatively minor problems becoming potentially life threatening.
Overproduction of testosterone can result in the ferret shedding a large quantity of hair from its coat. This shedding can even go as far as to cause the animal to go bald on large patches of its body. Owners can typically differentiate this from other kinds of shedding (caused by other health problems) by the fact that it will typically be localized to the ferret's back rather than its whole body. The baldness will normally first appear on the ferret's hindquarters and spread up towards its head as time goes by.
Testosterone is responsible for regulating a number of many animals’ behavioral patterns. Their level of aggression, in particular, is closely correlated with the amount of testosterone that can be found in the body. Needless to say, ferrets with an elevated testosterone level may display dramatically different behaviors from normal, becoming uncooperative, unwilling to be touched, and even violent if harassed by their owners.
Swollen Genitalia or Nipples
Estrogen controls many of the female ferret's reproductive functions, chief amongst which are the production of milk to feed infants and the engorging of the genitals in preparation for mating. When the amount of estrogen in the blood supply is elevated, however, these functions go into overdrive, with the female ferret's body both becoming ready for mating and creating milk around the clock. Owners can detect this both by the visible swelling and the discomfort that the animal will exhibit as the problem persists. Male ferrets are also adversely affected by excessive estrogen, and may see an increase in their level of both breast tissue and body fat if the condition persists for a considerable amount of time.
As the adrenal system ceases to work properly, many male ferrets will start to exhibit difficulty urinating. This is because the prostate will often swell up to well beyond its normal size and put pressure on the urinary tract, sometimes compressing it to the point that it becomes almost impossible to pass urine. The ferret will often exhibit visible discomfort in this case and may even have observable swelling around its abdomen as fluids collect in the bladder.
Progesterone is normally a fairly harmless chemical that, amongst other things, helps control the process of pregnancy. However, if too much of the hormone is produced, it can have quite noticeable effects on the ferret's cardiovascular system. Not only does progesterone have the ability to directly interfere with the normal rhythm of the heart, it can also cause a thickening of the blood, which adds to the burden the heart muscle is placed under, as well as increasing the risk of blood clots appearing. Together, these problems can cause the retention of fluid in the ferret's chest, which can place pressure on the animal's lungs. Owners can detect this problem by measuring the ferret's heart rate by placing their hand flat against the animal's back, or by noticing the animal developing a regular cough.
There are two main reasons for a ferret's body starting to overproduce hormones: direct damage to glands and growths within the adrenal glands themselves. By physically compromising the integrity of a gland (such as in the case of a penetrating injury), it may become unable to properly regulate its function, resulting in either a cessation of hormone production or a marked increase. A growth within the gland can have a similar effect by putting pressure on the surrounding tissues or by absorbing them into the growth. Due to the adrenal glands' connectivity to the rest of the body, tumors found in them can often become malignant and easily spread, causing further complications.
When the ferret is brought to the vet, they will typically start the appointment by conducting a physical examination of the ferret. This will allow them to both check the ferret's vital signs and look for the normal outward symptoms of hormone overproduction. Whilst this is often enough to easily diagnose the problem, the vet may also wish to perform some blood tests, as this will give an exact understanding of specifically which hormones' levels are elevated in the ferret's body. Finally, the vet will often move to use an ultrasound scan or similar imaging technology in order to examine the adrenal glands and check for growths. Further testing and procedures (including a biopsy) may be required in order to determine whether or not the growth in question is cancerous.
Oftentimes, the vet will recommend the removal of the problem adrenal gland, as this will simultaneously stop the ferret from producing too many hormones and prevent a potentially malignant cancer from spreading. Whilst this procedure is commonplace, it may be regarded as too drastic for situations in which both adrenal glands are affected, as this will cause the inverse problem, whereby not enough hormones are being secreted. In either case, the ferret may end up with some level of dependence on drugs and hormone supplements in order to maintain the proper regulation of its bodily functions. Malignant tumors, meanwhile, are often very hard to treat in animals such as ferrets due to the amount of damage they can cause in a relatively short space of time. In this scenario, the vet will often advise forgoing treatment in favor of focusing on improving the ferret's quality of life in its last days.
Most ferrets will recover quite fast from the surgery, as there is minimal interference with most of the major organs. Most animals will make a full recovery within a month. Owners should be diligent in maintaining the cleanliness of the ferret's living environment and providing antibiotic drugs in order to stave off an infection. Furthermore, painkillers and hormone supplements will have to be regularly administered and the vet may wish to schedule a follow-up appointment several weeks after the procedure. This session will allow them to gauge the rate of the ferret's recovery from surgery and the effectiveness of any hormonal drugs provided.
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