What are Rabies?
Rabies is a highly contagious disease that results in inflammation of the brain, among other things. This produces a range of extremely pronounced symptoms as the brain loses its ability to regulate many bodily processes. In ferrets however, rabies is extremely rare, with the number of documented cases worldwide numbering in the low hundreds. That said, if the disease is contracted, it is almost always fatal.
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Symptoms of Rabies in Ferrets
Though rabies is not a curable disease and invariably ends in the death of the affected animal, owners should still take an infected animal to the vet. This is because of the extreme risk that an infected ferret could pose to humans and other animals that come into contact with it.
Change in Behavior
Soon after contracting the rabies virus, the ferret will begin to progress through several different mood swings. The first change will cause the ferret to exhibit signs of paranoia and nervousness, with it adopting a defensive posture and reacting to stimuli such as sudden noises and movement with unusual nervousness. This will then progress into disorientation, lethargy, and irritability, with the ferret choosing to remain stationary for long periods of time and reacting negatively to encroachments on its personal space.
One of the classic signs of a rabies infection is the onset of hydrophobia. Although the name suggests an acute fear of water, it instead refers to an inability of the animal to process it. If the ferret attempts to drink, for instance, it will undergo strong muscle spasms that prevent it from swallowing the water. Needless to say, this can quickly result in dehydration.
Another distinctive hallmark of rabies is the production of extremely large volumes of saliva. The owner will typically notice this as the ferret begins to take on the appearance of foaming at the mouth or drooling excessively. In some cases, this can be accompanied by a pulling back of the lips that results in exposure of the teeth and even more saliva leaving the mouth.
In the later stages of the condition, rabies will cause the infected animal to become extremely aggressive to other creatures in its vicinity. If this is the case, the ferret will begin clawing and biting at its owner or other animals as soon as the opportunity is presented. If bitten, it is imperative to seek immediate medical treatment, as exposure to the virus will provoke identical (and lethal) symptoms in humans if it is left untreated for any considerable length of time.
Loss of Motor Function
The final stages of the disease are marked by a gradual degradation of the ferret's ability to coordinate its body. It will begin to walk with a staggered gait and slowly develop partial paralysis of its limbs. Eventually, seizures will begin to wrack the ferret's body until it finally expires.
Causes of Rabies in Ferrets
Rabies is generally caused by direct contact with an animal that has already been infected with the virus. The main mechanism by which rabies spreads is via saliva. The virus induces the production of excessive amounts of saliva in order to propagate itself. Further, the hydrophobia that develops with the condition may prevent the virus being washed out of the animal's mouth. The inflammation of the brain eventually causes increased levels of anger and aggression, which makes the ferret attack and bite other animals, which in turn spreads the virus from the host's saliva into the victim's bloodstream.
Diagnosis of Rabies in Ferrets
When the ferret is brought to the veterinary clinic, it will be subjected to a thorough physical examination in order to check its vital signs and allow the vet to confirm its symptoms. At this point, the vet will most likely be able to diagnose a case of rabies, though if all symptoms are not yet present, the case may warrant further investigation. The next step will typically consist of the taking of a blood or urine sample for laboratory analysis, which will show the exact microbes present in the ferret's body. At this point, the vet will immediately quarantine the animal and will probably have a number of questions for the owner, in order to determine the origin of the infection.
Treatment of Rabies in Ferrets
Due to the highly dangerous nature of the rabies virus, the ferret will be placed in quarantine so that its condition can be monitored. Many vets will at this point advise the owners to opt to euthanize the animal so that its last moments are as comfortable as possible rather than letting the disease take its course. Though there are at present no treatments available, it should be kept in mind that simply vaccinating the ferret will prevent it from contracting rabies.
Recovery of Rabies in Ferrets
Following the identification of a rabies case, the vet will most likely forward your details to the local health authorities. This is to help track down the source of the infection before more animals (and potentially humans) are infected with the disease. In order to be of as much help as possible, owners should be sure to make a note of all the details leading up to the ferret's symptoms appearing (i.e. contact with other animals, time spent outside, and daily routine). It would also be advisable to thoroughly disinfect or destroy all surfaces and materials that the infected animal came into contact with.