What are Measles?

The virus commonly referred to as 'measles' in ferrets is, in fact, a form of canine distemper. The two of these diseases are often conflated due to the fact that they are close relatives (both belonging to the Paramyxoviridae family). Canine distemper is extremely infectious, with very little stopping it spreading from animal to animal. However, much like measles in humans, canine distemper in ferrets produces some very unpleasant symptoms and can be lethal if not quickly discovered and treated. This makes it one of the most common deadly diseases in ferrets at present.

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Symptoms of Measles in Ferrets

The symptoms of 'measles' or distemper will manifest themselves quite rapidly in ferrets, giving little time for the owner to notice the problem and contact a vet. Due to the highly infectious nature of the disease, it is imperative to seek veterinary advice as soon as possible.

  • Vomiting 
  • Diarrhea (may contain mucus)
  • Swelling in the face and paws
  • Reddened skin tone
  • Hardened, coarse skin
  • Nasal discharg
  • Eye discharge
  • Brown crust on face (result of discharge)
  • Pawing at face
  • Coughing
  • Loss of Coordination
  • General weakness
  • Difficulty chewing and swallowing
  • Heart failure 

Causes of Measles in Ferrets

The bulk of measles cases (canine distemper) in ferrets originally stem from direct contact with an infected animal. Commonly, this infected animal will be a dog, though other ferrets and some prey animals (such as rats) can carry the disease. It is important to remember that materials an infected animal has been in contact with can harbor the virus for some time (in some cases almost a week), so precautions should be taken to prevent its spread. The mechanism by which the virus causes its symptoms is relatively straightforward: as it is airborne, the virus is able to easily enter the bloodstream via the respiratory tract, from where it easily bonds with nerve tissues. As it alters the host's nerve cells, the virus causes havoc in a variety of bodily processes, resulting in vomiting and diarrhea as well as the thickening of some skin tissue. Luckily for the virus, some of these side effects (such as coughing) only help spread it to new hosts. Eventually, the virus reaches the brain, whereupon lethal damage to the central nervous system will usually take place.

Diagnosis of Measles in Ferrets

The vast majority of ferrets that become infected with canine distemper will die before they see a vet, mostly due to the rapid onset of the virus. However, live animals can be diagnosed by taking blood, stool and urine samples for laboratory analysis. The vet may also have questions for the owner regarding the ferret's recent activities, as they may want to try and determine the source of the infection in order to avoid other animals contracting the disease.

Treatment of Measles in Ferrets

The presence of distemper in the ferret's body will take a heavy toll on the immune system, and may produce secondary infections. To combat these, the vet may prescribe appropriate drugs (such as antibiotics) in order to fight off the infections and maximize the ferret's chances of survival. Dehydration due to vomiting and diarrhea may also be an issue, which will typically cause the vet to recommend fluid therapy (intravenously putting more liquids into the ferret's body). In most cases, however, distemper proves lethal and due to its highly infectious nature, the vet will most likely want to place the ferret under quarantine.

Recovery of Measles in Ferrets

The overwhelming majority of ferrets infected with distemper will invariably succumb to the disease. However, if the condition is caught early and any secondary infections are properly managed, there may be a slight chance of recovery. Due to the length of time that the ferret will be infectious after the symptoms abate, the vet will typically end up keeping the animal in quarantine for just under six weeks. However, in most cases, they will normally recommend euthanizing the ferret to avoid further distress.